January 12th – Winter News!

[About 23+ years ago, when Haldimand Bird Observatory got going, I was approached by a young PhD student at McMaster. She was working on connectivity in Yellow Warblers and wanted to learn how to use mist nets and to band Yellow Warblers….and other passerines as well. Marylene Boulet, now Dr. Marylene Boulet (I was kindly invited to sit in on her oral exam) became my first banding subpermittee, #10622B. It was through Marylene that Dr. Pat Chow-Fraser’s classes at Mac began to come out – a yearly event – to learn about how to study birds in a hands-on way. It’s also how Darryl Edwards got wind of the station. Darryl, now a prof at Cambrian College, became #10622C and it was through Darryl that I started my sojourns into the Arctic. Funny how small connections lead to bigger ones!

Marylene has gone on to become the Senior Labs Instructor at Bishop’s University, close to Sherbrooke Quebec. Now, here’s an irony: last Summer she emailed to say that she hadn’t been doing any banding, in fact didn’t think any was going to happen in her area, and did I want her to return the bands I had forwarded to her many years ago. Within the week I received another email from her saying that the university was interested in developing a bird studies program that would involve banding. Fantastic! No need now to return the bands! She became quite interested in the possibility of banding Snow Buntings and contributing to the Canadian Snow Bunting Network database. And as luck would have it, a graduate student, Chelsey Paquette, was VERY interested in the same thing. It’s a rags to riches sort of story. Chelsey is now working for the Granby Zoo as Conservation Coordinator for research and conservation projects occurring in natural habitats. “We have lots of projects, turtles, birds, mammals etc. We are actually interested in bringing on the CSBN as one of our permanent projects…” Here’s a report of their first days banding Snow Buntings:]

Snow Bunting country – a large, wind-swept field. You can just feel the cold…. -a. Hobbs

Day 1: We banded 15 birds in Saint-François-Xavier de Brompton, near Sherbrooke. It was a little cold. We got a nice flow of captures that allowed us to get comfortable again with winter bird banding. We are banding with a small team this year, comprised of Chelsey Paquette, conservation coordinator at the Zoo de Granby, Marylene Boulet, Senior Lab Instructor at Bishop’s University, Eric Phendler, graduating student in biology at Bishop’s University, and Alexi Hobbs, photographer and member of the local birding club. The best round of captures was just before noon! The property owner’s daughter was great help today, and showed awesome potential to be an avid birder in the near future.

I love this shot! The property owner’s daughter helping out. Evidently she has great potential to be another “bird person”! There’s nothing like a bird close up to turn people onto the world around them. -A. Hobbs.

Day 2. We banded 10 birds, all at the same time, about 10-15 min after setting up the cages in the morning. The birds taunted us a bit today, at instances, they showed some interest for the corn… but eventually left. Wind picked up and we removed the cages. To quote the movie “Don’t look up”, we tried!

Eric Phendler checking out a SNBU.. – A. Hobbs

It’s in the bag! -A. Hobbs

Next capture day will be soon. We have snow buntings feeding at two other sites, so we have 3 options for our next adventure. Stay tuned!
[Photos by Alexi Hobbs alexihobbs.com]

A young male Snow Bunting. -A. Hobbs

[Of the 25 Snow Buntings that they have banded so far, 20 were males resulting in a male:female ratio of 4:1. Down here the ratio is about 2:1 the other way. This makes sense when you consider that males tend to spend the Winter closer to the breeding area than females so they can return earlier and establish territories before the females show up.]

More SNBU News:
I received a text last night from Bruce Murphy, who runs the Hilliardton Marsh program near New Liskeard in northern Ontario, saying that they were now getting lots of Snow Buntings, especially as the temperatures were so cold. They banded 69 that day! They also got two recaptures of birds banded elsewhere in other years: one by Glen Reed in King City, just north of Toronto and….#2981-03572 which Marnie banded February 20, 2021 at our York Airport site. Then it was a young (hatched in the Summer of 2021) female with a wing length of 98 mm. and weighing 30.7 g. [Interestingly, that date happened to be Marnie’s birthday…so this bird was a gift that has kept on giving!]

I’m intrigued by these recaptures. A lot of the birds that we band down here, if they’re recaptured, are caught along the St. Lawrence-Labrador-Greenland route; so an East then Northeast routing in the Spring. In many instances they retrace this route in the Fall/Winter. So where are these birds that Bruce is catching in northern Ontario coming from? Is he getting birds from Baffin Island that have worked their way down the east side of Hudson’s Bay? Do they return the same way? Or head out along the St. Lawrence following a circle route back to the Arctic? When birds make the crossing across Davis Strait from Greenland to Baffin Island do they head due south along the Labrador coast or SW until they reach Hudson’s Bay or ??? So many questions….too little time.

And in the meantime….while we wait for a combination of cold temperatures AND snow on the ground here in southern Ontario, there isn’t much for some people to do except run around and chase rarities. Young birding aficionado Liam Thorne has been doing just that. Here are some of his photos:

Golden-crowned Sparrow near Bannister Lake, Cambridge. -LT

It would be difficult to make a definitive identification of this bird from this photo. So Liam asked me if I could find other pics to make it clearer. In this way he is hoping to put pressure on his folks to invest in a bigger lens to further his career… So I contacted Colleen Reilly who takes marvelous photos of wildlife:

Golden-crowned Sparrow -CR

Another shot: Golden-crowned Sparrow. -CR

Bayfront Park in Hamilton has been a great place to find waterfowl. Liam again:

Common Golden-eye. -LT

Canvasback. -LT

Cackling Goose. Bayfront Park. Note the short, thick neck. -LT

Trumpeter Swan. -LT

American Coot – Bayfront Park. -LT

Male Bufflehead – Bayfront Park. -LT

Glaucous Gull – Bayfront Park. This large gull (Greater Black-backed Size) is one of the mail predators in the Arctic. -LT

And elsewhere:

Mountain Bluebird – Guelph area. -LT

Always a nice bird to see in the Winter – Northern Shrike (or “Butcher Bird”). Look for them sitting in a treetop…like this one. -LT

Always an elusive bird to find…Long-eared Owl. -LT

Over-wintering in the area: Northern Saw-whet Owl. You can just see some “old” primary feathers mixed with some new, fresh ones indicating that this owl is an older or “After Second Year” (ASY) bird. -LT


January 5th – Eking Out A Living

The many small bird tracks around this spindly weed stem and the lack of seeds indicate that it got a LOT of attention. Note the wing impression in the snow to the bottom left. -DOL

I was at the Fern Hill Oakville campus yesterday, checking on the feeders and the 2 tightly furled nets that are still standing. Lots of activity around the feeders. The campus is situated next to a large cemetery and close to a conservation area. The cemetery doesn’t offer much in terms of habitat. But the narrow (~10 m) fence row that separates the lawns from the campus and the lawns from the conservation area lands is pretty lively at times and is used during migration by a wide variety of species. The edge habitat also provides a winter home for typical southern Ontario wintering birds. I was checking out the edge when I heard the “chimp” calls of a Song Sparrow and, when I tracked it down, two Song Sparrows. These birds were using the edge to shelter in and were braving the exposed undeveloped areas to pick over weed stems, gleaning all the seeds they could get at.

These weeds were few and far between but the bird(s) seemed to have gleaned all that they could. -DOL

The northern part of the cemetery is new and just under development so there are still wild spots and weeds to feed on. What happens when it is just a rug of sod and headstones (my dad used to call them “marble orchards”)? And this is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg. Most of the soybean and corn fields have finally been harvested (being such a wet Fall it was difficult for farmers to access their fields with big machinery). Take a look at them for yourself and see how many exposed weeds/seed heads you can see. In Europe there has been a pronounced decline in field-feeding birds due to “industrial” or intensive farming methods. I’m sure it’s the same here….and it will only get worse.

Note the difference in thicknesses between the two Webster dictionaries. It would seem we’ve lost a lot of vocabulary in the last 100 years. -DOL

For this post I went to look up the official definition of the word “eke”. When I got to my bookshelf I was struck by the difference in thickness between the much bigger older version of Webster and the more recent “college edition”. We’ve lost a LOT of vocabulary in the past 100+ years. Anyway….the word eke is certainly the most appropriate to apply to my Song Sparrows:
– to manage to make (a living) with difficulty;
– to use (a supply) frugally.

January 2nd – LALO’s Don’t Fool Around

Handsome SY-M Lapland Longspur. -DOL

Winter bunting banding in southern Ontario is determineded by a simple mathematical formula: Sn + Brr = SNBU (HOLA, LALO)
Sn – Snow
Brr – cold temperatures
SNBU – SNow BUnting
HOLA – HOrned LArk
LALO – LApland LOngspur

Starting yesterday afternoon the temperature began to drop into the minuses and a light snow started falling. By this morning it was -5 C and there was an accumulation of ~7 cm of snow. So I ventured out early to my York Airport site on the edge of Regional Road 9 to validate the formula. Sure enough there was a flock of ~ 25 Horned Larks on the snow-covered bait piles that I had set out a couple of days ago. It was interesting to me that, although the gravel pad used by farmers to load wagons with soybeans harvested from the field was about 150 square meters, the birds were confined to the immediate area of the covered piles. I hadn’t topped up the piles for awhile since I hadn’t seen any birds feeding on them (and I check twice daily) and they didn’t appear to have been touched. But as soon as the conditions got tough the birds “knew” exactly where to forage. Had they stored this information in their memory banks?

When you first set out traps the birds are fairly wary; they fly into the trap area in small flocks and scoot around them picking at any corn pieces they can get to through the mesh. But one bird was different: it didn’t fool around; no checking things out; saw the food and went right into the trap. It was the Lapland Longspur pictured above. And this has been my general experience with this bird over the years – we catch and band at least several each Winter as “by-catch” to the Snow Buntings. They seem to figure out very quickly how to get at the bait by navigating the access tunnels. It just seems apparent to them; they don’t wander around and around until they chance into a tunnel – they simply go for it. There was just one though and once it was banded it left the area.

The flock of larks would tease me – fly in, circle around, fly off 50 meters and think things over, fly in again, circle around….
Every now and again they would fly off completely and then return 10 minutes or so later…or was it the same group? Hard to tell as I would get anywhere from 8 up to 45 birds in the trap area at various times. But I didn’t see any Snow Buntings. So after banding 3 birds (1 Longspur, 2 larks) my strategy to prepare for the coming days (as it is supposed to stay cold) was to remove the traps and replenish the cut corn piles so the birds could feed unfettered for the rest of the day and would thus likely be back tomorrow…and the day after….

So I pulled the traps. Immediately, as if on cue, a flock of 40+ Horned Larks and 60+ Snow Buntings flew right to the bait. I unpacked everything and put the traps out again. The buntings flew to the end of the field and then disappeared. But the larks, after initially flying off, returned and soon I had another 10 to band – a mix of both males and females. When I was finished I decided to take up the traps and revert to the above strategy. If the larks continue to feed (and they were on the bait as I pulled out), the buntings will be back – they’re very cognisant of where other ground-feeding birds are finding food. Tomorrow could be a good day (especially if I dress warmer).

…and from another angle. -DOL


December 26th – Bah!…..Humbug?

A white Bluejay found by Marnie at the Farm….and seen again just a few days ago. An omen of good things to come? -MMG

I’ve been trying to figure out for the last several years if my increasing churlishness is a response to the worldwide ecological disaster unfolding all around us or….simply the sourness that often accompanies senescence. I spent most of October and part of November at sea counting seabirds. I followed this up with a 3-week stint at our isolated little cabin on the edge of the boreal forest on Grand Manan Island. Returning home from these escapades is always tough – the mass of buildings, new construction, and traffic congestion as well as the ongoing decimation of the countryside (“development” I think they call it) stand in such stark contrast. It’s difficult to keep the blues from wrestling you to the ground.

The papers, television and internet are filled with reports on the latest climate change anomalies. Followed by the simplistic ways we can save ourselves and the planet by reducing “emissions” – whether they’re from cars or cows. But let’s face it, all the suggestions, while some may have merit, aren’t going to fix the problems. The problems are just the symptoms of the overriding cause – that no one seems to want to talk about: overpopulation, and the fact that population growth is continuing to explode out of control. Western societies may be working at retooling transportation methods but It’s not clear if we’ve really thought through the environmental costs of the batteries that will be required or how we’ll recycle those batteries or even how all the electricity required to top up those batteries will be generated. And as “third world countries” develop a middle class that wants to drive cars rather than motor scooters or just bicycles, the demand for this type of power will soar even more. Of course, we can sequester carbon by planting trees. Hmmm….so what if we didn’t cut down the massive forests that already protect us and provide oxygen? Hmmm…

I live in a small rural community. But it’s not going to be small or “rural” much longer. The pace of development is increasing noticeably; just look at what is going on around Caledonia…and Binbrook…and pretty well throughout the “Golden Horseshoe”, once renowned as some of the richest farmland on the planet but now just a mass of concrete. And “rural” has become just another name for soybean and corn crops (almost all genetically modified) – how many soybeans do we actually need anyway?

The perfect gift! A box of home-made baking. Not a single piece of plastic to be seen.

Oops! I can feel myself getting churlish again…

The Christmas potlatch is over. (I wonder what the environmental cost is of the crass consumerism that it now entails – how much useless stuff changes hands, a large percentage of it involving plastics in some form or other?) But for a few years now at our house we also celebrate the Winter Solstice. This ancient fete – NO presents, just good food and drink – recognizes the return of the life-giving sun as the days begin to get longer and the nights shorter. For us it’s a time to reflect on the year gone by and to give some anticipatory thoughts to what’s coming. Migration will be starting soon – no matter what we do to the planet – and I want to be ready for it. Of course it pains me that bird numbers have been reduced by about a third world-wide – especially in long-distance migrants – but I am confident that when humans manage to destroy themselves (and Covid may be just the beginning as we pack in on top of each other) bird numbers will rebound dramatically and forests and grasslands will once again be the rule.

Oops….still churlish….

Marnie’s finding of a white Bluejay this Fall I feel is significant (or, at least, I will treat it as such). Now, I’m not a superstitious person at all. But it’s simply common knowledge that a white Bluejay portends nothing but good things – it’s a clear and objective sign that conditions are on the mend…at least locally. It will be a good migration monitoring year for us, that’s obvious. So, rest up, put on layers of migration monitoring-enhancing fat, and get ready for the new year. It should be a good one.