December 9th – The Winter Begins….Officially

A female Horned Lark, one bird out of a flock of 50-60 of them that have swept into the area in the past week….this is the first one banded this season. -DOL

If you’ve been reading these posts long enough you will be aware that, if you want to catch Snow Buntings, it’s a good idea to attract Horned Larks. Larks that nest in the far north (well into the Arctic sometimes) spend the Winter in this area. They tend to arrive late in the Fall but then, if they find good food resources, will stay. They arrive before Snow Buntings as buntings down here don’t show up unless two conditions are met: snow cover and cold temperatures.

At least a week ago, well before we got any snow and the farm fields were mud and stubble which larks are very comfortable with, a flock of 50-60 Horned Larks showed up at my bait site. Some local farmers have been putting small gravel pads at the edges of their cash crop fields so that their vehicles don’t get mired in mud when loading grain/corn/soybeans from the combines. My bait site is such a pad, located just outside of York on Stoney Creek Road. I found it VERY interesting that this group of larks was on “my” gravel pad. Coincidence? Maybe….but I don’t think so. I know of at least 5 other gravel field-side patches within a 5-kilometer radius. I drove around to them and there was no sign of any larks. I’ll bet if I took the time I would find a lark with a band, one that it had received last year or earlier. Maybe not….but the fact that this large group of Horned Larks was on this pad in large numbers and not on other local ones is highly suggestive….to me at any rate. If you’re serious about wanting to attract Snow Buntings then you can’t fool around – I set out 4 small; piles of cut corn for the larks and started the regimen of replenishing them twice a day in order to hold the larks in place. Every day I would find Horned Larks at the site so I was pretty confident that they would be around as long as this rich food source was available.

The first Snow Bunting of the Winter – one of a group of about 25 that flew into the bait site to see what the Horned Larks were up to. -DOL

And then two days ago we got some snow – just 2 centimeters but enough to cover the ground – and temperatures dropped into the minuses. I wasn’t really expecting to see Snow Buntings yet; there wasn’t that much snow, it wasn’t that cold, and I find it takes them awhile to work down into the area. So I was VERY surprised when I went to replenish the corn piles this morning to see a flock of around 25 fly up; they had been feeding on the corn. There’s something magical about the alarm calls and twittering that emanates from a flock of Snow Buntings as they swirl around you, like a flock of shorebirds. As is common at this time of year, when the flocks are just returning and checking out the countryside for potential food sources, the birds are very “skittish”. When I got out of the car they flew around me and then headed south across the field and I didn’t expect to see them again but….I put down some ground traps just in case.

Right away a group of larks showed up and I had one in the trap within 5 minutes. And then the Snow Buntings returned and, inspired by the lark, one entered the trap. Their banding signaled the official start of Winter. I didn’t see the buntings again (but they’ll be back – they know where the food is) but a large flock of Horned Larks flew in and I was able to band another 7 to bring the banding total for an hour up to 8 Horned Larks and 1 Snow Bunting. Christmas came early.

December 1st – Lost In The Shuffle

There’s an old adage that goes: “If you want something done, give it do a busy man to do.” I’ve found this almost always to be true….unless the “busy man” is REALLY busy in which case it might not get done. And this is the case with the following posts by Ashley covering the end of October at the Lowville banding site. Dear old Jeff was extremely busy and they got lost in the shuffle…and I was out at sea. So here they are:

We had a lovely late fall day on October 18th. The weather was fantastic
and with quite a few birds caught (59) as well as a good diversity of
species, especially for this late in the season. We also saw a lot of
interesting birds (that we didn’t catch), including a flock of Purple
Finches, a Northern Shrike, and a migrating Red-shouldered Hawk!

Winter Wren -AMJ

Tennessee Warbler.. starting to get late for most warblers
and this will likely be one of the last we catch of this species. -AMJ

Can you see the warm chestnut brown iris color on this
White-throated Sparrow? This is a great example of the eye color of an
older sparrow (After-hatch-year), which is one of the clues we use to
figure out a bird’s age. Younger (hatch-year) White-throated Sparrows
often have a cooler more grayish brown iris color. -AMJ

Birds aren’t the only thing we caught today.. this Green
Darner was caught in the net (and released no worse for wear). -AMJ

These pretty little salamanders are present on the hillside
just behind our banding site. -AMJ

Banded at Lowville:
1 Winter Wren
6 Golden-crowned Kinglet
14 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
4 Swainson’s Thrush
1 American Robin
1 Gray Catbird
1 Tennessee Warbler
3 Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle)
2 Northern Cardinal
2 Song Sparrow
9 White-throated Sparrow
1 White-crowned Sparrow

3 Black-capped Chickadee
1 Carolina Wren
2 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
1 Gray-cheeked Thrush
3 Song Sparrow
4 White-throated Sparrow


We caught 11 owls on the night of Oct 18-19, and then had a fantastic
night on Oct 22-23, when we caught 23 Northern Saw-whet Owls!! We had
quite a few visitors and everyone was in awe of these tiny owls. On
the night of the 18th we caught an owl that already had a band.. we
now know that owl was originally banded at Holiday Beach (ON) all the
way back in 2018, meaning the bird is 4 years old!

This gorgeous Northern Saw-whet Owl almost looks like she’s
posing for the camera. -AMJ

This Northern Saw-whet Owl we recaptured shows three distinct
generations (or ages) of feathers which tells us it is at least 3 yrs
old (after-second-year). However, we actually know the exact age from
the recapture data from Holiday Beach where it was originally banded.
This owl is 4 yrs old! -AMJ

We had quite a few guests this evening, and among those some
of our youth volunteers; Liam, Renessa and Aliya helped with banding
owls. Here’s Aliya with her first owl!

October 23:

The 23rd was a crisp late fall morning that definitely required quite
a few extra layers of clothing (about 4 C at sunrise). Catherine and I
were joined by Sam, Eila, and Nola. It turned out to be the morning
of the Golden-crowned Kinglet, making up more than half the total
birds we caught!

Female Golden-crowned Kinglet; so many of these birds around
today! -AMJ

Hermit Thrush -AMJ

Swamp Sparrow -AMJ

19 Golden-crowned Kinglet
1 Hermit Thrush
1 Swamp Sparrow
4 Slate-colored Junco

4 Black-capped Chickadee
1 White-throated Sparrow


What an amazing night we had on the 27th! Everything aligned perfectly, resulting in some phenomenal owl banding. The previous week had been very rainy with unfavorable (south) winds. When the rain finally stopped, the wind also shifted to Northeast, so not only was it great conditions for birds to migrate but it’s also possible that lots of owls had been held up from migrating the previous week; most birds don’t like to fly in rain, but this is particularly true for owls because their feathers lack any kind of waterproofing. This combination of factors made for a great flight, and we caught a total of 36 owls!!! Definitely the biggest night of the season and it was a treat for everyone who was there (we had several visitors who got to experience our big night). Another highlight was an Eastern Screech-Owl we caught. They are residents at our site but we rarely catch them because we are not targeting them like we do with Saw-whets.

Male Northern Saw-whet Owl -AMJ

Note the different color and wear of some of this owl’s feathers. It has feathers grown in different years of its life (referred to as different generations of feathers), which allows us to age it. Because this bird has at least three distinct generations of feathers, we know it is at least 3 years old, possibly older. -AMJ

UV light is another tool we use to aid us in aging owls. It can reveal freshly grown feathers because they glow pink due to a pigment in the new feathers. This bird is a second-year with two generations of feathers. -AMJ

Catching this Eastern Screech-Owl was definitely a highlight of the owl banding season. -AMJ

32 Northern Saw-whet Owl
1 Eastern Screech-Owl
3 Northern Saw-whet Owl (foreign recoveries)


November 27th – Winter’s Onset

The beach at Castalia Marsh at low tide. -DOL

Grand Manan Island, which sits at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, is a great place to see birds – one of the major factors that attracted Marg and I to it in the first place. We bought a small cabin there with an extensive boreal forest bush and seek our repose whenever we can afford the time. I finished a 32-day stint on the CCGS Hudson on the 7th of November and we high-tailed it to the cabin for a couple of weeks before heading into the “holiday” season.

You never know what you’re going to see on the island or where you might see it – there’s many good spots – but avian oddities could show up anywhere. A couple of Summers ago I found a Lark Sparrow and a Lark Bunting (2 western species) feeding together not more than 400 meters from the cabin, just along the coast. But the bottom line for birding is that if you don’t go and look you won’t see anything and, as any birder can tell you, this becomes an obsession….

A good place to look on Grand Manan is Castalia Marsh. A couple of Summers ago a Burrowing Owl spent over a month along the protective rocky breakwater there and just this past August there was a Snowy Egret and a Little Blue Heron foraging in the marsh. On the 11th though I went there in search of a particular bird – Snow Bunting. For me, this is a sure sign that Winter is on its way – the harbinger of snow and cold….the stuff that makes you a Canadian.

As you can see from the picture above, Castalia’s shoreline is an excellent spot for Snow Buntings. I was wasn’t disappointed – a flock of ~24 flew up, swirled around like shorebirds (which I equate them with) before resettling and scurrying around in search of food. As you scan the photo from right to left you’ll see why this is such a good spot for them: rocky seabed exposed twice a day – the buntings forage out amongst the rocks looking for zooplankton; then comes lines of brown algae, mounded by recent storms – another good source of food, especially small insects; then a cobble beach where the birds can find grit to help them digest and where they “disappear” when they sit down to rest; and last, a sand dune covered with grasses that, at this time of year, are festooned with seed heads and which provide not only food but cover for the birds and protection from the winds. They were pretty skittish and took off when I got within 150 meters, giving their unique alarm call. But after a couple of circlings they dropped again into the exposed rocks and continued foraging. As I slowly approached they scurried up the beach and into the tall grass and disappeared. I left them to their feeding. The flock remained for 11 days at least. On the 22nd, our last day on the island, I could only find 1 lone bird. The flock was nowhere to be seen, at least not in its usual locale. They may have taken off for the mainland or merely shifted to another area further along the beach. But one thing was clear: Winter must be on its way!

Bad Luck

As I’ve tried to point out in the last couple of postings, migration is a difficult time for birds. Mortality is high especially with estimates as high as 80% of young (Hatch Year) songbirds don’t survive their first year. I just finished a paper whose authors studied populations of Black-throated Blue Warblers both on their breeding grounds and in their wintering grounds. As the birds stay in place once they reach these areas they are referred to as their “stationary periods”. The authors noted that “apparent mortality rates were at least [italics mine] 15 times higher during migration compared to that in stationary periods and more than 85% of apparent mortality in [Black-throated Blue Warblers] occurred during migration.” And similar findings could be made for most songbirds.

Still, every Spring colourful migrants show up speeding their way to nesting grounds. So some are successful. For these birds everything fell into place: good nutrition at the right times; predator avoidance; sustaining and restorative resting/feeding areas on route; good weather and helpful winds; a patch of desired habitat when they made it home.

Sometimes birds do the right thing, elements are falling into place and they should be successful but meet with…how else can I describe it…simply, bad luck.

I have been aboard the CCGS Hudson for the past month doing AZMP surveys in the lower St. Lawrence River and Gulf of St. Lawrence. [AZMP stands for Atlantic Zone Monitoring Program and consists of comprehensive oceanographic surveys in the Canadian Atlantic.] We were just finishing our area – the Quebec Zone (there are a number of zones in Canadian waters) – and were about to enter the bay surrounding Sydney, Nova Scotia when we “got the call”: there was a vessel in distress about 250 nautical miles (NM) out in the open Atlantic SE of Newfoundland.

The Hudson wears two hats: it’s a research platform for Oceanography (Beford Institute of Oceanography, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and several others) and it’s a coast guard vessel with SAR (Search and Rescue) responsibilities. SAR takes precedence over research. As soon as we got the call the vessel made a hard turn to port and we were headed offshore steaming at 14 knots, pounding into 4-6 meter waves. [I still did my counting but it’s awfully hard to see birds through salt spray pelting the windows.] Just after midnight we came up with the ship – Fishin Fionnatic (pronounced Fanatic) – a small (15 m.) fishing boat that had been hit by a “rogue” wave and had its port side windows stove in. The crew had been able to clear the lower decks of water and it was able to putt along under its own steam at a steady 7 knots. Even so, we escorted it all the way into Canso. That was bad luck. But the boat wasn’t migrating….

However, when we were still 73 nautical miles east of Canso I watched a BALTIMORE ORIOLE fly onto the ship from over open water. It stayed on the vessel, hunkered down under some machinery, obviously resting, head back under its wing. Shortly before it got dark, when we were still 23 NM from shore, I saw it fly toward the back of the ship but never saw it again after that. I didn’t find it on the deck the next morning. So it likely flew away from the ship…whether it was successful reaching shore I can’t say. But, to me, this was a case of a migrant (orioles winter in Central America) running into some bad luck. There had been a big storm, a low pressure system with counter-clockwise winds, on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. I’m guessing (but am pretty sure) that this bird got caught up in the storm as it was flying south and was sucked up and blown well to the north before it found our “island”. Just another of the trials that migrating birds must endure. And with the climate changing as it is, birds will be experiencing more of them.

Balitmore Oriole, lost at sea

Baltimore Oriole, lost at sea