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Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

On the Move

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Each spring, I await the arrival of the first Red-winged Blackbird with great anticipation. From there, spring is a series of birdy firsts. First robin! First grackle! First cowbird! First Song Sparrow! First pair of Hooded Mergansers on the river! First Turkey Vultures! First Great Blue Heron! First woodcock!

And then there are the geese. As they travel north, hundreds stop to forage in the stubble of the many corn fields hereabouts. Mostly, there are huge flocks of Canada geese on the move. But some years, there are Snow geese as well. This year, there have been many Snow geese travelling with the Canada geese.

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These Snow geese in flight are easy to identify, with their black-tipped wings. However, Snow geese come in two morphs, or color patterns. White adults have black wing tips and pink bills, with a blackish ‘grin’ patch. Their feet and legs are pink. Blue-morph adults have a white head and upper neck while their bodies are dark bluish-grey. They may have white tail feathers and varying amounts of white on their belly.

While the Canada geese will nest in Southern Ontario, the Snow geese will carry on far to the north, where they will nest along the shores of Hudson Bay and James Bay.

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Even though we still have a deep snow cover, and the thermometer reads minus 10 C this morning, Spring is slowly, quietly creeping in. If you stand in a protected spot, out of the wind, the greater warmth of the sun is striking. Even on cold days, puddles form where the sun heats the ground. And the morning chorus is changing.

All winter long, when I step out the door to top up the bird feeders each morning, I am greeted by a raucous cacophony of Blue Jay voices. A few birds seem to watch for me, and upon my entrance, bird seed in hand, they send up a cry that brings a rush of blue as the belligerent diners assemble, each one anxious to be among the first to snatch up the prized peanuts.

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But now the jays are quieter, less aggressive, hanging back. In the treetops, a flock of goldfinches assemble each morning. As they preen their feathers, they gossip amongst themselves with cheerful chatter. Their bright conversation is punctuated with an occasional chuck from a Red-winged Blackbird, and this morning I heard a robin call.

When I look at the photograph of the individual below, I think perhaps I can detect a touch of bright yellow just beginning to brighten his face. As winter fades, the goldfinches replace their subdued bronze feathercoat with the iconic brilliant yellow of summer American Goldfinches.

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Spring arrived today with the vernal equinox, officially March 20, 2014 at 12:57 PM in Ottawa. The first spring day was gray and overcast, and the landscape is still decidedly white. The temperature hovered around 0 Celsius, but a bitingly cold wind left no doubt that we will have to wait a bit longer for soft spring zephyrs.

I hadn’t seen another Red-winged Blackbird since my first sighting on the 15th, but this morning I heard several giving their chuck call in the treetops. Still no oak-a-lees. And then, this afternoon, as if they had been reading the calendar too, I spotted three robins.

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Robins can occasionally be seen in cities or suburbia throughout the winter, but it would be unusual to spot one in our rural neighbourhood. They usually return a few days to a week after the first Red-winged Blackbirds.

These three were hanging out in the hedgerow beside the river, and may have been attracted by the buckthorn berries still available there.

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The wind was so cold, I felt a little sorry for them, but they didn’t seem bothered. And in spite of the wind, puddles of melt water had formed on the surface of the river. Maybe warmer days really are ahead.

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When I went out this morning, I heard a quiet chuck that caused me to search the branches, high up in the trees along the drive. And there he was, the first Red-winged Blackbird of spring.

It wasn’t a very satisfactory sighting. He was all alone, and wasn’t oak-a-leeing yet, but nevertheless, I have duly recorded him as our first returnee for 2014, and he was a welcome sight. Hopefully, spring weather won’t be far behind. Here are my First RWB dates for previous years:

2013: March 10th
2012: March 3rd
2011: March 10th
2010: March 10th
2009: March 7th

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Spot the Owl

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When I was driving home from town yesterday, a blob on the top of a neighbour’s antenna tower caught my eye. As I drew closer I could see that the blob was a bird, a Snowy Owl!

This was my first sighting ever, although there have been numerous reports of Snowy Owls around the Ottawa region recently. The owls are part of an irrruption, a movement by these normally arctic inhabitants to the south. It is thought that an unusually successful breeding season has resulted in more owls looking for food and being forced south to find enough to eat.

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The brown barring on this owl indicates that it is a female. Males are more snowy white. She is perched, as is common for Snowys, on a high lookout from which she can survey the surrounding fields and habitat. Unlike most owls, Snowys hunt during the day. She gave me no more than a casual glance before her gaze returned to the landscape. She must feel right at home because the mercury has dropped to the bottom of the thermometer. It was a chilling minus 34 celsius here this morning.

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Black-capped Chickadee

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Roadblock

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As I was returning home along a country road, I could see something across the road ahead. As I drew closer, I realized the obstruction was a sting of Wild Turkeys. I stopped the car and took a photograph of the flock.

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They seemed to be waiting for the mailman. I think they must have been expecting a cheque today.

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They were reluctant to leave, but as I crept closer, they took off in a flurry of wings.

Closer to home, I spotted this handsome red fox. Seems like everyone was out enjoying the beautiful day.

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Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’

I have many plants in my garden that are very popular with bees and other pollinators. Pictured above is a favorite, the perennial Lemon Queen Sunflower (Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’), which blooms profusely in late summer.

I reserved one corner of the garden for a few plants that can be a bit unruly, but are beloved by pollinators. I call it Bee Corner. There are an assortment of monarda varieties. Monardas can be a bit rambling, and it is welcome to spread out at will here. There’s also some agastache ‘Black Adder’, which did very well this summer.

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Bee Corner in September

New to the corner are wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) and hairy mountain mint (Pycnanthemum pilosum). They’re both North American natives that attract pollinators and have settled in well. Next year, they can take engage in a turf war with the monardas.

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Wild Quinine

All comers can feast without fear of poisoning. I never use pesticides of any kind on my plants. The plants are all strictly on their own, thrive or die, and mostly, they thrive.

Lately, Colony Collapse Disorder has been in the news, and the rise in the use of neonicotinoid pesticides and fungicides is suspected as a contributing cause. The jury is still out on the exact causes of honey bee die-offs and because of their economic importance, honey bees are getting a lot of attention. One thing is for certain though. It’s not just honey bees that are affected by rampant pesticide use.

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Clearwing Hummingbird Moth at Monarda

As Bridget Stutchbury points out in Silence of the Songbirds, the banning of DDT didn’t end the threat of pesticides to species such as birds:

We are as hooked on pesticides today as we were in the 1960s, when, in her seminal book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson warned us of the rain of poison that was bringing death to our waters and killing thousands of birds…. In many ways, birds are in greater danger today than in the 1950s because modern pesticides are more lethal. Older OC pesticides (organochlorines, fat soluble pesticides that can be stored in the fatty tissues of animals) were replaced in the 1970s and 1980s by “safer” pesticides like organophosphates and carbamates. These pesticides are safer because they break down within a few days and are not stored in the body, and so do not accumulate in the food chain. But many, like monocrotophos, are vastly more toxic to birds (and people) than were the OC pesticides. Modern insecticides are designed to kill their target swiftly and then break down before “non-target” animals come into contact with the poison. This is easier said than done. Birds can be exposed to these insecticides via direct contact with sprayed plants, by eating insects and fruits in areas that have been recently sprayed, or by eating pesticides that are applied to the ground in the form of granules….We have traded persistence for toxicity.

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Hairy Mountain Mint

Many insecticides are lethal to birds because they are neurotoxins and interfere with the nerve impulses inside the bodies of animals. They disrupt the signal that must jump from neuron to neuron via chemical messengers, causing severe shaking, then paralysis and asphyxiation. Pesticides that are effective in killing insects are also very toxic to birds and other animals, including humans.

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Agastache ‘Black Adder’

You can help reduce the use of agricultural pesticides by buying organic foods. You may feel that buying organic items such as bananas is not worthwhile because you peel the bananas anyway. But by buying organic bananas you support the reduction of the pesticide burden where the bananas were grown. You can also step more lightly on the land by buying other earth-friendly products such as shade-grown coffee. For more on threats to birds and ways you can make a difference, Silence of the Songbirds is a great read.

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Bee Corner in August

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The sunny yellow flowers of the cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) look beautiful against a bright blue sky. The sky is the usual backdrop you see when admiring the flowers of this eastern North American native because they top long 8 foot tall stems!

The large leaves that climb the stalks are fused in pairs with the leaf opposite. They embrace the interesting square stalk, giving the impression of the plant stalk perforating the leaves, and form a little cup that captures rain water, thus giving the plant its common name.

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I’ve been a bit negligent about providing support for the heavy stalks, and the stems have splayed out from the centre.

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The result is a ring of sky-high yellow flowers that dip and swing in a swaying circle.

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When I walk by the circle of tall flowers, I am always reminded of a painting by Matisse titled Dance. (Photo Wikipedia)

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Recently, while I was sitting in the garden reading, I was tickled to spot this goldfinch taking advantage of the water-capturing quality of the leaves that gives the plant its name. The photo is a bit soft-focus because it was shot through screening.

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If you are looking for a way to enliven your garden, you can do no better than to invite a House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) to make your yard his home. These vivacious little birds will provide your garden with its own natural soundtrack. Our current wren is pictured above, singing his effervescent babbling-brook song from a treetop at the foot of the garden.

Wrens are not shy birds and readily nest close to human dwellings, a fact that no doubt is reflected in their name. Attracting a wren to your yard is simple. Just provide appropriate nesting boxes. These tiny birds are adaptable, and will check out a range of accommodations, but ideally, a box should be placed about 5 to 8 feet high. A site that receives some sun but is shaded from the hottest part of the day is ideal. It should be out of easy reach for predators such as raccoons, or have a baffle installed. House wrens need an entrance hole of 1 1/4 inches. If you are building your own nest boxes, plenty of plans are available online.

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It’s good to have a few boxes placed in a variety of locations around the yard. Male wrens start several nests in the hope of attracting a female. Which nest start becomes home to his chicks is left to his lady friend to decide. This summer, a House Wren pair successfully fledged young from the box on the left, above. A dummy nest was built in the box to the right.

The birds will also appreciate several sources of water. I have 3 bird baths in the garden.

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This box also appeals to wrens, but this summer a pair of Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) raised a family here. Their young fledged about the same time as the wren babies.

I have never used pesticides in my garden, making it a bird-friendly territory. Wrens offer a free insect-control program in return for their housing. Bird parents are kept busy all day hunting for insects to feed their rapidly growing youngsters who leave the nest in an incredibly short period, just 15 to 17 days.

Below is a video that I made a few days ago, a 360 degree panorama of the garden. Unfortunately, my little camera is really not up to this task, and you can here it clicking as the focus changes. However, the bubbly song of the wren can still be heard in the background.

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