Posts Tagged ‘migratory birds’


Yesterday morning, as I was standing by the kitchen window sipping coffee, I thought I heard a red-winged blackbird call.   I stepped outside to listen and look, but found no evidence of the bird.  This morning, however, there could be no doubt.   A dozen red-winged blackbirds were waiting outside the door when I went out to fill the bird feeders today.  Hurray!   It’s official!  Spring is here.

Red-winged Blackbird return dates at Willow House:

2016:  March 6th
2015: March 21st
2014: March 15th
2013: March 10th
2012: March 3rd
2011: March 10th
2010: March 10th
2009: March 7th

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Snow Buntings


We think of migratory birds flying south to Florida or Central America, but for some birds, this is the south they migrate to for the winter. Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) breed in the far north on rocky tundra, but winter across central North America. As I drive along country roads, it’s not uncommon to see flocks of Snow Buntings fly up in a rush from the roadside as the car approaches. This flock was foraging farther into a field and when they didn’t take flight, I had the opportunity to record them with this photograph. These birds are sporting their winter plumage, with buff and black points. You’ll find more information about Snow Buntings linked here.

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When we think of bird migration, robins flying south and vees of Canada geese come to mind. However, there are many variations on the theme of migration. For example, American Goldfinches are short-distance migrants. Although we see goldfinches year-round here, the birds we see in summer aren’t the same individuals as the birds we see in winter. The summer breeders move a few hundred miles south. They are replaced by another flock of goldfinches that, to our undiscerning eyes look just the same, and arrive from a location farther north.

Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) are northern breeders, migrating to the Canadian Shield and Hudson Bay Lowlands for the nesting season. In winter, they migrate back to Southern Ontario and points south. I spotted my first junco of the winter on Monday, as it flew up from the lawn where it had been foraging and disappeared into a thicket. Juncos are easily identified in even a short glimpse by their distinctive tail feathers. The grey fan is flanked on each side by a stripe of white that leaves no doubt as to the identity of the fleeing bird.

These photos are a bit blurred because I just shot them through the porch screen, a record of the first winter foragers preparing for the long, cold season ahead.


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Among the winter visitors to our area are Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis). I most often see flocks of them along the roadside, where they flush and fly up together in a drift of wings as your car approaches. Recently, there was a flock of them in the soybean field neighbouring our property. When I went out to look at them, they flew up into the top of a maple tree, where they sat chattering amongst themselves. Loquacious birds, they carry on a stream of commentary.

Snow buntings are about 6 inches, or 15 cm long. They breed on the rocky tundra, far north. Nests are tucked into crevices and cavities amongst the rocks. The nest is loosely built with grass, moss, lichen, roots and leaves, and is lined with plant down, feathers and fur. Snow buntings eat a diet of insects and grass and weed seed, although young are fed a diet that is 100% insects.

When food becomes scarce, they move to their wintering grounds across central North America, where they forage in sometimes very large flocks, in snow-covered fields. Flocks may include a few Lapland Longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus) or Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris).

As spring approaches, the males will return to the north 4 to 6 weeks before the females, establishing themselves on territories. Once the females arrive and choose a mate, nesting begins. It has been found that the number of eggs birds lay, or clutch size, shows latitudinal variation. That is, birds of the same species, nesting farther north tend to have larger clutches than those nesting farther south.

Ornithologist N.P. Ashmole examined this phenomenon and concluded that latitudinal variation in clutch size is related to the increase in resource abundance. That is, in areas where food suddenly becomes abundant, as it does in the north when mosquito season arrives, birds have larger clutches of eggs than do those of the same species nesting in areas where resources are more stable over the year. Ashmole’s hypothesis has been confirmed by other ornithologists studying clutch size. You can read more about variations in clutch size at this Stanford site.

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Coffee growing under rainforest canopy

Coffee growing under rainforest canopy

The coffee shrub is native to the rainforests of Ethiopia. Introduced to Brazil by the mid-1700s, coffee plantations today cover an estimated 7 million acres in the northern Neotropics from Columbia and Brazil to Mexico. Traditionally, coffee has been grown on the side of mountains, where it thrives in the shade of trees and provides habitat for both native species and wintering migratory birds.

In the 1930s, ornithologist Ludlow Griscom noted that the birds found in shaded coffee plantations varied little from those found in undisturbed forest. Since then, studies have confirmed that not only birds, but also mammals, reptiles, and insects thrive on shade coffee plantations. As rainforest in the Neotropics continues to disappear, shade coffee plantations have become a vital resource for birds and other wildlife.

Sun-grown coffee plantation (Photo credit: wikipedia)

Sun-grown coffee plantation (Photo credit: wikipedia)

But coffee grows slowly. Coffee bushes take 3 to 4 years to mature. Over the last 20 years, coffee growers have been replacing traditional varieties with new, high yielding, sun-tolerant varieties. Full-sun farming requires the removal of the forest and replaces it with a virtual biological desert. Without the forest birds to eat insects, and decaying materials to feed the plants, sun-grown coffee requires the heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers. At least half of the coffee grown in the Neotropics has been converted to full sun. You can read more about coffee plantations at Coffee and Conversation.


Buying shade-grown coffee is probably the most important thing you can do to help save the rainforest and protect migratory birds. A number of brands of certified shade-grown coffee are readily available. Many of the grocery stores in southern Ontario carry Kicking Horse coffee in their organic section. When you drink a cup of shade-grown, organic, fair-trade coffee, you are getting your day off to a good start! You can practically feel the glow of a halo as you contribute to these important causes! All by enjoying a great cup of coffee! What could be better?


Fair trade and organic coffees are not necessarily shade-grown. Look for the shade-grown certification to be certain. If you can’t find shade grown coffee in your local supermarket, try specialty stores and organic foodstuff sellers. You can also purchase shade-grown coffee easily online.
Some other brands I found locally include the following:


Foodsmiths coffee is packaged for a local organics store by Creemore Coffee Company. You can buy shade-grown coffee directly from Creemore Coffee at creemorecoffee.com.


You can buy shade-grown coffee from Salt Spring Coffee at saltspringcoffee.com.

Another online source is Birds and Beans Coffee.

Still drinking instant??? Most instant coffee is made from the poorest, sun-grown beans. If you purchase an inexpensive one-cup or small-pot coffeemaker, brewing the real thing is very fast. You can enjoy a better cup of coffee and help the birds with a minimum effort. Wake up and smell the coffee!

The Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) is a migratory bird seen around Willow House in the summer that is often found on shade-grown coffee plantations in the winter.

The Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) is a bird seen around Willow House in the summer that is often found on shade-grown coffee plantations in the winter.

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