Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas Bird Count 2011

On Boxing Day I took the day to do an activity with my oldest son Andrew.  He's taken an interest in birds and in the old camera we gave him to use so I hoped that doing the Hamilton Christmas Bird Count (CBC) would be an enjoyable outing together as father and son.  We were invited by Peter Scholtens to join him in the two areas he was given to cover.  I'd never done the CBC before nor really knew what it was.  Every year, for single 24hr period somewhere between Dec 14 and 31st, a count is done of any and all birds seen. Count areas are split up into zones and we walked the area southwest of Clappison's Corners bounded by Hwy5, Rock Chapel, Valley Road, York Road and Hwy 6.  The other area was Globe Park in Hamilton. Apparently a few years ago a Snowy Owl was seen here so it stays on the list of locations to count. :)  The Hamilton CBC area is defined as anywhere within 15miles (or just over 24km) of Dundurn Castle.

A group of 9 of us gathered at Tim's for breakfast to get started.  I had been apprehensive about joining the bird count as I was sure there were going to be some pretty serious birders and I'm both inexperienced and don't consider myself a serious birder.  But the group of definitely experienced guys were more than friendly and willing to share of their knowledge.  Peter had brought his two sons Caleb (he was the one who had solved my Red-tailed Hawk crop mystery) and Jonathan along so that we nice for Andrew who hit it off well with Jonathan who was his age.

I forgot to mention that the morning started with a bang, though I didn't know it till I met up with the gang!  I knew I had seen the silhouette of a largish owl on a hydro wire along Hwy 5 just east of Spencer Creek bridge.  When I mentioned the size and the prominent ear tufts Peter was sure it was a male Great-horned Owl.  That is a pretty exciting find for me. If we hadn't been our way to the bird count I would stopped, dark as it was.

We hiked the Bruce Trail along the escarpment and then went down through the RBG Berry Tract and into the Cartwright tract on the Bruce Duncan Memorial Trail.  As compiled by Peter, here's the list of what we saw and counted there:
Starlings 311
Canada Geese 44
Hairy Woodpecker 2
Crow 14
Ring-billed gull 9
Mourning Dove 1
Northern Cardinal 3
Junco 2
Downy Woodpecker 9
White-breasted Nuthatch 12
Blue Jay 4
Black-capped Chickadee 18
Rock Dove 6
American Goldfinch 49
Eastern Bluebird 26
Red-breasted Woodpecker 2
Red-tailed Hawk 2

The Eastern Bluebirds were the highlight.  Hard to get close enough for a good shot though with a large group. :)  Here is a really bad quality picture cropped to 100%.

Eastern Bluebird - 100% crop

One other interesting shot from here was what a woodpecker or two had done with this stump.

Woodpecker art

We stopped for lunch and took a group picture before splitting up with some of us going onto Globe Park with a few staying to survey some areas we had missed from our first area.

The crazy birders. (I'm on the far left and my son Andrew is in the tan coat.)

We headed off to Globe Park (appropriately named for the large water tank painted as the globe of the earth visible from the QEW just south of the Burlington Street exit.  Here was the list of birds we observed there:
Ring-billed gulls 74
Starling 24
Red-tailed Hawk 1
Mallard 2
Canada Geese 71
Downy Woodpecker 1
Northern Cardinal 2
Northern Shoveler 1
White-breasted Nuthatch 1
Song Sparrow 1
Mourning Dove 1
We also could see the Red Hill SWM Pond and observed these, though they  were not in our count area:
Canada Geese 20
Red-Tailed Hawk 1
Bufflehead 1
Mallard 14
Starling 2
Kestrel 1

Canada Geese overhead

Canada Goose

Opportunities for great bird photography wasn't at its highest, but I had a great time learning a lot about birds and many other items from the other birders.  I certainly saw a lot of birds I wouldn't normally, being at the sides of experts. Thanks for letting a rookie join you!

Andrew was still game to stop by Bayfront Park to see if any of the warblers were still there so we "popped" in there.  I'll post some pictures from here in the near future.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Two Lunches along Bayfront Trail

Earlier this week I was able to spend two lunch hours away from work along Bayfront Trail both on the Coote's Paradise and Hamilton Harbour sides enjoying the variety of birds that this time of year brings.  There has been quite a buzz about a number of birds rare for this time of year here including some warblers and gnatcatchers.  You can read the reports and see the photos on Josh Vandermeulen and Brandon Holden's blogs.

I've never chased any birds that I saw on any of the bird reports before, but this time, since the reports of these birds were on the Bayfront Trail right within reach from my work in Hamilton, I thought I'd give it a try and see if I could see them too, let alone maybe get a picture or two.  In my search, I met lots of other birders, young and old, thoroughly armed with binoculars and cameras.  The birds might be getting a little self conscious with all the equipment showing up because when I headed out there, not many were having success in finding them any more.  I did find the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, but they are hard to photograph - not staying still for long at all in their constant inspection of every little crook and bud of the brambles and shrubbery they were in, looking for bugs to supply the energy for their constant motion.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher - best shot I could get.

Amongst the birders, I got to meet Josh Vandermeulen, a birder who I've learned quite a bit from while reading his very regular blog posts.  I got to chat with him for a while as we waited where the Black-throated Gray Warbler had been seen earlier.  While chatting, a runner flushed a bird up from the ground and we both saw the flash of it as it headed for cover.  We were sure it wasn't just a sparrow which shortly after seemed to be hanging around in the same vicinity - strange how your memory of something can sometimes be affected by what you want something to look like.  It might have been the warbler, but we never saw anything, and I wasn't to see any more of the other rareties either.

A Norther Mockingbird was also still there, enjoying the sun.

Northern Mockingbird

And a male Downy Woodpecker was tapping at trees branches looking for food.

male Downy Woodpecker

However, I did see many firsts in the duck department those two days.  Quite a list of firsts for me:
Lesser (I think) Greater Scaup
Red-throated Merganser
American Black Duck
Black Scoter - I think I saw one from a bit of a distance in the marina side of Bayfront Park, but I never ended up going back to check.

from left to right:
female Common Goldeneye, three male Common Goldeneye
and a female Greater Scaup

male Greater Scaup

male and female Northern Shovelers

This shot still makes me smile... The migrating ducks would skidaddle right out to deeper water with any approach of mine.  A lone mallard with in the mix of this group of birds and as they were heading out, he, more used to humans looks like he's thinking, "Calm down already!  Watch where you're going!"  He's pretty much headed the opposite direction of the Scaups and Goldeneyes paddling furiously to safety.

A male Mallard duck wonders what all the fuss is about.
I couldn't get very close to this little Bufflehead duck.  This one was the slowest of the bunch as the rest headed off quickly at my approach as well.

male Bufflehead

I also saw this pair (I think?) of American Black Ducks.

American Black Ducks

At the end of the hour which always goes way too quickly, I headed back to the parking lot.   Close to the boat launch end was a female Red-breasted (thanks Peter) Hooded Merganser that had just finished preening on a rock.

female Hooded Merganser through the Bullrushes.

female Hooded Merganser

Well, it's Christmas Eve and we'll be enjoying a movie night with the kids tonight.  A number of  us are struggling with a bad cold, but we exchanged our gifts with the kids last night and they're enjoying a new Wii!  They're quite excited and we're all getting the hang of it slowly.  Some very hilarious moments actually if you just watch the person moving about with the motion controller.  We'll likely be getting some teaching moments with the kids with this gift, and as parents, the opportunity to learn patience. :)  Looks like some fun family times ahead though...

But at this time of year we also remember that the Creator of all the amazing variety of birds and creatures we get to enjoy, humbled Himself to become one of us as a baby, growing up and eventually, as a man, dying to pay the debt we owe.  The debt owed is because He created all we see and know to praise Him. We all know none of us is perfect, but what we don't like to hear is that we owe a perfect life to the One who gave us life in the first place.  Thankfully, He chose to make a way available for us out of this mess, and believing in Him as our Saviour is the way to not only know the designer of all the amazing wildlife and heavenly wonders, but to know a new joy and meaning and purpose in life and see the world through different eyes.  If we believe and accept this gift, when we die some day, He'll welcome us instead of pronouncing judgement because of the debt paid for us on the cross.  

I was asked one time, "Why do you Christians always have to push your way as the only way and try and get more people in your club?"  This person was a "bystander" to me answering questions from someone else regarding my faith, and thought I should keep my opinion to myself.  My answer was something like this. "If you believed someone was desperately in need of life saving measures and you knew you had the cure, would you share it?  Even if you knew they might not appreciate it first?  Of course!  I believe the same has been done for me, and now I have the same great news to share.  Sharing the gospel has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with you!  It's only that I care for you that I'd risk our friendship or possibly what you'll think of me after, to let you know the great rescue that I've been given."

And so, if you even wonder a bit about what this Christmas Day is really all about, I encourage you to visit here.  It's doesn't directly speak to what Christmas Day itself is all about, but it does ask and answer some big questions about Christianity and who Jesus claimed he was.  And to the person who asks, "What do you gain from sending me here?" - nothing at all, but I hope you do.

Merry Christmas and happy birding(/wild-lifing?) in 2012!

PS. If you'd like to email me on anything at all, I welcome your thoughts or questions.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Red-tailed Hawk Mystery Solved

A few days ago I posted a few cropped pictures of distant shots of a Red-tailed Hawk that had a strange shape to its neck...

The mystery shots - solved.

I had asked if anyone knew of the reason for it and got a number of responses.  As one of the responders put it, my "cropped" images were ironically named.  I got the answer to the mystery from a number of people  including one from Caleb, a 12 year old who is obviously a well informed, young birder! (see some of his pictures here).  Turns out that the "lump" in its throat was likely lunch sitting in its crop.  From notes provided by those readers and after researching the net a bit, the crop is a holding place before the bird's stomach which will slowly release food after eating a large meal.  The hawk may not eat again for days so the food is released slowly to be more efficiently digested rather than all the food going through the bird's system where not nearly as much of the food value would be absorbed.  A brilliant design feature for sure.

Thanks for the responses everyone.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Not so Rare "Greater Black-backed Gull"

I purchased a new lens (new to me anyways) last week, and got to try it out at lunch today heading to Princess Point in Coote's Paradise and swing along the Bay Front Trail, heading a short ways towards Bay Front Park.  It was a gray day, but saw quite a few "firsts for me" birds.  What variety in Creation.

I also think my new found hobby got the better of me today... I posted on OntBirds (a birding list where you can post finds of uncommon or seasonally unusual birds) that I had sighted, what I thought was, an uncommon bird - turns out not. One person pointed out to me already that it's not really rare in this area, so, oops! ;)  I had thought I had seen on the blog of another popular birder in the area that it was.  I checked back and I had misread it.  Another kind birder on the list pointed out that I had likely identified the bird correctly as a greater black-backed gull, but that it wasn't male and female but likely one adult and the other in "one of the first to third year plumages".  (Thanks Bob!)

Here are the photos anyways.  Amongst other ducks in the background, these gulls stood out clearly as they are much bigger than what seems to be common Ring-billed gulls we're used to seeing here.

Greater Black-backed Gull  (adult and 1st to third year)

The older one seemed to be trying to break something apart, possibly eating something?  This was a fully zoomed in shot, and my tripod is getting a missing part made (thanks to my brother who's a machinist!), so it's not the clearest picture.

Greater Black-backed Gull eating something?

Some interesting facts I found from reading around on the net: Greater Black-backed Gulls are less like the

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Lure or Deterrent?

This past weekend we went with the family for the yearly Christmas event with my wife's side of the family for a great time of food, fellowship and fun for all.

Saturday afternoon, we headed out for a walk along the Bruce Trail to enjoy a crisp and sunny day.  With a crowd of about 15 of us who went for the "long walk" along the Bruce Trail, most of the wildlife was likely flushed on ahead by the rambunctious kids running back and forth. It was never intended to be a silent photography run and it was fun to be out with the kids who seem to have endless energy!  But cameras were along to document the event, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't also on the lookout for wildlife along the way.

On the way back, towards the end of the walk, I did linger back and ended up seeing a few of the more winter loving birds: chickadees, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, blue jay, and one nest which I wasn't sure if it was a raptor's or not.  Not much really though.  I strayed off the trail at one point seeing a large flock of noisy starlings gathered to scavenge the spilled grapes from a harvest recently past.  Lately there have been a number of people posting links for videos of some pretty fantastic flocks of starlings.  Their movement creates some pretty fantastic effects as the change directions, seemingly with one mind.  This was a small group though, with not nearly the same effect.  However, soon I sighted a Red-tailed Hawk, also watching the flock.  I don't believe they are quick enough to chase and catch these birds, preferring to hunt small mammals on the ground and surprise them from above.  But as I approached, it was annoyed enough by my presence to move to a tree further away, crying back at me in annoyance.  Soon there were two others circling over head as well.

Seemingly contrary to my previous assumptions though, at one point I thought I was going to see one of the hawks go straight into the flock of starlings for a kill.  The raptor must have been behind the birds though, creating the effect of being right inside the flock.  It gives the appearance of what would seem like "shooting fish in a barrel" for a hawk.  But I was surprised that the starlings didn't flee at the sign of the hawks, nor even how close they seemed to let the hawks fly by.  Although the pictures collapse the sense of depth, they weren't too far away.

Red-tailed Hawk behind a flock of Starlings.

Red-tailed hawk behind Starlings (almost in the middle of the picture).

My little side track off the trail ended up with two mysteries though.  One I solved, the other not...

Mystery #1 - Unsolved
Later when looking at the pictures (none of which turned out great being so far away), I noticed one of them had a rather strange looking neck.  Here are some crops in the filmstrip series below.  I'm afraid the compilation lost some of the quality, but they were crops already.  I'm not sure if anyone has any thoughts on what I'm seeing?  Is it a growth of some sort, or a really buff hawk who has been working out on it's main breast muscles? Not likely!

Red-tailed Hawk with mysterious looking neck - a growth of some sort?
UPDATE: see this post for the mystery solved.

Now, mystery number two...