Tuesday, February 26, 2013

What Would a Wood Duck do if a Wood Duck could duck....

Thanks to a tip from my Aunt Margaret who lives close by LaSalle Park in Burlington, I finally got to enjoy the bright, vibrant colours of a Wood Duck. (life bird #114) There was one lone male bravely holding its own among a large group of Mallard Ducks in small bay on the east side of the LaSalle marina.  Given that Wood Ducks usually are paired up by now, either the female wasn't visible, or this male hadn't been successful in courting this year.

Wood Duck holding off the Mallard Ducks.

My Aunt had let me know it was there the day before, and with the impending snow storm, I thought I'd better take advantage of the "normal" weather in case the duck decided to head out with the snow's approach for whatever reason.  The skies were overcast, which sometimes is a blessing for the lunch hour that I usually have to go out birding.  During the winter the sun is lower in the sky, so if it's behind you, it can be alright, but a top lit subject isn't as nice as a side lit one.  If the sun is too glaring, then an overcast sky can be the better compromise.  That's what I had, and nothing I could do about it.  But some sun would have really made this very colourful bird's plumage pop on the pictures more.

Male Wood Duck profile.

 Wood Ducks more typically frequent smaller lakes where swampy edges and shallow bottoms provide their cover.  They nest in tree cavities, or nesting boxes provided by conservationists or interested landowners.  That I know of, they are the only duck that nests off the ground.  Other water birds like Cormorants and Herons do, but I couldn't find mention of any other duck which doesn't build a water or ground level nest.

Wood Duck

Wood ducks will nest at varying heights in trees, which means that the ducklings have to get down to the water at some point, some times from great heights.  Different references all indicated that the ducklings jump out of the nest the day after they've hatched, sometimes falling as far as 100m from nest opening to the ground!  Besides being ready to swim that soon, they also are able to survive quite the sky dive on their second day of life!

Wood Duck

There were lots of ducks and other water birds there in both the smaller bays and outer, open water which was quite calm for a change.  Walking along the water's edge hearing the glass like tinkle of the ice chunks in the water I saw Mute and Trumpeter Swans, Mallards, Lesser and Greater Scaups, Bufflehead, Common Golden Eye, Common Mergansers, and a large group of White-winged Scoters.  I had only ever seen one White-winged Scoter before (last year) and I figure it was an immature female.  There were probably 50 or so of them of varying maturity this time.

male and immature White-winged Scoter
in front of male Greater Scaups.

You may have noticed in the picture above that the male Scoter has a radio tagging antenna protruding from its back.  It was the only one of the group that I saw that had one.

Trumpeter Swans yield way to male White-winged Scoters.

Splash remnants of a White-winged Scoter dive.

Radio tagged White-winged Scoter.

I was also tipped off by my Aunt of a Screech Owl down by the marina.  However, to continue my lack of success with now two Screech Owl locations, it decided not to let me have a look.  It was likely not out because it wasn't sunny.  This one is a grey Screech Owl, and the other one in the Woodland Cemetery is a red morph.  For now, I've seen neither one!  I'm hoping one of these days I'll get to see at least one of them.  For now I'll have to be patient and keep stopping in.

Thanks again Aunt Margaret for the tip!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Birds With Horns!

There is something nice and clean and crisp about bird pictures on or in snow!  I brought the camera to work this morning for some reason, thinking maybe I'd see one of the small flocks of Snow Buntings and/or Horned Larks and Longspurs that I've spotted from time to time on my way to (almost never from) work over the last weeks.  I say "or" because I've only confirmed the Snow Buntings and not the other two till this morning.  The three birds often will mingle together in their small flocks, scavenging the snow for seeds in open fields, and along the sides of the roads picking up sand for grit.

male (l) and female (r) Horned Larks

At the new intersection corner of Hwy 5 and 8 south, I spotted a small group of about 10 birds flying short distance through the sparse weeds which had just had time to regrow after the construction of the traffic circle at Peter's Corners.  Up until recently, I had assumed every bird that size was a sparrow (or otherwise, affectionately referred to as "little brown jobbies".  A more careful look pays off.  They were all Horned Larks.

female Horned Lark

Horned Larks are larks (surprise) that live in much of North America, but breed in the Arctic tundra and southern plains and into Ontario with a strange "hole" in the middle (see the range map at Cornell's site.  I wonder what causes the "donut" effect.

I was only able to take pictures from the car window.  After doing a contortionist move to switch from the driver seat to the passenger without getting out of the car, I got these shots in the dull, overcast light of the morning.  They were busy eating seeds and singing away with their busy, chipper songs.

male (l) and female (r) Horned Lark

The last picture is nothing great, but shows the little feather tufts which give it the look of having small horns, thus the name.  You probably need to view the picture full size to really see them.  This was life bird number #112.

You can just see the tufts of feathers,
"horns" that are its name's sake.

Spring is coming soon, though I would certainly enjoy some more winter yet - seems we only really had one good snow fall, and temperatures which keep going up and down like a yo-yo!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

2nd Visit to Desjardins Canal

After having been somewhat disappointed with my visit success the day before, I headed out to Desjardins Canal again for second lunch hour in a row.  This time, the wheels on the car hadn't even stopped and I had already seen two birds that had eluded me the day before.  A male and female American Wigeon (life bird #110) were up on the bank.  I quietly slid from the car and cautiously made my way over towards the water's edge and the two birds that were searching for food along with a large group of Mallards.

female and male American Wigeon

Hoping for closer shots, I flushed the Wigeons and they headed for the protection of the water.  I managed to catch one mediocre shot of the female flying, and then an obligatory water shot of the male.

female American Wigeon in flight

male American Wigeon

I headed west along the bank again, hoping that my "luck" would continue and I'd be able to turn up the Redhead.  Sure enough, a look through the binoculars brought the bright read head of the duck I was looking for into sight very quickly and I made my way over (life bird #111).  When I got there, the Wigeons had made their way over as well and I got a picture with the day's two life birds in one shot.

male Redhead and pair of American Wigeons

male Redhead

I headed for the opposite end of the canal section to see if there was anything else to see.  The Common Goldeneye was still there and wasn't quite so shy as the day before.

male Common Goldeneye and Canada Goose

male Common Goldeneye

As I headed further along, I flushed a Great Blue Heron from the long dead grasses against the bank of the road I was walking along.  Flight shots are so hard, and when you've just been in the mode of taking shots of stationary ducks, all the settings are wrong.  So I was quite please this one turned out nicely in focus despite single point focus and low shutter speed settings.

Great Blue Heron in flight

I had walked to the east again, but later noticed that the heron wasn't where it had landed earlier.  On a hunch, I returned more quietly to where it had been earlier, and sure enough, found it again.

Great Blue Heron hiding

When it finally saw me, it headed for the opposite side, not far from the roadway, at the bottom of a steep bank.  I thought I'd try an attempt to come up behind it and see what kind of shot I'd get.

Great Blue Heron behind Canada Geese

This was the result... I have to say, although it wasn't a new bird sighting, it was the most rewarding experience of the day.  I actually had to calm myself down once I had peeped over the ridge and saw it sitting there.  I think hunters have the same phenomenon - after a pursuit, getting all flustered and not being able to steady their weapon to aim and shoot. I guess it sound somewhat odd, but it was quite rewarding to sneak up that close.  We stared each other down for a long time.  I slowly raised my camera fearing it would spook.  I got off quite a few pictures, then got greedy for more bird and less hill in the picture, but that sent him far down the canal.

My favourite shot of the day!
Great Blue Heron.

Great Blue Heron takeoff.

And now, a couple days later, we have a fresh layer of thick, white snow to return winter to our neighbourhood.  I am glad to see it and love all that goes with it.  Yes, I like shovelling, driving in the snow, and the colder temperatures.  Those who know me have heard me say often, "if we're going to have winter, then let's have it!".  What a beautiful place we live filled with many beautiful animals and birds, created to make us wonder at the source of the beauty and variety that we've been given to enjoy.  How is it that it's all here, and for that matter, why are we?

"The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork. Psalm 19:1-3

Friday, February 8, 2013

A Visit to Desjardins Canal

I had two really great lunch trips to Desjardin Canal in Dundas this week.  Tipped off by Joanne Redwood in Hamilton Birders Group that there were American Wigeon and Redhead ducks there, I decided to try a trip there in my limited lunch hour.

Desjardins Canal freezes very late, often never.  I am quite sure that this phenomenon is connected to the Dundas waste-water treatment plant located just northwest of the end of the canal and I'm sure outlets here.  The sections of the canal still there today are remnants of what put Dundas on the map and made it prosperous, initially much more affluent than Hamilton for a time.  It extended from Hamilton Harbour's York Street high bridge all the way into Dundas through Coote's Paradise, completed in 1837.

But this is isn't a history blog :).  My first lunch trip on Wednesday didn't seem to be very successful at first.  There were a pair of Hooded Mergansers nicely swimming in tandem, a great shot for someone with a further reaching lens than mine for a nice shot though.  Lighting was a challenge, the sun shining brightly, for the most part, from across the canal.

Mallard and Hooded Merganser pairs.

I walked some of the canal shore, and sent hundreds of Canadian Geese skyward.  Notice all the birds in the distance of the first shot that are all gone in the second.  Because of the scrub in front of me, I couldn't really capture the size of the flock in the sky.  Needless to say, it was very noisy for the next 15 minutes while they all slowly circled and then finally landed in small groups again!

100's of Canada Geese sent aloft by me. 
Here are a few shots of geese as they did flyby's before landing again.

Canada Goose symmetry.

I did finally spot some other birds beside the many geese including a Double-crested Cormorant, 

There were some Common Goldeneyes there, and what I think was a first winter bird along with a more mature one.

first winter Common Goldeneye?

I did finally get to see one new bird though (life bird #109) though - a Pied-billed Grebe.  They are very cute little diving bird and in a large raft of geese and ducks, is easily missed even though they are easily distinguished by their small size and unique shape.  This was the best shot I could get, as it's quite shy and again, the lighting was not good.

Pied-billed Grebe
I bumped into Barry Cherriere (sp?) for the second time in half year and despite his search for me, could not turn up the Wigeons or Redhead for me.  He had just seen them 15 minutes before seeing me.  However, I was happy to have seen the Grebe and planned to return the next lunch to see if that would do the trick.

I'll fill you in on that visit in my next post (this one is getting too long!)

Saturday, February 2, 2013

LaSalle's Waterbirds

Last week my Aunt emailed me that the Trumpeter swans were doing their courtship displays down at LaSalle beach in Burlington.  There is quite a gaggle of Trumpeters which has been overwintering on this beach for a few years now, part of a reintroduction program which seems to be having some success.  Almost all of the swans are wing tagged (not the nicest for picture taking) with a large number of them being juveniles which is a good sign. I'm not sure exactly when they start the more typical displays in the water, but they were definitely raising quite the ruckus and a number of them were imitating each other, bobbing their heads in sync.

Trumpeter Swan

juvenile Trumpeter Swan

While we were there, one of the swans was obviously injured, limping and being generally picked on.  I felt bad for it, but didn't think to do anything, figuring that's just the nature of things that happens in the wild.  My Aunt emailed me yesterday telling me  that she saw it again the next day and after quite an ordeal by one of the regular swan feeders, and then SPCA, they removed a lure which was caught in the swan's foot webbing.  Because it was so weak, they were planning to send it to the Toronto Wildlife Centre.  Lesson learned - call in an injured bird.

There were lots of other water birds there as well though.  I had hoped to see some new ducks that everyone else seems to report but never end up being there when I manage to visit.  A number of American Black ducks were swimming amongst the habitual Mallard ducks.

American Black Duck

And there were a few American Coots diving for snacks in the cold water.  However, there were three on the beach is not something I'm used to seeing.  They were hunting the sand for bugs I guess.  They let me get uncharacteristically quite close, possibly emboldened by all the mallards and swans which would let you pass within a meter.

American Coot

In the photo below, you can see their distinctive feet.  They don't have webbed feet because they aren't ducks.  They are actually related more to cranes and rails (read more here).  The lobes on their feet lay flat when they are walking through muddy flats or trying to dive, but fold back when they walk.  Quite an interesting design.

American Coots

There were only a few scattered Buffleheads diving off shore.

diving Bufflehead

Now, to my surprises.  I was actually taking the picture below of the female Greater Scaup as it swam through the other mixed group.  Upon examination of the picture at home, I realized that what looked like a female Mallard is actually a female Gadwall.

Canada Goose (left), two female Gadwalls Mallards (very top and centre),
two male Mallards (top right), female Greater Scaup (bottom)

What clued me in really, was this picture below.  I had thought this was just another Scaup, but realized that the colourings on the front and sides were not right.  It's a Gadwall. (life bird #108) The bill is slightly more slender, and dark.

male Gadwall

So going through the pictures again, I discovered I had another shot of something also interesting... a Mallard Gadwall hybrid (see well documented discussion here), along side a female Gadwall.  Apparently Mallards  breed with other ducks much more prevalently than other ducks.

male Mallard Gadwall Hybrid and female Gadwall  (Thanks Joanne R!)
American Black Duck
UPDATE: Joanne Redwood graciously pointed out the above corrections to me.  Though I'm not sure about one... she thought maybe the above hybrid might be a Mallard - Am. Black Duck.  But it has the "barred" feathers of the Gadwall.  Any thoughts anyone?  Joanne also pointed out that the Mallard Gadwall hybrid is commonly referred to as  Brewer's Duck, though I don't believe it is recognized as a species.

I had hoped to see something new for once here, had gone home disappointed, but was pleasantly surprised later.

My Aunt and I strolled the trail a bit and I was struck by the absence of birds.  It was a blustery day, but usually there are still quite a few birds out in this area.  We did see a few of the usual Chickadees and a Junco or two, and later one Downy Woodpecker, but not much more.  After I mentioned that though, we were treated to a close encounter with a pair of Norther Cardinals, the female much more vain and sat posing for a long time for some pictures, even holding out till the sun broke out for a few minutes.  Her husband was much more suspicious and stuck to the higher branches, giving no opportunity for incriminating photos.

female Northern Cardinal

female Northern Cardinal

What there were lots of squirrels... big fat healthy ones living off the goodwill intended for the birds who are often hand fed by walkers.  I think this one was actually eating a natural snack of Sumac fruit.

Grey Squirrel

I'll have to come back for another lunch walk here again, and this time scan the birds more carefully, not counting on catching pictures of new birds by accident.  I guess I should have put the binoculars you gave me M & D and put them to proper use!