February 17th – Family Day

Picnicing on Family Day – the warm sunshine was a treat. -DOL

What a beautiful day – to be outside, to walk the trails, to take in the birds, to picnic with the warm sun on our faces. It just felt like Spring and I/we were ever watchful for those early Spring migrants. Our attention paid off as we got the first American Robins and Northern Flickers of the year. As well, 2 Trumpeter Swans graced the river (running ice-free!) and a Common Raven flew over. Still no Red-winged Blackbirds though but I’ll bet they’ll be here in the next couple of days. And the morning started off with a flurry of Eastern Bluebirds. Spring’s on the way folks.

In the early part of the morning we had 8 Eastern Bluebirds around the grounds. -ELO

We had our feeder nets going and ended up banding 18 birds and handling another 20 retrapped birds. So there were lots of birds “on hand” for visitors to experience and it was great to have our young ornithologists doing all the explaining and demonstrating! I’m proud of them.

Banded 18:
1 Mourning Dove
1 Downy Woodpecker

Male House Finch – they have been singing loudly for the past 2 weeks. -DO

7 House Finches
8 American Goldfinches

House Sparrow – the bane of nest box species. This male one was banded and then transported to Oakville. -ELO

1 House Sparrow

ET’s: 27 spp.

(More) Pictures:

Immature Bald Eagle – note the “dirty” look to the white head and tail. -CWB

Adult Bald Eagle – note the bright, clean white head and tail. -CWB

Samantha, initially apprehensive, got braver as the day wore on. -LB

A flock of Common Goldeneyes heading upstream. With the river ice-free, these (and a good number of other ducks, are quite common. -CWB

Two Trumpeter Swans on the river. -ELO

Trumpeter Swan with a wing tag. -CWB

Peyton releasing her first bird. -LB

Tufted Titmouse. These birds have been drawing photographers and listers to Ruthven for several years now. -DO

Not to be outdone by his sisters, Jake releases one as well.


February 14th – Flexible Plans

A lone Horned Lark perches on the traps – the only bird we saw around them during the two hours we watched and waited. -ELO

Love (appropriately) was in the air when I left the house this morning. Despite the -16 degree temperatures, male House Finches were melodiously conveying their ardour to any and all females within range. It had to be Valentine’s Day.

I had guarded, albeit high, hopes about catching Snow Buntings. We had get some new snow – a couple of centimeters, nothing like what had been forecast – and the temperature had plummeted. So…..what the heck. I set out the traps and waited….and waited. A group of our young ornithologists arrived, even more excited than I was, to catch and band Snow Buntings. Alas, it just wasn’t to be. Except for 2 Horned Larks that dropped in to check things out, and feed on all the cut corn that was outside the traps, we got nothing. In the far distance I had spotted a swirling flock of buntings but they remained in the distance. So we went to plan ‘B’: go to Ruthven, open the feeder nets, do a census and process what we catch.

Today’s team of young bird enthusiasts: Liam, Nola, Eila, and Aliya. If they keep progressing the way they are, I will be able to direct the whole operation from a chaise longue in front of the banding lab in the not-too-distant future. -RG

A really nice thing about this group of young people is that they’re happy learning in the lab and with each other. Liam and Eila set out to do a census but quickly returned to announce they had found an Eastern Phoebe! Is this a very early migrant or an over-wintering bird. Either way, it was special and got us thinking about the Spring migration which is imminent.

A lovely surprise! An early (or over-wintering) Eastern Phoebe braving out the frigid temperatures by basking in the sunshine around the Mansion. -ELO

We’ve had a number of birders arrive over the last couple of weeks just to see, photograph, and check off a Tufted Titmouse – a bird that can reliably be seen visiting our feeders. A number (birders) have come all the way from Pickering!

One of “our” Tufted Titmice; we think there are at least 3 breeding pairs in the immediate area. -ELO

Eila with a Tufted Timouse. -ELO

Eila’s fingers getting the drubbing they so richly deserved. -ELO

Over the couple of hours we had nets open we were able to process 27 birds: 5 new ones and 22 retraps. This relaxed pace gives us time to study common species and sort out the why’s and wherefores of determining age and sex – figuring out “what to look for”.

The wing of an ASY (After Second Year) male American Goldfinch. Note the jet black primary coverts (red arrow) that don’t contrast with the black of the secondary coverts (blue Arrow). -AG

The steel blue colour of this Blue Jay’s primary coverts (arrow) are in strong contrast to the blue secondary coverts beside them indicating that this is a young jay, in just its second year. -AG

Banded 5:
1 Blue Jay
3 House Finches
1 American Goldfinch

ET’s: 19 spp.

Note the dark belly band on this Red-tailed Hawk at Ruthven. -ELO

Note the lighter belly band on this Red-tailed Hawk in Oakville. -AG


January 8th & 9th – Patience Is A Virtue….

Liam with his first banded Snow Bunting – a really nice banding “tick” to have under one’s belt. (Note the fresh, home-made cookies on the dash – another nice thing to have under one’s belt….) -AT

My grandmother, a font of inspiring wisdom, used to admonish me (somewhat regularly) with: “patience is a virtue, professed by many, possessed by few”. Snow Bunting banding certainly requires it! Nancy and I have been waiting since the beginning of December for the weather conditions to turn “right” and bring the birds into our area of southern Ontario: they need cold temperatures and snow cover. Without one or the other “our” Snow Buntings disappear. Despite the unusually warm conditions through December and January, we continued to bait the bunting site on Duxbury Road. The field is nothing special, just an expansive agricultural field outside of Hagersville but we’ve had great success attracting buntings to it by putting out little piles of cut corn mornings and late afternoons. The burning question for me is how do these little birds find the spot – a tiny food resource in a massive array of agricultural country? But they do….

But up until yesterday they hadn’t.

We had a young person’s banding workshop yesterday morning at Ruthven (banded 14) and upon finishing Liam expressed an interest in seeing the site (which is about 12 km’s from the lab). So we went. Up until this point Nancy and/or I had seen only 2-4 buntings and a few Horned Larks but this day (8th), just as we arrived, a flock of about 15 Snow Buntings dropped down to the bait pile. I said, what the heck, let’s try for them and we set out 3 traps. Lo and behold 6 of the birds entered the traps in no time. Consequently Liam got a chance to band his first buntings – always a treat!

Baited traps finally attracted some Snow Buntings. -AT

Now, in my experience, this was unusual behaviour on the part of the buntings. When the birds first arrive in an area they tend to be pretty “skittish” dropping down and then taking off, swirling around before dropping down again – very reminiscent of shorebirds. They often don’t even approach the traps let alone enter them. Once the birds have become used to the area they are much less nervous and will explore the bait. And banding will begin…..

Going over what makes a second year male Snow Bunting a second year male Snow Bunting. -AT

After Liam and his folks left I stayed and watched a flock of about 70 birds come down to the traps and I was able to band another 26 before I, too, had to leave. It’s always a wonder to me, when I hold one in my hand, to contemplate the journey this bird had made to get here, either from the Canadian Arctic (maybe high Arctic) or even Greenland (one of our banded birds was recovered in Greenland!).

Getting a weight on one of the 32 Snow Buntings we banded yesterday. -AT

Female Horned Lark – one of three banded this morning (9th). – FAS

This morning (9th) I went out early with high hopes to set the traps and replenish the cut corn. Birds were few and far between all morning – only one flock, numbering about 15, dropped in; otherwise it was small groups of Horned Larks coming and going. Still Faye and I managed to band another 9 buntings (bringing our total to 41) and 3 Horned Larks. But, and here’s where the patience thing really comes into play, in the distance, maybe a kilometer away, I spied a “travelling flock” of Snow Buntings numbering at least 500 individuals. I refer to them as “travellers” because my sense is that these big groups are on the move and haven’t reached the area where they will settle and break out into smaller groups for more intensive foraging that they will carry out over time. What caught my eye from a distance was their shorebird-like behaviour: constant flying up and then resettling, like wind-blown snowflakes. Their biggest concern is avian predators – harriers, merlins, kestrels, accipiters, even the larger buteos (red-tails and rough-legs). It takes them awhile to check out a potential feeding area to locate these sources of destruction so they can keep an eye on them. I was hoping that the flock would move in the direction of the traps (which they didn’t) but was kind of glad they didn’t because they will try your patience to the limit. We have sat and watched large swirling flocks come to the traps only to spring into the air, do a couple of turns, and then drop in again….only to repeat the process over and over. We never caught any on them. It’s the smaller flocks that mean business. They seem to know the food is there (from earlier reconnoitering?) and fly right to the bait and into the traps.

I’m not sure how long these conditions will last…..but it’s a case of make hay while the sun shines (another of my grandmother’s adages) and we’ll keep at it until it doesn’t make sense to continue.

Faye came by to help this morning. She brings her grade 1-2 class out to the banding lab during the migration seasons with regularity, year after year. This year’s crop, inspired by the experience, and under the tutelage of a great classroom volunteer, Judy Hopkins, decided to make a unique contribution to the banding lab:

Faye’s grade 1 class students, inspired by their outing to the banding lab in the Fall, have been making unique bird bags for us – delightful!! -FAS

A piece of art…. as well as a useful tool. -FAS

And on another note:

Eschewing the cold weather experience of Snow Bunting banding this morning, Liam went in search of a Snowy Owl. It’s one of the white chunks…..


February 2nd – An Early Spring?

Well the votes are in: our two famous furry prognosticating rodents, Wiarton Willy and Punxsutawney Phil, have agreed that it will be an early Spring – they didn’t see their shadows! I’m not sure what this indicates as we haven’t had much of a Winter. January had relatively mild temperatures and very little snow. The fact that the Grand River is wide open, without a hint of ice, tells the story. Sort of feels like Spring is almost upon us anyway – so not much of a challenge for the little furball seers.

Fern Hill Oakville endorses an attitude that is near and dear to my heart (stomach?) – food brings people together. Friday is food day at the school and the staff bring in a wide array of goodies from donuts to salads to home made buns to chili….for everyone. It’s always a good day to be banding…. -DOL

As I’m sure you’re well aware (if you’ve read this blog for any length of time), without cold and snow we don’t get Snow Buntings. And that certainly has been the case so far. (But hope springs eternal….there’s snow falling outside and Nancy is on her way to bait our bunting site, trying to forget that the forecast for the next couple of days calls for melting warm temperatures….) Needing a banding “fix” I banded at Ruthven on Thursday and Fern Hill Oakville on Friday, with great results:
at Ruthven I banded 35 birds and had 33 retraps for a total of 68 birds handled and at Fern Hill I banded 50 with 22 retraps for a total of 72. The intent of this banding is a) to tag the birds that are using the site for the Winter and b) through retrapping to see what birds use the site month by month, year by year.

I always find it interesting how different the banding mix is between the 2 sites despite the fact that they’re only about 25 km apart as the bird flies. Check out the lists:
Ruthven; Banded 35:
1 Mourning Dove
6 Dark-eyed Juncos
8 House Finches
20 American Goldfinches

The field studies program at Fern Hill Oakville is highly successful because it is enthusiastically supported by ALL of the staff. Here Jen Pierce, a Grade-1 teacher, is about to release a male House Finch – her first banded bird. -DOL

Fern Hill Oakville; Banded 50:
7 Mourning Doves

A very pleasant surprise – a female Red-bellied Woodpecker: Katherine’s “spirit bird” (because it squawks so much?). -KAP

1 Red-bellied Woodpecker
3 Downy Woodpeckers
1 Black-capped Chickadees
2 Northern Cardinals
1 Dark-eyed Junco
5 House Finches
2 American Goldfinches
28 House Sparrows

Although I like to amass banding totals, I take great pleasure from recapturing birds that were banded some time ago. Some of these are local residents that we see regularly while others are migrants that, at this time of year, use Ruthven/Fern Hill as their Winter “homes”. And remember: many of these returnees are coming back to these spots because they’ve learned that the regularly replenished feeders are a life-giving source of food. Check out some of these recaptures:
Juncos: December 2018, April 2019, Fall 2019
Goldfinches: March 2017 (not seen in 2019), April 2018, January 2019, May 2019
Downy Woodpeckers: October 2014, July 2017
Tufted Titmouse: October 2018

Fern Hill Oakville:
American Tree Sparrow: November 2016 (this is the only ATSP that I’ve seen at either site this Winter – very concerning!)
House Sparrow: Fall 2018 (after banding this bird was moved 8 km to the east but, obviously, has returned)

One of the ways that we begin to get “young ornithologists” involved is to start them off as scribes – they can do an excellent job, on the one hand, and exposes them to the type of morphological data that we want to collect. -KP

It was a busy banding table on Friday. -KAP

Way back in the late 70’s when I started banding, it was an unwritten rule that you didn’t waste bands on House Sparrows. Some folks even advocated for their eradication. They compete with bluebirds and Tree Swallows for nest boxes and will take the boxes over, sometimes killing the previous occupants. But…..they’re birds and if you think of birds as “indicator species” – organisms that can give you a heads up as to what is happening in various environments – then they’re well worth monitoring. And House Sparrows, like most other birds, are having a hard time. The 2nd Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas showed a marked decline of this species in Ontario. We need to try to figure out what’s going on and, in that regard, they’re a good bird to watch. I’m quite getting to like House Sparrows. So over the last few years we’ve tried an alternative strategy – we move the sparrows to another location, away from our boxes. This has had mixed results. We get very few House Sparrows at Ruthven to start with but those we move (Carol usually takes them to the other side of Caledonia) we don’t see again. There are lots of House Sparrows at Fern Hill’s Oakville campus. Those we move >20 km we don’t see again; those <10 km we do (as the above example demonstrates). But at Fern Hill we're inconsistent as we just can't drop everything and take off whenever we catch one so most are just banded and released and we've been moving the next boxes farther away from the campus. Rick