July 13th – A Day In St. John’s

A tribute to a truly great Canadian and one of my heroes – Terry Fox. This is the spot where he started his attempt to run across Canada, with a broken body but the heart of a lion.

St. John’s….one of my favourite cities….anywhere. Small enough that you can walk around most of it but with a vibrant core suffused with music and the sea. It’s an active port and you’re right next to the action. The ship I was supposed to be heading out on to do seabird counts was delayed by Tropical Storm Chris so I had a day on my hands. The storm went through yesterday with high winds and driving drizzle but today I woke up to blue skies and a cool breeze off the ocean – a perfect day for walking. Here’s some pictures I took on my jaunt:

The north side of St. John’s harbour. The orange and light blue vessels tend the oil rigs; the red ship with a diagonal white stripe is the CCGS Louis St. Laurent.

Looking toward the end of St. John’s harbour.

The exit/entrance to St. John’s harbour. What an amazing feeling it is to leave the sheltered waters of the harbour and head out into the open ocean. (Fortunately Tropical Storm Chris blew through yesterday.)

I came upon this small tribute to Canada’s UN/NATO forces. A refreshing tribute given the ongoing attack by Donald Trump.

Hmmmm….looks like I’ve got a long way to go. How much of this trail have you done?

While an oil rig tender leaves the harbour, a kick-ass bluegrass band, the High & Lonesome Ramblers, plays away.

The High and Lonesome Ramblers….bluegrass at its best.

Juvenile Herring Gull – its flight feathers haven’t quite grown in enough to allow it to fly. There were lots of them around.

And, of course, while I was walking I was counting birds. I saw 5 Yellow Warblers and became sort of fixated on this question: how do long-distance migrants access the island in the Spring and how do they leave it in the Fall? This rattled around in my head for quite a few kilometers. In the Spring, do they take off from the northernmost point in Cape Breton and head for the SW corner of Newfoundland near Port-aux-Basques of do they cross the Cabot Strait on a broad front and make landfall at numerous places along the south shore? Or….do they cross the St. Lawrence at a relatively narrow spot, move along the north shore and then hop back down into Newfoundland across the narrow Strait of Belle Isle?

In the Fall…..I don’t see a lot of viable options. the birds either fly SW or perish. At Ruthven some of “our” Fall migrants head S or even SE (e.g., Blackpoll Warblers). This strategy would leave long-distance migrants leaving Newfoundland out over the open ocean until they simply ran out of gas (fat)…..or got REALLY lucky and lasted long enough to hit the NE Trade winds which would push them to the Greater and Lesser Antilles. This would require though that they head out with enormous fat loads.

Obviously we need more banding stations in Newfoundland and Cape Breton……maybe HBO should help set up some substations….

July 6th – On Turning 70

Birthdays don’t usually mean anything to me (well, except for my 30th when I figured I’d reached old age….); just another day or, as a friend pointed out, just a number. Just a number? Well, I don’t know if my progressively aching joints, diminished hearing (Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, high-pitched warblers), and a brain that needs to work hard to remember a name or find a word would necessarily agree. But this birthday kept me up well into the wee hours thinking things over.

My main line of thinking was about changes in bird numbers and diversity. I’ve been seriously birding for 65 years – my grandmother encouraged an already-apparent interest by buying me those little hard-covered Golden bird guides and I began to compare their pictures with the birds outside our kitchen window. There’s been a lot of changes since then; none of them good although a few might be thought of as just benign, a sign of changing weather patterns (like the movement north of Carolinian species).

One Spring, when I was in Grade 8, I raced home after school to check out the birds in the backyard trees. It was mid-May and migrants had been passing through in the previous few days en masse. I noted 13 species of warblers in a single tree at the same time. Now, at Ruthven, I’m pretty pleased if a can tick off 13 warbler species in a whole day throughout the site. And there are some days in May when members of the banding group just look at each other in wonder and comment on how empty the woods seem while doing census.

I grew up in Hamilton’s East End. At dusk and well into the night the sky was punctuated by the calls of numerous Common Nighthawks and, before it got too dark, you could watch them dive and twist and turn. I haven’t seen a nighthawk over Hamilton in the Summer for years and count myself lucky indeed when I see a few during the Spring and Fall migrations, usually along the river. They’re a good “poster-child” for the demise of aerial insectivores.

And you didn’t have to go very far to get out of the city and into farm fields. Rich farm fields – it was drilled into us in elementary school that the swath of land running in a semi-circle from Oshawa to Niagara-on-the-Lake was the Golden Horseshoe – some of the very richest farmland in the world. In every pasture (and there were lots of them) you could easily find a wide range of grassland birds: Bobolinks, Savannah and Grasshopper Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlarks, even Upland Sandpipers in good numbers. Last weekend my son Geoff and I cycled in the blazing heat (another thing I don’t remember – prolonged periods of very hot temperatures!) along the “Waterfront” Trail from Niagara-on-the-Lake to the Burlington Beach Canal. (Much of this “trail” runs along the North Service Road so you can enjoy the noise and flow of the QEW traffic.) My only grassland bird encounter was the sound of a solitary Savannah Sparrow. Large mono-culture fields that we did pass had no birds associated with them – in them or over them. This ride provided a stark example of the massive loss and poisoning of our once-rich environment. It has become the Concrete Horseshoe.

I’d like to say that this story has a happy ending. But try as I may, I can’t find one. And I think that’s what kept me awake, that cerebral search for a glimmer of hope that things could get better, that we would stop building and poisoning and…..well, breeding. For it seems that no matter what math you choose to use or what truths (or non-truths) you embrace World population is soon going to reach 9 billion. And, evidently, these folks need to eat and have shelter. So get out there and enjoy the wildlife around you while it’s still there.

July 2nd – Going To The Concert

Adult Barn Swallows wondering what is going on inside “their” barn. -KMP

Marg and I were at the Aldershot GO Train platform waiting for the train to take us to the Doobie Brothers/Steely Dan concert at the Budweiser Stage (it was fabulous by the way but that’s beside the point) when I noticed a female American Goldfinch vigorously gathering nesting material – against a backdrop of cleared fields and earth movers preparing for the next wave of housing development. Hmmm….goldfinches are a “late” nesting species. Hmmm…..geez, it is late!! Where did June go!? And it dawned on me: except for the “late” nesters (not many) the nesting season is either over or almost over. The young are fledging or, in many species, have fledged. We are in the midst of an enormous outpouring of avian biomass – a veritable smorgasbord for Accipiters. Picking off newly hatched birds whose flight feathers aren’t fully formed yet can’t be much of a challenge for them…..

Newly hatched Tree Swallows. Note all the feathers lining the nest – a Tree Swallow characteristic. -KAP

So what did we do in June? There were 2 Forest Bird Monitoring Counts to be done (we’ve been doing these for over 25 years now). And there’s always some data entry of one sort or another. We had to take down some of the nets to protect them from UV damage. There’s net lanes to be cleared and maintained. Not running nets also allows locally nesting species to go about their business without being hampered by our efforts to study them. But we did do some banding: there are LOTS of Tree Swallow/Bluebird/Purple Martin boxes to be monitored and the young, when old enough, banded. Nancy has a project banding Barn Swallow chicks and the odd Ruby-throated Hummingbird whenever she gets a chance. And we also spent part of a day back in the slough forest catching and banding long-distance breeding birds (Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush, Rose-breasted Grosbeak). So odds and ends except for the nest box monitoring and Barn Swallow banding.

Male (cloacal protuberance evident) Ovenbird deep in the slough forest. -KMP

Although we readily see Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in the open woods around the banding lab, we also get them deep in the slough forest. -KMP

I took part of the month and headed to our cabin on Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy. There I put up 3 nets and play with banding local breeders – but nothing serious; I’ll wait until the migration gets into full swing during the latter part of August.

SY male Myrtle Warbler. Notice the old (juvenile) brown alula and greater secondary coverts.

Male Northern Parula – this is a common breeding warbler on Grand Manan.

These are Cliff Swallow nesting (plastic:) houses. One home owner on Grand Manan has about 15 of them on her house and they seem to be very effective. Anyone know where I might get some….?

So there you have it. Odds and ends. But the nesting season is drawing down; it soon will be time to get down to serious business. (But I guess the 100+ juvenile Barn Swallows and 150+ Tree Swallows banded so far by the “swallow team” might be considered pretty serious.)

The stoic, almost philosophical look of a juvenile Barn Swallow. -KMP

Banding a young Barn Swallow. -KMP

Young (banded) Barn Swallows not long out of the nest. -KMP

July is an interesting month for local breeders. The newly fledged young birds will be learning how to survive. This is a steep learning curve and a large percentage won’t make it through to next year. While doing this they will disperse in the local area as they check out the various habitats available to them – filing this information away for next year. The adults, once they’re rid of the kids, become pretty seclusive as they go through a complete moult of their feathers. It’s good to keep a low profile when your flying capability is impaired. We intend to pick things up at the beginning of August – but not on a daily basis until September 1st. In the meantime….odds and ends.

June 3rd – Home Sweet Home

Now that the dust from the Spring migration is settling, I get a chance to look through some of the data we’ve collected. I am particularly interested in the retrap data – the chronicle of birds that we’ve banded at a previous time and have recaptured again. Of course, we retrap a lot of the full-time residents – chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches – proving that they are indeed residents. But the most fascinating for me are the long-distance migrants that return year after year. Here’s a few that we encountered this Spring:

This male Orchard Oriole was initially banded as a “second year” bird (i.e., in it’s 2nd year having hatched the year before) on May 26th, 2013. It was recaptured on May 26th(!) 2015 and again on May 30th of this year. As it was hatched in 2012, this bird is in its 6th year. -JAI

Orchard Orioles are trans-Gulf (of Mexico) migrants in the Spring. They spend the Winter anywhere from Mexico to northern South America in open forests and edge habitat where flowering trees are found. The flight distance from Ruthven to San Jose, Costa Rica is about 3,700 km. What a flight. This bird has made the return flight 6 times!

This male Baltimore Oriole was already at least 2 years old (see the “6” in the top left corner) when Matt Timpf banded it on May 10th, 2012. Before this year it was recaptured in only 2 other years: 2013 and 2017 (although it was quite likely around Ruthven…just not in the nets). This bird is at least 8 years old. -KAP

Baltimore Orioles also spend their Winters from southern Mexico right down to northern South America spending their time in moist forest and shade coffee plantations.

The grandmother of them all: this female Baltimore Oriole was originally banded as a “second year” bird on May 13th, 2009 by blog meister Jeff MacLeod. As it was hatched in 2008, this bird is 10 years old!! -KMP

This male Blue-winged Warbler was at least 1 year old when it was banded on August 15, 2010 by Faye Socholotiuk-Duym. As you can see, it was recaptured in soii, ’12 and ’13 and, since there is another card stapled to this one, quite likely every year up until the present. This bird is at least 9 years old.. -KMP

The Blue-winged Warbler winters in humid evergreen and semideciduous forest and edge habitat from southern Mexico to Costa Rica and, sometimes, right down to Panama or the West Indies. So its flight distance is about the same as that of the orioles – but it weighs only 7.5-8 grams versus their weight of 32-35 grams. So a 9-year old Blue-winged Warbler is a marvel in and of itself.

The thing I would like to stress here is that these birds aren’t returning willy-nilly to just anywhere. When they set out from their wintering ground they have the destination down pat – they are flying to their Summer home: Ruthven Park, where they know the habitat intimately, probably right down to the trees and shrubs present in the territories they would like to carve out and the to food that these habitats contain. It’s not a random thing and these recapture records clearly show that.

But what happens if they return and find that their “home” has been destroyed, doesn’t exist anymore? Chaos. They have to use precious resources (and remember that they have used up most of their energy reserves to get here – returning local residents usually are not carrying any fat) to try to find another suitable habitat to nest in – one that probably already has resident birds which will fight hard to preserve their right to it. There’s a good possibility that the breeding season for these displaced birds will be lost – and maybe the bird itself.

Take a look around. Urban sprawl is exploding in southern Ontario. Binbrook and Caledonia, once two nice rural towns are now small cities (or soon will be) housing the workforce that runs Toronto. Over 3,000 new (large) houses are currently being constructed on the outskirts of Caledonia on the north side of the river and there’s plans for an even larger number on the south side. Agricultural lands are herbicided deserts awaiting planting or vast monocultures. On my walk this morning just outside of the village of York I observed a large field of winter wheat and another awaiting tilling. I never saw a single bird associated with them. I saw a couple of birds flying over, going from one place to another, but never into them to look for food or to return to a nest. For wildlife such fields are wastelands. And, now we are learning that they are insidiously toxic wastelands….for ALL life.

I’d like to be able to point to a simple solution but when all is said and done if humans aren’t willing to curb their propensity to breed then I can’t foresee a positive outcome. And beautiful retrap stories like those above will be a rarity if they happen at all.

But enough gloom (it can sure get you down if you let it). Take a look at this next picture: retrap cards for a Yellow Warbler and an American Goldfinch. Sure, it’s just coincidence. But wouldn’t their connection make for a marvellous children’s story!? The tale of two very different apecies that grow up together, go their separate ways for the Winter but, before going, agree to meet again at Ruthven at a particular time in order to “catch up”.

What a coincidence! (Or did they plan it!?) These two very different birds – Yellow Warbler (YWAR) and American Goldfinch (AMGO) – were both in their 2nd year when they were both captured (within 10 minutes of each other) and banded on May 13th, 2016. They weren’t seen in 2017 but were both recaptured (within 30 minutes of each other!) on May 12th of this year. Both would be 3 years old. -KMP