March 23rd – Pushing The Envelope

Food for Tree Swallows is in short supply when it’s cold and rainy. At these times they tend to fly low over the river searching for emerging midges.

The Rotary Club Trail runs from the outskirts of Caledonia (starting at the little park at the base of McClung Road) to the village of York. It’s a really nice 6-km walk along the river. It’s also a pretty good route to see birds. I did the route On Sunday (maintaining 6 feet of separation between myself and the few other hikers I came across). I wasn’t seeing much out of the ordinary until about half a kilometer downriver from the park I saw a small flock (13) of birds swirling over the river. My binoculars quickly turned them into Tree Swallows! At first they were low over the water and then climbed to take advantage (presumably) of small swarms of midges in the lee of some trees on the far side.

Hunkered down out of the wind and, maybe, getting a drink or hoping for an insect.

Feathers puffed out to maintain warmth, this swallow is conserving some energy by not flying in search of insects.

These hardy birds return early – much too early for my comfort level. It’s not unusual to get strings of bad weather in March….and April too. These birds are mainly insectivores and insects are in short supply when it’s cold and snowing. But these birds take the chance. Returning early can have its advantages: commandeering good territories and nest sites and starting to nest early. But it’s a gamble. And there’s been a good number of times when we’ve found Tree Swallows dead on their nests, emaciated with starvation. But it’s a chance that they are prepared to make. The advantages outweigh the disadvantages and if it nests successfully, maybe even twice, then it’s worth the chance.

Keep your eyes open! Tree Swallows will soon be checking out your boxes.

[Note: the above photos were taken by other people – I’ve lost their names. If you recognize that one is yours – my apologies.]

March 19th – Balancing Covid-19 and Banding

The first American Robin seen at Ruthven this year – leucistic? or just aged? -NRF

The World is in a pandemic panic but my hunch is that birds really won’t give a fig and will soon be on their way north. Many have already started! Many have already arrived (I heard my first Killdeer today)!

Marg and I just returned from an 18-day cruise out of San Diego to Hawaii and back – a little R & R before the rigours of the (25th!) Spring banding season. This pandemic has unfolded so quickly that when we set out we weren’t particularly concerned but by the time we were approaching San Diego we were afraid that either the ship would be quarantined (although there were NO cases on board) or that our flight home would be cancelled or both. What a relief to land early this morning in Toronto!! Canada….you gotta love it.

So here’s the plan for Spring migration monitoring at Ruthven. Please note that this plan is subject to change at short notice in response to what happens around us.

I am self-quarantining for 14 days and intend to be back on April 3rd. Ruthven is closed to (most) of the public until at least April 6th. However, Nancy is going to get the nets up before the 1st with the help of Michael Berry (education co-ordinator) and Nancy van Sas (head honcho). She will start banding on April 1st with a limited number of helpers. We hope to band daily.

Now here’s the tricky part: in order to start migration monitoring AND keep everyone safe while doing so we need to insist on “social distancing”. Therefore we will only admit a few/couple of volunteers a day to help. The “drop in” mentality that we have encouraged over the years – quite successfully – will have to be put on hold until we get the green light that the virus is on the run. This was a hard decision for us to make but it’s the only one that will achieve the two goals above.

What is especially important is that we be able to generate the data necessary to do trend analyses on migrants. For our site, this analysis is based on two things: daily banding numbers and census counts. These are fairly consistent from one day to the next. Banding hours have become pretty consistent from one year to the next and the census, if done correctly, is consistent. [We are going to insist this year that the census last between 60 & 90 minutes and that there are no deviations from the “census route”. If you want to check out the Fox Den Trail (and PLEASE go for it!) do it separately and include birds seen there as observations. The reason that observational data is not used is that there is simply too much variability – if we have 12 good birders spotting birds one day, they will very likely see more birds/species than if we have just 2 or 3.]

So we will start out going with “bare bones” person power – a few people to handle the banding and someone to do the census (and I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get a good census done!). You will need to let either Nancy or I know ahead of time if you’re interested in helping out and what days you have available and what you might prefer to do – banding or census (or both). We will involve a reduced number of you and set up a schedule so we and you will know what’s going on.

We also are going to suggest that your time in the banding lab be limited to processing birds; otherwise you should be outside. We will have hand sanitizer readily available and will encourage you to use it often.

Sadly (VERY sadly to my mind), the sharing of baked goods, snacks, etc. will not be encouraged. I find that the wonderful baking that finds its way to the lab on a regular basis has greatly helped foster the pleasant, friendly atmosphere that we have come to expect and enjoy. But passing food around could mean passing the virus around…. (The only bright side to this is that I might be able to drop some of the extra weight I accrued on the cruise.)

So please bear with us. We will get back to normal as soon as we can.

To help us develop a schedule, you can contact either myself or Nancy. Initially I would ask you to use email as I’m reluctant to post our phone numbers in this forum. Ask for a cell # and after that we can text. OK?

February 28th – Last Kick At The Can?

When Christine Madliger was just starting out bunting banding she had difficulty weighing the birds – she would place them on the scale but they just wouldn’t stay there. So she devised this container….it’s made a big difference! -NRF

Our strategy of removing the traps in time to allow birds to feed unhindered proved to be a good one today. There were lots of birds in the bait area – there was one flock (at least) of 250+ birds. They were pretty flighty, possibly due to 2 male Northern Harriers working the local fields. Even so, we banded 50 birds: 44 Snow Buntings, 4 Horned Larks, and 2 Lapland Longspurs (first for the season).

This shot gives you a good idea of the topography. Despite the recent snow fall the field is half bare due to the high winds. the patchy white/brown is ideal colour for white/brown Snow Buntings. You can see that it won’t take much to rid the field of ALL the snow. -NRF

I’ve got the feeling that we’re not going to see them much longer. Despite the recent snow and current cold, windy conditions, the snow cover in the fields is thin – the wind took care of that. So when it gets mild in the next couple of days the snow that does remain will be gone….and the Snow Buntings with it.


Our effective trapping site on Duxbury is just 50 m. off the road. -NRF

Female Lapland Longspur. -NRF

Male Lapland Longspur. -NRF

Lapland Longspur comparison: female (left), male (right). [Interestingly, in this pair, the male weighed 10 g. more than the female!] -NRF

Wing detail of an ASY-F Snow Bunting. -DOL

Wing detail of an ASY-M Snow Bunting. -NRF


February 27th – Fabulous February Weather…..

With the Snow Bunting season drawing down, Nancy was finally able to band some. -DOL

Not long back the headline in the local paper stated: “Fabulous February Weather.” This was in anticipation of a warm trend that would push temperatures up to 9 degrees for a couple of days. Now at a time when most people are voicing great concern about global warming and climate change I’m a little hard put to understand why this sort of weather would be classed as “fabulous”. I would think that “aberrant” would be much more fitting – these kinds of temperatures at this time of year can’t be a good thing.

But today we really did have “fabulous February weather”: -5 degrees, west winds blowing from 30 to over 50 km/hour; fresh snow – all combining for whiteout conditions. Also combining for Snow Bunting banding conditions!

And right on cue, a large flock (50+) of Snow Buntings was on the bait, joined by good numbers of Horned Larks. We put out the traps and in the space of 2 hours caught and banded 24 Snow Buntings and 2 Horned Larks. I should say that Nancy banded these, I just scribed. And I’m glad it worked out this way. Nancy hadn’t banded any this season and was beginning to show serious signs of bunting banding withdrawal: tremor, incoherence, hallucinations….the whole 9 yards. It’s amazing how quickly a Snow Bunting fix can eradicate these symptoms.

It was a bleak day to start with but whiteouts will reduce visibility to the near fringe of plants. -NRF

At first we had mostly blue skies and the snow from last night was blowing but things weren’t bad. A little later though it clouded over and fresh snow began to fall, resulting in severe whiteouts that reduced visibility to 10-15 meters. At that point we decided to pack it in, enhance the bait piles as the birds were going at them, and look forward to banding them tomorrow morning – they will be back as long as there’s fabulous February weather conditions and a predictable source of food (cut corn). [The key to successful bunting banding is to remove the traps with several hours of daylight left and touch up the bait piles so they can feed unhindered. They next morning they will be back to check out the site looking for more.]

A whiteout obscures the fields around us. This is the same view as above. -NRF

A burning question that is always on my mind in bunting season is: how do they find the little piles of bait in the midst of 1000’s of square kilometers of agricultural fields? The weather has been benign throughout the Winter so far. Suddenly it gets fabulous/nasty and, presto!, buntings are on the bait piles within hours. How come?

We had one retrap this morning: # 2691-80354. This female (and we’re getting mostly females) was originally banded on February 11, 2015 (so is now at least in its 6th year) at the Duxbury Road site and was recaptured at the same site on March 4, 2019. So this older, experienced bird quite likely knew where the food would be. Could she have lead the others to the corn, maybe even expecting it to be there? I think this idea has real merit.

This picture of Snow Buntings in the traps was taken in February 2015 – maybe “our” bird is one of them! -DOL

Quite regularly we recapture American Goldfinches that we’ve banded in other years. Many of them we only get in either early Spring or late Fall; they’re not around except during the migration period but….they return to the same feeders, a predictable food source, when they’re on the move.

Still, it’s a very small patch in a very large habitat system. Birds have phenomenal spatial memory. For 4 summers I worked at a field site on East Bay Island just off the NE coast of Southampton Island at the northern end of Hudson’s Bay. All the buntings were banded and colour-banded. Most returned year after year to the same territory they had vacated the year before. This island, above the tree line, is only 700 x 400 meters. Just a speck but they find it. But it’s a relatively big speck. A bait pile is less than a square meter…..One year we were Winter baiting/banding Snow Buntings in a large empty field just off Sandusk Rd., southeast of Hagersville. It began to snow heavily late one morning and didn’t let up for 24 hours. Once the snow ended and we got to the area all we could see was a massive white expanse with no features whatsoever (we didn’t use a stake in the ground to guide us like we do now); over 40 centimeters of snow had fallen. But we had absolutely NO problem finding the bait site; a large flock of Snow Buntings was sitting, patiently, directly over the old cut corn pile – we found it when we dug down out of curiousity. So spatial memory on a very fine scale is not a problem for these birds. I think there’s a VERY good chance that younger birds were cued to this site by the older female. I certainly like to think so…..