February 22nd – Heads In The Sand(?)

Picnicing on Family Day – 50 years from now I wonder if we’ll have to dress so warmly. -DOL

I read with great interest an article by Natasha Comeau in the Hamilton Spectator (from the Toronto Star) about “eco-anxiety”. The “condition” was first defined in 2017 by the American Psychological Association as “a chronic fear for environmental doom.” The condition leads to “intense feelings of stress, fear and grief in reaction to climate change.” It is especially prevalent in young people who are bombarded with climate change news through social media. But older folks are susceptible as well.

I must admit that I was flummoxed by the way the article ended: warning people to beware of “dramatic or inaccurate news”. Hmmm….who can you trust? Around us the world heats up, storms become larger and more frequent, massive fires burn, huge coral reefs die off, sea levels rise, glaciers melt….and yet world leaders equivocate or even deny what’s happening, writing it off as “fake news” and so people don’t know what to pay attention to or even believe.

So I looked around for some sources that one could say were pretty reliable. Here’s what I was finding:
1/ Bird Life International just came out with its latest State of the World’s Birds study. It’s an excellent and very thorough report that I recommend that you all dig up and give a read. This paragraph struck me:
Humanity has reached a point where its collective size and individual expectations have grown such that we have started to deplete the Earth’s resources faster than they can be renewed. Earth’s natural capital must now sustain 7.6 billion people, including a rapidly expanding global middle class that enjoys an unprecedented level of individual material consumption. Humanity has reached a point where it is living beyond the biological capacity of the planet. Demand for the planet’s resources is now equivalent to more than 1.7 Earths. The natural systems that underpin all life and every aspect of human existence are beginning to buckle. The race is now on to develop sustainable methods of living before these vital ecological systems and cycles are irreversibly compromised.” Sensationalism? Fake news?

2/ The World Health Organization (WHO) in co-operation with several other organizations (UNICEF and the Lancet) just published an extensive report in the journal The Lancet. It is available on-line – https//doi.org/10.1016/50140-6736(19)32540-1
One of its main claims is that “every country on Earth [is] failing to provide a world fit for children…..to protect children’s health, their environment and their futures…” Sensationalism? Fake news?

3/ This paper, just published in Science – Cristian Rom├ín-Palacios, John J. Wiens. Recent responses to climate change reveal the drivers of species extinction and survival. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2020; 201913007 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1913007117 – predicts that, at the current rate of global temperature rise, one third of plants and animals will go extinct within 50 years. Sensationalism? Fake news?

Ornithologists of the future? I wonder what their census counts will look like in 50 years. (Front) Noah, Eila, Maggie; (middle) Liam, Aliya; (apex) Nola. -DOL

Fifty years….hmmm…..I was thinking about this in terms of the lives of the young ornithologists that we see at Ruthven (and Fern Hill). They will see the impact of our misguided lifestyles and political decisions. Some people are actually arguing now that these reports are bogus in some way but…in my lifetime I have seen the reduction of bird numbers in North America by 2.9 billion. This should have been the canary in the coal mine. But it hasn’t been.

Today I saw the first real migrants of the Spring – Common Grackles and Song Sparrows. Migrants have been cropping up all over southern Ontario for the past week or so. What a marvellous, awe-inspiring thing migration is. Fifty years from now today’s young ornithologists will still experience this migration but it will simply be much smaller and with many fewer species.

An anecdote I like to use is this: when I was in grade 8 I came home from school one Spring day in May and found 13 species of warblers in the big tree out the back at the same time. I was overjoyed but not overly surprised – this was what Spring migration was like. Now, at Ruthven, I am overjoyed when I encounter 13 species of warblers in the course of one day. (And I’m very concerned when, on doing a census, I don’t see any at times when they should be plentiful.) So in 50 years….it might be nice just to see a warbler.

One wants to do something to impact climate change. At times I get pretty pessimistic that we as individuals can make a difference at all but….I’m encouraged by the enthusiasm by some of the young people I come into contact with and by adults who are working hard to make a difference. I do believe that the cumulative impact of small efforts can have significant results. But….here’s the crux of it all for me. There’s lots of talk about strategies to reduce the drivers of climate change, mostly (but not solely) concentrating on reducing CO2 emissions. But what is sadly lacking in almost all these discussions is what I consider to be the single most important factor: curbing population growth. I don’t care what is done to reduce carbon emissions, if the global population continues to grow it will all be for naught. I guess it’s not politically correct or comfortable to discuss this issue but it’s the prime driver behind what ails us. We’ve got to take our heads out of the sand and start addressing issues like birth control and the reduction of population growth.

The Spectator article was interesting from a slightly different perspective: there was a picture at the top of the piece showing members of Toronto’s Malvern Collegiate “eco-club”. The members meet weekly to discuss issues and plan events like picking up trash, etc. The concerning thing for me was that the club appeared to be made up of 12 young women. Where are the young men!? I’m seeing this more and more at the banding program – many more females get involved than males. That doesn’t auger well…..in so many countries it’s the men that have the political clout and make decisions around climate issues.

Environmental education will become even more important moving forward. -KAP

In the meantime….banding goes on. At Fern Hill Oakville on Friday:
Banded 17:
2 Mourning Doves
1 Red-bellied Woodpecker
1 Black-capped Chickadee
1 Northern Cardinal
5 Dark-eyed Juncos
2 House Finches
5 House Sparrows

ET’s: 15 spp.

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…..