February 23rd – A Lesson In Humility

Daughter (trickster) Joanne and Dorothy Smith.

Birding/”twitching” has exploded over the last couple of generations. A while ago someone was telling me that birding was the fastest growing activity – I think he actually said sport – in North America. One of the positive results is that more is known about birds generally and their movements more specifically. In most populated areas (in parts of the World with a “leisured class” anyway) it’s rare for a vagrant to sneak through without being noticed.

But there’s also a down side to all this, especially the notion that birding is a sport. Like any human endeavour people want to be good at it. Some even want to be the best or to see the most or to have the longest list of species or to have a list for every conceivable geographic entity they can think of. And of course, to be the best (or just really good) you have to compare yourself and your results to someone else. OK….I get that. But what seems to develop is a snooty elitism whereby the twitcher begins to discount the observations or results of other birders – especially if (s)he hasn’t been able to list that bird yet. In some instances it gets so bad that people don’t even want to report a sighting because of the grilling that they are subject to, the demand for picture proof, a multi-page description of the bird feather by feather.

I remember how pissed my wife, Marg, was when she reported a Turkey Vulture that she saw in January a number of years ago. At that time this species would have been unusual but it’s a hard bird to confuse and when she was told that it was “impossible” for her to have seen it, she simply said “to hell with them” and has kept her sightings to herself since then. [Interestingly over 100 Turkey Vultures were counted on the Dunnville CBC this year. So Marg’s sighting was quite likely the observation of the beginning of this northward trend in wintering range – an important observation…..] I don’t think this pedantic questioning of people’s observations is good for the development of gathering citizen science. Oh I get that you don’t want to be flooded with incorrect observations but on the whole I find that most people are pretty careful and quick to voice their doubts if unsure.

At Ruthven we encourage participation by people of all skill levels. Part of my job, when sifting through sighting reports on the grounds, is to assess how much credibility to give them. This is a complex task requiring a lot of “gut” judgements about the probability of that bird being seen at this time and place and about the ability of the person reporting it (sometimes completely unknown to me). [I’ve found that some people try to bridge the credibility gap by carrying expensive binoculars. Some of the best birders I know are in Kenya and can pick out obscure findings high in the tree tops or hundreds of meters away -without the aid of binoculars, which they simply can’t afford. And some of the most incorrect sightings at Ruthven have been spotted with expensive eye gear…..]

Dorothy and her more “stable” daughter, Dianne.

Years ago I used to be much snootier than I am now but I learned a really valuable lesson:

It was the Fall and I was taking some “confusing Fall warblers” out of a net when this quite mature, white-haired woman, whom I’d never seen before, sidled up to me and nonchalantly reported that there was a Pileated Woodpecker in the tree just “up there” and pointed. I thought: Ok Granny, you’re confusing a Red-bellied with a Pileated….but I said: that it wasn’t very likely because, although I’ve seen them deep in the slough forest, I’d never seen them in the open areas around the Mansion and banding area. Well, she said, there it is. I followed her pointing finger and, DAMN!, there it was – the first sighting for the banding area. Hmmm…..lucky I thought. But she then proceeded to identify all the warblers that I was extracting. They weren’t “confusing” to her all. This lady knew her stuff! The whole incident knocked me off my pedestal and since then I have tried to be more open to others’ observations. (I don’t always accept them….but I’m open to hearing them and encourage people to come forth.)

Dorothy with a Blue Jay retrapped yesterday. -NRF

Interestingly, Dorothy (and her daughters Dianne and Joanne) regularly visit Ruthven – it has also become part of their Spring birding tour. What is uncanny is the number of times Dorothy’s visit turns up a Pileated Woodpecker. Yesterday she found the first one of the year for us – along the laneway on the way up to the parking lot. She truly is the Pileated Woodpecker “whisperer”.

February 21st – It Starts With A Drop

This young (note the pronounced black flecking on the breast and flanks) male (based on wing length) White-throated Sparrow was carrying a big fat load and may be an early migrant rather than an over-wintering bird. -NRF

A drop here, a drop there; a few coalesce and you have a tiny rivulet. Rivulets combine to form streams and streams merge into a river. And as drops continue to fall, the river grows and surges with amazing, overpowering force toward its destination. I could be describing the Grand River just beyond my backyard but I’m not. The description fits the avian northward migration that is just starting.

When I left for Malawi around January 20th I didn’t see ANY Horned Larks along any of the sideroads out here in rural Haldimand County – and I was looking because I was searching for Snow Buntings and the buntings often are cued into food sources by Horned Larks (which quite often find our bait sites before the buntings). But there weren’t any. When I got back, however, on February 14th the larks were a common sighting. Horned Larks are a very early migrant and they are on the move. A rivulet is forming. These will soon be joined by Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles – probably at the first mild snap. To the south of us the birds are straining to get going.

Another “drop” was quite likely a White-throated Sparrow that we caught and banded yesterday. I know that a few White-throats will overwinter in this area. But this bird had a big fat load and weighed over 30 grams – normally they would weigh in the low 20’s without any fat. It was a young male. Males tend to spend the Winter further north than females, the thinking being that they can get to the breeding area sooner with time to eke out a territory in order to attract the female. A young male (i.e., hatched just last year) will have to work hard to preserve a territory in the face of competition from older birds but if it can get there early it has a much better chance – it’s much more difficult to oust an ensconced territory holder no matter the age. So….I think this bird was on the move and just part of the vanguard of the huge movement to follow.

By the way, if you’re out looking at Horned Larks keep an eye out for the various subspecies that move through here. The two most common are the alpestris form (quite yellow around the head) and the praticola (or “prairie”) form which is quite pale.

But the important thing is that the birds are on the move and will be until early June. Ah the excitement!!!

Alpestris Horned Lark. -MMG

White/washed out praticola (or Prairie) subspecies of Horned Lark. -MMG

Bright yellow head marks this as an alpestris subspecies of Horned Lark. -MMG

Pale praticola Horned Lark. -MMG

This male Lapland Longspur is well on its way to acquiring its alternate or breeding plumage (note the pronounced black bib). -MMG

This retrapped American Tree Sparrow was originally banded on December 12, 2015. It was recaptured in 2016, ’17, and again this year. Ruthven is obviously its Winter home. -NRF

An American Tree Sparrow with abnormal white feathering in the greater and medial coverts. -NRF

An American Goldfinch with conjunctivitis in the right eye. This disease is often, but not always, fatal. The resulting impairment in visibility makes foraging and predator detection much more difficult. -NRF


February 17th – What A Difference A Day Makes!

African Fish-eagle

What a difference a day makes!

Early Wednesday morning, the sun just a pink hint below the eastern horizon, we set out on the only paved highway leading from Bangula, near the southern border of Malawi/Mozambique, to the airport in Blantyre. Despite the dark, rush hour was getting into full swing: the paved shoulders were filling up with pedestrians on their way to work or to till the fields in the early morning cool; bicycle taxis were busy taking others to work; goats and cattle were nonchalantly crossing the highway heading for greener pastures and seemed to be in no hurry to make way. The only part of the road that wasn’t busy was the actual space for vehicle traffic – just the odd matatu (van), used as minibuses, and work trucks; private cars are few and far between in rural Malawi and usually confined to “helping” organizations.

Once the sun cleared the horizon and we could see, roadside market stalls began to appear, selling everything from clothes to produce to nearly-bald tires. You could get pretty well anything, including barbecued rats and songbirds skewered for your convenience….ah, breakfast…..

And as the sun got up, so did the temperature. Although only in the high 20’s early on, it was forecast to shoot into the high 30’s and with the humidex……and it’s nearly always humid there.

I had just spent 23 days in the area of Bangula, a small town in southern Malawi. I did a little banding/ringing and a lot of birding – the Iris Africa orphanage I was staying at was at the juncture of 4 bird atlas squares and I wanted to make a significant contribution. I think it’s laudable that the country wants to inventory and locate its birds but my sense is that very few Malawians have the leisure or inclination to contribute to this exercise, especially in rural poor areas away from the cities – and Bangula is in a poor area. [In Kenya I also stayed in pretty poor areas but they were fairly well off when compared to Malawi. I used “public transportation” as my measure: in rural Kenya people with someplace to go would hire a bodaboda (motorbike) driver to take them there for a modest fee; in the Bangula area, travellers would hire a bicycle taxi – motorbikes were few and far between.]

On a typical day I would get up at 5, open my 2 nets and band for (usually) 2-3 hours. Then I would hike for 4-6 hours trying to cover parts of at least 2 atlas squares each time, counting everything I was able to identify. This would often take me into the heat of the day with temperatures reaching as much as 40. At this point it was a treat to get back to the base and out of the sun. (There is also a small swimming pool there which I used (thankfully!) to bring my metabolism back into some semblance of normalcy – rehydration salts are a must there!)

My banding “lab” – the top of a cistern.

Andy getting ready to take to flight – lined up on the “runway”, waiting for the OK from the tower……

And they’re off! What an amazing thing it is to float over the landscape at 1,000 feet!!!!

Every few days something special would go on: flights over the countryside in Andy Bremner’s ultralight (he used the road as a runway!); boat rides on the Shire River; excursions to Mwabvi Wildlife Refuge and to Kaombe Ranch – a private game park that is just being developed. [Interesting here….my guide, Robert Nyirenda took me to some very wild parts of the park, off the paths. A couple of times we were moving through grasses that towered over us and could smell wildebeest and then Cape buffalo – very close but couldn’t see them. On encountering the buffalo Robert wisely decided we should maybe take a different route.] But most days would find me hiking or cycling the dirt roads and trails, sometimes 10 kilometers or more from the base. At first I was considered (I think) as just an oddity when I passed through a village with the call of mizungu! mizungu! dogging my steps. But by the third time I went through a particular village or along a trail, people would come out to ask me just what I was doing, they couldn’t contain their curiousity any longer. I was more than happy to show them my guide book, let them try my binoculars (almost everyone thought the binoculars was a camera) and take a peek at the jottings in my notebook. As most could speak only a very little English and my Malawian was non-existent, it made for an interesting interchange. But by the end most folks got the idea and thanked me for the explanation. As I continued on my way I’m sure that more than a few were questioning my sanity – even more reason to work at the atlassing.

My guide/guard in Mwabvi Wildlife Refuge.

I spent a fair amount of time trying to speculate what the future might hold for these folks. I’m afraid my projections are pretty pessimistic unless they can curb their birth rate. I was struck by the huge proportion of young people there were; i.e., people under the age of 25 (I think, officially, it’s up around 75%). And of even more concern was the observation that almost every young woman (even down to the age of 13-14 in some cases) was carrying a baby and/or had young children with her. The population is growing ominously and I can’t see how it can continue without disastrous results. Folks need to eat; they need water; they need wood to cook with. These resources are limited now and the demand for them will only increase with a burgeoning population. On my travels every day I witnessed a steady stream of people carrying wood and/or charcoal from the countryside to be sold in Bangula’s markets. This wood was coming in from the wooded hills surrounding the town – many of these woodlands are “protected” areas and signs to “stop forest encroachment” were common but never heeded. This flow of wood was only one way – I never saw a single instance of a person carrying saplings in the other direction to be planted and thus ensure a fuel supply into the future. (And without trying to be overly cynical, the chances of a young sapling surviving anyway would be slim given the numerous goat herds that range everywhere and are stripping the land of every morsel they can get.) So where…or how…does it end?

These women may easily walk over 10 kilometers one-way to take their burdens to market. You don’t see many overweight people in rural Malawi.

Men usually carry their loads of wood on bicycles.

I spent 4 and a half hours flying from Blantyre to Adis Ababa and then another 16+ making the flight back to Toronto. Thus a day (and 8200 miles) later I walked out into -5 temperatures, a smattering of snow and ice and a different kind of rush hour – one much less forgiving of a mistake. I must say that I really like the cold….and the snow that goes with it. How else would you get to see Snow Buntings!?

Photo Gallery:

Barn Owls (and Spotted Eagle-owls) were common around the Iris base.

I chanced upon this Bataleur nest on my travels – maybe my favourite raptor.

A beetle…..of some kind……

Very colourful Black-winged (Fire-crowned) Bishop.

Bohm’s Bee-eater

Southern Carmine Bee-eater

Little Bee-eater

The student walked up to me and said: “Uncle, would you like to see a chameleon?”

Burchell’s Coucal

Actual dugouts are commonly in use on the Shire River – a throwback to the paleolithic.

The rains brought the giant grasshoppers (a much sought-after delicacy) and the hunters.

Deep-fried, these grasshoppers are a treat (not that I’ve actually tried them).

White eye and a mask: Lesser Masked Weaver/

Little Egret searching the shallows of the flooded Shire River.

Pink-backed Pelican on the Shire River.

Namaqua Dove.

Brilliant male Green-winged Pytilia.

Green-winged Pytilia.

Lilac-chested Roller

Male Spectacled Weaver.

Male Pin-tailed Whydah in breeding plumage.

Water taxi station on the Shire River. Many “commuters” take advantage of this service.

A very overloaded water taxi on the Shire River. Not much freeboard to protect you from the crocodiles!


January 7th – Getting Started

At the end of a banding season (for us, the Fall migration monitoring period lasted for 68 days: September 1st to November7th), you breathe a big sigh of relief and look forward to mornings of sleeping in and days of summarizing data and…..days not devoted to birds at all.

But…..2019 has rolled around, a new year….a new banding challenge. We like to start off the year with a plethora of Snow Buntings (with a few Lapland Longspurs and Horned Larks thrown in) to fill the time until the Spring season starts on April 1st. But so far it hasn’t been “that kind of a Winter” meaning that it’s been mild and almost snowless – the two things that Snow Buntings need before they’ll move into our area.

So we’ve had to make due with cleaning the banding lab and filling the feeder arrays and, oh yes, doing a little banding. On the 5th Peter and Caleb Scholtens organized a CBC 4 Kids for the Hamilton Naturalists’ Club. There wasn’t an overwhelming turnout but there was a very enthusiastic turnout – and it looks like we will have 3 new young banders-to-be starting in the Spring. Give me quality over quantity anytime!

In terms of bird numbers we had a very good day: handling 66 birds 41 of them new with 25 retraps. And on the Christmas Bird Count hike the team picked up 17 species, the most interesting being an American Robin (maybe as confused as I have been over this mild weather.

We banded 41 birds:

1 White-breasted Nuthatch

5 Dark-eyed Juncos

3 House Finches

31 American Goldfinches (and we got another 10 today in less than hour simply by closing the doors on the hanging trap.)