January 29th – Snowbirds

A new sign I’m thinking of for the banding lab…… -MAL

We were getting pretty frustrated about the decided lack of Snow Buntings in the area, so Marg and I thought….hmmmm, maybe they’ve gone farther south. So we sacrificed ourselves and headed down to Belize to see if this was, in fact, the case. After two weeks of steady birding I can state with great confidence that they aren’t there.

What we did find though was an assortment of “our” birds. Over time there has been a lot of discussion whether “migrants” are basically northern birds that head south for the Winter or, vice versa, are southern birds that head north to nest during our Spring/Summer. It’s kind of a moot point in my mind: long-distance migrants arrive (and in some cases) pass through Ruthven around the beginning of May; they do what they have to do (nest, raise young, moult) and then 4 months later in early September pass through on their way south. The flight each way takes around one and a half to two months. They spend another 4 months in their wintering area. Thus a pretty even distribution of their presence throughout. So…..let’s go with they’re northern birds that just escape the cold (and find food) by heading south – like a lot of us. Of course the opposite argument would be that they’re southern birds that head north to take advantage of our relative lack of predators and an insect food explosion (black flies and mosquitoes….you gotta love ’em in this context). Pick your poison.

What a wonder to see “our” breeding birds (in this case Baltimore Orioles) in their far southern home. -MAL

I’m not sure why but I get a real rush from seeing local/northern breeders in their Winter habitat. Maybe it’s the contemplation of the enormous journey that they must make through all kinds of difficulties: storms/inclement weather; unfamiliar habitats that may or may not contain food or predators (that they’ve never encountered before – snakes…); in some instances, long over-water crossings (the Gulf of Mexico or, for Blackpoll Warblers, the Atlantic Ocean); tall lighted buildings; vast expanses of light/noise pollution (fly down the eastern seaboard at night to see what I mean). What an amazing feat!! So it was a really cool thing when I saw them in Belize: Killdeer, Yellow-throated Vireo, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Gray Catbird, Wood Thrush, Chipping Sparrow, Orchard Oriole, Baltimore Oriole (do you recall the record number we banded last Spring!?), Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush, Black & White Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Northern Parula, Magnolia Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Myrtle Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak. In two months these birds will be starting their move north. I wonder when we’ll see them.

…..and so it was.

Odds & Ends:
The Ruthven Banding Community recently expanded with the addition of Diana Lavern Harris, daughter of Chris and Christine who, when not in the field checking the Tree Swallow boxes, are ensconced at the University of Windsor.

Chris telling Diana about the joys of Tree Swallow research. -CM

Diana paying rapt attention to her parents……. -CM

Due to the strange Winter we’ve been having so far – mild with no snow – Snow Buntings have not shown up (except for a small flock of about 20 birds that dropped into the bait site on Duxbury Road for part of a day). Regular volunteer Cody Bassindale went out looking for them but didn’t find any but….did find a Short-eared Owl, a bird that is in sharp decline. He noted that NO Snow Buntings were reported on the Fisherville CBC. [However, Lise Balthazar, regular CSBN observer, notes that a flock has been around her place in Lanark – where, of course, there’s snow and cold…. for the last couple of weeks.]

Cody was out looking for Snow Buntings; he didn’t find any but did find this lovely Short-eared Owl. -CJB

Speaking of owls…..Aliya was on a camera prowl one night in Oakville with her camera and came upon this Eastern Screech Owl – a bird that is adapting fairly readily to urban landscapes.

Aliya (somehow) spotted this Eastern Screech Owl in her Oakville neighbourhood. -AG

We were quite concerned when we learned that regular volunteer, Liam, had had a run-in with a heavy optical device which had a propensity of sticking to his face. Eventually it had to be surgically removed….but he’s ok.

Liam expanded his search capability with this scope. -JET

And here’s an interesting tidbit: a HY male Sharp-shinned Hawk that we banded in October, 2014 was recovered near Petal, Forrest County, Mississippi about two weeks ago.

January 7th – Out Of Africa – Malawi (Banding)

The banding “lab” at Iris orphanage. -DOL

Abu taking it all in. -AB

Abu applying the band. -AB

Birding-wise in Malawi I wanted to do 3 things: 1) contribute to the country’s bird atlas by contributing the sightings I made following their atlas protocol to the organizers – In this I have been quite successful: I’ve seen 203 species within a 10-kilometer diameter of the Iris Orphanage. 2) when opportunity arose band as many birds as I could realizing that I would have to be extremely lucky to have one of “my” birds recovered any distance away as there are so few banders in the country and, most people who might recover a banded bird wouldn’t know what to do with it – on this last trip I managed to band 148 birds of 29 species and (really interesting from my point of view) I recovered 10 birds I banded on previous trips (February 2018 or February 2019). 3) In doing these two activities I hoped to involve (or at least interest) some local people in what I was doing- I have been able to involve some of the children in my activities and, when wandering the countryside, have had a number of people approach me to find out what I was doing and I would spend time with them demonstrating how binoculars work and showing them the many birds they might see by using a guide book. Still there’s a long way to go before we could form a local naturalists’ club. But….Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Saturday/Sunday banding group. -SARAH

Banding in Malawi (as in Kenya) is a different process than I’m used to at Ruthven. At Ruthven we have set net lanes that we use from year to year knowing that migrants predictably are going to flow through at a particular time each year and will be using the “corridors” (edge habitat) where we set the nets. First of all, in Malawi there are a LOT more birds around, migration or no migration. And where they are and when they’re there is dictated by the rains which can be quite variable. They can start early, or late, last a long time or not long at all, drop a lot of water or, in bad years, hardly any or none at all. So I set my nets based on observations of where the birds are at any particular point in time assessing why they’re there. Usually it’s because of a concentrated food source or an abundance of nesting material. The thing is: these are not constant and can vary from day to day (if not hour to hour – when the fruit on a particular tree is used up then they need to find another tree). Also, birds soon learn where the nets are and begin to avoid them. Consequently, I would move my nets every couple of days and place them where I thought I would get a day or two out of a resource. Fortunately, I was using only 2 nets so this wasn’t a big deal (other than clearing the lanes). The reason for using only 2 nets is that I was worried about a couple of things: a big hit (e.g., a wandering flock of weavers or mannikins could involve a lot of extraction); I didn’t want birds to be hanging in the nets in the heat of the day (on a couple of days the temperature soared into the mid-40’s by mid-morning); I was concerned about predators – birds and, especially, snakes (I encountered a sizeable [1 meter] Green Mamba coiled up atop a shrub next to a net lane – it would be attracted to any bird in distress and I certainly didn’t want to have to try and extract this very poisonous snake- especially when anti-venom wasn’t available).

Due to the heat and intense sunshine, I banded for only 2 to 2 1/2 hours first thing in the morning and then for another hour and a half in the late afternoon/evening. There was less bird activity as well between banding times but I’m sure I could have caught considerably more birds but….at what cost to the birds. As it was, I ended up banding 148 birds of 29 species. Interestingly, I recaptured 10 birds from previous visits. (See the list of both banded and retrapped birds below.) In the future, I would like to “blitz” the area – band with a crew of several people so that we could run more nets in a variety of habitats. Also, I am trying to figure out ways of identifying and then involving and training interested local young people who might be able to carry this on – as has happened in Kenya (with Dan Odhiambo and Brian Ochiago). Isaac Mponya is a young man from Bangula that my colleague Andrew Bremner and I had a chance to work with for a couple of years; he is just finishing off college and is doing a field placement at Majeti Game Park (which I HIGHLY recommend) but whether he will be able to keep going in this field is up in the air. People need to simply survive and this kind of pursuit may not lead to gainful employment – sometimes eating the birds is required just to sustain oneself……

But there’s so much to be learned!!! Very little is known about the distribution of various species within a country; their general movements; intra-African migration/movements; migration between Eurasia and Africa; impact of growing human population and changes in agricultural practices; impact of deforestation; moult strategies; and on and on.

Anyway, here’s some results:
Banded 148 of 29 species:
2 Diederik’s Cuckoo

Younger male Diederik’s Cuckoo – green plumage isn’t as bright as that of an adult and the eye is just turning red. DOL

Adult male Diederik’s Cuckoo – compare the “brightness” of the green plumage and the eye colour with the preceding picture. -DOL

5 Speckled Mousebirds

Red-faced Mousebird. -DOL

5 Red-faced Mousebirds

Little Bee-eater. -DOL

2 Little Bee-eaters

Black-backed Puffback – note the red eye. -DOL

1 Black-backed Puffback

Brown-crowned Tchagra -DOL

1 Brown-crowned Tchagra

Tropical Boubou – note the brown eye. -DOL

1 Tropical Boubou
2 African Paradise-flycatchers

A migrant from Eurasia – Red-backed Shrike. -DOL

6 Red-backed Shrikes

Long-billed (Cape) Crombec -DOL

1 Long-billed (Cape) Crombec

Green-backed Camaroptera -DOL

1 Green-backed Camaroptera

Rattling Cisticola -DOL

2 Rattling Cisticolas

A large Acrocephalus Warbler that I need help IDing – possibly Great Swamp Warbler.

4 Acrocephalus Warblers (Great Swamp Warbler??)

Greenbuls are very difficult to sort out but the white eye identifies this one as a Sombre Greenbul. -DOL

3 Sombre Greenbuls
4 Common Bulbuls

Pale flycatcher. -DOL

2 Pale Flycatchers

A melodious songster: White-browed Robin-chat. -DOL

1 Black-throated Wattle-eye
2 White-browed Robin-chats

Male Spectacled Weaver – female lacks the black chin/throat. -DOL

2 Spectacled Weavers

Male Lesser Masked Weaver – identified by the white eye. -DOL

24 Lesser Masked Weavers

Southern Masked Weaver – note that the black on the face does not extend over the top of the head. -DOL

6 Southern Masked Weavers

Male Village Weaver – note the black extending over the head. -DOL

For comparison: 2 red-eyed weavers – Village on the left and Southern masked on the right. The Village has more extensive black on the head and a more massive bill. -DOL

31 Village Weavers

Southern Cordonbleu – the red eye indicates it’s an adult. -DOL

10 Southern Cordonbleus

Female Green-winged Pytilia (no red on the face/throat). -DOL

Male Green-winged Pytilia. -DOL

2 Green-winged Pytilias (Melba Finch)

Female Jameson’s Firefinch.

1 Jameson’s Firefinch
5 Bronze Mannikins

Southern Gray-headed Sparrow -DOL

3 Southern Gray-headed Sparrows
18 House Sparrows
1 African Pied Wagtail

Karen’s Kreepy Korner:

Scorpion. -AB

Another noxious denizen of the night: tarantula. -AB

Lesser Masked Weaver with an engorged tick on its head. -DOL

Snake – possibly a deadly Boomslang (although a second opinion suggested something less dangerous) – slithering along under my doorway. -AB

Underside of a lizard with a termite in its mouth. -AB

A very cryptic species of mantis. -DJM

VERY colourful grasshopper. -AB

Helmeted Guineafowl (the size of a very large chicken) wrapped up in a mist net. -DOL

Retrapped 10:
1 Rattling Cisticola – originally banded February 1, 2019
1 large Acrocephalus warbler (Great Swamp Warbler?) – originally banded February 2, 2019
2 Lesser Masked Weavers – February 11, 2018
– February 4, 2019
1 Brown-crowned Tchagra – February 14, 2018
1 Pale Flycatcher – January 26, 2019
4 Spectacled Weavers – male; February 18, 2018
– female; February 18, 2018
– male; February 19, 2018
– male; February 5, 2019

January 4th – CBC….4 KIDS

Ornithologists of the future? Bird/nature enthusiasts at the very least. (Front) Noah, Eila, Maggie; (middle) Liam, Aliya; (apex) Nola. -DOL

The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is a census of birds in the Western Hemisphere, performed annually in the early Northern-hemisphere winter by volunteer birdwatchers and administered by the National Audubon Society. The purpose is to provide population data for use in science, especially conservation biology, though many people participate for recreation. The CBC is the longest-running citizen science survey in the world. -Wikipedia

The Grand River is wide open – NO ice. So Great Blue Herons aren’t in a hurry to head south. If the river stays open they could be around all winter. -ELO

Up until 1900 a popular Christmas tradition was to go out and shoot as many birds as possible – not for food, or research but for “sport”. And then Frank Chapman, one of the founders of the National Audubon Society, came up with the idea of just counting birds, not killing them. The first count took place in 1900 conducted by 27 observers in 25 locations in both the U.S. and Canada. They observed about 18,500 birds comprised of 90 species. Now there are over 71,000 observers spread over more than 2,300 locations in 17 countries. And the data generated is proving to be invaluable. A good way to monitor bird numbers over time.

And then someone came up with the brilliant idea of involving kids in this process. This was largely in response to the very apparent disconnect being observed between children and their natural environment. In fact, a term has been coined recognizing this: “Nature Deficit Disorder” or NDD. The big question that is emerging is: how can we reconnect kids with nature? I don’t want to offend anyone…but….go to a local Naturalists’ Club meeting and you will find a lot of geezers and very few (if any) people under the age of 20. At the Ruthven banding lab we have recognized this problem for a long time and so have made it a priority to encourage kids to take part in the bird studies we’re conducting, including banding and detailed observations/counts. So a CBC 4 KIDS is right up our alley. We’ve hosted them on behalf on the Hamilton Naturalists’s Club for the past few years and this year hosted our own.

A nice size comparison shot: Red-bellied Woodpecker (behind) and Downy Woodpecker. Both are females – the Red-bellied has a gray forehead and the Downy has no red at the back of the head. -AG

We had over 50 visitors attend and almost all of them went on censuses to count the birds that were around or watched the banding that was going on – conducted mostly by well-supervised young people that have been coming out on weekends to learn. I’m glad that many parents took part with their children because this NDD isn’t confined to just kids – adults as well know very little about the natural world. Maybe, ironically, they will be brought back to nature by their children’s interest in it.

Rick imparting pearls (of wisdom) as Noah prepares to band his first bird. LVE

Noah in the act of processing his first banded bird. LVE

Banded 12:
6 Dark-eyed Juncos

Rosy pink male House Finch. -ELO

3 House Finches
3 American Goldfinches

ET’s: 18 spp. (interestingly only 1 American Tree Sparrow was sighted – normally this is a common winter resident at Ruthven)


A splash of colour on a dreary winter day – male Northern Cardinal. -AG

Blue Jay – a common feeder bird and winter resident. (But a number of years ago VERY few were counted on the Toronto CBC; people figured they had been decimated by West Nile disease.) AG

Female Downy Woodpecker (no red on the back of the head). AG

Male White-breasted Nuthatch – another common winter resident you can find at your feeder. These busy birds take the seeds and stash them under bark or in holes for use later on. The trees at Ruthven must be full of sunflower seeds. -AG

I wouldn’t be surprised if this nuthatch had stashed a seed in the hole right in front of it. -AG

A nice size comparison shot: Red-bellied Woodpecker (behind) and Downy Woodpecker. Both are females – the Red-bellied has a gray forehead and the Downy has no red at the back of the head. -AG

Female Red-bellied Woodpecker (gray forehead) giving Eila what for. -ELO


December 31st – Out of Africa – Malawi (Birding)

Saturday morning bird club members checking out the local birds. A minute after this picture was taken the tallest boy pointed out a “lifer” to me: Orange-winged Pytilia.

I spent 18 days in Malawi, most of it in the far south just outside the town of Bangula, not far from the border with Mozambique. We flew into Blantyre, which is up on an escarpment with fairly moderate temperatures. There’s a long descent to a lowland plain on which sits Bangula. It’s hot – temperatures reached 45 degrees on a number of days – and humid, which makes the heat even more difficult to deal with. But….it is what it is.

I was there primarily to do two things: bird and band. Like Kenya (and several other African countries) Malawi is trying to develop a map of the birds in the country. It generally follows the same protocol used in Kenya (developed in South Africa): the country is divided up into approximately 10-km squares – referred to as pentads. An observer spends at least 2 hours in the pentad recording the species encountered in the order they are encountered – you can spend more than two hours but that is the minimum. Over the next 4 days previously unrecorded species can be added to the list. After 5 days, you can start a new pentad count. I like the format and it gives me a focus to my birding searches. The Iris orphanage where I stay is at the junction of 3 pentads so it is relatively easy to do counts in these pentads. The data I collect is sent to Tiwonge Gowa who is associated with the National Museum in Blantyre.

When I was there in February I was able to do these counts starting at about any time of the day – the heat was bearable and, as long as I had a bottle of water, it was comfortable walking even during the middle of the day. So I was often able to get two counts done in a day. But this time birding during the middle of the day was not a good idea….a time meant only for mad dogs and Englishmen….I understand that now. I learned this lesson early. I banded first thing one morning and then headed out for a 10-km pentad count, leaving around 10:30. What a mistake – for two reasons: first of all I was out under a blazing sun that pushed the temperature to 45 degrees and sucked the moisture right out of you. And then I ran into the local Dande school lunchtime when all the younger students went home – so I had a retinue of 40 kids, very loud talkative kids, accompanying me for 3 km to the next village. Between the heat, the kids and the noise I turned up only 19 species – even the birds were avoiding the middle of the day. Interestingly a week later under cooler cloudy skies and when the kids were in school I turned up 66 species on the same route.

I feel pretty comfortable simply wandering through the countryside, on dirt roads and tracks well away (at times) from any habitations – although herds of goats and cattle were common travelling companions.

The Mozambique Road looking south toward Mozambique. A great place for interesting birds.

My favourite walking route was along the “Mozambique Road”, a dirt track, often bisected by washout gullies, that runs due south toward the country of the same name. The farther you got from Bangula the wilder it got with the forested hills of Mwabvi Game Reserve to the west. I got many “lifers” along this route.

A “lifer” – White-crested Helmet-shrike….another treat from the Mozambique Road.

As well as birds I got a chance to see African culture unfold each day, people eking out a meagre existence in a very difficult land. Everything depends on the rain. Most African countries have a fairly predictable set of rainy months. In Malawi I arrived just before the major rains were to fall. In fact, they started shortly after I arrived – a little early. But they don’t always fall; or there’s too much rain (this past March a big typhoon blew in off the Indian Ocean and the Shire River – which is close to Bangula – flooded stranding 1000’s and killing…??? no one seems to know) or not enough falls and starvation stalks the land.

In Kenya, the students were on vacation but here in Malawi they were still going to school, although the kids in the younger grades got to go home around noon (and could accompany me on my way….). Malawi, like all African countries, has a population that is 75% under the age of 25 – so LOTS of school children. As I started my birding walks early (after the first debacle) I ran into many of them – often in their colourful school uniforms. Many had to walk between 5-10 km one way to school and so had to start early.

These two students I met at 6 in the morning on their way to school in Bangula – still 7-8 km away. School starts at 7:30.

Students with sprays of flowers from an Acacia.

Students from one of the public school that doesn’t require uniforms. The little girl on the right let me take a look at her notebook: “excellent!” was the comment from her teacher on a page of math answers.

Schools can be distinguished by the unique colour combinations of their uniforms.

And while they were heading to school their parents and older siblings were getting an early start in the fields trying to get seed in the ground ahead of the rains. Except for the huge sugar cane plantations I never saw ANY mechanized farm machinery. Fields of many acres were all divided into individual plots of varying size and belonged to individuals and/or families. All the tilling was done by hand. In rural Kenya where I stayed farmers often used sets of 2 to 4 oxen to pull single-furrow ploughs but here, in Bangula, all was done with an adze. The main crops were corn and sorghum (with a few plots of rice in low-lying areas). Hard work. Almost everyone I met was pleasant and many wanted me to take their picture – mistaking my binoculars for a camera; I often had to let them take a look through them so they could understand.

A woman using an adze to till her field.

I’m just pulling the data from my daily counts together now so I’m not certain how many species I saw but it was well over 125.

Part of the daily, continuous train of firewood leaving Mwabvi Forest and headed for the cooking fires of Bangula (as much as 10-12 km away for some women).

One of my major concerns both here and in Kenya (and for most African countries) is the denuding of the countryside of wood. I witnessed a constant daily stream of firewood and/or charcoal running from the forested areas of Mwabvi (or just the general countryside) to the markets in Bangula. People need fuel for cooking and purifying water – I get it. But there is no attempt to replant the trees taken out. (And, quite likely, any seedling replanted would be eaten by the huge herds of goats – I counted several groups of well over 125 – that range over the countryside and eat everything right down to the routes. [I know that there are a number of charities that you can donate to and which offer goats as a possible donation. I would advise you NOT to do that.] I can’t see how this can end up well for the ecology of an area and thus for the people and animals within it.

Something of a rarity – usually it’s just men that take their bundles of wood/charcoal to market on a bicycle.

Two hefty bags of charcoal and two mats wend their way to market.

These saplings are for making fences.


A pair (or maybe two pairs) of Collared Palm-thrushes hung out around the guest house buildings. We often heard them late into the night squabbling up in the rafters.

Crowned Hornbill – another interesting bird along the “Mozambique Road”.

At the end of the dry season ponds have dwindled to almost nothing or dried up.

Before the rains the heat and sun has decimated what the goats haven’t been able to eat. The ground looks parched.

Life-giving rain!!

The same pond after a heavy rain – a source of water for people and livestock alike.

After a heavy rain the land springs into a profusion of green. One of the hills of Mwabvi Game Reserve is in the background.

The countryside greening after a rain.

Little Bee-eater hawking insects from its perch.

Male Long-tailed Paradise Whydah in breeding plumage.

Pin-tailed Whydah in the foreground and a Village Indigobird moulting into breeding plumage to the rear.

Southern Ground-hornbills – as large (or larger) than our Wild Turkeys.

Flashes of colour – Woodland Kingfisher.