The Spruce Blog

The Spruce Blog gets a new home

Greetings loyal readers of the Spruce Blog!

Due to the fact that the blog, when it lived here, was shut down for a while for an unknown reason (I have my suspicions...) and the other fact that this blog cost money and I like to use what little I have of that for birding (I also like to eat every once in a while), the Spruce Blog has a spiffy new home.

It is now hosted by Blogger and lives here:

Now it is much easier and faster to use, for both you and me, and has mobile capabilities as well as a much easier subscription process. The photos look better out there too, and it took me most of the day to create that bloody crane header, so get out there and enjoy the new blog!!!!!!

This blog will still be around, but I will no longer post to it. I encourage all you present subscribers to subscribe to the new site.



Searching for the Swamp Spectre

There is a bird that lives in the deepest, darkest permanently flooded forests of the Southeastern United States.
  White-tailed Deer

It creeps along the ground underneath the densest thickets of vegetation like a mouse. Its pleasant ringing song reverberates through the swampland, distorted by the dense vegetation, the drone of mosquitoes, and the numerous accompanying songs of it's cousin, the Prothonotary Warbler. It is not, by any means, a bird that is easy to meet.

I drove into the Great Dismal Swamp on the border of Virginia and North Carolina with the hopes of finding this spectre of the southern swamps.

Dismal Town

It was spooky. I walked down a small gravel trail through the depths of the swamp at dawn, listening hard for the song of my bird. 

Prothonotary Warblers proved to be the most common bird in the Swamp. There must've been a dozen singing everywhere I stopped, and between swatting mosquitoes I was able to find quite a few birds attending nests.

Prothonotary Warbler at the nest

I continued. Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Prairie Warblers, Acadian Flycatchers Hooded and Worm-eating Warblers all contributed to the dawn chorus, but not my bird.

Suddenly, I heard something different from the depths of the swamp. A rich, warbling song reminiscent of the recordings I'd listened to of my bird. I began my quest. After a few minutes of bushwhacking through knee-deep ditches and Poison ivy,  I got closer and the song sounded less and less like my bird. I however, was hell-bent on seeing this sucker. It was, after all, to be one of my last Wood-Warblers for North America. The singer popped out to have a look. With trembling hands I raised my bins....and I was staring at a Louisiana Waterthrush. Damn! 

Four hours later, I was hungry, exhausted and slightly anaemic from feeding the mosquitoes. I also still hadn't seen the bird. I decided to take a little break, got into my car and began driving down the road out of the swamp.

Then I heard it. There was no mistaking this one. The adrenaline started flowing immediately - the beginning of the song was waterthrushy, yes, but the bird culminated it's song with a series of notes similar to a Hooded Warbler, something that a Loui Waterthrush never does.


Lev's Henslow's Hunt

So I left a day early to try and give me some more free birding time, and left my house in Vaughan shortly after 1 PM to try and get to Pennsylvania to see if I can score some Henslow's Sparrows.

It's a huge detour from my original plan but it's a cool bird and one I've always wanted to see (and never had any luck at Pelee!) Peter Mills, a good friend of mine, mentioned there being a large population in PA and with any luck I'd be able to see some fairly easily. I got caught in a traffic jam and had to take a detour, and the original plan was to camp near here in case I missed the bird, but it was still sunny and bright at 7:00 PM when I got there.

Piney Tract IBA

The habitat is fantastic for field birds - tall grass but very few shrubs, and the ones that were present weren't very tall. The Piney Tract initially was used as a strip mine until they were abandoned, leaving huge sections of this open field habitat. And the Henslow's love it.

Henslow's Sparrow

I heard the first from within the car. Shortly after I'd seen about a dozen birds, breeding and singing alongside Grasshopper Sparrows (which are less common here), Bobolinks, Upland Sandpipers and what-have-you. The bird is one that is a sort of midwestern specialty - there are substantial colonies here and in Illinois but not much east of Pennsylvania. Their numbers are declining quite rapidly - it is one of the most imperilled field birds.

The song was described by Peterson as "one of the poorest vocal efforts of any bird" but I found it to be quite pleasant, albiet a bit short. I have a video of a bird with food in it's bill that I will show later when I have better internet.

I ended up seeing a dozen sparrows and watched them for about two hours until it got pretty dark. At one point, a Black Bear walked across the road as I was watching the sparrows!! Ah, the joys of birding. We'll see what tomorrow brings - I'll be in Delaware, where there will hopefully be some horseshoe crabs and shorebirds left!

A Vacation from my Vacation

Hey folks,

So as many of you know, I'm up in Algonquin Park being a naturalist for the four season in a row. This means that my birding adventures are determined by a only a limited number of days and a relatively remote northerly location - so I probably won't be going anywhere crazy (unless you count the East Side of Algonquin. That place is pretty crazy)

I do, however, have a week starting on June 1st to do what I please until I start work again on the 8th. What does this mean?  

Little food, less sleep, lots of driving, lots of birds. I've devised a sort of birding "treasure map" of birds I have yet to see on the Eastern side of this continent - birds such as Henslow's and Bachman's Sparrows, Swainson's Warbler and a variety of seabirds. I will do my best to sweep these up next week in a birding spree that will take me from grassy abandoned strip-mines in Pennsylvania where the Henslow's roam, to Delaware Bay to catch the last of the migrating shorebird spectacle, to offshore North Carolina in search of seabirds offshore, to the mosquito-infested swamps of Virginia in hopes of catching a glimpse of the lovely Swainson's Warbler, to the Pinelands of the South where Bachman's Sparrows sing...and back up to Algonquin for Staff Orientation Day.

It's going to be a party.

Be on the lookout for updates, as I will make sure every day will be documented on the blog this time!

Birds Are The Night

It's a well-known fact that birding is best done in the earliest hours of the day, when bird activity is at its highest as birds are frantically foraging and singing before the afternoon doldrums begin, and they shut up and slow down. Anyone knows that in a typical Ontario late-Spring or Summer, birding in the afternoon is usually unproductive (unless you're after gulls or shorebirds, who don't seem to give much of a crap).

I had some friends visit me in Algonquin a few days ago, and knowing full well that the Park isn't famous for having an easily-visible spring migration like Pelee, we decided to do something completely different - we went birding at night.

Not at dusk or just as it was getting dark, but in the depths of midnight under the glorious full moon.

Full Moon

So here we were, driving old logging roads in the middle of the night lookin' for birds. It was a good thing that Megan and Larissa both knew I was insane enough to be looking for birds at a time like this and didn't have other questionable intentions (Larissa has know me for years but Megan knew me for about 3 hours at this point, but nonetheless came to this conclusion rather quickly) 

The Park was full of birds and birdsong. In the city, nightbirding is near impossible as any ambient noise blots out subtle sounds like migrating birds overhead, but here in the Park, there is a silence that allows one to actually identify these northbound migrants to species on some occasions. 

Woodcock were feverishly displaying in every clearing.

American Woodcock

Usually Woodcock activity is restricted to the dawn and dusk hours and doesn't continue into the depths of the night - the full moon tonight, however, was allowing birds to keep displaying to their hearts content through the night. Neither Larissa nor Megan had seen Woodcock before, and we had several great looks at birds singing and displaying, and were close enough to hear the birds "hiccough" before they voiced their characteristic "PEEEENT!" into the darkness.

A Saw-whet Owl nearby began his song sequence as well, hooting steadily like an alarm clock. We bushwhacked a bit and saw the popcan-sized owl, his body pulsing with every hoot. Loons yodeled from nearby Source Lake. Warblers were moving overhead, with the occasional flock of Long-tailed Ducks making their presence known with the same calls we hear on the Toronto lakefront. It was a great night, and we were getting tons of birds.

Later into the night we were treated to a Barred Owl. Anyone who's heard a Barred at this time of year knows that the bird isn't limited to the standard "who-cooks-for-you" but exhibit a wide array of sometimes frightening noises which, in order to be properly executed, apparently required the body to be contorted in such a way that the owl no longer resembles a bird.



It is one thing seeing an owl on dayroost, but at night the bird is in its element and relaxes to the point of looking very different from the same bird you'd see during the day. It is quite something to see the sleepy round Saw-whet you've seen on Amherst Island or the Spit turn into an animated, elongate bird as it begins it's hunt. Nightjars are usually only seen at night, and many birds like herons and rails become more active at night than they were during the day. Some of the best birding days have, in fact, been nights. 

We finished birding at around 2 AM, and by this time we'd got quite an impressive list - two owl species, a few warblers, three shorebirds, some waterfowl, and some great non-birds - Spotted Salamanders, Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers were busy breeding in ephemeral pools, and Red Foxes were observed carting food to their waiting kits - a baby raccoon and half a Snowshoe Hare, respectively. While I was working during the day, I made up for it by doing something few people ever think of - birding at night, and with the added bonus that my friends now know that I'm not (too) insane for loving things with wings, even when the sun goes down. Whether it's Woodcock and Barred Owls in Ontario's Northwoods or Mexican Whip-poor-wills and Whiskered Screech-Owls in Madera Canyon - it's well worth losing some sleep to see and hear what everyone else is missing!

Airfield Sunset


On that final night in Hatteras before I was to leave, I was chatting to some local birders about other birds I haven't seen in the area. I've been to the Eastern US a few times so there weren't many. Most were things like Swainson's Warbler or King Rail that I'd have to wait until Spring or Summer to try for anyway, but

"You haven't got Northern Bobwhite?"

That's a bird which I've tried and failed to see many times. Granted, Winter is not the best time to attempt to see a quail, nonetheless

"You should go to Chincoteague NWR. They're all over the place."

It was on my way back, so I packed my ego and the remaining provisions I had bought a few days ago and headed for the hills the next morning. Little did I know, as I slept soundly in my warm North Carolina hotel room, it was snowing in Virginia.

The next morning was super windy and bloody cold. I hit a few spots on the Outer Banks to attempt to see some shorebirds, but a lot of the flats had frozen over and all I got was a pretty good assortment of puddle ducks, some Tundra Swans, Dunlin and a handful of Lesser Yellowlegs.

I moved along. As I was passing through the northern part of the state, I noticed a large flock of Greater Snow Geese in a field, so I turned around to admire them. By the time I reached the field, all the birds were in the air.

Snow Geese

Snow Geese
       Snow Geese

There were around 4000 birds. It was a pretty spectacular sight.

It took me about five hours to get to Chincoteague, a relatively large wildlife refuge on Assateague Island on the East Coast of Central Virginia. It was a beautiful little spot.

Chincoteauge NWR, Virginia

By this time the wind had died down and it had even become sunny. I drove the entrance road expecting Bobwhites to be flying across the road in dense flocks, in the manner of Snow Buntings. I didn't happen. 

As I exited the car, I quickly realized what had happened. The previous two weeks here and elsewhere on the East Coast were really balmy. Yesterday's system that brought all the wind to North Carolina also brought snow here. It was also bloody cold here, as you can see by this Great Egret, wishing he'd stayed in Florida a little bit longer. 

Cold Great Egret

A look at the bird checklist assured me that Bobwhite were "abundant" here, so I set out on my quest.

Not even Cardinals were singing. In fact, they had re-assembled into Winter flocks of 50+ birds. I whistled "Bob-WHITE!, poor-bob-WHITE!" for hours until I couldn't feel my face. No answer. Passers-by looked at me as if I belonged in a mental ward. Perhaps I did, looking for a bloody quail in the middle of winter.  

I decided I wasn't going to leave without my quail and started unceremoniously coursing through every brush pile like a hound. 

Fox Sparrow

Gray Catbird

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Several Fox Sparrows, Brown Thrashers, a Catbird, Eastern Towhees galore, Carolina Chickadees, a million Yellow-rumped Warblers....but no quail. 

I drove the Wildlife Loop. Then I hiked again. Then I drove the loop again. I repeated this process until it got dark. The only other bird that was supposedly "abundant" that I had seen was Carolina Chickadee - the others were "common" or more rare on the bird checklist. 

Brown-headed Nuthatch

I did see Brown-headed Nuthatches, which aren't birds I see often, and also a Delmarva Peninsula Fox Squirrel, so I shouldn't really complain...but I missed an abundant bird. The Bobs were probably so cold-shocked that the birds just coveyed up and huddled somewhere, not moving or singing.

I packed what little was left of my pride and headed North. 

It was about 60 km into the Poconos I discovered that the only thing I have left to eat was the now sharply declining bag of carrots. It was 1 AM. I then saw the welcoming lights of commercial accommodation breaking the darkness, only to discover that it was a Comfort Inn and they wanted $90/night. This is about half of what I brought to begin with, so I decided to "find someplace else".

This was over 100 km away in the form of a Super 8. They didn't have vending machines. I never want to see another carrot again.

Cruisin' for Pirates

Hey Folks,

Truth be told, the past little while hasn't been too interesting. I haven't really done any hardcore birding save for Niagara a few times with Kyle for Fish Crows and gulls and whatnot. I've been birding local patches, but let's be serious - there are no birds in Ontario during the Winter. 

So I decided to work on one of my New Year's Resolutions and drive to North Carolina, go on a boat, and see a Great Skua. This is one of those half insanity-driven decisions that I come up with in my sleep sometimes - it can't be healthy, but it's better than being a normal functioning person in society.

So here I am, driving the Niagara Parkway, en route to the States, and I decided to do some birding along the way. I was only going to make it so far before it got dark, and it was a decent weather day and I didn't want to waste it. One thing I was particularly interested in were the Black Vultures that were around Queenston for like two years now. I've never seen these things in Ontario (though I've seen probably millions elsewhere) so I decided it was a worthy stop.

Of course, I got there to Josh Vandermeulen telling me it had just crossed into Ontario and left. He also told me to update this blog for once, so you have him to thank for this! I waited for a few minutes, but decided to move along. I passed Josh again at Adam Beck. I knew there was a California Gull there as I saw it the previous week, but didn't want to take the time to pick through the flying gulls, and it was unlikely that the bird would be sitting on the rocks. It was. See Josh's cool pics of the gull and the vulture here -

So after this VERY productive birding on the Ontario side (I told you there aren't any birds here) I attempted the border crossing. Usually it goes pretty smooth - you get weird looks when you tell them you're birding, but the fact that I've got bird memorabilia all over the car and am wearing binoculars usually while crossing makes it believable. Not this time. I made the mistake of telling them that I was going on a boat. This apparently generated visuals of Lev smuggling Cubans into Florida and I was barely let in. 

Long story short, I drove to Jersey and the next morning decided to take advantage of the beautiful day. I was only minutes from Brigantine NWR, so decided to stop there. The weather was beautiful, and everything was singing and displaying, including several Red-bellied Woodpeckers.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

It felt like summer, especially because the forest there is full of Wax Myrtle and American Holly, which are both evergreen. There were tons of Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, Eastern Towhees and Hermit Thrushes

Brig is rather famous for a huge wildlife drive, so I drove that. Waterfowl was abundant. 

Northern Shovelers

Northern Shovelers were one of the most common ducks, outnumbered only by -

Northern Pintails

Northern Pintails. There were thousands of both of these species. This is a major wintering ground for dabbling ducks on the Atlantic Flyway. The biggest waterfowl highlight for me, though, were about four thousand Greater Snow Geese.

Snow Geese          
Snow Geese                 Snow Geese Snow Geese

The most Snow Geese I've ever seen were a couple hundred Lessers in Nebraska, so this was definitely really cool. It was getting later in the day and I wanted to keep driving, as I had about seven more hours to go before I get to my hotel in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina - the portal to the Great Skuas frolicking offshore in the Outer Banks. Some Hooded Mergansers waved me goodbye.

Hooded Merganser Displaying

You have to remember that I'm sometimes too keen on birding, and while driving in Delaware I remembered that I haven't eaten since Ontario. I found a grocery store and bought, amongst more supple forage, a large bag of carrots. Little did I know...

It started to rain, heavily, once I was in North Carolina. I reached Hatteras at about 8 PM and by that time it was dark. Tomorrow was the day of grace.

It was still raining the next morning. There were twenty of us on the boat, not including Brian Patteson, the owner and captain of the boat, and Kate Sutherland and George Amistead, who were spotters. It took us a while to get out because it took a while to get sufficient light, but eventually were were out to sea. 

Now, there's a whole protocol to follow to get the Skua. One does not simply go out and see one willy-nilly. Skuas are kleptoparasitic, meaning they chase gulls and other birds around and steal their food. In order for one to have a chance at seeing a Skua, you must first provide the "bait" -

Feeding Frenzy

Kate was chumming relentlessly for hours and hours, generating a huge train of gulls behind our boat that no Skua could fail to notice. This, in itself, was really cool as we could see some other seabirds up close and personal, such as the lovely Northern Gannet.

Northern Gannet

Northern Gannets

Northern Gannet
The Gannets would come right up to the boat, and some of them would dive right beside it, allowing us to see the birds swimming underwater - way cool. We also saw three mating pairs of Atlantic Loggerhead Sea Turtles, which were the first Sea Turtles I'd ever seen, so that was arguably more exciting than some of the birds! 

Poorly-known Lev fact - I've always been big on fish. Probably almost as much as birds. Unfortunately, we have few accessible fish-watching in Ontario, and ever fewer actual species, so when a Scalloped Hammerhead Shark appeared beside the boat, I was pretty ecstatic. I mean, I get pretty giddy over Redside Dace and Brook Lamprey in Ontario, so a shark was like hitting the jackpot of fish-watching. And Hammerheads are probably the coolest fish out there besides Great Whites. It gave great views, too, of its head, the slow, deliberate swimming pattern, the blunt dorsal....ah, it was great.

Back to the birds. We had a few distant Northern Fulmars wing by, not giving the greatest of looks. We were all hoping for the skua.

Six hours later. Three people had thrown up, many were sleeping in the cabin, but Kate was still chumming like a machine and some of us still had our hopes up.

Suddenly, George yells "GREAT SKUA!" and simultaneously Kate dumps a whole bunch of chum off the side of the boat. All Hell breaks loose, gulls flying and crapping all over everyone, people struggling to get out of the cabin. We get on the bird, but it's really far and all you can see is a brown, jaeger-shape with a huge barrel chest and some white wing-patches. Looks like a Skua to me. It leaves.

However, a Kumlien's Gull appears and everyone gets all excited about that. It's a rare bird for North Carolina (and most other places where people had come from) but I just saw like ten of them in Niagara and will probably see ten more on my way back. Suddenly, a fulmar drops right beside the boat and starts eating the chum! While everyone was going ga-ga over the Kumlien's, I was snapping pics of the fulmar.

Northern Fulmar

Northern Fulmar

Here you can see what separates this bird from the gulls that it closely resembles. It's got a remarkable structure at the top of its bill - what's called a tube nose. It enables this bird to smell subtle things such as baitfish emitting stress hormones for miles in the open sea to track down its food. Now, though, it seems to prefer following trawlers and fishing boats and has had a major expansion in range with the fishing industry.

Northern Fulmar

The flight is also completely different from the gulls. While gulls are not true seabirds and don't spend too much time far offshore, petrels like the fulmar spends months far out at sea and need to be energy-efficient in doing so. This is why you rarely see petrels flap - instead they use what's called "dynamic soaring" to get around, changing the shape of their wings subtly to catch winds and thus be able to get from point A to point B with minimal energy loss. You can see this fulmar isn't even flapping to take off - it just sticks its wings out and runs!


More birders, more chum. The bird was far, but it swiftly changed course after the gulls got into a frenzy. After a few minutes, it went right over the boat!!!

Of course, I did not have my camera and now that the bird looked at least slightly interested I went into the cabin and grabbed it. I came out to people pouring over the Kumlien's again, but I still saw the Skua far behind the boat! I called it, and Kate threw some more chum. It was Lev vs. Skua round two....

Great Skua

There it was, in all its glory. Check out the length of that bill. After 7+ hours of chumming, we finally had our bird right where we wanted it. And then it landed on the water!!

Great Skua
Everyone had class A looks at this magnificent creature, in the best place to see it in North America. It left shortly afterwards, leaving everyone satisfied and ready to go home and eat something.

Who knows where this Skua came from? It breeds nowhere near here, it doesn't even breed in North America, so perhaps in a few months time, this very bird will be chasing Puffins on some Scottish sea cliff. 

Ah, the beauty of birds.

So, what about the carrots that I mentioned earlier? That story unfolds in Virginia, on my way back...stay tuned.

Happy New Year!

So I'm back in Ontario.

This wasn't the plan! Shortly after I finished guiding in Costa Rica (which was busy and I didn't use my computer too much) I ventured to Ecuador to guide there. Somewhere in between I caught malaria, and decided it was best to kick it in Ontario rather than deal with all the paperwork of having my corpse flown in from Quito, and here I am.

It's retreated back into my body and so far I haven't experienced any more symptoms (and I may not for several years) but the important thing is that I'm still alive. Welcome to my life.

Now that I'm here, it's the New Year, and I've seen the Smew (very important)


I have to sort of step back and make some birding New Year's Resolutions. Here are some things that may or may not happen in the future (unless I die of malaria) -

Gyrfalcon. A good friend of mine, Lyndsey Friesen, is currently working in Jasper National Park in Alberta. The fact that several Gyrs winter around Calgary is an excellent excuse for me to come visit her. That way I don't have to justify driving that far to see one bird. I know they're in Ontario every once in a blue moon, but I'd rather see one where it belongs. Plus I won't feel (too) bad if I miss it. It also gives me a great excuse to say that I've been in other parts of Canada, as I've been in more of Central America than in the country that I "officially" live in. 

Dovekie. I don't have a plan for this thing, but they're having a good flight year and I get bored easily in the Winter. I'll get one, or a few hundred, somewhere.

Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. I sort of have this hankering to see a Great Skua. I have never done a pelagic, and North Carolina isn't that far. Maybe I'll see some Dovekies as well...

The Rainwater Basin, Nebraska. I don't care if I've already seen all the species that pass through there, I want to see ten million ducks and half a million Sandhill Cranes!!

Corpus Christi, Texas. I bought this huge belt buckle with a Texas Longhorn on it, and I've never been to Texas. The buckle needs to be justified, and I'll probably be working in May, so I need to see some sort of big migration. Also, it's almost directly a straight drive south from Grand Island, Nebraska.

Cape Hatteras in the Summer. If I don't discover that I can't handle myself on small boats, I'd like to see South Polar Skua too. I'll be in Algonquin during this time, but all I need is three days off.

Churchill, Manitoba. A good friend of mine, Peter Mills, is taking the year off and has always wanted to go here, as I always have as well. At this time (probably September) there won't be too many birds there, but Polar Bears make up for it. Also, we can get that Gyr if I miss it with Lyndsey.

The Great Eastern Herping Trip. Peter is an avid herper as well, so we just may do a big herp trip when everything is migrating to hibernacula to spend the Winter. It can get ridiculous. We'll see what happens.

Why so many trips? It's the opportunity of being unemployed (thanks malaria!), and starting in at least mid-April (hopefully!) I'll be leading a relatively normal person life and not being able to bird distant locales as often. This year I'm working in Costa Rica as a guide for the entire Winter (when I'm usually unemployed) and this will last until next year when, if Algonquin still likes me, I'll start there again. As much as I dislike a cyclic lifestyle, I'll be earning cash steadily like a normal working-class individual, and this means I can do things like pay rent, eat and most importantly, bird.

Then again, I also might catch some odd illness and have to spend the rest of this year in a hospital. Who knows. That's life.

All I can tell you folks is that it's great to be alive, back home, and dreaming of 2012's new birds. Happy New Year, everyone!!!

Home Sweet Home

Following the Fall Migration

Hey's been a while. I'd go into an explanation of why but rather than rub salt in wounds and dampen the mood I'd rather not. One thing I could hope for is not to be attending any more funerals of loved ones for the next several years.

Anyhow, for one reason or another I'm in the Caribbean Foothills of Costa Rica. I spend my days birding, showing people birds, learning songs and calls of birds, and surrounded by photographs of birds. I fall asleep to birds, I wake up to birds, and at any given time I'm always within earshot of some form of avifauna, and that's the way I like it. 

I've been to the tropics before, several times, and I always enjoy seeing "the regulars" of these parts again, like the lovely TK (or Tropical Kingbird to Neotropics virgins)

Tropical Kingbird

Of course, seeing new faces is always fun and exciting as well, like this Caribbean Slope specialty, the Snowcap.

The lovely male Snowcap!

Lately, though, I've been seeing a lot of very familiar birds, not only as tropical species, but as birds from "back home" in Ontario.


Today especially, there was a large push of migrant birds. Canada, Mourning, Black-and-White, Chestnut-sided, Blackburnian and Kentucky Warblers were with the mixed flocks this morning, as well as the first Swainson's Thrushes.

Swainson's Thrush

It is so odd, the visuals. Black-and-White Warblers chase Slaty Antwrens from choice feeding spots. The Kentucky hops along with Chestnut-capped Brush-Finches and Orange-billed Sparrows on the forest floor. The Blackburnians drink nectar, but only as long as the Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds don't notice...when they do, a chase ensues.

It's odd to think that when we see these animals in Ontario that they've been doing the above just a few weeks before they arrived to breed up there. We only have one perspective on the lives of these birds and we're familiar with it and embrace it. We know that Eastern Wood-Pewees sing to defend their breeding territories in the Hardwoods, but do we know them as singing an odd, one-phrase song to defend feeding territories in pastures? That's how the Costa Ricans know them..

I think it is important, if not whimsical and interesting, to investigate the lives of our birds outside of their breeding habitats. You might be surprised!

The big push also brought us a female Chuck-will's-widow. Those of us in the southeast and perhaps some lucky Ontarians have seen or heard these biggest of nightjars, and know them as relatives of the Whip-poor-will - big insect eaters.

During migration, however, we all know that birds need to pack on the weight to survive the trip. The Chuck is no exception, and she bulks up by drastically switching her diet during migration; from large small our migrating wood-warblers! They migrate during the night, and as the Chuck is a nocturnal bird by nature and also migrates during this time, they make easy morsels "to-go" as it were...quite fascinating if not a little disturbing!


Bird of the Flames

Hey Folks,

You know you’ve neglected your blog when you speak of enjoying the peak of the Spring shorebird migration and in your next entry the things are already coming back. Yeesh.

I'm in Algonquin Provincial Park in Central Ontario for another surely interesting Summer, so my postings should become more or less regular now that I'm actually living in one place and getting a steady income.

Before I came up to the Park, however, Kyle Holloway and I journeyed into the Midwest for some birding before I disappeared. We went to Rainy River - Ontario's west end, and some parts of Minnesota as well as the lower peninsula of Michigan.

The bird I had most wanted to see lived in the latter locale almost exclusively. It is a bird much revered by North American birdwatchers and foreign birders as well. It was a Wood-Warbler, a very habitat-choosy wood-warbler, that only breeds in select Jack Pine stands 16-20 years of age. The bird in question is the lovely Kirtland’s Warbler.

Kirtland's Warbler

These birds show up at Point Pelee every now and again (whenever I’m not around) and they do breed in Ontario (in an inaccessible locale) but if you don’t have many days or someone who knows where they are in Wisconsin, there is only one place on Earth you can see this bird in the breeding season, and that is in Michigan.

Why? Jack Pine forests are meticulously managed by the Michigan DNR every year to suit the warbler’s choosy lifestyle. If the stand becomes so tall as the branches of the tree do not touch the ground (to use as shelter for the ground-nesting bird that the warbler is), the birds abandon them.

You then wonder how these things survived before we helped them out… the answer to that question is a phenomenon that is now frowned upon and is seen as a danger to most everything that lives in and around the forest – forest fires. Smoky the Bear evidently had some sort of grudge against Kirtland’s Warblers.

Long ago, fires were frequent throughout Jack Pine stands in the Upper Midwest, and frequently would burn huge stands down to the ground, from which they’d eventually grow into prime Kirtland’s habitat. There’d be enough fires every year for there to be Kirtland’s habitat available somewhere within the range of the bird. Of course when these same fires burned down human habitations and killed people, they were suppressed big time. Without fires, there are no young Jack Pine stands, and without those, there are no Kirtland’s Warblers.

So, the bird’s population plummeted and in the first annual survey for the bird in 1971, there were only 200 singing males. The last Kirtland’s on Earth. It didn’t help that the clearing of land for logging allowed the parasitic Brown-headed Cowbird to venture into Kirtland’s habitat and parasitize their nests. The warblers did not have any sort of evolutionary protection against this onslaught, and the birds that did pair and breed more often than not ended up raising cowbird young.

Luckily, it is relatively easy to manage Kirtland’s habitat and the Michigan DNR now maintains 36’000-40’000 acres of Kirtland’s habitat. They also trap and euthanize cowbirds in these stands, something that has helped the warbler numbers rebound amazingly. Once the trees get too big, they are logged and replanted by hand.

Kyle and I ventured into one of these plots of land and were not disappointed.

Kirtland's Warbler

Indeed, the birds loud, melodious song was heard from every which way in the stand. It was, in fact, the most common birdsong to be heard. But, surprising as it may be in this barren habitat, not the only one. Upland Sandpipers wolf-whistled from the sandy barrens. Eastern Bluebirds were attending a nest in an older, dead tree. Several different species of sparrows sung their songs from within the pines. But for me, Kirtland’s still stole the show.

Kirtland's Warbler

For one reason or another, the bird is foolishly tame. I walked up to within four feet of a singing male and he didn’t even flinch – in fact, he continued singing, threatening my hearing ability in a way that made my ears ring for the next few hours.

Kirtland's Warbler

It was surprising that, while the bird needed Jack Pine in order to survive, the amount of time that males spent in the actual tree was minimal. They seemed to much prefer the taller Black Oaks, undoubtedly for singing purposes, rather than the small, spindly pines. One male sung from a hydro wire that went through the habitat. 

We walked for about a kilometer into the stand on a little sandy trail, from which we heard no less than 25 birds. They really do thrive big-time in suitable habitat, which is surprisingly easy (notwithstanding the labour costs) to manage for. It can be said now, safely I think, that Kirtland’s Warbler is an easy bird to see in Michigan, and many yearning ears and eyes can now see and hear the bird of the flames singing away in its piney realm. It is quite amazing what we can accomplish if we really try. 

Kirtland's Warbler

Efforts to increase conservation of this bird by partnering up Michigan DNR (who obviously know what they’re doing) with conservation authorities in the Bahamas (where the bird chiefly winters) and also with conservation authorities in Ontario (which lacks a management plan for the bird) and Wisconsin (I don’t know much about the bird there) will hopefully continue to ensure the bird’s success in North America.


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