Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Northern Hawk Owl at Rossport

This evening we noticed this Northern Hawk Owl along Hwy 17, near the Rossport turnoff, about 110 km west of Marathon.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Return of the Northern Shrike

A scattering of redpoll feathers on top of the fresh snow suggested a very recent kill. Soon after I spotted a young Northern Shrike, half-concealed in the spruce tree outside our kitchen window.

For about twenty minutes I watched it preen and eye the nearby finches. Moments before launching itself at a redpoll, the shrike assumed a more horizontal posture and took on a longer, sleeker appearance.

[click on images to enlarge]

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Notes on the European Starling in a northern Ontario town

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Over the last month we've grown accustomed to the diverse flock of Common and Hoary Redpolls in the yard. I've also kept an eye on overwintering gulls - a few hundred Herring with several Glaucous - and from week-to-week there's not much change. With so little news, it's a good time to write a few words about an even more constant feature of our local bird fauna - the European Starling.

I was prompted to do so by Verlyn Klinkenborg's lyrical column in today's New York Times in which he shares some thoughts about the starlings on his rural property somewhere in New England. Like Mr. Klinkenborg, I find myself watching the starlings even when when our feeders are festooned with less common and more brightly coloured winter finches.

Mr. Klinkenborg also notes that their reputation for out-competing native species for nest sites in tree cavities - "they have de-nested billions of birds" - isn't matched by their behaviour in his yard where "they fight all the time, yet only with one another."

We see the same thing - our starlings seem perfectly content in mixed company.

Our winter starling flock has had an oddball in its ranks - a male Brown-headed Cowbird - for several months. Though they are superficially similar black birds, they are not kin. Cowbirds are Icterids, a New World lineage that includes orioles, meadowlarks, grackles and oropendolas. The European Starling is of course a wildly successful transplant from the Old World and is closely related to the mynahs. Another distinction is that Brown-headed Cowbirds almost never overwinter in northern Ontario. This one is in the close company - generally in the midst - of a gang of accepting starlings.

Lots of birds use the suspended suet log. Gray Jays, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Black-capped Chickadees are frequent and all are quick to vacate on the arrival of a woodpecker - even the diminutive Downy. The starlings aren't so fearful and will continue to feed, perhaps warily, only inches from a Pileated Woodpecker.

In addition to suet, the starlings eat pretty much anything we offer - millet, shelled peanuts, sunflower, niger (swallowed by the mouthful if offered in an open container!), cracked corn and all kinds of fruit. During mast years, they readily exploit the abundant native Mountain-ash crop along with American Robins, Common Ravens, American Crows, Gray Jays, Pine Grosbeaks and both waxwings. Perhaps this wide dietary breadth enables the starling to thrive in northern towns where Rock Pigeons and House Sparrows are absent.

Michael Cadman (in Cadman et al., 2007) summarized the history of the European Starling in Ontario. Following their introduction to New York in 1890, they were first found nesting in Ontario in 1922. Their range continued to expand northwards and they were recorded on the first Christmas Bird Counts conducted in Marathon and Thunder Bay in the 1950's (CBC historical data). Presently they are found in most northern Ontario settlements. They have also been observed breeding on a radar installations in northernmost Ontario, on the Hudson Bay coast at Cape Henrietta Maria, some 200 km from the nearest settlement (Cadman 2007).

Historical Christmas Bird Count data also reveal a continuous occupation of the Town of Marathon by European Starlings since at least 1958. Scarcely a day passes when I don't see a at least a few starlings around town, although I've never seen more than 100 or so birds at once. They breed here but I have no idea if we see the same individuals in the summer and winter - the species is partially migratory.

There's a lot more to say about European Starlings and much we have yet to learn. Their vocal mimicry is extraordinary and in certain lights, they are strikingly beautiful.

The final word goes to Mr. Klinkenborg:
It would be nice if starlings came in ones and twos and were more like the cardinal in demeanor. We would see the ornateness of their feathering, which reminds me of the marbled endpapers of well-bound books. I’ve used starling hackle feathers for tying trout flies, and each one is a bit of the night sky with an iridescent galaxy shining near the tip.

  • M. D. Cadman, D. A. Sutherland, G. G. Beck, D. Lepage, and A. R. Couturier, Eds. 2007. Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario 2001–2005. Bird Studies Canada, Environment Canada, Ontario Field Ornithologists, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and Ontario Nature, Toronto, Ontario, xxii + 706 pp. [available here]
  • Verlyn Klinkenborg. The Mob at the Feeders. New York Times. 13 February, 2011.
  • Wood Engraving by Eric Fitch Daglish (1892-1966), reproduced here with the kind permission of Stephen Daglish.
  • Photo of winter starling pair taken in Newfoundland, courtesy of Clyde Barrett.
  • Christmas Bird Count data accessed here

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Some mid-winter backyard feeder birds

For the first time, we're participating in Project Feeder Watch. If you don't already know, this citizen science initiative monitors trends in the populations of North American birds visiting feeders during each winter season. It's administered by the Cornell lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada.

Accordingly, we've been counting the visitors to our feeders at fortnightly intervals.

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Regulars at our feeders these days include up to six Mourning Doves, scores of Common and Hoary Redpolls, a few dozen Pine Grosbeaks, a dozen or so European Starlings, a Pileated and two or three each of Downy and Hairy Woodpecker, a Red-breasted Nuthatch, a few Gray Jays and Common Ravens, a few pairs of Black-capped Chickadees and an occasional Boreal Chickadee, four-to-six Northern Cardinals, two Dark-eyed Juncos and an irregular Brown-headed Cowbird.

I was surprised to find a female House Sparrow visiting a feeder in nearby Heron Bay a few days ago. Believe it or not they, like Rock Pigeons, are scarce in these parts.