Thursday, November 10, 2016

Mountain Bluebird and other notes from the field ♩ ♬ ♪

Late October through mid-November is, of course, prime time for vagrant birds around the Great Lakes. With this in mind I pulled over to check out an interesting looking songbird perched beside Dyer’s Bay Road midday on Tuesday (Nov. 8th). Was it a sparrow? A late Eastern Phoebe? I raised my bins and found myself looking at the familiar face of a Mountain Bluebird. Sweet!

It sallied out over the pasture, hovered for  a very long time, and plunged into the grass before perching on a stem with its sky blue back towards me. I fumbled for my camera and managed to take a few blurry shots before it took flight and disappeared from sight across the pasture. Three times I scanned the distant field edge but the bird was gone, gone and gone. Crap!

But I'd seen it well so I took few minutes to jot down some notes from the too brief encounter - lat. & long., thin black bill, long primary projection, hovering flight - and alerted the local birders. As I readied to continue towards Cabot Head, I saw that something bluebird-like had materialized atop an apple tree on the other side of the road, only 20 metres or so from the car. It was back!

For the next twenty minutes the Mountain Bluebird hunted for insects over the pasture, returning time and again to the apple tree, seemingly unconcerned about me. I took a series of backlit photos. Perhaps these can be improved with some more processing.

If accepted by the Ontario Bird Records Committee, this will be the third Bruce County record of the species. The others were both seen in December, in Wiarton, in 1979 and 1999.

Here's my eBird checklist:

Since that November 8th sighting, I and others have not been able to relocate the bird.

The MOBL wasn’t the only memorable bird I’d seen along Dyer’s Bay Road this week. On Saturday morning (November 5th) a Golden Eagle (not especially rare here) allowed uncommonly good looks as it perched over farm field.

Some other nice birds have popped up in the neighbourhood. On October 27th friends invited me to see a Tufted Titmouse visiting their backyard feeder in Tobermory. They were thrilled and so was I!

Courtesy of Don Wilkes

Two more have been seen recently in Kincardine at the south end of Bruce County, all part of a minor irruption of the species into southern Ontario this fall.

I wonder what’s next?

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Woodpeckers vs Hydro One in Tobermory

On June 23rd Bob Tulk and his Hydro One crew, based in Lion’s Head, arrived in Johnson’s Harbour to complete the installation of a new utility pole. The old wooden pole had been damaged by fire and, some time in the past, woodpeckers had excavated two large cavities close to the insulators.

The work proceeded quickly. The new unit, of woodpecker-resistant composite material, was set upright in the recently prepared cribbing. But, as Bob’s crew prepared to transfer the transmission wires, a large adult Pileated Woodpecker swooped low over the truck and landed below one of the cavities. On cue, three hungry, red-crested, half-grown chicks stuck their heads out into the daylight, begging for food.

What to do? There are some rules that address such conflicts. Woodpeckers and other native birds are offered protection under both federal and provincial statutes. Nesting activities get special mention under the Migratory Birds Convention Act and interrupting them violates the act, even if done incidentally. There are, however, exemptions from these protections when bird activities threaten our safety (think airport runways) or infrastructure.

I don’t know how such laws and policies guide Hydro One’s response to opportunistic woodpeckers but I suspect that field technicians can exercise a measure of discretion. In this case, Bob directed his crew to remove only the uppermost section of the wooden pole, leaving the nest cavity intact. He told me they’d return in a few weeks, after the young birds had fledged, to complete the job.

Later in the afternoon I observed and photographed the woodpeckers. The parents fed the brood every ten minutes or so and all seemed unaffected by the recent human activity so close to their nest.

Hardened utility poles of composite construction are still the exception in our neighbourhood, and so, should these young birds survive into the 2017 breeding season, they’ll find a good selection of accommodating, old-style wooden hydro poles to choose from.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Lunch(es) at Cabot Head

After dipping on a Townsend's Solitaire observed at the BPBO this a.m., I headed over to the nearby Cabot Head light to eat my lunch (salmon salad on a bagel). What a relaxing scene. No people, scores of Turkey Vultures kettled overhead and the gorgeous blues and greens of Georgian Bay spread out beyond.

As noted in my last post, lingering winter weather on the Bruce Peninsula has made life tough for migrants. Today, the lighthouse attracted swarms of sluggish cluster flies which in turn attracted insectivorous birds including a Brown Creeper, four Eastern Phoebes and five (!) first-of-season-for-me Pine Warblers.

Bring on the warblers!

Friday, April 1, 2016

Farewell ye Snowies

There's been an uptick of Snowy Owl numbers on the Bruce in the last few weeks. On most days, with little effort, one can easily spot several on the Ferndale Flats between Wiarton and Tobermory - easier since fields turned brown.

There has been a steady turnover of birds since the solstice, presumably a result of migrating northbound birds.

 March 17, Pike Bay Road.

March 17, Little Pike Bay Road.

April 1, Little Pike Bay Road.

More on spring movements of Snowy Owls, as revealed through satellite telemetry, from Project Snowstorm.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Autofocus fail...a quiz of sorts.

There are many upsides to keeping a zoomy point-and-shoot within reach. Most notably, so-called bridge cameras like our ca. 2014 Canon PowerShot 50 SX HS are cheap and compact. Ours fits easily in a daypack or a small dry bag and travels everywhere with us.

Much has been written about the pros and cons of p-and-s (vs. SLR) photography. One little known fact about bridge cameras is that the autofocus technology was engineered by a cadre of savvy botanists such that the focus algorithm selects plant matter at the margin of the field rather than the mega-rare creature in the centre. Really.

Inadvertently I document flora when I'm gunning for fauna. Feel free to ID the blurry incidental fauna, all captured in Canadian National Parks.

Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera)
White Spruce (Picea glauca)
Prickly Wild Rose (Rosa acicularis)
Silver Sagebrush (Artemisia cana)
Willow (Salix sp.)

Saturday, February 13, 2016


Many in southern Ontario will remember early autumn 2015 for the unusual weather pattern that saw consecutive days of strong and sustained NE winds. Birders were rewarded with seldom seen numbers of Sabine’s Gull, White-rumped Sandpiper, Hudsonian Godwit and Eurasian Dotterel.

At the north end of the Bruce Peninsula we experienced a very different and highly localized phenomenon. But first a little background…of course we're accustomed to Sharp-shinned Hawks migrating over our yard along the Lake Huron shoreline. Similarly, our feathers aren’t ruffled by the irregular depredations by Merlin and various accipiters at our feeders. This was different. Our patch became occupied by an increasing number of Sharp-shinned Hawks. I say “occupied” in the sense that the sharpies just seemed to be hanging out here. They’d loaf on our dock, preen outside the bedroom window and congregate next to the septic bed. They weren’t at all skittish. Weird.

The interplay between the forces of nature - atmospheric and biological - sometimes has awesome and terrifying consequences.  Here  I provide photographic documentation of a very rare Category 5 Sharpnado. All photos were taken through our windows.

Hanging out on the dock.
October 5, 2015

September 25, 2015
A two-fer over the septic bed.
October 9, 2015
Preening outside the bedroom window.

October 2, 2015
Enough said!