Here come the birds

Nancy and I joined the Toronto Ornithological Club today for its annual April jaunt to the Leslie Street Spit (aka Tommy Thompson Park) on the Toronto waterfront. A chilly day, but still lots of good sightings of birds headed up north for the 2010 breeding season.

Among the crowds of cormorants, ring-billed gulls and red-wing blackbirds were:

• several common loons in flight

• hermit thrushes by the bird research station

• a cooper’s hawk. The young woman running the bird banding station found a pile of northern flicker feathers that morning, apparently a victim of the cooper’s.

• a kestrel pair, hunting the sparrows

• a field sparrow and white-throated sparrow (“Oh sweet Canada Canada Canada” its unmistakable call, a favourite of mine and so evocative of the north woods)

• a kingfisher patrolling the shoreline

• tree swallows galore, along with a couple of barn swallows

• our expert guides heard a ruby-crowned kinglet but we didn’t see it

• a couple of yellow-rumped warblers flew by but we didn’t get a good look at them

• on the water: red-breasted mergansers, greater and lesser scaup, buffleheads (I love that name), lovely canvas-backs with their red heads, big herring gulls, American widgeons, long-tails, mute swans

• common and Caspian terns

The big wave of warblers is still a few weeks away.

Thanks to trip leader Hugh Currie and the club for an enjoyable morning. Look forward to seeing many of these birds up north this summer.

At Beamer’s hawk watch today

The family visited the Beamer’s Point Hawk Watch in Grimsby today, on the Niagara Escarpment. This is the time of year that raptors start migrating back to Ontario and the north woods, and the Beamer’s Hawk Watch is a great place to see the grand parade repeated again, as it has for hundreds if not thousands of years. The weather was hot and there were birds aplenty.

Turkey vultures, not surprisingly, were the most numerous. We saw one kettle of 52 “TVs” (according to my son) on our way out of the conservation area… one hawk-watcher told us that 400 went through in a matter of about 5 minutes yesterday.

Plenty of smaller sharp-shinned hawks, too, and the occasional red-tail. The tally board also showed northern harriers today, but we didn’t see any. Two bald eagles went through yesterday.

Other feathered attractions included golden-crowned kinglets in the cedars along the escarpment ridge, cardinals, juncos, and one fox sparrow rustling in the leaves that generated a lot of attention.

In The Complete Up North, you’ll read updated entries on turkey vultures, sharp-shinned hawks (“sharpies”), with references to kinglets, red-tail hawks (common along highways), and harriers.

Raptors don’t fly over water, so the Great Lakes region is rimmed with hawk watches where the birds funnel over land to get to their breeding grounds up north. Tim and I visited the Duluth, Minnesota hawk watch a few years ago and were similarly thrilled to see the great birds flying around the end of Lake Superior to get to their summer homes.

Thanks to all the volunteer hawk-watchers and naturalists’ groups who do a great job recording the migrations and also educating the general public. Click here for a link to the Niagara hawk watch group.


March mating madness

Disney, in the movie Bambi, had a great word for it: Twitterpated (before the days of social media, of course). With melting snow and warm weather comes natural desires among many species to start the cycle of life over again. Among red squirrels in the trees above, formerly hostile male and female neighbours react to the mid-March glow by suddenly, but briefly, becoming the objects of each other’s desire. Flying squirrels mate around the same time. In remote areas of thick brush, lynx eager to meet and mate beckon with chilling caterwauls in late winter.

In March and April nights, the unmistakable hooting of the barred owl — “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?” — is augmented by screams, barks, hisses and cackles, as owls get down to the serious business of courtship.

Listen for downy woodpeckers, among many other species, also calling out for love.

Nature by the 401

I know it’s not exactly up north, but a recent drive by Pearson Airport on the 401 reminded me again of nature’s resilience. In addition to the red-tailed hawk posed majestically on the airport sign (the hawks are common along highway corridors), I was surprised to see a couple of white-tailed deer grazing on a field not far from the end of a runway, by the Dixie exit. Jets, tractor-trailers, cars, deer and hawks… nature is everywhere.


Chickadees marking territory

It’s not quite mating season yet, but even in mid-winter the birds are getting ready… listen for chickadees whistling their high, clear songs — often rendered as “fee-bee” or “fee-bee-ee”. They are establishing their territorial dominance within the winter flock.