Saturday, February 28, 2009

Trivia Night

Friday evening Jean and I attended a "trivia night" organized to raise funds for the Niagara Falls Big Brothers Big Sisters. Our friend Ian, an accountant, puts the team together for the Certified General Accountants of Ontario sponsored event. The team also includes Jean's brother Frank and his wife. We all have our strengths. Cam for example is a history teacher, so an answer to a history question is obviously provided or scrutinized by him. Our fellow team members, knowing we are birders, look to us to answer any bird questions. No pressure there. Our team, the same group of eight, has attended a few "trivia nights" over the last 3 to 4 years and we had never encountered questions on birds until Friday evening.

There were ten rounds, each round containing the following categories, "What's that called", Pop Culture, Public Sector, Wine, General Knowledge, Wildlife, Music, Sports, Entertainment, and Canadiana. After the fifth and final rounds were bonus questions, "daily doubles". The questions were read first so the teams could ponder the question and wager an amount based on their knowledge of the subject. On seeing the wildlife category I thought they wouldn't have any bird questions. Well they did! Not one but a total of four out of ten wildlife questions were specific to birds. What were the questions you mad crazy birders are asking? They were as follows. I'll place the answers lower down so you can all play along.

1. True or False. The male owl has a higher pitched call than the female owl.

2. New Guinea has many interesting birds, what unique feature does the Hooded Pitohui possess?

3. What bird is known as a "trickster" in native folklore and is the official bird of the Yukon Territory?

4. What member of the cuckoo bird family has a long tail, can reach a running speed of 15 miles per hour, and eats snakes and lizards?

Officially we answered two questions correctly. In our opinion the only wrong answer we submitted was for question number one.

We answered the first bonus question correctly, doubling our points. Many thanks to Jean and her obsessive reading of horse books. Of the 18 teams of eight, she was the only one in the hall, besides the judges, that knew the offspring of a male horse and female donkey is known as a "hinny". Our team led by 29 points going into the final bonus round. Thinking teams behind us were betting all their earned points we wagered too many points on a solar system question. Hind sight is 20/20. Our wrong answer dropped us from first to fourth overall. It was a great evening with our friends, raising money for a worthy cause. Hopefully more bird questions and less pop culture questions involving Madonna and Britney Spears will be encountered during our next night of trivia.

Now for the answers.

1. False. The female owl has a higher pitched call than the male. (We answered this as true)

2. Poisonous feet and skin.

This one was a point of contention for our team. We simply answered poisonous. We were ruled incorrect. Groan! Jean did well with an educated guess on the Hooded Pitohui, Pitohui dichrous.

3. The Raven.

4. Roadrunner.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Great Backyard Bird Count Weekend.

Last weekend was the 2009 GBBC and I'm sure many of you participated. Over 3 of the 4 days I submitted 14 checklists covering 10 areas.

Due to work I was unable to contribute any data on Friday. Saturday, Jean was working so I limited my birding to the yard. The usual visitors were observed with an afternoon observation being the most exciting. A total of 21 American Crows, a murder, were seen all at once, flying north of our yard.

Sunday morning, I was surprised to find 3 Northern Cardinals at the feeder. Usually a pair visits the feeder, though they had been absent earlier in the year. I believe they have grown accustom to the section of missing fence. Shortly after noting the cardinal trio, I heard the call of a Downy Woodpecker in the distance. The woodpecker was most likely in the large Walnut tree across the parking lot. I scanned the tree repeatedly until I found it with my bins and recorded my first woodpecker for this year`s GBBC.
In the afternoon, Jean and I attempted to add a second woodpecker to the list. A trail running along 12 Mile Creek has produced a Red-headed Woodpecker in the past. At this section of the Merritt Trail we are above the creek, level with the tree canopy. The edge slopes to 12 Mile Creek below and is covered with a mixture of scrub and trees. From the the scrub the call of a Carolina Wren was heard. We would observe it briefly before it disappeared deeper into the brush. On the west side of the trail are a few expensive townhouses with feeders, providing easy observations of Downy Woodpecker, Northern Cardinal, American Tree Sparrow, House Finch, Black-capped Chickadee, Dark-eyed Junco and House Sparrow. The trail gently descends south, eventually reaching creek level. We did not stray too far from the feeders hoping to catch a glimpse of the Red-head.

Our next stop Sunday afternoon was Port Dalhousie to check out the marina we had visited recently. Bufflehead, Common Merganser,
Long-tailed Duck and American Coot with
the usual marina waterfowl were observed. Unfortunately no Redheads here this day. We would find them at the next stop, Jones Beach, on the east side of the Welland Canal, along with some Lesser Scaup.

We ended the day at the spot were we had observed the Snowy Owl. No appearance of the owl but 6 Horned Larks were observed flying around the remains of a harvested corn field. One lark stood atop the base of a corn stalk, resembling Dick Turpin with its black mask.

Though we did not find the Red-headed Woodpecker or Snowy Owl the day was still enjoyed.

Monday was a provincial holiday and after a filling mid-morning breakfast at the Early Bird, yes the Early Bird diner, Jean and I travelled to Niagara Falls. The first stop was Dufferin Islands. The only new bird observed for the count while in the nature area was the American Black Duck (4). Crossing the Niagara Parkway, we stood near the engineerium overlooking the river above the Falls. 2 Gadwall, a new bird for the GBBC as well as for the year list (#56), were observed in the stream that flows from Dufferin Islands into the Niagara River. A Great Black-backed Gull, on a rock in the fast moving rapids, was spotted. We continued upriver along a pedestrian path, no snow this time, and did not observe much until the Hydro intake pond. With the Hydro control gates a kilometre upstream, the water levels can change frequently. The Niagara River was higher on Monday, reducing the number of gulls and waterfowl that occur in this section above the Falls. On the ice of the pond, many Ring-billed Gull and another solitary Great Black-backed Gull were found and in the open water, Hooded Merganser (first observation for our GBBC) and Common Goldeneye.

Our last stop on the river was the viewing area near the control gates. The two gates closest to the river bank were open, increasing water levels at the breakwall that runs parallel to the riverside. This greatly reduced the number of gulls that can be found on the structure. Further out in the river, Redhead, Common Goldeneye and Common Merganser were observed using our scope. On the small island in the middle of the river a number of gulls were seen but only Ring-billed and Great Black-backed were identified.

Before heading back to St. Catharines we visited the well known feeders in the village of Chippawa. New birds for the GBBC weekend included Tufted Titmouse, Red-bellied Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch and American Goldfinch.

Upon returning home I let the dogs out into the yard and observed a Cooper's Hawk roosting in the neighbour's yard. I grabbed my camera but the hawk proved camera shy and flew away to perch in a coniferous tree on the other side of the parking lot. The Cooper's Hawk would be the last bird observed for this year's GBBC.

In total, 36 species were observed over the 3 days of birding. The Gadwall was the only addition to the year list, keeping us one species ahead of last year's provincial list.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Rare Quail Sold As Food!!

My cousin shared this tidbit of information with me earlier this evening.

Images of a Worcester's Buttonquail were captured for the first time before it was sold as food.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Eastern Screech Owl Images

I finally finished my roll of film! Here are some images of the lifer Eastern Screech Owl we observed on January 24.

The last 4 lifers have all been owls. A Snowy on December 15 of last year, the above displayed Screech Owl, and on February 6, a Short-eared and Long-eared Owl.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Upon Closer Inspection, These Owls are....

Well I have some good news and some bad news. We received a call from Kayo late Saturday afternoon. The owls we observed in the residential yard were not Great Horned Owls, thus removing them from our provincial list. The more Kayo thought about the owls, the more he doubted they were Great Horned. "They should be off nesting now" he told me. Kayo returned Saturday with another birder, highly experienced with owls. With a better angle and the additional experienced birder, Kayo determined the three owls were in fact, 1 Long-eared Owl and 2 Short-eared Owls. The good news then, the addition of Long-eared Owl (#255) to our life list!

This demonstrates how difficult it can be to identify owls. Even with many years experience it can still be arduous. After Saturday's phone conversation, I consulted our February 2009 issue of 'Birder's World'. Here is an excerpt from the ID tips article by Kenn Kaufman on identifying Long-eared, Short-eared, Great Horned, and Stygian Owls.

Perceived only visually, the owl could potentially be confused with a couple of species. Long-ears perched in trees may be mistaken for Great Horned Owls, or vice versa. The Great Horned is a much larger bird (it can weigh five times as much), but the size difference can be surprisingly hard to judge.

When Jean and I observed the owls, one of the Short-eared was almost completely hidden by the tree's branches. The Long-eared was the most exposed of the three. We could definitely make out the cinnamon-brown facial disks but I did not note the black marks above and below the eyes, one of the keys to identifying Long-eared Owls. Experiences of this nature can only make one a better birder.

Birding Saturday and Sunday was well enjoyed. On Saturday, visits to Jaycee Park and the marina in Port Dalhousie produced a variety of waterfowl but no additions to the year list. We did however have a lovely conversation with Jean's Aunt Joyce and Uncle Gino in the parking lot of Lakeside Park.

Late Sunday afternoon we visited 5th Avenue in west St. Catharines. Saturday night, Kayo informed me that he had observed a Snowy Owl in the same area we had observed the Short-eared Owl. Our first visit Sunday afternoon, travelling the entire 2.5 kilometres of the road, produced only Mourning Dove, House Sparrow and Red-tailed Hawk. We continued along more rural roads eventually reaching Rockway Conservation Area on the Niagara Escarpment. A solitary Northern Mockingbird guarding a stand of Sumac and chasing more than 120 European Starlings from his territory was observed. We continued in our car along more rural roads, descending the escarpment and stopping at the conservation area's entrance on 9th Street. American Tree Sparrow and Black-capped Chickadee were found, not easily I might add, amongst the mixture of deciduous and coniferous trees.

We returned to 5th Avenue a little more than an hour later and upon reaching the vineyard, we discovered the Snowy Owl we sought. There it stood, perched on a post and bobbing its head, as we viewed it through our scope. No lamenting this time. Not only was it interested in the humans admiring it but the coyote north of them as well. This was not the same Snowy we observed in December. There were less markings on the rear of the head of this owl.

Wow, minutes away from the downtown and we were looking at a coyote and a Snowy Owl. Best not let the St. Catharines Park and Recreation Department know of their presence, they may get the same treatment as the beavers recently did.

As we were enjoying the amazing view of the Snowy Owl, less than 50 metres away from our position, who would pull up in a vehicle from the opposite direction? Kayo and his wife, followed by two more birders (Blayne and Jean whom we met on the duck count) in a second vehicle. During our brief conversation, we all shared in an excellent view of the Snowy. You don't get many chances to be this close to an owl outside of captivity.

My wife Jean, a SPCA agent, had the opportunity to examine an injured Snowy Owl early last week. The owl was rescued from a narrow alleyway downtown and brought to the shelter for evaluation. Due to its non-life threatening injuries the owl was taken to the Owl Foundation for recovery. After a couple of months of rehabilitation the owl will be released in the province of Manitoba.

Jean and I returned home and toasted the addition of the Snowy Owl to the year list, #55, with a nice Chardonnay during our evening meal. We are now on par with last year's list. I will have some work to do if I want to catch Blayne. The Snowy Owl was #105 for him. He tries to tick as many species as possible, all in the Niagara Region, in the month of January. Something to strive for next year.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Bathing Cooper's

Unbelievable! Two to three days ago it was -20 degrees. Now it's 12 degrees Celsius!!

Returning from the market earlier this morning we observed the Cooper's Hawk bathing in a large puddle at the entrance to the high school's parking lot. Never thought I would observe such a sight in early February.

Friday, February 6, 2009

A Parliament of Owls

Jean and I had a great start to the weekend this afternoon. We had received a tip from our friend Kayo that, not one, not two, but three owls were roosting in the back yard of a residence in west St. Catharines! Kayo had spoken with Jean Thursday evening but I was working until 7:00 PM. The owls would already be gone. They have been leaving the yard routinely at 6:00 PM. Today I finished work at the usual time of 4:30 PM. I had left a message with the home owner to contact me when it would be OK to view the owls. Jean picked me up and we proceeded to the rural road in west St. Catharines, we visited recently, to observe the Northern Harrier until we were contacted by the home owner. We never grow tired of observing the harrier's aerial show. Before observing the Northern Harrier, we observed 3 Horned Larks on the road. The 51st species for the year list.

North of the road, a bird perched on the post of a vineyard row, 200 metres away, caught our attention. We exited our car and immediately knew this bird was different. The face was pale and round. This was no hawk. We walked along the field next to the vineyard and stopped every so often to observe the bird and its markings. As we were studying the bird my cell phone rang. It was the home owner allowing us to visit his home to view the owls. Until November of last year, Jean and I were one of the few remaining souls that did not own a cell phone. One of the main purposes of purchasing a cell phone was to assist with our birding and today it rang true.

We continued to observe the unidentified bird, lamenting that we did not have our scope. The bird eventually left its post but remained flying in the area. We were able to write the bird's identifying field marks for review when we returned home to our field guides. As we were leaving the bird was spotted once again, perched on a "no trespassing" sign. Before we could get a closer look, an oncoming vehicle caused the bird to take flight.

On to the home with the roosting trio. We arrived shortly after 5:00 PM with plenty of light remaining to observe the owls. Dave and Jan Ryan allowed us into their home and once again a kitchen window was used to observe birds. A previous attempt to observe a lifer through a window was unsuccessful. This time however, we would observe 3 Great Horned Owls roosting in the pine trees of the residential yard.

Image courtesy of Kayo Roy

Initially we could only see 2 of the owls but as usual, Jean's excellent spotting skills picked out the third owl. Remind me to always take Jean with me when I go birding.

An article in today's St. Catharines Standard describes the home owner's discovery of the owls which led them to contact Kayo. As mentioned in the article, Kayo is coauthoring the book 'Niagara Birds' with John Black. Jean and I have been trying out the directions for the "hot spots" and day trips section of the book. Kayo and John selected Jean and I as we are relatively new to birding and are not familiar with all of the "hot spots" in the region. You could say we are the guinea pigs.

Satisfied with observing the Great Horned Owls we left, thankful to the Ryans for allowing us into their home.

Upon arriving home we checked our guide books and confirmed our suspicions. The bird perched in the vineyard was a Short-eared Owl!

I never thought I would use the word parliament without discussing prorogue or coalition but somehow I managed. This was an excellent start to the weekend. A lifer Short-eared Owl (#254), the addition of Great Horned Owl to the provincial list (#222) and Horned Lark to the year list which now stands at 52.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Falco returnus

Time flies! Hard to believe it's February already. The days are getting longer and spring will soon be here. For now I will continue to enjoy the snow and the four weeks left of winter listing.

Early Sunday morning I took the dogs outside and was greeted by above freezing temperature and sun. Towards noon I would observe the reappearance of an exciting visitor from early last week. No it was not the Austrian pop musician from the 80's. The Falco peregrinus, Peregrine Falcon, was back!! This time I was able to view the falcon through a scope, from our back porch. Too bad we don't have a digital camera, some great digiscoping images could have been obtained. For an hour I observed the falcon perched in the large Walnut tree directly across the parking lot from our yard.

With its black eyes the bird would survey the area, adjusting itself when ever a gust of wind occurred. The falcon would preen itself occasionally and seemed disinterested in the starlings that flew by, though it did look up at the few starlings brave enough to perch above it for a short time. I had to leave so I was unable to see the falcon take flight. Hopefully the Peregrine Falcon is here to stay.

Late in the afternoon we went to Short Hills Provincial Park for a short hike. Along the way a Rough-legged Hawk soaring above was spotted as well as Jen Brown training on her road bike. Having not been on a bike since the "Squeezer", yes that long, I am looking forward to cycling again. I am so out of shape.

We parked at the Roland Road entrance to the park and hiked the trails leading to Swayze Falls. Not much avian action, the most exciting a Hairy Woodpecker seen in the woods above the frozen falls. Spring should bring better sightings and with the above mentioned longer days, evening visits to the park during the week.