Sweltering August Heat

Blue Dasher

The August long weekend is here, and it’s been brutally hot and humid. Temperatures have reached as high as 32°C with a humidex of 41. It didn’t feel quite so hot yesterday, but today was awful. The sun was relentless, and there was no cooling breeze to provide relief. Being in the shade helped, but even so, I didn’t feel like staying out for very long.

We haven’t had much rain in the last month, so the water levels of the Ottawa River have dropped and mudflats are developing in Shirley’s Bay and Ottawa Beach. I wanted to look for shorebirds, but Shirley’s Bay didn’t sound too appealing – a long mosquito-infested walk through the woods to get to the dyke, which is almost completely open to the baking sun – all the while carrying a scope that sometimes feels like it weighs as much as I do. So yesterday I drove over to Andrew Haydon Park instead.

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Hiatus

It’s been a long time.

I didn’t mean to take a break from blogging, let alone such a long one, but I realized that except for my post about owl baiting, I haven’t posted anything in almost a year.

A YEAR.

I guess it started when I fell behind after our trip to Costa Rica. I’d also been sleeping badly, waking up ridiculously early no matter what time I went to bed. This past winter, I was waking up around 4:00 and feeling tired all day. I couldn’t concentrate, and kept forgetting things. I was starting to make mistakes at work. My mental state was permanently foggy – it was like when you get out of bed with only half an eye open and when you get in the shower you can’t remember if you just shampooed your hair or conditioned it so you start over. Worse, I can’t have caffeine, so chugging coffee or energy drinks was out. Eight o’clock or ten o’clock, it made no difference what time I went to sleep – I was awake again by 4:00 or 4:30. I work full time, and blogging was the last thing on my mind even though I kept going out on weekends and taking photos. I have to confess, some days I didn’t even much feel like going birding.

At some point I realized I wasn’t just tired, I was exhausted. When I went to my doctor to get an allergy shot one day in June, I left my jacket there and had to go get it at lunch time. Only then did I tell my doctor how I’ve been feeling. She immediately changed my sleeping pill prescription, and after a few months, I’m feeling like myself again.

My desire to blog hasn’t really come back, so I’m going to start with the present and work backward and see how far I get. I’ve got some lovely photos from Drumheller (Alberta), Las Vegas, Nova Scotia, and southern Ontario I want to share. I may not quite remember all the stories that go with them, so my posts might be shorter than usual, but hopefully I will be able to get on track – and stay on track.

Herons etc.

Black-crowned Night Heron (sub-adult)

During the August long weekend I visited the Eagleson storm water ponds a couple of times to check out the shorebird habitat – the southern pond is starting to dry up, leaving a huge swath of the smelly, muddy pond bottom exposed. The usual Spotted Sandpipers and Killdeer were present, but at least four Lesser Yellowlegs, one Greater Yellowlegs, and five Least Sandpipers had joined them. It’s still early in shorebird migration, so I expect the diversity will increase as the season progresses.

The number of herons hunting at the ponds has also increased lately, which is typical this time of year as the birds disperse from their breeding grounds to look for good feeding areas. At least two Great Blue Herons, two Great Egrets, and three Black-crowned Night Herons are around; I haven’t seen any Green Herons yet so far, but expect they will show up shortly. Because there are so many herons here, and because they perch and feed out in the open, they make excellent targets of study; I shouldn’t be surprised that they are starting to draw the attention of local photographers. I ran into one this weekend specifically to photograph the egrets and herons; doubtless there are others.

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Post Breeding Dispersal

Eastern Kingbird

On the first day of the long weekend I decided to look for odonates at Mud Lake. Specifically, I wanted to find some spreadwings, Fragile Forktails, darners, big river clubtails, or Swift River Cruisers, as I hadn’t seen any of these yet this season. I ended up seeing a couple of Slender Spreadwings, a few skimmer species, one big river clubtail perching on a rock in the river (likely a Black-shouldered Spinyleg), and little else in the way of odes. Unfortunately my best dragonfly of the day turned out to the first one of the day, a skimmer that flew in from the lake, landed, and hung from a leaf about two feet above my head. I could only see the underside and I registered only two things: that it had large coloured patches on the hindwings, and that it appeared red. My first thought was that it was a Calico Pennant, but the spots didn’t look quite right, and the dragonfly seemed larger than a Calico Pennant. I moved around the shrub to get a view of it from the top, but the dragonfly flew off before I could get a photo or even a better look. Only later did I wonder if it was a saddlebags of some sort, or perhaps even a Widow Skimmer whose colours I’d misjudged. I’m not sure what it was, but I really regretted not getting a photo or better look.

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Chipper says Hello!

I have four chipmunks now visiting my yard looking for food dropped from the bird feeder. At first I was only aware of three, one of which has a shorter tail than the others, and only two of which will run up to the back door when I open it and call them over (they know I keep the good stuff inside). Then a few weeks ago I noticed three chipmunks with long tails, although they don’t all come at the same time.

One day I noticed this chipmunk in my back garden, standing on its hind legs while munching on my pansy flowers. The pansies are situated just in front of the bird bath and do much better out back than they do in my front garden – they have been blooming profusely since May. (The ones in my front garden died only a few weeks after planting – remind me to never plant them out front again.) I tried to take some photos of the chipmunk standing up and eating the flowers, but they didn’t turn out so well.

However, I did manage to snap the shutter in time to get this photo:

Eastern Chipmunk

I went out and put some pile of bird seed on the small retaining wall, and the chipmunk disappeared until I was gone. Then it came back out to feed.

Eastern Chipmunk

It has a much shorter tail than my short-tailed Chippy, and it looks much more ragged – as though it was freshly broken off, and none too cleanly. I am not sure whether my short-tailed chipmunk had its tail further shortened, or whether this is one of my regular long-tailed ones. I’ll have to keep an eye out on the weekends and see.

In the neighbourhood: Kristina Kiss Park

Monarch

Late this past winter I discovered a new place for birding in my own neighbourhood: Kristina Kiss Park. It really isn’t much of a park; there’s a soccer field at the northern end (Kristina Kiss is a famous Canadian soccer player from Ottawa), a playground at the southern end, and the two are connected by a footpath that runs next to what I consider its most interesting feature: a channel of water that eventually drains into the Eagleson storm water ponds. Last winter I was driving through the area one day when I noticed what looked like an ice-covered pond behind the soccer field. Sure enough, there is a pond in the northeastern corner of the park according to Google maps. When March came and the ice melted, I found my first Killdeer of the year here, and I thought it could be interesting for shorebirds later in migration. However, as the spring progressed, the pond dried up and revealed itself as a large square patch of gravel with no apparent purpose but to collect the run-off from rainwater and snow-melt. The water channel that runs between the footpath and the houses on the next street over turned out to be more interesting, though it was choked with cattails in most places – there were muskrat push-ups scattered throughout, and when the spring returned, I found many of the more common city birds nesting within the vicinity: House Finches, robins, grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds, even a pair of Tree Swallows nesting in a nest box in one of the backyards!

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Owl Baiting (Again)

I last discussed owl baiting on this blog back in February 2013 after having a couple of distasteful experiences while trying to view the celebrity Great Gray Owls that made their home in Ottawa that winter. Since then, despite more and more people taking a stance against owl-baiting, this activity remains as popular – and as controversial – as ever. However, new information has emerged recently, warranting another post on this topic.

The main reason why so many people feel strongly against owl-baiting is that it affects the well-being of the owls. Baiting is the practice of using store-bought mice to entice owls to hunt so that photographers can get action shots of the owl in flight. While the photographers doing the baiting may see no issue with this, as there are currently no laws that unequivocally ban it and no research has been done that proves baiting actually harms owls, many naturalists, ethical photographers, and nature clubs feel this practice is bad for several reasons:

1. Baiting is done close to roads, and thus puts owls at risk of collisions with passing vehicles. This is one of the most common causes of mortality in northern owls overwintering in the south. Project Snowstorm, which tracks Snowy Owls from their wintering grounds to their breeding grounds with solar-powered transmitters, lost one of their research owls to a vehicle collision in early January 2018 and was able to recover the owl’s body and recorder. Many other owls are found dead along roadsides each winter, including some known to have been baited. Locally, Safe Wings Ottawa is aware of six Snowy Owls having been hit by cars this winter alone.

2. Baiting results in the ongoing repeated harassment of owls, with multiple photographers present all day, every day, particularly with rarer species like the Great Gray Owl and Northern Hawk Owl. Snowy Owls are almost a guarantee each winter in Eastern Ontario, which has led to photographers from the US and Canada charging thousands of dollars for workshops in which people to photograph baited owls. The cumulative effect of this constant human presence and the demands on the owl to perform on human timetables interferes with the owl’s natural behaviour and hunting cycles. In particular, it causes behavioural changes that may affect the owls’ long-term survival, such as becoming habituated to humans, learning to beg, and approaching people and cars for food.

3. Tracking data shows that Snowy Owls are naturally nocturnal this time of the year, despite their ability to hunt during the day. Interfering with their natural sleep cycle causes them to expend unnecessary energy they may need to survive.

3. Baiting involves releasing pet-store mice into the snow and cold, which is unnecessarily cruel. While these mice may have been specifically raised to feed pet carnivores such as snakes, they have never been exposed to the outdoors or our cold northern winters.

4. The mice are not native and, should they escape and live to breed, may harm or displace native species in the ecosystem.

5. Baiting ruins other people’s enjoyment of nature. Many people travel long distances to see northern owls in known locations, and many would prefer to see the birds’ natural interaction with their environment. People who drove from as far as the US to see the Great Gray Owls in 2012-13 left feeling disgusted because the owls were being baited constantly, which was not the experience they wanted or expected.

6. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) just recently uplisted the Snowy Owl — our most common winter owl — from Least Concern to Vulnerable. The population has been declining, notably in the American and Canadian part of its range. Rather than 200,000 individuals previously estimated, the global population is now believed to be much lower at 14,000 pairs or even as low as 7,000-8,000 pairs. The IUCN says that the causes of the decline “are uncertain but likely include climate change effecting [sic] prey availability, as well as collisions with vehicles and infrastructure. There remains some uncertainty about the overall rate of decline, and if it proves to be even higher the species may be eligible for further uplisting to Endangered.”

7. Owls can remain habituated even after they return to their breeding grounds in the spring. Locally-based birding and photography tour company Always An Adventure visited Rankin Inlet in the high Arctic in the summer of 2017. They were told by an Inuit wildlife guide that, when the Snowy Owls returned that spring, at least one individual was seen following people around. The fact is, we don’t know whether owls will remain habituated and associate people and cars with food for life. We don’t know what will happen if they return to populated areas in the south during the next winter or next irruption. Will they still associate cars with food? Will they follow people looking for handouts? Turning owls into circus performers for a few photos over the course of a winter is simply not worth the risk.

Yes, I’m recycling this old photo from the baiting that occurred in the Green’s Creek area of Ottawa in the winter of 2012-13, as I have actively avoided any owls being baited since that time.

Those who support baiting usually say there is no difference between feeding an owl store-bought mice and putting up a bird feeder. This is untrue.

First, people bait owls solely to get photos. No one dumps a cooler full of mice into a field and leaves, allowing the owl to hunt on its own, completely unobserved. The entire point of baiting is to get photographs, which is selfish exploitation rather than an altruistic desire to feed birds. In contrast, bird feeders are filled whenever they are empty, not just when the people inside want to watch the birds.

Second, most feeders are placed well away from the road, and songbirds don’t learn to associate cars with food. They are thus less at risk of being struck by a vehicle than an owl baited next to a road.

Third, an owl that finds a good hunting ground is reluctant to leave, meaning it is subject to the baiting for as long as the photographers will come. The birds that visit feeders have many feeding areas along a specific route that they follow daily, and the feeder is just one of many. Taking down the feeder has no effect on the songbirds; however, we don’t know for certain what happens to the owl once the baiters all leave – it is naive to assume that not one single baited bird has ever suffered adverse effects from becoming habituated to humans, only to have the humans abruptly stop providing food.

Finally, a person who puts out a bird feeder is likely the only one observing the birds. Many people go to view owls – the people baiting it usually aren’t the only ones present, but their wants seem take precedence over the wants of people who prefer to passively observe the owls. And since many birders and ethical photographers have no desire to watch or be a part of the baiting going on, they avoid the owls being baited and allow the baiters to take ownership of those owls.

In short, owls are baited to get them to do what the photographer wants, when the photographer wants, for the sake of a photo. Birdfeeders add another source of food to a bird’s territory and allow the birds to come on their own schedule.

A white mouse is a dead giveaway that the owl has been baited to get the photo.

While owls are protected by provincial law, which prohibits the harassment of raptors, the practice of baiting is a gray area. The main argument used by people who bait owls is that there is no law against it. While this is true, it is because no lawmakers could have conceived of this problem as it only became widespread with the invention of the digital camera. No one could have foreseen the sheer number of people baiting owls for photographs. Despite this argument, a Google search will bring up many, many posts against owl baiting, but very few in support of it. It is an issue in most provinces where owls spend the winter, and as a result, many nature clubs and birding organizations no longer report these owls’ locations publically, and have codes of ethics that specifically address the issue of owl harassment. It speaks volumes that so many individuals and clubs involved in the care or study of birds and wildlife are strongly against baiting, including the Owl Foundation, Canada’s longest-running owl rehab facility. Legislation that would make the practice of baiting for photographic purposes illegal would be welcomed by many local groups, including the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club, the Ontario Field Ornithologists, the Ottawa Valley Wild Bird Care Centre, the Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre, Safe Wings Ottawa, and other local photography clubs and other groups. Doubtless there are other clubs and organizations across Canada that feel the same way, especially now that the Snowy Owl has been listed as “Vulnerable” and populations are lower than previously believed.