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Gray October

The cool weather and gray skies arrived this past week, and with them came the fall birding doldrums. This usually hits me when I realize that we are now halfway through the fall migration season, and that more species have already departed than are still left to come. It’s going to be at least seven months before I hear another Ovenbird or see a flock of Barn Swallows swooping over farm fields; the Wood Thrush, the Eastern Kingbird, and the Yellow Warbler are all somewhere far south of here. Both the birds and the seasons are moving on, and this was made evident when we had to turn the heat on as the nights started dropping down into the single digit temperatures.

I headed out to the Eagleson Ponds yesterday morning, but didn’t spend much time there as there wasn’t much to photograph. After about an hour I ended up with 27 species, and for the first time in months I did not see or hear the Northern Flicker. Sparrows and finches were abundant – it was a mild morning, and several Song Sparrows were still singing. A couple of White-throated Sparrows were attempting to sing, too. A couple of those popped into view when I started pishing, as did an adult and juvenile White-crowned Sparrow.

White-crowned Sparrow


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Sun Halo

One of the most common atmospheric displays is the 22° circular halo, such as this one that I photographed in Kanata on Saturday. Created by sunlight refracting through hexagonal ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere, they are visible throughout the year and are easiest to spot when the sky is covered with a thin layer of high altitude cirrus clouds. The halo is always a distance of 22° from the sun, or about the distance between your thumb and pinkie finger when your arm is fully extended with all your fingers spread. Although the hexagonal ice crystals may be randomly-oriented, the diameters of the crystals are less than 20.5 micrometers.

Sun Halo (click to enlarge)

Sun Halo (click to enlarge)

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Another Mouse Rescue

Peromyscus sp.

Peromyscus sp.

Last March I rescued a mouse from the main floor of the building where I work downtown. Yesterday my fiance Doran and I rescued one from our house.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen a mouse in our house; unfortunately, the last one was discovered by my cats sometime in the night, and I found its dismembered remains in the kitchen the next day. Actually, one of my cats found this one too, but it was still alive when I noticed him playing with it. I was working on the computer when I heard my male, Jango, playing with something in the doorway. I wasn’t sure what he was doing, and when I looked over, I saw a small brown rodent streak across the hall toward the guest room. Jango followed it, and so did I. I shooed the cat away and then went to get a glass to catch the mouse. By the time I returned, the mouse had vanished. Doran has a live-catch mousetrap, so we set it in the guest room with some peanut butter in it. When we checked the trap the next morning, the mouse was in it.

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Woodpeckers with Three Toes

Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpecker

Most birds have four toes. The toes of most perching birds, shorebirds, and gallinaceous (game) birds are arranged in an anisodactyl arrangement – that is, three of the toes point forward while the first toe, called the hallux, points backward. This arrangement is evident in the tracks of a Ruffed Grouse in the snow, or the tracks of a sandpiper or crow on the mudflats of your favourite river or beach. Woodpeckers, Osprey, owls and cuckoos, on the other hand, have a zygodactyl arrangement of toes: the first and fourth toes point backward while the two middle toes point forward.

However, three woodpecker species exist which have only three toes. Two (the Black-backed Woodpecker and the American Three-toed Woodpecker) are found in North America, while the third (the Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker) is found in the Boreal regions of Europe and Asia. These species all inhabit coniferous forests where they feed chiefly on wood-boring beetle larvae. The American Three-toed Woodpecker has the northern-most breeding range in North America, while the Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker has the northern-most breeding range in Eurasia. These two species were considered one species until 2003, when they were split because of differences in voice and in mitochondrial DNA sequences. All are believed to have a common ancestor which lost the first toe, the hallux, over time.

The fourth toe is not fixed in a backwards direction, but is able to rotate sideways or even forwards as the woodpecker moves up and down a tree. It is thought that woodpeckers with four toes only use three toes to grip the tree trunk, while the fourth is kept beneath the leg or extends out to the side, thus limiting the amount of force a woodpecker is able to deliver while hammering on a tree trunk. Woodpeckers with three toes do not need to accommodate this extra toe and are able to extend their body back further from the tree when it strikes.

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A Winter Lifer

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

It’s been a long time since my last blog post. I haven’t been going out birding much this winter; the cold has been intolerable, with most mornings starting off well below -20°C. Even the daytime highs have been well below seasonal this year – I can think of only a few occasions where they have risen above -10C. In fact, this winter has been so cold that on February 25th, the Rideau Canal broke the record for the number of consecutive days it has remained open: 47, the most since it first opened 45 years ago. Normally heavy snowstorms and a rainy mid-winter thaw result in the canal’s closure for at least a couple of days each season. Not this year.

We haven’t received many heavy snowstorms since the new year, but the few that have occurred on the weekend have started early in the day. Twice I went out birding first thing in the morning and only managed to spend an hour outdoors before a curtain of snow descended. Ottawa actually hasn’t received a lot of snow this winter, but since we haven’t had any significant thaws either, the snow cover is fairly deep.

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A Northern Shoveler in January

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shovelers are medium-sized ducks that are usually only found in Ottawa during migration. Although the bulk of the population breeds across the western half of the continent, from Manitoba west to B.C. and into Alaska, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories, a very small number have been confirmed breeding in southern and eastern Ontario. I usually only see them when they stop over on ponds such as the ones at the Richmond Lagoons and Sarsaparilla Trail, the Moodie Drive Quarry, and inside the dyke at Shirley’s Bay, both in the spring and in the fall. In the spring, Northern Shovelers typically pass through Ottawa during the month of April; I usually have more sightings in the fall, when they pass through from late August through late October. The latest I’ve seen this species in Ottawa is the first week of November. I have never known of one overwintering in our area, so when I heard there was one in Kanata about 5 minutes away from where I live, I decided to check it out the first chance I got.

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Wildlife Around Home

Eastern Cottontail

Eastern Cottontail

Although I haven’t been spending much time in my backyard this summer, I have spotted some interesting wildlife around. My flower garden this year seems to be a dismal failure at attracting butterflies or hummingbirds; most of the Cabbage Whites I observe keep flying over the yard rather than nectaring on any flowers, and the only other species I’ve seen lately were a Clouded Sulphur and a dark butterfly that might have been a White Admiral (I was looking out into the bright sunshine and couldn’t see it very well). Both of these were fly-overs, and spent no time investigating any of the flowers. I haven’t seen any odonates around since I noticed a female Common Whitetail in my neighbour’s front yard one day about a month ago while we were chatting.

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