Is this a waiting time for everything?

dawn over wetlands

I was out strolling along the cracks and crannies of the natural world in Orangeville for a couple of hours at dawn this morning. In this Covid-19 isolation time, the town was — thankfully! — so quiet from a human perspective. So few cars out; the lineup for Timmies near where I live was down from the typical dozen cars wound around the place to one or sometimes none at all. But the trails and stream valleys were often filled with the morning cacophony of bird song and screeching.

The gangs of Grackles and the swirlings of Starlings were especially noisy!

What struck me was that the Common Grackles and European Starlings were still in flocks. Not in pairs carrying nesting material. They were in remarkably large groupings, perhaps hundreds of grackles and several swirls of fifty or more starlings. Why?

I’m wondering if these birds are not quite ready for the frenzy of mating and nesting and the rearing of young? Do they have some sense that the season is still too early, that food sources for nestlings won’t be available for another while, that this is still a period of anticipation, not action? How would we find out? I have not seen any of the chest-swelling of the male grackle as it woos a female. I did see several pairs of starlings leaving the loose flocks of their kind and heading away into clumps of old Manitoba Maples, with their often frequent holes suitable for nesting.

I turned my attention to other birds to see if there were any possible clues. European Starlings, after all, are not native birds, having been introduced into New York City in 1890. That isn’t likely time enough for them to evolve the close adaptation to specific climatic variations from one local to the next. Grackles are native and I expect have a long-evolved climatic adaptation, which may be having an effect this Spring.

Red-winged Blackbird males were very evident, in some places around storm ponds loudly proclaiming as close as 20 metres apart, calling out to females that they have the best nesting spots. I have not yet seen any female RWBs … but I’m not the best observer … Surely they’re back, and if so, then they area already hiding and possibly building nests. But I didn’t see any evidence of that.

Song Sparrows were also loudly announcing their territories. Almost every singing Song Sparrow was solitary, with only a few flying non-singing sparrows that did not sing when they landed in a bush.

Canada Geese are now definitely paired off, but every pair I saw were both standing. Not one of them sitting on a nest. I saw only a few solitary geese. I’d have expected nesting would have already begun. I didn’t see any evidence.

So as far as birds go, does this Spring seem too early to risk breeding? Is this still a waiting time?

Quick notes:

Other bird sightings of mine this week:

  • I heard a flock of Cedar Waxwings before I saw them! This is remarkable for me, because as someone with a long-time hearing loss and even though I’ve been wearing good hearing aids for over 25 years, I’ve never really heard that bird, other than very faintly perhaps a few times. But earlier in the week as I was walking past a wetlands in town, I heard remarkably clear high-pitched calls coming from a small flock of birds. At first, I didn’t pay attention, and then it struck me. I was actually hearing Cedar Waxwings! I just got new hearing aids, and I had asked the audiologist to tune them so that I could better hear the higher frequencies of some bird songs. My new hearing aids work wonders! It’s been a whole week of pleasure to learn what Cardinals and Song Sparrows and … all the birds actually sound like to someone with ordinary ears!
  • Just a couple of streets south of downtown Broadway on that same day, I heard and saw a pair of Merlins screaming from the tops of grand old Silver Maples in the backyards of a block of houses. Maintaining more than sufficient physical and social distance, I eagerly pointed them out to several passing dogwalkers, who seemed suitably impressed!
  • This morning, I was fiercely croaked at by a low-flying Raven as I left the Indigenous Medicine Wheel Garden on the west side of town. I must look up about Ravens in Anishinaabe culture … It was a solo Raven, whereas in the past several weeks, I’ve been regularly seeing a pair together. Are they already sitting on a clutch of eggs, starting early as bigger owls do, anticipating ahead the huge appetites their juveniles will have and timing so as to take advantage of the hatchlings and feeble-flying young of other birds?

2019 Christmas Bird Count Report And Results

Dark-eyed Junco (by Paul Blayney)

(Report written by Russ McGillivray, Christmas Bird Count Co-ordinator;
the Dark-eyed Junco image is by Paul Blayney)

The 120th annual Christmas Bird Count is run by the Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada. Counts can be done on any single day between Dec 14 and Jan 5 and are conducted within a circle of diameter 24 km (15 miles). This year we counted on 2020 January 04, marking our 28th count as several years were missed. Since 1987, the UCFN/HN have been responsible for the Caledon circle, which includes Orangeville.

Headwaters Nature Christmas Bird Count map
Headwaters Nature Christmas Bird Count map

Weather was around zero degrees and overcast all day. Unfortunately, still bodies of water, such as in the gravel pits, were frozen. The species count was 38 (5 year average of 40) with 3,301 individuals (lowest since 2013; average 4,235).

We had 33 observers (a record) in our six sectors and all together the parties logged 54 hours and 718 km. Areas 1, 3 and 4 were split into two separate teams each and the feedback is that this worked well.

Headwaters Nature Christmas Bird Count results 2019
  • New to the Headwaters Nature 2019 count were Green-winged Teal (male and female) and a pair of feral Mute Swans. Other good finds were Brown Creeper (5, tying the record), two Great-Horned Owls (last counted in 2011), and 14 Ravens (tying record). We also had Northern Flicker (1), Belted Kingfisher (2), Robin (29), Cedar Waxwing (67), Golden-crown Kinglet (3) and House Finch (27).
  • Notable misses were Pileated Woodpecker (last zero count was 2012) and Northern Shrike (last zero count was 2015). Purple Finch (7) was the only winter finch. The only hawks were Red-tailed (8) and Cooper’s (2).

What does our own count data tell us about trends in bird populations of common (or once common) species? I compared the average count for the first five years (1987-91) with the last five years (2015-19) where the birds were counted in all five of the baseline years.

  • Declines of 50% or more: Ruffed Grouse, Rough-legged Hawk, Blue Jay, Chickadee, Cedar Waxwing, Cardinal, House Finch, Purple Finch, Evening Grosbeak and House Sparrow.
  • Increases of 100% or more: Canada Goose, Mallard, Wild Turkey, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Crow, Raven, Red-breasted Nuthatch and Robin.
  • No big surprises for anyone who has been a birder for a couple of decades, but there are obviously a number of causal factors at work. Overall, the number of species has gone down by 10% and the number of individuals counted has gone down by 8%.

We’ll hope to see even more counters next year! It’s only necessary to be interested and committed to the counting — and appropriately dressed! We spread around our ‘experts’ amongst the rest of us!

2018 November: Batwoman is coming to Town!

Outdoor adventurer Cylita “Batwoman” Guy of the University of Toronto and Ontario Science Centre will talk about her research on viruses and bats.

2018 November 27, 7:30 pm – 9:00 pm, at our usual meeting place.

Cylita Guy is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on bats and their viruses. Using a combination of field and computational approaches she is investigating why bats seem to be good at carrying viruses that they sometimes share with humans, but rarely get sick from themselves.

In her spare time she looks to help others foster their own senses of curiosity and discovery. She works as a Host at the Ontario Science Centre and started a Junior Bat Biologist Program in conjunction with the High Park Nature Centre. You can also read about her hilarious field exploits in the recent general audience book Fieldwork Fail: The Messy Side of Science! In her down time, you’ll find her chasing her next big outdoor adventure.