Exploring my little piece of the planet

Birds

Chipping Sparrow

Spizella passerina

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The little Chipping Sparrow is just another common LBJ (Little Brown Job) that we hear all the time and often see flitting around the ground and shrubs but can’t distinguish from all the other LBJs doing more or less the same thing. Although passerine just means “little sparrow” and spizella simply identifies it with a few other little sparrows, it is distinctive once you take a closer look. It’s named for the sharp chip it sends out to let its mate know where it is (its call). Its song can also be described as a series of super-fast chips but a rattle, or single-noted trill is more precise.

Those in the know claim that males who have staked territories near one another impressively develop their one repeated note into individual songs. The Chipping Sparrow’s song sounds a lot like that of a Dark-eyed Junco, but the sparrow’s note is repeated more quickly and is less metallic-sounding. A third sound this bird makes is an extended seep, warning of a nearby hawk or other predator.

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The Chipping Sparrow shouldn’t really even qualify as an LBJ since once it turns around, or you can see it from below, its smooth, pale grey breast, along with the dramatic black eye-line accented by a white eyebrow are giveaways. Its orangey-pink legs and feet are also characteristic. Migration takes this bird from far north of here in the Canadian sub-arctic all the way south as far as Nicaragua in the winter, where its bright rufus cap fades a bit and as if taking a tan, its breast and belly become a little darker. Fairly solitary during the breeding season, afterwards these birds form loose groups intriguingly known as a tournament.

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Males are quite territorial and will guard their lifetime mate as she builds her flimsy nest and incubates the eggs. Although light can be seen through the loose weave, she indulges her future nestlings with a soft lining of hair or fur. Chipping Sparrows were once known as “Hair Birds” for this reason. Although quite adaptable when it comes to the location for her nest, she prefers conifers (wild or ornamental) and usually builds among thick foliage at the ends of branches not more than 10′ from the ground. Like many other birds, the female develops a fluid-filled bare patch on her abdomen during breeding season that helps to keep her eggs warm during incubation.

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Seeds and small insects form most of the Chipping Sparrows diet. It will readily visit backyard feeders where it pays for its dinner by picking off some of the mosquitoes and flies.

In 1929, Edward Forbush called the Chipping Sparrow “the little brown-capped pensioner of the dooryard and lawn, that comes about farmhouse doors to glean crumbs shaken from the tablecloth by thrifty housewives.” Source

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Sources:

All About Birds
What Bird
iBird (iPhone app)
My nature books


Northern Shoveler

Also known as Spoonbill
Anas clypeata

Northern Shoveler

A Male Northern Shoveler in morning light

The first pictures this year of the Northern Shovelers on the marsh near my work were taken on May 21. Two pair, or at least 2 males and 2 females floated, paddled and mostly put their heads down like a snow-plow’s bucket and skimmed the water beneath the surface for nourishment.

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Two pair of Northern Shovelers and a pair of Green-Winged Teal on the marsh, late May

As dabblers, Northern Shovelers feed on any little animal or vegetative matter they find in shallow water and prefer marshes like the small wetland I visit most days. Their enormous, spoon-like bill and comb-like projections on the tongue give them the advantage of being able to strain small invertebrates from the mud at the pond’s bottom. The scientific species name clypeata means ‘furnished with a shield’ referring to this duck’s unique bill.

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A pair of Northern Shovelers dabbling in the marsh in early June

At first it wasn’t obvious that these ducks are monogamous. The four of them seemed quite content to dabble together, but within days it was clear that my little marsh might not be large enough for them all as at least one male would spring from the water towards the other whenever he came too close to his mate. Rising in a rush like a spring, he cut a low, direct path to the intruder, briefly scolding him, “took, took, took”, in his restrained but obviously effective way. Then circling to return and skim the water, with one strong wing stroke he would come to a skidding stop close to his mate. It was comical to see how quickly he would return to feeding as it was all in a day’s work.

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Returning from a short flight to warn away another male, a Northern Shoveler skids to a stop with his powerful wings.

Other ducks and even the resident muskrat don’t give him a moment’s pause. I often saw the Shovelers sleeping or preening on a raised mound of muskrat-mud with the much smaller green-winged teal, or sometimes a blue-winged teal close at hand.

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Unconcerned, a male Northern Shoveler preens himself while a much smaller male Green-Winged Teal swims near his mate.

Floating, sitting or standing – bright orange legs and feet displayed – the female seemed to be always either feeding or sleeping. The male, in contrast, appears to spend the majority of his time preening himself. Perhaps that’s how he entertains himself while keeping watch.

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While his mate sleeps with her head tucked up in her wing, a male Northern Shoveler preens himself.

Almost as large as the Mallard, with a wing span of nearly a metre and a similarly coloured, iridescent green head and neck, the fairly common Northern Shoveler is often at first confused with this ubiquitous duck.

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The morning light shows the iridescent green head and chestnut-coloured sides of the Northern Shoveler, reminiscent of the Mallard. However identification can be clarified by the massive bill, yellow eyes and white chest.

A closer look will end the confusion. As the marsh vegetation grows, it becomes more and more difficult to see the residents but the male Northern Shoveler often stands out with its yellow eyes, bright white breast and belly, and rufous chestnut sides, a fleeting sparkle in the reeds.

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A ‘channel’ through the marsh reveals the eye-shaped identifying pattern of the male Northern Shoveler.

The female in contrast, as most female ducks do, blends in well with the vegetation and its reflection in the water with the dappled-looking chevron pattern of her back and wing feathers. I look for her huge yellow-orange rimmed bill shining in the sunlight. The Northern Shoveler’s profile is the give-away.

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A cloudy sky deadens reflections that normally help camouflage the unique silhouette of the Northern Shoveler as she rests on a clump of mud and grass.

Now I believe they are nesting. The marsh is quiet. The female should be sitting on eggs in a nest hidden in the thickest vegetation, purportedly away from the water. It’s getting more and more difficult to discern whether there are still two pair in residence. If there are, they are staying well clear of each other as I only occasionally see a lone male to reassure me that they’re still around.

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An aggressive defender of his mate and territory while breeding, the male Northern Shoveler often abandons the family during incubation.

I’m very curious to find their nest since the little wetland is bordered by a thin strip of conifer forest rising right into town. Northern Shovelers are said to nest 75-200 feet from water. If that’s the case, although I am a poor judge of distance, I’d say they’re into the well-worn forest very close to industrial on one side (including an oil well) and residential lots on the other.

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Northern Shovelers are monogamous, often returning to the same breeding and nesting areas between their long migrations as far as the west coast of Mexico.

For more information on the Northern Shoveler:

What Bird
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology (Scroll a bit for sounds)
Boreal Songbird Initiative
Birds of Alberta (With interesting feather chart)

For some great pictures of the Northern Shoveler:

Rob McKay Photography
Flickr


Bohemian Waxwing

Bombycilla garulus

In a corner of our neighbour’s back yard, behind their garage and feet from the standard chain-link fences installed by the oil companies who originally planted our houses here in the 1970’s, hunkers a stunted but stalwart crab-apple tree. Its delicate springtime blossoms and bitter fall fruit go mostly unnoticed, almost hidden as it is among the utilitarian structures of adjoining neighbours’ storage sheds. I can see it though, and I watch it closely at certain times of the year since I know it is a favourite of the properly nomadic, bohemian waxwing.

I usually hear them first, their amicable and indeed garulus gabble precedes the synchronized flight of the flock, gathering for their communal winter foraging in November or returning to town in April to clean out the fruit before setting up their nests high in the pines, deep in the boreal forest.

I’ve seen their call described as abrasive, and indeed some of the audio files I came across researching this article are true to that descriptor. However, even close up I find the sound of a flock whirring through the air or busily feeding on mountain ash or my neighbour’s crab-apple tree, soft and pleasant, comforting even, like the mellow slide and sloosh of a forest stream over smoothed rocks.


With the grace and rarity of Japanese dragon kites, the undulating flight of an ear-full or museum of waxwings (who decided on and who agreed that these would be the collective terms for waxwings, I do not know) fleetingly enliven the early spring and late fall skies and draw me outdoors to clamber through new or rotting snow to visit my neighbour’s crab-apple tree.

Although watchful, with confidence or bravado, these glossily-adorned and elegant beauties have often allowed me to come to within a few metres of them as they gorge and quarrel, and often share the rotting fruit.

Waxwings get their name from the elongated yellow beads that extend from their secondary feathers, but their whole sleek bodies seem expertly crafted from softened wax, or silken fabric, fresh dyed with rich spices and woven more sturdily at wing- and tail-tips; the saffron yellow and Syrian Rue red procured from the masters. Their generic name, Bombycilla, comes from ‘silky tails’, the term directly used for their name in some eastern European languages.

Adroitly darting about on tapered wings, their limber bodies nimbly bending and twisting, keenly intent on nourishment, I am mesmerized by the intensity of exotic colour flashing through the pale winter grays, and entertained by their determination and single-mindedness.

A metre of snow may have covered a winter’s accumulation of dropped fruit, but anything visible is not wasted, the fresh layer easily mined.

Although possibly declining, the bohemian waxwing is numerous and has such a broad range (circumpolar in the Northern Hemisphere) it is considered a “species of least concern” by the IUCN Red List. See the IUCN listing for Bombycilla garrulus and Environment Canada species listing.

Recommended:
Wonders of the Waxwings: Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings
by Robin Robinson
Wobbling Waxwings by Next Door Nature


Ruffed Grouse

Bonasa umbellus

Spring comes late in my part of the world, but I know it’s almost here when I hear the first exciting drum roll of the courting Ruffed Grouse. Usually, though, I at first mistake it for an all terrain vehicle or motorcycle that’s complaining of the cold as someone tries to start it up. It turns over a few times and then catches, runs roughly for a few seconds and abruptly stalls out. Then in a few minutes it does it again. “Bup…bup…bup…bup, bup, bupupupup, rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.”

Last April two males chose drumming logs above the ravine less than 200 metres apart and this guy was not giving up his claim easily. I left him to it.

Sometime in early April the male ruffed grouse chooses a territory with a nice, old, preferably hollow log to use as his bandstand. There he will stand, with ruff fluffed out and tail fanned, and he will drum on and off for hours and days until the girl of his dreams decides that he’s the best drummer around.

This is one of the logs chosen by a ruffed grouse last spring. I wasn’t lucky enough to catch him on it with my camera, but you can tell it’s been ‘chosen’ as it’s covered in droppings.

“Grouse scat is brown in color with a whitish end 1 inch in length to 1/4 inch in diameter. Droppings may also be found in the form of a small pile when feeding on succulent plants. Their diet consists of nuts, berries, green leaves and fruit.” (source)

The Ruffed Grouse is at home in a mixed wood forest. The grouse pictured here live in the mixed wood ravine of an otherwise coniferous forest and nest in the aging willows. Ruffed grouse are distinguishable from the Spruce Grouse, which is more adapted to the boreal forest proper, by the distinctive crest on the top of the head. There are other markings, among them the black-banded tail, but I’ve found that the crest is the easiest way to tell the difference.

“I’m a broken branch.”

I’m used to being confused by seasonal plumage, but grouse are also masters at camouflage and talented shape-shifters. They can disappear in a heart beat. A flurry of flapping wings will be all you see if you startle them, but if they see you coming they will run behind a tree. In either case you’re not likely to find them again. They hide easily right under your nose, shaping themselves as a broken tree limb or a pile of leaves.

“I’m a pile of leaves”