Snowshoe birds

This morning saw us setting forth for the first time this winter on snowshoes in beautiful -16C sunshine to do our scheduled shift at the MBO filling up the bird feeders. This is quite the highlight of our winter activities with sun, snow, birds and nobody else around. There was still ice from the freezing rain of mid-week on the trees and it was glistening in the light.

Nothing special in the way of birds other than that we were able to add White-throated Sparrows to our 2017 list. For all that it was a very pleasant morning.

Bird Trends (Hudson CBC 1986-2015)

Prompted by the arrival in my inbox of the preliminary count data from the 2016 Hudson Christmas Bird Count and it being a bit chilly outside today – to say nothing of windy and with snow falling – I thought to myself, what better to be doing on New Year’s Eve than to crunch some numbers. I think people will find this interesting – at least, the sort of people I know 🙂

So – here are species bird counts from the Hudson CBC for the past 30 years, from 1986 up to 2015. I have omitted this year’s counts as they are still preliminary figures. Each chart below graphs the number of each species reported for each year and is overlaid with a curve showing the polynomial trend line for the period (exponential trend line for the Wild Turkeys as it’s a better fit). From these it is easy to see which way the populations of our winter birds have been moving in the past three decades. The species were more or less chosen at random from amongst those species with high enough counts most years to be reliable/significant. If anyone would like to look at the data themselves you can download counts for the past 76 years from the Audubon website and play to your heart’s content in the spreadsheet of your choice.

I would be interested in your comments on these data – please use the comment box at the bottom of this post. Thanks.

 

House Sparrow

I am perennially interested in House Sparrows, so this was the first out of the box. Not surprisingly, given what is happening elsewhere in the world, there has been a steady decline in numbers since around 1996 which in the past two or three years appears to finally be levelling off.

Blue Jay

Reasonably steady populations averaged over the thirty years with notable peaks and troughs on the actual census days. Worryingly low counts last year (and anecdotally in 2016 also).

Northern Cardinal

As expected – there is a clear upward trend in the numbers of Cardinals being seen in early winter.

European Starling

Numbers increased for the first ten years but then, with some year-to-year variation, have been reasonably consistent up to the presetn day.

Snow Bunting

Tend to be localised and move around in flocks so there is an element of chance in finding them in any year. Overall numbers were relatively consistent until the latter twn to fifteen years when there seems to have been a small but regular decline. Account must be taken, however, of great fluctuations from year to year.

Pileated Woodpecker

Low in number but showing a steady increases over time

Northern Shrike

A highly inconsistent bird only seen in small numbers but showing a trend towards lower numbers

American Crow

A gradual increase in the numbers counted over the years

Black-capped Chickadee

Generally present in consistent numbers year by year.

Mourning Dove

Interestingly, after an original increase in number they l;evelled off and in recent years are showing a definite decline in population.

Mallard

At first only very infrequently seen their numbers started to rise noticeable some twenty years ago. It is reasonable to ascribe this to climate change resulting in open water being still present at the time of the count day.

Wild Turkey

Not seen at all in the circle until 2005 these birds have moved in with a vengeance and show steadily increasing numbers year by year

Downy Woodpecker

Reliably consistent species

White-breasted Nuthatch

A slight but consistent increase in numbers

American Tree Sparrow

Consistent in small numbers with annual fluctuations but no definite trend up or down in populations over the thirty years.

Dark-eyed Junco

In many recent years barely seen at all but there is evidence of a steady or increased population. Insufficient data to be certain.

House Finch

After an initial increase in numbers in the first decade reviewed here, numbers have been generally consistent

 

On the naming of Larks (and a day of CBC-ing)

Photographs follow further down

 

Yesterday was the 76th Hudson Christmas Bird Count and J and I were out all day counting birds on our usual route. I’ll get to the day report shortly but first want to ask you to Consider the Horned Lark.

Why? Because we found something interesting and I think it will interest you also and encourage you to look more closely at the next group you happen upon.

After we had completed our assigned CBC route we decided to go off and look for Snowy Owls. That was not a success but we did happen across a small group of some twenty or so Horned Larks out in the flatlands west of St-Clet and I duly pulled up at a decent distance and crept up on them with the camera. Like Snow Buntings, they are pretty skittish birds and depart when you are some distance away, but I got a few record shots, got back in the car and headed off. It was only when I got home and downloaded the pictures that I realized that I had something unusual. The typical Horned Lark that we see here has a yellow face and throat and indeed, most of the birds showed those markings. Mixed in amongst them though was at least one bird whose face/throat were white. Look at these photographs to see what I mean:

Regular, yellow-faced, Horned Lark
White-faced Horned Lark

I confess to never before having noticed such differences between birds, ostensibly of the same species, and so did some reading. There are a remarkable 21 recognised subspecies of the Horned Lark which really makes life hard – fortunately most of those are out west which reduced the options somewhat. I concluded – and have confirmed – that the yellow faced birds we normally see here in winter are Eremophila alpestris alpestris while the white faced bird is Eremophila alpestris practicola

The following details are from Cornell’s Birds of North America (goo.gl/9VSvFc):

Our regular yellow-faced bird (E. a. alpestris) is the nominate race, breeds from w. Ontario east to Newfoundland and Labrador. Almost completely migratory, it winters from Manitoba and Newfoundland south to Kansas and N. Carolina, mixing with the resident E. a. praticola . It has a sepia brown dorsum, spectrum yellow, throat, and eyebrow stripe, and white belly.

The white-faced bird (E. a. praticola) is the “prairie” race, breeds from Minnesota to Nova Scotia and south to e. Kansas and N. Carolina. In winter, some individuals move as far south as Florida. Smaller and darker than E. a arcticola, but chin pale yellow to white.

There is also a very useful paper published in 1994 by Ron Pittaway (Subspecies of the Horned Lark; Ontario Birds Dec 1994; 12:3; 109-115) which notes that praticola breed sparsely in southern Ontario and that the breeding range of the Prairie subspecies is separated from the breeding ranges of the two northern subspecies by a wide band of boreal forest.

So finding alpestris alongside praticola is not necessarily unusual provided you are viewing the birds somewhat south and west of here. It’s the praticola bird that is historically out of place here in Quebec.

The take-away from this being not to just note Horned Larks (nice birds, lovely to see on a cold day) but to scan the flock carefully for different forms because they are not all the same. Now – what about the other 19 subspecies? Were any of them present yesterday as well?

Thanks for reading this far – I find this sort of thing fascinating. Now, keep going, the photographs are not far away:


So – back to the Hudson CBC as it played out for J and I who were doing our usual “Route 2″ of the circle.  

We have been doing this route consistently each year for a dozen, possibly more, years and so have a pretty good idea of where to look the hardest and where the birds hang out in largest numbers. The day and night prior to this year’s count had seen the area enjoy a heavy fall of freezing rain and cars were in ditches all over the place. Nearby town of Rigaud had closed a couple of roads on their mountain because two of their gritting trucks had gone into the ditches it was that slippery!! Fortunately, by the time we set out in the early morning temperatures had climbed a degree or so above zero and things were not too scary. Our route starts in a residential area of west Hudson, takes us along a countryfied road with big houses and horse barns (and big dogs that chase cars) then down to the flat lands around St-Clet where we always enjoy the winter visitors and hope – usually vainly – for Snowy Owls.

By the end of the day we had ticked off 19 species of birds which is good for the territory we were birding in at this time of year, but we noticed a continuation of recent years in that while the species may be reliable the numbers of individual birds is diminishing. Almost always the first birds we tick off are Blue Jays but yesterday we found only 5 altogether and they all in the southern sector of our census area. Again, flocks of Euro-Starlings used to be the norm around the farms but a mere 24 were seen altogether. It was also noticeable that where once there used to be many bird feeders in gardens, these days we are down to just a couple that are in active use. One in particular that for many years has been swarming with birds when we pass was totally devoid of seed. Hard to understand why people put feeders up and then don’t keep them filled, but there you are, there is no accounting for folk.

Snowy Owls were notable by their absence. This was a pity as one had been photographed a week beforehand on our route but was probably passing through. After the heavy freezing rain the ability of SNOWs to break through the ice crust on the snow and get at their rodent prey must have been seriously compromised.

We found a few Wild Turkeys – handsome birds – as well as a colourful flock of American Robins, Cooper’s and Red-tailed Hawks, two Common Ravens and all the usual birds (list follows). A nice flock of Snow Buntings were very active on the flat fields – attracted to, but not that reliant on, some seed bait left by the banding group who are studying this species. After we had completed our rounds we “invaded” the territory covered by the Route 1 team to look for Snowy owls – again with no success but it did allow us to locate the Horned Larks discussed above.

Anyway – enough of that. It was a good day, the roads were better than expected, and the birding, while hard, was rewarding. Here is a list of the species we added to the CBC count for the day/year and a few photographs.

Wild Turkey  7 – Cooper’s Hawk  1 – Red-tailed Hawk  1 – Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  115 – Mourning Dove  7 – Downy Woodpecker  5 – Hairy Woodpecker  1 – Blue Jay  5 – American Crow  14 – Common Raven  2 – Horned Lark  20 – Black-capped Chickadee  60 – White-breasted Nuthatch  8 – American Robin  8 – European Starling  24 – Lapland Longspur  6 – Snow Bunting  120 – Dark-eyed Junco  21 – American Goldfinch  5 – House Sparrow  2

 

One member of the Robin flock (the others melted away as the camera focussed)
Wild Turkeys melt into the trees at our approach
Feral Pigeons – sometimes this is as exciting as a formal census gets
Mourning Doves
Snow Buntings
The Snow Bunting flock wheels around the field
Threatening weather approaches
More Snow Buntings (you can never have too many)
Horned Larks (both sub-species together)

Change of Venue

Now that Christmas 2016 is behind us and we are heading pell-mell into a new year, please note that

Journal Articles will henceforth be published at the following address:

www.greenbirding.ca

All the old posts (see below) will reman here and all the other Sparroworks Wildlife Co. stuff such as guide books for sale etc will also remain on this site.

Please don’t ask why – but the reason is a good one.

Better than Santa

This mid-winter festival business is a bit of a mish-mash these days. Christmas, Hannukah, Holidays, Solstice etc etc but all centered aorund the time of the winter solstice and the hope of returning spring (eventually). Hence we have a Winter Tree instead of a Christmas Tree but other wise it’s the same tinsel and glass balls.

It’s easy to find alternatives to the Chritian icons if, like us, you just do “something at mid-winter”, but a lot harder to find an alternative to Santa to bring the presents. Some of the alternative cultural characters seem to be pretty unpleasant what with witches and hags boiling naughty kids in the cauldron or dragging them away to the underworld.

But, once again those fine people in Iceland have come to the recue with the the Yule Lads (Jólasveinar) – 13 sons of trolls who visit nightly in the couple of weeks leading up to the main festival. Instead of socks, children in Iceland put a shoe in their bedroom window each evening. Every night one Yuletide lad visits, leaving sweets and small gifts or rotting potatoes, depending on how that particular child has behaved on the preceding day. Each Yuletide lad has a specific idiosyncrasy and will therefore behave in a unique manner on his duty night.

These seem jolly guys … and a free bit of chocolate every night for a fortnight seems quite acceptable.

Feederwatch 2016/17 begins – 14 species

Unless something really unusual turns up over the winter we won’t be posting weekly Feederwatch updates here, but thought it interesting to at least share the first recordings of the annual season. We scored 14 species, most of them regulars but worthy of note is the continuing presence of a small flock of House Finches accompanied by a solitary female Purple Finch and the presence of a White-throated Sparrow. WTSparrows have usually gone by this date and in the 16 years we have been doing Feederwatching in this garden we have only ever seen one before – same week in 2013 … is this chance or climate change?

The birds seen were:

Sharp-shinned Hawk  1
Mourning Dove  3
Downy Woodpecker  2
Hairy Woodpecker  1
Blue Jay  2
Black-capped Chickadee  6
Red-breasted Nuthatch  1
White-breasted Nuthatch  2
American Robin  8
White-throated Sparrow  1
Northern Cardinal  3
House Finch  8
Purple Finch  1
American Goldfinch  3

We photographed as many of the birds as we could – didn’t get them all, but a good enough number are shown in the gallery below. Hover over each thumbnail to see the species being illustatred or click on any one to see a gallery at full size (much the best experience).

Observations on the latest “Bridge” Cameras for Birders

Are you a budding bird photographer, intimidated by the size, weight and price of profesisonal equipment? This may be of interest.

“Bridge” or “Superzoom” cameras have been used for years by naturalists because of their portability and flexibility but other than for the convenient taking of record shots or of particularly obliging small birds sitting quietly close to the photographer they have generally been derided  as being “not real cameras”. Why? Because of their restricted zoom range and their tiny, tiny sensors.

I confess to having been amongst those who didn’t want to spend my money of one of these cameras because (a) I had seen good evidence that they weren’t up to the bird photography job however suitable they might have been for other photographic subjects and (b) I was already heavily invested in big DSLR cameras and multiple heavy and expensive lenses – not to forget that long white lenses give you credibility 🙂

But then I started to feel, as I have aged, a need for something lighter and more compact that would bridge the gap between snapshot -capable cameras and the pro-glass. I first of all got a top of the range Sony mirrorless camera with a full-size sensor which accepts, via adapters, a couple of Canon landscape and macro lenses that I already had in my bag but that still didn’t address the bird issue. Finally, under the increasing weight of my camera bag(s) and the new houshold rule that “no new cameras come in unless an equivalent number depart” I decided there was nothing for it but to bite the bullet and sell (most of) my Canon gear.

Enter the new-on-the-market Sony RX10 mark 3 superzoom camera with a 1-inch sensor and an 600mm equivalent Zeiss zoom lens plus inbody five axis stabilisation. You can read about its technical details here – (http://www.sony.ca/en/electronics/cyber-shot-compact-cameras/dsc-rx10m3). This new camera is something altogether new and may finally be just what many of us have been seeking … plus, yes, it is significantly more portable than “big glass” ever was.

So, I have spent the past two or three months learning to drive this camera and have been enormously impressed by its capabilities. To get the best out of it you do have to be prepared to put some effort into learning its complex menus and buttons, but that applies to any decent camera. Yesterday, I finally discovered, almost by accident, what it is truly capable of and am still somewhat amazed … of course, the Zeiss lens is a big help !! I wasn’t birding, I was taking pictures of stunning fall colours at a local wetland area (Anse-a-l’Orme) when a small group of Killdeer flew across my viewfinder as I composed my shot. As I said, I was concentrating on the trees and when I first looked at the picture I had recorded, I simply dismissed the birds as so many silhouettes, as shown in this image:

20161019-016
I liked their distribution however and was in search of something suitable for a new banner image on my Facebook page – so I did some cropping and came up with this image which showed a lot more detail in the birds than I had ever expected:

20161019-016-1

Naturally then, I had to push the cropping further:

20161019-016-2

 

….. and further still. Remembering that this was all hand-held, not a tripod in sight:

20161019-016-3

Conclusions 

We finally appear to have a portable photographic system that doesn’t weigh down the elderly birder, that is easy to carry yet which captures remarkable detail of fast moving birds in flight at a distance and all at a very reasonable price. Short of trying to sell our images to National Geographic, I suspect this is going to be more than good enough for most birders. Life is full of compromises, and this one certainly works for me. I understand that other camera manufacturers will be taking this route and adding to their bridge camera ranges before long. Give it some thought.

 


All the above photographs were recorded in Sony RAW format and processed for the web via Capture One software.

Quebec Colours

Another hotter-than-it-should-be day today with bright sun and blue skies called us out to do some more fall colour admiring (all the more so it seems we are now in for several wet days which will probably cause most of the leaves to fall off the trees). This time we went to the two nature parks at Anse-à l’Orme and Cap-St-Jacques and managed to see a few birds as well … we took a lot of pictures, as one does at this time of year, but culled them down to, well, still quite a number … hence they are in the form of captioned thumbnails below. Just click any one that appeals to you and a slide show will open up.

Gorgeous time of year … though reality (and a marketing email from our garage yesterday) tell us that winter is coming and winter tires need to be put on the car before too long. Also noted in the last day or two that the long distance forecast for the winter ahead is for rather more snow than we have been used to in recent years … and as we always get plenty of the white stuff anyway, who know what lies in store.