Monday, 14 August 2017

Tuesday Rambles with David - West Perth Wetland, Mitchell, ON

08 August 2017

     Judy had been following the birding reports from West Perth Wetland and let us know that the conditions were nigh on perfect for shorebirds in some of the ponds. It seemed like a logical destination for our weekly ramble and we were not disappointed.

     Over several years this location has been one of our preferred destinations. It is less than an hour from home and from time to time has yielded some extraordinary rarities. Numerous ponds tend to hold distinct suites of birds and varying water levels and trophic resources encourage birds to linger for a while before continuing with their migration.

     It didn't take long to have a few Pectoral Sandpipers (Calidris melanotos) in view. a species we see spring and fall as the bird wends its way to and from its arctic breeding grounds.

     I find that among shorebird enthusiasts snipe always seem to have a certain cachet and we counted ourselves fortunate to find four Wilson's Snipe (Gallinago delicata); concealed in aquatic vegetation, they were, however, unwilling to come out and put on a real show.

     We meandered along the berms, searching all the while for hidden gems, enjoying warm sunshine on a beautiful August day.

     Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) was far and away the most common species and there were many juveniles attesting to a successful breeding year for this familiar plover. A baby Killdeer is the epitome of cuteness and even the most detached observer would be hard pressed not to utter a silent "aah!" upon seeing one.

     Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) is ubiquitous in suitable habitat as it pauses to take on fuel for the long journey south, and its familiar call was seldom out of earshot.

          By my count we saw only four Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca), a species usually found in small numbers only on mudflats and sandbars in southern Ontario.

     As you can judge from the images above Franc is a master of the flight shot, and this capture of a sub adult Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) proves the point.

     When I spotted this Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) I vacillated between a young male evolving into adult plumage, and a female. Having checked various references I am opting in favour of a female; one thing we can be certain of - it is a Wood Duck!

     Our find of the day, without a doubt, was an American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) hidden in the reeds, barely visible at times. This species is far more often heard than seen, although it is almost certainly present in suitable habitat from spring through fall. At this time of the year it tends to be silent.

     Franc is always determined to do what he needs to, to try to get the perfect shot. Here I think he was trying to replicate the bittern's skill at camouflage!

     Several times we saw birds explode into flight, often telltale behaviour when a raptor is on patrol looking for a meal. This Merlin (Falco columbarius) did not make a kill as far as I know, but these Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) and an American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) seem to be playing a foolhardy game in chasing after the Merlin, given its superb maneuverability in flight. They are certainly risking becoming Merlin lunch du jour!

     We saw several Green Herons (Butorides virescens), a species that has become more common in recent years at West Perth Wetland.

     Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) is always to be found on any suitable body of water, at ponds, rivers, creeks, marshes and estuaries throughout the continent.

     We were very happy to see four Grey (Black-bellied) Plovers (Pluvialis squatarola) fly in to one of the cells, with enough vestige of breeding plumage remaining to please everyone.

     A couple of Short-billed Dowitchers (Limnodromus griseus) were fairly far off and there was no way to get into a position for really good photographs, but the following shots serve to record the presence of this species.

     It seems that on every walk Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) is our constant companion and today was no exception.

     A Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) stayed in the same spot for thirty or forty seconds, enabling Miriam to get this shot.

     Right at the end of our walk a small flock of White-rumped Sandpipers (Calidris fuscicollis) flew overhead, but we did not see them land. Perhaps others have discovered them in the days that followed.

     As we were about to leave we ran into Dave Brown, the resident birder who lives very close by, and who  has a hand in regulating the water levels, and it was pleasant to chat to him for a while.

     Judy had kindly invited us back to her farm for lunch and we were very happy to accept. Mary had visited the farm before, but it was a first time for the rest of us. 

     After lunch Judy presented me with a wonderful pair of wine glasses, which I will treasure always, and use very carefully, especially the hummingbird whose bill could easily be broken off. I think I had better confine my imbibing to one glass when using this stemware!

    Ross, Judy's husband, is an avid old car enthusiast and he has the most amazing collection of vehicles and automotive memorabilia you could possibly imagine. He visits the farm almost daily and immerses himself in whatever his current project is, the time going by unnoticed as he indulges his passion. 
     Jim was an auto mechanic when he worked, no doubt he has more appreciation than most for some of these antique cars.

     I think the rest of the pictures speak for themselves!

     Miriam couldn't resist imaging that she was going for a ride in style!

     The visit to the farm, and the chance to chat with Ross, was a fitting end to a great day of birding. I can't wait to do it all again.

All species: Canada Goose, Wood Duck, Mallard, Green-winged Teal, American Bittern, Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, Turkey Vulture, Western Osprey, Red-tailed Hawk, Grey Plover, Killdeer, Least Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, Wilson's Snipe, Spotted Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Chimney Swift, Merlin, Barn Swallow, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, Savannah Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Baltimore Oriole, Red-winged Blackbird.  Total: 30 species.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Radio Tagging Barn Swallows (Hirondelles rustiques)

09 August 2017

     Having installed our Motus tower at SpruceHaven several months ago we were very excited when the day finally arrived when we would attach radio tags to ten Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica)

     Greg Miller, a research scientist with Environment Canada, and the lead figure in this project, arrived to install the tracking devices and he wasted no time unloading his car to get started on the task at hand.

     The device is incredibly light, weighing a mere 0.29 of a gram. When you put it in your hand you can barely even detect it is there. Here is Dave holding one. The loop is the little harness that will hold the tag onto the bird, until it degrades and falls off several weeks hence.

     Mary and Judy had come out as observers, but wasted no time in rendering whatever help was needed. 

     More than one pair of hands makes the work of assembling the nets used to trap the birds much easier.

     In fact it proved invaluable to have Judy and Mary there when the batteries on Greg's scale failed, rendering it impossible for him to weigh the birds. Without a moment's hesitation they jumped in their car, scale in hand, to head into town to get replacement batteries. They were back in short order, functioning scale in hand, and their prompt action saved the day!
     Heather and Daina, the two dedicated young biologists who devote so much time to our mist netting operation, and also helped us to monitor the swallow nests throughout the season, actually arranged to get a little time off work to come and help.

     I am not quite sure what everyone was focused on here but it was sufficiently important to channel everyone's attention in the same direction.

     Heather and Daina not only work hard with dedication and finesse, they also obviously enjoy every minute of what they do.

     The pleasure in being around these young people is immeasurable and is a source of constant joy for me. As I get older I know that there are new champions for wildlife following in our footsteps, with knowledge, enthusiasm and commitment to fuel their passion for the preservation of ecosystems, where wild creatures are valued as an integral and essential component of a healthy environment.

       It was a major help to have two extra bodies to retrieve the birds from the mist nets, leaving Greg to proceed with banding, measuring and equipping the birds with their tags.

     Greg did the final calibrations on his equipment  and checked each tag to ensure that everything was functioning properly before installing them on the birds.

     We found Greg to be a very agreeable fellow and were grateful that he took the time to explain everything he did and answer any and all questions we had.

     Here he is measuring the wing on one of the birds.

     Mary and Judy were taking a lot of the pictures for us and had me pose with Daina and then Heather to record the confluence of the young and the beautiful with the old and not so beautiful!

     We were able to trap the birds very quickly as they flew into the net in the gloom of the barn and all were banded, even the ones not receiving radio tags.

     Do you get the impression that Heather is a tad engrossed in this operation and that Greg is ever patiently explaining everything?

     Here a tag is being installed onto an adult bird.

     It was incredible to me how quickly and smoothly Greg accomplished this. It seemed to be done in no time at all, and I found it more than a little whimsical that an essential tool in this arsenal of high tech apparatus was an old-fashioned crochet hook!
     Voilà! The operation is complete.

     Complete details on weights, measurements, age, moult, tag number etc. are recorded for each bird and Daina was first in line to help.

     We tagged five birds at SpruceHaven and then moved over to the colony at  the second farm we have monitored to tag five birds there. Photography was very difficult there as the barn is quite dark, and we deliberately left the lights off so that the net would not be visible to the swallows. 
     The horses were not happy about being escorted out of the barn since their desire for attention rivals a pet dog. At one point Heather stood guard to keep them outside. Had they been able to re-enter they would certainly have destroyed our net.

     Greg was anxious to position the net exactly the way he wanted it.

     The birds were processed quickly and a good day's work was completed in near record time.

     This operation really represents the culmination of all we have done to try to help these endangered aerial insectivores. We hope that the tags will help us to understand how land cover composition and land use practices influence the diet and condition of fledglings. Valuable information should be gleaned on where adults and juveniles move post breeding, and when adults and juveniles initiate migration. Little is known of the routes Barn Swallows take as they leave the province and head south and we should be able to add measurably to our knowledge of this phenomenon.
     I owe a great debt of appreciation to Greg Mitchell for his kindness and professionalism, to Heather and Daina for being determined to participate at all costs, and to my dear friends Judy and Mary who are always there to encourage and assist. And of course, none of this would have been possible without the support of cooperative landowners, and the substantial financial commitment of Dave Westfall. I salute Environment Canada for its commitment to the welfare of endangered wildlife.
     It has been an honour for me, in fact a life time achievement, to have been permitted to engage in this venture. I am humbled by the birds and their epic struggle for survival, and for the friendships built up with fellow swallow enthusiasts. 
     It is ironic that in the midst of this ultra high-tech operation, I came across a simple poem about Barn Swallows, composed by Vera Ernst McNicol, before 1956. Vera was a well known local area poet, in a day when poetry was still read by many and she published several volumes. She actually lived in the farm house on the Fourth Line of Peel Township where Miriam was raised before Miriam's parents acquired it, and some of the poems are dedicated to Miriam's father and mother, Eli and Vera Bauman.
     Vera's poems are not the kind to win Pulitzer prizes, or provoke highbrow discussions of form, structure, purpose and philosophy; rather they represent the poetic equivalent of folk art, highly expressive, but based in a simple, down-to-earth tradition. I find this poem quite charming in its own way, and it certainly reflects the joy I feel when the first swallows return in the spring. I hope that you will enjoy it as much as I did.

The Little Barn Swallow
The winter months seemed lonely
Without the swallows in the shed.
With the first approach of autumn
These little birds had fled,
But the warm, coaxing April breezes
Recalled these harbingers of spring,
And now gaily in the barnyard
You may see them on the wing.

Back and forth above our heads
These swallows glide and skim.
Down to the ground they slowly dip,
Then rise again with vim.
At times they light upon a wire,
Big, black beads upon a string,
But they seldom linger long
To idly sit and swing.

They have urgent work to do,
These busy little swallows.
They carry material for their nest,
From hillsides and from hollows.
High on a beam it is fastened, 
This quaint little cradle of mud,
And four tiny eggs are laid inside
When the trees begin to bud.

One swallow hovers close by,
While the other searches for food,
Darting here and there in the meadow,
She swiftly returns to her brood.
The baby swallows grow quickly,
And the nest is empty once more.
Proudly they flit with their parents, 
In and out of the cow stable door.