Thursday, November 29, 2012


The earth, tireless and now quite familiar after 4.5 billion years of rotation, continues its steady roll eastward, stars and planets disappearing under the sun's injection of light, driving the night sky to the west. Those still dreaming miss the sun's needle-tip peak pierce the horizon, sending cords of colour across the sky. Clouds, pink and purple, bleed out onto the plains, a new day's first breath heard on the winds blown off James Bay carrying the far-away howl of a loon.

The morning burgeons with activity until it reaches a plateau, early exhilaration waning as the day tips over into afternoon. The sun and moon, bored, begin to play gravitational tug-of-war, receding coastal waters helplessly grasp at loose sand, pulled by invisible tethers. A teaming tidal flat is revealed, a feeding factory of infinitesimal feasts: invertebrates facing their demise to shorebird bills knitting, probing, twisting and intruding their way into the moist terrain, tongues like conveyer belts leading to inner assembly lines. Tiny beings decimated by stomach acid, broken down and gizzard-ground into nutrients absorbed into the body, the mechanism for migrating machines to begin their long flight south.

A White-rumped Sandpiper leaves a line of imprints in the mud while she feeds. She is one of thousands, the coastal sand now a brocade of myriad criss-crosses. She is just about ready for her long flight, having eaten to excess. The winds are in her favour. This is not her first flight; she has made this trip six times before. There is urgency in her movements. She will fly out today.

A distant pair of eyes looks on. The flock is scanned from an elevated perch, a large piece of driftwood, a giant's bone wedged against the coastline. The watcher knows that patience will be rewarded. Many minutes pass. A suitable target is found. Talons dig into the wood in anticipation. The falcon, a shadow, hungry, lets go its perch and takes to the sky silently, cutting through the air toward the centre of the crowd.

A commotion. The White-rumped Sandpiper senses movement at the edge of the flock. Her mind switches instantly from food to fear. She joins the chaos of flapping wings in the air, her adaptations allowing her to mirror every movement of the group, as if all of these individual beings were a single surging organism. A blemish in the flock approaches, a larger presence at her rear. It causes her to err and lose sync from her surrounding kin. Her instincts bank her sharply to the left, but her pursuer stays mere inches behind her. She tries to fly back toward the flock but the rest of the birds have already flown too far down the coast.

Though her energy stores are high, the speed of her flight and the maneuvers she is forced to make begin to tire her. The falcon is relentless. She manipulates her wings and splashes into a pool of water below, her pursuer speeding over her. She takes flight immediately. She adds a few yards between herself and the falcon, which somersaults as it circles back in her direction. The distance between predator and prey lessens. She tries one more time to bank but this time the falcon has read her next move.

Talons tear through feathers and skin and the White-rumped Sandpiper is smashed against the ground. She twists a wing free and pushes it against the earth to throw off her attacker but her torn body is already too weak. She will not make the flight south. She feels another stab, a sharp beak puncturing her chest. She ceases to struggle. Her vision blurs. Her heart, racing just seconds before, stops.

The Peregrine Falcon wastes little time in its success. Grasping its meal in its talons, it flies back to its perch. No amount of meat can be squandered. This is survival. The falcon eats to its fill until little remains, and eventually flies back toward the forest.

The day wastes away. The first presence of the returning night is felt in the drop of degrees as grey and white feathers float away on the surface of the risen tide. The moon returns and new spirits rise to join the dance in the sky. Those still bound to Earth look upward and marvel at the wonder of the Northern Lights, their eyes reflecting the shifting sheets of radiant green.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

#304 Cave Swallow!

This morning I arrived at the Tip at about 8:30 hoping that the change in temperature would perhaps get a Cave Swallow on the move. I wasn't disappointed. It ended up being one of the first birds I saw!

As I was walking past the Solar Panel Display on my way to the Tip, I was watching a flock of American Robins flying by and then thought, wait, what is that small thing? I brought my bins up. A SWALLOW! I watched it bank and saw its rump, then its throat, and that's when my heart skipped. Pale, Pale, Pale. Though I certainly wish I would have had a better look (like the one that was within 5 feet of birders at the Tip a week before!), I saw it well enough (LIFER!) and I continued to watch it as it flew against strong west winds almost over the lake, then turned and headed southeast. I hurried to the Tip thinking it might have been hanging around down there out of the wind but never relocated it. This species was my 304th in Ontario this year. Although my Big Year definitely slowed down once I hit 300, I was always hoping to reach 305 so that should be attainable w/ one more month to go (Purple Sandpiper...?). 

I was later joined by Alan Wormington and Richard Carr but none of us stuck around long as there wasn't much activity on the lake. Large numbers of scaups and Redhead off the east side, a couple of Common Loon flyovers, about a dozen distant Tundra Swans, a handful of Bufflehead and Common Goldeneye, 4 Horned Grebes, only 2 Great Black-backed Gulls, and of course, lots of Red-breasted Mergansers.

My view of the Tip this morning.

There was a decent number of raptors flying today on account of the winds including Red-tailed, Red-shouldered, Sharp-shinned, and Cooper's Hawks, Northern Harrier, Bald Eagle, and Merlin. Reminded me of my time helping out w/ the hawk watch at Holiday Beach Conservation Area this fall. Looking forward to reading the results of the count from there today. Thanks to my good friend, Vee, for somehow managing to memify my love of hawks w/ Jeremy Renner:

I also finally checked out the new sculpture near the entrance of Point Pelee where the old admin building used to be. The artist is Teresa Altiman and the sculpture is of a turtle, symbolizing the Ojibwe legend of Turtle Island. There are four feathers hanging around the turtle that represent the four directions that people travel from to visit Point Pelee.

The sculpture stands upon a rock w/ this inscription:

Friday, November 23, 2012

Them Rhode Island Reds

Those who follow me on Instagram (@lesliejh85) know I love my chickens. Followers are treated to (subjected to...?) photos of them doing everything from stealing seed from under my birdfeeder to dirt-bathing in our flower gardens. It was only a matter of time before they were a topic of a blog post. 

Our farm used to only have sheep, cows, goats, and rabbits. Not surprisingly, I was pushing to add birds to the menagerie. I wanted to get a flock of Helmeted Guinefowl or an Emu but there were some associated problems. Guineafowl are apparently quite raucous and I read they can be bad for eating snakes. Emus are darned expensive and I couldn't bear having it end up as a burger for the rest of my family to eat. Then, early this fall, my dad found some free Rhode Island Reds on Kijiji. A total of 26 birds, they were advertised as being egg-layers (each lays an egg every other day), free range, and their meat isn't good for eating. Perfect.

When we first brought them home, I was trying to get my dad to keep them in our chicken coop for a couple days to acclimatize them to our farm before letting them out (this is imperative for guineafowl) but when we released them, he left the doors to the coop open and they quickly started to run all over the place. I kept madly running around trying to herd them back to the coop but they were too curious and wanted to investigate their new surroundings.

On the first day they turned our backyard into Kakariko Village.

I thought for sure we'd lose half of them by that night and have calls from neighbouring farmers asking if all the chickens running through their yards were ours but fortunately, the chickens immediately took to our property and stuck around. We do feed them in the coop each evening so that helps to keep them coming back.

I instantly fell in love with them. They're so curious about everything and hilarious. They follow all of us wherever we go on our property but if you turn around and start walking back toward them, they start nervously clucking (I've become very good at imitating this nervous call and it gets them really riled up). All of them are tame but they stay just out of reach to the point of frustration. Basically they let you get within a hands length and then start walking away. I've only been able to catch a couple of them so far but we try not to do it often to keep them stress-free. Almost every time I step out the door, I'm greeted to a group of wobbling chickens running full speed toward me.

As time goes on, they're getting more brave, too. They've ventured into our front yard now where my feeder system is. I'm involved in Project Feederwatch this winter so I was trying to think of ways of preventing them from eating my seed but I decided it's just too much a hassle. They're like squirrels. They'll find a way. It hasn't mattered too much yet anyway because the only thing that's come to my feeder so far is an American Goldfinch pair. I expect a better turn out after the first snowfall. 

Project Feederwatch #fail

Our Rhode Islanders also love the dirt. I've never seen any creature take such vigorous dirt baths. They dig a hole in soft soil and scratch and toss it up onto their feathers and then roll around in it. It keeps their feathers clean and healthy for better insulation and getting rid of parasites.

Fine now but wait until they start digging out our annuals.

And the eggs! The eggs taste spectacular. We get about 12-18/day so we've been constantly looking up new recipes. What I can't believe is how eggy they taste. It makes me realize how much better food from free-range animals tastes than the tasteless watered-down versions you buy at grocery stores (from caged birds). Of course, 12-18 eggs a day is hard to keep up w/ so we give out a lot of eggs to family and friends.

I'm hoping they all survive the winter. It's hard to get an accurate count because some of them roost in our shed at night and during the day, they can be found virtually anywhere around the property. I'll end w/ a photo of one of our Reds settling in for the night.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Delaurier Big Sit

Although I had to work this afternoon, I still made it to Pelee for the morning and did a Big Sit w/ Marianne at the Delaurier parking lot. I'm really starting to enjoy these sits. On a north wind, it's a great way to just stay in one spot and wait and see what flies over. We've had good success each time we've tried it.

Though there was a Cave Swallow seen at the Tip this morning just before I was leaving the park, I was still very happy to get 2 new birds for my Point Pelee list. They were Bohemian Waxwing and Red Crossbill, both of which were flyovers and seen by the 4 of us who were observing (Mike Tate and Bob Cermak joined us for a couple hours of the Sit). We also had a number of Common Redpolls, White-winged Crossbills, Pine Siskins, and American Goldfinches. Birds we hoped for but didn't get included Pine Grosbeak (long shot) and Evening Grosbeak. As I'm writing this, I see that Mike Tate posted our sightings to Ontbirds, which I'm happy about since Pelee gets under-reported this time of year even though it's a great place to be birding!

It was a chilly start and foggy (like pea soup fog) but once the sun broke up the haze, we had a decent day w/ bursts of birds flying over followed by periods of lulls where nothing seemed to be moving. Great day of catching up w/ two awesome Ottawa birders, having laughs w/ Marianne, and getting a good count of winter finches for Pelee.

Below is our eBird list from this morning as well as a smaller list from the beach at Pioneer. When we heard about the Cave Swallow at the west beach at the Tip, we tried the beach across from Delaurier to see if we'd be lucky getting a such luck. I'll almost certainly be out again on Monday looking for the last remaining Cave Swallows in Ontario.

Delaurier list:

Pioneer list:

Instagram of Delaurier parking lot when we arrived. Beautiful morning.

Finally, here's a link to Marianne's blog post on our morning over at The Pelee Chickadee:

Monday, November 12, 2012

Goodbye Letter

Dear Ford Windstar,

It is with great sadness that I write this but after 10 years, I think it's time we move on. The rust, the ratting sounds, the heat not working, the rust, the garbage all over the floor, the gas-guzzling. It's just...I need something...newer. I hope you'll understand.

I've never told you this, but you weren't my first ride. Yes, before I started to drive you, there was another...a Green Aerostar. But it had nothing on you, trust me. Besides, I was only a passenger before it was totaled in a ditch. And then, well, there was a Blue Windstar, but that was just a rebound. There were two trucks and a car, too. But of all the vehicles I drove, you were the best.

We sure did share some great memories, didn't we? Remember the day you earned the nickname, Silver Bullet? When you and I raced out to Wheatley Harbour to see a red-morph Ruff in Muddy Creek? We never did top the speed we clocked in at that day. Birders watching our approach said they could hear the sonic boom when we broke the sound barrier.

Then there were all those weekends during highschool where we cruised around Leamington for hours with nothing to do. Oh yeah, those were the days. We were so cool...

Or in the later years when we gave people rides and they had to stand in the back because the seats were out and the floor was covered in sheep manure? Oh yes, you were a farm van, shamelessly, through and through. 

And the lifers! California Gull, Sabine's Gull, Neotropic Cormorant, Spotted Towhee, Great Gray Owl, Ross's Goose, Bell's Vireo. You drove me to all of them. You were dependable to the end...even this fall when I thought every drive was our last.

On that note, I must apologize for what I put you through this last month. It's my fault that you're finally being retired. I thought for sure you could make it up the incline at the end of Concession E....but I should have listened when you were struggling instead of impatiently pumping my boot on the gas. I just really wanted to see a Buff-breasted Sandpiper. Once that muffler came loose, you were never the same. Now you sound like a ticking time bomb and I have to admit, I'm a bit afraid to be close to you when you're turned on.

This morning you gave me my last ride. I didn't see any lifers, no Pelee birds, no year birds, but I still had a great time. By Thursday, you will be dismantled and your parts sold separately. Much of you will be scrapped. However, I'll always have our last bird sighting together, a flock of Horned Larks while I turned into my lane.

It seems fitting that on our last drive together, it rained the entire time.

Goodbye, Silver Bullet.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Pelee Birding

I had a good day birding w/ Marianne around the Pelee Birding Circle today. Our day started early at the Tip on account of southwest winds (I still need any jaeger species this year believe it or not!). It was very nice to see the number of birders at the Tip this morning w/ a total of 7 of us scanning for most of the morning. I got to congratulate Josh Vandermeulen in person on his Big Year record. He, along w/ Marianne and I, were hoping for a Cave Swallow flyby at the Tip. It's possible 1 or some will show up in the next few days, especially on Tuesday when a cold front passes through. Unfortunately not a single swallow flew by today.

Observers at the Tip of Pelee

The highlight was a Black-legged Kittiwake that Marianne spotted first and eventually everyone got on it. Blake had a distant Red-throated Loon and a Northern Goshawk making a brief appearance was a new Pelee bird for me, so a personal highlight there. Though I consider a Kittiwake I had last year my first for the Pelee area, it was on the brink of death (found later the same day dead and sent to the ROM) so this flyby was a bit of a more exciting sighting. Not too much activity besides, though there were a good number of goldfinches and siskins flying over as well as a single Snow Bunting. I was hoping for an Evening Grosbeak as Sarah Rupert had a number of them in the Visitor Centre parking lot this week. I need that for my Pelee List (as well as Red Crossbill...this might be the year).

Later in the day, Marianne and I drove the border of Hillman Marsh and came up w/ a decent flock of Dunlin and a single Killdeer. Not much else around but we did have a good number of American Tree Sparrows on the dead end of Seacliff Drive E.

Our next stop was Wheatley Harbour where we met up w/ Brandon Holden and Josh. There was a whole lotta nothing!!

We finished the day w/ a slow walk through Two Creeks Conservation Area, which gave us a bit of time to talk about life and end the day on a pleasant note. Our only birding highlight was an Eastern Phoebe, now a "confirm" bird on eBird since we've rolled over into November.

We also had a couple herptiles today including a Gartersnake in the Sparrow Fields of Pelee and a Spring Peeper calling from Seacliff Drive E. Only a sulphur and an unidentified butterfly that was likely a Buckeye in the insect department.

I'll be birding again tomorrow and hope for at least 1 new year bird (considering any jaeger or a Cave Swallow would be new for my year, it's not actually asking for too much!). There are a lot of eyes in the Pelee Circle this week though so something rare is bound to show up. 

Friday, November 02, 2012

#303 - Snow Bunting (!)

Yessir, I got my 1st Snow Bunting o' the year in Nov. Isn't that redonk?! I mean come on! A common Code 1 on 11/1/12 instead of 1/11/12. And it was a twitch! Sarah Rupert tweeted to tell me where one was hanging out behind Towlie's Harbour in Leamington and I had to drive out to get it. In my defense, I am from the deep south where they're just arriving.

Oh well, I've seen one now so y'all know I'll see a flock of 50 tomorrow. There wasn't much else around Pelee Days Inn. The long-staying group of shorebirds has finally departed.

Only other bird of note for the day was a juvenile Red-necked Grebe at Hillman Marsh (N Lakeshore side) along w/ a good # of Horned Grebes and Common Loons. As far as I remember, this is a new species for my Point Pelee List so I was quite pleased w/ it. There was also an Iceland Gull on the lake at this location and LOTS of Bonaparte's Gulls (no Black-headed Gulls or Ross's Gulls mixed in unfortunately).

Going to Pelee in the morning w/ Marianne so we're hoping for a Hurricane bird if we're really lucky. I'd be beyond happy if I got another year bird.