Thursday, October 15, 2015

Trent Ornithology field trip to Presqu'ile Provincial Park

This year at Trent I am lucky enough to be one of the Teaching Assistants for the Ornithology Class!  This class teaches students the basics of bird morphology, evolution, about birding, and how to ID by sight and song.  It's such a great course (at least I think so!) and I hope that by the end of the semester the students would have loved it too.

My "job" has been to take the students on weekly bird hikes around campus, but also sometimes we head to further locations.  So far we've hit up the Trent Waterway (by Lock 22), around campus, and to the Trent Nature Trails where we had the most luck!  Unfortunately, since I am leading the hikes, I rarely bring my camera with me (hence having no photos).  My computer recently also decided to crash on me, so using a back-up laptop from 2007 hasn't made it easy to "enhance" my overly bright/dark photos the way I normally can.  (Can you say bird photographer problems?).

Last weekend (September 26) we headed out to Presqu'ile Provincial Park to see what we could see, and there was quite a bit, a total of 48 species to be exact!

We started our day at the Lighthouse and Calf Pasture where we saw quite a large variety of warblers!  There is always that one tree where every single warbler tends to hang out, and lucky for us that is exactly what we found!   Students were able to take in the sights of warbler species such as Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, Yellow-rumped, Parula, Wilson's, Blackpoll, Blackburnian, Nashville, Tennessee, and Black-and-White.  We also got to compare White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows!  Walking along the road, the group spotted a pair of Scarlet Tanagers, Merlin, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Flickers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Osprey, and Harrier just to name a few more.

Scarlet Tanager
Yellow-rumped Warbler

 After our successful morning at the Lighthouse and Calf Pasture, we ventured over to a local cottager and friend of the park's cottage for lunch.  He had one of the most amazing backyards that I have ever seen.  It was full of every type of bird feeder imaginable and was entirely pollinator friendly.  It made me really sit back and realize how antsy I am to settle down finally in one city so that I can start something like this!

After lunch we headed out to Owen's Point Beach for a look at shorebirds.  The actual tip of the beach was closed due to opening day of duck hunting, but the rest of the beach was open and able to be scouted.  There was a large number of geese in the area and also very few ducks (I feel like they all know exactly where the hunting blinds are!).  Mallards were present in the highest numbers, 4 Green-winged Teal were spotted, and also one Pintail.

Canada Geese (and likely a duck here and there!)
The last time I visited Presqu'ile it was a shorebirder's paradise, so I was very surprised this time to hardly see any shorebirds.  We could see flocks of them flying out on the island, but even with the scopes being at Beach Area 2, it was just too far away. Throughout the hour or so that we were on the beach we spotted two species: the Semipalmated Sandpiper (SEPL) and Sanderlings.  Throughout our whole beach walk we saw approximately 18 SEPL and then amongst a group of them 4 Sanderlings running around.  These were both lifer species for almost everyone in our group!

SEPL on the beach

SEPL and one lone Sanderling
 Overall, it was such a fantastic field trip.  I believe everyone had a good time, learnt a lot (likely an overwhelming amount!), and hopefully became a little more bird nerdy.  I hope to keep visiting the area a little more this season to spot anymore shorebirds.

The day wouldn't have been as successful as it was without our fantastic bird guides in the morning.  Mike Burrell from Bird Studies Canada and a very well known local birder Doug McRae were so great giving their time to us.  For anyone interested in a awesome blog by Mike Burrell visit: for a bunch of great posts and tons of information.  Thanks guys!

Group photo time!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

October means time for "Toots" all night long...

It's finally October once again!  With the cold air coming back also brings with it the migration of many bird species.  By mid-August I said goodbye to my Bank Swallows and other species of swallows, then in September the warblers began to come and go.  While many species are still on their way out to warmer places...many species are beginning to make appearance such as waterfowl and owls!

For those of you who have read my blog since last year know that I am involved in Trent University's owl banding program.  Every year at the James Oliver Ecology Centre, near Bobcaygeon, banders come to this site nightly and see what we can catch.  This year, we have added a new site to our banding list (it'll be referred to as the Sisson Property).

Banding a Screech Owl at the Sisson Property
Nets are set up throughout the forest and calls are played.  The calls cause some interest in the owls, drawing them to come closer and fly into the nets where we then catch them and process them.  We collect a variety of information such as: Weight, fat levels, wing length, sex, and age.  Aging the bird can be an especially fun process as we often are able to use a blacklight to determine it.  The black light will pick up on traces of pigment left in the feathers showing a pinkish colour (it feels very much like CSI!).  Young birds will have all new feathers, meaning that under black-light all the feathers will have a pink tone to them.  As a bird ages and feathers become older, they will be white under the light.  After second year birds will be a mismatch of pink and white as wing feathers will be a both old and new, being replaced as need be.  For example..we have two photos below!  The first is using a blacklight.  We can see that while some feathers are pink (new) there are a few random feathers that are white (older), this makes this bird an After Second Year (or ASY) bird, meaning that we know it is at least two years old.

Using a Blacklight to determine age (AHY)

This second photo, we are not using a black light. However, if you look closely you can see that feathers at the beginning and at the end of the wing are a slightly darker colour than those in the middle. This means that they are newer feathers! Being in this placement means this lovely lady was a second year bird.

Aging a Saw-whet Owl without a blacklight (SY)
There will be two main types of owls we will likely catch at these sites.  The first owl is the smallest owl in Ontario (and one of the cutest!). Saw-whet Owls are Especially known for their "toot toot" calls and big yellow eyes. When in distress, they will often raise small ear tufts and elongate to look more branch-like, which comes in handy when trying to hide from a predator.  These little guys are the most popular to catch at the Oliver Centre.

The second owl we will likely catch some of is the Eastern Screech Owl.  These little guys are populat to catch at our Sisson Property, but are not uncommon at the Oliver Centre either.  Screech Owls can be coloured with either a grey morph (like the one pictured below) or in a red morph.  Screech owls are larger than their Saw-whet cousins, have visible ear tufts, and also have a very cool "whirly" call.

We are really excited to be back out and catching these little guys throughout the rest of the month!!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Update after a long...long hiatus!

Where to even begin...

Somehow June turned into October so quickly.  It went from working in 30 degree weather everyday to suddenly taking out a scarf and sweater in the mornings.  Where did time go!  Unfortunately, my goal of staying updated on here throughout the field season was suddenly downgraded by lack of sleep.  However here will be a overview of the entire last four months.

Ready to replace insect trap

I was studying Bank Swallows again this summer in gravel pits and on the lakeshore.  The gravel pits were once again full of awesome people who were engaged in learning more about these birds and how they can work around them, which was just fantastic.  In early-April I set out and installed our insect traps for the season, and boy were some of the insect hatches intense!

By the time May hit, the birds were almost all back in force at all sites.  They were busy digging for most of the month and by the end of the month had nests made and even some eggs laid.  We checked nests again at all sites where we were able to and looked at clutch size, nest success, parasite loads, and fledgling health.

Panoramic shot of lake field site

We banded a total of 209 Bank Swallows this year (adults and young), but unfortunately did not catch any of the ones we had banded last year.  One of the bank swallow young even showed signs of leucism (where some feathers on the bird have a loss of pigment and show patches of white). 

Young Bank Swallow with signs of Leucism
Young Bank Swallow

Conducting nest checks
New to this field season was the use of radio telemetry that is part of the Bird Studies Canada Motus network.  This is a fantastic network of telemetry towers across much of North America, with some towers now being built in South America too.  Radio tags, that send out signals, are placed on birds and as they fly past each of these towers the signals are picked up and data on their location is collected.  These radio tags can be used on both a permanent standing tower as well as We were trying to determine how far away from colonies Bank Swallows forage and compare these distances with lakes and gravel pit colonies.  We were hoping that the tags would also last long enough to track at least the beginning of migration for these birds, however with them only lasting 34 days, it seems like a bit of a stretch!  Luckily for us though....we did!  Since our last data download, preliminary results showed our tags showing up on towers along the coast in the Long Point Area, Leamington Area, and at Presqu'ile Provincial Park.  

Downloading data from a telemetry tower
Tracking with a hand-held receiver
Swallow with a telemetry tag
It was so wonderful to be back in the field again this year, no matter what frustrations and the exhaustion I faced.  It was so bittersweet knowing that this was going to be my last year doing this!  The views on Lake Ontario are sometimes just astonishing, and I'm so happy to have had these places as my field site.

Just after sunrise at a Lake Ontario colony

Even though we were studying only one specific species, you always see a wide variety of wildlife being outside every single day, especially in places where not a lot of people go.  Gravel pits, surprisingly also support a huge variety of wildlife and i've often seen sandpipers stoping and feeding in the ponds.   Here are just a few of our wildlife highlights from the summer!

Young Killdeer in gravel pit.  We were lucky enough to watch a family of Killdeer go from eggs to young!

A family of foxes in one of our gravel pits often kept an eye on us while we worked.
  A young Belted Kingfisher happened to go for a bit of a swim in Lake Ontario at one of our sites.  Luckily we were around to notice that it was not able to get back out of the water!  Nevertheless it looked pretty happy that we were able to come to the rescue and reunite it with the rest of its crew.

A Dunlin was found in one of our gravel pit sites feeding in a pond, a lifer for many of us!

Least Sandpipers were a fairly regular sight at the beginning and end of the season in pits and the lake.

We had a beautiful pair of loon at one lake site.  Unfortunately we never did see any young.
A family of Ruffed Grouse decided to strut their stuff while crossing the road on our way to a pit.

Along with seeing a wide variety of wildlife, we also see...a wide variety of strange things on the beach.  This summer we started a fun game of trying to find the strangest things on the beach.  While we did find every single type of sports equipment that you could find and also every type of fishing lure, these two items took the top prize:

This is an old Care Bear we found.....we nicknamed him "Scare Bear" it seems he no longer cares.

After a large storm one week a Christmas toy soldier ended up along the beach too
This summer I also got a new Iphone and with it came an incredibly fun and addictive slow-motion feature...So it definitely came in handy while releasing some of our banded birds!

 Overall the field season was quite a success and now is the long process of going through all the data that was collected!   So keep me in your thoughts while I enter the Master's journey of writing!

Goodbye Bank Swallow Field work!!! It's been swell!

And thanks to my 2015 field crew for all your work this summer and giving me so many of your hours.