November 23rd – Musings On A Bill Stripe

Why do Thick-billed Murres have a white stripe running along their bill?

I have a bit of time on my hands out here on the Newfoundland coast, tied up at the dock awaiting repairs on the vessel before continuing the oceanographic research mission – with me as seabird observer. And I began to muse about the bill stripe running along the upper mandible of the Thick-billed Murre. [Now that’s a strange musing I can hear you thinking….why that!? Why not the meaning of life or American Thanksgiving football scores or the idiocy of the Trump presidency or women…..? I don’t know; it just happened to be this stripe.]

Thick-billed Murres are amazing creatures that I had an opportunity to study for 2 Summers in Svalbard, 500 km north of Norway. They’re a 1-kilogram bundle of muscle that nest in cliff-side colonies and endure some of the toughest conditions on the planet. You don’t see them off the east coast much (or at all) during the Summer as they tend to breed in large colonies in the high Arctic. But when Winter closes in and the ice begins to form they move south and are common off the Newfoundland and Labrador coasts. Studies of Svalbard birds carrying geolocators have shown that some of their birds winter as far south and west as the east coast of Newfoundland.

A Thick-billed Murre with a geolocator fastened to its colour band….and that’s no BS.

But getting back to my question…..why the white stripe. When chicks hatch parents take turns flying to fishing areas and bringing back their catch. You’ve probably seen pictures of Atlantic Puffins that bring fish back to their young – they carry the fish (sometimes 2 or 3 fish) cross-wise in their bills. Thick-billed Murres don’t; they carry a single fish lengthwise with the head in their throat and the tail, if the fish is big enough, protruding beyond the end of their bill. I was wondering if the two were connected; i.e., the white stripe and the fish carried longitudinally.

Thick-billed Murres showing their discriminating bill stripe – a field mark that readily distinguishes them from Common Murres.

In Svalbard (and I would imagine most murre colonies) kleptoparasitism by jaegers (in my colony’s case Parasitic Jaegers) is common. Now provisioning a chick is hard work for a murre. Their wings aren’t really designed for elegant flying, twisting and turning, etc. They’re dual purpose appendages: to fly directly from the water to wherever in direct flight or to fly underwater to catch fish. Once they have caught a fish they have to beat their wings hard and fast to get enough lift to get up to the cliffside to pass it on to their progeny. It’s difficult and energy-consuming work. If they’re pursued and harried by a jaeger to the point that they’re forced to drop the fish, they have to start all over again – the chick doesn’t get fed and the adult uses up extra energy to resupply. And in bad weather conditions this could be deadly.

A perfect example of camouflage: white fish aligned with a white bill stripe.

Now a jaeger has to see that a potential victim is carrying prey. If the bill stripe looks like a fish then it is more difficult for the jaeger to discern that a murre is bringing home a meal. And a bit of hesitation could mean the difference between success and failure, maybe even life and death, for the murres. It’s just a thought….but it makes some sense to me.

Here’s some more examples:

Thick-billed Murre with a fish – they carry it aligned with the direction of their bill stripe.

Murre and fish.

Note the fish in the bill of this adult who is about to feed it to the (banded) chick.

Of course, if the fish is too long and extends well beyond the bill or the fish is not a fish but maybe a… shrimp with extending appendages…then it would be easier for the jaeger to see. [One adult in the Svalbard colony fed only shrimp to its shick – I wonder if there might be some adaptive fallout from that…..]

The length of this fish might be a giveaway to a marauding jaeger.

Shrimp aren’t nearly so well camouflaged – pink with legs sticking out.


November 20th – The Hunt

Dovekies, with a burst of their hysterical “laughter”, explode from their nesting sites in the scree slopes of Svalbard.

The Glaucous Gulls sit on the updraft caused as the wind hits the side of the ship and veers upward. They have been following the vessel all day just “sitting”, waiting. But Dovekies have been few and far between in this stretch, a couple of hundred miles off the east coast of Labrador. But when the conditions are right – i.e., there’s small krill-like organisms close to the surface – then the Dovekies will appear, sometimes in big numbers.

Glaucous Gull – a deadly Arctic predator around seabird colonies and seabirds generally. -L. Jolicouer

After a couple of hours I have come to disregard these large predators hanging just a few meters away on the other side of the bridge glass as I focus on counting other seabirds ahead and to the port side of the vessel. But then….one, then another dives frantically at the billowing sea and, following their trajectory with my binos, I watch a little Dovekie dive beneath the surface and out of the reach of the attacking gulls. For the next hour or so I see this played out time and again: a frantic rush by the gulls and a disappearing Dovekie. Sometimes though the little birds, instead of diving, take to the air. They have a high wing loading so it’s a chore for them to get airborne, slow and labourious. But once up they can fly at quite a speed. The thing to do (if you’re a gull) is get them as they rise from the water and are slow and sluggish. Twice I watched as a Dovekie tried to rise and a gull rushed in behind. But, at the last moment, the little bird, seeing its folly, stopped flapping and just dropped back into the sea and dove. A close call!

Arctic Fox – cute……but deadly predators.

Dovekies breed in the high Arctic. When I was in Svalbard I saw them in their nest sites high up on the scree slopes of the mountains. They nest in rocky crevices or holes deep enough that marauding Arctic Foxes can’t get to them. When the young is hatched the adults take to the sea to gather krill which they store in their gullar sacs to bring back to the hatchling. They are quite vocal and sociable around their nesting colonies but when a Glaucous Gull passes by, even if it’s a long way off or very high, they take to the air en masse. They’re not going to take any chances. An unwary bird often ends up as dinner.

Adult Dovekie with a distended gullar puch or sac. -L. Jolicouer

I watched well over a dozen gull attacks but never saw a successful one. After being foiled the hapless gull would return to its “perch” on top of the updraft beside the ship and wait for the next opportunity. On a couple of occasions though I saw a gull fly off well ahead of the vessel. In one instance one returned with quite a distended crop. Maybe it had been successful (and a Dovekie less so). In all my Fall seabird counting outings I have never seen this before.

November 6th & 7th – The End

An adult Sharp-shinned Hawk tries to figure out the Potter traps. -KMP

It seems like just a short while ago we were getting into gear – 68 days ago. Today was officially the end of our Fall migration monitoring efforts. Sure, birds will continue to move around for the next couple of weeks but the vast majority of migrants have…..migrated. I strongly believe that one is given only so many migrations; another one has gone by. I must admit that the weather played a large part in how it unfolded – the hot weather extending well into the Fall was extremely interesting. It will take a much more scientific brain than mine to sort out the impact. But it seemed that while long-distance migrants were pretty well on cue, medium- to short-distance migrants were somewhat late, perhaps better able to respond to the weather conditions; not driven so much by genetics. Anyway, it will take some time to just take a look at the results.

The heavy rains made taking down some of the nets precarious…..for Karen. -JNJ

November 6th; Ruthven:
We were just moderately busy which allowed ample time to do a census and take down some nets – always sort of a sad thing – the finality of it all…
We banded 20 birds:
4 Mourning Doves
5 American Tree Sparrows
2 Dark-eyed Juncos
1 House Finch
8 American Goldfinches

ET’s: 28 spp.

November 6th; Fern Hill Burlington’s Fall banding season has officially wound down and it has been another great season to be outdoors with my students learning and building upon our knowledge of bird migration through Southern Ontario. I’m so grateful to be in the position where I to work with the kind, patient, and extremely knowledgeable Janice Chard , who tirelessly has answered so many of my questions, guided me through the set up and tear down process of our mist nets, and can instill empathy and compassion in my curious and excited students. I’m also so lucky to have watched and helped those students as they grow and build their birding skills.

One of the trends I noticed towards the end of the season after the long distant migrants passed through was the return of our winter birds tough enough to spend the winter in Burlington. In the past few weeks we have recaptured chickadees and juncos banded in Field Study’s early years, as far back as 2013. Today brought the return of two of our school’s older birds-a Downy Woodpecker and another Black Capped Chickadee. Both birds were banded in 2015. One of our older Young Ornithologists was excited to learn she had handled the BCCH back in 2015, a nice surprise for her! I was the original bander back in 2015 and it was nice to pause and think back to my first year of teaching and banding at the school, and all that I have learned since that first Fall migration.

Today we banded 15 birds with 3 recaptures
1 American Goldfinch
1 Black-capped Chickadee
1 American Tree Sparrow
5 Slate Coloured Juncos
3 House Finches
1 Downy Woodpecker
1 Northern Cardinal
1 American Robin
1 Blue Jay

We have one more day of Fall Migration at the Oakville campus tomorrow, can’t wait!

November 7th; Ruthven – The Last Day
Today marked the last day of fall migration monitoring and we banded the
last few birds to end a successful fall season. Once the clouds cleared,
and the sun’s warmth penetrated the coolness of the early morning it was a
lovely fall day. We saw a small flock of Tundra Swans, an immature Bald
Eagle, and a beautiful adult, female Sharp-shinned Hawk today.

Banded 11
1 American Tree Sparrow
2 Fox Sparrow
1 Song Sparrow
6 Slate-coloured Junco
1 American Golfinch

ET’s: 28 species

November 7th; Fern Hill Oakville:
The day that Katherine couldn’t wait for turned out to be pretty special. Before taking down some of the nets we had a nice run of Dark-eyed Juncos that were moving along the edges, looking for habitat to settle into for the Winter.
Banded 26:
2 Mourning Doves
1 American Tree Sparrow
22 Dark-eyed Juncos
1 House Sparrow (that was banded and then moved well down the road)

ET’s: 20 spp.

A quick Ruthven Fall Summary:
We banded 2,869 birds in our “standardized” net array and another 260 from the “non-standard” nets – “Bagger birds” – for a Fall total of 3,129 birds. This was made up of 81 species.

Top Ten:
1/ Cedar Waxwing – 499
2/ Myrtle Warbler – 269
3/ American Goldfinch – 222
4/ White-throated Sparrow – 205
5/ Ruby-crowned Kinglet – 196
6/ Golden-crowned Kinglet – 143
7/ Song Sparrow – 123
8/ Dark-eyed Junco – 122
9/ Blackpoll Warbler – 99
10/ Swainson’s Thrush – 88

November 2nd-5th – Drawing To A Close

A sure sign that the season is drawing to a close – Faye and Dave taking down the nets and bringing in the sound system. -NRF

It’s been a busy, hectic few days with lots going on, interspersed with bouts of bad weather (today, for example, being a washout). On the 2nd Fern Hill Oakville’s Grade 2’s visited the Ruthven banding program (and house tour). We were fortunate in having lots of birds to keep everyone happy, handling 67 (37 banded, 30 retraps). In contrast, the 3rd was really slow at Ruthven (we banded only 8!) but, interestingly, busy at Fern Hill in Burlington – they banded 21 including a rare (for this area and time of year) White-eyed Vireo. That night we had an open-to-the-public owling session and pulled in 5 Northern Saw-whet Owls and retrapped an Eastern Screech Owl that we had banded about 2 weeks before. The 4th was busy again – it’s a topsy turvy time of year for bird movement – and we banded another 59. And, as I mentioned, today, the 5th, was a write-off. So as it stands now we have banded 2,838 birds this Fall in our “standard” banding operation and another 260 in our “non-standard” operations for a total of 3,098 birds!

We started to take down nets on the 4th and will continue to do so over the next couple of days. Banding officially ends on the 7th.

November 2nd; Ruthven; Banded 37:
1 Mourning Dove
1 Brown Creeper
9 Golden-crowned Kinglets
1 Ruby-crowned Kinglets
5 Eastern Bluebirds
1 Hermit Thrush
6 American Tree Sparrows

Fox Sparrow. -KAP

1 Fox Sparrow
1 Song Sparrow

Dark-eyed Junco. -KAP

3 Dark-eyed Juncos
8 American Goldfinches

ET’s: 28 spp.

November 3rd;
Ruthven; Banded 8:

5 Golden-crowned Kinglets
1 American Tree Sparrow
1 Fox Sparrow
1 Dark-eyed Junco

ET’s: 29 spp.

What a treat!! A White-eyed Vireo banded Friday at Fern Hill, Burlington. -JJC

Fern Hill Burlington; Banded 23:
Migration monitoring is winding down here at Fern Hill Burlington, but on Friday Janice and I were surprised with a few gems!
Early in the day a small group of grade seven and eight boys were helping with milkweed planting when Janice called us over to check out the gorgeous (and first ever!) White Eyed Vireo caught at our school!
We also recaptured a beautiful female Slate Coloured Junco-first banded in 2013! It is so valuable to recapture birds so we can study their movements and migration habits, aging process, and understand how important it is to conserve bird habitats. Just imagine the natural and man made challenges she goes through-and survives-each year on her long travels.
We banded 23:
9 American Goldfinch
10 Dark-eyed Juncos
1 American Tree Sparrows
1 Fox Sparrow
2 White-throated Sparrows
1 Black-capped Chickadee
2 Dark-eyed Junco

Gray-phase Eastern Screech Owl. -AAW

Ruthven Owling:
The temperature dropped as did the wind and we were confidently hopeful that the owls wouldn’t let us down. On the first round we got 4 owls all in the same net: 3 Northern Saw-whet Owls and an Eastern Screech Owl. Although it seems innocuous, the screech owl was quite likely there to predate a saw-whet…When the night was over we added another 2 saw-whets to the total. As a great finish to the owl season, Bob And Irene treated us to a buffet of home-made baked goods and coffee. It was a great night (thanks Irene!!!).
Owling pics:

Samuel with “his” (really Sian’s) screech owl. -AAW

One of 5 Northern Saw-whet Owls banded Friday night. -AAW

Eastern Screech Owl. -BF

The “Owl Lady” – Nancy with a Saw-whet. -BF

So soft to the touch. -BF

Sian (original bander) and Samuel (screech owl bander wannabe) with a recaptured Eastern Screech Owl. -SEF

It’s rare that we get so many Old Bag(ger)s together at one time.

James models the “new look” that the Young Baggers have chosen to adopt for the coming field season.

The screech owl readjusting to the night. -MMG

Jordan with his first Saw-whet. -NRF

Sian (original bander) and Samuel (screech owl bander wannabe) with a recaptured Eastern Screech Owl. -SEF

Polina with her Saw-whet. -SEF

Wing of an older Saw-whet; note the darker (i.e., newer) outer primary feathers. -SEF

Underwing pattern of fluorescence of an older Saw-whet owl. -SEF

November 4th; Ruthven:
We had a major influx of American Goldfinches, banding 37 and recapturing 15 previously banded birds, some of them several years old. My hunch is that these older, more experienced birds lead the young hordes to the food sources that have been quite dependable at Ruthven over the years.

Jordan, an up and coming bander from the Wheatley area. -NRF

Banded 59:
1 Black-capped Chickadee
3 American Robins

Almost a rarity….now: Cedar Waxings. -F. Smith

1 Cedar Waxwing
6 American Tree Sparrow
2 White-throated Sparrows
9 Dark-eyed Juncos
37 American Goldfinches

ET’s: 33 spp.

November 1st – The Return of the AMGO’s

Nancy with 2 Northern Saw-whet Owls that were banded last night. -JF

AMGO is the A.O.U. short form for AMerican GOldfinch. We hadn’t been catching many and I was concerned but…they have returned in the last few days….with a vengeance. Today we couldn’t keep them out of the hanging trap and ended up banding 33 of them and processing another 14 retraps – some of them older birds.

Peyton, a student with a visiting school, indicated a great interest in birds and banding, so…..he got to band his first bird: American Goldfinch. -KMP

On the whole it was a very busy day. We had a big group of students from Lake Avenue School and we handled a lot of birds – over 100 between banding and recaptures.

And last night Nancy lead an owling expedition. They didn’t get any in the first couple of net checks but turned up two later in the evening – if you were patient (and could afford the time) you got to see them. [Note: the next attempt to band owls will be Friday night if it’s not raining.]

Banded 72:
2 Mourning Doves

A rather late Eastern Phoebe. -KMP

1 Eastern Phoebe
4 Golden-crowned Kinglets
1 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
2 Eastern Bluebirds
1 Hermit Thrush
1 Myrtle Warbler
4 American Tree Sparrows
1 Fox Sparrow
2 Song Sparrows
3 White-throated Sparrows
11 Dark-eyed Juncos
6 Red-winged Blackbirds
33 American Goldfinches

Bright male Northern Cardinal. -KMP

ET’s: 35 spp.

October 31st – The Final Stretch

October is done! Where did the time go? I firmly believe that you are given only so many migrations….and this one is drawing to an end. In this month we banded 1,750 birds (not counting the owls and other species that were caught outside of “standard” hours or in non-standard nets). The Top 5 for the month:
Cedar Waxing – 378
Myrtle Warbler – 267
White-throated Sparrow – 185
Ruby-crowned Kinglet – 181
American Goldfinch – 134

A very handsome adult Eastern White-crowned Sparrow. -KMP

Yesterday we got the first American Tree Sparrows of the season both here and in Oakville. These are Winter residents. We are particularly interested in seeing whether resident birds return to Ruthven from their far northern breeding grounds. This morning we got the first one! It was originally banded as a young (HY) bird on December 19th, 2014. It was recaptured numerous times in 2015 and 2016 – the last time being November 2, 2016. Welcome back! Wouldn’t you love to know it’s route and where it nests?!

One of two Fox Sparrows banded today. -JNJ

It was a cold and windy morning which limited the number of nets we opened. There weren’t a lot of birds around to entice us to do otherwise…..It’s as if the avian tap has been turned off. The variety and the numbers just aren’t there any more. Where are the wheeling flocks of Cedar Waxwings? The raucous strings of Blue Jays? The flitting of warblers? All have moved south. Time to get ready for Winter….and Snow Buntings.

Banded 13:
2 Mourning Doves
1 Black-capped Chickadee
1 Brown Creeper
2 American Robins
2 Fox Sparrows
1 Song Sparrow
1 Eastern White-crowned Sparrow
2 Dark-eyed Juncos
1 American Goldfinch

ET’s: 34 spp.

October 30th – Windy and Cold

First American Tree Sparrow of the season….back for the Winter. -NRF

Wow! October is almost over! Where has the Fall gone!? Summer seemed to last forever and then, WHAM!, we’re into the “typical” Fall weather: cold and blustery. And you can see it in the birds – the long-distrance migrants have all gone (except maybe for the odd straggler) and the short-distance migrants have got down to the last few. Now the winter residents are moving in – notably, we got the first American Tree Sparrows of the season at both Ruthven and Fern Hill Oakville today. At Ruthven there is still a good grape crop which probably explains the Eastern Bluebirds we have been seeing (and banding) over the last couple of days. One of the most exciting developments to me is the return of a beaver to the Ruthven river flats. You can see where it has been taking down walnuts close to the river and its trail is quite evident. The fact that it likes walnuts is a real surprise. A few years ago a beaver family took down literally hundreds of small walnuts on the flats, completely changing the aspect. When their lodge was swept away in the Spring floods the walnuts returned with a vengeance. But the beavers have returned…….

The new Ott Lamp glowing pink – happy thoughts. -KMP

And now it’s blue……someone feeling down…. -KMP

Karen and Marnie felt that we needed a better light over the lab work area for skulling and appraising feather age so they went out and got a wonderful Ott lamp – which is terrific. This particular model comes with the capacity to change the colour of its base. I watched it carefully and found that it was attuned to the moods of Samuel (Samwise as the Baggers call him) to the point that it would change colour depending on his moods/thoughts: happy thoughts = pink; unhappy ones = blue. Amazing! Next time you’re their with him watch how it responds to him…..

Part of a huge flock of Red-winged Blackbirds that flew over this morning. -KMP

At Ruthven:
A quiet morning with strong winds gusting from the west causing nets to
billow. Banding and observation numbers were low today but new for the
season were American Tree Sparrows. Closed early with the threat of rain
and it was a good thing we did – the rain soon came and it was dark and
nasty. A highlight today for everyone was seeing the Red-wing Blackbirds.
On census, Carol and I were on the Carolinian Trail, looking south over
Rick’s rill towards the back fields when we saw this ‘river’ of Red-wing
Blackbirds! We could hear this large flock of blackbirds before we saw
them, never anticipating the numbers. Then, we saw them moving low, next
to the treeline and following the edge of the field towards the river. A
flow of birds that just kept coming, and coming! Then, just as we were
finishing the census route you could hear this massive flock of blackbirds
on the move to the south. Sure enough, the birds flew over the banding
lab moving north east. Everyone in the banding lab saw them and were
commenting on the number of them and the noise they made. We estimated
~1000 birds, thinking there was more than that.

Banded 12:

The stiff, spikey tail of the Brown Creeper is very useful for propping it up against a tree trunk. -CMS

1 Brown Creeper
2 Golden-crowned Kinglet
3 American Tree Sparrow

This Fox Sparrow shows clearly how it got its name. -CMS

1 Fox Sparrow
2 White-throated Sparrow
2 Slate-colored Junco
1 American Goldfinch

ET’s: 25 species
A few photos from the last couple of days at Ruthven:

Male (obviously!!) Northern Cardinal. -MMG

In contrast, the drab female cardinal. -MMK

Samuel and his Bluebird Posse. -MMG

Check out the colouration of this male goldfinch’s head – getting gray with age? -KMP

One of four Eastern Bluebirds caught yesterday. -CMS

Eastern Bluebird. -CMS

Brilliant male House Finch. =CMS


Fern Hill Oakville:
It was cold and windy at Fern Hill’s Oakville campus as well! To the point that we didn’t open a couple of the nets as they were billowing (more than the others). We had been setting out ground traps in the central courtyard and baiting them with cut corn to attract Mourning Doves but hadn’t caught any. So I decided to change and switched to simple mixed bird seed. What a difference!! We caught and banded 18 Mourning Doves, 17 of which came from the traps. We also gotour first tree sparrows of the season today as well. ON the whole we had a much better day than the Ruthven crew as we banded 41 birds.

Banded 41:
18 Mourning Doves
1 Blue Jay
1 Black-capped Chickadee

Male Golden-crowned Kinglet. -KAP

4 Golden-crowned Kinglets
1 American Robin

First of the season – American Tree Sparrows with their two-toned bills. -KMP

6 American Tree Sparrows
4 Dark-eyed Juncos
3 American Goldfinches
3 House Sparrows

ET’s: 19 spp.