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The year of 2020 so far

May 4, 2020

Biologists describe the state of migration readiness for birds as “restlessness” or “agitation.” This state is triggered by hormonal changes caused by photoperiodism.  I figure that I may well have some bird DNA in my genes because that is exactly how I feel this time of year as the migration picks up. Or maybe it was that gull feather that I put in my back pocket of my jeans. Either way, I’m not sleeping well.  I wake up early. Waking up early is fine if you go to sleep early. My problem is that I don’t, so it catches up. But that Chickadee alarm clock that goes off at 5:15 am and pushes my out of bed most mornings by 5:30. The only medication for my restless, agitated state is birding. And fortunately that is so easy these days – just throw some clothes on, grab my binoculars and note book and step out onto the balcony.

Being in our apartment every day, all day, a consequence of COVID-19, has been good for my low carbon footprint birding this year, even though the migration has been very slow. I am pretty certain that I am well ahead of last year’s pace, which ended with a record 102 species for year. Yet, and let’s be honest about this, there are hardly any birds around compared with most years. The dawn chorus is still the neighbour Chickadees, the Cardinals and the Robins. Oh, they have been joined by the bubbling songs of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet and the clear whistled notes of the White-throated Sparrows. But where are the Warblers?

I can’t help but feel a dread that we have lost another billion birds this past year, on top of the three billion that scientists told us about last September. I’m just making the “one billion” number up but I may be not far off the mark. The thing is that bird observatories east of the Rockies, pretty much all reported near record or record low numbers of birds at their stations last fall. Perhaps the most noteworthy detail was the low proportion of “hatch year” birds recorded.  Most migration monitoring stations use mist-netting and banding as one of their methods to track migration. Among the data kept by each station about each bird banded is the bird’s age. Last fall, I heard several reports that the proportion of “hatch-year” birds, which normally make up the bulk of the catch in the fall, was very low, perhaps signalling breeding failure. This makes sense if we recall the continental weather pattern of last spring. Small lakes in the boreal forest were still frozen and there was snow in the bush well into June in many places. Temperatures in April, May and the first half of June were below normal through almost all of Canada east of Saskatchewan. Probably this meant that the warblers, and other insect eating species such as flycatchers and swallows had little or no food when they arrived on their breeding grounds from mid-May to early June. There is no point in trying to raise a family when you can’t feed them. Either there was massive nesting failure or the birds simply didn’t breed.

For most of these long-distance migratory species, they arrive on the clock, and have a very limited window of time to reproduce.  If that window starts closing down, they run out of time to complete the different stages of their breeding cycle which includes choosing a nest site, building the nest and defending a territory, laying and incubating eggs, tending the nestlings until they fledge, then looking after them of a period of time before the parents and the young birds can start their return migrations to wintering grounds. The later egg laying is initiated, the less time there is to complete the process. While I admit that this is speculation, I believe there is good reason to believe that the summer of 2019 may have dealt a crushing blow to many bird populations in eastern Canada, due to climate change-related weather patterns. This spring will confirm that.

 

Towhee

Eastern Towhee

So does my experience to date this spring support a “lack of birds” hypothesis or not?  Species-wise, my year list from our place is very good compared with other years. I’ve already observed more waterfowl and birds of prey than most years and, as of today, added five new species to the list of birds observed from our place.  Perhaps the most unlikely was an Eastern Towhee that was singing within 25 m of the balcony on May 1, dueting it out with a Brown Thrasher.  I was so excited that I recorded the early morning chorus on my phone.

 

Another bird treat for this spring has been a group of five young crows. They play off each other, and definitely have that “bad boy” streak. Every day I see them marauding about the neighbourhood, pestering a Raven, harassing a squirrel, and even having a go at me. This happened on Saturday. As I sat on the window frame of the window overlooking the Park, they “sneak-attacked” me, swooping silently behind me and passing less then a metre over my head, one, then a second and a third. I was so startled that I toppled back into the apartment. I have no idea what they were doing, other then causing trouble. That’s what they do, and I must admit, I am getting my kicks from watching their antics, though they may have gotten the last laugh.

This weekend, we have had a stretch of the warmest weather of the year, hitting 20 C for the first time. So I’ve been expecting a rush of birds to accompany the brief southerly airflow, but it hasn’t happened. The only new birds for the weekend were a pair of Snow Geese (also a first for the house list) in a large flock of Canada Geese, heading north, and a Killdeer today. Snow geese . . . the name pretty much sums of the types of springs we have had the last two years now.  But the movement of geese to the north is great news for the Cree of James Bay, who are largely out on the land now, in their camps, waiting patiently for the geese to come. I wondered as I watched the noisy flocks pass high above, heading due north over Gatineau Park, whether any of them would end up in the cooking tents of any of my friends in the Cree communities around James Bay.

As of yet, the only warbler species to show up here is the Yellow-rumped, and only a handful. No other warblers, even on my walks into the nearby park. It is eerily quiet. Where are the warblers?

Next Saturday is World Migratory Bird Day. Nature Canada is hosting virtual bird day events that I will most certainly be involved in. As the forecast for next Saturday calls for a maximum of 5 degrees C and up to 3 cm of snow, I will be quite happy spending my bird day in our apartment, or on the balcony with a hot mug of tea, rather than in an exposed field somewhere in Ottawa trying to spot the elusive House Sparrow. I hope that the warblers, swallows and Purple Martins, Chimney swifts, hummingbirds, and all of their feathered cousins will be enjoying warmth, somewhere to the south of us, and waiting for the next blast of southerly warm maritime air to carry their fortunes north to my neighbourhood, then on to their breeding grounds.  I will happily enjoy my family of Chickadees on Bird Day as my source of bird joy, and maybe spot another species with “snow” as part of its name.

 

 

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One Comment
  1. maryhouston2013 permalink

    I am enjoying your blog Ted! Thanks so much for taking the time to write them!

    I am seeing most of the usual suspects for our area. Missing are nuthatches for some reason. They usually show up with the chickadees or even stay around for the winter but the red breasted and white breasted are no where to be seen. We have had larger numbers of grackles and blackbirds this year and a flock of some 25 cowbirds for a few days. All other species accounted for so far. Waiting on the Baltimore’s. Over time the arriving Baltimore’s have reduced in number each year so we will see what happens. We used to get upwards of 20 at a time.

    Always nice to watch and keep track of arrival dates. Happy birding!

    Sent from Mary’s iPad

    >

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