Saturday, January 28, 2023
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Science & NatureWhat is That?What Is That ... in a Name?

What Is That … in a Name?

Waddells

Perhaps this time of year, more than any other time of year, it is appropriate to give thanks to the many people who help us identify what we capture on our digital camera.  We would not be anywhere with this project were it not for the assistance of experts on the Ontario Birds, the Spiders of Ontario and Quebec, the Insects and Arachnids of Ontario, and the many other wildlife pages on Facebook.  Six years of writing articles about Lanark wildlife for the MillstoneNews, and we are still learning the names of all the birds we have photographed and identified at the cottage on Three Mile Bay in the Lanark Highlands.  And learning the names of the insects and spiders … oh my!

It suits our way of thinking to write themed articles about Americans … think crow, goldfinch, robin, toad; or Canadians … think beaver, goose, swallowtail butterfly; or, even easterners … think bumble bee, dragonfly, squirrel, newt.  Of course, while animals may be named for the geographical locations where they are commonly found, they may also be named for an historical figure who first identified them; or, their size; or, even for a body part.

The animals whose names include size, colour, or body part seem easiest to learn.  We think we have ‘nailed’ a few.

The male rose-breasted grosbeak’s appearance is true to its name as you can see in the following photograph.  The red triangle announces his suitability for fatherhood to the far less colourful female.  The grosbeak’s name also underscores the size of its larger than average beak which we have watched it use to crack large sunflower seeds.  We see them at the cottage primarily in May and September.

Nuthatches come in two varieties at the cottage, one having a white, and the other a red, breast.  We see both white-breasted nuthatches and red-breasted nuthatches every day we are at the cottage, April to November, and we know that they stay through the winter.  The red-breasted nuthatch is the smaller of the two, and has a black eye streak.  While both species make little pigs of themselves on our sunflower seed feeders, they also eat insects that bury themselves deep in the crevices of bark on the various trees on the property.  This versatility enables ‘our’ nuthatches to survive the harsh Lanark winters.

Grosbeaks and nuthatches we learned about in our youth, but we saw our first chestnut-sided warbler at the cottage in 2016.  We had no idea what bird we photographed, but our Ontario Birds Facebook friends knew right away.  This yellow-capped songbird is named for the striking colour of the male’s chestnut flanks.  We see the chestnut-sided warbler most often in May but have recorded sightings each month through to August when they begin their long migrations to their winter homes in the southeast States and as far south as central America.  We certainly want to be back at the cottage in May 2023 in time for their return.

When we were young we knew about woodpeckers.  After all, Woody-The-Woodpecker starred in his own television cartoon.  Later we developed a vague sense of downy and hairy and even pileated woodpeckers.  Once again, though, it was not until we started spending summers at the cottage that we learned that yellow-bellied sapsuckers are Woody’s cousins, a species of woodpecker, named after the hue of yellow on its underside.  However, the colour of its belly is not the sapsucker’s most distinguishing feature, at least not for us.  It is a medium-sized woodpecker that perches upright on trees, leaning on its tails like other woodpeckers.  They drill a series, or several series, of small holes in the bark, called sapwells, from which they lap up sugary sap as well as any insects that may be caught in the sap.  While all woodpeckers drill holes in tree trunks, we find those of the yellow-bellied sapsucker to be unique.

We can now identify these five birds on sight.  For four of them, the name truly reflects their appearance.  The fifth, the yellow-bellied sapsucker, illustrates how we needed to add behaviour to improve our identification skills.  We keep learning and hope others do as well.

This article is based primarily on what we have learned over the past 16 years, but we like to check in with allaboutbirds.org on some of the details.

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