During elementary school, oh so many years ago, we learned about a few birds. We remember nature studies which taught us about the robin, the blue jay, and the crow. In Girl Guides, Carolyn was a scarlet tanager, and later as a junior leader of a Brownie pack, she was a snowy owl. This is how we learned. Bruce’s environmental biology studies at the University of Guelph included zoology, entomology, and horticulture but not ornithology. We are grateful therefore for all the natural history we have learned in the last four years, researching and writing this column. We learned a little, paid attention, learned some more, and paid more attention … an ever expanding circle.
In this article, we’d like to highlight a few of the astounding birds we have learned about in recent years, birds we had barely heard of before we started this column.
Our first photographs of the yellow-rumped warbler date from 2014, when Bruce was still using his pocket Nikon. Eventually, we upgraded our camera and were able to get some better shots with a larger Nikon and zoom lens. Speirs, in his 1985 chef-d’œuvre about birds of Ontario, observed that yellow-rumped warblers are usually the first of the warblers to appear in southwestern Ontario in early May. At Three Mile Bay, we have seen them as early as June 5th, but the preponderance we have seen here in September. Of course being insect eaters, we love yellow-rumped warblers, not only for their charm and beauty, but for their food preferences. We see them at all levels of the forest, from near treetop to ground level, and everywhere in between. Bruce took the photograph below in mid-September 2017.
Neither of us was raised near water, and so we have experienced a steep learning curve about water birds. Experts might not describe the belted kingfisher as a water bird but it is dependent on rivers and lakes for food. This amazing bird sits on a tree branch overlooking the lake, and at the perfect moment dives into the water after a wee fish. The belted kingfisher is one of the few bird species in which the female is more brightly coloured than the male with her chestnut belly-band. We usually see them from the end of July until mid-September. This photo of the female was taken early in August, 2016.
One of our favourite birds is the ovenbird, a thrush which spends most of its time foraging on the ground for insects. We tend to see them though on low tree branches just off the south porch. They fill the forest with their song, tee-cher! tee-cher! tee-cher! Most easily identified by their black-speckled chests; wide, white eye-rings; and, black and orange striped crowns, ovenbirds build ground-level nests shaped like little ovens. This one’s orange and black crest is smoothed back and it is not on the ground, making identification trickier for us.
Over a decade ago when we started going to the cottage we had not even heard of vireos, but now we know we have at least two species. The one that abounds from late May through to mid-August is the red-eyed vireo which keeps busy flitting about through the top story of our deciduous trees.
Last but not least for today is the beautiful white-throated sparrow which to our minds might as well be called the bibbed sparrow. Its white throat, and white and yellow eyebrows, make it easy to distinguish from all other Ontario sparrows. We do not see the white-throated sparrow as often as we would like to at the cottage, but if we do, it is usually September … and a treat.
We hope those who read our articles are learning, like we are, about the diverse natural history that surrounds us and observing more easily the fascinating plants and creatures that one might take for granted. We have reached a point where we do not need to open our books as often as we once did, but we referred to J. Murray Speirs 1985 book entitled Birds of Ontario to check some facts, as much to give this old book a turn off the shelf as for any other reason.