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The World Outdoors: More to bird watching than just birds

The London Free Press,
Paul Nicholson,
June 9 2016

No bird? No problem.

One of the pleasures of bird watching is the diagnostic challenge that it presents. Determining what family of bird or what species you have seen is sometimes easy, but just as often it’s difficult.

Birders typically rely on a bird’s size, shape, plumage, field marks, behaviour, and a bird’s call to solve the mysteries that they encounter. But what if all of this direct evidence is absent?

Some folks might not even ­notice other clues if they are hiking outdoors, yet several can lead us to a positive identification.

In the same way that felled trees can alert us to local beaver activity, certain drilling, nests, or other clues can point us to particular birds.

Let’s start with woodpeckers. Evidence of yellow-bellied sapsucker activity are the even rows of holes that they drill. These rows end up looking like perforations or dotted lines.

Instead of simply hammering away anywhere at a tree to find bugs, the sapsucker’s primary goal is to tap trees for sap. They therefore drill many sap wells in a row to efficiently access the nectar.

Pileated woodpeckers are the largest woodpeckers in Southwestern Ontario. When these birds are drilling for food, they create the largest holes, by far.

Interestingly, pileateds’ holes are oblong or even rectangular so they are distinctive. Our other woodpeckers’ holes are smaller and more or less round.

If the wood debris found below a pileated’s drilling site is fresh, some birders will even stay in the area to find the bird. London birder Mike Channon has done just this.

“It was in the winter and the fresh wood chips created by the pileated woodpecker were sitting right on top of the fresh snow. I knew the bird was around so I just went back a few times with my camera. I finally saw it and got some photos. Sometimes patience pays off.”

Bird nests are always interesting. Because of the unique design features, you can link some to a particular species with confidence.

Without seeing or hearing a Baltimore oriole, you will know they are in the area if you see their sock-like nest hanging from a branch high in a deciduous tree in the spring.

I’ve almost literally tripped across a killdeer’s nest. Whenever possible, while observing active bird’s nests, we should always keep a respectful distance.

Some birds have distinctive sounds that aren’t vocalizations. A drumming sound made in the early morning by the male ruffed grouse is a definitive clue. It sounds like someone trying to start an engine. To see a remarkable video of this, search “ruffed grouse drumming” on YouTube.

Another bird sound that isn’t a vocalization is made by the ruby-throated hummingbird. You might hear a hummingbird’s wings while reading a book on your patio.

I’ve successfully tracked wild turkeys. Admittedly that happened in the winter, but this bird’s tracks are large and distinctive and might be found in any season.

There are other indirect clues as well that can be helpful while birding.

I’ve often been out on a sunny day and had a large shadow pass in front of me. That is a good cue to look up and admire a raptor.

Bird scat also can be used to ­locate birds. It isn’t needed to find a Canada goose or a cormorant colony but it is sometimes a useful clue when owling.

Most bird watchers already are tuned in well to their environment. It makes sense to fully leverage those observational skills.

Nature notes

– Ontario Nature celebrated conservation efforts across the province earlier in June. Nine conservation awards were presented to individuals and organizations that preserve and protect wild species and wild spaces. London’s Scott Gillingwater received the W. W. H. Gunn Conservation Award for his dedication to protecting reptile and amphibian species at risk. The City of London received the Lee Symmes Municipal Award for its work in protecting Environmentally Significant Areas.

– Of the more than 300 hummingbird species, the ruby-­throated hummingbird is the only one seen regularly in Southwestern Ontario. Very occasionally a rufous hummingbird is reported. Interestingly, hummingbirds only occur in the Western Hemisphere.


Twitter @NicholsonNature