By David Hawke -- As we ‘swim’ through these humid days of late August, it is easy to overlook some of the winter preparations that are going on within our local wildlife populations. Yep, the days may be hot but the hard-wired senses of birds in particular mean it’s time to prep for colder temperatures.
Many of the birds we observe in the summer time are here just for a productive stop-over of sorts… find a mate, build a nest, raise some young ones and then it’s back to flying time again. Depending on where they want to spend the winter months determines when they have to depart from our neighbourhood.
If the winter escape is just across the border to the Virginia-South Carolina area, then species like bluebirds and robins can hang in here until a few frosty nights or dustings of snow occur. They eat berries and other fruits so they can linger longer until the big push to go south hits them.
The blue-winged teal, a small duck of our local swamps and marshes, goes to Cuba and other islands further south, so they are absent from our local wetlands long before the hardier mallards take their leave for the relatively nearby Tennessee.
Two of our summertime swallows, the tree swallow and barn swallow, both go south to the Gulf of Mexico area. However, the tree swallows hang out in Mexico while the barn swallows drift farther down into Central America. By mid-August our southern Ontario telephone wires are no longer lined with these insect-eating flying feathered friends. It’s been “Adios amigo” for a few weeks now.
Many birds conduct their southwards flight in large flocks, a trait that seems to baffle logic as food supplies have to be shared with hundreds or thousands of fellow travellers, as opposed to a single bird finding a corn field all to itself! But there is safety in numbers (maybe the peregrine falcon or merlin will take my neighbour whilst I hide in the middle of the flock).
I think the real reason for big numbers in the flock is that the youngsters are still feeling very much like a family unit, so four birds plus five more plus three plus six soon sums up to a sizeable flock. These family groupings then meet with another family flock and after a week or so we get to see thousands of birds flying overhead in a continuous stream.
While working at Tiny Marsh the past few months, I have noted a pair of sandhill cranes making their presence known with their trumpet-like calls and the occasional fly-by. A couple of days ago a flock of 25 cranes dropped in, followed a few minutes later by 15 more.
This species has had a dramatic rise in population over the past decade, going from a random migrant in Simcoe County to now appearing in flocks of several thousand birds, often gathering near Minesing. Texas bound, the cranes fuel up on leftover corn and soy beans as well as frogs, snakes and big beetles.
And then there are those birds that we saw briefly in the spring as they winged their way northward to the Hudson Bay lowlands or boreal forests. Although out of sight and out of mind during the summer for most southern Ontario birders, those species have been very busy with nest and egg productions. And now it’s time to take the new family southwards before the September freeze up begins.
The group of birds known collectively as ‘shorebirds’ is well-known for this twice a year “Hey, how ya doing? Gotta go!” attitude of visiting. There is a big rush in the spring to get to the breeding grounds on the first day the snow melts, then another rush to get the family out before the lakes freeze over. No wonder these birds look like bundles of nervous energy!
As their name implies, shorebirds like to be, well, beside lakes and ponds. Think sandpipers, plovers and their kin, including our local killdeer. While the spotted sandpiper is indeed a local nester, all the other sandpipers have been toughing it out in the true north. Two of these species are the greater yellowlegs and the lesser yellowlegs. Both of these species of shorebirds have, you guessed it, bright yellow legs which are very noticeable through binoculars or a spotting scope. To tell the species apart you have to look at their knees… the greater yellowlegs have larger knobby knees. Not sure if the lessers feel bad about their name status designation or better because of their svelte knee shapes? (See the attached photo.) There has to be a research grant in there somewhere.
So yeah, we can lounge and sweat and complain about the crabgrass in the garden, but the ones that are really working the life cycle right now are the long-distance migrants. As a black tern can tell you (should you speak ‘tern’), Argentina is a long way off and every day counts, so let’s get flying!
© 2021 David J. Hawke