29 April 2010

On my way to fetch a book...

Killdeer seem to be just fine with parking lots, it's the people they can't stand:

Blossoms by the side of the road:

The book arrived courtesy of Canpar; I must say that getting zero brokerage charges (coming from the UK, as opposed to coming from the States), finding the package waiting at the security gate guard house, rather than having to wait 15 minutes (after waiting 2 hours to get to the front of the line), and the less-distant distant warehouse make me much more pleased with Canpar as a shipper than I am ever likely to be with UPS. (UPS is in the "if shipped only by UPS, do not buy" category by now.)

The book itself is Gulls of Europe, Asia, and North America by Klaus Malling Olson, out of print (as Gulls of North America, Europe, and Asia) from Princeton University Press but still in print in the UK as a Helm Field Guide.  This is the book on holoarctic gulls, and I can see that it will take me some time to absorb.

25 April 2010

Jaws that catch

More ROM shelves; I remember the darker skull from the old dinosaur hall but could be quite mistaken.  (Telling theropod skulls apart reliably is a bit beyond me.)  And I liked the little purple guy with the spikes.

No birding today; I woke with a thick head and a scratchy throat and elected to believe that a day spent being a slug would do this more good than a walk in the rain.

24 April 2010

TOC bird walk: Little Gulls and other migrants

The official start time, at the observation platform for Oshawa Second Marsh, was 09h00. Tyler Hoar, the walk leader, had suggested that reliable presence of little gulls could not be guaranteed past about 08h00 due to the presence of a peregrine falcon. So I got there, courtesy of a fellow TOC member with a kind streak and a car, by a little after 07h00.

Tyler, a dedicated soul, had been at the observation platform since dawn.

We had an amazing day; sunny, warm (for April; 16 C eventually), and almost completely still. Large portions of the marsh were so flat they looked like ice, and the reflections of flying birds rose up from the depths to meet them at the surface of the water.

Little Gulls are the world's smallest gull, and were unknown in North America prior to 1962, in which year they made a nesting attempt in Oshawa's Second Marsh. There is now a small population—the largest, wildly optimistic estimate for which is 400 individuals—in in North America, and while it doesn't breed in the marsh, the migration route continues to include the marsh. (I am sure this is interesting to people studying migration route formation.) Getting to see a group of them, especially in company with Bonaparte's Gulls (another black-headed "small gull"), and to observe both courting flights and hawking flights (there's a major midge-hatching event going on in Lake Ontario right now) was a very welcome experience. Little Gulls have a dark underwing, varying from charcoal to jet black in colour, but with a white trailing edge to the wing. This is very distinctive, and I have some hope of recognizing a Little Gull should I see one again. (I also now know in a way that is attached to mental images how the difference in wing length effects how the sitting bird looks; Little Gulls have wings to short to cross when folded, so the black wing tips of Bonaparte's gulls show over their backs when folded and the wing tips of Little Gulls aren't long enough to do that.)

Aside from the 34 Little Gulls, there were the obligatory red-winged black birds, including an anomalous pied individual with a blush-orange throat; something more than 1200 Bonaparte's Gulls; common merganser, wood duck, common grackles, a single Caspian turn bob-preening in the midst of the sitting Little Gulls; it's quite a mental shock to see a tern larger than the gulls around it), shoveller ducks, gadwall, greenwing teal, piebilled grebe (lurking just past the edge of the dead reeds and often completely obscured by them), a small flock of bluejays flying north, a pair of overflying meadowlarks in breeding plumage leaving behind them an impression of a remarkable intensity of yellow, a single second year great-blacked-backed gull in with the herring gulls, overflying common loons, a yellowlegs of indeterminate size (since it circled at great speed and vanished downward behind us; very hard to detect the fine distinctions between Greater and Lesser under those circumstances), mute swan, trumpeter swan, chickadee, and tree swallows.

After climbing off the platform to look for the yellowlegs, I concluded that the platform was pretty full now and I'd make a try for pictures of the tree swallows; I have a sneaking visual fondness for them, and this one was co-operating by sitting somewhere with a complete lack of confusing background objects. (There's a way to get the X90 to use only the centre focus spot and I need to read the manual again and find out what it is.)

Once it was actually nine o'clock and everyone had arrived—something very much like 30 people, a good turnout even on a lovely day—we set out to walk around the marsh. This is a fair hike, and goes along Lake Ontario beach for about a third of its length before coming back through trails and paved road through the conservation area.

The walk was sparser than the platform; early spring or not (many trees are in full leaf, if not quite fully deployed leaf) the migrants are not all in early. (Those coming from the Souther US are noticing the warmer weather and leaving early; those coming from the Southern Hemisphere have no bird postal system to tell them NorAm's having an early and warm spring, and don't know they could leave early, is how I have heard this explained. This is probably bad in terms of bug availability for feeding nestlings, but I hope not.)

Despite my complaints of sparser, I did see ruby-crowned kinglet, with the red crest feathers actively displayed; yellow-rumped warbler, brown-headed cowbird, goldfinch, palm warbler, darkeyed junco, and a phoebe in the wooded portion of the walk, and redheaded duck, ruddy duck, hermit thrush, a yellow-shafted northern flicker, greater scaup, lesser scaup, common loon, gadwall, red-throated merganser, long-tailed duck, and common merganser on the lake, a cooper's hawk, American crow, and killdeer on the beach-and-marsh-edge portions of the walk.

Coming back towards the parking lot (and crossing a long stretch of what is plausibly lawn, behind the GM Canada headquarters), I was pleased to see a song sparrow acting like a female red-winged black bird in a reed-filled ditch.

I gave up around 12h45, which felt a lot later than that. Tomorrow is a walk for early migrants out Tommy Thompson Park, and while that is much easier to get to, the forecast weather can be summarized neatly as "rain, with wind". I can hope this will lead to many migrants huddled sullenly on trees and readily observed, but I'm not sure that's really the way to bet.

23 April 2010

Small surprises

This is the skull end view of the Maiasaurus hatchling that was in the old ROM dinosaur gallery for a number of years, in a glass box that made getting a good shot really really hard.

This is on the storage shelf; it's dim under there, and it was a fairly quick tour, but I'm still happy with the result.

20 April 2010

They're all a little mad

I think it's the yellow eye in the purple head and monkey prejudices, but all grackles look at least a little mad.
The X90 appears to really like bright daylight; it's a trick to hold at full zoom, and the (useful in cases of bright sunlight) EVF has visible lag, but I can't complain about the feather detail here at all.
Took this walking across one side of Nathan Phillips Square.

11 April 2010

A note about politics and complex systems

"We don't defend Canon Space; we destroy Canon's enemies.  It's different."

That's a quote from Glen Cook's The Dragon Never Sleeps, an interesting and much-neglected and recently back in print space opera.  (And the Guard Ships do destroy Canon's enemies.)

If you want a complex social structure that allows lots of individual exercise of choice, you need to enact and defend a bunch of complex ideas like the rule of law and the rights of man.

If you want to break that, destroying your enemies—which is simple and straightforward to do, comparatively speaking—will do just fine.

I note this because it gave me an "aha!" moment about my sense that the progressive and conservative political movements in Anglo-NorAm weren't playing the same game.

07 April 2010

An argument against jaywalking

I wound up walking home in the rain this evening, since the streetcars were stopped and the buses were detouring. This was why.  (Well, this, and the consequent four police cars, paramedic vehicles, etc.; no sign of an ambulance, which I hope means the pedestrian was already well on their way to hospital.)

I suppose this is also why I think carrying a camera all the time is a good idea; pictures present themselves, and if one does not have the camera, that's it, there's no taking them.  Even if one would prefer that it not be there to take.

It's a pity the waterproof cameras have no zoom to speak of; trying to take a picture while holding an umbrella with my chin is not my best skill.

Upholding tradition

Taken with the Pentax Optio X90.

This was acquired on the grounds that I can't take the K20D everywhere, and would really like both a take-everywhere camera and a some-hope-of-enough-zoom-for-birds camera.  I'm still making friends with it, but I think it did a quite respectable job of managing Aoife's fur, here, admittedly at the expense of a great deal of white cardboard.  (Aoife is very fond of those boxes.  I am clearly going to have to build a lurking space right there for her.  Possibly in parallel with the stairwell bicycle hoist lumber purchases, since I do want to eventually unpack those boxes.)

04 April 2010

Bird walk: Toronto Lakeshore between Roncesvalles and Ellis Ave

Sunday, 4 April 2010; starting 07h00 (right around true dawn; late for the dawn chorus) at Queen and Roncesvalles, crossing via the pedestrian bridge to the beach.  Still air, about 8 C, and light scattered cloud; mostly sunny.

Ended getting on the Lakeshore streetcar at Ellis Avenue at 08h30.

In between, I was walking mostly west, with some north to head up Colborne Lodge drive to walk along the park edge of Grenadier Pond.

The rock dove (the standard city pigeon) and mourning dove (the darker, slimmer, smaller, pigeon-type birds with the large wedge-shaped, white edged tails in flight) were not surprising.  Neither were the starlings.

That the red-winged blackbirds were everywhere and twitter-pated out of their tiny maniraptoranan minds is a spring thing; not quite what I expect for the first week of April, but is is a very early spring.  (The willows around Grenadier pond are in actual leaf.  They weren't two days ago.)  The presence of Canada geese is similarly unsurprising, though the pair that came in for landing around either side of my head, close enough that I could feel the displaced air and the honking Dopplered, that was a bit of a surprise.

Mallards and ring-billed gull are completely unsurprising.  The song sparrows (at least two pair, the males singing away) were surprising for location (but the lake shore area is empty and quite lovely around dawn, rather than full of people trotting along) and season (I would think about a month early, though my grasp of expected migration times is shaky.)

Long-tailed duck are unsurprising in Lake Ontario in winter, and last year I was still seeing them in June, so the group of three wasn't surprising.  They were in almost complete summer plumage, and looking very shiny.

Hooded merganser are not what I expect to see with long-tailed duck, even inshore inside the breakwater; they tend to be a shallow-water species, and that water isn't all that shallow, but presumably both fish and shellfish are suitable there.  There may have been some male hooded merganser as well as the two females I'm sure of; there were also at least six pair of bufflehead, and it's easy to miss male hoodies in with bufflehead.

The pair of gadwall, hugging the breakwater and being remarkably hard to see against the shadowy side of the concrete (gadwall are a grey duck; very pretty in good light but not detailed at a distance) were not so much a surprise (I think at least one pair tries to nest somewhere along there) as a pleasure, since I managed to pick them out of the shadow and get a good look through the scope.

Mute swan certainly live along that stretch of lake shore, so their presence was no surprise whatsoever.  Seeing one out past the breakwater was something of a surprise, since they're usually inshore, but the water is quite calm today despite last night's wind storm. Watching a pair launching gave me the first good side look at launching swan feet I've ever had, and it looks like they kick both feet together, rather than running on the water, in at least the later stages of the launch.

House sparrow, rooting through the wood chips around the base of the equipment at the base of one of the exercise stations, wasn't surprising, though it always takes me a second to identify the females.  Common grackle isn't surprising, either, though I think also somewhat early.

The first robin of the day was along the lake shore path; the next three were by the overflow pond south of the Gardiner.  I counted six displaying males and was able to see one female red-winged black bird among the reeds.  (I am quite sure there are more females in there; they just tend to hide in the reeds to a degree that makes seeing one surprising, in the traditional "is that some sort of large sparrow?" way.)  There were an awful lot of red-winged blackbirds just everywhere along the path; not necessarily even close to the water.  Perching on the wires over the railway tracks is not a habitat I normally associated with this species.

Grenadier pond itself had a snoozing mallard, a cob mute swan, and more bufflehead, being very very shiny.  It also had a pair of American Tree Swallow at the big birdhouse near the south-west corner of the park, being unmistakably shiny white and iridescent green.  I'm pretty darn sure they're early, and I hope they find enough bugs to eat.

02 April 2010

First Bike Ride of the Season

It wasn't as sunny as predicted, but it was 23℃ and otherwise quite lovely.  If things had leafed out, I should have found it impossible to convince my brain it wasn't June.  (And I don't think I entirely succeeded; it kept seeming later than it was.)

I am most pleased with the current bike setup (I am now convinced that the persistent and troubling squeak that I'd blamed on the front disk brake had in fact been the front hub; wheel replacement has solved that problem, huzzah!), and even more pleased to discover I live quite close to one entrance to the West Toronto Rail Path which is new (so the pavement is excellent) and interesting; I need to go back there with a camera.  It's also oriented the right way, so that the generally downhill direction is the direction that gets me closer to home.

Along the West Toronto Rail Path, I saw four northern mockingbirds; two singing vigorously at one another at the start of the rail path, one very visible on a power line along the rail path (spotted after I did a mental double take at why there would be a killdeer calling there, at that time), and one moving quickly through truncated scrub at the edge of the active rail right-of-way.  There were also a number of sparrows, robins, and red-winged blackbirds singing; I was surprised to hear the red-winged black birds but the path does pass some marshy areas of the long-established ditch variety.

Proceeding west, over and down through various streets to High Park, and then through High Park, I saw little—the park was very busy and full of traffic, and I wanted to live—but heading along the Martin Goodman trail to the west I saw a variety of gulls (I'm still very solidly in the "gulls take a scope and time and references" category; from a  moving bicycle, "most of them were ring bills" is the best I can do), some mute swans, and overhead three (presumptively double-crested) cormorants.  (Canada geese and rock doves should be considered a given, but I did also see a mourning dove, and hear a goodly deal of what I took to be small passerine singing going through the park.)

Stopping at the gazebo north of Humber Bay Park East to actually look at birds, I saw a small group of six or seven bufflehead; about 20 moulting long tailed ducks with their backs in close to summer plumage but their heads remained solid white, and this in combination with clear shallow water allowed them to be seen while diving and swimming under water; various gulls; two Canada geese coming over for bread; and one duck I could not identify.

This duck was swimming and possessed an intensely and uniformly iridescent green head, save  yellow-green spots on each side of the head in similar positions to the white spots on female harlequin ducks; a dark, very mallard-y stern with somewhat longer tail feathers and no curled centre tail feathers,  and very blue bill perhaps smaller and narrower than the typical mallard bill with the effect of dark edging due to black bill edges and laminae.  (This is what I get from not having either notebook or camera with me; I have to try to remember these details precisely.)  The duck had a light chestnut front and pale flanks feeding into the dark stern.  My best guess is that it's a mallard-pintail hybrid; the duck I saw was very similar to the one pictured but had a bluer bill and a uniformly bright green head.

Coming back there were still four gadwall in the corner pond at the south-east corner of High Park, along with a pair of nesting mute swans and some hopeful photographers.

As a bike ride it's a nice loop and I look forward to repeating it.