Georgian Bay Birds
Spring is perfect time for birdwatching on Georgian Bay, as migratory birds return from south and the breeding season kicks off.
Check in here each Tuesday and Thursday to learn about new species that you might see this year.
American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus)
A mid-sized, chunky heron species, the well-camouflaged and secretive American Bittern nests and forages in densely vegetated marshes. When disturbed, it will stand stock-still with its bill pointing straight upwards, its long and heavily streaked neck blending into the reeds and grasses. This hard bird to spot, and you’re more likely to hear it strange gulping “pump-er-lunk” call than to actually see it.
The American Bittern feeds on broad range of fish, amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates and even small mammals. A stealthy hunter, like other herons it will spear is prey and swallow it whole, head first. And like owls, it will regurgitate undigestable parts as pellets.
American Bitterns are reclusive and solitary birds, and will socialize with others species only briefly for mating and migration. The female builds the nest and tends to eggs and young with no help from male. Spring territorial squabbles between males are very dramatic, and can even include violent aerial dogfights.
Read more about the American Bittern here.
Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus)
The Great Crested Flycatcher’s grandiose name is a little misleading. It is large for a flycatcher, but smaller than a robin, and its “crest” is really a peaked crown. Like other larger flycatchers, it has a big head and shoulders, and both sexes sport a distinctive yellow belly. It’s a very vocal bird; its trills and “reep” calls are familiar in Georgian Bay’s mixed coniferous and deciduous woodlands during spring and summer.
Great Crested Flycatcher is of course an insectivore. It will “sally” from a prominent perch after insects, and then typically return to the same perch with its meal. As cavity nesters, Great Crested Flycatchers are attracted to dead, hollow snags for both feeding perches and nesting sites, and will readily move into boxes.
Read more about the Great Crested Flycatcher here.
Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)
The smaller of the two main Tern species that nest on Georgian Bay, the Common Tern is easily distinguished from the much larger, gull-sized Caspian. Both Tern species are colonial, meaning that they nest in groups, and in the case of Georgian Bay, on rocky islands.
Common Terns are graceful and agile flyers and will suddenly pivot and dive the water after small fish, their primary food source. They have an elaborate courtship “dance” that begins in the air and continues onto the ground. The male Tern seals the deal with food offerings to the female. Both sexes have similar breeding plumage, and their shrill, chittering calls will be familiar to many.
The most widespread tern species in North America, the Common Tern’s numbers have mostly recovered from their over-harvesting for millinery trade in late 19th century (entire birds were mounted on hats), but the Great Lakes colonies have declined again more recently. This is likely due to habitat loss, and increasing competition from expanding gull populations.
Common Terns migrate to South America, as far as Chile and Argentina, where they spend the winter on saltwater coasts. Like other “seabirds” are able to drink seawater due to nasal glands that excrete excess salt.
Read more about the Common Tern here.
House Wren (Troglodytes aedon)
The House Wren exhibits certain positive human attributes: it’s a chatty,
very energetic and cheerful bird. It also has a bit of a dark side, being a tough, highly territorial customer. House
Wrens will actually kick other birds and their eggs out of a nesting site so that they
can move in. They have other interesting nesting behaviour too. Males will
start building multiple nests in order to better his odds of attracting a
mate. This is also thought to be intended to throw off would-be competitor
male Wrens, or even to be decoys to fool predators. Adults will often
collect and deposit spider egg sacs into the nest; it’s believed that the
hatched spiders will feed on the mites that plague nestling Wrens.
One of the most widespread of all North American songbirds, the House Wren
is an insectivore and a cavity nester and is readily attracted to nesting
Read more about the House Wren here.
Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum)
The Brown Thrasher is member of Mimidae, the avian family that includes mockingbirds and catbirds. The Mimidae are prodigious singers and talented mimics; the Brown Thrasher is believed to repertoire as many as 1000 songs, many of them borrowed from other birds. Its song is typically short and loud, with two or three repetitions of single phrases before moving on.
As might be suggested by name and appearance, the Brown Thrasher is territorially aggressive bird that will defend it nest as vigorously as Red-winged Blackbird, meaning that humans and dogs risk severely pecked head of venture too near.
A long and slender bird, the Brown Thrasher’s colouring and markings are similar to Wood Thrush’s: reddish-brown upper parts and heavily streaked white underparts. Are fairly omnivorous in feeding preferences and will eat berries, seeds, nuts and invertebrates as available. Thrashers are partial to low tangled scrub as cover, and also for foraging and nesting, but they will often deliver their impressive vocal displays from treetop or other prominent location.
Read more about the Brown Thrasher and listen to song here.
Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia)
One of the earliest arrivals of the wood warblers, the Black-and-white is easily identified by its unmistakable bold markings. Females are often slightly paler with more gray and white on the face and throat than the male pictured here, but otherwise look quite similar. Black-and-white Warblers can often be found scrambling up and down tree trunks foraging for invertebrates in the manner of a Nuthatch or Creeper, and have adapted to this feeding behaviour by developing an elongated rear claw and heavier, sturdy legs. The Black-and-white is a habitat generalist overall but prefers deciduous and mixed forest for breeding. Although the Black-and-white feeds primarily in the trees, like many warblers it is a ground nester.
This bird is a real scrapper, and will defend its territory from other songbird species as well as other Black-and-whites. This aggression can continue well past breeding season and even onto its wintering grounds post-migration.
Read more about the Black-and-white Warbler and listen to its call here.
Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus)
One of the smaller of the “buteo” hawk species, the historically very common Red-shouldered Hawk underwent a serious population decline after the large scale clearing of Ontario’s forests around the turn of the 20th century. Happily though, their numbers have now recovered to where the species has been “downlisted” at both federal and provincial levels to Not at Risk.
The handsome Red-shouldered is a raptor of mixed forest and wetlands. It shares its preferred habitat and prey species with the Barred Owl, but Red takes the day shift to Barred’s night activity, meaning they co-exist very nicely. They will though defend their territory very aggressively against other daytime intruders.
In flight the Red-shouldered fans its banded tail and appears to reach its wings forward, giving it distinctive silhouette.
Georgian Bay and the North Channel are northern edge of bird’s breeding range. It is large non-migrating population in the States, but the Ontario birds will fly as far south as Mexico for the winter.
Read more about the Red-shouldered Hawk and listen to “kee-aah” call here.
Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)
Small, acrobatic and noisy woodpeckers, Downies are habitat generalists but favour deciduous woodlands for feeding. They are common visitors to backyard feeders where they will partake of sunflower seeds and peanuts, on top of the suet that attracts the other woodpecker species. Males and females forage separately during the winter; the bossy males will drive the females away from the easier pickings (peckings?).
Easily confused with the larger Hairy Woodpecker, the Downy has a proportionally much smaller and stubby bill, and barred or spotted black and white outer tail feathers. The Hairy has a large, chisel-like bill and all-white outer tail feathers.
Like most woodpeckers, the Downy has an undulating up-down flight pattern. Also like most woodpeckers it has a harsh rapid fire staccato call, in the Downy’s case high-pitched and descending, that makes it pretty easy to identify by ear.
To read more and hear the Downy’s call click here.
Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea)
The beautiful male Indigo Bunting is Georgian Bay’s only all-blue bird. It sings enthusiastically all summer long from treetops, not stopping at the end of breeding season like most other birds. Despite this, you won’t easily learn its song. Indigo Buntings learn to sing from nearby birds, and their melody varies throughout “neighbourhoods” and across generations. In time, you can learn to identify certain patterns that are present throughout the species.
Closely related to Cardinals and Tanagers, the Indigo Bunting has a similar strong conical finch-like bill. Buntings are seasonally omnivorous, they can be attracted to backyard finch feeders but will eat mostly berries and insects during the summer.
Indigo Buntings like to nest and forage where fields and clearings meet forest or low brushy understory, also in recently cleared and recovering areas such as hydro cuts, and even roadsides. Like so many songbird species their numbers have been in sharp decline, and it’s believed that climate change may expand their range northward. Indigo Buntings moved into the Maritime provinces from Maine during the 1970s.
Read more about the Indigo Bunting here.
Wood Duck (Aix sponsa)
A Wood duck drake in breeding plumage is a striking sight; its vivid colours and patterns are unmistakable. A relatively diminutive duck, a “Woodie’s” un-ducklike behaviour includes perching in, and flying through trees.
This is a genuine wetland duck. During the nesting season Wood ducks will be found in backwaters, swamps, bogs and close to streams inland from coastal Georgian Bay. They prefer vegetation-heavy open water for foraging, including emergent rushes, grasses and cattails as well as both live and deadfall trees, and tangled scrub. This provides cover and safety for them; Wood ducks are very wary and skittish birds.
Wood ducks are “secondary cavity nesters” meaning that they can’t excavate their own nesting holes, and must find a pre-existing cavity. Because of this they are easily attracted to nest boxes. They prefer to nest in trees over or very near to water. The nest can be up to 60’ above ground level, making a big jump to earth for the little ducklings!
Female Wood ducks will often engage in “egg dumping” in other Wood duck nests, leaving the eggs to be hatched and the ducklings raised by another female.
The Wood duck’s call is also unusual, it might be described as a series of whistles or even squeals – certainly not a “quack”.
Read more about the Wood Duck and listen to its call here.
Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina)
A common visitor to backyard feeders, the Chipping Sparrow is easily identified by its bright rufous cap, black eyeline and plain gray belly. It has a distinctive loud trilling song; the “Chipping” in its name may be deceptive. Chipping Sparrows favour trees, particularly conifers, and parkland (forest interspersed with open meadow) as habitat but will often be found feeding on the ground. It is fundamentally a seed-eater but appears to shift to protein (insects and small invertebrates) during the breeding season.
Female Chipping Sparrows are known for being exacting about their nests, and will often abandon a half-built attempt to begin again somewhere else. The final result is a rickety, see-through affair of twigs and grasses that somehow gets the job done.
Read more about the Chipping Sparrow here.
Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)
Like many warblers, the Common Yellowthroat is more often heard than seen, and the male’s witchety-witchety-witchety song will be familiar to many.
A very widespread North American breeder, the Common Yellowthroat favours wetland areas, and in particular low-lying tangled scrub for cover and nesting.
Like so many of our songbirds, Common Yellowthroat numbers have declined sharply. It’s estimated that since 1966 their overall population has dropped as much as 40%, largely due to habitat degradation.
The male bird has a distinctive black mask, bright yellow throat and white “eyebrow”, making it easy to identify.
Read more about the Common Yellowthroat and listen to its witchety-witchety song here.
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)
A large and handsome woodpecker, the Northern Flicker is by preference a ground feeder whose diet consists mostly of ants and beetles. Like most woodpeckers, Flickers are “primary” cavity nesters (“secondary” cavity nesters use secondhand burrows and holes dug by another bird or animal), but despite this they can be attracted to nesting boxes. Unlike most other woodpeckers, Northern Flickers are highly migratory, and most will fly south for the winter.
The loud “drumming” that Flickers and other woodpeckers perform is actually intended as a territorial display and to attract mates, and is not the “woodpecking” associated with feeding. The desired effect of drumming is to be as loud as possible, and some birds will choose to drum on buildings’ flashing or metal siding to achieve the desired volume and resonance. Real birding aficionados can identify a woodpecker’s species by the rhythm and speed of its drumming.
Read more about Northern Flickers here.
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)
The real harbinger of spring in southern Ontario, you know the seasonal corner has been turned when you hear (or see) a Red-winged Blackbird.
Male Red Wings are noisy and very much on display during breeding season, which begins right about now. They guard their nests aggressively, and there are many documented Red Wing attacks on unsuspecting humans passing too close to a low-built nest. Red Wings have a preference for nesting and foraging in marshy areas and wetlands, but can be found in dry upland locations as well. Their spring and summer diet is mainly insects, but this will shift to grains and seeds during migration and over the winter. Red-winged Blackbirds will join huge flocks that include other blackbirds, grackles, cowbirds and starlings for their fall migrations.
Listen to the Red-winged Blackbird’s song in the video to the left, and see if you can hear it yet among the birds outside. Read more about Red-winged Blackbirds here.
2019 Featured Birds:
American Woodcock (Scolopax minor)
We hope you’re all preparing for a fantastic long weekend, and ready to participate in our Georgian Bay bird survey! We’re looking forward to hearing about the birds you see and hear over the weekend, and creating a snapshot map of birds on the Bay. Report your sightings using the link above anytime during or after the weekend.
Before we start, there’s time for one final Bird of the Day… the American Woodcock! A small species of Snipe, the American Woodcock is most easily spotted in the spring when males perform a fascinating aerial courtship display at dusk. Its fantastic camouflage makes it difficult to detect at other times. Although this is a bird of young forests and shrubbed field habitat, it is in fact considered a shorebird. The Woodcock has a famous, and slightly silly, walking style – check it out here.
General info here.
Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina)
Georgian Bay Bird of the Day: Wood Thrush
A beautiful singer, as are other thrushes, the reclusive Wood Thrush is much easier to hear than see. Known to nest predominantly in deciduous forest, we are lucky that it makes an exception in the case of Georgian Bay. The Wood thrush’s numbers are in decline and it is a listed species at risk; it is a common target of brood parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds, and it is also thought that acid rain is severely depleting their mostly ground-dwelling invertebrate prey.
There are several thrushes that you might see around Georgian Bay. The Wood Thrush can be distinguished by its reddish upper head and back, and the distinctly round spots on its belly.
Be sure to listen to this bird’s wonderful song here.
Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola)
Today we feature Buffleheads!
The Bufflehead is a beautiful, tiny cavity-nesting duck most commonly seen on Georgian Bay during their spring and fall migrations. Some will spend the summer on Georgian Bay’s more northern reaches, but the bulk of Buffleheads head for lakes in the forests of central western Canada.
Buffleheads are diving ducks, able to compress the air out of their feathers and swim completely underwater in search of food. They are also one of the few mostly monogamous ducks, splitting up for a time after breeding but returning to the same mate year after year.
Male Buffleheads have distinctive shimmery black and white breeding plumage, including the field mark large white patch behind the eye. Buffleheads are considered a relatively quiet duck. Listen to their calls and read more here.
P.S. If you’ve been following along with Bird of the Day, don’t forget to put your birding skills to the test on Victoria Day weekend! Keep a list of the birds you see, and submit your sightings using the link above. You’ll have the chance to win a prize and contribute to a snapshot survey of Georgian Bay’s birds.
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)
Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)
Striking and unmistakeable, the Pileated Woodpecker is today’s Georgian Bay Bird of the Day.
A giant version of its smaller local brethren, the Pileated Woodpecker shares similar behaviour, colouring, and the same flashing and undulating flight pattern with many other woodpeckers. Their handiwork is larger than normal too – Pileateds make characteristic long rectangular holes in trees as they mine for their insect prey, and even bigger excavations for nests. Both can attract numerous smaller birds and animals who find food and shelter there once the Pileateds have gone.
Pileated Woodpeckers are easily identified by sight, but you can take your ID to the next level by distinguishing a male from a female. Look for a red line beside their beak: males have it (pictured here), and females do not. You can also learn to identify these birds by their loud, piercing staccato call. Listen to it at the link below.
If you’d like a better chance of seeing Pileated Woodpeckers on your property, make sure not to clear out standing dead trees or fallen logs. Woodpeckers (and other birds too) rely on these for feeding and nesting.
Read more here.
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)
Today we feature a common, yet remarkable Bird of the Day!
An unlikely harbinger of spring, the huge Turkey Vulture is a migrant that winters in the southern States and central America, and has been arriving back here since March. Although Vultures are considered “birds of prey”, they are scavengers and feed on carrion, providing a very beneficial cleaning service to the landscape at large. In fact, their Latin name “cathartes” means “purifier”.
Turkey Vultures are highly adapted to their scavenging diet. They have the best sense of smell in the bird world (most birds smell quite poorly), and can smell dinner up to a mile away. Their strange look may also be a special adaptation – a featherless head makes feasting on carcasses a much cleaner process.
Turkey Vultures are easy to tell apart in flight from eagles or large hawks by the shallow dihedral “V” made by their wings (remember, “V for Vulture”), and the teetering motion they make in the air. Like other birds of prey, they are still recovering from the pesticide contamination that decimated their numbers in the 70s and 80s, but they have done well and are a very common sight around Georgian Bay. Read more here.
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
There are many different sparrows that can be seen and heard in the Georgian Bay area. Today’s Bird of the Day is one of the most common.
The Song Sparrow is a medium size, chunky songbird with a rounded head, a short bill and handsome markings of streaky brown on white, with grey patches on the head. The streaks converge in a characteristic spot on the breast. The Song Sparrow can be found in open spaces including marsh and forest edges and overgrown fields. They are also often an urban “backyard” bird, and will visit feeders.
True to its name, the Song Sparrow has a very pretty and familiar song. Listen to it here.
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
Today’s Bird of the Day is a majestic creature making a comeback in Georgian Bay: the Bald Eagle. Once threatened with extinction due to pesticides and hunting, Bald Eagles have now rebounded and may be back to their traditional numbers along the Georgian Bay coast.
Their nobility notwithstanding, Bald eagles will regularly rob other birds of their catches midair and are not above eating carrion, i.e. dead stuff. They can and do fish however using the same swoop-and-grab technique shared by Osprey.
While these birds are dramatic “bald” look, is only the adults that display this classic colour pattern. Young birds have brown heads, with varying amounts of brown and white on body as age. Only when bird is about 5 years old does it show the full plumage we know and love.
The Bald Eagle’s recovery is testament to importance of legislation to protect endangered species. Not for governments banning DDT, regulating hunting, and encouraging recovery efforts might, not see Bald Eagles today. Make sure treat today’s endangered species with the same care!
Read more here.
Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)
Today’s Bird of the Day is Georgian Bay’s tiniest owl: the Northern Saw-whet Owl.
Measuring only about 8 inches from head to tail, this owl nevertheless fearsome predator. More often heard that Saw-whet is named of several strange calls, said to resemble saw being sharpened on whetstone. Like many owls, Saw-whets are cavity nesters and can attracted to nesting boxes. Quite abundant but hard to spot, Saw-whets will roost during the day in dense vegetation, perched close to trunk inside conifers.
Learn more about the Saw-whet Owl here.
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga pinus)
Our first Bird of the Day is a species you’re likely to see a lot of around Georgian Bay in the early spring – the Yellow-rumped Warbler.
Yellow-rumps are relatively large, chickadee-sized warblers. Known affectionately as “Butter-butts” for their signature field mark, they also have flashes of yellow on the top of their head and on both sides, which is often the easiest part to see as they forage in trees overhead. The remainder of their breeding plumage is a handsome grey, white, and black, with the males slightly showier than the females.
A gregarious species, Yellow-rumped Warblers will often move around in large flocks, and feed mostly in the outer mid-storey of the tree canopy. They are also known to “sally out” from a perch in pursuit of insects in the manner of flycatchers.
Learn more about Yellow-rumped Warblers and learn their song here.
2018 Featured Birds:
Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius)
One of Georgian Bay’s few shorebirds, Spotted Sandpipers are recognizable by their strongly spotted chest (in breeding adults) and incessant motion – quick wingbeats in the air, and a constantly bobbing tail while walking.
The usual gender roles are reversed in this species, with the female establishing and defending territory while the male tends to the eggs and chicks. Females can even mate with multiple males in one season, leaving a different nest behind for each mate to look after.
Learn more about the Spotted Sandpiper here: www.allaboutbirds.org/
Pine Warbler (Setophaga pinus)
If you keep an eye (and ear) out, there are a number of warbler species that you might encounter flitting among Georgian Bay’s trees this weekend. One is today’s Bird of the Day: the Pine Warbler.
Aptly named, Pine Warblers are rarely seen away from pine trees, which they rely on for both food and habitat. They build their nests high in the trees, and supplement their diet of insects with pine seeds. They’re the only warbler species to regularly include seeds in their diet, and will even visit bird feeders over the winter (which they spend in the southeastern United States).
To locate Pine Warblers, listen for their steady trilling song. Then try to catch sight of the bird itself to confirm your sighting, as there are several other species that sound quite similar.
Read more about Pine Warblers here.
Barred Owl (Strix varia)
Barred Owls are one of Georgian Bay’s most common owl species, along with the much smaller Northern Saw-Whet Owl. Barred Owls are large, handsome birds with distinctive brown vertical stripes on their otherwise white chests. They have dark eyes and rounded heads.
Barred Owls like to stay out of sight, but you can easily identify them by their distinctive “Who cooks for you?” call. Listen for it in the large, mixed forests where they make their homes. These birds don’t migrate, and like to keep to a relatively small home range. They nest in tree cavities and can also be attracted to nest boxes.
Read more about Barred Owls and learn their call here.
Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus)
One of many birds of prey in the Georgian Bay area, today’s Bird of the Day is a species you’re more likely to see around forests than over the open water. Broad-winged Hawks like to build their nests in large forests, and hunt for their prey from the lower limbs of trees. They’re carnivorous generalists, feeding on everything from small mammals and amphibians to insects and other birds.
Broad-winged Hawks are known for the huge flocks (called “kettles”) that they gather into for their fall migration to South America, but during the breeding season they’re much more spread out. To distinguish a Broad-winged Hawk from similar species when flying overhead, look for its strongly banded tail, and the dark border around the otherwise light underside of its wings. Their call is a high, two-part whistle.
Learn more about Broad-winged Hawks here.
Eastern Whip-poor-will (Antrostomus vociferus)
Today’s bird is one that you’re much more likely to hear than see, owing to their fantastic camouflage but unmistakeable call. Listen for the Eastern Whip-poor-will’s clear, repetitive “song” on spring and summer nights to find out whether you have them in your area.
Whip-poor-wills feed exclusively on insects, which they usually hunt at dusk and dawn. On moonlit nights, however, they will hunt all night long, which has led to an interesting breeding adaptation. Female Whip-poor-wills time their nesting so that hatching occurs shortly before a full moon, allowing for maximum foraging time to feed their hungry chicks.
Like other aerial insectivores (birds that hunt insects on the wing), Eastern Whip-poor-wills are experiencing significant population declines across much of their range. Possible reasons include reduced insect availability due to pesticide use and climate change, as well as habitat destruction. Georgian Bay still provides a home to some of these fascinating birds, but we must learn to cherish their call when we hear it!
Learn more about Eastern Whip-poor-wills here.
Common Merganser (Mergus merganser)
Common Mergansers are indeed a fairly common sight around much of Georgian Bay in the summer, and you’re likely familiar with the spiky-headed females leading their flotillas of young. But have you ever seen a male Merganser?
Dramatically different with their dark green heads, red bills, and crisp white bodies, males take off once breeding is complete, making Spring the best time to see a Merganser couple together. The female shepherds her chicks through the early stages of life, which includes the dramatic leap to the forest floor from their nest in a tree cavity, and learning to dive for their own food right away.
Read more about today’s Bird of the Day here.
Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)
Considered a pest by many, the Double-crested Cormorant is nevertheless an interesting bird once you get to know it. Excellent aquatic hunters, they’re adept at swimming underwater and have a built-in hook in their bill that helps them catch and eat over 250 species of fish.
Today’s Bird of the Day began colonizing the Great Lakes in the early 1900s. Decimated by pesticide-contaminated fish in the 1950s and 60s, Cormorants then more than recovered, assisted by the introduction of non-native baitfish. The local population has peaked and is now subsiding.
Double-crested cormorants are mostly black, with an orange face and turquoise eyes. The insides of their mouths are bright blue – a feature the males use to both threaten competitors and attract mates. Often seen sitting low in the water, cormorants also spend a lot of time onshore – nesting, resting, or drying their feathers, which are less water-resistant than many other aquatic birds. If you see one with its wings outstretched in the sun, this is what it’s up to!
Read more about Double-crested Cormorants here.
Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia)
The largest tern in the world, today’s Bird of the Day is aggressive in both voice and behaviour. Birders enjoy the Caspian Tern’s angry-sounding “go-to-hell” call – from a distance. These are bold birds who will actively defend their colonies; unwary trespassers run the risk of a pecked head.
Similar in appearance to the Common Tern, the Caspian Tern is larger, has black legs instead of orange, and a much shallower fork in its tail. Breeding Caspian Terns have an entirely black cap on their heads, while non-breeding birds are greyer.
Read more about Caspian Terns here.
Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens)
A member of the flycatcher family, you’re most likely to see today’s Bird of the Day as it hunts insects on the wing. Look for the Eastern Wood-Pewee as it “sallies out” repeatedly from a perch after passing flies, wasps, etc.
Like many other flycatchers, one of the Eastern Wood-Pewee’s most noticeable features from a distance is a slightly spiky, triangular hairdo. It has several similar-looking relatives in the area (including the more common Eastern Phoebe), so listen for the Eastern Wood-Pewee’s distinctive “pee-a-weee” call to most easily identify it.
Listed as a species of Special Concern in Ontario, the Eastern Wood-Pewee is threatened by habitat loss as well as the declining availability of insects.
Learn more about the Eastern Wood-Pewee here.
Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus)
If you like your bird songs peaceful and musical, you will love the Hermit Thrush, today’s Bird of the Day.
These sweet little birds are forest dwellers, and can be found nesting and foraging for insects on the forest floor. One of their preferred hunting tactics is “foot quivering”, which helps them unearth their tiny prey among the grass and leaves.
The Hermit Thrush is related to several other birds which can look quite similar, but its most distinguishing feature is its reddish tail, which contrasts with its browner back. Also look for its chest spots becoming faded and blurred as they move away from the throat, although it is not the only thrush with this feature.
Learn more about the Hermit Thrush here.
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)
Today, a classic: the elegant and beloved Great Blue Heron.
A common sight around Georgian Bay’s wetlands, the Great Blue Heron is recognizable by its greyish-blue colouring, orange bill, and tall, lean physique. Despite their large size, herons only weigh 5 or 6 lbs.
Great Blue Herons eat fish and a wide variety of other small animals, and the vertebrae in their long necks are specially adapted to allow for lightning-fast prey strikes. They make themselves more compact when flying (and at other times too) by folding their necks into characteristic “S” shapes.
While Great Blue Herons are most commonly seen foraging alone, they actually nest in very large groups, sometimes numbering in the hundreds. Keep an eye out, and if you’re lucky, you may spot one of these nesting colonies on Georgian Bay!
Learn more about Great Blue Herons here.
Merlin (Falco columbarius)
Today’s Georgian Bay bird is small but fierce.
Merlins are no bigger than pigeons, but they’re aggressive hunters who pose a serious threat to smaller songbirds. They usually catch their prey in midair, and have been known to team up, with one Merlin scattering a flock of birds that the other can then pounce on.
These small falcons take advantage of other birds when it comes to nesting too, laying their eggs in the abandoned nests of crows and other raptors. Their preferred location is one with a good view, where they can spot their next meal flying past.
Learn more about Merlins and how to ID them here.
Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus)
Prairie Warbler (Setophaga discolor)
Today, we feature a signature songbird of eastern Georgian Bay: the Prairie Warbler.
Most Prairie Warblers breed in the eastern United States, but there is a small disjunct population that makes its home in Canada, of which the majority choose to settle on the eastern Georgian Bay coast. They’re drawn to our rock barrens and sparse forests, and the junipers in which they build their nests.
Once you learn the Prairie Warbler’s distinctive song you won’t forget it, and will likely start to hear it on the Bay! It is described as “an ascending series of buzzing notes”, but that doesn’t quite capture its sweet, cheerful character. To identify a Prairie Warbler by sight, look for the black line through the eye and black semicircle underneath it (in breeding males). Females have the same lines in a lighter grey.
Learn more about Prairie Warblers here.
Osprey (Pandion Haliaetus)
When Spring finally comes, look out for Ospreys hunting in Georgian Bay!
Today’s Bird of the Day is the only North American hawk whose diet consists almost exclusively of live fish, which it dives up to three feet into the water to catch. Lethal hunters, their specialized toe structure allows them to grab fish securely and manipulate them in the air to minimize wind resistance.
Ospreys were on the verge of extinction from the 1950s to 70s, as pesticides poisoned the birds and made their eggs extremely fragile. Fortunately, a ban on DDT was enacted in time to save the species, whose survival was helped along by dedicated humans who built and monitored nest platforms. Thank you to the Georgian Bay Osprey Society for everything they did over the last several decades to help our Georgian Bay population, which is now thriving!
Learn more about these incredible hunters and how to ID them here.
Sandhill Crane (Antigone Canadensis)
Bird of the Day #5 is one whose local population has been significantly increasing in recent years. You may see more and more Sandhill Cranes wading in Georgian Bay’s wetlands and flying overhead, so it’s time to get familiar with what they look like!
Sandhill Cranes have bulkier bodies than Great Blue Herons, and a noticeable red patch on their head. Their gray and tan feathers form a “bustle” around their back end which is apparent when standing upright.
Sandhill Cranes are known for their exuberant and somewhat silly dancing, as well as for their distinctive staccato “bugling” calls. Learn more about them here!
Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)
Today, meet one of Georgian Bay’s fanciest birds: the Cedar Waxwing.
Cedar Waxwings are one of the few North American birds that specialize in eating fruit, consuming berries and small fruits produced by trees and shrubs year-round. This can occasionally get them into trouble, as they have been known to become intoxicated after eating fermenting berries.
Cedar Waxwings often travel in large groups, calling back and forth with their high, thin whistle. Their striking plumage is ornamented with bright yellow on the tips of their tailfeathers, and a splash of red on the wings.
Learn more about Cedar Waxwings here.
White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)
Today we’re featuring a bird with a familiar, “sweet” song. Singing “Swee-eet Canada Canada Canada”, the White-throated Sparrow is an easy species to learn to recognize by ear.
Visually, the White-throated Sparrow actually comes in two varieties – white-crowned (as seen here), or tan-crowned, in which the white stripes on the head are replaced with tan. To make matters even more complicated, White-throated Sparrows are known to interbreed with Dark-eyed Juncos, producing hybrid offspring that both look and sing like a mix between the two species. Fortunately for beginning birders, this is quite rare!
Watch the video on the left to familiarize yourself with the White-throated Sparrow’s song, and learn more about the species here.
Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla)
Bird of the Day #2 is.. the Ovenbird!
Ovenbirds are named for the shape of their nests, which can be found on forest floors looking like tiny, side-loading outdoor bread ovens.
Coloured to blend in with the forest floor, where they forage for insects, the Ovenbird has an olive-green back and white chest with dark spots. Orange and black stripes on the crown add some colour.
Ovenbirds are known for their surprisingly loud call, which sounds to some like “teacher, teacher, teacher!” Once you know what they sound like, you’re likely to hear them before you see them.
Click here to learn more about the Ovenbird and listen to its call.
Common Loon (Gavia immer)
Ok, we’re warming up with an easy one.. the first Bird of the Day is the Common Loon!
You already know what loons sound like, but do you know what they’re saying? Loons have 4 distinct calls, and each is used for a different purpose:
Wails – These familiar haunting calls are how loons determine each other’s whereabouts. That’s why you’ll often hear them exchanged by a pair from opposite sides of a lake.
Tremolos – The “laughing” call, tremolos express alarm or announce a loon’s arrival.
Yodels – Male loons each have a unique yodel that they use to stake their claim to a particular territory.
Hoots – These are short, quiet calls used to check in with one another at close range.
Listen to examples of the different calls and learn more about Common Loons here.