Bird behaviour to watch in a habitat near you, as daylight lingers longer.
Springtime is the busiest season for birds. Each species has a predictable pattern of post-winter activity that centres around raising youngsters. Many males sport brilliant feathers to attract the opposite sex-and forest-dwelling birds are easier to spot before the leaves unfold. Walks with a good pair of binoculars and a bird identification guide can reveal all sorts of interesting sightings. Birds are often so preoccupied with feeding and nesting in the spring that you can approach them quietly without being noticed. Studying what they do can be spellbinding.
As cracks in the ice widen into lanes along the borders of lakes, rivers and ponds, black duck pairs fly in from open salt water to assert their claim. The drake (male) dutifully scans for predators while the hen dips her head underwater to feed on plants. She needs to be in excellent condition to produce a healthy clutch of eggs. Soon the drake leads her on forays into the nearby forest to inspect potential nest sites. When she picks a site and constructs a nest on the woodland floor, he defends the closest water body from other black ducks. Bonds are strong-one pair I banded were still together 10 years later. If the hen and her clutch escape the notice of raccoons and skunks, as well as neighbourhood cats and dogs, by June she will escort five to seven youngsters to the water. The ducklings dash and paddle across their wet new world as they learn to swim.
After the ice leaves inland lakes, heavier wingbeats herald the common loon's return to traditional nest sites in sheltered coves. With legs set far back on their bodies, loons are graceful in water but awkward on the shore-where they build a nest on a pile of vegetation. Beset by mercury released into their fishy food chain by acid rain, nesting loons face additional challenges as more and more cottages proliferate around lakes. Sadly, boating activities associated with angling and recreation frequently force loons to abandon their eggs. Raccoons and skunks that scavenge for garbage each summer are also a threat.
Embattled as they are, loons remain a premier icon of Canadian wilderness. I calm my soul by remembering a timeless moment during a canoe trip last September: I watched as the sunset painted the lake's quiet ripples with shades of purple, red and gold, framed by shimmering blacks and liquid silvers. The silhouettes of two loons danced in the fading light as their calls echoed over the water.
The white-throated sparrow is another harbinger of spring. Its "Toooo-weet-weet-weet!" song is sometimes translated as "O Can-aa-da,"-and usually the song is better known than the singer. Two colour variations of the species (with tan-striped or white-striped heads) may be either female or male, and adults almost invariably choose a mate of the other colour. They usually build concealed nests on the ground near woodland openings, or in bushy, abandoned pastures. Egg-laying normally begins in mid-May, but their clear whistle songs can be heard all summer long-unlike many songbirds for whom singing may be purely a matter of marking territory during mating.
Grey jays, also called whiskey-jacks, are a favourite bird of evergreen forests. Friendly and bold to the point of being cheeky, they have been known to shadow wilderness travellers and, at meal time, make off with unattended food. A penchant for stealing bait from traps sometimes catches up with them. There's at least one recorded instance of a grey jay soliciting help by leading a human passerby to a trap where its mate was caught. In order to survive ordinarily lean winters, grey jays cache a variety of perishable food supplies each fall. However, global warming poses a major threat: mild temperatures in recent years have caused food supplies to spoil. Underfed adults are in poor condition as the mating season begins in March; breeding success has dropped dramatically in some locales.
Weighing one-tenth of an ounce (roughly 4 grams), ruby-throated hummingbirds are lightweight dynamos arriving each spring from southern climes, sporting voracious appetites and aggressive attitudes about territories and flower ownership. Wings that beat almost 80 times per second can whisk a hummingbird in any direction at speeds of 96 kilometres per hour. Females use spider webbing to build their cup-shaped nests on thin tree branches. Courtship and territorial displays have the male flying back and forth in a U-shaped "pendulum" arc, chattering loudly with each swoop.
These aerial acrobats can consume half their weight daily in sugar without losing their bird-like figures. Ruby-throated hummingbirds chase after flying insects, search tree leaves for small caterpillars and spiders, and reach deep into bell-shaped flowers for nectar. Gardeners can encourage them by planting favourite flowers such as bee balm.
Ovenbirds are perhaps both the least-noticed yet loudest in spring, chanting a "teacher, teacher" call that rings throughout woodlands. They weave a dome composed of grass stems and leaves over a nest on the forest floor. With a side entrance, the nest looks like a miniature medieval oven-hence their name.
These small warblers sift through leaf litter on the forest floor and along fallen logs to search for insects. Adapted to woodland, they are victims of forest fragmentation: wood harvests transform large, continuous forest tracts into a mosaic of small patches, altering the plant community and becoming more inviting to browsers like deer and snowshoe hare, which crush ground nests. Predators such as foxes, coyotes, crows and jays are also drawn to edge habitats. In many woods where ovenbird calls can be heard, they are struggling to raise any young.
Great blue herons tend to be shy birds along our coastlines, unlike their counterparts in the southern states, who brazenly waltz up to steal bait or fish from an angler's bucket. They are intelligent and opportunistic predators-I've watched one stab and stun a rat, carry it to water and drown it. While a few individuals attempt to overwinter here, great blues-or cranes as many call them-generally arrive in March when small fish begin to move in the warmer waters of shallow estuaries, brooks and bays.
Nesting colonies of great blues are located inland, along the coast, and often on islands where there are fewer predators. Open ground near each colony is essential: in late July and early August youngsters queue up like airplanes at a runway, awaiting their turn to practice-fly.
Watching avian youngsters is especially fun. One spring, an orphaned black duckling grew up in our house. It was friendly but studied newcomers carefully. I learned to introduce visitors, then ask the little duck what it thought of them. Invariably the little tyke would respond with a loud "Cheap! Cheap!" Entertaining, if not a great way to win friends and influence people.