Some Breeding Birds of Carden
The most famous birds of the Carden Alvar are the Loggerhead Shrikes. Birders travel long distances to view this species which is endangered in eastern Canada. On weekends in late May and June, there are so many birders’ cars along Wylie Road that it resembles a parking lot, especially near the famous “Box 10”. But there are many other birds, besides the Shrikes and Bluebirds, that are attracted to the alvar habitat. This article will feature a few of these other birds that breed in the Carden I.B.A.
Let us imagine we are on a morning stroll along Wylie Road, early in June. As well as seeing birds flying about, we are treated to a variety of interesting songs by male birds proclaiming nesting territories. In the distance, a ghostly “wolf” whistle ascends and descends a sliding scale. A bubbling, tinkling song carries clearly from many directions across the grasslands. From a low shrub, a bird quietly twitters electrical “t-t-t-tseeps”. Another bird has a whole jumble of musical phrases to share, repeating each twice from his perch atop a hawthorn. Scanning with the binoculars in the directions of these songsters should locate the four species: Upland Sandpiper, Bobolink, Eastern Kingbird and Brown Thrasher respectively.
Actually, it isn’t always easy to find the Upland Sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda) as it blends so well into the grasses. Eventually we see a small head with a large dark eye visible above the grass. However, with luck another one is perched atop a fence post.
The Upland Sandpiper is quite a large bird, about a foot long. It sits erectly on its perch, so we can see its long thin neck, short beak, yellow legs, and the blackish wings that contrast with the lighter brown upperparts. Those prominent eyes are so distinctive. One of the few members of its genus to nest away from the tundra, the Upland has a well hidden ground nest among dense grass. In a shallow scrape lined with dried grasses, four pinkish eggs are laid. The adults will perform a distraction display to lead away predators from the nest or young. The young are precocial, meaning they are sighted, feathered and mobile within a few hours of birth, and able to feed themselves insects, invertebrates and seeds. In the U.S.A. Upland Sandpipers are considered a species at risk, as the population has suffered from the conversion of native grasslands to agricultural fields and from declines in native insects.
What is that bird with the bubbling song? It’s a Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus). There are many males singing from the tops of grasses and even singing on the fly! In fact the species’ name is derived from the sound of the song. What a handsome bird the male Bobolink is, with his shiny black feathers contrasted by white wing bars and rump and yellow on the nape of his neck.
His mate bears little resemblance to him. She is buffy overall, darkly streaked on the back, rump and tail, with dark brown stripes on her head, resembling sparrows more than her mate. However, after breeding season, the male Bobolink moults, and develops plumage like the female’s. The summer diet of grasshoppers, caterpillars, ants and many other insects is supplemented with seeds of weeds grasses and grains. The Bobolink used to be known as the “ricebird” in the Southern U.S.A. due to its raiding of rice fields during fall migration in large flocks to South America. The prime breeding areas of Bobolinks are damp meadows and natural prairies with thick grasses, weeds and a few low shrubs. As this habitat disappears due to reforestation and fire suppression, Bobolinks have resorted to hayfields for nesting. More intensive agricultural practices, especially early summer hay cutting, often result in the destruction of nests containing eggs or young. As a result, this species has declined significantly in recent decades.
Wow – did you see that black and white bird swoop out and catch a flying insect? It went right back to the same perch and is staring right at us. Its twittering electrical call is often just a single “tseep” rather than a series of notes. This is an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus). In rural areas in summer it is a common sight, perched on low fence wires or shrubs. It has a black head, dark greyish-black back, and longish black tail with a wide white band on the end. The neck, cheek and underparts are white, with a greyish wash across the chest. Its large flat bill maximizes the chances of seizing airborne insects - a practice called “hawking”. Of the eight Kingbird species occurring regularly in North America, this is the only member that is a breeding resident of Eastern Canada. Kingbirds are medium-sized flycatchers that live in open or semi-open country. The name Kingbird probably comes from the species’ aggressive nature during nesting season. They will fearlessly attack larger birds that come near the nest. They may even “ride” the back of a flying hawk or crow, all the while pecking the back of the intruder’s head. The Eastern Kingbird requires open space for hunting, and trees for nesting. In the summer they consume a wide variety of insects. Young are dependent on the parents for more than a month after fledging from the nest.
A flash of foxy-red swoops low across the road beside us. Then that melodious repetitive song begins again. All manner of syllables, each repeated twice. Finally, we locate the songster atop the sign for the Ranch. It’s a Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum). This large rusty brown bird has a long slightly down-curved beak, streaked breast and a very long rusty tail. Look at its yellow eye! The Thrasher family gets its name from its foraging technique of picking up leaves and twigs in its beak and tossing them away. It digs holes in the ground to locate food.
These noisy excavations may provide a good opportunity to locate a sometimes secretive species. Thrashers eat lizards, salamanders and small frogs in addition to insects and fruit. Bulky cup shaped nests are constructed in dense shrubs, tangles or low trees, and occasionally on the ground. Both parents incubate the nest and feed nestlings, with two broods per year. Thrashers are generally solitary birds seen in pairs or family groups, rarely in flocks. Of the ten members of the thrasher family, only the Brown Thrasher occurs in Canada. There has been some decline in population as reforestation and urbanization eliminate the early successional habitat preferred by this species.
The grasslands and shrubbery of the Carden Alvar provide nesting territories for many species of birds. Throughout North America, these and other habitats are threatened by many human factors – urbanization, reforestation, deforestation, agricultural practices and aggregates to name a few. Please do your part to help conserve as much diversity of habitat as we can for our avian friends.
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
National Audubon Society. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. Knopf, 2001.