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20 April 2010 @ 08:17 pm
A Visit to Bluebird Country  
I love to visit the trails just south of the airport in the summer, and although it's still early in the season, Sunday seemed like the perfect day to go and look for grassland species that I haven't managed yet to see this year. The highlight of this area is, of course, the bluebird trail, which makes the airport area one of the easiest places to find these stunning members of the thrush family. However, this is not only bluebird country, it is also sparrow country as well, and I hoped to see some of the six or eight species that may be found in the area.

I didn't stop to check out Tom Roberts Avenue or the fence along Leitrim Road, but instead drove straight to the parking area on Bowesville. I did see a beautiful gray Northern Harrier, undoubtedly a male, gliding low across one field along Leitrim. Although I considered pulling over for a photograph, the bird was long gone before I could move my foot to the brake pedal. This is another year bird for me, and seemed like a good omen for the rest of my visit.

As soon as I got out of the car I could hear birds singing. The sweet song of a Vesper Sparrow was issuing forth from the shrubs behind the fence, and on the other side of the road I could hear an Eastern Meadowlark, a Field Sparrow and a Brown Thrasher competing against each other. I decided to check that area out first, and saw a Northern Flicker fly over to a tree as soon as I began walking through the grass.

The Brown Thrasher was closest, and so I looked for him first - to no avail. He must have disappeared into the thickets, as the thrashers tend to do, so I looked for the Field Sparrow next. I found him without too much difficulty, singing from an exposed branch of a tall tree, distinctive with his rusty red cap, white eyering and pink bill. This was my second year bird of the day.

The Eastern Meadowlark was singing from a distance away, so I went back to the main trail on the other side of the road. With some exploring I found a couple of singing Savannah Sparrows, a male Brown-headed Cowbird, several Tree Swallows flitting about overhead and sitting on the wire fence, two or three Song Sparrows, and a couple of Vesper Sparrows along the trail. The first Vesper Sparrow was foraging on the dirt path until I came along, and instead of flying into the trees, he merely flew further ahead on the trail. Although he was too far away for any photos, I did get some excellent views of this rather nondescript sparrow. Another Vesper Sparrow was singing in the same tree as a Savannah Sparrow.

As I walked deeper into the grassy part of the trail, I became aware of the rich, trilling tones of an Eastern Bluebird singing. I followed the song until I came across a pair of bluebirds near one of the nest boxes. The male flew off to a fence post, but the female was less wary and stayed put in the tree.

Eastern Bluebird (female)

Female bluebirds are duller than the males and are a less intense shade of blue. They also have a faint white eyering and a more subdued orange-coloured chest. Only the rusty red breast of these birds gives them any resemblance to the local members of thrush family, as they share this trait with the American Robin. All the other local thrush species are brown with varying degrees of brown spots on a creamy white breast.

Eastern Bluebird (female)

I watched the pair for a little while, not wanting to be too intrusive, then returned to my car to drive over to the trail at the end of High Road.

Along Earl Armstrong Road I saw a few Tree Swallows using the nest boxes and an Eastern Phoebe sitting on a fence. I stopped at the large pond there, and while there were no waterfowl on the water, dozens of swallows were flying above the pond catching insects. I watched them for a while before picking out one with an orange breast. Although I was fairly certain it was a Barn Swallow, I couldn't see the deeply forked tail at first. Then he landed on the power line right above the road, and I was able to confirm his identity. There wasn't much else along Earl Armstrong Road, until I came across this Savannah Sparrow singing on a fence post.

Savannah Sparrow

When I reached the end of High Road, I saw another male Northern Harrier coursing over the fields and one male bluebird at a nest box. I also heard an Eastern Meadowlark singing loudly from somewhere close by. When I finally spotted him, he was perched on a power line, his striking bright yellow chest visible even from a distance. I slowly began walking up to him, taking a few pictures as I went along, until he finally realized there was a human in the area and flew off. I wish these birds were as accommodating as their cousins the Red-winged Blackbirds!

Eastern Meadowlark

I heard a sapsucker's arrhythmic tapping on a utility pole and stopped to take its picture. He quickly gave up on tapping on the wooden post and began tapping noisily on the metal parts instead.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

I didn't venture too far into the grasslands as the morning was growing late. The only sparrows that I found were Song Sparrows, and I saw one other male bluebird perching on a stump. I also saw one meadowlark flutter down to the ground, where I promptly lost him among the grass. Although they are brilliantly yellow on their undersides, their upperparts (i.e. their back) is a cryptic streaky brown which blends well into their preferred habitat. On my way back to the car, I found one singing on a fence post and was able to get fairly close by approaching it from behind a large shrub at the side of the road. You can see the cryptic colouration of its upperparts in this photo:

Eastern Meadowlark

I wasn't able to get any closer without him realizing I was there, and shortly after he flew away.

When I returned to my car I saw the same male Eastern Bluebird sitting on the power lines with a couple of Tree Swallows. He landed in this shrub before swooping to the ground to pick up an insect.

Eastern Bluebird (male)

With the insect in his bill, he flew up to the top of the fence post and began to eat. The males are such a bright blue, their colour always seems coloured on with crayons by a kindergartener applying too much wax.

Eastern Bluebird (male)

I thoroughly enjoyed my morning at the airport and managed to add seven new species to my year list: Field, Savannah and Vesper Sparrows, Northern Harrier, Barn Swallow, Eastern Bluebird, and Eastern Meadowlark. I'll have to return later this season when the House Wrens, Least Flycatchers, Indigo Buntings, and Clay-coloured and Grasshopper Sparrows return and the insects become more abundant.