Plethora of birds is good, very good

I learned a new word this week. Well, “learn” is the wrong term: “became reacquainted with” would be better. Plethora!

I learned a new word this week.

Well, “learn” is the wrong term: “became reacquainted with” would be better.

Plethora!

We had a plethora of birds on Monday. Sounds almost obscene, doesn’t it? But plethora is good, very good. “Dearth” is bad! We had something like 44 species seen that day. Not too shabby for a fall day when a lot of the birds have already left.

The best bird had to be the Harris’ Sparrow. This is a large sparrow that only comes through on migration.

In fact it is the largest sparrow that we have, coming in at a length of seven inches. Both the males and the females have black on the crown on the head, extending down through their throat and onto a bib on their chest. But the only ones I’ve ever seen have been the immatures that have a blotchy bib and they are quite yellow in the head. A really good field mark to look for is the pink bill combined with streaked sides.

No other sparrow has that combination. Keep an eye out. A friend had one at her feeders yesterday. So they are moving through.

There was a tie for the second best bird we saw.

I can’t decide which one was the better sighting: my first rough-legged hawk of the year or my first Northern Shrike of the year.

The rough-legs, like the northern shrike and the Harris’ sparrow, spend their summers up north. That is where they breed; then they come through here on their way south. The shrike is the only one of the three species that will stay here for the winter.

So, rough-legs: they are a hawk related to the red-tail; in the Buteo family. The classic rough-leg has a light coloured head (in fact, some people, like me when I started out, could think they were miniature bald eagles.)

They have a huge dark belly band: much bigger than the belly band on a red-tail. When they are flying they are easy to distinguish because they have two dark “headlights” on each wrist on the underside of each wing. Their tail is white with a broad dark band along the bottom. Some books claim they are the only Buteo to hover but don’t believe that. I’ve seen both red-tails and Swainson’s Hawks hold themselves in midair in one place.

But it probably would be safe to say that rough-legs are more prone to hover than the other two.

That brings me to northern shrikes, nicknamed the “butcher bird” for its tendency to impale its prey on thorns or the barbs on a wire fence in order to eat it.

This is their larder and they can return to the mummified prey even months later. They are songbirds who are hawk wanna-bes, but I’m don’t know who included this bird in the songbird category.

I suppose one of these days, I may understand DNA! But these birds don’t act anything like songbirds.

Their hooked beaks are used to snap the necks of their prey, just like falcons do. And they like to perch in the top of a tree.

When they spot their prey they will fly directly to it. So, how do you recognize one?

They are a gray, black and white bird. They have a black mask and black in the wings and tail. The crown and back are mostly gray while the chest is white.

They also have some white in the wings and back. The one we saw the other day, though, was a juvenile so it was mostly black and brown.

Perhaps the best sighting of the day had absolutely nothing to do with feathers.

As I was driving down a country road, I thought I saw dark in the bushes and thought it might be a moose. So I slammed on the brakes and threw it into reverse. To my chagrin, it was not a moose but a dark bank with a den hole in it.

One of our group wanted to see if there were any prints near the den so he went over there, peered in and started madly motioning to the rest of us to come see.

It was a porcupine backed far down into the den, so it felt very safe. However, it was a really neat thing to see. It just added to our plethora of species for the day.

Judy Boyd is a naturalist with the Red Deer River Naturalists.