December 29th, 2019: Back home and one last rare bird for 2019
I’m happy to be visiting with family in Ontario at the moment, putting me in Ottawa, Kingston, and Toronto. I like to check out the rare bird reports in any area I’ll be heading to soon and I was happy to see that there were a few fun birds kicking around before I got here. I just had to hope they’d stick around.
Today, I headed first to the Invista area and Cataraqui Bay. These are often good spots to find a variety of waterfowl: ducks, geese, swans, etc. There had been a Snowy Owl reported along the marsh there too.
These are essentially just different vantages of the same water, but the Invista area was totally empty (unusual).
My vantage looking from Front Road out to Cataraqui Bay was much better, but I didn’t turn up much.
There were a few Mute Swan, Herring Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Common Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Hooded Merganser, Mallard, around 2000 Greater Scaup, and a few Gadwall. But that was it. Not much for variety. And no Snowy Owl. (Marshlands Conservation Area is a nice spot right across the road too, but I didn’t have time to walk any of it today.)
Next, I headed to Portsmouth Olympic Harbour. Not exactly a prime birding spot, but this was were my primary target was for today: Northern Mockingbird. They show up in southern Ontario in the spring in small numbers, but they’re definitely rare in December. Lucky for me, they decided to stick around (for a couple of weeks) until I got to town.
I walked the fence line between the harbour and an old prison (Kingston has rather a lot of them) where the mockingbirds had been seen. This was good habitat for them with the spacing of trees and shrubs along the wire fence. But I didn’t see them at all as I walked along the prison-turned-tourist attraction, heading toward Lake Ontario.
I made a quick scan of the lake, which turned up more Common Merganser, Gadwall, Canada Goose, and a pair of Long-tailed Duck. But it was a little choppy and appeared otherwise devoid of bird life.
I was more careful on the way back. I knew the Northern Mockingbirds should be in this area (thank you, Kingston birders!). But they so often perch up and make a heck of a racket that I was worried maybe they’d relocated for today.
I was staring into a particularly dense bush when I noticed a grey-looking tennis ball. Hey! Maybe that’s him back there… Nope, it was a puffed up House Sparrow of all things. (It looked way bigger than a House Sparrow at first glance.) I found three other House Sparrows in the same area before a long tail–far too long to belong to a sparrow–flicked a couple of feet away. There they were! And far more “skulky” than usual (eBird list).
I’ve never had to work to find Northern Mockingbirds before. These birds are widespread across North America. And they’re pretty boisterous. Cornell’s AllAboutBirds notes, “If you’ve been hearing an endless string of 10 or 15 birds singing outside your house, you might have a Northern Mockingbird in your yard.” These birds sing, mimic other birds, and generally make noise pretty much all the time (except in December and January). Some will even sing at night! Their diverse and acrobatic vocal skills landed them in many many cages on the East Coast in the past, to the extent that their numbers were way down for a while.
Perhaps also because of their loquacious tendencies, mockingbirds have found their way into lots of Native American folklore. In Hopi creation myths (and those of other Pueblo tribes), Northern Mockingbirds taught people to speak. The Cherokee considered them extremely clever, the Maricopa considered them a medicinal bird, and mockingbirds were incredibly important to many other peoples, including the Maya.
In 1835, Charles Darwin noticed that mockingbirds differed from island to island in the Galápagos, but that they looked a lot like those he’d seen in South America. He realized that the similarity of mockingbirds between the islands and the mainland could undermine the doctrine of the stability of species. His remarks on mockingbirds and tortoises cast some of his earliest doubts on the immutability of species.
Clearly, mockingbirds have been pretty influential.
Getting back to birding proper… I also managed a walk around Lemoine Point Conservation Area (eBird list).
This time, I was there in the late afternoon and was very happy to catch up with a Barred Owl (among other things). It was even perched right at my head height!
I took the video below as I enjoyed watching the owl searching for prey in the grass, its head occasionally darting downward at an odd angle when it caught something moving.
Now, I just have to catch up with one of the Snowy Owls that have started showing up around here…