Article by Mike Furbur
To see a Purple Finch is always a thrill, particularly close-up at a banding station like Ruthven Park (where several were banded this fall). And, to watch an active nest of these remarkable birds for a week is also an unforgettable experience. Indeed, this is one of my fondest memories from several years ago involving Purple Finches. The nest was in a mature white spruce adjacent to an old ranger cabin on Tattler Lake in the interior of Algonquin Park. This is typical breeding habitat: open coniferous forests of spruce, balsam and pine. Furthermore, Purple Finches are regular breeders on the Canadian Shield, but their occurrence depends on conifer seed crops and Spruce Budworm outbreaks.
In Ontario, Purple Finches inhabit the Boreal Forest and the Conifer-Hardwood Transition Forest region. And, although places like Algonquin can be excellent for observing winter finches like the Purple Finch, it’s not necessary, to go “Up North” to see this somewhat elusive, but intriguing species. In fact, Purple Finches have been observed nesting further south in pockets of open coniferous and mixed woodland as noted during the two Ontario breeding bird atlasses in 1987 and in 2007. Winter, however, is probably the best time to see them.
Winter finches are not part of the Cardinal family (Cardinalidae), but are members of the true finch family (Fringillidae). There are several species of winter finches in Ontario. Most people are familiar with the male yellow American Goldfinch which changes to an duller olive-brown winter plumage; and, it’s probably the most frequently banded bird at most bird banding stations in north-eastern North America. Not as well know, the drab-coloured, yet elegant Pine Siskins look like heavily streaked winter goldfinches, often with yellow wing-bar markings; both sexes are identical and they also visit bird feeders usually in late fall and throughout the winter along with Purple Finches and House Finches. Then there are six finches that are much less frequently encountered: Common and Hoary Redpoll, Red and White-winged Crossbills, Pine and Evening Grosbeak – all of which generally stay further north if the annual coniferous tree seed crops provide enough food. But when they do come south, they frequently visit bird feeders.
Along with the irregularly abundant American Goldfinch, Pine Siskins and Purple Finches are the most likely finches to be observed and banded at Ruthven Park. Most winter finches are not seasonal migrants strictly speaking since they will stay wherever they can find food which usually consists of conifer seeds. The Purple Finch, however, comes close to being an exception; it is a short distance migrant for the most part. Some of the population starts moving in late September, then increasingly through October and November. Birds seen later than this, are possibly birds that “had a go of it” further north, but couldn’t obtain enough food. Consequently, Purple Finches can be seen at any time in the winter – especially at bird feeders.
An interesting phenomenon of the Purple Finch is that the young males look like females throughout their first year, with a drab brownish streaked plumage. They – male Purple Finches – then acquire their raspberry red plumage during the following summer months. This apparent plumage “cross-dressing” of young males masquerading as females has been a mystery to ornithologists for some time. It seems that we have “cross-dressing” (not to mention “cross-bills”) in winter finch society!
There are two main theories to explain this phenomenon. The most familiar one states that young males are given a better chance while competing with older males, in the “disguise” of a female-like plumage; this allows males to dwell in suitable breeding habitat in spring without being driven out by mature males. What’s more, young males can sing to attract any unmated females and they may even breed in their first spring as young adults. The other less known theory states that young, inexperienced males need to put all their energy into all that entails with just surviving, without using the significant energy needed to develop a bright mature male plumage. These theories are both quite plausible, and one should probably not replace one with the other. Even though one theory may seem to be more significant, both reasons are likely just two among many others that complement each other. And, of course, the important thing is that most female Purple Finches “get the raspberry.”
Well, be that as it may, the mature males are a sight to see, “appearing as if they had been dipped in raspberry juice”, as the late Roger Tory Peterson was fond of saying; and this “dipping” includes the back and wings where male House Finches are always brown. Indeed, the colour alone should distinguish them from the male House Finches, which vary from a lighter rosy pink to a salmon orange-pink. Recently some of the male House Finches have sported golden or even greenish plumages. Adding to the confusion young male and older female Purple Finches may have greenish gold in their plumage as well – particularly on the rump, back and wings. Furthermore, Purple Finches are generally stockier with a larger head and a suggestive small crest when the feathers are raised. With experience, it’s quite easy to distinguish between the two finches.
Along with his strikingly deep merlot or burgundy plumage, the male has a spectacular bright, cheerful, clear warbling song with long colourful accented phrases. A signature repeating buzzy note helps to identify the song. Males will often sing during spring migration, but the real spectacular performances occur on the breeding grounds. Small flocks of birds can be detected by their typical finch-like undulating flight pattern. Moreover, there are two features that might help identify Purple Finches in flight: the tails are rather sharply notched although this can be difficult to see; and, they often utter a soft, dry “pik” call note that is diagnostic, yet may be difficult to hear.
Nevertheless, this should be a good winter for winter finches because of a poor seed crop further north this past year. To this end, you will probably spot several Purple Finches this winter, particularly at a birdfeeder; and if you see a male, be sure to rejoice in the reception of a visual “raspberry.” Cheers!
100th Anniversary of the end of the Great War – WW1 (1918-2018)
Irish Connection to Ruthven
Vintage Halloween Talk with Julia Wright
The origin of Halloween lies mainly with Celtic Ireland with the celebration of the festival of Samhain or Autumn Festival on October 31. Fire was an important part of the event and used to confuse the spirits, but the flames had to be extinguished and re-lit by Druids. Like New Years the notion of casting out the old and moving in the new was part of the celebration. To pagan ancestors, it marked the end of pastoral cycle when crops were gathered and put in storage for the long winter ahead. Also considered the last day of the year, souls departed and returned to their former homes. The late 1800’s was the golden age for postcards. They were cheap and a good way to keep in communication with friends especially before the advent of the telephone.
(Top Photo) Julia Wright guest speaker has been collecting Halloween post cards for many years. Samples from her collection include postcards using popular Halloween images and themes.
Repairs to Stone Walls
The stone garden walls within the Ruthven cultural landscape were recently repaired by Aberdeen Brick and Stone Contractors. The original stone wall running north from the Coach House and built sometime in the late 1840’s is covered under an easement agreement that The Lower Grand River Land Trust Inc. holds with the Ontario Heritage Trust. It was part of a fence system used to keep animals in the original farmyard. The remaining garden walls built sometime in the 1960’s when Andrew Ruthven Thompson was living on the site, are protected through designation with Haldimand County in Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act. The purpose of these walls was purely ornamental and designed in the fashion of an English garden.
(Left) The 1840 section of wall was in poor condition. There is evidence of extensive repair carried out on the wall several years ago using Portland cement and lime mortar. Over time it was shifted by a tree that was growing on the west side of the wall and caused it to bulge. For this reason, the tree was removed approximately 10 years ago; however, ivy continued to cover the wall (and disguised the crack in the wall.) The ivy held moisture causing the stone to remain damp and through freeze / thaw periods caused it to crack. Several stones on the east side of the wall were removed and reset in the wall face to restore strength to the structure. Approximately 100 ft. of new mortar joints were added to secure the structure and remediate further moisture infiltrating into the wall. The existing capstones were secured to the top of the wall. They should help to protect the wall from infiltration of water which would migrate down the walls.
The remaining 1960’s garden walls are clay dolomitic limestone which did not have enough compressive strength to resist frost damage. The basic structure of the walls above grade were in fair condition however cracked mortar joints and stones were repaired. Approximately 100 stones were replaced, and new capstones were made to cover all of these walls.
Highlights from Ruthven for the Birds 9th Annual Event
The weather cooperated for the popular Canadian Raptor Conservancy Birds of Prey Show held on Saturday, October 20th. After the show, everyone moved into the Coach House for a talk by Dr. David Brewer on “Everything you needed to know about Penguins”.
Pictured below are some of the birds that were showcased in the birds of prey show; Top row (l-rt) great horned owl, two photos of a red-tailed hawk. Bottom left is a bald eagle, and the right is a horned owl.
In the evening Peter Thoem spoke on “The Owl Foundation a Fly – by night organization?” This was a great segway into the evening owl banding program. Visitors were delighted to see 10 Northern Saw-Whet owls were banded throughout the course of the night. To finish the day off 12 adventurous individuals camped out in the Coach House so that they could be bright and early for morning banding.
The Lower Grand River Land Trust Inc. c/o Ruthven Park National Historic Site
243 Haldimand Hwy #54, Box 610, Cayuga, Ontario N0A 1E0 • 905.772.0560 email: firstname.lastname@example.org
website: www.ruthvenpark.ca THE LOWER GRAND RIVER LAND TRUST INC.
The LGRLT is a non-government, not-for-profit, charitable, community-based organization. The LGRLT has the mandate to protect land for its natural, cultural and agricultural values, as well as for education and research in its jurisdiction.
Wedding Bells have Stopped Ringing for the 2018 Season!
If you spent any time at Ruthven Park throughout the weekends this summer, you likely saw blushing brides and handsome grooms sharing their first kiss by our gazebo, taking photographs of their families blending together on the steps of our magnificent mansion, or partying the night away with their loved ones within the walls of the historic Coach House. One of the great aspects of having a wedding ceremony and/or reception at Ruthven Park is the flexibility that our site offers to couples. Give us a call today for more information on date availability, cost and to set up a site visit with Ruthven’s Operations Coordinator – 905.772.0560 or email@example.com. The Coach House can also be used for meetings, holiday parties, hallmark birthdays, showers, family gatherings etc.
WINTER BOOKINGS WELCOME!
Ruthven is excited to announce Diamond status for Wedding Facility and Platinum for Local Tourist Attractions from the Sachem Reader Choice Awards 2018.
Upcoming Events at Ruthven Park
For more information on upcoming events please check out our website www.ruthvenpark.ca , give us a call at 905.772.0560 or check us out on social media; Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Article by Mike Furber
One could hardly imagine a more endearing predator: diminutive, fierce, stealthy, tenacious, and resilient, this smallest of eastern North American owls is rarely observed accept in the winter or during migration at owl banding stations. Indeed, Saw-whet Owls were thought to be much less common until owl banding throughout North America and station networks such as Project Owl-Net revealed many more owls passing through on fall migration than was ever previously thought.
This small robin-sized, chestnut and whitish owl with a proportionately large head and huge yellow eyes, is one of a few species of owls that migrate seasonally in a true sense. The related slightly larger, grayish-brown, more northern Boreal Owl does to some degree, as does the larger tufted rusty-faced Long-eared Owl with some regularity. Great Gray Owls, Snowy Owls and Northern Hawk Owls have moved south in large numbers every few years this being called various names like incursion, or invasion. Some owls, such as the Short-eared Owl have been found to be quite erratic and extremely unpredictable as migrants or even nesting residents for that matter.
We have learned some interesting things about Saw-whet Owls in the last few decades – much of it from banding. With more females being banded one might think that females were more likely to respond to audio lure recordings; however, the same proportion of females were being caught even without audio lures. Further investigation has shown that females are much more likely to move further south; alternately, males are more likely to winter farther north closer to the nesting grounds to have a head start in early spring.
March is the time males will select a nesting territory with vocal whistle-like repetitive single “toot” calls that can continue monotonously, sounding very like miniature alien invaders. In fact, the name “Saw-whet” was apparently derived from some variations of this nuptial calling, but it doesn’t seem a very accurate rendering. Nevertheless, the name has stuck as most strange names do. The species epithet, acadicus, from the full scientific name, Aegolius acadicus, was derived from the discovery and description of this owl in old Acadia (now Nova Scotia). Consequently, some think that the name “Acadian Owl” would be a nicer official name and we agree. Being migrants, with different gender migration patterns, it follows that saw-whets do not mate for life. What’s more, they don’t even have site fidelity – that is an attachment to the same areas including both wintering and breeding locations. Therefore, Saw-whets are more nomadic than previously thought.
April is the time of nesting. Although the mixed hardwood conifer forests of the southern Canadian Shield and the Appalachians are often favoured, they have been found to nest in predominantly deciduous forests further south as well as coniferous forests to the north. Spruce bogs and balsam fir stands near wetlands are excellent examples. The nest itself, however, is usually in a hardwood such as an aspen or poplar, previously fashioned and used by a Northern Flicker or a Pileated Woodpecker. A normal clutch is four to six eggs with incubation close to a full month by the female. The male provides food for the female and the young. Food is mostly deer mice (Peromyscus sp.) and voles (Microtus sp.) of various types; small birds are occasionally taken. Even after the young have left the nest the male is the main provider and protector – cheers for paternal performance!
An interesting phenomenon among owls and raptors is what is referred to as reversed sexual dimorphism: the idea that females tend to be larger than males – the opposite of most bird species where males are usually slightly larger. Many theories have been put forward and investigated, but all explain the advantage of sexual dimorphism to some degree, but not the reversed gender situation satisfactorily. Suffice it to say, the females are considerably larger than males by as much as 20 to 25%. This may help to open a broader food niche for the saw-whet offsetting some food competition between the sexes. The main foes of the saw-whet are Barred Owls and Screech Owls, the saw-whet being a frequent item on the food menu of these two-owl species – particularly during migration. The other frequent danger for saw-whets are collisions with human transportation vehicles – this being the most frequent injury of Saw-Whet Owls admitted to rehabilitation centres across North America.
So, if you want to see a Saw-whet Owl, check out plantations of White Pine or spruce and White Cedar groves in the winter – these are likely to be males here in Southern Ontario. Or better yet, check out a banding station in the fall (October) such as Ruthven Park where migration monitoring is carried out annually. You will be smitten by a breath-taken close-up of this darling owl species – be ready for maximum cuteness in this nocturnal gnome!
Article by Rick Ludkin
We begin to see the first Fall Blackpoll Warblers at the beginning of September with their numbers swelling as the month proceeds. This hardy little bird, that spends the Winter in wooded habitats in South America as far south as Bolivia, breeds in the boreal forest anywhere from Newfoundland to Alaska. Its flight south is what captures the imagination.
The bird first makes an overland journey to southern Nova Scotia or the New England States. For some birds this isn’t particularly arduous. But for a bird coming from the Yukon or Alaska it’s a long trek. During this jaunt the bird puts on some fat for energy but not a great deal of it. A “lean” or fat-free bird weighs around 9.5 – 11 grams. The birds during this stage of the journey come in at about 13.5 g. But in the staging area in New England the birds can put on a great deal of fat, sometimes doubling their fat-free weight. This is to fuel a long, non-stop flight of over 80 hours that will take them to the northeast coast of South America!
The fat birds wait until the conditions for migration are right – the movement of a cold front, a high pressure system over the area bringing with it northwest winds, cool temperatures and clear skies. After takeoff they climb until they reach an altitude of between 1,000 and 2,000 meters following a southeast heading. The area of the Northeast Trade Winds provides beneficial following winds but in the proximity of the Lesser Antilles the winds at lower elevations move more to the east and strengthen, becoming something of a hazard. At this point the birds may climb as high as 4,500 meters to find beneficial winds. As they approach the coast of South America they begin their descent and make landfall after a non-stop flight of about 3,500 kilometers!
The Blackpolls we catch and band at Ruthven usually weigh around 12.5 grams; these are birds that are making for New England to fatten. But occasionally we have caught birds weighing more than 20 grams and we ask ourselves whether, with the right conditions, they might start their non-stop flight from here.
Article by Joanne Fleet
I was on a guided hike with the Hamilton Naturalists Club when I heard someone ask, “Is that a Goldfinch singing? Why are they still singing? I thought all birds stopped singing by July 15th?”
I was very new to birds after having just enjoyed my first visit to Ruthven Park. I did not understand the question at all, because I thought that all birds sang all the time; I was wrong. Turns out, males are usually the songsters. In the same way they use their resplendent breeding plumage, males use their song to secure breeding territory, to attract a mate, and to defend their breeding territory. When they sing, they are saying, “Listen to my song, Ladies! I am a genetically superior specimen. I can sing longer and stronger than all the others because my territory is rich with food and safe from predators! Choose me! Choose me!” Once chosen, and after the hard work of raising young has concluded, energetically, it is no longer efficient to sing. All that birdsong is fuelled by food which requires foraging and eating and hiding and defending. Put simply, it’s too much work to keep it up, so they quit. Most birds, especially migrants, get down to the business of breeding in early spring and cleverly time their breeding with the emergence of the insect population, which is their primary food source. American Goldfinches are no less clever – they too time their breeding with their primary food source – thistle. In Ontario, thistle species typically go to seed in July. For this reason, American Goldfinches breed much later than most North American birds which is why we still hear them cheerfully singing long after the others have stopped. The collective noun for a group of Goldfinches is ‘a charm’ which is an apt name as they delight backyard birders year-round with their enthusiastic chatter, undulating patterns of flight, and no-nonsense appetite for nyger seed – which is of no interest to pesky House Sparrows or squirrels.
As Haldimand County has entered Stage 3, Ruthven Park has decided to remain closed at this time. Staff is working hard to make improvements to our site during these uncertain times to make your next visit to Ruthven Park even better.
Phone: (905) 772-0560
243 Haldimand Hwy. #54,
Cayuga, ON N0A 1E0