Nature Observations

The American Woodcock in Literature and in Life

There we were, a dozen or so people standing in a field, waiting, watching, and listening. The sky began to darken, the pinks and oranges of sunset had mostly disappeared, melting into a deep purple. The chorus of trilling toads (Anaxyrus americanus) and the Eastern Towhee (Pipilio erythropthalmus) calling out its name in the woods only increased the tension on our strained ears. Suddenly, we heard the first sharp peent from the distance. We moved as a group to try to line ourselves up with the repeated metallic sound. The almost electronic or perhaps frog-like sound was produced by a very strange-looking bird, a bird that was our focus tonight. Once we thought we knew where the bird was calling from, we resumed our watchful stance, binoculars and camera lenses trained on the brush and the purplish sky above it. Then suddenly our guide, Audrey Heagy, announced that the bird was rising through the air because she could hear its wings whistling upward. Looking around I couldn’t see any living thing against the dusk sky. It felt for the first few times like a sort of magic trick. And indeed, misdirection is the bird’s intent. Eventually I got used to watching the sky for tiny dark shapes and my ears became attuned to the pitch of the birds’ wings on their ascents and descents above the darkening fields. Even so, there were times when we would hear the peent of a grounded bird so sharply and clearly that we knew exactly where it was patrolling on the ground despite not being able to see it. We would focus all of our senses on this presumed location and then be fooled by the mysterious bird’s magic tricks. 

There are many natural phenomena that I have read about before encountering personally. This was one such event: the skydance of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) male.

To give you an idea of what this bird looks like, and to show you their camouflage, here is a video I took of a Woodcock foraging in Pinery Provincial Park, in October 2018.

There are a few ways the Woodcock gets away with such an obvious display and yet remains safe from predators. When first launching and on final landing approach, the Woodcock moves not vertically but horizontally for a few meters, without making a sound. This silent horizontal movement really works to confuse observers as evidenced by the group of naturalists whipping their heads around every time a Woodcock would begin ascending not directly above where it was on the ground, but several meters away. The sound of their whistling wings seems to fill the air, making it extremely difficult to pinpoint where in the sky the sound is coming from.

Besides a blurry shape overhead (once winging directly over our group), we didn’t get a visual on these mysterious dancing birds. I had observed one of these stealthy creatures on a previous occasion in the woods of Pinery Provincial Park and every time I looked away I had to re-locate the foraging Woodcock. Their camouflage helps them escape predators and is extremely effective.

Here is a photo I took of the Woodcock I observed in Pinery Provincial Park in October 2018. My wife spotted the Woodcock first, somehow picking out its amazingly camouflaged form from among the fallen leaves.

I would like to end where I began my encounters with the American Woodcock: in the pages of a book. Here is a passage from one of my favourite natural history authors, Edwin Way Teale, who described the Woodcock’s behaviour so elegantly and inspired me to seek it out myself.

From A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm, by Edwin Way Teale:

“Its performance begins with the brown chunky long-billed bird walking about in the open field, turning this way and that, uttering again and again a buzzing nasal ‘peent!’… The call seems now far away, now close at hand, according to the direction the bird is pointing. Then there is a moment of silence. It is followed by the winnowing sound of its wings and we see its dark little form speeding in a wide climbing curve against the light of the sky… Higher and higher in great sweeping circles it mounts above the pasture. We follow with our eyes its retreating form, often losing it in the sky. At the height of its ascent the song begins. The sweet frail twittering sound at times seems to come from all directions, the notes to shower down around us. And while the song goes on it is joined by a quavering musical strain produced by three stiff narrow feathers at each wingtip. They vibrate int he wind as the bird plunges, veering wildly, falling through the sky like a gust-blown leaf. The end comes abruptly – an almost vertical descent to the darkened meadow. Then the “peenting” calls begin once more.”

For previous bird observation blogposts, see:

Eaters of the Dead

The Teal Tale Teale Told

A Green Heron Stalks the Shallows

Return of the Ravens

3. Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)

The Wonders of Wrens

Pinery Birds, Winter 2019

book review

Terns, by David Cabot and Ian Nisbet

I remember the first time that I saw a Tern in Southern Ontario, and believed that I was seeing an especially rare sighting. In my head at the time (this was almost ten years ago) Terns were oceanic birds that migrated huge distances across the waves, and were either in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, or amid stormy Southern seas. This idea of Tern distribution and migration was based on the only Tern species that I knew: the Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) and even then only loosely. The Tern I observed flying and diving for fish in Waterford, Ontario was most likely not an Arctic Tern, but rather a Common Tern (Sterna hirundo). Since that perspective-changing observation, I have been looking forward to learning more about these beautiful birds. Thanks to this excellent book by David Cabot and Ian Nisbet, I now have a much greater grasp on Tern biology, ecology, and life history.

Terns is part of a long-running natural history series produced in the UK called The New Naturalist Library. These books are beautiful to look at, both outside and inside and I love having some of this series displayed on my bookshelf. The subtitle of the series is “A Survey of British Natural History” and I will admit to being originally concerned that the content of the books would be not very relevant to a naturalist on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. For this book in particular, that fear was unfounded. While the focus is undoubtedly British and sometimes very explicitly so, the coverage of this book is extremely valuable to understanding Terns across the world.

The Collins New Naturalist Books are beautiful together on a bookshelf. This is my collection so far.

The book begins with a chapter titled “Terns of the World”, which gives a brief overview of what the authors consider the “true terns” which includes 39 species, and excludes the noddies (genera Anous and Gygis). This brings me to my first complaint in what I consider an excellent book: the use of scientific names (or lack of use). This first chapter is the only chapter to regularly use scientific names when mentioning related terns (ie. genera) or species. Some might find that scientific names break the flow of a book, and I’m sure that’s why it’s written without them later on (for the most part) but I find it incredibly helpful to have the scientific names referenced more often than once at the beginning of a book. I like to remember scientific names of species, it makes finding information about the species a lot easier, and it can even tell you things right in the name itself: members of a Genus are more closely related to each other than members of a different Genus. To use some Tern species as examples: the Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) is more closely related to the Common (Sterna hirundo) and Roseate (Sterna dougallii) Terns (note the same Genus for all three species) than all three are to the Sandwich Tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis) (different Genus). I think the lack of scientific names in most chapters seems out of place given that the text is fairly in-depth and scientific. Even if they didn’t want the flow thrown off for most of the text, I would have liked it if they included the scientific names for the species that were the focused subject of later chapters (see below) even just in the chapter titles for easy reference. In any case, this first chapter does a great job of introducing the terns as a group, offering overviews of the various genera and setting the stage for the following chapters.

The next three chapters continue the theme of giving information on Terns as a whole, and not just the species that are common in Britain and Ireland. They are titled “Food and Foraging”, “Breeding Biology”, and “Migration”. All were full of fascinating information and surprises. “Food and Foraging” described the various ways that Terns find and capture prey (all Terns are predators of mostly aquatic prey except for the Gull-billed Tern (Gelochelidon nilotica) which feeds on mostly terrestrial prey). The chapter conveyed well the foraging strategies of Terns from their perspective, demonstrating how difficult it is for birds to find and catch fish out of water that is often deep. Something I never really considered before is how Terns depend on fish being closer to the surface than fish normally swim. There are various factors that bring fish within the top portion of the water, and thus within reach of Terns (and other aerial predators). One is currents forcing fish to move over shallower sections of a lake or ocean such as sandbars or reefs. But the authors state: “The most widespread factor making prey fish come towards the surface, however, is predatory fish chasing them from below.” Because of this, many Terns follow predatory fish in order to reap the rewards from their attacks on prey fish. This sort of dependence is the sort of behaviour and ecology that I find so fascinating: Terns and Tuna, two utterly different organisms in shape and lifestyle are connected through their use of common prey species. In this sort of way, all species are interconnected and it’s this sort of thing that ecology strives to document and understand. Through the use of photographs, illustrations, and excellent description Tern food acquisition is explored (including the always interesting kleptoparsitism, or food piracy).

This is the closest encounter I’ve ever had with a Tern, a Black Tern (Chlidonias niger) hovering near me in Long Point.

The following chapter, “Breeding Biology” describes the generalizations and variations on the ways Terns reproduce. Terns use impressive courtship displays both in the air and on the ground to attract and retain mates. I found the description of courtship-feeding (in which the male brings prey to the female) to be especially interesting, summarized nicely by the authors: “Thus, the function of courtship-feeding evolves gradually from advertising the male’s proficiency, through attracting a mate, establishing and cementing a relationship, to provisioning the female and providing the nutrition required for making the eggs.” Once the pair is established, both partners incubate the eggs, feed the chicks and guard them, though males are more likely to provision more often both the female and the chicks (probably because of the continuing courtship-feeding described above).

The final chapter in the broader overview section of the book is all about Migration. My vision of Arctic Terns being exotic oceanic birds crossing the globe is actually not entirely inaccurate. Some populations of Arctic Terns spend the northern summer breeding in the Arctic, and spend the northern winter in the Antarctic, literally crossing from the top of the world to the bottom. It’s mentioned that because of this incredible world-spanning migration: “These birds would experience more daylight in the course of a year than any other animal.” (p 91). Despite these amazing journeys that inspire appropriate awe and interest, we know very little about how Arctic Terns actually migrate, or even their migration routes in detail. This is true of other Terns as well, though the picture is slowly resolving as we gain better technology for tracking bird movements. This chapter explains the current state of tern migration knowledge well and mentions where we are still lacking information.

The chapter following the overview chapters detailed above brings the focus more directly onto Britain and Ireland, as it’s titled “History of Terns in Britain and Ireland”. The chapter delivers on its title, including excellent historical illustrations. Not only does the chapter describe the population changes of the different species of Terns in Britain and Ireland over time, but it mentions some of the reasons (when known) for such changes, as well as various human interactions with these species. Mentioned several times through this chapter is the egg collecting and the methods of scientific collecting in the past (shooting dozens of birds per colony with guns instead of cameras), which obviously had negative effects on tern populations.

The main portion of the book (almost half, if you don’t include the Appendices and References) is made up of five chapters each of which is devoted to a single species of Tern, the five species of Terns that breed in Britain and Ireland. These are: Little Tern (Sternula albifrons), Sandwich Tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis), Common Tern (Sterna hirundo), Roseate Tern (Sterna dougallii), and Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea).

These species-focused chapters are thorough and engaging, presenting a detailed account of breeding biology, habitat use, and behaviour. There are specific details included about the populations within the region of focus (the British Isles) such as historical population trends and distribution. Despite this regional focus, the descriptions of tern behaviour and biology is applicable across these species’ range. The Least Tern (Sternula antillarum) is closely related to the Little Tern, and has been spotted in Ontario. Common Terns are widely distributed, also occurring in Ontario. Arctic Terns sometimes occur in Ontario as well. So 2 of 5 species occur both in the British Isles and my own region, and another is very closely related and similar to a local species.

This photo demonstrates better the colouration of Black Terns though it is further away.

Following the species-chapters is a chapter on Conservation, full of case studies and the description of various effects on tern populations in the British Isles, as well as the efforts to alleviate the negative effects.

The final chapter was probably my least favourite, only because I don’t live in Britain or Ireland. Chapter 12: “Vagrants, Passage Migrants, and Occasional Breeders” is aimed very specifically at the British Isles Birder, describing the rare tern sightings within the region.

To round off the book, there are a few Appendices which were good supplementary material on Tern Research and Population monitoring.

Overall, Terns is an excellent book about the biology and behaviour of Terns with a distinct focus on the species that breed in the British Isles. But don’t let your locality deter you from checking out this book if you are interested in diving deep into the world of these fascinating seabirds.

For previous book reviews, see:

Flora of Middle-Earth

Pterosaurs, by Mark Witton

The Social Biology of Wasps

The Palaeoartist’s Handbook, by Mark Witton

Flies: The Natural History and Diversity of Diptera, by Stephen A. Marshall


Happy 3rd Birthday, Norfolk Naturalist!

3 Years of Blogging at have passed and it’s time to look back at the past year of my naturalist adventures and reading/writing. Let’s go!

Look closely and you’ll see one of my most amazing bird sightings this year, a stealthy American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) in Long Point, May 2022.

Starting off this past year of blogging was my introduction to a series of posts highlighting my Top 20 Nature Photos 2013-2020. I explain in that post why I chose that date range and how I chose the photos. When posting the first one, I ended up writing more than I expected about the species, in this case the Pale-painted Sand wasp (Bembix pallidipicta). I wrote several more entries in this series through the following months: (Moose (Alces alces) family, Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis), Common Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus), and in September I published entry 5: Robber Fly (Neoitamus orphne) hunting Queen Ant (Formica novaeboracensis). I was originally planning to post them all in a row for my first 20 posts of this past blogging year… but oh well. I promise I am still working on the other 15 posts and I think the wait will be worth it for the species to get their proper spotlight.

A close encounter with the Heron I usually see, the Great Blue (Ardea herodias).

In March of this year, I reposted my original blogpost (Cryptic Caterpillars) from my tumblr blog ( because I hadn’t finished any other blogposts for the month and I also want to repost all of my original tumblr blogposts on this website, with occasional minor edits and updating. I reposted another tumblr post in May (MacGregor Point Observations (May 2018)) And in October, I reposted yet another, this time with a Halloween theme: Eaters of the Dead.

In April I was amazed and delighted to find that Ravens were nesting on my parents’ property (specifically on their silo), so I wrote a post about my observations and their significance.

Great Egret (Ardea alba), in Long Point, September 2022.

In June I went to see Jurassic World: Dominion, the latest film in the Jurassic Saga. I wouldn’t say it’s a great film, but I did really enjoy it, especially with the theatre experience. I wrote a blogpost about my personal interactions with the Jurassic books/films/videogames and some paleontological things because they were on my mind a lot at the time. You will see that some of the books I read over the blogging year (overviewed below) were also inspired by my dinosaur obsession which comes and goes quite often.

Some of my most exciting observations this year were of birds that I encountered in Long Point. And some of the most exciting birds were members of the Heron Family (Ardeidae). Usually I see and take photos of Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) which is great but it was amazing to encounter several other members of this charismatic group of birds this year. My close encounter with a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) was so striking that I wrote it up into a blogpost: A Green Heron Stalks the Shallows.

Two other blogposts feature some of my Long Point observations. One is sort of a tour through a variety of observations I made during March 2022: Bullfrogs and Buffleheads. Another is more like the Green Heron post mentioned above, as it focuses on a specific bird that caught my attention. In this case, it was the Green-winged Teal (Anas carolinensis): The Teal Tale Teale Told.

During August, we took a trip to one of my favourite places: Algonquin Provincial Park. While there, I made some nature observations and took some photos, sharing them in my blogpost here: Algonquin in August.

And that wraps up my writing this year. Below, we will take a tour through the books I read this past year (that are nature/science related) and discuss them briefly.

Nature’s Year: Changing Seasons in Central and Eastern Ontario, by Drew Monkman:

Although the book is not directly focused on my local area (Norfolk County falls outside of the books focal range), the close proximity of the areas documented mean that many of the natural phenomena described within are of relevance to the seasons around me as well. I really appreciated the layout of the book. Each month is divided into sections based on organism type: “Plants and Fungi”, “Reptiles and Amphibians”, “Mammals” and so on. Beneath each of these sub-headings, interesting happenings are described, some in point-form and others in detail (full page or two). It was great to witness the natural events mentioned in the book, to read along as each month progressed as I did in 2021. Reading the book through the year prepares your mind to see the natural events it describes. An advantage of the layout is that it also works well as a reference because you can flip to a certain month and type of organism to see what notable species or events are occurring.

Biodiversity in Dead Wood, edited by Jogeir N. Stokland, Juha Siitonen, and Bengt Gunnar Jonsson:

A new favourite book of mine, this volume opened up the mysterious biome of decaying wood and explored the diversity of life within, from bacteria to birds. The interactions of organisms with each other and their environment is the heart of ecology and it’s clear from my reading that species are interconnected in fascinating and complex ways.

Spider Communication: Mechanisms and Ecological Significance, edited by Peter N. Witt and Jerome S. Rovner:

The title of this book drew me to it as I am always fascinated by animal behaviour and Spiders seem to me unlikely subjects of a volume dedicated to communication. Reading the book offers a new perspective on spider interactions with each other through their silk and body movements and even acoustics! They also communicate with predators and prey,

Hedgehog (Collins New Naturalist), by Pat Morris:

I didn’t really know anything about Hedgehogs before reading this book. And there was no need, as this volume summarizes in entertaining fashion most anything anyone would want to know about British Hedgehogs.

The Encyclopedia of Animals: A Complete Visual Guide, edited by George Mckay:

I read through this book slowly, as it is not really meant to be read straight through. This book serves best as a flip-through book, showcasing the diversity of animals around the world. The illustrations are at times a bit strange (I believe many are stock illustrations) and don’t seem to match with the animal they depict, but others are quite beautiful and the diversity they portray is fun to look at. The text is very cursory as would be expected with a popular “flip-through” tome like this. My major gripe with this book is something I used to harp on about all the time growing up as an insect enthusiast: Invertebrates are barely represented. Mammals get the majority of pages devoted to them, and Birds are close behind. Mammals and Birds are fascinating, and far more diverse than one would assume if you have only watched nature documentaries (which focus on the same set of species rather than showcasing the variety that are actually out there). Even still, they are a fraction of the diversity of the animal kingdom, which is more appropriately ruled in species numbers by the Arthropods or Mollusks. Despite this (a very common problem in overview books) I really had fun slowly reading through this book, taking in a page or so of variety a day. I wouldn’t say it is the best or most comprehensive of animal encyclopedias, but it serves as a good introduction as long as one is well aware of the classic hairy or feathered vertebrate bias.

British Tits (Collins New Naturalist), by Christopher M. Perrins:

British Tits have always struck me as beautiful chickadees, which indeed they are. I was always jealous of Britain having the wonderful cheery birds I know from my backyard, but with more vibrant colour. Tits are fascinating birds, with life histories and behaviour to match their beautiful exteriors. This book was an excellent overview of the species of Parulidae that occur in the British Isles.

Dinopedia, by Darren Naish:

A compact and great little book filled with tidbits about the history of dinosaur research, some of the paleontologists who conducted said research or influenced the field of dinosaur study, and brief summaries on dinosaur groups. My personal tastes lie with this last group of entries, but each entry was interesting in its own way, supplying concise facts and summaries and highlighting areas of interest within the world of dinosaur research. I greatly enjoyed the illustrations by the author which really enhance the book.

Reef Life: A Guide to Tropical Marine Life, by Brandon Cole and Scott Michael:

A delightful photo-focused tour through the world of coral reefs and tropical sea life. The focus is on fishes, while smaller sections describe and display some representative invertebrates. Styled something like a field guide, but with plenty of ecological and biological information throughout, this book gives a taste of the diversity of coral reefs and the interconnected lives of the species that create and depend on them.

Bat Ecology, edited by Thomas H. Kunz and M. Brock Fenton:

Bats are fascinating, and I learned a lot about them from this book. Because of the book’s focus on Ecology, there was no real overview of Bats as a group which would have been nice for myself to have some sort of general idea before diving into specifics. Not a fault of the book, just something to note if you’re unfamiliar with bats from a scientific point of view. The chapters are each written by different authors and cover a wide range of topics, and as such there were excellent and enjoyable chapters (for myself the chapter on Roosting sites and the chapter on Pollination were particularly fascinating) and some chapters that were less so. Not a fault of the book, but my personal point of view and knowledge base left me struggling through the chapters on Sperm Competition and Patterns of Range Size. Those two chapters in particular felt like specific scientific studies rather than reviews of a subject area which the other chapters felt like. So, while mixed, the interest I have in Bats has certainly been increased and I have certainly learned a lot about some of the diverse ecologies that bats have around the world, while still wanting more.

This Day: New and Collected Sabbath Poems 1979-2012, by Wendell Berry:

In the preface, Wendell Berry remarks that the poems should be read outside in similar circumstances to when they were written. And I originally envisioned doing so. When I began to read them in very different circumstances, I found that instead of diminishing the power of the poetry by contrast, the poetry brought the beauty and wonder of nature into my less-than-ideal setting (usually indoors in winter or at work).

Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Protect the World’s Largest Owl, by Jonathan C. Slaght:

Although I will always want a book like this to have more focus on the animals themselves (in this case Blakiston’s Fish Owls) I thought this was a very interesting listen (I had the audiobook). Lots of adventures and misadventures in the Russian wilderness, as well as strange and intriguing people that the author encounters. And there was quite a bit about how the field research actually worked and the sorts of things I really was looking for: info and descriptions of the wildlife encounters including the focal species. Overall, a good read about an animal I didn’t know much about before and the efforts to research and protect it.

Dinosaurs Rediscovered: The Scientific Revolution in Paleontology, by Michael J. Benton:

I picked up this book from the library, inspired by my recent viewing of Jurassic World: Dominion, and found this book to be a mixed bag. I enjoyed some of the stories behind discoveries or changes in perspective on dinosaurs and their world… but I found other such stories to be irrelevant or out of place. In general, the flow of the book was a bit haphazard. The information within sated my appetite for dinosaurian (and some non-dinosaur) biology and ecology temporarily and I enjoyed the illustrations and figures.

Ant Ecology, edited by Lori Lach, Catherine L. Parr, and Kirsti L. Abbott:

Because this is an edited multiauthored volume, it becomes difficult to review the whole, as chapters are written with different topics and by different people. Overall, this was an interesting look at more recent ant research (20 years more recent than my other source for ant knowledge: The Ants by E. O. Wilson, written in 1990). There is a heavy conservation and practical (invasive ecology) focus to the book which may attract workers in these fields.

The Amber Forest: A Reconstruction of a Vanished World, by George Poinar Jr. and Roberta Poinar:

Fascinating gallery of ancient organisms preserved in amber of a particular age and location. Mostly insects and other arthropods which is fine by me, I enjoyed the overview of insect relationships and such that were covered alongside the representatives of the different groups found in amber. The format was a little strange and took some getting used to, I feel like there could have been a better way to present the images and the text but I don’t know, felt a little awkward flipping back and forth throughout reading. All in all, very interesting especially if you like insects and fossils.

A Naturalist At Large, by Bernd Heinrich:

A fun tour through various natural history topics. Bernd Heinrich is curious about the nature he observes and doesn’t take things for granted and by doing so, he discovers by bits and pieces, fascinating natural history stories. I especially liked the chapters focused on birds or insects, perhaps due to my own interests and knowledge but I think perhaps it is because those were Bernd Heinrich’s research focuses as well and his insight there was thus enhanced.

Biology and Conservation of Wild Canids, edited by D. W. Macdonald and C. Sillero-Zubiri:

A great review of Canid Conservation around the world. The case studies were interesting snapshots of species under investigation from Grey Wolves of Isle Royale, in Lake Superior, to the Blanford’s Fox in the deserts of the Middle East. While not comprehensive on the biology/ecology of canids (some species didn’t even get a case study chapter such as Bush Dogs), this was an excellent primer on the diversity of species and challenges in the canid research world.

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, by Frans de Waal:

A book aimed at tearing down the division between human and “animal” cognition. Presents a wide array of anecdotes and experiments that demonstrate that human thinking is a matter of degree and not a separate category altogether from the millions of other species on this planet. I was a bit disappointed that the author focused mainly on chimpanzee research (his own specialty) but this served to really break down the idea that human thinking is a different sort from other species as chimpanzees display many of our ways of thinking that humans previously considered unique to our species. I would have loved to read more about cognition in diverse species and phyla, the one section on invertebrates was intriguing but all too short, but all in all the book presents its arguments well, and discusses the history of thinking about animal thinking in an interesting and thought-provoking way.

That concludes my writing and reading overview for the past blogging year! Stay tuned for more nature sightings, observations, photos and natural history!

Species Profile

The Teal Tale Teale Told

Some ducks make very different sounds than the traditional Mallard quack. On a return trip to the Big Creek conservation trail in Long Point, March 2022, I was quite intrigued to hear squadrons of ducks uttering whistle-type calls as they scooted about on the water or took to the air. These were American Green-winged Teal (Anas carolinensis), the smallest species of dabbling duck in North America, approximately pigeon-sized (Baldassarre 2014).

To hear what these small ducks sound like, here is a link to an audio recording of Green-winged Teals whistling:

Apparently, it is the males that whistle while the females produce quacks (Baldassarre 2014). Green-winged Teals breed across the boreal and deciduous forests of North America, preferring wooded wetlands. Their nests are very difficult to find, concealed among tall grasses or shrubs. These ducks migrate early in the Spring to the northern breeding grounds, and it’s likely that the Teals I saw in March were using Long Point marshes as a stopping ground on their way north.

A pair of Green-winged Teals on ice at Long Point.

Teals use their bills (and the fine toothlike combs at the edges called lamellae) to filter tiny food items from shallow water such as seeds and invertebrates. Unsurprisingly because of their overall small size, it seems that Green-winged Teals are particularly good at feeding on very small food items, as opposed to Mallards, which are more generalist feeders (Baldassarre 2014).

Two fun stories about the word ‘Teal’ to finish off with. One is that, according to wikipedia teal is a word that originally meant “small dabbling duck” or something like that and was applied to several species of ducks before it was applied to the blue-green colour*, because of the bright “teal” markings on the wings (and heads of the males).

*I can’t find this mentioned in my books about ducks or anywhere well-sourced. I believe it to be true and fascinating but wikipedia is the main source I can find this fact on, so take that how you will.

The colour on their wings and heads really is quite beautiful.

My other anecdote about Teals I would like to share is about one of my favourite nature writers, Edwin Way Teale (it’s also the reason this post has a Dr. Seussian title). In his book, North with the Spring (Teale 1951), he tells of a time when his naturalist ways came under suspicion by the law. He and his friend had been out one winter day, watching ducks at a pond. Across the pond was a building which used to be a military plant, and I guess the fear of foreign spies caused a local to report the pair of men staring in that direction with binoculars.

As Teale himself says: “The dialogue that ensued when the first officer reached us might well have been a skit on a vaudeville stage.

“What are you doing?”

“Looking at ducks.”

“What’s your name?”


By the light in his eye I could tell he had heard about teal ducks. The light said: A wise guy, eh?

I have friends who are named Crow, Crane, Raven and Rook. Fortunately, they were not along that day.” (Teale 1951, p. 288).

In case you forgot that Green-winged Teals are small… here are some swimming near a Canada Goose for comparison.


Baldassarre, Guy. 2014. Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America, 2 Vols. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Teale, Edwin Way. 1951. North with the Spring. Dodd, Mead, & Company.

For other posts about Long Point Observations, see:

Bullfrogs and Buffleheads

A Visit to Big Creek, Part 1

A Visit to Big Creek, Part 2

Nature Observations

Return of the Ravens

Ravens are awesome, beautiful birds.

My parents’ farm property in Norfolk County has been blessed by the construction of a very exciting nest. One day when I arrived at their house and opened my car door I was greeted by the distinctive “croak” of a Common Raven (Corvus corax). The sound startled me, placing me in the woodlands of Algonquin Park, but there was no mistaking that call, and the size of the bird making it. I could see the calling raven, perched atop an unused silo. As exciting as this brief sighting was, the true significance of this bird’s presence was not yet revealed.

Later that same week, my Mom asked about the large crows and mentioned that they were building a nest on top of the silo. She said they went back and forth with sticks in their beaks. Maybe this news wouldn’t be so exciting to some people but for myself the thought of a raven nest that I could regularly observe was exhilarating.

And observe it I have!

On a recent visit, I went back to check out the nest and take some pictures. After only a few moments of watching the silo, I heard the sounds of one of these amazing birds returning and saw it carrying a  large stick in its beak. The raven dropped the stick onto the nest pile without even landing, continuing to soar through the sky on its powerful wings. Apparently, if a dropped stick doesn’t stay in the nest, the ravens won’t pick them up again off the ground (Stokes and Stokes 1989). The sticks are taken from tree branches, broken off by the ravens, not collected from the ground (Stokes and Stokes 1989). In addition to large sticks, the nest could contain dirt and grass clumps as well as an interior lining of gathered hair or bark (Stokes and Stokes 1989).

The raven didn’t even land, just dropped the stick from the air onto its nest.

A few minutes later, a turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) came drifting towards the silo. The large bird seemed to be planning to perch atop the silo, something I have seen vultures do previously. Swooping onto the scene with deep throaty “croaks” the raven pair chased the vulture off into the distance, something that was reminiscent of the classic behaviour of corvids mobbing raptors or owls.

One of the ravens pursuing a turkey vulture.

As I said at the beginning of this post, the call and sight of ravens makes me think of Algonquin Park, and that’s for good reason. Until now, it was the only location I had seen these birds. Ravens used to be common across all of Ontario but mainly due to habitat destruction and human persecution, they have been mostly absent from far southern Ontario for about a century (Cadman et. al. 1987). Ravens were even rare in Algonquin Park until the 1960s because of the poisoned baits left out for wolves (Tozer 2012). The most recent field guide I have (Bezener 2016) still has the raven range map cut off before reaching most of Southern Ontario.

I’ve tried unsuccessfully to find a good source for the current breeding range of ravens in Ontario, but I suppose I’ll have to wait for the next edition of the Breeding Bird Atlas, which is collecting data right now (2021-2025) for its creation. It’s an amazing project, and if you have the time to contribute go for it! Suffice to say, this nest of ravens is a fairly new thing in my area and is very exciting. I hope that they have a successful nesting season, and I have a feeling I will have more posts about this nest in the future! At the time these observations were made (March 29, 2022) the ravens have possibly already laid eggs in the nest, as Tozer (2012) gives a range for Alqonquin raven egg-laying as March 20 – April 19. Stay tuned!

Raven and turkey vulture, showing nicely the relative wingspans of these two large birds.


Bezener, Andy. 2016. Birds of Ontario. 376 pp. Partners and Lone Pine Publishing.

Cadman, M. D., Eagles, P. F. J., and Helleiner, F. M. 1987. Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario. 617 pp. University of Waterloo Press.

Tozer, Ron. 2012. Birds of Algonquin Park. 474 pp. The Friends of Algonquin Park.

Stokes, Donald and Stokes, Lillian. 1989. A Guide to Bird Behavior. Volume III. 397 pp. Little, Brown, and Company.

For Previous articles that have some relevance to this one, see:

Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)

Algonquin Observations, Part 3 – Peck Lake Trail

Fuzzy Flies and Song Sparrows

Top 20 Photos 2013-2020

3. Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)

Subject: Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis).

Location: Algonquin Provincial Park.

Date: March 2017.

For an Introduction to this series (my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020) go here.

The Story Behind the Shot: I’ve only visited Algonquin Park in the Winter twice. On this occasion, in March 2017, I was actually searching for this particular bird (one of the rare times that I have a target species in mind, I’ll be recounting another one for my next photo). The Canada Jay had only recently been rebranded as such, the common name used to be the Gray Jay and some people still refer to it as such (after all, common names can sort of be whatever you want them to be). Part of the name-change or name-shift was to do with a campaign by the Canadian Geographic Society to name the Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) as Canada’s National Bird. For more information about this story, see the Canadian Geographic article here: Having read up on this story I wanted to encounter this emblem of our country and was able to catch a glimpse of it in the parking lot of the Spruce Bog trail in Algonquin Park.

The Story Behind the Species: The Canada Jay is a permanent resident of cold northern forests across North America (Cadman et. al. 1987). Algonquin Park is at the southern edge of their range in Ontario (Tozer 2012). Canada Jays are able to live and breed in their northern habitats because of their food-storing abilities. They are highly adaptable birds, feeding on a wide variety of food, obtained in a wide variety of ways. The Cornell All About Birds website sums it up like this: they will “snap up flying insects in the air, wade in shallow water to capture invertebrates and amphibians, kill small mammals, raid the nests of other birds” ( The food they gather in the summer is cached throughout their territories in preparation for the long winter. This food store allows them to start nesting as early as the end of February in Algonquin Park (Tozer 2012). They prefer to nest in spruce forests, and there is some evidence to suggest that the antibacterial properties of some conifers actually work to preserve the food the jays store in them (Tozer 2012).

Amazingly adaptable, clever and curious birds. I certainly support its status as unofficial National Bird of Canada.


Cadman, M. D., Eagles, P. F. J., and Helleiner, F. M. 1987. Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario.

Tozer, Ron. 2012. Birds of Algonquin Park.

For the previous articles in my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020 series, see:


-1. The Pale-Painted Sand Wasp (Bembix pallidipicta)

2. Moose (Alces alces) Family

For more observations in Algonquin Park, see my Algonquin Observations (August 2021) series:

Part 1: Pog Lake Campground

Part 2: Opeongo Road

Part 3: Peck Lake Trail

Part 4: Spruce Bog Speedrun and the Logging Museum Trail

Part 5: Spruce Bog: The Reckoning