Horned Larks and Snow Buntings near Rockwood: February 2021

On this overcast day, I wish that I had had the long lens that I rented for a week back in January.

While driving on a rural road east of Guelph I saw the familiar bird behaviour that I recall so vividly in my youth while out in the Pickering countryside in late winter with my grandfather.

A whirling flock of mostly white birds about the size of big sparrows were feeding in fields beside the road. As I approached they rose and wheeled away and then cruised back to feed again. Snow Buntings.

Snow Bunting
Snow Buntings

Mixed in were a few birds showing warbler-like yellow. Horned larks.

Horned Lark
Horned Lark
Snow Buntings
Horned Lark and Snow Buntings
Horned Larks and Snow Buntings
Horned Larks and Snow Buntings
Snow Buntings and Horned lark
Horned Lark and Snow Buntings
Snow Buntings

Far out in a field I again missed the long lens as I found this winter visitor:

Rough-legged Hawk

Rockwood Conservation Area near Guelph is full of towering limestone cliffs, caves and glacial potholes. These were caused by receding glaciers over 11,000 years ago.

Pileated Woodpecker drilling
former mill

Some botany:

White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis)
Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica)
White Pine (Pinus strobus)
Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea)
Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)
Highbush-cranberry (Viburnum opulus)
Cat-tail (Typha)

MAILBOX

Hi Miles,

This was taken with my iPhone through my glass French doors, but I thought you might like it. Mr & Mrs Cardinal now regularly come and sit on my deck for a while. I am honoured indeed.

I also received this: this is a charming ravens story from a fellow who lives up near Hope Bay on the Bruce Peninsula. I think you’ll enjoy it. I always like his missives. 😊

My Ravens

raven3

As the headline suggests, I soon had a welcoming, friendly, attitude toward the mating pair of ravens who found a home in my 125-year-old bank barn a couple of years ago.

The barn was obviously a perfect place for the big, black, intelligent, talkative, playful birds. They came and went through an opening high up on the south side of the barn where a couple of boards had come loose. (For all I know, as smart as they are, they may have soon figured out and engineered the further removal of those boards.)

There was plenty of old, loose and baled hay in the loft; and good places high up in the hand-hewn beams to build their nest. They chose well, where two beams met – one horizontal, the other at an angle. Some time that spring after they first arrived, I had to go into that part of the barn and spotted the remarkably big nest, close to a meter across. I tried to leave them alone as much as possible from then on, not wanting to scare them away. I didn’t have much reason to go there, except to search out some of the few remaining bales of straw for mulching strawberries and potatoes. But after a spring storm there was a barn door to fix and that caused some raven commotion: The nesting couple took refuge in the nearby woods where they loudly complained about the intrusion. I tried to commiserate with them in a comforting tone, with assurances that I meant no harm, that I just had a hopefully one-time-job to do and would soon be gone. No problem, I said. “I’ll just get this here job done and be on my way.”

But, now that I think of it, the nesting ravens, protective parents that they are, were probably more alarmed by the presence of Buddy, my German Shepherd.

At any event, the ravens stayed; and in due time there were several young ones in the nest. The parents appeared to share nesting duties, and the constant search for food. The nestlings and the parents had a food-related language all its own: the nestlings sounding anxious, almost pathetic in their impatient hunger as they waited for the parents to return with various morsels. Then, upon arrival, the nestlings would express their great and happy excitement with what I can only describe as ‘words’ of raucous excitement to which the parents replied with calming, caring, reassuringly gentle tones.

DSC00369

I kid you not. There was love in that nest.

But I confess, some of the morsels the parents brought back to the nest were from my point of view, ill-gotten and disappointing. For example, I can still see the sky-blue pieces of broken robins’ eggs, left or dropped on the driveway near a cedar favored by the red-breasted songbirds for nesting.

Ravens are classified as songbirds too, the largest of them, in fact. But I wouldn’t describe their remarkably diverse language of raucous calls and vocal murmurings as song-like, so much as an interesting language of calls, almost human. And indeed, I’ve read online articles that say ravens are as good, even better, than parrots at mimicking human language. They are also ranked high on the animal intelligence scale. Here’s a quote from the World Wildlife Federation’s Hinterland Who’s Who site:

“Ravens are known for their intelligence. The brain-to-body weight ratios of corvid brains are among the largest in birds, equal to that of most great apes and cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), and only slightly lower than a human. They seem capable of learning to apply solutions to newly encountered problems and will even use tools to get what they want. They are keen opportunists who watch and learn, often from above while soaring or perched, and are able to share their knowledge with other ravens.”

Yes, I’ve seen them, usually perched some safe distance away in a tree branch, watching what I’m up to and taking it all in.

Ravens, as I now understand, are among the most opportunistic scavenger-predators. They will literally eat just about anything, including whatever they can find in human garbage. I found learned that recently, and confirmed online, that like other creatures adapting to the dominant human habitat, ravens are currently experiencing a population rebound. That includes in eastern North America where they were almost exterminated in the 19th and 20th Centuries as a result of being branded as nuisance creatures and vilified in traditional European myth as harbingers of bad news, and worse. (Edgar Allan Poe, of “Quoth the raven, ‘nevermore’ fame,” deserves at least a modicum of responsibility for that.)

The first time, a couple of weeks ago, I wasn’t sure what opportunistic animal had broken into the garbage bag I left at the end of the driveway just before the usual pick-up time. This past Monday I double-bagged and covered the bag and recyclables with a blanket. Later, as I was walking down to pick up the empty blue box, the sight of a raven taking off in flight told me what to expect again: garbage strewn around. Double-bagged and blanket? Child’s play for ravens. Anything remotely edible was gone.

My first reaction was to worry that ‘my ravens’ must be awfully hungry, and to wonder, should I feed them. But I also recalled the sight of broken robin’s eggs in the driveway, and indications last summer of a noticeable decline in the number of smaller songbirds in the vicinity of the farm; as well as, by the way, the disappearance of the turkey vultures that used to perch on the barn roof and the nearby forest trees. Not that I miss them that much; but the ravens do appear to be having an impact. And so, should I be intervening in a way that could make that more intense?

I like to think we have some level of friendly rapport going. I will never forget that morning this past December when the dogs and I were coming back from our morning walk as the big flakes of the first winter snow began to fall. Then four or five ravens suddenly appeared no more than a few meters overhead and began to dance joyfully in the snowflakes. I had to stop and just take in the wonder of it: mom, dad, and the kids having fun.

In the end I decided to let nature take its course — to the extent that’s possible in a natural environment in the process of recovering from human effect – and not feed ‘my ravens.’

I hope they understand.

NATURE POETRY

Clear Longfellow’s an elm benign,
With fluent grace in every line
And Holmes, the cheerful birch intent;
On frankest, whitest merriment
While Emerson’s high councils rise;
A pine, communing with the skies.      – Amos Russel Wells (1862-1933

Miles Hearn

3 thoughts on “Horned Larks and Snow Buntings near Rockwood: February 2021

  1. Trudy Rising

    A wonderful posting for a grey day. Wow — the Horned Larks and Snow Buntings near Guelph, along with a Rough-legged Hawk, and the very nice piece on the Raven family. both in nesting season and as the winter was coming on! A joy to read. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. Gail Adams

    Hi Miles, What a delight to see the horned larks and snow buntings ( so colourful) and the hawk. And you have introduced us to another intriguing landscape. And there was a background of enchanting British bird calls during my reading of the post.. How did you manage that?
    I shall so miss your posts walks, poetry and comments, if I am not lucky with my position on the waiting list. It would be a miracle if I made the cut.
    Constantly changing nature is addictive and I find myself really “looking” as I walk Daisy now.I would have liked to see the places we visited in the autumn as they reawaken this spring. I have just learned that there is no summer session too!!! I shall have to practice my computer skills for September.
    Thank you for including the story of the ravens . And thank you for such delightful adventures in the Toronto parks.

    Reply
  3. Lisa Volkov

    Gorgeous place! And what beautiful birds! And your pictures were good, much as you longed for the long lens. The Raven story was fascinating, kudos to the writer. Thanks, Miles!

    Reply

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