Category Archives: Friends of Miles

Fox Sparrow: Dr J Murray Speirs

Fox Sparrow (Photo: Ian Valentine)

Fox Sparrows are great scratchers, and the first evidence of their presence is often hearin dead leaves being showered aside by their vigorous activity. In Ontario they breed chiefly in the dryer parts of the Hudson Bay Lowlands and most go to the southern United States or northern Mexico to winter, so we see them rather briefly during the spring and fall migrations and then seldom in large numbers, so they are birds sought after by bird watchers.

Fox Sparrow (photo: Ken Sproule)

Fox Sparrows are larger than most of our migrant sparrows. With their rich rufous tails and spotted breasts they may be confused for Hermit Thrushes though their scratching habit should readily separate them from the hop and pause behaviour of the Hermits, with frequent tail raising. The Fox Sparrow also has much gray on the face and hind neck with rufous ear coverts, while the Hermit has a fairly uniform brownish head with grayish ear coverts. The song of the Fox Sparrow is a series of “sliding” whistles “Soo-ee – swee – sa-sooee-swah”, somewhat like the song of a Tree Sparrow but much lower in pitch.

Vision: Milos Radakovich

People have been fascinated with
vision since the days of the ancient
Greeks, who thought sight involved
rays emanating from the eye to illuminate
surrounding objects. It wasn’t
until fifteen hundred years later
that the Arab mathematician and
scholar Al-Hazen (965-1040 A.D.)
described how lenses can focus and magnify images.

Today, we know that natural selection has produced at least ten
types of vision systems. Eyes for different organisms are adapted
for seeing in the day or night, short or long distances, with wide
or narrow fields of view.

Still, all of these systems capture light and use it to produce
some sort of picture in the brain representing the surrounding
environment. Often they are more efficient, more powerful,
simpler and more elegant than their manmade counterparts.

There are two main types of vision systems: camera-type eyes,
which use a single lens to focus images onto a retina, and compound
eyes which have multiple lenses — sometimes tens of
thousands of them.

Camera-type eyes use a variety of ways to focus the lens so they
can see both near and far. Humans and birds have specialized
muscles that change the lens’ curvature. In whales, fluid behind
the lens fills and empties to move the lens closer or farther from
the retina, while in amphibians a muscle moves the lens back
and forth. Compound eyes can only see nearby objects clearly.

The single lens in the octopus eye has layers like an onion, each
with slightly different optical properties, to help focus the light,
even with a wide field of view.

Nature Photos by Mike Smith


Downy Woodpecker (male)

Red-breasted Mergansers

Starlings in Cottonwood

Mute Swan

American Wigeons

House Sparrow (male)

Mallard (female)

Downy Woodpecker (female)

Red-tailed Hawk

Eastern Grey Squirrel

Great Blue Heron

Hooded Merganser (male)

Gadwall (male)

Cardinal (female)

Cardinal (male)

Canada Geese

Black-crowned Night Heron (Immature)

Bee in Knapweed

Pileated Woodpecker

How do french-speaking Quebecers say “Canada Goose”? :George Turner

During a November walk, I mentioned to the group that my Quebec friends refer to Canada Geese as “Les Bernaches”. George Turner was intrigued by this and sent me some research. Here is his letter:


Hi Miles

Your mention today of the Quebec/French name of Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) prompted me to investigate further.

P. A. Taverner in his book, Birds of Canada (1943), gives the French name as, L’Outarde Canadienne.

Canada Geese

W. Earl Godfrey in his book, The Birds of Canada revised edition (1986) uses Bernache du Canada.

F. A. Kortright in, The Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America (1967), writes in Colloquial Names In Local Use: bernache goose (French name of the barnacle goose).

Canada Goose

Kortright writes in his entry for the Scientific Name of Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis) that “The vernacular name “Barnacle” refers  to the ancient Norse belief that these geese were hatched from barnacles.

Canada Goose with chicks

He also lists Colloquial Names for the Barnacle Goose in France as: bernache or oie bernache (barnacle goose) and oie nonnette (nun goose).

Canada Geese

Godfrey lists the French name of Barnacle Goose as Bernache nonnette.

Too much information?


Northern Shoveler: Dr J Murray Speirs

Northern Shovelers

This is essentially a bird of the prairies, sufficiently rare in Ontario to delight the bird watcher when discovered, but common enough that some are usually discovered each year. They winter in Mexico, the Gulf States and West Indies with a few stragglers farther north.

Northern Shoveler (male)

The oversize “Donald Duck” bill is the best field mark, especially for the females which much resemble female Mallards when at rest on the water. In flight the females look like big Blue-winged Teal with the prominent blue-white patches at the bend of the wing. The males in breeding plumage are beautiful ducks with their green heads, chestnut sides, white breast and black back. When feeding they have a bad habit of keeping their diagnostic bill under water and so out of sight for so long that you wonder if they are ever going to bring them up into view: this is almost a good filed mark!

Northern shoveler (female)

Red-breasted Merganser: Dr J Murray Speirs

Red-breasted Merganser males

In migration, as I usually see them, they always strike me as high-spirited fowl, “having a ball”, diving, chasing, flying to a new fishing area, “necking” and having great fun. “Anthropomorphism” you may object, but just watch them and see for yourself.

Red-breasted Merganser (female)

Males differ from male Common Mergansers in their reddish crests, and with spotted, reddish upper breasts and generally darker overall appearance. Females lack the sharply marked off white chin of the female Common Merganser.

Red-breasted Merganser (male) photo: wikimedia


American Wigeon: Dr J Murray Speirs

American wigeon (male)

I rather like the old name, Baldpate, although the pate (top of the head) is not really bald, but white or whitish, as in the Bald Eagle. My most vivid memory of these sprightly ducks is of the flocks that gathered in Hamilton Bay in early spring, often among the groups of “Whistling Swans” but that it was the Baldpates that were whistling not the swans.

American wigeon

Look for the white, or cream-coloured, crown of the males above the dark green sides of the head. In the rare European Wigeon the whole head is red. The female is best distinguished by her vinaceous (wine-coloured) sides. The whistling voice of the male “whee’whee’whee” should alert the observer to look for Baldpates. The big white wing-patches in flight are also suggestive of this species.

American Wigeon