Amazing American Songbirds or American Warblers

At the end of April – May, the migration of small songbirds begins in Ontario. By their small size and tinny graceful beaks, they resemble the warblers of the Old World. Warblers of the Old World belong to the Phylloscopus genus and include small insectivorous birds found in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Most of the American small songbird species, occupying similar ecological niches and specializing in insect hunting,  are also called “warblers”. However, taxonomists distinguish warblers of the Old and New World. They place the American species in the family Parulidae or New World Wood Warblers. American “wood” warblers are very different from “true” warblers and have just some morphological similarities, related to adaptation and life to comparable environmental conditions. New World wood-warblers are small passerines that are also mostly insectivorous. During migration and at breeding sites, they vigorously examine trees and shrubs, skillfully extracting insects and arachnids from foliage and inflorescences, from the bark of trees and shrubs, and from other hidden places.

The Latin name of the New World wood warblers’ family – Parulidae – is associated with tits. The Old World tits belong to the genus Parus, described by Carl Linnaeus in 1758. Linnaeus, however, described one of the North American wood warblers – as the “American tit” – Parus americanus. The bird’s Latin name was soon slightly changed, retaining the root. This bird recently still was called Parula americana or Northern Parula and just recently was moved by taxonomists in another genus. Its Latin name now is Setophaga americana. However, the common name “Parula” is originated from the title given to this species by Carl Linnaeus. The entire wood-warbler family name – Parulidae – comes also from a Latin name designating tits – Parus and may be interpreted as “tit-like”. Obviously, both the species and the entire family have nothing to do with either tits or Old World warblers. However, our perception of passerine birds connects these unrelated taxonomic groups. Taxonomists consolidated the name of the family in 1947, highlighting the genus Parula as a type. It is noteworthy that the parula really looks somewhat like a tit: it has a slightly bluish color and when examining trees, especially birches, it can hang upside down, deftly clinging to thin twigs with its long fingers.

The New World Warblers – representatives of this family – occur entirely in the Americas. The family unites small insectivorous birds, many of which are brightly colored, especially males. All American warblers are rather small birds. The smallest species is Lucy’s Warbler (Oreothlypis luciae), weighing about 6.5 g with a length of a little more than 10 cm. Relatively large songbirds are Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla) and Northern Waterthrush (Parkensia noveboracensis) with weight up to 25-28 g and length up to 15-16 cm. Most part of the birds from Parulidae family is associated with forest and shrub communities, nesting in shrub branches and in tree crowns. But there are also species that prefer to settle the nests on the ground, camouflaging them among the roots of trees.

Currently, 119 species of songbirds, belonging to 18 genera, have been listed to the family. It is believed that American warblers were originated and evolved in the northern part of Central America, where even now their species diversity is very great. During the interglacial periods, they spread far to the north, forming a group of long-distant seasonal migrants that fly to nest far beyond the tropical zones in the forested-tundra and taiga of North America.

These birds are found on migration in the Ottawa River Valley on their way to nesting sites in the northern boreal forests. The first migrants arrive in the Ottawa area in late April – early May. It is remarkable that some of the northernmost migrants appear in the northern latitude in late spring-early summer, they can be observed in the parks of Toronto or Ottawa only in late May-early June; they also begin to fly back prompt as early or mid-August. Thus, these birds have adapted to breed in a relatively short nesting season – one and a half to two months. In this period, they need to form pairs, find nesting territories, lay clutches, hatch, and raise chicks. Therefore, the size of clutches in migratory American warblers is quite large, they incubate up to 6-7 eggs and then feed large broods. For comparison, the tropical warblers from the same family usually have clutches with 2-3 eggs.

From May to early June, about 30 species of American warblers migrate through Ontario. Many of them stay for breeding in the orchards, parks, fields, and wetlands around large and small towns. But most migrants fly to the central and northern parts of the province and beyond its territory for nesting in boreal forests. Some the migratory songbirds, such as the Myrtle or Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata), American Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia), or Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas), are abundant and highly visible, while others are not always easy to spot even by a skilled naturalist. They migrate invisibly and quickly, trying to get to nesting places in northern latitudes as soon as possible. Many of those songbirds are characterized by a narrow food specialization. In nesting places, they hunt certain types of insect pests and caterpillars. In years when outbreaks of insect pests are observed, the populations of species-“specialists” also increases, then gradually reducing in accordance with the available natural resources.

It is not easy to spot many songbirds in the breeding places. Even having the bright color of plumage, they dissolve among the leaves of trees in the changeable play of light and shadow. But the presence of many species can be recognized by listening to their characteristic song. Some bird count techniques are based on the knowledge of bird songs and calls. For example, the famous “point count” method includes the identification of all birds around by their songs and calls from one point. The monitoring of breeding birds in North America has been conducted for over 50 years. Any citizen who has an interest in birds and their conservation may contribute his or her “two cents” to one of the bird monitoring programs by joining one of the environmental programs of Birds Canada, for example to the program on the Breeding Bird Survey or Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas. You also can contribute your bird knowledge to the citizen science program on birds survey – ebird, which holds the global database, collecting bird observation data from all naturalists.

Magnificent Zonotrichia-American Sparrow Species

In the spring, noticeable small “sparrows” appear on forest paths in the green belt of Ottawa. They often stay on the ground among the grass, collecting seeds of cereals and small weeds. Their modest variegated striped brownish coloration resembles sparrows. However, these passerines have only external similarities to real sparrows. For a long time, they belonged to Emberizidae (bunting) Family, and only recently they, together with other American sparrows, were singled out into a new family, which is called the Passerellidae or New World Sparrows. Five representatives of this vast family belong to the genus Zonotrichia or American sparrows. All birds from this genus have brown backs with black stripes and streaks and heads with distinctive markings – white, yellow, or black. Four of five species are North American dwellers and one – the rufous-collared sparrow – inhabits highlands from southeast of Mexico to Tierra del Fuego in the extreme south of South America.

White-throated Sparrow during migration in Ottawa area

The white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) is a Canadian patriot. If you enter the forest and hear whistles coming from the tree crowns resembling melodic and solemn “Oh! Canada! Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada“, then know that the singer lurking in the branches is a white-throated sparrow. This bird is widespread in the forest zone of North America. Small portion of the species population nests in the northeastern part of the United States, but nevertheless, the main breeding range of this sparrow covers the boreal forests of Canada. Some pairs of white-throated sparrows stay for nesting in Ottawa’s Greenbelt, but most of the birds fly for breeding to the north in boreal and taiga regions. For example, in Algonquin Park, the white-throated sparrow is one of the most abundant passerine birds. Its songs pour from almost every corner of the forest in the quiet morning from late spring to mid-summer. This sparrow begins to sing first at dawn – even before sunrise. On migration, the white-throated sparrow is also very widely distributed. It loves to visit bird feeders in green areas around towns and cities. And for the winter, most part white-throated sparrows migrate to the United States, where wintering birds can be seen even in Central Park in New York. More information about this bird you will find on pages of the Cornell Lab “All about birds”.

The white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) is a bird that breeds in the northern latitudes of North America – in the northern boreal forests, taiga, and forested tundra of Canada and Alaska. This sparrow inhabits shrub thickets and other bushy areas. In the migration season, the white-crowned sparrows may be observed in temperate zones of North America. They are often observed along trails, on grassy lawns, and in meadows in the green areas in mid-latitudes, where they collect small seeds of weeds and cereals, as well as small insects and other invertebrates. However, even during migration, they prefer to stay close to forests and can be spotted in many provincial parks of Ontario. In autumn, this sparrow does not appear early; it is a late migrant, which passage takes place in October. It migrates for wintering to the southern United States, sometimes reaching Mexico and Central America. Back migration in Southern Ontario takes place in early-mid May. At this time, white-crowned sparrows sometimes combine with white-throated, which also return to their breeding areas. Their joint flocks of both species can be seen feeding in dandelion meadows, under bird feeders on forest paths, and near houses. Near Ottawa, the first white-crowned sparrows appear at the end of April, and at the end of May, they already fly further north. The presence of white-crowned sparrows in the forest also gives out a characteristic melodic song. Males of this sparrow learn the songs in the places where they grow up (All about birds), they usually come back for breeding in the same places and therefore they have diverse local dialects of song and need to learn several dialects when living at the edge of the population range.

While hiking in one of the parks in Vancouver, my attention was attracted by small birds, which resembled females of the white-crowned sparrows, both in appearance and in behavior. But looking closer, I noticed “golden” caps – yellow spots in the center of the head and wide black “eyebrows” attaching from both sides to the yellow caps. These birds were immediately identified as the golden-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia atricapilla), which inhabit the taiga forests in the uplands of the western edge of North America. The breeding grounds of these sparrows are stretched from northern Alaska and the Aleutian Islands to the central regions of the Yukon province in Canada. In fall, golden-crowned sparrows migrate along the Pacific Coast to the south of British Columbia, western United States reaching on wintering southern California. The white-crowned sparrow inhabits dense shrubs and other brushy areas. These sparrows are often found in many parks of Vancouver, where they, like other species of this genus, gather to feed under bird feeders. Just like their relatives, golden-crowned sparrows prefer to feed on the ground, collecting small seeds of cereals and other plants. Song mnemonics of this species are described in “Dendroica” as whistles “Oh! Deer me” or “ Teeeewwww twee twee”. Although miners from the Yukon hear their song as “No gold here” (All about birds). This species is also known for its vagrant behavior: individual birds during periods of seasonal migrations reach the Far East in Russia and Japan. Also, a small number of sparrows sometimes roam along the eastern coasts of North America, where they are observed from Nova Scotia to Florida.

My daughter and I were walking with heavy backpacks through the streets of the town of Banos in the province of Tungurahua in Ecuador. The town is adjacent to the northern foot of the active volcano Tungurahua in the Andes at an altitude of about 1800 m above sea level. Several “sparrows” with a melodious voice were jumping along the narrow streets of the town. We could see them only when we reached the hotel and dropped our backpacks. The remarkable features of the external appearance made it possible to quickly identify the species. These were the rufous-collared or “Andean” sparrows (Zonotrichia capensis) – a species that inhabit South America. This sparrow is distributed from Mexico in North America to the Tierra del Fuego archipelago on the southern tip of the continent. In July, when we voyaged and had a chance to observe these birds, rufous-collared sparrows roamed. They begin to nest in the Andes in December-January. Traveling in summer, we saw rufous-collared sparrows only in mountainous areas. Small flocks of sparrows were found both in their natural environment and in the vicinity of human habitation. However, they were most abundant in the streets of small mountain settlements. Like their northern relatives, the rufous-collared sparrows justify their recognition as the “plantain finches”, vigorously looking for food – seeds of plants and invertebrates – along the roadsides and among the grass on the meadows of mountain slopes. Their energetic song is reminiscent of the voices of their articulated fellows from North America.

Harris’s sparrow (Zonotrichia querula) is the largest species among Zonotrichia genus. The breeding habitats of this species are known in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, therefore, it is the only endemic breeding bird in Canada. Harris’s sparrow occurs in low-growing, stunted coniferous forests with adjoining shrubs in the forest-tundra regions. Because of its remote breeding areas, the first nest of Harris’s sparrow was found only in 1931 in Churchill, Manitoba by George M. Sutton (All about birds). This species overwinters in the United States, flying south in October over the prairies and mountainous regions of central Canada. They usually return back at the end of April-May, preferring to travel across the mountainous valleys to flying among the open prairies. Perhaps, the mountains allow better orientation in space and facilitate the return back to the beginning of the breeding season. In the nesting places, Harris’s sparrows feed on the ground, eating small berries, buds, and flowers, as well as small invertebrates. During migration and wintering, they also feed on the ground, collecting the seeds of herbaceous plants. The species can be recognized by its vivid whistling song. Harris’s sparrow is classified as Near Threatened by IUCN due to declining population that could be associated with climate change impact on the restricted habitats of this species.

One day in October I saw this species near one of the trails in the Ottawa Greenbelt. It was a bright adult male, but while I was preparing the camera, the sparrow disappeared and I could not take a photo of this species. It could be an individual that accidentally drifted from his usual route. Without documentation, I did not even include the species in the list of birds observed that day online in ebird.

It is the time now when two of the five listed species have already appeared in the Ottawa Greenbelt and around other settlements and parks of southern Ontario. This is a wonderful time for bird watching and wildlife photography. Have you been lucky enough to observe the “Zonotrichia” species during your hikes and travels?

Reverse the Red: the new initiative of IUCN

IUCN – International Union for Nature Conservation – recently launched a new initiative, which aim is “Reverse the Red” or stop and reverse extinction of threatened species in the world.

ReverseTheRed is a global movement that calls for joint action and the belief that our community can ensure the survival of all the species we live with on this planet, as well as ensure the protection of all the ecosystems in which they live. The IUCN Species Survival Commission, which oversees this initiative, tries to involve as many stakeholders as possible in the conservation work. The Species Survival Commission unites more than 7 thousand experts who work in the field of biodiversity conservation in different countries of our blue planet. However, it is definitely clear now that it is impossible to preserve species without the wide participation of not only specialists and narrow experts working in the field of studies and conservation of species and ecosystems, but also the whole society, including different sectors that affect the habitats of species and their populations. Participation of local communities and concerned citizens can also contribute to the protection and restoration of species.

The IUCN Red List contains information on the assessment of species at the global level with an evaluation of the threats for species. All threatened species can be categorized as Vulnerable (VU), Endangered (EN), and Critically Endangered (CR). According to modern estimates, the Red List currently includes 37,400 species, that were categorized as threatened and the state of their populations is of concern at the global level. If you look at taxonomic groups, according to modern estimates, 41% of all amphibian species, 26% of all mammals, 14% of all bird species, 36% of all shark and ray species, as well as 34% of all gymnosperm (coniferous) tree species are threatened with extinction risk. And this is only among those taxonomic groups that have been assessed by experts. But there are still many taxonomic groups on the planet that have not yet been evaluated, for example, many species of invertebrates and angiosperms (flowering) plants, the diversity of which is very high on our planet and extinction of some tiny species may be almost invisible. By now, the conservation biology science and experts involved in nature conservation have accumulated knowledge and methods that allow the preservation of species and ecosystems, ensuring their survival and recovery. Experts from the IUCN Species Survival Commission argue that:
We KNOW how to save species
WE BELIEVE we can
TOGETHER we will

While a strategy to reverse biodiversity loss is still under development, it is now clear that it will be an umbrella initiative to work with key partners to achieve biodiversity conservation and recovery tasks for species and ecosystems. The IUCN Species Survival Commission has identified the following mechanisms to achieve its ambitious goals:
(1) Engage biodiversity conservation partners at national, regional, and global levels in the development of standardized tools and methods. The Reverse the Red initiative creates an umbrella mechanism for the conservation of species and ecosystems. (2) Work with pilot countries to refine and implement tools and collaborative strategies. Increase national capacity and commitment utilizing ReversetheRed framework for target species and ecosystem assessments, planning, and action. (3) Empower the country-based “Reverse the Red” partners to engage and activate their local communities through a diverse set of educational resources focused on biodiversity conservation, personalized experiences, advocacy campaigns, and behavior-change campaigns. (4) Establish a global reporting mechanism and forum to report on and celebrate the reversal of species extinction and ecosystem destruction.
These mechanisms will provide the structure, tools, and framework for objective setting of the Global Species Congress.

You can support this initiative by voting for it at: Webby Awards People’s Voice – Reverse the Red.
Images of threatened animal species from Nepal were used to illustrate this message.

The Garter Snake on the forest path…

The mating behavior of snakes is not so easy to see. The mating displays usually occur immediately after the snakes leave their hibernacula (this term is used for winter shelters, where snakes brumate of sleeping, similarly to hibernation of other animals such as mammals) places, where they sometimes congregate in large clusters. But getting to such a hibernacula without a special purpose and without knowing the peculiarities of the ecology of snakes is almost impossible.

In spring, garter snake likes to bask in the morning near forest path

But then one day at the end of April, on a forest path, the rustling of foliage attracted my attention. I did not immediately understand where the rustle came from, but looking around I spotted an extraordinary sight. On the dry foliage of last year, covering the first shoots of the breaking green growth, an unusual ball rolled, from which for a moment heads or tails appeared on the surface … Yellow stripes on the body made it possible to immediately identify the species – it was a mating procession of a Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). One larger snake was distinctive from another dozen and half snakes of smaller size that are literally hovered around it. Squirming, first merging into one large ball, then stretching in a chain, the snakes continued their movement along the invisible pass in the dry foliage. But as soon as I took a step towards this extraordinary procession, the ball instantly became alert, assessing the situation, and began to disintegrate. Individual snakes crawled on the sides, looking for cover under the foliage, in the cracks between the hard rocks and between the roots of trees. Nevertheless, about a dozen of the most persistent continued to follow the largest snake. The presence of a small rock in the forest indicated that the snake hibernacula was somewhere nearby: snakes usually hibernate in cavities under rocks or in natural depressions formed under the roots of dead trees, where they can gather from several tens to several hundred or even thousands of individuals.

The common garter snake is widespread in Ontario. In the forests around Ottawa, it is the most common snake species. The slender body of garter snakes with a light stripe running along the keel from head to tail, with yellow or reddish longitudinal stripes on the sides and an elegant narrow head that smoothly merges into the body, allow anyone to immediately unmistakably identifies this species. The average length of a snake with a tail is 50-70 cm. Sometimes there are specimens that are larger – up to a meter in length, but they rarely can be found. Females are much larger than males. Only one female, accompanied by more than a dozen males, led the mating procession that I observed. This feature of the biology of the species directed to the fact that there are much more males in the population than females. Garter snakes are also remarkable by the reproduction features: they can both lay eggs, from which small snakes then hatch, and give birth to alive little snakes. Usually, individuals living in the north latitudes give birth to live offspring, and more southerly occurring counterparts lay eggs. In Ontario, garter snakes give birth to live young. During the season, the female can give birth from ten to forty offspring. But only a few individuals survive to adulthood since snakes are a desiring prey for both four-legged and feathered predators. In addition, a significant number of snakes are killed on the roads, under the wheels of cars in populated areas with a dense road network. In Ontario, there are two subspecies that are externally different: in the south, the nominative subspecies of Eastern Garter snake has the bright yellow stripes on the sides of the body, and in the northern subspecies, the red-sided garter snake has reddish-orange stripes.

Garter snakes are found in a wide variety of habitats, both in forests and in meadow communities as well as around wetlands. In the Ottawa Greenbelt and around, it is definitely a forest species, inhabiting light deciduous and mixed forests. The main food items for snakes are amphibians and earthworms, but on occasion these snakes can catch small rodents and passerines, as well as small fish. Hunting strategy includes two types of behavior.  Sometimes, garter snakes wait for prey, attacking approaching animals. But more often they actively pursue their prey, effectively catching fast tadpoles and small fish.

Garter snakes are harmless to humans. But this does not mean that anyone can catch them. It must be understood that the capture of any living creature is a huge stress for the latter. Therefore, if you notice a garter snake near the forest path, walk by, or watch the snake from the side without trying to catch it.

Garter snakes often hide in construction near human settlements, especially near forest cabins

If you wish, you can also join one of the programs of Ontario Nature such as Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas or Youth Circle for Mother Earth, and contribute to wildlife monitoring and conservation.

Forests and Wildlife in Central Asia

Tien-Shan Birch in Western Tien-Shan Mountains in Uzbekistan.

The World Wildlife Day (March 3) this year highlights the role of forests for the livelihood of humanity. UN celebrates this day under the theme: “Forest and Livelihoods: Sustaining people and planet”. Forests in Central Asia occupy only a small part of the territory but play an enormous role in providing multiple ecosystem services and not only for local communities. First of all, forests regulate climate and water cycles, ensure food, fibers, and habitats for people and abundant wildlife. Forest have cultural and spiritual values. They serve as recreational places. One of the most important roles of the forests, especially in the mountains, is relevant to the allocation of space for evolutionary processes. The richest and diverse fauna and flora are presented in the forests.

Forests play a crucial role in Central Asia. Their loss impacts wildlife and human livelihoods.

In 2003, forests in Kyrgyzstan covered area in 769.5 thousand ha, including coniferous forests 280.1 thousand ha, hardwood forest 34,400 ha (ash, maple, elm), softwood (birch, poplar, willow) 14,100 ha, others 98,300 ha (walnut, apple-tree, almond, apricot); shrubs 342,6 ha (Forests of Kyrgyzstan, 2003). In 2010, forests in Kyrgyzstan covered 1,123,200 ha or 5.6% of the total area of the country (FAO, 2010). According to the assessment prepared by UNECE-FAO in 2018 (Tsevs, 2018), 160,000 ha of forest were lost in Kyrgyzstan in the last 50 years. The total forest area in 2015 was 637,000 ha or 3.2% from the country’s area, including 590,000 ha primary forest and 47,000 ha planted forest (UNECE & FAO, 2019).

In the past (about 100 years ago), forests in Tajikistan covered about 25% of the country. However, many areas were cut off for the development of agriculture. In 2010, forests occupied around 410,000 ha (Kirchhoff & Fabian, 2010), but the statistic of forest dynamics were complicated due to lack of adequate data management. The total forest area (assessment of 2015) is evaluated in 412,000 ha or 2.9% of the country’s territory, including 297,000 primary forests, 103,000 ha planted forest, and 12,000 ha naturally regenerated forest (UNECE & FAO, 2019).  

The percentage of forest land in Uzbekistan is 7.3% (UNECE, 2015). At present, the total area of the State Forest Fund is 11,196.2 thousand ha or 25.2% of the total land area, including 7.2% of forest land (trees and shrubs). The State Forest Fund is comprised of desert land (81%), mountain lands (16%), valleys (2%), and tugai or river gallery forests (1%).  According to law, forests in Uzbekistan are state property and national wealth. All forests are an integral part of the State Forest Fund, except for protective planting, forest belts, urban forests, trees on farmland, and gardens. According to NBSAP (2015), desert and tugai are most degraded and need urgent recovery measures. The agroforestry (walnut, pistachio, almond, and fruit) planting partly compensates for the degradation of mountain forests. However, it is not enough for the recovery of lost forested areas.

Forests provide habitats for many animal species. The diversity of species and subspecies is the most rich in mountains and river valleys. Many species are “least concern” and can be found during short visits to forested areas. However, many species (especially large birds and mammals, beautiful butterflies) are rare and threatened and included in the national red lists and red books. Examples of local communities involved in conservation gave positive results in many countries. The most striking such examples are in Tajikistan, where many charismatic large mammal species recovered last decades due to community participation in protection and benefit sharing.

Flora is very rich in the region, and especially in the mountain areas and in the mountain forests. Only around Issyk-Kul Lake in Kyrgyzstan, the plant diversity is evaluated in 1,500 – 1,800 species. The plant diversity in the region is more than 5,000 species. And, in particular, due to this fact, the region is evaluated as one of the biodiversity hot-spots: The Mountains of Central Asia.

The conservation and recovery of species and ecosystems are results of the cooperation between state agencies and civil society: environmental NGOs, grassroot groups and academia.

Used Literature:

FAO, 2010. Capacity building for National Forest and Tree Resource Assessment and Monitoring in Kyrgzystan, Report, 19 p.

Kirchhoff & Fabian. (2010). Forestry sector analysis of the Republic of Tajikistan. GTZ/DED/CIM Regional Program “Sustainable use of natural resources in Central Asia”. Dushanbe, 2010. 56 p.

UNECE & FAO. (2019). Forest landscape restoration in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Paper 72, 66 p.

Used images are from author’s archive.

Algonquin Park during Fall Season

Algonquin Provincial Park during fall. Algonquin Provincial Park, located in Ontario, is one of the oldest parks not only in Canada, but in North America. It was established in 1893. At present, it covers the area of 7,653 sq. km. Located on the border between northern boreal forests and southern mixed and deciduous forests, the Park provides habitats for very rich diversity of animals and plants. Its convenient location makes it an attractive magnet for residents of Ontario, highways provides quick access from both Toronto and Ottawa sides. A variety of landscapes, an endless number of deep clean lakes, fast and slow-flowing water streams, a well-developed tourist infrastructure – all this contributes to the development of recreational activities in the Park. However, recreation does not interfere with the implementation of conservation tasks for preserving the rich flora and fauna due to the rational planning and location of access zones only in certain areas of the park.

Algonquin Provincial Park represents a place that attracts thousands and thousands of people at any time of the year. Ontarians and visitors from other provinces and countries come to the park to admire the magnificent landscapes, as well as in the hope of seeing the wildlife species typical of the southern taiga zone. Their expectations are not groundless. When visitors come to the park in a suitable season, they can almost always observe moose and white-tailed deer, beavers and muskrats, martens and foxes, otters and American minks not far the forest paths. Sometimes tourists can even see the American black bear or the Algonquin wolf, although the latter are very careful and rarely spend time near tourist trails with frightening smells and noise from people. In areas where bears live, warning signs are usually installed, and visitors are instructed about behavior how to react when they unexpectedly meet these inhabitants of the park closely.

Algonquin Provincial Park during fall is a great birdwatching spot. A significant number of breeding birds occurs here, many of which are migratory. They fill the park with their songs, chirping, cackling and squeaking from early spring to late autumn. But it is also home to a significant number of resident species. Near the trails in the coniferous forest, visitors can observe a completely fearless bird – the Spruce Grouse (Falcipennis canadensis). Spruce Grouse does not pay attention to the presence of people and can allow observers coming very close – to a few steps, continuing to examine the forest floor in search of buds, fresh needles or hiding insects. Another bird, which often even accompanies visitors in the hope of profiting from appetizing offerings, is the Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis). In the fall, Canada jays appear in crowded places and, on occasion, do not hesitate to descend on an outstretched hand with nuts or dried cranberries. The park’s specialists have been conducting long-term monitoring of the Canada Jay’ populations inhabiting its area, therefore, almost all birds are marked with colored rings arranged in a certain sequence, which makes it possible to recognize each bird. The rare Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus) nests in the park. This woodpecker inhabits the burned-out forests or forests affected by outbreaks of insect-pests. Sometimes the large Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa) nests in the park. Among the migratory species there are many birds belonging to the different taxonomic groups – loons, grebes, waterfowl – ducks and Canada geese, herons and bitterns, gulls and waders and a wide variety of small passerines.

The number of tourists visiting the park is significant at any time of the year, but in autumn it is especially great. At this time, there are often days when the park administration is forced to close access zones for visitors, since the pressure on the park’s ecosystems is too big. In such days, numerous tourist cars form traffic jams on the entrances to the park and along highway 60 inside the park itself. But when you planning the visit to the park not at the very peak of the autumn season, then you can fully enjoy both the rich extent of calm autumn colors and scenes from the life of the wild park’s inhabitants. Each trail in the park has parking lots where you can leave your car, take a map with the route and follow one or more of your favorite paths.

Autumn is not only a time of colors and extraordinary sunrises; it is also a time for mushrooms to ripen. Mushrooms appear at the end of August – September along with morning fogs, rains and autumn coolness. The last year has been marked by the richest harvest of representatives of this nature realm. Bizarre shapes, colossal sizes, diverse types and miracles of adaptation undoubtedly draw attention to this living organisms. Mushrooms in the park are a great help in preparing for winter for representatives of the fauna. Fast American red squirrels have appreciated the fall harvest by storing mushrooms on tree branches and hiding them under tree trunks. It is certain that other animals do not pass by such wealth, but it is almost impossible to spy on such scenes.

All of these make Algonquin Provincial Park during fall season is the most attractive place to visit.

Migration of Monarch Butterfly along Ontario Lake

Roosting monarch butterfly

The migration of monarch butterfly along shore of Ontario Lake. In the fall of last year, we witnessed an amazing phenomenon that occurs every year, but possibly that not every year it is so intense. This phenomenon is the migration of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) along the shores of Lake Ontario. In early September, we observed how individual butterflies and their small clusters easily rise above farm fields and flowering meadows and rush into the blue sky, driven by strange forces. Thus, the migration of monarch-butterflies starts.

In mid-September, I arrived to Toronto on business and keeping in memory of these soaring butterflies over fields and meadows, I suggested to visit the shore of Lake Ontario, where my friends observed congregations of butterflies many years ago. What if we are lucky this year with similar migration? Before that, we already knew that flying monarch butterflies gather during the autumn migration period in Point Pelee National Park in southern Ontario, where their migration clusters are monitored annually. But in Colonel Smith’s park in Toronto, where we planned to go, the monitoring of migratory butterflies is not carried out, since the clusters here are not so large and are not always observed …

On the first day – September 14th – we arrived at the park after dawn at about 8 a.m. There were quite a few monarchs on the bushes along the path leading to the lake, but all of them were kept alone or in small groups on the bushes of the goldenrod (Solidago ssp.), Canadian horseweed and asters, and on the branches of various bushes.

Butterflies just woke up, they lazily spread their wings and reluctantly flew from bush to bush when we approached them. Along the path closer to the lake there were many thickets of goldenrod and asters. Some movement was already noticeable there. The awakened monarchs scattered and settled comfortably on the flowers for morning feeding. Noticeable assemblages were nowhere to be seen. However, butterflies were everywhere, and there were surprisingly abundant. They gathered in small groups, mainly on plants of the goldenrod, where solitary butterflies and small clusters constantly moved and interacted with each other, finding out the dominance relationship. Of course, there were many butterflies scattered, compared to what happens here in the summer, but not as many as expected… We did not find monarch roosting places.

On the second day, we arrived at the park earlier – even before dawn and immediately went towards the bank, where on the eve we saw many butterflies dancing over the thickets and flowers. At first we did not notice anything – the sun had not yet risen and all the bushes and tree branches seemed equally gray. We walked slowly along the tree line, growing closely to the banks of Lake Ontario, carefully looking at the flower thickets, as well as bushes and trees. And finally – a miracle! Suddenly, the first rays fell on the still hanging branches of green maples and we saw that they were strewn with garlands of butterflies.

Butterflies merged with the surface of the foliage, they all sat with their wings closed and looked like a monotonous brownish-gray fringe, which at first we did not even distinguish from the surrounding foliage, because the butterflies were numb. First, we saw garlands of butterflies on one tree, then on another, then on a third, then more and more… Butterflies sat very tightly and it was impossible to estimate their number. But it was obvious that tens of thousands of monarchs gathered on the narrow strip of trees along Lake Ontario, and maybe more, because we stopped at a spot with a dozen trees to watch the butterflies.

It was gradually getting light. The rays of the sun peeked, then hid behind the clouds that had rushed at dawn. When a bright beam pierced through the clouds and illuminated the trees, individual butterflies spread their wings and bushes came to life from bright “lightings”. But the beam was hiding and again the monarchs closed their wings and fell into a lethargy. Nevertheless, the morning gradually came into its own, and with its light the living bulk on tree branches came to life and began to swarm.

The monarchs opened their wings, catching the energy sent by the sun’s rays, and preparing for a new day. Those that were higher in the branches were better stricken by sun and they woke up earlier. When the butterflies woke up and warmed up, they slowly took off from the bushes, circled around in a slow dance and gradually descended down into the thickets of flowering fodder plants – the goldenrod, Canadian horseweed and asters. A little more than half an hour passed and the morning magic disappeared. All the butterflies left their roosting places and literally disappeared into the surrounding thickets of grass and shrubs or, probably, flew away to south. At about 9 a.m., butterflies could only be seen fluttering over colored plant patches and feeding on flowers. There was nothing left on the trees. However, there was a memorable happiness and the urge to touch one of the secrets of the wilderness…

Well, of course, our wonderful pictures and videos of this amazing natural phenomenon of the migration of monarch butterfly remained… After a few days, the accumulations of butterflies in the park disappeared. It is likely that they flew to their wintering sites in Mexico in the Mariposa Monarca Biosphere Reserve, located in the pine and oak forests of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt.

Whatever it is – the mass migration of monarch butterfly along shore of Ontario Lake is one of the wonders of the world, which keeps the secret of Universe that remains to be solved one day…

Butterfly on flower
Monarch butterfly feeding on the aster

Bird Migration on Mud Lake in Ottawa (Ontario, Canada)

A very common Song Sparrow near Mud Lake during fall migration

In Ottawa there is an amazing place called Mud Lake. Mud Lake is located not far from the central part of the city, close to the Ottawa River. This area is truly unusually rich in a variety of all kinds of animals: from amphibians, snakes and turtles to a remarkable diversity of mammals. The lake is also part of a protected area called the Britannia Conservation Area. It is managed by National Capital Commission (NCC).

But this territory has become special fame as a transit corridor for a great number of birds that make regular migrations from their breeding habitats in the northern forests to wintering sites in the southern hemisphere. Mud Lake is part of the Lac-Deschenes – Ottawa River Important Bird Area (IBA). This important bird area is really exceptional because it serves as a stopover place for a very intensive migration of birds nesting in the Canadian taiga, both in spring and autumn.

Throughout the year, naturalists love to visit the Mud Lake area as a place to observe many types of wildlife in a city setting. But especially many people – naturalists, birdwatchers and photographers – gather here during the periods of bird migration: in spring – from April to early June, and in autumn from mid-August to October. Thousands of naturalists come to Mud Lake to watch one of the most amazing natural phenomena – the seasonal bird migration.  

Now one of the migration peaks of small passerine birds is observed – when long-distant neotropical migrants which fly from the northern forests into the jungles of Central and South America to spend time there, when the northern forests will be covered with winter frosts and sheltered with dense snowdrifts. Migratory birds have not yet molted and wear unsightly faded plumage, but some of them are already sporting mating attire.

The small ridge separating the lake from the Ottawa River is exactly where many waves of migrating birds stop. For an hour of observation, on some days, you can see from 30-40 to 70-90 bird species. The birds hide and feed in the bushes growing on the slopes of the ridge that rolling to the banks of the Ottawa River, in the crowns of tall trees, as well as among the needles of pines, firs and spruce trees growing around the lake. There are especially many birds after rains and winds, when harsh weather push brave migrants wait out the bad conditions in the bushes. Birds are not only wait they inspect all vegetation around searching for diverse insects and other invertebrates hidden in the branches and under the bark of trees.

Every naturalist will be “rewarded” with unique moments of observation of migratory species, gathered in one place… Hurry up to say goodbye to the brave passengers flying away for the winter and wish them all to come back to their breeding grounds in spring …

The Birds of Pamirs, Hissar, Alai and Tien Shan

Just published: Sergey Toropov with the second part of the book.

The book about birds of the mountains of Central Asia was just published by Sergei A. Toropov. The second part calls” The birds of Pamirs, Hissar, Alai and Tien Shan. Vol. 1. Non-passerines”. It includes the essays, distribution maps and excellent photos of 75 bird species breeding in the region and 61 non-breeding bird species found in the region during migrations and wintering. This part covers bird species from orders Gruiformes, Otidiformes, Charadriiformes, Cuculiformes, Columbiformes, Pterocliformes, Caprimulgiformes, Apodiformes, Strigiformes, Bucerotiformes, Coraciiformes, and Piciformes. The book was published in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. It contains


This book combines characters of scientific edition and photo-book and it is the second one from a series devoted to the birds of remarkable mountain area. Bird names for each species are listed in Latin, English, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Tajik and Uzbek languages. The maps with distribution and places of bird occurrence are presented for each species. The book contains 464 pages and 589 illustrations. Each bird essay includes data on species distribution and regional status, typical habitats, life-history, general abundance, measurements of mature birds, and resident subspecies. All essays are illustrated with colour photographs of birds in a natural setting and typical habitats. Some essays also provide pictures of chicks, juveniles and nests with eggs. Information about distribution of species or subspecies is presented on colour relief-shaded map. The book also contains references and alphabetical indices for Latin, Russian, and English bird names, errata and some corrections to the 1st part of Volume 1, and selected photos highlighted field expeditions of project participants. The book is a good source of information about scenic nature of mountain regions of Central Asia. It can be of interest for zoologists, birdwatchers, specialists working in the area of nature conservation, naturalists and all other people, who interested to know more about birds in mountains of Central Asia.

Director of the project; idea of the book; expeditions, photos, text, maps, design is Mr. Sergei A. Toropov (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan); English translation: Dr. Elena A. Kreuzberg-Mukhina (Ottawa, Canada) and Mr. Shamil F. Gareev (Tashkent, Uzbekistan). Scientific corrector/editor of Rus./Eng. content: Dmitry A. Milko (Kyrgyz Academy of Science); Original maps: Roman R. Nurgaleev (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan); Computer photo-design & making-up: Elena V. Garina (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan) and Sergei A. Toropov.

You can order this book: Volume 1: part 1 and part 2 through our website. At present the delivery of the book is complicated due to COVID-19 situation, but we’ll explore the opportunity to deliver the number of copies to North America as soon as possible.

Dumoine River in Quebec, Canada: place to visit

Dumoine River in May

The Dumoine River is one of the nine main tributaries flowing into the Ottawa River, and the last remaining undammed river in southern Quebec. The Dumoine River flows south from Dumoine Lake into the Ottawa River, about 200 km upstream from Canada’s National Capital, Ottawa. It has a basin area of 5,380 km2 and is 129 km long. For most of its length, it acts as the boundary between the municipalities of Temiscamingue and Pontiac. It also happens to be home to the largest area of unfragmented boreal forest in southern Quebec. Not only is Dumoine River located close to the Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve, but it serves as a very significant wildlife corridor linking La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve to Algonquin Park, further linking to Adirondacks in New York state, and then to the Appalachian Mountains.

Long ago, Wiskedjak, a prominent character of the Algonquian legends, came across Kiwegoam or the “turn-back lake” (Dumoine Lake). As he walked to the opposite side, he found a round, high, mountain that looked like a beaver lodge. Wiskedjak wanted to hunt the giant beaver that lived in this lodge, and decided to drain Kiwegoam (Dumoine Lake). While the water was draining, Wiskedjak took a nap. When he woke up, he couldn’t find the beaver, and thought that the beaver had followed the draining water and left the lake, so he followed the beaver. He went past the Coulonge River, past the Pembroke Lakes, and arrived at Calumet Chutes, but he found nothing. He turned around and began to follow his own tracks, thinking they belonged to the beaver. Finally, after several attempts Wiskedjak gave up. Nonetheless, his efforts made a significant contribution! His draining of the Dumoine Lake created the Dumoine River, while his trail established the Calumet portage, or simply the Wiskedjak tracks (Ottawa River Heritage Designation Committee, 2005; Schaber, 2015). This is an ancient legend, but confident beavers still inhabit the riverbanks…

Since that time and until now, the Dumoine River area is a great piece of intact nature still free of invasive species, and full of wilderness. Many natural habitats have been kept along the river providing healthy environment for settlements of boreal inhabitants. Fresh bear and moose footprints can be found in many places as well as animals themselves. Mostly wild animals are very cautious and try to avoid direct meetings with people. But they leave the evidence of their presence on the roads and in the woods. Other animals even pose for observers, because they are not scared by “bipedal aliens”, disturbing their realm.

The boreal forest is amazingly rich with many bird species, representing good northern species diversity. The birds are the most abundant and diverse group of vertebrate animals around Dumoine River, including many boreal specialists that inhabit the woods and make regular seasonal migrations. Some species are very abundant, others are more secretive and hidden in the woods and in the foliage of deciduous trees. It is hard to spot them in the crowns, but they can be recognized by calls and songs.

Morning light is something special on the river and time spent in the wilderness is very valuable for inspiration, and motivation of curious and artistic minds, as well as for enjoyment of life in all its fullness. The life is empty without such moments. Dumoine River still maintains wonderful landscapes, untouched wild nature and pieces of real wilderness that probably do not produce measurable goods and services, but fill the human sense by belonging to all living creatures and responsibility for the future of this virgin life. It is important to keep such “sacred” places for other people and future generations, because there is more to life than the fast paced urbanized society many of us live in.

Only small portion of photos taken by author was used for illustration. The Dumoine area always surprises the curious minds by unexpected observations of wildlife dynamics and picturesque sceneries.