Saturday, 25 January 2014

Spotted Towhee photoshoot

Last Saturday morning the news came across the Ontbirds listserv about a Spotted Towhee that was regularly attending a bird feeder in the community of Glen Williams, located near Georgetown in the north part of Halton Region. At the time I was birding with Dave Szmyr in Niagara, but since I had not seen a Spotted Towhee in two years and it would be a lifer for Dave, our day of studying 50 shades of gray gulls was cut short so we could chase the towhee.

Unfortunately the towhee did not show up that afternoon despite us staking out the feeder it was attending as well as other suitable locations in the community. I returned the following morning to meet up with Barb Charlton, the plan being to see the towhee first thing in the morning (when it was more reliable) and then check out some other spots the rest of the day. It turns out that I missed the towhee by 15 minutes that morning (Barb was there earlier and had fantastic views of it), but the day was young and so we waited by the feeders for a repeat performance. It was not to be, so by 11:00 AM we were on our way to do some other birding. It just so happened that the towhee was seen right after we left, and continued to be seen for almost two hours! So that afternoon, after arriving back at the Trafalgar Road carpool lot so Barb could grab her car, I decided to try once more for the towhee. It was only 15 minutes away. The war was on with the cheeky towhee who had thwarted my attempts at seeing it.

I waited until it was nearly dusk with several other intrepid birders. I even volunteered to leave with 20 minutes of light left since I was the obvious reason that the bird did not show. No luck. Damn bird.

Yesterday morning I awoke to a voicemail and text from Dave, who had the day off work and wanted to try for the towhee again. He just so happened to be going right past my house. I hastily neglected to grab a slingshot to take care of the Spotted bastard, but we were on the road. 

It turns out the fourth time was the charm. As we pulled up, a flash of orange, black, and white disappeared into a nearby shrub. Undoubtedly the towhee sensed my presence and tried to make a hasty exit, but we saw him just in time! I was now batting .250 in my attempts to see the bird!

Spotted Towhee - Glen Williams

Eventually he emerged from the shrubs to wait his turn to grab a seed under the feeder. It actually is a very attractive bird, with rufous flanks, a black head, red eye, and white spots on its wing coverts and scapulars. This species used to be considered the same species as Eastern Towhee, which is the common species we get in Ontario (and eastern North America in general).

Spotted Towhee - Glen Williams

Spotted Towhees are a type of sparrow. They often forage by scratching in the leaf litter, dislodging what they can, in a manner similar to Fox Sparrows. Check out those huge feet - perfect for this type of foraging!

Spotted Towhee - Glen Williams

The bird would come out onto the deck from the small shrub immediately beside it. It would quickly nab a seed and retreat back to the safety of the shrub.

Spotted Towhee - Glen Williams

Spotted Towhee records from Ontario universally fall into two categories. There are occasional spring records, usually of a bird seen only for a day at a migration hotspot. Then there are the late autumn/winter records that involve birds which show up at someone's bird feeder, usually in October through December. Unlike many vagrant birds that attempt to overwinter in Ontario, Spotted Towhees have a track record of being quite successful and many birds hang around until March or April when they presumably depart for their breeding grounds. 

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