Dickcissel Irruption in Ontario

This was definitely the Year of the Dickcissel in Ontario, an irruption year for a grasslands species that is one of the rarest breeding birds in Ontario. Many of the birds that have been spotted in the last month or so are attempting to breed, an encouraging sign.

Dickcissel (male)

Dickcissels (Spiza americana) are songbirds that resemble brightly-coloured sparrows, but that heavy-duty beak gives it away as a member of the cardinal and grosbeak family. They earned their common name mnemonically from the male’s buzzy, emphatic song.

They range through the prairies and grasslands of the central U.S. from Texas to Michigan and Ohio.  Here in Ontario, Dickcissels are considered pioneers, occasionally colonizing the edges of their range, usually during drought years, and usually in the extreme southwestern portions of the province.  This year, there have been sightings much further north and east of their range.  Because of sharp-eyed birders and observers, they have now been spotted from the Kawartha Lakes region to Bruce County and all the way to Rainy River District.

On July 7th, after spending the day birding and butterfly-ing in Carden Alvar Provincial Park, we decided to return through the hamlet of Fowler’s Corners near Lindsay in hopes of finding a pair of Dickcissels.  In my 30+ years of birding, I’ll admit that seeing your target bird, especially a rare one, immediately upon stepping out of the vehicle is always a thrill–and indeed, the first thing we saw was the female Dickcissel perched at the top of a small tree at the edge of a sunken, grassy field, right beside the road, before flying into the tall grass.  I eventually spotted her carrying nesting material to her under-construction nest hidden deep within the tall grasses.

Dickcissel (female)

Shortly afterwards, the male flew to the top branches, threw his head back, and serenaded her (or declared his ownership of the territory, or both).  We were able to observe and photograph both at almost eye level before moving on.  Considering that I think my only previous image was from a sighting many, many moons ago–on deteriorating slide film–this was a privilege.




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