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Frame To Frame – Bob and Jean

Spotted Towhee At Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary

Spotted Towhee At Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary

Spotted towhee sitting on a bush at Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta, BC, Canada.

Coming from the subzero temperatures at home in Ontario to the warmer climes of coastal British Columbia, Bob and I expected to see an assortment of duck species when birdwatching at the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, but the unexpected sighting of numerous Spotted Towhees caught us totally off guard.  Eastern Towhees are seen in Ontario during spring, summer and fall.  As we soon learned, Spotted Towhees winter on Vancouver Island and temperate areas along B.C.’s western coast.

Entrance sign and map at Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta, BC, Canada.

At the bird sanctuary, Bob and I left behind the ponds that were well-populated with ducks and proceeded to the westernmost trail that borders West Field.

Bird observation tower at Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta, BC, Canada.

The trail led us north to an Observation Tower, which we promptly scaled in order to get a view of the Lesser Snow Geese congregated on the distant shore.  All the while, we bore the full brunt of the strong west wind sweeping in across the flat coastal plain from the Pacific Ocean.

Jean at Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta, BC, Canada.

From the tower, we had a choice of using the trail on the North Dyke, but chose, instead, to navigate our way along the northernmost slough by entering into a wooded area that borders the East Dyke.  The trees made for a good windbreak but still afforded a reasonable view of the water channels.

Lesser Snow Geese in flight above Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta, BC, Canada.

At regular intervals, a cacophonous raucous filled the air when the Snow Geese would suddenly become airborne.

People feeding birds at Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta, BC, Canada.

I can only imagine how lovely this trail would be in the summertime when the close-knit canopy of branches is densely covered in vibrant green leaves.   On the day we visited, quite a large assortment of songbirds moved about the tangle of bushes there in the thickets adjacent to the marsh.  Young visitors, encouraged by the brave chickadees, were tempted to feed the birds from their outstretched palms.

Spotted towhee at Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta, BC, Canada.

All along that wooded stretch of the trail, Spotted Towhees ventured in and out of the underbrush.

Eastern towhee on the ground at Beamer Memorial Conservation Area in Grimsby, Ontario

The Spotted Towhees in the west are very similar to the Eastern Towhees seen in Eastern Canada and United States, such as this one that we sighted in Ontario.  You have to look closely to differentiate the two species.

Spotted towhee sitting on branch at Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta, BC, Canada.

The main difference is that Spotted Towhees have brilliant white spots and stripes on their wings.  Only recently has a distinction been made between the two species.  Before now, Eastern and Spotted Towhees were classified together as Rufous-sided Towhees.

Eastern towhee among leaves at Beamer Memorial Conservation Area in Grimsby, Ontario

The Eastern Towhees have dark heads and backs, but both species display the familiar rufous flanks, white belly, and red eyes.

Bushes at Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta, BC, Canada.

The appearance of this bird varies in different parts of the country. Male Towhees are 7 to 9 inches in length, the eastern birds have dark heads and backs, rufous sides, a white belly, and a red eye.In the West they have a similar appearance except that they also have white spots on their dark wings and back.- See more at: http://www.wild-bird-watching.com/Towhee.html#sthash.kwUxKA2B.qvKVnHds.dpuf
The appearance of this bird varies in different parts of the country. Male Towhees are 7 to 9 inches in length, the eastern birds have dark heads and backs, rufous sides, a white belly, and a red eye.In the West they have a similar appearance except that they also have white spots on their dark wings and back.- See more at: http://www.wild-bird-watching.com/Towhee.html#sthash.kwUxKA2B.qvKVnHds.dpuf
Until recently the Eastern and Spotted were once considered a single species (Rufous-sided) but not any longer – See more at: http://www.wild-bird-watching.com/Towhee.html#sthash.kwUxKA2B.qvKVnHds.dpuf

The habitat at Reifel Bird Sanctuary was exactly what all towhees look for,  a dense, bushy shrubbery.

Spotted towhee at Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta, B.C., Canada

Their habit is to noisily scratch and hop amongst leaf litter on the ground when foraging for food, but the male above was a little put off by the foot traffic passing by so retreated to this low branch bathed in sunshine.

Spotted towhee foraging on the ground at Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta, B.C., Canada

Finally, once some boisterous visitors had receded into the distance, the towhee resumed foraging for bits of food at the edge of the woods.  Towhees are a type of large sparrow, and with their thick, triangular bill, they are adept at cracking seeds.  Wild berries and even insects, snails and small amphibians are consumed to round out their diet.

Spotted towhee on the ground at Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta, B.C., Canada

Spotted Towhees employ a two-footed backwards hop when removing leaves from the soil’s surface to reveal seeds and small invertebrates.  Their non-stop hopping and shuffling meant that the birds did not stay in any one place for more than a few seconds at a time.  It made for very challenging photography.

Spotted towhee on the ground at Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta, B.C., Canada

Because of the Spotted Towhees’ proclivity for sun-baked thickets, scientists believe that the white spots on the Spotted Towhees’ backs are an evolutionary change that provides better camouflage in sun-dappled undergrowth.  Combine that with their rufous-coloured flanks that blend in nicely with dry, fallen leaves, and these birds are masters at remaining undetected.  We were very lucky that the surroundings were conducive to more adventurous behaviour.  We had a good look at four or five males that day.

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Frame To Frame – Bob and Jean

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6 comments

  • From Facebook:

    Feb. 12, 2014

    Ontario Nature wrote:

    “Thank you Bob! Apparently a spotted towhee has been sighted recently nearby Guelph!”

    https://www.facebook.com/ONNature

  • From Facebook:

    Sue D. commented on this post in “British Columbia Birds”. 1:39pm Feb 7

    Sue wrote:

    “I really enjoy your blog’s seeing the environment as well as photos of the birds, hearing details on behaviour etc. much more than some Bird Reference Guides. Job well done!”

  • Great entry about one of my all-time favorite birds — or rather two of my all-time favorite birds! Thanks for putting this up.
    Would you have any more information about this: “scientists believe that the white spots on the Spotted Towhees’ backs are an evolutionary change that provides better camouflage in sun-dappled undergrowth”?
    All the best,

    • Thanks for your comment, Rick. I came across the information about the white spots in something I read a while ago, and I have been unable to locate the source again. Sorry.

      • Thanks for checking! I was interested because it seems a bit counter-intuitive: first, because a l l of the “rufous-sided” towhees live in sun-dappled undergrowth; and second, because the most strikingly spotted of the spotted towhees, the birds of the Great Plains, live in the (relatively) most open habitats. If you do run across the source again and have a moment, let me know. Enjoying your blog.

        • I agree with you about the unlikelihood that only the Spotted Towhees evolved to suit their habitat. Perhaps the reference included all towhees. I wonder if the towhees of the Great Plains are less visible from the air because of their colouring, and thus are less obvious to birds of prey. If I come across the reference again, I’ll be sure to get back to you. thanks again.

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