Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Update from the north

As I type this, I'm sitting in my car along a logging road somewhere north of Wawa, where the air is perfectly still and the only sounds are the occasional chuck of a Rusty Blackbird or siiiit of a White-throated Sparrow. I am connected to the internet via the personal hotspot on my phone, which surprisingly has service out here! Technology...

I have been in northern Ontario since October 1, birding my way from Sault Ste. Marie up to Thunder Bay and back again. It has been a great trip, complete with stunning scenery and some interesting bird and mammal sightings. The weather has been very pleasant - temperatures in the high teens during the day and around zero at night, with no precipitation and usually light winds - excellent weather for enjoying the north shore of Superior during the autumn.

Unfortunately the birding has been relatively slow with low numbers of birds everywhere, but even still there have been a few interesting things! Sometimes at this time of year the small towns and any open areas are crawling with Horned Larks, American Pipits and Lapland Longpurs as well as many sparrows. That hasn't been the case so far, but in the past week I've managed a few highlights.

I have seen 13 species of sparrows, including a Le Conte's Sparrow at the Pic River mouth, a Clay-colored Sparrow at Silver Islet and a Harris's Sparrow on Mission Island, Thunder Bay. The Harris's I was especially happy with as I could not find one at any of the locations where they had been seen recently. On my final morning I checked out Mission Island, eventually finding a single juvenile Harris's with some White-crowned Sparrows. This species migrates mostly west of Ontario but can be somewhat common in late September west of Thunder Bay in Rainy River District. They are less regular east of Thunder Bay along the north shore. It was a new "self found" species for me in Ontario, my 333rd, and one of the last "easy" ones, though Barrow's Goldeneye, Gray Partridge, Glossy Ibis and Cattle Egret remain.

Some other highlights during the trip included a Sedge Wren at Rossport, two Tennessee Warblers in Thunder Bay, Northern Saw-whet and Long-eared Owls near Marathon and a wide variety of other species. According to birdlog I am up to 102 species so far in the trip, with most of the expected ones accounted for.

The biggest highlight occurred this afternoon as I was traveling on Highway 17 between Marathon and White River. See the photo below....

Canada Lynx - between Marathon and White River, Ontario

Tomorrow I am birding Wawa before continuing south to Sault Ste Marie and Manitoulin Island. That will set me up to bird all day Friday on Manitoulin (a new county for me, my last in Ontario) before taking the Chi-Cheemaun ferry to Tobermory on Friday evening. Saturday I plan on birding the Bruce Peninsula before continuing on home to Niagara. I'll post some stories and photos from the trip in the upcoming days.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Birding trip to Thunder Bay

On Tuesday I moved to my place in Niagara-on-the-Lake (thanks for the help, mom!), and after two days in the new office, I am on the road for a birding trip.

Over the last three autumns I ventured north to the southern James Bay coast, where I enjoyed over two solid weeks on each trip doing nothing but looking for birds and enjoying the rugged beauty of the area. Unfortunately I won't be returning again this year, in part due to the expense, amount of time I would have to take off work, and a lack of people who wanted to come with. I still wanted to do a birding trip this fall so after some thought I decided that I would do a solo camping trip along the north shore of Lake Superior. It's been a while since I've done a solo trip - this should be a good way to relax and unwind a little, as well as get in some awesome birding. I'm really looking forward to camping in picturesque locations during the peak of autumn colors!

By the time this gets posted I will be on the road, with a tentative plan to return sometime on the Thanksgiving weekend. But why the north shore of Lake Superior, you may ask?

Simply put, the birding up there from late September to mid October is superior (see what I did there?) to most other places in the province. A relatively large amount of very rare species have been found along the north shore during this magic window in the autumn, despite the lack of coverage that the area receives.

Lake Superior is a massive body of water that concentrates migrants along its shores. Additionally, the vast expanse of thick boreal forest to the north is rather uninviting for species that tend to spend their time in open areas, such as prairie species from the west. The shoreline of Lake Superior is dotted with little towns which attracts migrants,often attract these western species. Fortunately there are few enough towns that most good areas can be checked pretty easily.

Hawk-watching can be incredible in some areas, particularly in Marathon, where it is possible to see hundreds of Rough-legged Hawks in a single day if the conditions line up perfectly.

Anyways, here is a taste of some of the species that have shown up along the north shore of Lake Superior in late September or October:

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper
Band-tailed Pigeon
Common Ground-Dove
Groove-billed Ani
Burrowing Owl
Dusky Flycatcher
Say's Phoebe
Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher
Tropical/Couch's Kingbird
Fork-tailed Flycatcher
Clark's Nutcracker
Violet-green Swallow
Sage Thrasher
Kentucky Warbler
Cassin's Sparrow
Black-throated Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Green-tailed Towhee

My head is starting to spin after reading that list so I'll stop there...

I'll be posting updates as the trip goes along, if internet is available. Alan Wormington will also be along the north shore during the same time and perhaps we will meet up occasionally as well. He has birded in this under-appreciated part of Ontario dozens of times, and with the two of us out looking I'm sure something interesting will be found. Let's just hope that nothing too crazy is found during the Ontario Field Ornithologists annual convention at Point Pelee that might tempt me to cut my trip short!

Sunday, 27 September 2015

September at Point Pelee - birds and bugs

Last weekend Todd Hagedorn and I camped near Point Pelee for two nights, birding in the national park on both days.

On the Saturday morning the forecast had held and the winds were fairly strong out of the south, shifting to the southwest as the morning wore on. Dark clouds and scattered precipitation fell to the north, west and south, but fortunately the precipitation stayed clear of Point Pelee until later in the day. The tip watch during the autumn at Pelee can be excellent, though you really have to put in the time if you expect to see a lot of good birds! Todd and I joined Alan Wormington, Blake Mann, Jeremy Hatt and Jeremy Bensette at an opening through the shrubbery along the west side of the tip, sheltered from the strong winds. In the few hours that we were there a big flight of waterbirds never materialized, and the Bonaparte's Gulls that were flying passed by several kilometers out, making it difficult to pick up any rarities that might have joined them. At one point I noticed a distant adult Little Gull with the Bonaparte's flock, one of the highlights of the relatively slow morning. Unfortunately no Sabine's Gulls or Long-tailed Jaegers passed by; two species I have yet to see at Point Pelee.Occasional shorebirds winged by heading south including a few Sanderlings as well as a flock of 16 medium sized birds, which we determined to be Stilt Sandpipers. There may have been a Lesser Yellowlegs mixed in as well. This was quite unexpected  - I don't think I've ever seen more than about 8 Stilt Sandpipers in one spot before, and never a pure flock flying by.

Sanderlings are often seen flying by the tip, occasionally alighting on the sandy tip of Point Pelee. A small group of juveniles were working the sand on the east side of the tip both mornings.

Sanderlings - Point Pelee National Park

Saturday was windy and overcast with a constant threat of rain, making it difficult to turn up good numbers of warblers and other songbirds. What we could find was staying hidden in the cedars and leafy shrubbery, living in constant fear of the Sharp-shinned Hawks which had infiltrated the park in good numbers. I walked around with Todd and it wasn't until mid afternoon at DeLaurier that we found our first warblers of the day.

Fortunately a new crop of birds had arrived in the park overnight, and Sunday morning was relatively calm and sunny with north winds, great conditions to beat the bushes for birds! Heading down to the tip we were distracted by the large numbers of Monarchs that flitted in the treetops or flew out over the lake.

Monarch - Point Pelee National Park

Several large clusters of Monarchs were also in the tip area with several hundred butterflies in the largest. Apparently the evening before some of the clusters were in the thousands.

Monarchs - Point Pelee National Park

Monarchs - Point Pelee National Park

The north winds had pushed many raptors over the park as well, and as the day grew warmer we noticed many Broad-winged and Sharp-shinned Hawks, along with the odd Northern Harrier or Cooper's Hawk. This sharpie briefly landed in a tree in front of Brandon Holden and I while we were photographing flyover Monarchs. I was a second too late to catch the bird on the branch before it darted away.

Sharp-shinned Hawk - Point Pelee National Park

The birding ended up being quite good in the tip area and Todd and I joined Steve Pike, Lindsey Galliant and Jeremy Hatt. Groups of warblers were staying hidden in the shrubbery or moving quickly through the bushes feeding, but with some effort we were able to tease out around fifteen species. At one point I got on a Prairie Warbler with a small flock of Palm Warblers for about 2 seconds. By the time I had called it out to the others the bird had ducked out of sight. We were unable to turn it up again that morning, though the bird was seen by others the following day. Jeremy Bensette also found a female Cerulean Warbler, but searching for it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Only a small percentage of the birds present we were able to get a good enough look at to identify, a combination of the extensive foliage, raptor presence overhead, and good foraging conditions for the birds. It was quite pleasant walking around and having a lot of birds to look at, however! Nashville Warblers and House Wrens in particular were quite numerous on the day. The first White-crowned Sparrows and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were in, a sign of the inevitable change in diversity that was coming in the weeks ahead. Jeremy Hatt, Todd and I also flushed a roosting Eastern Whip-poor-will which landed deep in a thicket, providing semi-obscured views of its cryptic plumage before it flew further back out of sight. Looking at my notes I had never seen one in September before.

Raptors and Monarchs were not the only winged creatures migrating south in the good conditions; dragonflies too were quite numerous. One of the more common species was Black Saddlebags. This individual was powering up in a sunny spot.

Black Saddlebags - Point Pelee National Park

As the songbird activity died down as the day grew warmer, some of us headed to our favorite hawk watching site in Leamington. Hawks were moving, but often at a height that made them inperceivable to the naked eye. If you looked through your bins, distant Sharp-shinned Hawks and Broad-winged Hawks could sometimes be identified. Bald Eagles cruised by occasion, and a single Peregrine Falcon made a pass.

Peregrine Falcon - Leamington

Soon after we packed up and headed back with a brief stop at the Blenheim lagoons thrown in for good measure. It was a great weekend at Point Pelee with good friends during a gorgeous autumn weekend.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Blenheim shorebirding

The Blenheim sewage lagoons are always worth checking out in the autumn, and this year has been better than most with above average shorebird habitat. These lagoons have historically been excellent and boast a bird species list near 250 species, if not higher. Included are at least 35 shorebird species, including notables such as American Avocet, Piping Plover, Curlew Sandpiper, Ruff and Red Phalarope. Unusual gulls, wading birds and songbirds have been found at these lagoons as well, including White-faced and Glossy Ibises, Little Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Laughing Gull and Yellow-headed Blackbird. I'm sure there are many other interesting records that I am not aware of.

The sprinkler cells have been used throughout the autumn and often all four of these cells provide decent shorebird habitat. Additionally, the mud edges of the south lagoons are beginning to be exposed as the water slowly draws down. Many of the shorebirds alternate between the southeast lagoon (it has the best habitat) and the sprinkler cells.

I usually make a stop in on Blenheim whenever I am going to or from the Point Pelee area as it is often my best stop for shorebirds on a weekend excursion. On Friday, September 4 I passed through the Blenheim area while on my way to Pelee for the long weekend. It was 2:30 in the afternoon, leaving lots of time to check out the lagoons, the Erieau area and Wheatley harbour before dark.
The shorebirds were busy feeding along the edge of the southeast cell. Solitary Sandpiper and Greater Yellowlegs were mixed in with the dozens of Lesser Yellowlegs and a few Pectoral and Least Sandpipers. As I walked along, a small group of shorebirds hidden along the near bank flushed and flew away from me. One caught my eye without having to use binoculars as it had a striking black and white wing pattern. It was a Willet, and it flew around with the yellowlegs before finally settling down on the south bank. This made me run back to the car for my camera, and the Willet gave an encore performance once I returned.

Willet - Blenheim lagoons 

Willet has two distinctive subspecies – the Eastern Willet is coastal and breeds along the eastern seaboard and into the Caribbean, while the Western Willet is found in prairie marshes in western North America. Easterns are closely tied to their coastal saltmarshes and beaches, and Ontario has yet to see its first record. Westerns can be seen sporadically but regularly in southwestern Ontario, particularly in late April and May when small flocks are occasionally found. They are less frequent in the autumn, though the odd individual is reported from a beach or rocky shoal along the lower Great Lakes. This was my first autumn Willet and also the first one I had ever seen at a sewage lagoon. The Willet has since become an on-and-off resident at the lagoons (mostly on) for the last two and a half weeks.

Willet - Blenheim lagoons 

As I mentioned above, the sprinkler cells have consistently provided good habitat for shorebirds in at least two, but often all four of the cells. A group of 17 adult American Golden-Plovers were standing in the cell during the September 4 visit, providing excellent views of their intricate plumage. Up to 15 Semipalmated Plovers have tried to blend in with the dozens or hundreds of Killdeer in the cells, depending on the day. On that visit as well as on recent visits this past weekend both Baird’s and up to three Stilt Sandpipers have been easily observed. This juvenile Stilt Sandpiper fed cautiously in the shallows five meters away, providing the opportunity for a few phone scoped photos (while I cursed leaving the camera in the car!).

Stilt Sandpiper - Blenheim lagoons

After the successful Say’s Phoebe chase on September 17, Jeremy Bensette, Emma Buck and I stopped in at the lagoons before dusk. A smaller number of shorebirds than usual were feeding and resting in the cells but the Willet was accounted for. Since I still had a 3.5 hour drive ahead of me I began to walk back to my vehicle, but a mixed flock of shorebirds came flying in and circling the sprinkler cells right when I was leaving. At least three dowitchers were in the group along with Stilt Sandpipers and yellowlegs. I was pretty sure I heard a Long-billed Dowitcher call on several occasions. After some close study of the three dowitchers, we came to the conclusion that one was a Long-billed. It was nice to have the birds side by side at close range to compare features!
Another poor phone-scoped shot...

Long-billed Dowitcher (right)- Blenheim lagoons

Ducks are always a regular feature at the Blenheim lagoons, even more so now that we are into mid September. Redhead, Northern Shoveler and Ruddy Duck numbers have been growing, while Blue-winged Teal are tapering off. There is often a small group of Hooded Mergansers as well as Green-winged Teal and American Wigeon. The long-staying Tundra Swan continues its lonely existence in the southeast pond and will be soon approaching its six month anniversary there. Nobody has seen it ever fly and it will likely meet its fate when the ponds freeze over in a few months.

This past Sunday, Todd Hagedorn and I stopped in for one final check at the end of a busy weekend in the Pelee area. A small group of shorebirds flushed from the muddy shore of the southeast pond. Though the group was twisting and turning, I noticed a juvenile Red-necked Phalarope with the pack. It continued to fly around for several minutes over the lagoons, providing excellent scope views! Unfortunately it never did land, though it did call at times when it was within earshot. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed one vocalize before. Usually they are just a small white blob spinning away on the far side of a lagoon. This Red-necked Phalarope had been found the day prior by Blake Mann, who had posted some photos on his blog.

The lagoons should continue to be excellent throughout the end of September, October and into November, provided the habitat remains. Certainly a worthwhile place to check out as the species composition changes frequently. Often unusual species will turn up after unsettled weather, and cold fronts can spur migration. I would love for a Ruff or Black-necked Stilt to turn up!

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Say's Phoebe chase to Blenheim

This morning, local Rondeau area birder Jim Burk discovered a Say's Phoebe alongside some farm equipment in a rural area southwest of the town of Blenheim. Word got out that the bird was still there late in the morning, causing a number of birders to travel to Blenheim in hopes of seeing this scarce vagrant to Ontario.

I was working from home and after tying up some loose ends, I was on the road by early afternoon. Say's Phoebe is a very tough bird to see in Ontario. They are a western species and relatively common throughout their range, spanning from Alaska south through to Mexico, throughout the western half of the United States and Canada. As of the end of the 2014 report, the Ontario Bird Records Committee (OBRC) had 15 accepted records for Say's Phoebe, though a full two-thirds of those records were of one day wonders. This leaves five prior records of multiple staying birds with four of those birds staying for three days or less. Needless to say there are a lot of people who haven't seen Say's Phoebe in the province, myself included!

Back in 2012 I had my first crack at a Say's Phoebe when one was reported during late April at the Carden Plain. I had a choice to make as I had left that morning from Point Pelee for the Bruce Peninsula, hoping to see a Western Tanager that evening that was coming to a feeder. At the time Western Tanager was a bird I had not ever seen. I finished the final hour of that chase, successfully seeing the tanager, but the phoebe disappeared soon after. After a report a few days later I drove up to Carden to search, but struck out. In April of 2013 one was found on the Toronto Islands and reported early enough in the day for me to chase it with several others. The birder(s) on the ferry in front of us got the bird, though it was nowhere to be found once we embarked on the island. It was nice to finally see one in all of its glory after two failed attempts!

I flew through Toronto with only one minor slowdown, and by late afternoon I exited the highway near Blenheim and drove directly to the spot, minus a 2 minute "rest stop" along a rural country road. As I pulled up to the spot I could see the bird resting on the trailer filled with hanging plants, with several familiar birders watching it.

Say's Phoebe - Blenheim, ON (September 17, 2015)

Brett Fried and Barb Charlton were on site (even Barb needed it for Ontario!), along with Jeremy Bensette, Emma Buck, Jeremy Hatt and Dwayne Murphy. The bird spent its time flycatching from the farm equipment as well as the top branches of a nearby tree, but also from low perches in the stubble and dirt of the field. One of the three original trailers that were parked in the field were remaining by the time I showed up, as the farmers had already moved the other two. The phoebe sat it the tree and on top of  the other trailers filled with drying plants and was content to resume hunting insects from the dirt where its three favorite trailers had vacated!

Say's Phoebe - Blenheim, ON (September 17, 2015)

Say's Phoebe can be told apart by its slightly smaller cousin, the familiar Eastern Phoebe in several ways. Most obvious is the salmon coloration, diffusing into gray on the breast. The gray back contrasts notably with the black tail on Say's Phoebe, while Eastern Phoebe is less contrasty from above. Eastern Phoebe has a dark head, while Say's has a gray head with dark, smudgy eyeline. Say's is slightly larger with a longer wingspan, but is only marginally heavier.

Say's Phoebe - Blenheim, ON (September 17, 2015)

Most of the time that I was there the flycatcher was just a little too distant for my camera setup (300 mm lens with 1.4x teleconverter. I would have loved to have an additional 200-300 mm to work with in this situation! My best photos, while still heavily cropped, occurred when the bird sallied for insects, its chase taking it most of the way to the roadside where all the birders were lined up. After a few attempts I managed some that I was happy with.

Say's Phoebe - Blenheim, ON (September 17, 2015)
Say's Phoebe is a new bird species for Rondeau checklist area, a rare event these days. Needless to say it was a great find for Jim Burk! I see one previous OBRC accepted record of a Say's Phoebe in Chatham-Kent, of a bird at Bradley's Marsh on April 18, 1964 (found by Dennis Rupert). At the time, that was the second provincial record.

Say's Phoebe - Blenheim, ON (September 17, 2015)

Say's Phoebe - Blenheim, ON (September 17, 2015)

The Say's Phoebe was a new Ontario bird for me, number 373. This is the fourth new bird I've added this year after Mottled Duck, Wilson's Plover and Little Egret. A fun bird to finally see in the province and a great way to kick off the autumn vagrant season! This weekend I am actually heading back down to Pelee after finishing some work at the office tomorrow. The forecast could be interesting with winds straight out of Texas flowing into Ontario, with the chance of unsettled weather followed by north winds. Hopefully the southwest winds will continue into Saturday morning's lakewatch!

Say's Phoebe - Blenheim, ON (September 17, 2015)

Sunday, 13 September 2015

A new local patch!

After completing two and a half years of penance living north of Toronto in Schomberg and Aurora, I have finally decided to make a change. In a couple of weeks I will be packing up and moving to a place that is a little bit better for finding birds...Niagara-on-the-Lake!

I am fortunate in that I have an employer who is very accommodating with allowing me to switch offices. I am trading Aurora for St. Catherines and recently found a place to live in Niagara-on-the-Lake. This is very exciting for me as I now will have several excellent birding areas within a few minutes of home or the office, something that I have never experienced before.

I grew up in south Cambridge, and while there are quite a few interesting natural areas in the vicinity, it is still a 40 minute drive from Lake Ontario, and there are no really killer spots to watch migrants. After that I moved to Guelph, which is even further from the lakes, a place that was featured on Brandon's top 10 list of disappointing birding locations in Ontario.

From Guelph if was to Schomberg for a year, and then Aurora for the last 16 months. Each of those places is about 45 minutes to an hour from good birding (Lake Simcoe, or Toronto waterfront)!

The above photo shows Niagara-on-the-Lake at the top right, and Port Weller jutting into Lake Ontario at the left. My place is located right in Niagara-on-the-Lake, approximately 1 km from Queen's Royal Park at the mouth of the Niagara River. This is the location where David Bell and I re-found a Razorbill in November, 2011, only the 10th record accepted by the OBRC. Three of the previous nine records come from Niagara-on-the-Lake as well! There is a long track record of rarities from Niagara-on-the-Lake - last winter a Eurasian Tree Sparrow patronized a bird feeder for several months. A quick look at OBRC records show reports of Black-throated Gray Warbler, Western Grebe, Northern Gannet, Pacific Loon and Great Cormorant from NOTL. Fort Niagara, literally across the mouth of the river in New York, has seen Leach's Storm-Petrel as well as most of the above rarities. The mouth of the Niagara River is a fantastic spot to look for birds. Often loons, grebes and ducks will be feeding and resting, while certain winds can cause jaegers to terrorize the waterbirds and gulls at the mouth of the river, Brant and "pelagic" species can make appearances in certain conditions, and big flocks of cormorants provide the chance of picking out a Neotropic or Great. The river corridor is used by gulls each morning as they fly up river as well as each evening as they head out on the lake to roost. Little Gulls are often seen in this "flyby", as are other rare species of small gulls that may be on the river. I've seen Franklin's Gull here and can recall reports of Laughing Gull, Sabine's Gull, Black-headed Gull and Black-legged Kittiwake. Needless to say I will be checking this location nearly every day during autumn through to spring!

Port Weller is one of the better birding locations on this side of Lake Ontario, if I may be so bold! It has a pair of vegetated piers sticking way out into the lake, though I believe only the east pier can be easily accessed. Somewhat mature trees and a ton of shrubs/scrubby habitat provide ample cover for songbirds on the piers. Several ponds on the east pier can attract waterbirds and songbirds - this is the location where I successfully chased a Purple Gallinule in October, 2011.

Purple Gallinule - Port Weller

There are excellent lake-watching opportunities from the pier as well, while occasionally rare ducks can be seen in the canal or close to the pier, such as Harlequin Duck, King Eider, or even Tufted Duck. On good days during migration, the trees can be "dripping" with songbirds, and the chances of coming across something unusual are much higher at a location like Port Weller, due to its unique geography as well as positioning on Lake Ontario.

Below is a list of some of the rarities that have been found at Port Weller:

Ancient Murrelet
California Gull
3(!) Ross's Gulls
Great Cormorant
Mew Gull
Rock Wren
Sage Thrasher
Tricolored Heron
Tufted Duck
Fish Crow
Western Kingbird

Mew Gull (from Sault Ste. Marie)

Port Weller will also be about 15 minutes from home, easily accessible even during those days that I am at the office. I am really looking forward to having a few close locations to home that I can check for songbirds during good migration days, as well as ample opportunities for ducks, gulls, and large numbers of waterbirds.

The following is the area that I will consider my "local patch". It is a 13 km radius centered south of Niagara-on-the-Lake. To be precise it is centered on the intersection of Concession 6 Road and Queenston Road. Included within the circle is Niagara-on-the Lake, west along the shore of Lake Ontario to Port Dalhousie (including Port Weller),  and up the Niagara River to above the falls. This includes many hotspots along the Niagara River including the Adam Beck power plant, the roosting rocks, Queenston, Niagara Falls, Dufferin Islands, and the Control Gates above the falls. I've also placed the circle to cover downtown St. Catherines, where I will work. Areas just outside the circle include Charles Daley Park and Jordan harbour to the west, most of Short Hills Provincial Park to the southwest, the town of Chippawa to the south, and Grand Island along the Niagara River to the southwest. I would have loved to include these areas but felt that the circle was large enough already. And even if I had stretched the circle an additional km or two, there will always be other good areas suddenly close to the edge. I will always be inside the circle when having a typical day at home/the office, and it is only an approximately 20 minute drive from one side of the circle to the other. The circle includes parts of New York state, though I don't anticipate birding there too often and I placed the circle in an attempt to cover off the best sites on the Ontario side. However, I will likely chase a rarity if its close by on the New York side.

Local birding patch

My "patch list" is sitting at a meager 151 currently with many easy ones to pick up. However, I've already seen Greater White-fronted Goose,  Brant, King Eider, Harlequin Duck, American White Pelican, Razorbill, Black Vulture, Purple Gallinule, Eurasian Tree Sparrow and 16 species of gulls (Mew, Slaty-backed, Black-headed, Franklin's, Sabine's) in the circle.

Compared to the rest of Ontario: I will be perhaps slightly closer to Point Pelee, Rondeau and southwestern Ontario and should be able to avoid Toronto traffic more frequently. Most of the good parts of the Hamilton Study Area are within 30-45 minutes. However, chasing rarities in eastern Ontario and the GTA will be a little more difficult. It's a trade off I am more than willing to make. The Niagara region is relatively underbirded in the spring and summer compared to Hamilton, the GTA, and other birding hotspots, though the river is quite popular in autumn and winter with gull /waterbird watchers. Overall I will be living in a relatively underbirded, awesome location with a long track record of rarities.

a lighthouse at Port Weller

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Sandhill Cranes, a rare heron and a duck

A few more random photos from this past spring and early summer!

On May 31 I drove to the north end of Simcoe County to check out a new location - Matchedash Bay. The 18 square kilometre natural area is a designated Ramsar wetland (a wetland of international importance, as defined by the Ramsar Convention), Over 550 species of vascular plants, close to 20 species of reptiles and amphibians, and over 170 species of birds can be found in the area.

I explored the wetland complex on a relatively cool, overcast morning on May 31. The birding was excellent and after a couple of hours I had encountered 51 species. Typical marsh species included Virginia Rail, Osprey, Alder Flycatcher and Marsh Wren, while several singing Sedge Wrens were my first of the year. Both Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warblers were around in small numbers. The highlight bird for me, however, was a single male Cerulean Warbler singing away in the canopy. While I was unable to obtain photos, I did capture a recording of the song and had good enough views of the bird directly above me. Ceruleans have declined considerably in Ontario and it is a bird I rarely encounter. It was a bird that I had missed during the spring migration, despite a concerted effort to find one.

Another big highlight was having a photoshoot with some Sandhill Cranes. As I passed from a section of deciduous woods into an overgrown pasture, two cranes materialized. They tolerated my presence as long as I did not get too close, preferring to feed quietly.

Sandhill Crane - Matchedash Bay

Sandhill Crane - Matchedash Bay

Sandhill Crane - Matchedash Bay

Sandhill Crane - Matchedash Bay

In June I made the long trek eastward to Ottawa on two occasions in search of the provincial-first Little Egret, both times catching a ride with Barb Charlton. I dipped on the bird on June 3, but we were successful on June 24!

During the June 3 stake-out we took a break in the mid-morning to search for a long-staying Yellow-crowned Night-Heron that had materialized on various lawns in a nearby subdivision. This southern heron species strays to Ontario rarely but regularly, usually once or twice a year. Oftentimes these are immature bird in the autumn so we jumped at the chance to see an adult!

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron - Kanata

The bird was a bit distant and the lighting was quite contrasty, but I was happy to get even distant record shots.

It was quite entertaining watching the bird as it stalked earthworms!

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron - Kanata

This summer was a busy one for me work wise, and just about every week I flew to either Timmins or Thunder Bay for field work. On June 11 I rented a car in Timmins with the plan of driving to Hearst that evening to complete some work nearby in the morning. During June the days are very long in northern Ontario which allowed me to make several birding stops! One particular excursion was to check out a male Eurasian Wigeon at the Moonbeam sewage lagoons that Roxane Filion had discovered earlier in the spring. I keep a Cochrane District list since I've birded there a lot in the last few years and Eurasian Wigeon had been a conspicuous miss on that list.

The bird was right where it was supposed to be, loosely associating with some American Wigeons. The lagoons had a good variety of ducks (eleven species) including both species of scaup and Northern Shoveler.

Eurasian Wigeon - Moonbeam sewage lagoons

Nice bird! Again, a little distant for good photos so these cropped shots will have to do.

Eurasian Wigeon - Moonbeam sewage lagoons

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Odds and ends from the spring

I have been catching up with a ton of photo editing from earlier in the year recently, and I thought I would make a few posts with some of these odds and ends.

Way back on April 11 I visited a favorite location of mine. As a teenager I spent many evenings after school and mornings during the weekends to explore the swath of Carolinian woodland that covers the hillsides. Over the years I have figured out where many of the 25 species of reptiles and amphibians that live here can be most easily found. Northern Ribbonsnakes, a species at risk in Ontario, are relatively common here and on many visits they even outnumber Eastern Gartersnakes. Several of the south and west facing hillsides contain hibernacula, and on warm days as early as mid-March it is possible to find snakes basking in the warm rays.

April 11 was my first opportunity to visit this year. I was greeted by several Mourning Cloaks, often the first butterfly that I encounter in the spring. Adults of this species overwinter and by March they are not too difficult to find, if the weather cooperates of course. While most butterfly species feed on the nectar from flowers, Mourning Cloaks prefer tree sap, enabling them to survive this early before most flowers have emerged. 

Mourning Cloak

Eventually I came across a large female Northern Ribbonsnake. As I was observing it a rustle in the dead leaves announced the presence of a male, while a second male was not far behind. Eventually one of the males followed the pheromone trail left by the female and sidled up next to her.

Northern Ribbonsnakes

After a few minutes of observation I gave them some privacy.

Northern Ribbonsnakes

Next up are some photos from my time at Pelee this past spring. While I have posted about most of the highlights, some of the photos I had dropped into folders on my computer and forgot about until recently. First up is a pair of Barn Swallows, seen perching on some of the large boulders near the tip of Point Pelee in late April.

Barn Swallow - Point Pelee National Park

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers migrate through mainly in late April, though quite a few will stay to breed in the park. This individual which I photographed on April 25 is an adult male, due to the bold black "eyebrows" it shows.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher - Point Pelee National Park

Anyone who has visited Point Pelee on a frequent basis has certainly ran into Raccoons at one point or another. As a birder who is constantly scanning the trees for birds, I often see them sleeping it a crook of a branch. This one was out strolling around, hoping for a handout!

Raccoon - Point Pelee National Park

Raccoon - Point Pelee National Park

On May 1 I made a stop at the Blenheim sewage lagoons while driving down to Point Pelee on the weekend. Good numbers of shorebirds were in, including these Dunlins. The individual in the rear is more advanced in its pre-alternate molt, showing some orange in the scapulars and coverts (wing feathers on the back) and the beginning of a black belly patch. The foreground individual is still mostly in basic plumage. 

Dunlins - Blenheim lagoons

Previously, a pair of Baird's Sandpipers had been discovered at the lagoons by Jean Iron. I was happy to see that they were both accounted for in the mostly dry sprinkler cell, though they were a little distant for good photos. While Baird's Sandpiper is an uncommon but regular autumn migrant through Ontario, it is very rare during the spring as their migration takes them north through the Great Plains. This was only the second time that I had observed a spring Baird's in Ontario.

Baird's Sandpipers - Blenheim lagoons

On May 3rd I came across one of the Eurasian Collared-Doves in Leamington, sitting on a telephone wire at the usual location. They had been present since August, 2014.

Eurasian Collared-Dove - Leamington

An adult Summer Tanager had been found by Lev Frid near the tram loop when I was at the tip that morning. I had plans to walk up to the Visitors Centre through that area anyways, so I searched for the tanager with several others. It eluded our cameras for a while but eventually perched up on some Vitis vines for a few seconds. The majority of the Summer Tanagers that we see in Ontario are duller orange or yellow-green females and young males, so it is a rare treat to have great views of a bright red adult male!

Summer Tanager - Point Pelee National Park

Later that day I decided to check out Kopegaron Woods located west of Wheatley, because it was very slow for birds at Point Pelee. Often Kopegaron has a good variety of warblers and I recall seeing Worm-eating and Connecticut there last year, both of which were found by Jeremy Hatt. The birding was pretty decent this time around and I had about 10 warbler species in an hour. This Blue Jay paused nearby, providing my first decent photo of one perched.

Blue Jay - Kopegaron Woods

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

February 22, 2015 - final morning at Cayo Santa Maria

February 10-11, 2015 - Viñales Valley
February 10-11, 2015 - hotel birding in the Viñales Valley
February 12, 2015 - Parque Nacional La Guira and Soroa
February 13, 2015 - Reserva Sierra del Rosaria, town of Las Terrazas
February 14, 2015 - Soroa to Zapata
February 15, 2015 - Zapata Swamp
February 16 and 17, 2015 - Trinidad and Ancon Peninsula
February 18, 2015 - the Escambray Mountains
February 19 and 20, 2015 - Hanabanilla Reservoir, Cayo Santa Maria
February 21, 2015 - Cayo Santa Maria
February 22, 2015 - Cayo Santa Maria

The following morning I led a final pre-breakfast hike before we began our journey back to Havana. The remaining day and a half were spent in Havana and featured mostly on cultural things, so I'll end the trip report after this post.

View of part of Havana from a high rise building

Western Spindalis, formerly known as the Stripe-headed Tanager, is a common species found throughout Cuba, the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, the Cayman Islands and the island of Cozumel, Mexico. It occasionally shows up as a vagrant in southern Florida as well. I've featured the males before in earlier posts from this trip but this was my first time photographing a female. The trees surrounding our resort constantly had Western Spindalis(es?) feeding on a sort of fruit, though photography was more difficult than expected due to their propensity for having several small twigs getting in the way, preventing a clean photo.

female Western Spindalis

Of course I had to photograph a few of the males - an absolutely stunning bird in my mind.

male Western Spindalis

male Western Spindalis

Eurasian Collared-Doves have really taken over in urban areas not only in Cuba but throughout much of the world. Looking at the eBird sighting map they have yet to spread extensively in South America and Africa, while Australasia and southeast Asia also remains untouched. One feels that is just a matter of time though...

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Warblers were quite common right in the resort complex, presumably due to the large number of mature, fruiting and flowering trees that attracted many insects. Comparatively, the dry scrub that makes up the rest of the island is more of a hostile environment. Each morning we encountered about a dozen species while only walking a few dozen meters! Cape May Warblers were surprisingly abundant, while American Redstart, Northern Parula and Prairie Warblers were also accounted for in decent numbers. This sharp male Prairie Warbler was too sexy not to photograph, especially as it set at eye level for a minute or so.

Prairie Warbler

The trip was certainly a success and we managed to enjoy a wide variety of Cuba`s flora and fauna. As it was not a dedicated birding tour we missed several of the endemics, but on my next trip to Cuba I have set aside several days once the tour concludes to rent a vehicle and clean up the remaining endemics. The following are the endemic bird species of Cuba according to the most recent Clements checklist. Bold letters represent species we observed during this tour.

Gundlach's Hawk
Cuban Black Hawk
Zapata Rail
Blue-headed Quail-Dove
Gray-fronted Quail-Dove
Bare-legged Owl
Cuban Pygmy-Owl
Bee Hummingbird
Cuban Trogon
Cuban Tody
Cuban Green Woodpecker
Fernandina's Flicker
Cuban Parakeet
Giant Kingbird
Cuban Vireo
Cuban Martin (migrates to South America during winter, though wintering grounds are unknown) 
Zapata Wren
Cuban Gnatcatcher
Cuban Solitaire
Yellow-headed Warbler
Oriente Warbler
Cuban Grassquit (also introduced to Bahamas)
Zapata Sparrow
Red-shouldered Blackbird
Cuban Blackbird
Cuban Oriole