Monday, 27 March 2017

New rarity coding system for Ontario birds

Some of you may recall that back in 2012 when I embarked on my Ontario Big Year of birding, I went ahead and categorized every species on the Ontario checklist into one of six codes demonstrating their relative scarcity in the province. My reasoning was simple - it was a good way to objectively observe how well I was progressing on my Big Year, based on how many species I had seen that were considered genuine rarities.

My original post can be viewed here.  To recap:

Code 1: Easy to find, widespread species that are encountered each year (Lesser Yellowlegs, Eastern Bluebird, American Wigeon, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Purple Finch).

Code 2: Localized species that require additional effort, but each can be seen without too much difficulty in Ontario each year (Louisiana Waterthrush, Orange-crowned Warbler, Tufted Titmouse, King Eider, Grasshopper Sparrow, Common Gallinule, Golden Eagle)

Code 3: A wide range of uncommon species, such as difficult boreal specialties (Boreal Owl, American Three-toed Woodpecker), extremely localized breeding species (Loggerhead Shrike, Black-billed Magpie, Gray Partridge),  spring overshoots (Summer Tanager, Kentucky Warbler), regular rarities (Varied Thrush, Eurasian Wigeon, Cattle Egret).

Code 4: Genuine rarities, however rarities that are more or less expected and show up pretty much every year (Western Grebe, Black-necked Stilt, White-winged Dove, Spotted Towhee).

Code 5: Big time rarities that show at least some kind of pattern of vagrancy in Ontario (Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Purple Gallinule, Dovekie, Lewis's Woodpecker, Rock Wren). Several chase-able species are reported each year in the province, and over the course of a lifetime an ambitious birder should be able to chase nearly every individual on this list. However, even Ontario's top listers are each missing a handful of species from this list.

Code 6: the rarest of the rare, the genuine mega rarities that we have on our provincial list (Roseate Spoonbill, Inca Dove, Little Stint, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Plumbeous Vireo). Anything with more than three records did not make the cut!

Little Egret (Code 6)

In the time since coming up with the coding system, I have decided to tweak the codes for some of the species for a variety of reasons. Below, I will list each species in which I have changed their codes, with their former code listed in brackets.

I have created a spreadsheet showing the Ontario bird checklist, with each species' code listed. It can be viewed here. 


New Code 1 species: 
  • none

New Code 2 species:
  • Black Scoter (1)
  • Ring-necked Pheasant (1)
  • Common Gallinule (1)
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull (1)
  • Northern Saw-whet Owl (1)
  • Eastern Whip-poor-will (1)
  • Red-headed Woodpecker (1)
  • Northern Shrike (1)
  • Marsh Wren (1)
  • Gray-cheeked Thrush (1)
  • Lapland Longspur (1)
  • Connecticut Warbler (3)
  • Grasshopper Sparrow (1)
  • Orchard Oriole (1)
  • Common Redpoll (1)

New Code 3 species:
  • Barrow's Goldeneye (2)
  • Willow Ptarmigan (4)
  • Black Vulture (4)
  • Purple Sandpiper (2)
  • American Three-toed Woodpecker (2)
  • Loggerhead Shrike (2)
  • Fish Crow (4)
  • Black-billed Magpie (2)
  • Smith's Longspur (4)
  • Yellow-headed Blackbird (2)
  • Hoary Redpoll (2)

New Code 4 species:
  • California Gull (3)
  • Lark Bunting (5)
  • Neotropic Cormorant (6)
  • Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (5)

New Code 5 species:
  • Pink-footed Goose (new)
  • Rock Ptarmigan (4)
  • Black-capped Petrel (4)
  • Leach's Storm-Petrel (6)
  • Magnificent Frigatebird (6)
  • Anhinga (6)
  • Wilson's Plover (6)
  • Snowy Plover (4)
  • Least Tern (6)
  • Common Ground-Dove (6)
  • Crested Caracara (6)
  • Prairie Falcon (6)
  • Gray Flycatcher (6)
  • Cassin's Kingbird (6)
  • Carolina Chickadee (6)

New Code 6 species:
  • Pink-footed Goose (new)
  • Brown Booby (new)
  • Little Egret (new)
  • Whooping Crane (5)
  • Common Ringed Plover (new)
  • Eurasian Dotterel (new)
  • Kelp Gull (new)
  • Elegant Tern (new)
  • Thick-billed Kingbird (new)
  • Grace's Warbler (new)
  • Cassin's Finch (5)

Slaty-backed Gull (Code 5)

Some thoughts:

The issue with an analysis like this is that the relative rarity of each species in Ontario forms a continuum; they do not all fit into six neat little boxes. In other words, their will be little difference between a "tough Code 3" and an "easy Code 4". For example, I have Townsend's Solitaire as a Code 4 and Varied Thrush as Code 3, but one could easily argue that they should both be the same category. What about Ash-throated Flycatcher, which historically has been a Code 5? There have now been five records in the last four years in Ontario and it is a species reported more and more to the northeast States in recent years. I have left it as a Code 5 for now, but in the next few years it may be appropriate to re-categorize it as a Code 4. How about Carolina Wren and Nothern Mockingbird? I have them listed as Code 1, but should it join species like Tufted Titmouse, Marsh Wren, Boreal Chickadee, etc as a Code 2? 

Tufted Titmouse (Code 2)

Clearly, the status of many of these species, in particular the rare ones, can change from year to year. Some years Cave Swallow could be treated as a Code 2, while in other years they are completely absent in the province. Common Redpoll can be abundant throughout the province some winters, yet other winters it can be quite difficult. 

Cave Swallow (Code 3)

Most of the changes that I made had to do with my analysis of how common each species is. That being said, there are a handful of species whose status in Ontario has changed quite a bit in the five years since I came up with the coding system. Several species have become much more regular in recent years, and that is reflected in their new codes. These include Neotropic Cormorant, Fish Crow and Black Vulture, while Eurasian Collared-Dove was on the cusp and has been left as a Code 4 for now. Ross's Goose and Greater White-fronted Goose also appear to have increased in recent years, but for now I left them as Code 3. An argument could definitely be made that they should fit in the Code 2 category, however!

Fish Crow (Code 3)

This coding system is clearly southern Ontario-centric. In reality, quite a few of the Code 1 species would be quite difficult for a Thunder Bay birder who does not venture south. That being said, if someone was attempting a big year in Ontario, all of the Code 1 species would be easy since that individual would certainly spend sufficient time in southern Ontario.  On the flip side, some of the species I have listed as Code 3 would be somewhat easy for a northwestern Ontario birder, such as Black-billed Magpie, some of the difficult boreal birds, Harris's Sparrow, etc.

Harris's Sparrow (Code 3)

I made an effort to trim down the species labelled as Code 1, reserving that code for the genuinely easy birds that are guaranteed to most birders in a year; in particular, fairly widespread species. Some of these former Code 1 species are guaranteed for birders in certain parts of the province, but may be more difficult for quite a few other birders. Some examples include Ring-necked Pheasant, Marsh Wren and Northern Saw-whet Owl. 

I changed the codes of some highly localized species from Code 2 to Code 3, including Black-billed Magpie, Yellow-headed Blackbird and Barrow's Goldeneye.  

Yellow-headed Blackbird (Code 3)

Code 6 species should be the rarest of the rare, with a maximum of three provincial records. Mostly, these are one-off species though a bunch have two or three provincial records. Therefore I have moved quite a few species to Code 5, including Anhinga, Least Tern, Wilson's Plover, Common Ground-Dove and Gray Flycatcher. Some of these species were moved off of Code 6 in part because of recent records for the province (Prairie Falcon, Crested Caracara, Cassin's Kingbird, etc). Note that many of the new Code 6 species are new additions to the provincial list, so they were not included in the original coding system. 

Wilson's Plover (Code 5)

I am not sure why I had Whooping Crane listed as Code 5, as there has not actually been an OBRC-accepted record since the OBRC's inception. The problem is that the birds occasionally seen in Ontario cannot be determined to be from the "natural" population. There is an introduced population in Wisconsin. Perhaps eventually those birds will be countable in Ontario, but for now its practically impossible to have an accepted record of Whooping Crane for the province.
I was not sure how to treat Hurricane birds. For instance, Black-capped Petrel has 26 accepted records for the province, though the vast majority of these birds arrived during a single hurricane in 1996. Twenty-six records is usually grounds for a species to be a Code 4, but I have moved it to Code 5 as suitable hurricanes are exceedingly rare; in fact there have only been three or four of these hurricanes in the last century. Leach's Storm-Petrel was formerly a Code 6, but I have changed it to Code 5 since it also has a history of showing up with hurricanes. 

Two species that breed in Ontario are essentially limited to the Hudson Bay coast - Smith's Longspur and Willow Ptarmigan - with only a couple of records further south in the province. It is difficult for your average birder to make it to the northern coast to see these species; I have not managed to get up there yet. However I think these species should be treated as Code 3 species along with the other localized birds in Ontario. 

Smith's Longspur (Code 3)

That is all for now. If anyone has any comments on what you think I should change, feel free to send me an email (joshvandermeulen(at)live.ca) or comment on this post - the coding system is by no means set in stone!

The spreadsheet showing the Ontario bird checklist, with each species' code listed, can be viewed here. 

Friday, 24 March 2017

Northern trip - boreal woodpeckers, Northern Hawk Owls galore

We were met with another cold and crisp morning, around -25 this time, as I recall, but with only a slight breeze meaning the windchill had trouble getting below -30. Downright balmy!

Todd and Mark left the hotel about half an hour before Jeremy and I, with a plan to meet up at the burn. We came across another Northern Hawk Owl as we backtracked from Longlac towards the burn. Our third of the trip - we couldn't believe our luck...

Northern Hawk Owl - east of Longlac, Thunder Bay District

No other wildlife species delayed us on the drive and by mid-morning the four of us set out on foot to explore the Hearst 4 burn.

Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

The snowpack was a good meter in depth but a warm spell in late February had melted enough of the snow that the surface was hard and crusty, making for easy walking. No snowshoes necessary!

Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

The Hearst 4 burn was active in the summer of 2016 and at its maximum size was approximately 475 hectares. The reason for our interest in exploring the burn was a pair of boreal woodpecker species, the American Three-toed Woodpecker and the Black-backed Woodpecker. These species often congregate in burned areas as recently killed trees attract high densities of bark beetles (Scolytinae) and wood-boring beetles (Cerambycidae and Buprestidae), a favored food source for these woodpeckers.

Woodpecker evidence - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District
Woodpecker evidence - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

Within minutes of our arrival we had tracked down a Black-backed Woodpecker, flaking the bark off of a spruce. The irregular tapping which can be heard from a surprising distance in calm conditions is one of my favorite sounds of the boreal forest.

Black-backed Woodpecker - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

It did not take long until I located the first American Three-toed Woodpecker of the trip, a female that was quite approachable as she busily fed. I called the other guys over who soaked in the views of this infrequently seen species. Jeremy in particular was happy to see one as it was one of the few missing boreal species he needed for his Ontario Big Year.

Not far from the first American Three-toed Woodpecker we came across some interesting tracks in the freshly fallen centimeter of snow that lay over the hard-crusted layer below. Mark figured that they belonged to a Fisher, the second largest Mustelid (weasel) species that can be found in Ontario. The largest of course being the Wolverine, a species that very few have seen in the wild in Ontario. Fishers are common in the boreal forest though rarely seen.

Fisher tracks - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

Our focus returned back to the woodpeckers, a rare opportunity for a bunch of southern Ontario boys. Black-backed Woodpeckers were incredibly abundant and quite confiding at times, though with the bright sunlight and abundance of small twigs and sticks on their favored trees, it was difficult obtaining a clear photo! Even though the weather would have us feeling otherwise, evidently the woodpeckers felt that spring was imminent and territorial drumming and rattling calls provided the soundtrack to the morning.

Black-backed Woodpecker - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

Black-backed Woodpecker - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

 One big highlight for me was watching a pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers feeding within sight of each other, only a few meters from where I was standing. Eventually the male called and took to the air to find a new tree, and she was not far behind him. But first she landed on a snag less than one meter from my face, curiously looking me over for well over a minute.

Mark exploring the Hearst 4 burn, Cochrane District

Later in the morning, Mark, Todd and I came across a pair of American Three-toed Woodpeckers feeding low on some trees, providing a great opportunity for us to study and photograph them. Like the Black-backeds, these individuals were incredibly tolerant of our approach; gorging themselves was a bigger priority for them.

American Three-toed Woodpecker - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District
 American Three-toed Woodpeckers, while superficially similar in appearance to Black-backed Woodpecker, actually appear quite different when one has a good look at one. The main difference that everyone cites is the white-marked back on the American Three-toed (can you guess what color back a Black-backed Woodpecker has?). American Three-toed Woodpeckers are also noticeably smaller and squatter, with a slightly shorter bill. I find that they appear more black and white in general, while Black-backed Woodpeckers have a bit more of a blueish sheen to their plumage.

American Three-toed Woodpecker - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

Mark (left) and Todd (right) watching the American Three-toed Woodpecker - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

American Three-toed Woodpecker - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

These next two photos were my favorite of the bunch because of the visible explosions of wood chips.

American Three-toed Woodpecker - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

American Three-toed Woodpecker - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

American Three-toed Woodpecker - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

Soon it was time to leave as we were thoroughly satisfied with our experience at the burn and other sites beckoned. A Boreal Chickadee came by to check us out as we were walking out to the cars, another new bird for our trip.

Not long after leaving the burn, our progress down Highway 11 was halted with the sighting of yet another Northern Hawk Owl, our fourth in 24 hours. This is a species that I never tire of!

Northern Hawk Owl - west of Hearst, Cochrane District

This bird was actively hunting while we watched. I was fortunate to have my camera ready when it locked in on a target and dropped from the peak of the spruce.

Northern Hawk Owl - west of Hearst, Cochrane District

Northern Hawk Owl - west of Hearst, Cochrane District

Eventually the Northern Hawk Owl flew a few dozen meters into the treeline, alighting on a branch deep in the forest. I have always associated this species with perching on conspicuous locations such as at the top of a spruce or on a utility post. It seemed a little foreign to observe one acting like a Barred Owl.

Northern Hawk Owl - west of Hearst, Cochrane District

Northern Hawk Owl - west of Hearst, Cochrane District

Northern Hawk Owl - west of Hearst, Cochrane District

The owl paid us no mind and went about its business, listening and acutely aware of the slightest scurryings on the forest floor. It flew directly over our heads on occasion to switch perches. Jeremy and I were just blown away by this bird.

Northern Hawk Owl - west of Hearst, Cochrane District

We continued driving east, birding along the way. We were hoping for Great Gray Owls but it was not to be, despite checking some good looking fields in the area. This Northern Shrike near Mattice was great to watch, however.

Northern Shrike - Mattice, Cochrane District

Yet another Northern Hawk Owl made an appearance, though this was one of the repeat birds from the previous day.

Northern Hawk Owl - west of Opasatika, Cochrane District

The rest of the day was relatively slow - mostly we were just trying to put kilometers behind us on Highway 11. We spent an hour around dusk north of Cochrane checking some fields, though some Ruffed Grouse were some of the only birds we noticed. Instead of staying the night in Cochrane we decided to keep driving, pulling into New Liskeard several hours later to share a hotel room with Mark and Todd.

The following day Jeremy and I finished the drive home, skipping out on birding in Algonquin so that we could beat rush hour traffic in Toronto. Let's be honest, after all of the excitement of Northern Hawk Owls, boreal woodpeckers, and all the other highlights of the trip, the prospect of a couple of hours along Highway 60 in Algonquin just did not have the same appeal.

It was a great trip with three great guys - thanks to Jeremy, Todd and Mark for joining me. I can't wait til my next trip to the boreal forest.

From left to right: Jeremy, Josh, Mark, and Todd - Opasatika, Cochrane District (photo taken by Jeremy Bensette's camera)

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Northern trip - Owl and mammal encounters

After our extended redpoll photo session at Hilliardton Marsh the four of us hopped back into our vehicles to start driving northwest towards Cochrane and beyond. We weren't sure how far we would make it that night, perhaps we would be arriving at the burn near Hearst in the late afternoon, or it might be something we would postpone until the following morning.

It was another beautiful day - sunny with not a cloud in the sky - though the temperature hovered around the -20 mark. We kept an eye out of the truck windows while we drove, in hopes of seeing birds, but as expected very little was around. It is a poor winter for finches in this part of Ontario, and large swathes of the boreal forest can be practically devoid of birds during the winter. We had hoped to see a Northern Hawk Owl or two as higher than usual numbers had been reported along Highway 11, but it was not to be.

After gassing up and grabbing a few groceries in Cochrane, Jeremy and I drove north to investigate some agricultural fields, while Todd and Mark headed northeast from Cochrane, checking a few other roads. It was here that I had one of the most memorable mammal experiences that I have ever had. We approached a dead end road and decided to turn onto a different road, when at the last second decided that we might as well drive to the end of the dead end road anyways. You never know what could be down there! Just as Jeremy was backing the truck up, a white flash appeared on the shoulder of the road. Jeremy let out some choice words just as I saw what was happening. A Short-tailed Weasel was trotting alongside the shoulder of the road right towards us!!

What happened next was seemingly unreal, and though the entire encounter lasted about 30 seconds, it felt like it was ten times as long. The weasel quickly dove into the roadside snowbank and pulled out a vole, which I think is a Meadow Vole. In a matter of seconds it had pierced the back of the skull, swiftly killing the vole, then took off running along the roadside and into a nearby field, proudly carrying its prey. A few seconds later and it had ducked into a hole along the side of a snow pile.

Short-tailed Weasel and vole sp. - north of Cochrane

Short-tailed Weasel and vole sp. - north of Cochrane

Short-tailed Weasel and vole sp. - north of Cochrane

Short-tailed Weasel and vole sp. - north of Cochrane

Jeremy and I were in shock! This was only the second Short-tailed Weasel that I had ever seen (I think Jeremy had seen two previously), and to not only see it well but to watch it hunt was pretty incredible.

We continued on, getting back on Highway 11 and driving west towards Hearst. Most towns were pretty quiet, bird wise, but wherever we found bird feeders we also discovered small numbers of Pine Grosbeaks and Common Redpolls. Interestingly, the redpolls were mostly Common Redpolls, while at Hilliardton Marsh Hoary Redpoll was the dominant species.

Pine Grosbeak - Moonbeam, Cochrane District

Pine Grosbeak - Moonbeam, Cochrane District

To this point we were kind of surprised that we had not encountered any Northern Hawk Owls, given how many had been reported during the last month. Our luck finally changed near the town of Opasatika as Todd and Mark, driving ahead of us, had spotted one from the highway.

Northern Hawk Owl - east of Opasatika, Cochrane District

Originally the bird was quite distant on the edge of a wetland and just when I was about to look at it through the scope it dropped off its snag and disappeared. Ten seconds later, a black and white, falcon-shaped bird came streaking in, flying directly at us, and came up for a landing on a nearby utility pole. It was the hawk owl! The lighting was terrible where I was standing, but Jeremy managed to grab some great in-flight shots!

A few seconds later the owl re-positioned, landing on the top of a conifer. We enjoyed the few minutes here with the owl before it continued on to a more distant perch at the edge of the marsh. Just incredible!

Northern Hawk Owl - east of Opasatika, Cochrane District

Northern Hawk Owl - east of Opasatika, Cochrane District

Northern Hawk Owl - east of Opasatika, Cochrane District

The flood gates had been opened and only fifteen minutes later Jeremy and I came across another Northern Hawk Owl. Mark and Todd showed up a few minutes later to enjoy this bird as well.

Watching the Northern Hawk Owl (can you spot it?)

Northern Hawk Owl - west of Opasatika, Cochrane District

We were making good time and so decided that we would continue driving west past Hearst towards Longlac to spend the night. The time of day was perfect for owls, though no more would make an appearance for us.

At one point as I was staring diligently out of the window I was shocked to see a Gray Wolf standing in the snow. We quickly turned the truck around; luckily the wolf had remained.

Gray Wolf - west of Hearst, Cochrane District

I've seen occasional Gray Wolves in northern Ontario over the years while doing field work but this was the first one that hung around long enough for good looks and photos. A great way to end the day!

Gray Wolf - west of Hearst, Cochrane District

The following morning we would begin heading back east, stopping at the burn to look for woodpeckers. That will be subject of the next post!