Tuesday, 16 September 2014

White Ibis in Wheatley

Last night a juvenile White Ibis was eBirded by Saffron Mrva at the bridge near the Two Creeks campground at Wheatley Provincial Park. It wasn't posted to eBird until later in the evening, but Kory Renaud decided to scour the park early this morning in hopes of turning it up. He quickly relocated it and posted to the listserv. Other local birders managed to see the bird and it was reported all morning.

This was a bird I really wanted to chase, as I had never seen one in Canada before. Prior to this year the OBRC had only accepted 5 records of this species, with only one of those birds staying in one spot for more than a day (October 1990, Turkey Point). Surprisingly Ontario has had three juvenile White Ibis reported in the past three weeks. One was near Napanee from August 24-26, then a bird only staying fora few hours at Oshawa Second Marsh on September 11. Is this one bird making its way down the lower Great Lakes? Or do we have several White Ibises (ibi?) in the province right now? I would be inclined to think that the Pelee bird is different than the Lake Ontario bird(s) - its a hell of a distance from Oshawa to Wheatley, switching lakes, no less. This individual would be the second record for Point Pelee, (the first consisted of a brief flyover on September 27, 1970) and the first for Chatham-Kent..

I wasn't going to chase the bird at first, but after tying up some things at work and realizing that I could finish early for the day, I worked through lunch than packed up at 2:00, and by 2:20 I had left my house in Aurora.

Some traffic in London delayed my drive down, but around 6:30 PM I finally pulled in to Wheatley Provincial Park. Jeremy Bensette  and Chris Gaffan had arrived an hour earlier and Jeremy called to let me know that the bird was still there. A relief!

I parked in the Two Creeks campground near the bridge in question just as the skies, which had threatened all along my drive, were looking ominous again. A group of about a dozen birders were lined up on the bridge, all staring intently to the north.

juvenile White Ibis - Wheatley Provincial Park

The bird was distant but easily identifiable as a juvenile White Ibis! While adults of this species are all white with pink legs and faces, the juveniles are a dingy brown colour from a distance. Up close however the orange facial skin, chocolate-brown back, and white flanks were quite noticeable! After watching the bird forage near a Black-crowned Night-Heron and Great Egret along the creek, I headed along a trail running parallel to the creek for some closer looks. The ibis foraged constantly and certainly looked content!

juvenile White Ibis - Wheatley Provincial Park

Eventually as darkness encroached most of the herons got up and began flying around. The ibis soon left flying south down the creek. We did not see where exactly it landed but it didn't look like it was planning on going very far, and is likely roosting in a tree somewhere for the night. Here's hoping it returns to the same spot for others who are searching tomorrow!

juvenile White Ibis - Wheatley Provincial Park

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Panama: Day 4 (March 3, 2014)

For our third day in the Canal Zone, and last day before checking out other areas of Panama, the three of us decided to drive over to Achiote Road located in the lowlands on the Caribbean side. The previous day (which included a check of Plantation Road) only netted me nine new trip birds - a weak showing given that it was only our third full day.

We were hoping that Achiote Road would reveal to us a large number of new birds since we were venturing further afield and into new habitats. Sure enough it came through, and when it was all said and done I had added 29 new trip birds of which 13 were new for my life list.

Our first stop just after dawn was at the Gatun Dam- an impressive series of locks used to allow massive ships entrance into Gatun Lake, which later empties into the Panama Canal. We were more focused on some of the birds that could be found in the grassy areas nearby and in short order had seen our first Red-breasted Blackbirds of the trip - an absolutely stunning species. I also spotted my first Striated Heron in a roadside ditch while we were driving, and we had a few more interesting birds including Eastern Meadowlark (yep, that Eastern Meadowlark!). 

We arrived at Achiote Road around 7:00 AM and began walking the roadside. Despite occasional vehicles, the road was surprisingly birdy and I was excited checking out the Caribbean slope birds for the first time! 

Some of the highlights along Achiote Road included Spot-crowned Barbet, Black-chested Jay, Collared Aracari, Crimson-crested Woodpecker and Long-tailed Tyrant. At one point Dave and I had an interesting bird fly over which we both identified as a female Blue Cotinga as it landed briefly in a tree - my first cotinga and a huge target bird for Steve. Unfortunately he missed it! Luckily sweet redemption was made later on in the trip during the Darien extension, which you will read about at some point...

Howler Monkeys were abundant (and quite vocal!) along the road, allowing for some neat photo opportunities.

I also took a moment to snap a photo of this Malachite - a stunning species that happens to be quite common throughout Central America.

*Edit: Several readers have mentioned that this butterfly is in fact a Philaethria dido. It has many common names, such as Green Heliconian, False Malachite and Dido Longwing. 

As the morning wore on it became quite hot and humid, so we retreated to some roadside trails to try our luck with some different species. While we missed most of our targets (White-headed Wren is one that comes to mind), we did add a few other interesting ones. A highlight for me was certainly this young Rufescent Tiger-Heron that flushed from a small creek into a nearby tree. 

We spotted several snakes, both of which got away unfortunately. One was likely a Dendrophidion percarinatus. I also managed my first photos of this really awesome glasswing butterfly!

We finished up with about 100 species for the area and checked out the town of Achiote where we happened to stumble across a "restaurant"for the locals in the town. They do not get many visitors and were quite happy to cook us up a big meal of fish with fried plantains - delicious! Of course by the end of the meal Steve had made friends with everyone in the restaurant and several others in the town! 

By this time it was mid-afternoon and the birding had slowed down considerably so we began the long drive to Altos del Maria located in the foothills west of the Canal Zone. Here we had arranged to stay with local birder Alfred Raab for several nights. Alfred splits his time between Altos and the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario and was a good friend of Steve's. 

The drive was long and fairly uneventful with the exception being the Carnival festivities/street parties going on in every single small town along the highway! Eventually we made it to Altos del Maria by late afternoon. We did see what was my first Fork-tailed Flycatcher in a roadside field - a common bird through much of Panama but one that I was just dying to see. My photos of this one leave a lot to be desired but I did snag a few decent ones later in the trip.

That night Alfred discovered a massive locust of some sort on his door so we played around with some photos of the massive (7+ inches) insect!

We were excited to be in this new area and especially thrilled that Alfred was willing to spend two full days showing us around his "local patch". Dozens of lifers awaited us...

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Back on the east coast!

Yesterday evening, Laura and I hopped on a plane and flew to Nova Scotia to spend the next week. Since we began dating 5 years ago I have visited her and her family twice each year - this was my 11th trip already, and 6th for either late August or early September.

Laura's parents live on a gorgeous lake about half an hour outside of Halifax. An old railway line runs along the east side of the lake and can often be very productive for flocks of warblers, vireos, chickadees, and other songbirds. I have had some success over the years here at the lake, with highlights being Warbling Vireo and Bicknell's Thrush during autumn migration.

This morning was overcast and fairly calm so I decided to do the ~ 5 km loop around the lake. While I didn't see any rarities this time around, it was a great walk with quite a few birds including several warbler flocks. Here are a few photos from the excursion!

White-throated Sparrow

Black-and-white Warbler
Canada Warbler

Black-throated Green Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Swamp Sparrow
Black-and-white Warbler

Friday, 5 September 2014

Ontario's prettiest snake

Despite living in the "Great White North", we are fortunate to have a variety of awesome snake species here in southern Ontario. While we don't have the diversity of places further south, our fifteen species of snakes in Ontario is certainly a lot higher than any other Canadian province. Some can be absolutely gorgeous - like the jet blacks of a melanistic Eastern Gartersnake, or the bold reds, coppers, and tans of an Eastern Milksnake, or the multitude of colors that Eastern Hognose Snakes can come in.Then there are Eastern Foxsnakes, Eastern Massasaugas and Ringneck Snakes....

One of my favorite Ontario snakes, and certainly one of the most beautiful, is the diminutive Smooth Greensnake. Found in grassy fields, alvars, rock barrens, and other open habitat types, Smooth Greensnakes are relatively common throughout south and central Ontario. Despite this they can be very difficult to find as their emerald coloration blends right in with their favorite habitat type - grasses. I am usually only fortunate in seeing a handful or so every year.

On Monday Laura and I celebrated labour day by driving north to a favorite locale of mine and working hard to try to find some snakes. We were hoping to locate Eastern Massasaugas as gravid females would have given birth by now. While we struck out with those, we did see a number of other cool herps,including Five-lined Skinks, Eastern Gartersnakes, a half dozen amphibian species, Midland Painted Turtles, and a Northern Ringneck Snake.

The highlight for us though were two Smooth Greensnakes that Laura managed to find. The first, an adult male, was under a small board around the perimeter of a junk pile less than an hour into our hike. It was Laura's first for Ontario, though she has found a few in her native Nova Scotia!

After a quick photo session we let the little guy on his way and continued our hike.

Several hours later, after cooling off in a nearby lake, Laura and I headed back to the car as the skies were threatening with rain. It had been hot and humid all day but a combination of the late afternoon clouds and a few raindrops cooled the air significantly. As we were walking along an open rock barren, Laura suddenly noticed a second Smooth Greensnake, this one crawling around in the open.

As you can see its camouflage was not as effective with this sort of substrate. Despite that, it would sway the anterior third of its body back and forth, likely mimicking a piece of grass blowing in the wind. Perhaps it would have been more successful in a grassy environment!

Tongue flick....

The Smooth Greensnake ended up being our last snake of the day, which had been quite successful despite striking out on rattlesnakes. A great way to spend a free afternoon!

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Eurasian Collared-Dove twitch

Last Sunday, Jeremy Bensette and Steve Pike, two friends of mine who happen to be local Pelee birders, were driving east of Leamington along with Lindsay and Michelle Vaillant. Jeremy noticed an interesting dove on a wire which turned out to be a Eurasian Collared-Dove! This rarity has only been seen about 20 times in Ontario so it was a great find. The next day, Jeremy Hatt and Rick Mayos discovered that in fact two birds were present! 

While there have been several sightings of Eurasian Collared-Doves in Ontario in recent years, most of them have been one-day-wonders, so the fact that two were around and in the same area gave me hope that these could be birds I could chase. By the time Friday came around the birds were still being seen and I began the long drive to Pelee, dropping Laura off in Cambridge on the way. She had to go wedding-dress shopping with a friend on the Saturday so it worked out perfectly.

I arrived in the Pelee area just after seven in the evening and drove right to the spot. As I was pulling up, even with the sun low in the sky and directly in my eyes, it was impossible to miss the two chunky gray doves sitting on the hydro wire! 

Without a doubt that was the easiest chase I had done in a while and I was happy to see my first Eurasian Collared-Doves in Canada.

While this species is fairly distinctive, it can be confused with the "Ringed Turtle-Dove", a domesticated version of the African Collared-Dove which is frequently kept in captivity. It seems there are more reports of Ringed Turtle-Doves than the real deal, as I guess they escape frequently enough. While Ringed Turtle-Doves do have a neck ring like Eurasian Collared-Doves, they are smaller (Mourning Dove size) and paler. Eurasian Collared-Doves have black outer webs on the underside of the tail feathers, as shown in these photos!

Throughout my stay the doves did not leave the wire and they tolerated my approach as I stayed in my car. I have heard that these birds could be rather skittish so it was great to have prolonged views of them at close range!

While Eurasian Collared-Doves are rare in Ontario, it might not be long until they are a common species. Since being introduced to the Bahamas in the 1970s they have spread northward towards Canada. They have since become well established over much of the Lower 48 and northward to British Colombia and even southern Alaska. They are becoming a common sight in the southern Prairie Provinces and it seems the next major frontier will be the northeast United States, Ontario, and eastern Canada. Just a matter of time.

After seeing the Eurasian Collared-Doves I still had close to 24 hours before I needed to get back - lots of time for some whirlwind birding! I'll try to get another post up in a day or two.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Camping in Charleston Lake Provincial Park

Last weekend, Laura and I drove east to Charleston Lake Provincial Park where we planned on camping for a few nights with my parents, sister, brother, and his girlfriend. While the weather was not ideal during our time, the rain held off (for the most part) during the day, instead coming down mostly at night. We made the most of our opportunities to hike and kayak and I managed to see quite a few cool herps and a few birds as well!

The low-light of the weekend certainly involved my camera, 300 mm lens, and teleconverter go for a dip in the lake, but lets not talk about that...At least it happened towards the end of the trip and the (filled) memory cards were salvageable. Without further ado, some pics!

Laura looking for Map Turtles

Undoubtedly the weekend's highlight for me came on Friday morning. Laura, my brother Isaac and I decided on hiking a trail to look for Gray Ratsnakes, a species found in this part of the province. This was sort of a nemesis species for several years as it was the 15th and final snake I added to my Ontario list back in 2009 after at least 3 weekend trips to eastern Ontario in search of them. To this day it has been my least frequently encountered snake species in Ontario - in fact, I have just seen that one individual though I have seen several road-killed ones.

As we were walking along I mentioned to Isaac and Laura that not only can they be found on the ground, but they are sometimes seen in trees in search of bird's eggs and fledglings. I gestured towards a suitable looking tree to use as an example, and sure enough a long black snake was scaling it!

Wow, what were the odds of that. Unfortunately we were unable to get any closer to it as it was quite a ways up the tree, but with binoculars it was still a good look. Not quite the same as having one in-hand though. Gray Ratsnakes are found in only two pockets in Ontario. A few fragmented and tiny populations occur in Norfolk and Elgin counties in southwestern Ontario, and a larger population is found in the rolling deciduous hills and pastures of Frontenac and Leeds and Grenville counties in eastern Ontario. While the southwestern population is small and fragmented, the eastern Ontario population appears to be doing well and they are regularly encountered here in Charleston Lake Provincial Park.

Dragonflies are cool! Here is one which I will ID once I am home with my dragonfly field guides tomorrow evening, unless of course Reuven reads this before then ;)

(Update: It's a Canada Darner!)

I couldn't help but notice the rather large Eastern Chipmunk population in the park - no doubt, a species that provides a nice meal to adult ratsnakes.

Herping with Laura and Isaac was pretty productive as we encountered about a dozen species in the short walk. Here they are checking out an uber-cute baby Snapping Turtle.

American Bullfrog peering through the duckweed.

My parents had brought their cedar-strip canoe (my dad made it when I was a kid) as well as their two kayaks. While taking the kayak for a spin one day I approached a family of Mallards for some easy photos. Birds are much less wary in a kayak than on land I find, even "tame" species like Mallards.

Checking out a threat in the sky...

Laura looking like a pro ;)

We came across a pair of Ospreys on a nest while kayaking on Charleston Lake.

Northern Watersnakes are abundant within the park, and if you moved slowly it wasn't too hard to approach closely for photos. Snakes have relatively poor eyesight and they are geared to notice movement, so with a little patience it is easy to snag basking watersnakes from the kayak. The trick is to do it without them biting and crapping all over you!

A little closer....


One of the coolest-looking insects I have seen in the while lazily flew by us while we were relaxing in the campsite. I jumped up and apprehended it for photos. It appears to be a female Pelecinus polyturator, one of only three species in the family Pelicinidae. Only the females of this parasitic wasp species have the extremely long abdomen, which they use to lay eggs in the larvae of scarab beatles.

One final highlight of the weekend was finding a gorgeous sub-adult Eastern Milksnake under a rock, but the camera was dead at that point. It was a pretty solid weekend in one of my favorite provincial parks!