Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Long lost photos

This week I have been going through and uploading all of my bird photos from Ontario into eBird. I have been making good progress and at this point I have uploaded all of my photos from 2009 through 2014, as well as a few others from 2015 and 2016. I have uploaded photos of 341 species taken in Ontario, meaning there are only 10 species that I have photographed whose likenesses haven't made it into eBird.

As I was going through these photos I found quite a few that I had not posted to the blog, usually because I never got around to going through those albums, purging all the poor photos, and editing some of what was left over. Since I do not have a ton of current material at the moment as I have been too often leaving the weight of my camera behind on recent excursions, I thought I would post a few of these photos which had been forgotten until now.

On April 21, 2014 I was doing some work in the Lindsay area during the morning, leaving my whole afternoon free. I decided to explore the nearby Carden Alvar, home of a number of grassland/alvar specialties including Upland Sandpiper, Clay-colored Sparrow, Sedge Wren and Loggerhead Shrike, among many other interesting species. While the bulk of the Upland Sandpipers had not yet arrived to set up their territories, I was able to tease one individual out of the alvar.

Upland Sandpiper - Carden Alvar (April 21, 2014)

Several newly arrived Loggerhead Shrikes also put in appearances, including this individual on the aptly named Shrike Road. Loggerhead Shrikes are an Endangered species in Ontario with only several small populations hanging on. Carden hosts the majority of the birds, though there are a number of pairs in the Napanee area and a few on the Bruce Peninsula as I understand. Due to the land use practices in the Carden area as well as work done by local conservation groups to buy up land, enough habitat remains for the shrikes at Carden for now, though the population is still quite low and certainly at risk. That being said, they are relatively easy to find by driving some of the roads within the area, and there are often a few pairs along the heavily-birded Wylie and Shrike Roads.

Loggerhead Shrike - Carden Alvar (April 21, 2014)

Loggerhead Shrike was actually a new addition to my "photographed in Ontario" list as I had completely forgotten about these photos! It is species #351, meaning that there are 28 species that I have yet to photograph which are on my Ontario list. Unfortunately several of these are code 6 rarities which I may never have another shot at including Pink-footed Goose, Black-tailed Gull, Elegant Tern, and Phainopepla, as well as a few code 5s such as Golden-crowned Sparrow, Bullock's Oriole, Razorbill and Great Cormorant. Fortunately there are still a few easy ones remaining including Marsh Wren, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Northern Waterthrush and Rock Pigeon (!), along with several other regular Ontario species such as Kirtland's Warbler, Black-headed Gull, Northern Gannet, Glossy Ibis, and Barrow's Goldeneye.

Loggerhead Shrike - Carden Alvar (April 21, 2014)

After photographing the shrike, I noticed this Eastern Gartersnake attempting to gather some sort of warmth from the road on this relatively cool, gloomy late April day.

Eastern Gartersnake - Carden Alvar (April 21, 2014)

Switching gears now - after the excellent trip to the coast of James Bay that Kory Renaud, Jeremy Bensette, Alan Wormington and I went on in the autumn of 2014, Kory, Alan and I birded the Hearst to Cochrane stretch on October 11. We saw a few interesting birds that day including a Lesser Black-backed Gull at the Kapuskasing landfill, a group of 8 Cackling Geese and 66 Pectoral Sandpipers at the Hearst lagoons, and an Eastern Meadowlark near Hearst, representing one of few (the only?) record(s) for Cochrane District. This Bald Eagle did not mind our presence at the Hearst landfill - it was more concerned with finding some delectable morsel to eat among the heaps of rotting garbage (what a magnificent creature). Fortunately none of the garbage is visible in these photos.

Bald Eagle - Hearst landfill (October 11, 2014)

Bald Eagle - Hearst landfill (October 11, 2014)

Sticking with the northern Ontario theme, the next photo is of one of my favorite mammals in the province. This dude was walking right down the middle of the highway that leads to Pickle Lake, so we stopped to admire and photograph it. Fortunately (for the porc) our presence was enough to force it to slowly shuffle off the dangerous road.

Porcupine - south of Pickle Lake (June 29, 2015)

Ontario is home to only one species of lizard, but fortunately, Five-lined Skinks are relatively common throughout their range in the Georgian Bay region of Ontario. They inhabit several locations in southwestern Ontario as well and can be particularly common in parts of Point Pelee National Park. Last summer Laura and I drove down to the Windsor area to participate on the Ojibway Prairie Bioblitz, also spending a day at Point Pelee National Park. Like most lizard species, Five-lined Skinks are oviparous, meaning that the young hatch from eggs, and along with Jeremy Bensette, we found a few Five-lined Skink nests inadvertently in our search for snakes and other herps.

Five-lined Skink and eggs - Point Pelee NP (July 17, 2015)

I'll finish this post with a photo of Sanctuary Pond at Point Pelee on a beautiful, calm May morning.

Sanctuary Pond, Point Pelee (May 2, 2015)

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Alan Wormington – 1954 – 2016

On Saturday evening, Alan Wormington passed away while in hospice care in Leamington, Ontario. He had been dealing with the ravages of cancer for the past 30 months, but especially over the last six weeks or so. Alan Wormington was one of Canada’s and Ontario’s premier birders, and was widely considered by his peers as the most skilled birder of his generation. Alan’s knowledge of Ontario’s birds was enormous, and he was always on the “cutting edge” of the birding scene in Ontario – many would agree that he was the single most influential birder of his generation.

Alan Wormington at Moosonee sewage lagoons - September 24, 2014

Glenn Coady succinctly wrote about Alan’s influence as a field ornithologist, which I hope he doesn’t mind me posting here.

“Perhaps no one since Witmer Stone, a century ago at Cape May, has become so synonymous with the study of the birds of so crucial an area for their understanding and enjoyment, as has Alan Wormington at Point Pelee. As a field ornithologist, many of Alan’s achievements are the stuff of legend. He was the finder of seven species of birds were were new for the Ontario bird checklist: Lesser Nighthawk (1974), Royal Tern (1974), Fish Crow (1978), Cave Swallow (1989), Plumbeous Vireo (1997), Sooty/Short-tailed Shearwater (2010) and Kelp Gull (2012) – the most by anyone since the days of William Edwin Saunders a century ago. In addition, he found the first nests for Ontario of Chuck-will’s-widow (1977) and Cinnamon Teal (1983).”

Alan Wormington (front row, left) with Roger Tory Peterson (front row, center) at Point Pelee NP, May 1978

Alan was an excellent photographer, documenting many of his rare finds in an age before digital photography. He was a founding member of the Ontario Bird Records Committee, serving more terms than anyone else, and doing more than anyone to ensure its success as a peer review for rare bird records for Ontario. Alan has written numerous articles about bird status and identification, compiled bird records in meticulous detail for the Point Pelee and Moosonee Birding Areas, and contributed with information for, and reviews of, countless manuscripts and articles. Alan always edited my articles that I wrote for the journal North American Birds. It was often a bit of a painful experience receiving his edits back as I knew that he would meticulously scour every detail of my report for every possible mistake. Alan’s attention to detail and desire for accuracy was exemplary.

Alan Wormington at Moosonee waterfront - September 29, 2012

While Alan was most well known for his birding knowledge and skill, his understanding of the status and distribution of Ontario butterflies was unequaled as well. Alan's was chiefly interested in butterflies growing up, but immediately caught the birding bug after identifying a White-eyed Vireo in Hamilton one spring. His interest in butterflies, however, remained strong through his life; he found several new species of butterflies for the province, as well as countless firsts for Point Pelee. One of Alan's books that he was working on is the "The Rare Butterflies of Ontario" - hopefully its publication will come to fruition in the coming years.

Alan Wormington at Moosonee - September 29, 2013

Unlike many of his peers who have known Alan for decades, I only first met him in 2009. I distinctly remember the first time seeing him in person. I was a nineteen year old herper who had only been interested in birds for the past year or so, and I was visiting Point Pelee for my first time. Even as a new birder, I was well aware of Alan Wormington, as his name would frequently pop up on the Ontbirds archives from previous years or in conversations with other birders, and I certainly got the sense that this man was a legend in the Ontario birding scene. One morning on my inaugural Point Pelee visit, I was birding along the northeast corner of the Woodland Nature Trail. It was a beautiful and calm morning in the park and I was having fun identifying all the warblers and other songbirds I was seeing. Two other birders walked up the trail towards me, and I realized that Alan Wormington was one of them, accompanied by a friend whom I later found out was Henrietta O’Neill. I kept birding as they approached and I noticed a small songbird pop up deep within the dogwoods - it was a waterthrush, most likely a northern. Alan and Henrietta stopped and asked if I had seen anything, and I blurted out that there was a Worm-eating Warbler in the dogwoods, fully meaning to say waterthrush. Alan turned to look before I clarified that I meant to say waterthrush, but the damage had been done. After a quick look he continued on while I felt a bit red from shame! Alan had no recollection of this story when I told him about it last week, no doubt at the time he probably thought that I was just another newbie birder, confusing my waterthrushes with my worm-eating warblers.

Alan Wormington at Netitishi Point - October 22, 2012

In the years since, I have become very good friends with Alan. We have birded together often at Point Pelee, but some of my fondest memories of Alan come from the trips that we took to the southern coast of James Bay during autumn rarity-hunting expeditions.

From left to right: Jeremy Bensette, Josh Vandermeulen, Kory Renaud and Alan Wormington at Netitishi Point - September 26, 2014

All told, we went on five expeditions to his beloved “Moosonee (Southern James Bay) Birding Area”. These trips were fantastic, often filled with rarities, many of which Alan of course spotted. Three of these trips were to Netitishi Point where we birded and sea-watched along the southern coast of James for two weeks straight, and two of these trips were just Alan and I. I have many great memories of these trips - tracking down the wayward Western Kingbird that flitted by us at dusk on our last day at Netitishi in 2012; spotting my first Ontario Northern Fulmar, the record breaking bird of my Ontario big year, alongside Alan; chatting about life and birds beside the campfire during the cold, crisp evenings; watching Alan have his glove stolen by the camp Red Fox, which was later found in the woods, missing a few fingers; straining through our scopes for hours on end during the really good days when thousands of birds migrated by as we struggled to keep track of the numbers.

Alan Wormington determining the wind direction at Netitishi Point - October 26, 2012

Sitting beside Alan on the coast of James Bay as he identified distant ducks and waterbirds while they were still specks on the horizon, I always felt extra motivated to spend long hours staring through the scope, working on my identification skills. I know that I am just one of many birders who strove to be better after watching Alan work his craft.

Alan Wormington at Netitishi Point - October 26, 2013

Alan was a pioneer when it came to birding in northern Ontario. He was fascinated with the birding on James Bay and the north shore of Lake Superior, with his main interest lying in the possibilities of finding rare birds. He would return home from these jaunts to the north with reports of numerous rarities each time - often accompanied by good photos. This photograph below features Mark Jennings, Bob Curry and Alan, taken in 1977 when Alan was 23 years old. It was a self-portrait of the guys from their trip to White Top (Ship Sands Island), located at the mouth of the Moose River near Moosonee. Alan told me several stories from these trips; the most memorable of these was a trip that Alan and I believe Bruce DiLabio went on to Moosonee, his first ever trip to the James Bay coast. The teenagers showed up in Moosonee with woefully inadequate equipment and hailed a boat ride out to Ship Sands Island. There was a strong tide combined with a north wind one night, and the guys awoke with water running through the tent. Luckily some native guys were also on the island and rescued them, by taking them in their boat to higher ground!

left to right: Mark Jennings, Bob Curry, and Alan Wormington at White Top (Ship Sands Island), James Bay - August, 1977

One particular example of Alan's tireless passion and skill in birding occurred on my first trip with Alan – a six day trip to Moosonee and back with Mark Jennings and Alan in late September, 2012. After a busy morning of birding around Moosonee, we were relaxing on a picnic bench and watching several Rough-legged Hawks flying over. Alan spotted a distant Buteo coming closer, and immediately began to show interest in it. I was kind of baffled when watching the hawk – it certainly appeared to be a Red-tailed Hawk but it exhibited a plumage I wasn’t familiar with. While I was still struggling to put a name to it, Alan proclaimed how he thought it was a Harlan’s Hawk, and we both took some photos of the bird circling over. Of course the photos show an adult Harlan’s Hawk, a bird that wasn’t even on my radar, but one that Alan was intimately familiar with in the odd chance that he would someday come across one.

Alan Wormington (left) with Mark Jennings at Moosonee - September 28, 2012

Another example from that same trip occurred several days later once we were back on the Highway 11 corridor. After concluding a busy day of birding all of the towns, sewage lagoons and landfills in this stretch, we continued to the east as the sun began to set. Alan was driving, going his customary 20-30 km/h over the speed limit while Mark and I stared out the windows  and tried not to fall asleep. I must confess that I was not paying much attention – it had been a long day and I was on my phone, reading up and seeing photos of a Mew Gull that had been found in Sault Ste. Marie, a bird which we would be trying for the following day. As we flew down the highway, Alan yellow out “Scissor-tailed Flycatcher!” and hit the brakes. I caught a glimpse of a long-tailed looking bird on the wire as we streaked past. He turned the car around and backtracked – sure enough, a young Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was perched on the power line in the fading evening light. His preparedness and dedication to his craft was readily apparent to those of us who were fortunate to have birded with Alan.

Alan Wormington and Kory Renaud at Netitishi Point - September 26, 2014 

Alan wasn't all business all the time - he had a quirky sense of humour which frequently surfaced when he was among friends. There is one story in particular I wanted to mention.

In late December, 2012, I was in Halifax, Nova Scotia to spend the holidays with Laura and her family. While a few days remained before the end of 2012, my Ontario big year was essentially over as I would not be returning back to the province until the calendar flipped over to January. I was checking my email one afternoon when I saw the Ontbirds post that had just come in. "Northern Lapwing at Hillman Marsh" it read, and of course Alan was the author. My heart sank as I read the details. Alan had discovered this bird with a flock of 40 or so Killdeer that were still lingering at the southwestern corner of Hillman Marsh, where the mud was still visible due to lowered water levels. Several Northern Lapwings had been seen recently on the east coast of North America, and it was a species that has long been our radar as a new addition to our province's avifauna, no doubt a species that Alan was well prepared for. He mentioned in the Ontbirds post that he had returned back to his house to get the word out and to grab his camera, and that he would be returning to Hillman Marsh shortly.

Alan Wormington at Netitishi Point - October 27, 2013
I checked Ontbirds, eBird, and the various Facebook groups throughout the evening, anxiously waiting for an update on the bird. Laura and her family did their best to dispel my glum mood, but it was of no use.

Strangely, there were no follow up Ontbirds posts, and nothing was on eBird for Hillman Marsh, despite several hours of light remaining when Alan originally posted. It then dawned on me. I quickly checked the original Ontbirds email - under the "Recipient" field, only my name was listed, and I quickly clued in that this was a fake Ontbirds post from Alan, the first one of several I would receive over the years. He really had me going for the better part of a day!

Alan Wormington at Moosonee sewage lagoons - September 26, 2012

I am honored to have had the privilege of knowing Alan and learning from him over the past 6 years. Alan was a generous and loyal friend to those who knew him throughout his life. His passing leaves a huge hole in the birding and butterflying communities, and he will be dearly missed and fondly remembered by many.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Common Ringed Plover in Toronto!

Yesterday morning I had just started work on my winter season report for the journal North American Birds, something that I had been putting off for a few months, when I checked my email and almost spit out my coffee. A possible Common Ringed Plover had been found by Paul Prior on the Leslie Street Spit in Toronto a few hours previously. The Ontbirds post had a link to a video that Paul took, showing a bird that clearly showed a suite of field marks strongly suggesting this species. And then the bird called in the video. Yes, the video did not lie - this could be nothing else than Ontario's first record of Common Ringed Plover.

My plans for the day quickly changed and within 5 minutes I had hit the road in search of this extremely rare bird to this part of North America. Dealing with traffic exiting Niagara-on-the-Lake is always an ordeal, but after an excruciating 20 minutes I was on the highway and making good time towards Toronto. The bird had been seen along the Leslie Street Spit (Tommy Thompson Park), a man-made peninsula that juts over 5 km into Lake Ontario, constructed in the late 1950s. As I was still without a mobile phone I would not be able to hear about any updates about the bird, so I was hoping that it would remain at its location for another hour and a half.

The traffic entering Toronto was surprisingly manageable. The traffic leaving the city however was a different story, and a necessary evil that I would have to deal with later. At this time my mind was just on getting to the park as soon as possible.

I arrived at the base of Tommy Thompson Park, and as it was my first visit I did not really have much to go on to get to Cell 2 where the bird was reported from (I had no additional info from the initial Ontbirds post, nor time to research it before leaving). Luckily an interpretive sign displayed a map of the park, and I hurried off on foot the 3 km or so out to the location where it had been reported this morning.

I did not see any other birders during the hot and humid walk to the location, but after half an hour as I stopped and scanned up ahead I noticed a small crowd of birders, intently peering into their spotting scopes. When arriving upon the scene of a rare bird twitch, this is good news - bad news is when everyone is milling around and chatting, with few people manning the scopes. I was hopeful that they were on the bird, and five minutes later I had my answer.

The Common Ringed Plover was right in the area where Paul had found it earlier in the morning and I basked in its glory, studying it among a few other shorebirds. This is a bird that I have studied photos of and scrutinized on trips to Europe, in hopes of encountering one day on this site of the Atlantic, and all the field marks looked excellent for a Common Ringed Plover (likely a male). My photos are quite distant since I was shooting with my 300 mm lens (views through the scope were much better!).

Common Ringed Plover (right) and Stilt Sandpiper - Tommy Thompson Park, Toronto

Compared to the very similar Semipalmated Plover, Common Ringed Plover shows a thick black breastband that is roughly even width across the front of the chest. It also shows a straight pale "eyebrow" (though female SEPLs also show a bit of an eyebrow) and has extensive black on the lores, which wraps around over the top of the bill. Other features shown by CRPL (but difficult to confirm without direction comparison with SEPL) include a paler back and slightly larger size, along with a slightly longer bill. CRPL lack the yellowish orbital ring that SEPL shows.

Common Ringed Plover - Tommy Thompson Park, Toronto

Common Ringed Plover breeds primarily in northern Eurasia, though there are also populations in Greenland and parts of Nunavut. Apart from the breeding ground in Nunavut and migrants found on islands in western Alaska, records in North America are few and far between. Common Ringed Plovers are nearly annual in Newfoundland in recent years (20-ish total records), while Nova Scotia has around a half dozen records. I am only aware of about 10 other records for southern Canada and the lower 48 States, though there are undoubtedly a few that haven't made it onto eBird yet. Most records pertain to birds found in the autumn, mostly from the middle of August to early September, so this bird is right on schedule. It is worth noting that a Common Ringed Plover was discovered west of Trois Rivieres, Quebec August 17-18, 2016. Photos of that bird can be found here.

Common Ringed Plover records on eBird

I was only able to study the bird for about 20 minutes before I was forced to vacate the area; after all, Laura and I had dinner reservations to catch that evening. It was a spectacular bird to see in the province, and kudos to Paul Prior for finding and identifying this species, a near look alike to Semipalmated Plover, as well as getting the news out early so many could add this species to their Ontario or Life Lists. As of this writing the bird is still present.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Shorebirding at Point Pelee

This past weekend I headed down to Point Pelee for a quick 24 hour trip. The main goal for me was to visit some good friends that I hadn't seen since my last visit during May, but of course I fit some birding in.

After attending Kory and Sarah Renaud's barbeque at their new house, I was eager to go for a paddle in the marsh the following morning. Kory and I took his canoe, while Steve Pike kayaked. Shorebirding in the marsh is one of my favorite birding activities in the Point Pelee area, as the birds often let you approach so close you can nearly touch them (providing great photo opportunities). The marsh is a beautiful place to explore, and you never know what you will encounter out there since few birders check it regularly.

Shorebird diversity was about average for the time of year, with no rarities mixed in, but it was great to observe at close range some of the more common species. Thirty-six Short-billed Dowitchers were a good count; every single one was a juvenile, as expected for mid-August. I did not take any photos of the dowitchers this time, but here are a couple of photos from years past.

Short-billed Dowitchers - Point Pelee National Park

Short-billed Dowitcher - Point Pelee National Park

Short-billed Dowitcher - Point Pelee National Park

Short-billed Dowitchers - Point Pelee National Park

Our "best" shorebird was probably this juvenile Stilt Sandpiper that was hanging out in West Cranberry Pond. It was interesting to hear it call repeatedly as it chased off a pesky Short-billed Dowitcher that was encroaching on presumably the finest feeding area. Not something I can recall hearing before!

Stilt Sandpiper - Point Pelee National Park

While we were paddling in Lake Pond, I noticed a distinctive shape of a heron standing on a small mudflat, with its head pointing skyward. The American Bittern certainly looked out of place out in the open; usually it inhabits stands of aquatic vegetation where it can blend in more easily. Thanks to Kory's paddling, we were able to get in close while I snapped a few photos, my first that I have ever taken of this species (and species #352 photographed for Ontario).

American Bittern - Point Pelee National Park

American Bittern - Point Pelee National Park

On our way back we noticed a few Black Terns, including one individual perching on American Lotus. A few weeks earlier, dozens were present in the marsh but they have cleared out since then, and only a few remained, along with dozens of Common Terns.

Black Tern - Point Pelee National Park

This individual was even banded!

Black Tern - Point Pelee National Park

Common Terns - Point Pelee National Park

After photographing the Black Tern, we stopped to take some photos of the American Lotus flowers that grow in a large patch in Lake Pond. I have some awesome photos of these on my iPhone, however somehow during the ordeal the phone ended up overboard, and now resides permanently in the Pelee Marsh. For a second I debated going in after it, but the phone would have been long fried at that point, plus I did not think that Kory would appreciate me trying to scramble back into the canoe afterwards, more than likely dumping him overboard in the process. Here are a few shots of the flowers with the real camera.

American Lotus - Point Pelee National Park

American Lotus - Point Pelee National Park

Afterwards we checked a few other shorebird locations before driving over to Alan's house for a visit. Our first stop was a stormwater management pond that is located within a future subdivision development just north of the Golf Course. The previous day, Jeremy Hatt had found a juvenile Red Knot at nearby Seacliff Beach, and when checking the stormwater pond soon after, was surprised to see that the knot had taken up temporary residence there! Jeremy met Steve, Kory and I at the ponds, and while the knot was a no-show it was nice to do some birding at a new location. The most interesting bird here was a hatch-year meadowlark that Kory spotted nearby, which we all viewed in the scope. Eastern? Western? Who knows....

A check of Seacliff Beach was our final stop of the morning. Some algae had collected on the beach adjacent to the ferry docks, and here we watched an interesting little group of shorebirds from only a few meters away. Six species were present - A Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Baird's Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, and several Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers.

Semipalmated Sandpiper - Seacliff Beach

Sanderling (right) and Baird's Sandpiper - Seacliff Beach

This was the same group accompanying the Red Knot yesterday, but unfortunately it was nowhere to be seen. I took advantage of the opportunity to take a few photos of the shorebirds from close range. The lighting was not ideal, but its rare that I get an opportunity like this to photograph a Baird's Sandpiper, for instance.

Baird's Sandpiper - Seacliff Beach

Baird's Sandpiper - Seacliff Beach

The Sanderling provided an interesting photo subject. After an extended foraging session, it decided to go wash off in the waves.

Sanderling - Seacliff Beach

Sanderling - Seacliff Beach

Sanderling - Seacliff Beach

Monday, 15 August 2016

Lark Sparrow at Port Weller, Niagara Region

This afternoon Laura and I met up after work at the east pier of Port Weller to go for a nice walk. Laura has recently moved back to Ontario after finishing up her veterinarian degree in Edinburgh, and she was eager to check out a few of my local birding locations with me.

It was a muggy day but overcast with a surprisingly cool breeze - a nice change from the frequent 34 degree weather we had been experiencing lately. We both grabbed our binoculars and I debated bringing my camera on the walk - not expecting to see much, I decided to leave it behind this time, to save a few pounds of weight on the walk. We even joked about how our odds of finding something would be much better without a camera!

It was a nice walk out to the pier and a few migrants were scattered here and there, including 15-20 Yellow Warblers in a couple of loose flocks near the end of the pier. I was happy to see that the water had receded enough in the main pond to provide some shorebird habitat - several Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, two Lesser Yellowlegs and a Pectoral Sandpiper all made use of the habitat, while Laura picked out a migrant Green-winged Teal with the Mallards.

view from along Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

We walked to the east end of the pier, taking our time to watch the antics of a group of Spotted Sandpiper while also closely inspecting the occasional Yellow Warbler or skulking Song Sparrow to make sure nothing else was out there with them. We then walked west and headed towards the canal, making our way to the end of the pier adjacent to the entrance to the canal. Here, a small fence prevents access from the concrete end of the pier. On the diagram below, it is the red marker labeled "1".

A small songbird caught my eye as it stood on the concrete section beyond the fence. It was somewhat large and stood quite upright, and I was expecting a lark or pipit (both would be unusual out there this time of year) as I brought my bins up. I was surprised to see a Lark Sparow staring back at me! I quickly got Laura on the bird, and we watched it for a few minutes as it foraged on the concrete pier.

It appeared quite skittish and something caused it to flush and fly over our heads, landing in the grassy area behind us (red marker "2"). We went off in search of it, and after a minute it flushed again, flying away from us (and providing a great view of its unique white edges to its rounded tail). It appeared to land somewhere near where I have placed the red marker "3". I posted it to Ontbirds using Laura's phone, as mine currently resides in the bottom of Point Pelee's marsh and likely will continue to for quite some time.

We searched for the Lark Sparrow in the vicinity of "3" for another 15 minutes or so, but were unable to find it. It was getting late in the day and the wind was picking up so we gave up, electing to walk back to the cars as we were pretty hungry at this point!

As far as I can discern this is the third record for Niagara Region. According to "Niagara Birds" by John Black and Kayo Roy, the first record was of a bird found by Richard Drobits on 11 May 1956 at Morgan's Point. No other records are mentioned in the book through the year 2006. On 24 November 2013, Nathan Miller discovered a Lark Sparrow along the Niagara Parkway in Fort Erie, and that bird lingered until at least 6 December 2013.

The Port Weller east pier is an excellent rarity trap. It is vegetated, has a decent-sized pond, and juts out over 2 km into Lake Ontario. Over the years some of the more notable species found here include Tricolored Heron, Ancient Murrelet, Dovekie, 3! Ross's Gulls, Sage Thrasher, Rock Wren, Great Cormorant, Tufted Duck, Mew Gull, and Purple Gallinule. A whole host of "lesser rarities" have been found here as well, including Northern Gannet, Worm-eating Warbler, Western Kingbird, California Gull, Northern Hawk Owl, and Eared Grebe. Needless to say it is a location worth checking regularly!

Sunday, 14 August 2016

The snakes of Ontario - Part 5

Part 1 - Eastern Gartersnake, Dekay's Brownsnake, Northern Redbelly Snake, Northern Ribbonsnake
Part 2 - Northern Watersnake, Lake Erie Watersnake, Queensnake
Part 3 - Eastern Milksnake, Eastern Foxsnake, Eastern Hog-nosed Snake
Part 4 - Northern Ring-necked Snake, Smooth Greensnake
Part 5 - Gray Ratsnake, Butler's Gartersnake
Part 6 - Blue Racer, Eastern Massasauga

Back when I started this blog in the middle of 2011 one of the first series of posts that I made was about the snakes native to Ontario. I covered nine of the fifteen species, plus one additional sub-species of snakes that can be found in this province. I posted the fourth installment (covering Northern Ring-necked Snake and Smooth Greensnake) in 2013. After a hiatus that was much longer than anticipated I thought that I would finish the series of the remaining four species. This post will cover two species that are range-restricted in Ontario - the Gray Ratsnake and Butler's Gartersnake, while the final installment will include Blue Racer and Eastern Massasauga.

Gray Ratsnake (Pantherophis spiloides)

The Gray Ratsnake is a well-known and widespread species found throughout the forests of central and eastern North America, though it reaches the northern edge of is range in southern Ontario. The taxonomy of this and the other ratsnakes in North America is in flux, and different taxonomists have opinions on how many species constitute the species throughout North America. Until recently the form found in Ontario had been known as Black Ratsnake (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta).

Gray Ratsnake - Leeds and Grenville United Counties

Gray Ratsnakes are an impressive snake and it is not unusual to find individuals close to 1.5 meters in length, though the record length is over 2.5 meters.Their closest relatives in Ontario are the Eastern Foxsnake and Eastern Milksnake, and like these two species they dine predominately on warm-blooded prey, such as birds and small mammals.

Gray Ratsnake - Leeds and Grenville United Counties

This individual was one of only two Gray Ratsnakes that I have encountered in Ontario. Unfortunately the lack of forest cover and abundance of roads transecting suitable habitat has reduced the numbers of Gray Ratsnakes throughout southern Ontario. A few small populations are hanging on in Elgin, Norfolk, Haldimand and Niagara in southwestern Ontario, but fortunately the species still has a relative stronghold in deciduous forests and pastures in several counties in eastern Ontario.

Gray Ratsnake - Leeds and Grenville United Counties

Education and increased awareness has no doubt had a positive impact on this federally and provincially Endangered species, though road mortality still remains a big issue over its range here in Ontario.

Gray Ratsnake - Leeds and Grenville United Counties

Gray Ratsnakes are well-known for their ability in scaling trees, a technique which allows them easy access to eggs and nestlings in bird nests, one of their main prey items. The second individual that I encountered in Ontario was scaling a tree beside a boardwalk passing through the edge of a marsh in eastern Ontario. Along with Laura and my brother Isaac, we had gone for a walk specifically to look for Gray Ratsnakes. I was mentioning to them how sometimes they can be seen climbing trees, and gestured towards one of the nearby maples as an example - a maple that happened to have a large black snake slowly ascending the trunk!

Gray Ratsnake - Leeds and Grenville United Counties

I have yet to cross paths with an individual from the southwestern Ontario population of Gray Ratsnake, but hopefully that will change eventually.

Butler's Gartersnake (Thamnophis butleri)

The Butler's Gartersnake is a diminutive species with a small global range. Preferred habitat includes wet prairies and other open grassy habitats in eastern Michigan, northern Indiana and Ohio, and southwestern Ontario, while a disjunct population also occurs in southeastern Wisconsin. In Ontario, the Butler's Gartersnake is associated with tallgrass prairie in Essex and Lambton counties, while a small population also can be found in the Luther Marsh area. This is the smallest of the three Thamnophis species found in Ontario, rarely growing larger than 50 cm in length.

Butler's Gartersnake - Essex County

One first glance, the Butler's Gartersnake can be mistaken for the widespread and abundant Eastern Gartersnake, a species that can be encountered in virtually every habitat type in the southern half of the province. Some of the key ID features for Butler's Gartersnake include a small, narrow head (often the same width as the neck),  chocolate brown coloration along the sides below the yellow lateral stripe, an olive head, and a pale yellow preocular scale (the scale in front of the eye), somewhat reminiscing of the white preocular scale seen in Northern Ribbonsnakes. On closer inspection, Butler's Gartersnakes often show an orange or reddish iris, though this is just something that I have noticed anecdotally. Additionally, the lateral stripe covers the third scale row, as well as half of the scales in the second row and fourth row. The location of this stripe differs from Eastern Gartersnake and Northern Ribbonsnake.

Butler's Gartersnake - Essex County

In 2010 and 2011 I was involved with a long-term study of Butler's Gartersnake near Ojibway Prairie in Windsor, Ontario as part of a massive project called the Windsor-Essex Parkway. Our research was critical to determine information on abundance, diet, habitat preferences, birthing areas and more, with the ultimate goal of influencing the highway footprint to minimize harm to this species and other species at risk found in the area.

Butler's Gartersnake - Essex County

I was involved with coverboard surveys and daily radio telemetry, apparently the first time that radio transmitters had been implanted in this species. We were able to find out some pretty interesting information about Butler's Gartersnakes, such as home range size, seasonal movements, and micro-habitat preferences for where they feed and give birth. This image below is of a healed scar resulting from the surgical procedure to implant a radio transmitter. After providing us with useful data, the snakes were recaptured and taken back to the veterinarian to have the radio transmitter removed.

Butler's Gartersnake - Essex County

Unlike Eastern Gartersnakes which dine on a wide variety of vertebrates and invertebrates, Butler's Gartersnakes are rather specialized in their habitat preferences. Part of our study was determining the stomach contents of the snakes, something that the snakes were more than willing to help us with. It turns out that Butler's Gartersnakes have a relatively short lifespan but grow quite quickly, especially when they live in wet fields with an abundance of earthworms to eat. It was astounding how quickly the babies would pack on weight throughout the summer, and it wasn't an uncommon occurrence for one to regurgitate upon capture. Often I was able to identify the earthworms down to species, if they had been recently consumed. Combined with an earthworm collection study I undertook on the study site, we were able to determine crucial parts of the site where those particular species of earthworms could be found. It turns out that the snakes were not picky as far as what species of earthworms they "hunted", and often the earthworms they regurgitated were the larger, more common species. 

Butler's Gartersnake - Essex County

This image below is of a gravid female, a week or two before she would likely give birth to ten or fifteen babies, each weighing under a gram. Often the babies would weigh over ten grams by early autumn.

Butler's Gartersnake - Essex County

The main threat to this species is habitat loss; particularly the tallgrass prairie where they are most common in southern Ontario, though also fallow fields and other grassy habitats which they may use as habitat. Butler's Gartersnakes can be someone tolerant of human disturbance, and we found quite a few individuals in patches of grass surrounded by development, or in ditches alongside the highway. Often they outnumber the Eastern Gartersnakes in certain habitats. Road mortality plays an impact as well, though Butler's Gartersnake is likely less affected than other species because they simply do not have large home ranges and are quite content staying put in a small patch of suitable habitat. That being said, we still found occasional road-killed individuals, including gravid females likely traveling a relatively large distance towards a suitable birthing area.

The Butler's Gartersnake is a unique little snake that holds a special place in my heart. Hopefully they will continued to survive in southern Ontario for many years to come.

Butler's Gartersnake - Essex County