Thursday, 16 October 2014

juvenile Ross's x Snow Goose - North Bay

A few days ago a Ross's Goose was posted to Ontbirds, having been seen for several days on some sports fields near the waterfront of North Bay. As I was planning on doing some work near North Bay today, I stopped in on my way home to look for the goose.

As I approached the fields along a nearby road I could see a small white goose in with the Canada's - that was easy! Unfortunately the heavy rain meant that I was going to get wet trying to photograph the bird, and I still had a 4 hour drive ahead of me, so I wanted it to be quick!

The birds were easily approached - probably due to the high pedestrian traffic this area must receive. With a little bit of patience I was able to approach within 20 feet of the white goose, as it busily fed on grass. Most of the time, my views of the bird were like this - head buried deep in the grass.

presumed Ross's X Snow Goose - North Bay, ON

As I was photographing the bird it became apparent that it might be a hybrid, as its bill shape in particular was not quite right for Ross's Goose.

presumed Ross's X Snow Goose - North Bay, ON

Ross's Geese have a very short, triangular bill, while the closely related Snow Goose has a much larger bill with a distinctive black oval on its lower half - referred to as a grin patch. Here is a photo of a Snow Goose, showing the grin patch. Note that bill colour is quite variable in both these species and is also dependent on the time of year, age of the bird, etc.

Snow Goose - Guelph, ON

I don't have any decent photos of Ross's Geese yet, but here is one I found on Wikipedia Commons. This bird has a relatively large bill for a Ross's Goose.



David Sibley put together a cool little sketch showing the differences in head and bill shape of Snow Geese, Ross's Geese, and presumed hybrids - check it out (along with the full article on how to tell them apart) at his blog.

Pure-blooded Ross's Geese should show a straight (or very slightly curved) border to the posterior edge of the bill (where it meets the face). Pure Snow Geese on the other hand always show a curved border. The North Bay bird shows traits someone intermediary. It is noticeably curved, but not as much as a Snow Goose.

presumed Ross's X Snow Goose - North Bay, ON 
With these two species, there isn't necessarily a clear line between what is a Snow Goose and what is a Ross's Goose. These species have a relatively recent common ancestor and as such, not much evolutionary time has elapsed. At this point in time they can still have viable hybrid offspring, and those in turn can reproduce with a "pure" individual of one species to produce a backcross. There likely is a fluid spectrum of birds that can have any percentage of hybrid ancestry, especially in the areas where the two species' ranges overlap.

presumed Ross's X Snow Goose - North Bay, ON

Despite the heavy rain it was an interesting study of a neat little goose, and a great birding side trip after a long day of work!

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Pacific Loon in Barrie

The plan for today was for me to take some water samples at a quarry north of Orillia. I finished a bit earlier than usual, so after dropping off my samples at the Purolator Depot I decided to check out the Barrie waterfront. David Szmyr let me know that he had seen 1740 Common Loons from there earlier in the day - a record high count for Ontario. This eclipsed the previous mark of 1480, which Dave and I observed from the Innisfil waterfront on Lake Simcoe on October 18, 2013. I'm sure there are many more at other vantage points around the bay as well as just enough offshore to escape notice. Common Loons (along with other loons and grebes, Double-crested Cormorants, Bonaparte's Gulls etc)stop over at Lake Simcoe to feed on the abundant Emerald Shiners this time of year.

I arrived at Minet's Point (located on the south side of Kempenfelt Bay) by quarter to five. The winds were calm, and combined with the overcast skies, the viewing conditions for excellent looking to the north or east. Bonaparte's Gulls were milling about and I spotted two adult Little Gulls in the mix. The large number of loons was evident as I began scanning west to east, but apparently most had moved on to the east as only(!!!) 500 or so were in view. Red-necked Grebes and Double-crested Cormorants were scattered on the water as well, and it didn't take long before I noticed an adult Red-throated Loon and male White-winged Scoter.

By 5:15, Dave arrived and we scanned the bay together. Only 5 minutes later, I noticed an interesting "small loon" straight out from us, and got Dave on it. It was pretty distant, but after studying it for a while it moved closer and confirmed our suspicions - that it was a juvenile Pacific Loon. 

The photo below was taken of the loon as it was still fairly distant (~1 km from shore) - its swimming to the right of the frame and looking over to the left (away from us). While it doesn't look like much, the dark back and charcoal colored head can be seen. 


The bird foraged frequently, usually diving 5 or 10 times then resting/preening for 10 minutes. It repeated this pattern once while we observed it. At its closest the bird was perhaps 500 m offshore, allowing for good views through the spotting scopes. The following photo (taken as it was flapping its wings) is perhaps the best image I have of it. Luckily I had my iphone to digiscope it, as my camera was safely stored at home!


Some ID features that can be seen in this photo: slender bill, rounded head/nape that is a charcoal colour, small white face, eyes not surrounded by white. When facing us head on, the bird had a white throat. There was a noticeable demarcation between the white throat and dark sides of the neck. 

The photo below shows the bird after swimming past a group of Common Loons. As you can see it is a much daintier loon; dwarfed by the big Common Loons.


By the time Dave and I left around 6:30, the bird was still hanging around in the same area. 

Pacific Loon breeds on the Hudson Bay coast of Ontario, though it is rarely seen in the south. There are usually 2-4 records annually in southern Ontario, usually on the north shores of Lakes Ontario and Erie. There is one accepted record of Pacific Loon for Simcoe County, a bird that summered at Tiny Marsh in 1992. I observed a juvenile Pacific Loon of October 18, 2013 at the Innisfil waterfront (also seen October 19), but that one was rejected by the OBRC. 

Lake Simcoe is an awesome birding location this time of year and I can't wait to get back out there! With huge flocks of Bonaparte's Gulls and Common Loons around there are bound to be a few more interesting things out there. A good storm in late October may drop some waterbird migrants heading south from James Bay; I would think that Brant would be annual there in the autumn as well. 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Netitishi Day 1

September 26, 2014
Weather: 25 degrees C, wind SW to WNW 10-25 km/h, clear skies
47 species
Ebird checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S20186889

Alan and I woke up in Moosonee this morning, Friday September 26. The plan was to bird around town until Kory and Jeremy arrived on the 2:00 PM train, but a quick decision made with the helicopter company meant that the helicopter would be flying out of Cochrane with Kory and Jeremy, stopping down to pick up Alan and I, continuing to Netitishi Point with all four of us.

Everything from that point forward went smoothly, and the helicopter touched down in Moosonee just as Alan and I arrived in a taxi, one of only a few in town due to the condition of the roads. Vehicles don't seem to last long in Moosonee.

We loaded all our gear in the chopper with Kory, Jeremy and I in the back, while Alan sat up front with the pilot. It looked like the helicopter would be too heavy to take us all in one trip, but eventually we rose slowly off the ground and were soon on our way to Netitishi.

Kory (left) and Jeremy (right) in a fully loaded helicopter

The skies were clear, allowing for great views of the Moose River mouth.

Moose River near mouth

The ride was over quickly and we were on the coast of James Bay before 1:00 PM giving us lots of time to find some birds on our first half day. Right away we added some of the first trip birds - Horned Lark, Lapland Longspur, Canada Goose, Boreal Chickadee. The four of us brought all of our gear to the cabins, a distance of 300-400 m one way. It certainly was a lot easier with four people as opposed to two, which was the case on my previous two Netitishi trips.

Immediately the damage from the severe weather event last fall (documented by Brandon Holden, who was birding/trying not to die during the worst of it) was evident, as many of the large spruces had fallen in large swaths throughout the forest. The cabin that I had stayed in last year (and Brandon was occupying during the storm) was newly repaired. However, a friendly group of wasps had taken over the doorway. Luckily one of the other cabins was suitable for Jeremy, Kory and I to stay in. We used the largest cabin closest to the wetland for all of our cooking, with Alan staying there as well.



By mid afternoon we began exploring the area and doing some birding. The wind was out of the southwest but as the day wore on it switched over to WNW at 25 km/h - enough to facilitate some waterfowl movement. We had 300 Northern Pintail and scattered other ducks, our first seven shorebird species including a single Ruddy Turnstone, and several Peregrine Falcons making passes at the Horned Larks and shorebirds. The day's highlight however was two Ross's Geese that Alan spotted flying west to east. At the time I was at the cabins but came running out in time to see them continuing on down the coastline. Kory and Jeremy just made it in time, too!

After we concluded eating dinner and going over our notes that evening, I went out to do some listening for nocturnal migrants and was soon joined by Jeremy and Kory. In total I counted 5 Swainson's Thrushes, 2 Hermit Thrushes and a Gray-cheeked Thrush, and Jeremy also heard a Gray-cheeked later on. Both the Ross's Geese and the Gray-cheeked Thrush were new birds for my Moosonee area checklist, an area that includes the Ontario side of southern James Bay. The Ross's were #250 for Alan's Moosonee list so he was pretty happy to finally see some.

We finished the day with 45 species and high hopes for what lied ahead over the next 12 days. The forecast was calling for moderate north winds on Sunday, our third day on the coast.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Back from Netitishi!

After two awesome weeks on the coast, Jeremy, Kory, Alan and I are back in civilization. We were picked up by the chopper at noon on Thursday, and within 20 minutes we were back in Moosonee. It was one of the rare instances where we had no helicopter delays all trip!

We were given all kinds of weather throughout the trip, though with the exception of one day, we experienced no winds with a north component. Two nights went below freezing and we had snowsqualls on the last day. We also had record high temperatures for a few days, making baths in the creek possible.

But, on to the birds! Overall we experienced moderate numbers of passerines around the camp and large numbers of sparrows in particular. We did not find a ton of rare passerines like I had dreamed of, but there were a few things here and there.  Seawatching was very slow due to the persistant poor conditions, but during the brief moments of good conditions we had a lot of birds on the move.

Some highlights:

-2 different adult Northern Gannets. Alan spotted the first on Sept 27 and I got the second on Sept 28; both gave great looks to all four of us as they cruised on by to the east! These are the 3rd and 4th Northern Gannets for northern Ontario, with the other records also from Netitishi Point.

 -2 or 3 Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. These were our best passerines of the trip, as they normally range not much further north than Toronto. Kory spotted the first on Sept 30 as he, Jeremy and I were walking back from the creek. Then on October 2 I came across two different gnatcatchers in different areas, though one of them may have been the one from Sept 30.

-2 Ross's Geese on September 26

-other good seawatching-birds! Sunday, Sept 28 had moderately strong north winds and we spent most of the day at the coast. Highlights included one of the gannets plus a Black-legged Kittiwake and Pomarine Jaeger (both review species in the north), and of course lots of the usual ducks, 3 Bonaparte's Gulls, a late Osprey, and the first Brants. Unfortunately seawatching highlights were few and far between over the rest of the trip, though we did see a Short-eared Owl, big flocks of migrating Hudsonian Godwits, a ton of other shorebirds, and several Parasitic Jaegers.

-we watched two Bald Eagles and a Common Raven pecking at an injured bird way out on the flats on our second last morning. The injured bird ended up being a Northern Hawk Owl, a species usually found deep in spruce bogs, not way out on the flats. We ended up retrieving the specimen as the tide came in. While it is always unfortunate seeing a bird like an owl getting killed by other birds, it was a  really cool opportunity to study the owl up close!

-lots of boreal birds. Black-backed and American Three-toed Woodpeckers, both crossbills, Pine Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls, Spruce and Ruffed Grouse, Gray Jays, etc. Boreal Chickadees were the dominant bird species in the woods most days.

-we had some late-ish birds as well. Gray-cheeked Thrush on Sept 26, Red-eyed Vireo on Oct 4, Caspian Tern on Oct 8, Clay-colored Sparrow on Oct 2, etc.

-lots of Eastern Wolves (heard), a Beluga, some Ringed Seals, etc

It was a great trip, even though we didn't find a ton of rare passerines and seawatching was pretty poor for the most part. I'll be posting day- by-day recaps over the next few weeks!


Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Borgles Island, Nova Scotia

A few weeks ago when I was in Nova Scotia visiting Laura, we planned a trip to Borgles Island. The island, located approximately 80 km east of Halifax along the Eastern Shore, has been left in its natural state. Throughout the interior of the island is old growth coastal forest, with sandy beaches and rocky cliffs surrounding its shores. The island was privately owned and was slated for development until it was bought by the Nova Scotia Land Trust to be preserved.

Laura's parents planned this getaway for us, organizing a boat to take us out there and arranging a stay at a nearby bed-and-breakfast. We planned to go September 8 as the weather conditions looked ideal. I was pretty excited to be able to check a new area, especially a coastal ecosystem that I had never really explored before.

The morning dawned calm with a cloudless sky. By 8:30 we were on the boat "Ryan", destined for the islands. We navigated between these islands, named the "Tickle Islands" due to what will happen to your boat if you go through in low tide...



As we moved into more open waters I began scanning the horizon for birds. We weren't quite on the open ocean, but some Northern Gannets were flying by in the distance. The odd one came close enough for a distant photo. I always enjoy any opportunity to see these big seabirds, as these September trips to Nova Scotia are about the only time I see them. I've only seen two in Ontario.


Black Guillemots were the only alcid in these shallow waters between the barrier islands. I would have to go further offshore, or towards specific colonies, to see the other alcid species. A pretty cool opportunity to study another species that is rarely seen in Ontario.


As we approached Borgel's Island, terns began flying by, some stopping to plunge dive. I was surprised to see an Arctic Tern with the group. Usually by this time Arctic Terns are well offshore, so it must have been a late straggler. The only terns close enough to photograph however were a few young Common Terns.


We were dropped off on a sandy beach connecting the ~180  hectare north end  to the ~30 hectare south end. It looked like we would be the only people to visit the island for the day.



We put down our backpacks and decided to first explore the interior of the south end. The forest was composed predominately of spruce. The trees were old and knarled, and years of deadfall littered the understorey. It really had a strong boreal feel to it, and before long the birdlife supported that view. I heard a few Boreal Chickadees and tried to pish them in in an attempt to see this somewhat shy species. A Red-breasted Nuthatch immediately responded and perched in a branch about a meter from our faces. Eventually Laura did get her first good looks at a Boreal Chickadee as some came closer a minute later. The nuthatch was still staring at us and was so close that I had to back up a step to get it in focus.



We headed to the shoreline and my bird list for the day -. Dark-eyed Junco, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Hermit Thrush. Several raptors flew over including a Northern Harrier, American Kestrel and 2 Merlins. Here are a few photos of the shoreline.







We returned to the beach area to have lunch and relax for a bit. I couldn't help but try my hand at photographing the abundant Mustard Whites on the island.


Several shorebirds flew by, but not the large numbers that I was hoping for. My totals for the island were 7 Semipalmated Plovers, 1 Greater Yellowlegs, 2 Sanderling, and 1 Spotted Sandpiper.

By early afternoon we set off to the north, exploring westward around the large part of the island. Here the beach gave way to rock faces with loose rocks at the base, making hiking a little more difficult. The view from on top was beautiful.





In the afternoon as the tide was out we played around in the intertidal zone, seeing what we can find. The diversity always astounds me, even in shallow waters in Nova Scotia. I wish I knew more about the species found here...

We played around with at least three different crab species among a bunch of other sealife.






 I spotted several flatfish which I think are flounders. This was the first time I had seen one in the wild - pretty bizarre fish! In their larval phase they have one eye on each side of their head, but as they mature one eye shifts to the other side of their head and they swim on their side, much like a ray. Some families of flatfish are called left-eye or right-eye flounders based on what side of their body their eyes are on. Pretty cool fish!



 Eventually our boat came to pick us up and we headed back to the mainland. It was an awesome day on the island, complete with some great hiking, about 40 bird species, seals, tide-pooling, and butterflies. A day well spent...



Thursday, 2 October 2014

Panama - day 5 (March 4, 2014)

We awoke at Alfred Raab's place in the foothills of Altos del Maria. I was up around sunrise and explored the wooded area down the slope from his house. Birds such as Blue-crowned and Whooping Motmot, Keel-billed Toucan, Yellow-green Vireo, and Rufous-breasted Wren were calling right away. I had my first looks at a White-vented Plumateer as it furtively visited one of Alfred's hummingbird feeders. A pair of Rosy Thrush-Tanagers make the scrubby areas on the slope behind Alfred's house their home. This secretive thrush is bright pink underside, but is rarely seen as it creeps in the underbrush - it kind of reminds me of a pink Varied Thrush. The song is loud and emphatic, composed by both the male and the female simultaneously. This was one of Steve's most wanted trip birds. We all heard the Rosy-Thrush Tanagers that morning, but despite a thorough search none of us was able to glimpse one.

As the sun crested the hills the hawks began flying. Some sort of observation tower had been built right night to Alfred's property, and he was pretty much the only person to use it. It was conveniently located not only to have a panoramic view of the sky, but to also view passerines in the treetops.

Among the raptors were several Short-tailed Hawks, Turkey and Black Vultures, Broad-winged Hawks, and our first Gray-headed Kite of the trip.

Gray-headed Kite

Short-tailed Hawk
The four of us soon headed up the mountain, Alfred volunteering to show up around for the day. We made a quick stop at a tree known as "the oropendola tree" due to the number of nests from a colony of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas. A couple of Giant Cowbirds were soon found creeping around the nests of the oropendolas. Much like their northern relative the Brown-headed Cowbird, Giant Cowbirds are also parasitic, though preferring to lay their eggs in the nests of species such as oropendolas. As you can imagine, the oropendolas do not take too kindly to seeing a Giant Cowbird and chase them off once they detected one.


Chestnut-headed Oropendola
Giant Cowbird
Chestnut-headed Oropendola
We soon began our descent up the mountain and the vegetation changed drastically. The bird life also changed noticeably as we ascended higher up into the "cloud forest" and the lifers came fast and furious!

Orange-bellied Trogon, my 6th trogon species for the trip

Tufted Flycatcher


Tufted Flycatcher
Other lifers that morning included Green Hermit, Stripe-throated Hermit, Snowcap, Barred Forest-Falcon, Spotted Barbtail, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, and White-throated Spadebill, among others. 

Without a doubt the day's highlight came in the mid-morning. We ascended to one of the highest locations in the mountains surrounding Altos del Maria; a tower above the trees overlooking the mountain range. From here it is possible to see both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Not only that, but the hawkwatching can be incredible. It did not take long until a great bird soared into view - a Hook-billed Kite! Alfred had never recorded this lowland species in Altos before. By the time I got my camera on it, the bird was far away in poor lighting.


But the fun did not stop there. At one point I looked to the right and saw a large raptor cruising by just below eye level. The other guys also got on it right away and within a few seconds we realized that we were staring at an Ornate Hawk-Eagle, coming straight at us! Luckily we had our cameras on us and fired away as it cruised around, making at least three passes. This  impressive and ornately patterned raptor was one of the birds I was really hoping to see on this trip, and to experience a bird at that close of a range was just incredible.


Nothing could top that moment as the days single highlight, though a few other sightings came close. One of which was a group of Blue-fronted Parrotlets that Dave first identified by their vocalizations. This secretive and cryptic species was also very rare for Altos del Maria and certainly not one I expected. 



We birded all afternoon, exploring a variety of habitats and seeing species such as Red-faced Spinetail, White-ruffed Manakin, Buff-rumped Warbler, and Tawny-crested Tanager. I finished with exactly 40 lifers for the day.

One of the highlights was exploring a man-made lake up in the hills above Altos del Maria. It appeared to be a great spot to congregate migrant passerines and the flocks of warblers and tanagers moved in the trees around the perimeter while large flocks of swifts flew overhead. The place looked fantastic for vagrant birds, and sure enough we spotted a Little Blue Heron roosting in a tree along one side of the lake. This is another species that is found in the lowlands and rarely seen in the hills. 


We made a friend here at the lake, and he followed us around for a good hour...


The following are a few more photos I took on our first day in Altos del Maria. It was certainly one of the best birding days I can recall!



Dusky-capped Flycatcher

Black-striped Sparrow




That evening we went on a night-hike along a river not far from Alfred's home. The night was warm and dry and we were unable to turn up any snakes. However a few neat species of amphibians were easily found. 

These large Huntsman spiders were abundant on the rocks near the water's edge, and had an armspan of a good 7 inches.


One of my favorite of the rain frogs is the brightly colored Pristimantis gaigei, common around streams in dry forests.


The infamous Cane Toad (Bufo marinus), famous as an invasive species in Australia, is actually  native to central America.  Rivers such as this seem to be a preferred habitat as we saw well over a dozen big ones.


We finished the day with 122 species of birds, bringing our trip total to 294 species. The next day was planned to be another full day in the hills surrounding Altos del Maria!