Friday, 18 April 2014

Long weekend Pelee birding

This weekend I made the decision to drive down to Point Pelee for my first visit of the spring. On Thursday afternoon, after finishing my bird surveys in Lindsay for work I headed down into southwestern Ontario.

My first stop was at a hotspot for amphibians in Waterloo Region, at a location where I have seen 25 species of herps. I met up with a bunch of Guelphites (Todd, Reuven, Beverly, Mark, Matt, and Steven) and we scoured the woodlands and ponds for amphibians. While the main pulse of salamanders had likely finished by now, we did come across a few things. Eastern Newts numbered probably close to 100, definitely the highest one time count for me at this site. I found a little Four-toed Salamander under a log later on, my first for the spring.

Later that evening I made the long drive to Pelee, arriving at 2:30 AM. My first bird for Pelee was an American Woodcock peenting away in the middle of the night.

I started the day by chasing a Henslow's Sparrow that Chris Gaffan had found the following evening. Henslow's used to be fairly widespread in pastures in southern Ontario, but they have declined and now only a few pairs are hanging on. They do, however, show up annually at Point Pelee (in fact, all five Henslow's I have seen have all been at Pelee). I ran into several other birders there including  local birder Rick and Mike, Ken and Jim Burrell.

After a few minutes the Burrell's got on the bird while I was down the path. By the time I arrived the bird had ducked into some undergrowth, though we waited it out and eventually the bird appeared in view!

It was a very bright Henslow's and it was awesome obtaining such good looks at one!

Later that morning, while walking the Woodland Nature Trail, I ran into Alan Wormington and Richard Carr. Alan proclaimed that he had a record earlier bird with him. He pulled this out of a tissue...

The Scarlet Tanager must have arrived with the warm spell last weekend, and likely perished in the cold snap the following few days. Around the same time there was also a Summer Tanager and Yellow-throated Warbler in the Pelee Circle.

A finished the Woodland Nature Trail, photographing this Mink along the south end. Louisiana Waterthrushes proved elusive though!

I walked up the west beach footpath and had my progress impeded by 2-3 foot high snow drifts. I guess the drifts were so high back in February that they are only just melting now!

Birds were fairly numerous and I saw kinglets, Hermit Thrushes, Brown Thrashers, and a few sparrows of four species. This Chipping Sparrow posed nicely for photos.

A Hermit Thrush along the west beach footpath...

A drive of the onion fields and a check of Hillman Marsh was next. Things were fairly slow though there were still good numbers of ducks at Hillman, and my first Forster's Terns, Common Terns, Dunlins, and Lesser Yellowlegs made appearances. By late afternoon I headed back in to the park, checking Dunes where I ran into a nice little mixed flock of kinglets, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and Black-capped Chickadees. I found my first towhees of the year and several Field and Chipping Sparrows were singing.

Around 6:00 PM I drove back down to the main parking lot and walked into Tilden's Woods. By this point the wind was almost non-existent and the sun was shining, making birding still productive until late in the evening. As I passed a slough near the Chinquapin Trail, a sharp chip caught my attention. It was a Louisiana Waterthrush, bobbing along the edges.

My last stop was De Laurier, where once again the Henslow's Sparrow was being photographed by birders. I met Rick there again, and the bird crawled out into the open, allowing me a clean shot at it.

It was a pretty good day of birding, and I added about 13 species to my Ontario year list. I think I saw about 90 species for the day. What will tomorrow bring?

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Spring birds and herps

In the last week I have gotten out daily to look for herps, birds, and whatever other signs of spring that I could find. We were given 20+ degree weather over the weekend, followed by a few inches of snow and sub-zero temperatures for all of Tuesday. Today was warmer again (about 6 degrees and sunny), and the next few days leading into the weekend look good for mostly fair-weather birding! On to some highlights...

Friday, April 11

After taking off from work, I checked some areas within York Region to see what I could find. Holland Landing gave me three year birds in Bonaparte's Gull, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. It was nice to find a little flock of kinglets, chickadees, sapsuckers, creepers, and some nearby Rusty Blackbirds!

I checked out some flooded fields in the southwestern Holland Marsh and scoured some flocks of waterfowl, turning up some Cackling Geese and Tree Swallows, also new for the year. Ah, spring...

Saturday, April 12

I visited a friend in Guelph on the Friday night and Saturday I took care of some errands at my parent's place in Cambridge. Needing a break in the mid-afternoon I took advantage of the great weather and checked out a favorite trail system of mine to look for some early season herps. I wasn't disappointed, though in hindsight I wish I had my camera with me for the hike, instead of the iPhone with its terrible camera!
Four species of frogs were calling and it wasn't long until I came across my first snakes of the year.

Red-backed Salamanders were common under rocks and I found one tiny Eastern Newt.

Even with the sun hiding behind some clouds the herps were active. I soon stumbled upon several Northern Ribbonsnakes basking on a hillside near a vernal pool and it became apparent that there were 3 males vying for the services of the much larger female (which I watched for a good 15 minutes...).

First snake of the year!!

I also birded some areas south of Cambridge later on and discovered five more year birds - Eastern Meadowlark, Osprey, Sandhill Crane, Eastern Bluebird, and Savannah Sparrow. A Common Raven flew over being harassed by American Crows at one point as well. Watching a pair of Sandhill Cranes while Eastern Meadowlarks and Rusty Blackbirds called from somewhere unseen was certainly a highlight of the spring so far...

Sunday, April 13

After a shindig at my buddy Dave's place Saturday night, I slept in a bit on Sunday morning before leaving to do a day of birding in Simcoe County. Needless to say it was a huge success! Among the 72 species I saw on the day, some highlights were:

-finding two Ross's Geese with a large flock of Canadas. I was pretty excited with these birds as I had only "found" one previously in Ontario, and Ross's Goose was a new Simcoe County bird for me. Cue distant record photo!

-Snowy Owl just chilling on a sprinkler system

-new year birds!! Greater Yellowlegs, Winter Wren, Barn Swallow

-a metric ton of waterfowl, highlighted by Canvasbacks and Cackling Geese. Large numbers included roughly 200 American Wigeon, 80 Northern Shoveler, 750 Northern Pintail, and 850 Green-winged Teal. No Eurasian Wigeons or Garganeys, though!

- Ruddy Duck at the Stayner lagoons

Monday, April 14

Back in the office...After work I checked a new area in King Township for me - the north end of Bathurst Street along the south edge of Lake Simcoe. It was absolutely rocking (for King Township) and I had an enjoyable few hours before dusk. Some highlights:

-Bank Swallow with a bunch of Trees and Barns
-flyover Black Scoters (spring migrants?)
-Bonaparte's Gulls, Caspian Terns, and Greater Yellowlegs
-2 Horned Grebes
-Sandhill Cranes
-large number of typical mid April ducks

That's all for now! I was going to include photos/sightings from the last few days in the Kawartha Lakes area but this post is long enough as it is. As we continue to move into spring I will try to post updates a little more frequently - whenever my birding (er...working) schedule allows! I also have a whole ton of Panama posts to crank out, and some more stuff from Europe.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Check out those winds...

I just grabbed this screenshot from the awesome Wind Map - check it out when you have a chance. We are currently getting winds straight out of the gulf coast and will continue to get strong south winds until the cold front passes by, in which case the winds will switch to the north.

These winds have been coming straight out of Texas and the Gulf of Mexico to locations further north for the last two days, and now these winds are blowing straight into southern Ontario. Leamington, Ontario (i.e. Point Pelee) is currently getting hit with strong south winds, gusting up to 75 km/h.  It sure feels that strong here at my office too.

While this certainly does not guarantee that all kinds of rare birds will be found in the next few days in Ontario, it does mean that there will probably be higher number of rarities than usual to be found in the province, waiting to be found by birders! Yesterday, Ken Burrell reported a Yellow-throated Warbler at Pelee Island, the first "southern overshoot" of note so far this spring. There is a very good chance that more Yellow-throated Warblers, as well as other early overshoots (Summer Tanager, Henslow's Sparrow, Glossy Ibis, Worm-eating Warbler, Lark Sparrow etc) may make an appearance in coming days. But what everyone looks for is the mega rarity. Again, there is no guarantee that one will be found with this weather, but I would say that the chances are higher for the next few days than they have been at any time in the last 4-5 months.

One theory in regards to bird migration in Ontario is that all of these overshoots (that inevitably show up after strong systems from the southwest move through in the spring) will retrace their steps once they realized that they have flown too far. Southern Ontario is somewhat funnel shaped and it is very possible that these retreating overshoots will bunch up along the lakeshores. In theory, the Swallow-tailed Kite that may be blown up into Ontario today will likely try to vacate the province tomorrow, and in doing so may end up at Point Pelee or Long Point or Hamilton or something!

One more thing - here is a list of some of Ontario's more notable rarities that have shown up between the dates of April 14 and April 20 (the next seven days). This time period is the week before when the birding really starts to go nuts in southern Ontario; the birdlife often has a mid-April feel to it (surprisingly), with many temperate migrants and the first few neotropical migrants.

Brambling (Kenora; April 18, 1994)
Black-headed Grosbeak (Bruce Peninsula; April 14, 1998)
Burrowing Owl (Renfrew County; April 19, 1991)
Garganey (Renfrew County; April 18)
Say's Phoebe (Chatham-Kent; April 18, 1964, two others in last two years)
Smith's Longspur (Long Point; April 20, 1980)

Other rarities that sometimes have arrived in mid April include Ferruginous Hawk, Swainson's Hawk, Bewick's Wren, Cinnamon Teal, Tufted Duck, rare herons (Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Little Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, etc), and Western Grebe.

Only time will tell what will show up - get out there and find the birds!

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Spring is here!

(This post was written on Thursday, I just haven't been able to find the time to post it until now)

Ever since returning from Europe, I have been stuck in my office in Aurora, writing reports and getting ready for the upcoming field season. Luckily the longer daylight hours have enabled me to do some local birding, to mixed results.

On Monday I drove around some fields in King Township (where I currently live) to see if I could find any waterfowl or other spring migrants. At one point I stopped to photograph this grackle in a small wetland.

Eventually I found a flock of ducks in a flooded field and added several species to my "local patch" list (which includes King Township): American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Redhead, American Black Duck, and Rusty Blackbird. 

The next evening I met up with David Szmyr near the Beeton sod farms in search of migrants. We checked a number of areas finding most of the expected species. Highlights for me included my first Blue-winged Teals of the spring, an Eastern Phoebe singing away, and a Snow Goose in a field. The Snow Goose was in the same location that a Ross's Goose was reported the previous day.

I have to say it was pretty nice to be standing with the sun on our backs on a warm April afternoon, looking at hundreds of ducks. The wind was non-existent and the water was smooth as glass, adding to the enjoyment of the evening! 

The following night I decided to stop at the Cawthra-Mulock reserve located west of Newmarket in King Township. This is an area with some interesting breeding species, including Clay-colored Sparrow and Blue-winged Warbler. I was hoping to hear American Woodcocks. The fields were quiet wet (too wet for woodcocks), but by driving around I heard a single one peenting somewhere in the distance. A flock of Common Mergansers flew over as well, my first for the local patch. I'll have to return soon to get some more woodcocks!

And finally, a few nights ago I checked out Happy Valley located near where I live. This is a tract of mixed woods that has a number of interesting breeding species: Barred Owl, Red-shouldered Hawk, Acadian Flycatcher, Hooded Warbler, etc. I was hoping to see some salamanders, but unfortunately most of the ponds were still ice covered (and up to 30 cm of snow remained in some locations in the woods!) and I struck out. Hopefully this upcoming week I can finally see my first Ontario herps of the year...


Every day, more and more spring migrants have been reported in Ontario. Many of the more recent arrivals are in line with what is expected for the date. It seems we are finally catching up after the long winter! If you haven't seen it already, I would recommend checking out Mike Burrell's page on spring arrival dates in Ontario. He used Ebird data to determine on what date a push of each species typically arrives in Ontario. For April 13th, he has Louisiana Waterthrush, Pine Warbler, and Swamp Sparrow listed. Considering the weather forecast, I would be surprised if multiple individuals of all three species aren't seen in Ontario by then! 

Speaking of spring, the next 7 weeks will likely be the most exciting weeks for birders in Ontario. Check out this graph I made a couple of years ago, detailing when rarities are seen in Ontario, broken down by week of the year. 

Mid-April can be an interesting time for birding in Ontario, depending on the weather conditions. Occasional systems from the south and southwest may pass through southern Ontario, bringing large pushes of birds with them. This time of year, it is not too uncommon for species like Eared Grebe, American Avocet, Yellow-throated Warbler, a southern heron/egret (Little Blue? Snowy?), or something rarer to make an appearance. The weather is scheduled to reach 20 degrees, and the winds have mostly a southern component until Monday. Already some killer birds have been seen along the Great Lakes, but nothing so far in Ontario. Now that there is strong rarity potential it makes going out looking for birds that much more exciting. However, this early in the spring, these weather systems can bring with them less rarities than what we may hope for. At the very least, expect a lot of kinglets, Brown Creepers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Eastern Phoebes, sparrows, and maybe some early warblers this weekend! :)

Coming soon, to a sewage lagoon near you!

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Edinburgh Ptarmigans

Prior to my second last full day in Europe, Laura and I were debating where we would spend the day. We both love hiking and checking out new areas, but had exhausted most of the options that were accessible by bus/train for a reasonable cost and within an hour or two of her place in Edinburgh. Laura suggested that maybe we try hiking in the Pentland Hills, located just south of the city, for a change of scenery. Immediately I remembered that Red Grouse (a.k.a. British Willow Ptarmigans) inhabited those hills. While the ptarmigans are fairly common in barren, upland areas throughout Scotland, I had never seen one before and was eager to search for them! They also happened to have one of the coolest voices out of any bird, sounding almost cartoon like.

We took a city bus out of the downtown and were at the west edge of the Pentlands in about 20 minutes.

Our route through the Pentlands
It was a gray, foggy day, but fortunately it was nearly dead calm (a rarity in Scotland!) and without rain. In short order we added many of the common U.K. birds to the day list as well as a few slightly more unusual ones that I was happy to see (Lesser Redpoll, Eurasian Treecreeper, etc). At one plowed field I could barely make out the shapes of several hundred European Golden Plovers mixed in with some Northern Lapwings and Eurasian Curlews.

Eventually we came to a little walkway leading out into a lowland raised bog called Red Moss, one of very few remaining lowland raised bogs in the area. It was eerily calm here and I snapped a few iphone photos. Meadow Pipits (mipits!) were everywhere here, and a Common Buzzard patrolled from a tall snag at the edge of the bog.

We stopped at several reservoirs that supply the City of Edinburgh with water. My first Chiffchaff for Scotland was singing away in some bushes and a Pied Wagtail was doing its namesake behaviour over a little bridge. The lake was smooth as glass, making it easy to pick out the Little Grebes, Eurasian Coots, Tufted Ducks, and Common Goldeneyes on the water. Two fishermen were in a boat, and from the looks of things they were having a very successful morning!

As we walked up to the hide located on the edge of the lake where I took the above photo, we noticed a large flock of medium sized birds feeding at the edge of a field. They were Fieldfares! And a lot of them - maybe 200, plus another 200 starlings. This was a long-awaited lifer that I had missed in England a few weeks earlier - they had likely already departed for the north. But here in Scotland this large flock was still hanging on. Fieldfares and Redwings are winter visitors to much of the U.K.

We continued walking to the end of the road and eventually found a trail that seemed to wander into the hills.Time to search for ptarmigans!

Right away we added a few more day birds. Skylarks were fairly common and several Northern Wheatears perched on a rock wall parallel to us. As we walked, we kept flushing the wheatears further along the rock wall. Instead of turning around and looping back, they kept flying a few meters further along until we would flush them yet again. It is kind of funny how many birds will do this...

Here are a few landscape shots showing, fairly accurately I must say, what the scenery was like!

As we were following the trail through the fog we both stopped around the same time, hearing a bird call. Laura asked me if I had heard that, as she thought it might have been a ptarmigan. We listened, and a few seconds later it called again! That was it! Here is an example of the vocalizations that this species gives...what an awesome call! The bird was down the slope in fairly short grass. By this point the fog had cleared enough that we could see fairly well to maybe 50 meters away. I scanned but could not find it in the haze, so I decided to walk down the hill towards it. By triangulating its call I approached closer eventually spotting a small lump rising above the vegetation.

 I called Laura down and we watched and photographed the ptarmigan.

What a cool bird! We ended up seeing a half dozen on the hike and hearing several more. For an Ontario birder like me, whose idea of Willow Ptarmigan is a bird that nests on the barren tundra in the artic, it was a bit weird seeing these ones in the same fields as sheep, on the outskirts of Edinburgh. I guess the vegetation and climate is similar enough in both places.

We continued on, following the trail east towards the town of Penicuik, on the eastern edge of the Pentlands. While cresting a hillside, the fog melted away and the sun even came out for a few minutes. Bird song picked up, and we found a large flock containing Fieldfares, Bramblings, Linnets, Greenfinches, with Song Thrushes and Meadow Pipits being common as well.

Further along, the trail passed alongside a sheep farm, and the local dog came out to check us out.

 The fog was visible in the valley that we came from, creating a dramatic scene and a cool spot to do some "touristy" photos.

After several additional hours of hiking we finally arrived in Penicuik. New day birds along this stretch included Mistle Thrush, Sparrowhawk, and Great Spotted Woodpecker, to name a few. And a photo of a law-abiding citizen in Penicuik...

We completed about 15 km in just over five hours, hiking through the Pentlands. We weren't able to cover a few other great spots in the hills due to the time, including a waterfall and stream passing through a canyon where Ring Ouzel and White-throated Dipper could be found, as well as several of the larger Pentland hills in the same area. I would like to return to the area later in the year at some point as Common Cuckoo, Spotted Flycatcher, Whinchat, Dotterel, and a few new warblers could be seen.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Common British birds - photoshoot

Yesterday, Laura and I had a relaxing morning in Edinburgh. Around noon we were feeling a bit restless so a walk was in order! We decided to visit Blackford Hill Local Nature Reserve which is a bit of a green oasis along the southern edge of the city. For being in the city, it is surprisingly large. It consists of a moderately sized pond, surrounded by some woodland. The hills look typical for the Scottish countryside, containing an abundance of gorse. From on top it is possible to see Arthur's Seat, the Pentland Hills, and most of the city of Edinburgh.

Edinburgh and Arthur's Seat

For perhaps the first time in history, the winds were not howling all day and the walk was quite enjoyable! We stopped at the pond for a while where the various ducks were overly tame. The Eurasian Moorhens were doing their best Mallard interpretations, walking right up to us as if to beg for food. I just had to break out the big lens to nail some pics....It is weird how tame they are here, yet the moorhens back home are the exact opposite!

Eurasian Moorhen - Edinburgh, U.K.

Eurasian Moorhen - Edinburgh, U.K.

Eurasian Moorhen - Edinburgh, U.K.

Eurasian Moorhen - Edinburgh, U.K.

Eurasian Moorhen - Edinburgh, U.K.

While we were having fun with the overly tame moorhens, a Robin came by to check out what was going on. It happened to land on a stick with perfect lighting, allowing me to get my first usable photos of the species.

European Robin - Edinburgh, U.K.

European Robin - Edinburgh, U.K.

The surprisingly loud song of the Robin is familiar to many people who live in Europe, and was probably the first "foreign" bird song that I learned on my inaugural Scotland trip back in February, 2012.

European Robin - Edinburgh, U.K.

European Robin - Edinburgh, U.K.

While walking up Blackford Hill, we stopped to watch the antics of some Eurasian Jackdaws. They are always up to no good...

Eurasian Jackdaws - Edinburgh, U.K.

Eurasian Jackdaw - Edinburgh, U.K.

A Song Thrush also allowed our close approach so I could photograph it. This species, along with the larger Mistle Thrush, is fairly common in Edinburgh green spaces and gardens.

Song Thrush - Edinburgh, U.K.

The Common Wood Pigeon is a large, abundant bird that looks like it could feed a family of about five. Laura and I refer to them as "dinner"...
Common Wood Pigeon - Edinburgh, U.K.

Common Wood Pigeon - Edinburgh, U.K.

After hiking to the top of the hill and back down again, Laura and I stopped again at the pond to see what we could find. A nice surprise was the discovery of several pairs of Common Toads in amplexus, heading towards the pond! The males were just a little eager it seemed.

Common Toads - Edinburgh, U.K.

Somewhat related to the Eurasian Moorhen, but uglier and with cooler feet, is the Eurasian Coot. They often can be found together in most wetland habitats throughout the U.K.

Eurasian Coot - Edinburgh, U.K.

Eurasian Coot - Edinburgh, U.K.

It was a pretty fun afternoon at the pond! Next up will be a post detailing today's adventure, which will include the coolest sounding bird that I have ever heard.