Sunday, 10 December 2017

Birding Chatham-Kent and Essex - November 17-19

A few weeks ago, Todd Hagedorn joined me for a weekend of birding in southwestern Ontario. It had been several months since my last visit to Point Pelee, and it hadn't been a very good time. During that trip I spent about 2 hours in the Point Pelee area before I had to leave, and I unfortunately "dipped" on the Wood Stork that had been seen for two days, up to about five seconds before my arrival. It really is pretty incredible how close I came to seeing that  bird and still missed it. If you are feeling down, or enjoy other people's tales of misery, feel free to ask me about it sometime! :)

Needing to wash the taste of the last trip out of my mouth I was eager to get down to Point Pelee for a weekend of birding. Our first stop was not Point Pelee, but Bate's Subdivision outside of Rondeau Provincial Park. Jim Burk, one of the several sharp local Rondeau birders who seem to be constantly out looking and finding rarities, discovered a gorgeous Townsend's Warbler on November 11, a species with only nine accepted records for Ontario. In the days since, its routine had been nailed down and Todd and I were hoping to cross paths with this scarce western warbler.

The morning was calm, sunny and relatively warm for the date. Todd and I slowly walked the side streets throughout the subdivision, searching through the abundant red cedars in the heavily wooded subdivision, on one occasion making pleasant small talk with one of the residents here. The Townsend's Warbler had become a local celebrity and she was curious if we had caught up with it yet. It is great to see situations like this. All of the previous birders had respected people's private property and kept to the public roadways, leading to positive vibes between birders and the residents of the quiet subdivision. Much of this is due to the work done by Steve Charbonneau, Jim Burk and some of the other local birders.

The Townsend's Warbler was a little slow in appearing this morning but there were many other birds to look at. During a lull in our searching we walked out to the lake side of the peninsula to search through the big flock of geese that had been assembling there over the past days and weeks. Lev Frid had discovered a Ross's Goose with the flock a few days earlier and it was still present, along with an adult and immature Snow Goose.

Snow Geese - Rondeau Peninsula, Municipality of Chatham-Kent

Ross's Goose - Rondeau Peninsula, Municipality of Chatham-Kent

A Blackpoll Warbler had also been found in Bate's Subdision by several keen birders searching for the Townsend's Warbler. This species usually has vacated the province by the middle of October so to see one in late November is a bit unusual. At one point we caught up with the Blackpoll, hanging tight with a few Yellow-rumped Warbler friends.

Blackpoll Warbler - Bate's Subdivision, Municipality of Chatham-Kent

After searching for well over an hour an unusual chip note caught my attention while Todd and I walked near the intersection of Second and Center Streets. It had to be the bird! A few seconds later Steve Charbonneau, who was across the intersection from us, called out that he had the Townsend's! It took a few seconds of searching before I saw it, sitting quietly in a deciduous tree. It instantly took to the wing and flew over us, disappearing far to the north. Well, at least we saw it!

Over the next hour various birders came and went but the Townsend's Warbler was playing hard to get. On several occasions I heard the bird call but it was sticking deep to the red cedars and very difficult to see. Finally our patience was rewarded and the bird fed slightly more in the open. I only managed one identifiable photo the entire time - it was difficult!

Townsend's Warbler - Bate's Subdivision, Municipality of Chatham-Kent

Some of the group searching for the warbler.

Townsend's Warbler stakeout - Bate's Subdivision, Municipality of Chatham-Kent

Todd and I continued southwest, stopping at Shrewsbury and Wheatley harbour, though we couldn't turn anything too unusual up. As we were driving in the "onion fields" towards Point Pelee we flushed two meadowlarks alongside Mersea Road 19. Both appeared to be Easterns, as far as we could tell.

presumed Eastern Meadowlark - Leamington onion fields

The day had become quite gloomy at this point and a walk around DeLaurier failed to turn up much of anything as the darkness ascended. We called it a day and headed back to Leamington where we were staying with Jeremy Bensette.

Todd and I were a little slow on the draw on Saturday morning and by the time we stationed ourselves at the Tip, the crack team of Jeremy Hatt, Steve Pike, Blake Mann and Mike Nelson had already found a Pacific Loon! It refused to show for Todd and I but we enjoyed a decent waterbird flight. Red-throated Loons in particular were around in good numbers while we also tallied a few of the unusual-ish ducks, such as Black and Surf Scoter and Long-tailed Duck. Unfortunately the forecast rain came in with a fury, effectively ending our day just before lunchtime. Todd and I enjoyed hanging out with Jeremy and Steve for a while, then birded on our own, but the relentless rain did not help at all.

Sunday morning was our last chance at birding in the southwest before we needed to make our way home. Strong northwest winds were forecast so instead of trying our hand at birding at the Tip we thought we would bird along the lakeshore, hoping to see some late migrant raptors. Our goal was also to leave at an early enough hour so that we would have time to search for the Mountain Bluebird found by Anthony Vanderheyden in Waterloo. This would be Jeremy's record-tying bird for his Ontario Big Year.

A short vigil at the end of Zion Road failed to turn up any migrant raptors, though a few flyover Lapland Longspurs were nice to see. It was still early in the day but time was of the essence and we had to keep moving. Near Port Alma we observed a flock of 27 Sandhill Cranes migrating. They are one of my favorite bird species in Ontario and I always enjoy seeing them. We also caught up with a massive flock of blackbirds containing at least 1000 Rusty Blackbirds, a good number for this species whose numbers have been dropping quickly.

At Erieau we finally caught up with the male Harlequin Duck, an individual that had returned for its third winter. I think this is the first Harlequin Duck that I have seen on Lake Erie.  A Snowy Owl, the harbinger of many to come this winter, was in the furthest east field along Erieau Road, opposite McGeachy's Pond.

Our next stop was the Ridgetown Lagoons, a favourite spot of mine that seems to turn up unusual birds more often than not. Luck was on our side once again and soon after arrival I picked out three tiny Ross's Geese tucked in with all the Canadas.
Ross's Geese - Ridgetown lagoons

Ten cute little Cackling Geese were a fun study as they stood on a near berm with a big flock of Canada Geese. Two are visible in the photo below.

Canada Geese and Cackling Geese - Ridgetown lagoons

We finished our weekend by searching for the Mountain Bluebird in Waterloo. Luck continued to be on our side and not only did we view the bird well but it cooperated for photos. I wrote about this bird in a previous post (http://joshvandermeulen.blogspot.ca/2017/11/mountain-bluebird-ties-record.html) but I will add one more photo here. It was a good way to end the weekend!


Friday, 1 December 2017

Brant in Crystal Beach, Black-legged Kittiwake at Niagara Falls

A few mornings ago I took a break from report writing to look for two specific birds that had been discovered in recent days in Niagara Region. My first destination was Crystal Beach where a local birder named Wally Parker had discovered a Brant. Within North America this diminutive goose species breeds in the Arctic and winters along the coasts and small numbers are often seen from the shores of Lake Ontario in October and November. These birds are breeding to the north of us, stopping over during their migration to the coastal regions of the mid-Atlantic states. Occasionally a lone individual is found in southern Ontario. For whatever reason these birds have missed the boat on migration and often hang around for several weeks or longer. Occasionally, these sea-geese have even successfully overwintered in the province.

Brant - Crystal Beach, Niagara Region 

Upon my arrival at Crystal Beach I walked to the west edge of the parking lot. From here a large flock of dabbling ducks was busy feeding in the washed up algae along the shore. The Brant was quickly found, despite it being nearly the same size as the ducks.

Brant - Crystal Beach, Niagara Region 

I spent about 45 minutes with the bird. After a bit of maneuvering I found a suitable vantage point, close the waterline with the sun almost at my back. The angle wasn't ideal for photography but if the Brant turned the right way, I was able to get photos of it mostly unobscured by shadows.

Brant - Crystal Beach, Niagara Region 

During the majority of my stake-out the Brant was mixed in with a mess of Mallards, making the photo opportunities not ideal. During a few of these moments I turned to some of the duck species that were in this flock. Species that are commonly seen but which I rarely put the effort into photographing. Given that I was already in position and the birds were semi-cooperative, I took advantage of the situation and took some acceptable images of American Black Duck and American Wigeon.
American Black Ducks - Crystal Beach, Niagara Region 

American Wigeon - Crystal Beach, Niagara Region 

 The Brant fed constantly in the washed up vegetation along the shore, to the point where it was very difficult to take a photo of it with its head up. Considering that it was having no problem gorging itself on the plentiful food supply it will be interesting to see how long it sticks around.

Brant - Crystal Beach, Niagara Region 

At one point the Brant chose a piece of turf that was apparently already occupied by a very territorial Mallard. It let its thoughts known by bowling over the Brant! I did not see these two individuals have any issues with each other during the remainder of my visit.

Brant - Crystal Beach, Niagara Region 

Here are just a few more photos of the Brant, during the brief moments when there wasn't a Mallard or Ring-billed Gull in the way!
Brant - Crystal Beach, Niagara Region 

Brant - Crystal Beach, Niagara Region

My next stop was Niagara Falls where I hoped to connect with a Black-legged Kittiwake that Betsy Potter had spotted yesterday (November 26, 2017). It had been seen flying in and out of the mist at the base of the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. This is a popular location for wayward "small gulls" and nearly every year either Black-legged Kittiwake or Sabine's Gull individuals spent time here.

Black-legged Kittiwake - Niagara Falls

It took about twenty minutes of intently scanning the Bonaparte's Gulls, all the while fielding questions about my spotting scope from the curious tourists, before the striking wing pattern of the juvenile Black-legged Kittiwake flew across my binocular view.

Black-legged Kittiwake - Niagara Falls

The "M" pattern on the upper-side of a juvenile Black-legged Kittiwake is quite striking and easily viewed from a distance. This is even more apparent when you are looking down onto the bird from high above, such as from along the walkway overlooking Niagara Falls. The Black-legged Kittiwake had a noticeably larger wingspan than the nearby Bonaparte's Gulls and flew with a more graceful, arcing flight into the mist at the base of the falls.

Black-legged Kittiwake - Niagara Falls

It was a great few hours of birding! I'm pretty fortunate that Niagara Falls is practically in my backyard. Who knows what will be the next great bird seen on the river (I'm holding out for Ross's Gull). There will be lots of eyes looking over the next month or so during peak gull-watching season. It should be fun!

Black-legged Kittiwake - Niagara Falls

Monday, 27 November 2017

Anna's Hummingbird and Black-throated Gray Warbler in Eastern Ontario

The last few weeks have been nothing short of excellent when it comes to unusual birds being found by intrepid birders in Ontario. Eastern Ontario in particular has been on fire, starting with the alcid sp. found by Jon Ruddy back on October 30. The same alcid (or a different one) was found by Bruce Di Labio on Oct 31 - it was a young Razorbill. Several other rare species have been found in eastern Ontario in the weeks since, including a fly-by Northern Gannet along the Ottawa River, a long-staying Yellow-headed Blackbird and Black-throated Gray Warbler in Ottawa, an Anna's Hummingbird in Carleton Place, and yet another alcid sp. in Ottawa. Bruce Di Labio and Jon Ruddy, in particular, have had their names flash across the rare bird alerts frequently in the last few weeks. Thanks to their great finds, many birders have made their way to eastern Ontario and observed some incredible species for the area.

The Anna's Hummingbird was first observed on November 3 when it appeared at a hummingbird feeder at a private residence in Carleton Place, Lanark County. Bruce Di Labio was made aware of its presence and invited to view the bird on November 11, at which point he identified the wayward hummingbird as an Anna's Hummingbird. Native to the west coast, Anna's Hummingbird is a mostly resident species from coastal Alaska south to northwest Mexico. In recent years the species has expanded its range; in the past, southwestern British Colombia was the furthest north the species could be found.

Perhaps due to this expansion in both geographic range and population size, Ontario has seen all three of its Anna's Hummigbirds in the last eight years. The first was discovered coming to a feeder in Kingsville, Essex County from 25-30 October, 2010. Unfortunately by the time a conclusive identification was made the bird had disappeared. The second was a long-staying individual in Thunder Bay, from September 19 - December 7, 2013. That bird's presence was not made known to the birding community until early December and a handful of local birders were able to successfully view it, along with several quick-acting southern Ontario birders. I chased this bird with Andrew Keaveney, arriving mid-day on December 8, 2013 after enduring snow squalls and shut down highways on our drive up. When a second-provincial record frequents a bird feeder for 80 days and you show up on day 81 with no sign of the bird, it is more than a little depressing.

But as is occasionally the case when it comes to chasing rare birds, redemption often occurs - that is, if luck is on your side. Late on November 12, 2017 I answered a phone call from a good friend of mine. He had helped arrange for me to see the Anna's Hummingbird, a bird I had become aware of a day earlier. Wanting a shot at redemption with this bird, I jumped at the opportunity. My Monday morning plans were drastically altered - four hours after receiving the phone call and after a couple of short hours of sleep I was on the road, my car pointed in the general direction of Carleton Place.

At 7:00 I found myself at the designated meeting spot. A local Carleton Place birder had arranged for about 10 birders (myself included) to view the bird at the private residence and by 7:30 AM we were in position, with everyone keeping a close eye both on the feeder and on the cedar hedge where the bird apparently roosted.

Anna's Hummingbird - Carleton Place, Lanark County

It was a tense 10 minutes of waiting before the deep voice of Mike Tate announced that the hummingbird was at the feeder. Success!

Anna's Hummingbird - Carleton Place, Lanark County

In the dim early morning light we were treated to about 30 seconds of viewing the hummingbird  as it hovered in front of the feeder, dipping down every few seconds to drink the sugar-rich liquid. I fired off a few photos but mostly just watched the bird through my binoculars. While superficially appearing similar to a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, this female Anna's Hummingbird was noticeably stockier with a thick, straight bill and a reddish central throat patch. As quickly as it appeared, the hummingbird was gone. Fortunately we were treated to an encore appearance, only fifteen minutes later. The incremental increase in ambient light levels meant that I was able to bump my ISO sensitivity down from 5000 to 4000 - still way too high for my liking, but that was the sacrifice that was needed to obtain at least a marginally sharp image at 1/100 of a second.

Anna's Hummingbird - Carleton Place, Lanark County

After the early morning wake up and 5.5 hour drive it sure felt good to lay not only lay eyes on this hummingbird but manage a few OK photos as well. This was my first western hummingbird I have encountered in Ontario. Rufous Hummingbird is the only regular vagrant hummingbird we see in the province, with perhaps one record a year. Maybe we will start to see an increase of Anna's Hummingbird records given the range expansion the species has shown recently.

It was shortly after 8:00 AM and I was on my way. It is always nice when things go according to plan!. Given that the day was still young, instead of driving straight home I decided to take a detour through Ottawa to see the Black-throated Gray Warbler at the Brittania Filtration Plant.

Like the Anna's Hummingbird the Black-throated Gray Warbler was also easily found as it flitted in a few Eastern White Pines near the entrance to the filtration plant. Along with several birders including Owen Yates, Rob Buchanan and Kit McCann we watched the warbler as it moved through the branches, carefully scouring them for spiders and whatever other morsels it could find. It was keeping close company with a Nashville Warbler - evidently, another individual that had neglected to migrate properly with the rest of its species. It was certainly an odd couple to see together in eastern Ontario during November.

Black-throated Gray Warbler - Britannia Conservation Area, Ottawa

Six years had passed in the time since I observed the only other Black-throated Gray Warbler on my Ontario list. The long-staying individual at Bayfront Park in Hamilton moved around frequently, and I only caught up with it twice on a half dozen visits. Considering I was not able to take any good photos of that bird, managing some serviceable photos of this individual was a bonus.

Black-throated Gray Warbler - Britannia Conservation Area, Ottawa

It was an excellent morning of birding! I relaxed on the drive back by listening to some tunes and podcasts, and only stopping once for a work conference call. I made it through Toronto before rush hour and was even home in time for dinner. A pretty great day of birding! On those slow February days when nothing of consequence is being found and reported, while a foot of snow lies on the driveway and the winds howl, I will think back fondly to this day...

Monday, 20 November 2017

Mountain Bluebird ties the record!

It has been an exciting few weeks in Ontario, in no small part to all of the rare birds that are being observed in the southern portion of the province. An Anna's Hummingbird, only the third to be documented in Ontario, was discovered at a bird feeder in Carleton Place early in November and its presence was made public to the birding community last week. A Townsend's Warbler has become quite regular in its habits in Bate's Subdivision near Rondeau Provincial Park, in the week since its discovery by Jim Burk. A Black-throated Gray Warbler has been reliably seen in Ottawa for almost three weeks. This was just one of three excellent birds that Bruce DiLabio came across, with the other two being Razorbill and Northern Gannet (I think I need to put a radio-tracker in Bruce and follow him around - its a good strategy to see rarities). A Summer Tanager is visiting a feeder in Sudbury. And a whole variety of "lesser rarities" have been seen throughout the province including a smattering of Cattle Egrets, Red Phalaropes, Black-legged Kittiwakes, a Black-headed Gull, Pacific Loons and more. Late fall can be a spectacular time for birding even though most of the landbirds have cleared out.

On November 18 another rarity was added to the list, when Anthony Vanderheyden discovered a female Mountain Bluebird at Snyder's Flats in Waterloo. Mountain Bluebird is a western species that is at home in open, scrubby areas throughout the Rocky Mountains and across the Great Plains. It also has a tendency to turn up in out of the way places and rarely but regularly appears in Ontario. There are 43 OBRC accepted records of Mountain Bluebird, with most records occurring in late autumn or early winter.

Mountain Bluebird - Snyder's Flats, Waterloo Region (November 19, 2017)

At the time I was at Point Pelee National Park with Todd Hagedorn for the weekend, and staying with Jeremy Bensette in Leamington. Jeremy was eager to get to the bluebird as it would be a potential year bird for him; the record-tying bird. It was too late in the day to chase the bluebird on Saturday so Jeremy planned to be there the following day. Todd and I planned on birding the Pelee and Rondeau areas before making our way back home. Upon our return to the Kitchener-Waterloo area we would look for the bluebird if it was still around.

The next morning Todd and I had a pretty productive day of birding that I will probably detail in another blog post. The bluebird was still being viewed, despite the high winds and occasional flurries, typical of late November it seems. Jeremy was already on site having already viewed the bird, and Todd and I met up with Ken Burrell and Dan MacNeal to conduct our own search. We had only been on site for half an hour when we received a call from Jeremy. He was looking at the bird with Owen Yates and Tim Arthur, only a short distance away Todd, Ken, Dan and I.


Mountain Bluebird - Snyder's Flats, Waterloo Region (November 19, 2017)

The Mountain Bluebird was actively searching for prey during the entire time that we watched it. The bird would frequently perch on the tips of willow and alder bushes to have a better view of the ground below, not always an easy task due to the strong winds almost blowing it off its perches on occasion. Being a bird of the Great Plains, I am certain that Mountain Bluebirds are well adapted to strong winds.

Mountain Bluebird - Snyder's Flats, Waterloo Region (November 19, 2017)

Mountain Bluebird - Snyder's Flats, Waterloo Region (November 19, 2017)

She appeared to be pretty successful, catching and gulping down a few grasshoppers while we watched. On a few occasions the bird hovered before dropping down, a behavior frequently shown by Mountain Bluebird which isn't seen as often by Eastern Bluebird, the expected species in southern Ontario.

Mountain Bluebird - Snyder's Flats, Waterloo Region (November 19, 2017)

Male Mountain Bluebirds are visually quite appealing due to their unmistakable sky blue coloration. The females, while a little more muted in color show subtle beauty in their own right. They still exhibit some blue, particularly on the tail and in the folded wings. In flight the blue flash was quite striking when she hovered above the ground facing away from us.

Mountain Bluebird - Snyder's Flats, Waterloo Region (November 19, 2017)


This photo, taken just after she hopped off her perch, illustrates some of the blue easily seen in the flight feathers.

Mountain Bluebird - Snyder's Flats, Waterloo Region (November 19, 2017)

Sometimes she would hunt from the ground, taking advantage of the relative shelter from the wind provided by a nearby gravel hillside.

Mountain Bluebird - Snyder's Flats, Waterloo Region (November 19, 2017)

We enjoyed the twenty minutes or so that we spent with her. At one point she came to within about five meters of our group, seemingly unconcerned with our presence. Finding food was of primary importance.

Mountain Bluebird - Snyder's Flats, Waterloo Region (November 19, 2017)

The Mountain Bluebird represented the 343rd bird species seen or heard by Jeremy Bensette this year, officially tying the big year record which I set in 2012. Congrats Jeremy! It was great to share this moment with him, as Jeremy is one of my best friends who I have shared a lot of time (and birds) with over the last few years. The Mountain Bluebird was just one of many highlights this year which also included Jeremy standing in my wedding party in early September. Luckily for him he did not miss any year birds due to the wedding festivities, and no rarities showed up during the day of the wedding, which would have given Jeremy a very difficult decision to make!

Photo courtesy of Corynn Fowler Photogrpahy

And a photo of Jeremy with his record tying bird...

Jeremy Bensette with Mountain Bluebird - Snyder's Flats, Waterloo Region (November 19, 2017)

While I am sure it will not be long until he sees another year bird to take sole possession of the record, for a brief moment at least we both share the record, which is pretty cool. Jeremy has certainly put in the time and effort (and mileage) in his big year attempt and is very deserving of the record. Here's to many more year birds before the year is out; lets see how high you can push the record, Jere!

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Borneo - an Introduction

Earlier this year, I was approached by Quest Nature Tours to see if I had any interest in leading a tour to Borneo and Bali for 12 days in October of 2017. Borneo had always been on my short list of must-visit destinations and so I jumped at the opportunity. It would be a different kind of tour for me as well. While past tours I've led for Quest have been traditional nature tours, this trip would be with an alumni group from Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH. The college has a travel alumni organization that helps to organize trips for their members throughout the world, often accompanied by one of their professors who is an expert in their field. This trip would consist of eight days in Borneo and three days in Bali, with the Borneo portion focused on wildlife and ecology, while the Bali segment would have more of a focus on the culture and religions of the area. The group would be accompanied by Dr. Nate Dominy, a world renowned anthropologist and evolutionary ecologist at Dartmouth College who specializes in primate behaviour, morphology and ecology. I would act as the Quest representative, and we would also have local guides with us throughout the duration of the trip. With only four travelers signed up it would be a nice cozy group!

Having never been to Asia before, I made the prudent decision to fly in about a week and a half ahead of the tour. This would give me a chance to get my feet wet with the ecology and wildlife present in Borneo, and though I would still have a lot to learn as the trip commenced at least these extra days would give me a bit of a running start. Not only that, but it was an opportunity to explore on my own, in one of the most biodiverse corners of this world. A good decision, I think.

Before I get into the meat of the report, I wanted to briefly provide some background information on the island of Borneo. 


The island of Borneo is the third largest island in the world, only trailing Greenland and New Guinea. Located southeast of mainland Asia and northwest of Australia, Borneo is actually composed of three different countries.  The northern 1/3 of the island belongs to Malaysia and the southern 2/3 belongs to Indonesia, while the sovereign state of Brunei is located in the northern part of the island. The Malaysian side is composed of two states: Sarawak in the south and west, and Sabah in the northeast. Several other large islands are located near Borneo. To the east is Sulawesi, to the south is Java and to the west is Sumatra. 


While Borneo is currently manifested as an island, over geological time this is usually not the case. The waters between mainland southeast Asia, Java, Sumatra and Borneo are all quite shallow, and during periods of low water levels (such as during glacial maxima) these areas can be all connected by land, which is the case about 80% of the time.  Collectively, this part of the world is known as the Sundaic shelf and Borneo, Java, Sumatra and mainland Mayalsia/Thailand share many species as a result.   

Sir Alfred Russel Wallace was one of the first naturalists to devote a lot of his time to understanding the biogreography of the Sundaic shelf and the Indonesian archipelago; in fact he is often referred to as the father of biogeography. Sir Wallace is perhaps most famous for conceiving of the idea of the theory of evolution and natural selection based off of his findings and discoveries as he traveled throughout the area. He came upon the idea independently of Charles Darwin, prompting Charles Darwin to rush to publish his thoughts. One of Sir Wallace's other important findings was the discovery of Wallace's Line; that is, a deep sea trench that essentially splits the Indonesian archipelago in half, running north-south and passing to the east of Borneo. Wallace found it interesting how the islands of Bali and Lombok, despite only being separated by 35 km, had vastly different flora and fauna. In his book "The Malay Archipelago" he states "In Bali we have barbets, fruit thrushes and woodpeckers; on passing over to Lombok we see these no more, but on Lombok we have an abundance of cockatoos, honeysuckers and brush-turkeys which we do not see in Bali or further west". Wallace observed similar differences between the fauna of Borneo and Sulawesi, and elsewhere in the archipelago. We now know that deep-sea trenches form Wallace's Line. Even during times of glacial maxima when sea levels are at the lowest, the depth of these trenches prevent land bridges from joining the islands on either side of the line. As a result, the flora and fauna west of the line are Asian in origin, while to the east of the line the flora and fauna are decidedly Australasian in origin. Many species groups will not cross over open water, causing the line to act as a barrier preventing gene flow.

One tenet of island biogeography is that in general, biological diversity is proportional to the size of the island. Being one of the largest islands in the region Borneo is quite diverse, even rivaling the mainland (Thailand, Malaysia) in species diversity. While formerly Borneo was blanketed with tropical forest, deforestation within the last 60 years has affected most of the island. The Indonesian portion of the island has been the most heavily affected and forests are continually being turned into oil palm plantations each and every day. While only about 30% of the original forest cover remains in Borneo, many organizations have been hard at work in recent years advocating for the protection of the remaining forests. The Malaysian government has stepped up and now some areas in the Malaysian side of the island receive protection. Ecotourism has exploded in recent years as world class eco-lodges have began popping up over the northern part of the island (Sabah province). Hopefully this will lead to more interest in Borneo and more protection for the areas that has not yet been exploited by deforestation.


The above map shows each of the locations that I visited, numbered by the order that I visited them. I flew into Kota Kinabalu in the northwest, rented a car at the airport and explored the area for nine days. I then returned the car and flew east to Sandakan to meet my group. We explored the eastern side of the island and flew out of Tawau, arriving later that day in Bali. Red lines note travel by car/bus, green shows a flight, and blue represents a boat. A brief synopsis on each location that I visited:

1. Gunung (Mount) Kinabalu.
This is one of the most famous names in southeast Asia for birders as southeast Asia's highest peak also is the easiest location to see many of the endemic species found in Borneo. Mountains lack species diversity but they are often hotspots of endemism, and Mount Kinabalu is no different. Within the national park exists an excellent trail system that provides access to pristine forests from about 1400 m to 1800 m. The summit trail allows one to explore the elevations of 1800 m to the summit at 4,095 m; unfortunately day passes are no longer available and the only way to visit the high elevations along the summit trail is to sign up for a two day trip with a guide, to reach the summit by sunrise on day 2. This needs to be booked well in advance and is not cheap; needless to say I missed the few endemics that are only seen along the summit trail! There are a wide variety of accommodations either in the national park or in the nearby town of Kundasang. I spent the better part of three full days within this part of the national park.

2. Poring Hot Springs / Langanan Waterfall
While also located within Mount Kinabalu National Park, the Poring Hot Springs are located at the low elevation of 500 m. A trail leading to the Langanan Waterfall starts at the hot springs and finishes at an elevation around 1200 m, providing access to lower elevation forest than what one can explore near the main entrance to Mount Kinabalu National Park. I spend one full day walking to the waterfall and back, and since it is only located 45 mins from the entrance to Mount Kinabalu National Park it is easy to do in a day trip.

3. Crocker Range: Gunung (Mount) Alab 
The Crocker Range starts north of Mount Kinabalu and continues to the southwest, effectively separating the east and west coasts of Sabah province in north Borneo. Near the Gunung Alab substation and Rafflesia Information Center is access to high quality submontane forest where several of the tough mountain endemic birds can be found more reliably than at Mount Kinabalu. The only accommodations are in the very basic Gunung Alab "Resort" (quotation marks added by me).

Crocker Range - Sabah Province, Malaysia

4. Tanjung (Point) Aru
This beach is located within the city of Kota Kinabalu. I made a brief stop here during the heat of the afternoon to look for the introduced Blue-naped Parrots, a scarce Philippine species that has established itself at this park. Unfortunately I dipped on the parrots, but the park does provide a great introduction to the common coastal species.

5. Klias Peatswamp Reserve
Peatswamp forest is one of the rarer forest types in Sabah Province, though it is much more common in the Indonesian side of Borneo. A field station located within the Klias reserve has constructed an extensive boardwalk which provides access to this unusual forest type. Some of the main target species for visiting birders are the scarce Hook-billed Bulbul, Gray-breasted Babbler, Scarlet-breasted Flowerpecker, Brown-backed Flowerpecker and Red-crowned Barbet. I stayed at the River Hotel in nearby Beaufort, which was excellent, and I birded the Klias reserve for one morning.

6. Sepilok Rainforest Discovery Center
Located on the edge of lowland rainforest, the Sepilok RDC has an extensive trail system and excellent canopy walkway. This is one of the better locations to encounter the highly sought after Bornean Bristlehead, while most Bornean lowland species can also be found here. Within the village of Sepilok is also the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center and Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center.

Black-and-red Broadbill - Sepilok RDC

7. Kinabatangan River: Sukau
The Kinabatangan River is the second largest river in Sabah, flowing from the highlands to the coast near the city of Sandakan. Most of the forest surrounding the lower reaches of the river is protected, and a number of eco-lodges are located in several clusters along the river. All excursions are done by boat here, cruising the main river and some of the tributaries in search of Proboscis Monkeys, Orangutans, Bornean Pygmy Elephants, Reticulated Pythons, Saltwater Crocodiles and a wide variety of birds and other wildlife. We stayed at the Borneo Nature Lodge, near Sukau.

8. Gomantong Caves
This is one of the largest limestone caves in Sabah Province providing habitat for millions of bats and swiftlets, including the famous White-nest, Black-nest and Mossy-nest Swiftlets. Surrounding the caves is high quality lowland rainforest, and wild Orangutans can sometimes be seen here. We only made a brief stop here to break up the drive to the Danum Valley.

9. Danum Valley 
The crown jewel of Sabah province, the Danum Valley is a 438 sq. km tract of undisturbed lowland forest, representing some of the best quality primary forest in southeast Asia. Almost every bird species known from the lowlands of Sabah has been observed here at some point. We stayed at the decadent Borneo Rainforest Lodge for three nights and explored the surrounding forests on foot. A seriously impressive canopy walkway and an excellent trail system provides access to the forest, while the guides here are some of the best in Borneo. Spending time here among the colossal trees and surrounded by Red Leaf Monkeys, Orangutans, civets, snakes and more was easily the highlight of the trip for me.

Ok, that is enough rambling for now. The next post will cover my first few days in Borneo!

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Van Wagner's Beach lakewatch

Life has been busy since my return from Borneo and Bali and I haven't had much of a chance to do any birding in the two weeks since my return. This week was particularly heavy, work-wise, but I managed to push a few big reports out the door and have a bit of a lighter schedule coming up, so hopefully I will be able to devote more time to birding in southwestern Ontario! I made sure that my schedule for Saturday remained clear, and given the forecast for moderate east winds picking up through the day, a visit to Van Wagner's Beach was in order.

Van Wagner's Beach is a well known location to pretty much any birder in southern Ontario. Due to its location on the far western end of Lake Ontario, migrant species present on the lake sometimes fly past during ideal weather conditions, such as during north, northeast or east winds in the autumn. Sometimes the various waterbird species migrating between James Bay and the Atlantic coast make a stopover on Lake Ontario; these are the birds that we are hoping to see at Van Wagner's! Given the time of year, I was hoping for Parasitic and Pomarine Jaeger, Black-legged Kittiwake, Red-throated Loons and maybe some Brant.

Only a few other birders were there upon my arrival at 9:00 AM including some familiar faces. The first few hours of the morning were quite productive though no rarities showed. I was really enjoying getting back into waterbird identification as I was a little out of practice! Lots of birds were on the move, namely scoters, Common Goldeneye, and Long-tailed Ducks, along with mixed flocks of dabbling ducks. It was a great day for loon migration and at any given point a loon was visible, somewhere over the water. A handful of distant Red-throated Loons were also seen, the harbingers of many more slated to come through this month.

Around 10:00 AM I spotted a Black-legged Kittiwake that was nearly upon us, only a few meters offshore and coming in hot and heavy from the west. Fortunately I had stepped back from my scope or else I surely would have missed this bird too! We all enjoyed the fantastic views as it cruised past, continuing down the beach.I was a little slow to the draw with my camera but eventually fired off a few photos as it flew directly away.



The next great bird came only a few minutes after the kittiwake. A small jaeger also flew down the beach, so close that we all could have easily missed it as well if we were looking through our scopes. Upon seeing the jaeger a few things were apparent - it lacked the warm tones associated with Parasitic Jaeger, exhibited a heavily barred undertail and uppertail coverts, and flew with the typical bouncy flight of Long-tailed Jaeger. Fortunately my camera was resting on the bench in front of me and after the kittiwake fly-by I was a little more prepared. It helped that the jaeger flew slowly down the beach, allowing Jeremy Bensette and I to snap a handful of photos as it drifted past, mere meters away. Looking at the photos the consensus among the group was that it was a juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger. Long-tailed is generally thought of as an earlier migrant, and each autumn a handful of individuals are seen from late August through September, with occasional records from October as well. There are only a couple of previous November records for Ontario, and this may be one of the latest for the province.

juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger - Van Wagner's Beach, City of Hamilton (November 4, 2017)

Some of the features that identify this bird as a juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger include the following:

-small slim jaeger appearing more front-heavy with attenuated rear
-bouncy, tern-like flight
-apparent small size
-"cold" tones throughout plumage, lacking rufous tones often seen in Parasitic Jaeger
-extensive white barring on upper and under tail coverts
-only a couple of white primary shafts on upper side of wings, lacking the extensive white flash
-short, relatively thick bill with black distal half and pale proximal half
-white barring on under wing coverts
-blunt-tipped central rectrices

juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger - Van Wagner's Beach, City of Hamilton (November 4, 2017)

The rest of the day was awesome - more Black-legged Kittiwake sightings, a Brant, decent numbers of ducks and other waterbirds and even some shorebirds. A flock of 12 Dunlins went by during the mid-morning, while a single White-rumped Sandpiper and two Sanderlings were also seen during my watch.

Sanderlings - Van Wagner's Beach, City of Hamilton (November 4, 2017)

Sanderlings - Van Wagner's Beach, City of Hamilton (November 4, 2017)

These two birds are both juvenile birds undergoing their first pre-basic molt. The dark brown and white juvenile feathers on the wings are being replaced with plain gray feathers. These new gray feathers are easily seen on the scapular (back) feathers, while a few have also come in on the wing coverts.

Sanderlings - Van Wagner's Beach, City of Hamilton (November 4, 2017)

By early afternoon I left to drive back to Niagara as I was hoping to catch up with a Franklin's Gull that had been found by Marcie Jacklin along the Niagara River in Fort Erie. She had observed the bird for three days in a row, including earlier in the morning. Unfortunately I couldn't dig it up, but I did enjoy taking some photos of some Bonaparte's Gulls that were actively feeding. Speaking of which - they have recently invaded the Niagara River in big numbers. My last stop at the Control Gates above the Falls was productive, as thousands were present. An adult Little Gull was mixed in with them, as was an individual that still showed a complete hood. We often get one or two of these each winter on the river.

Bonaparte's Gull - Fort Erie, Niagara Region


Bonaparte's Gull - Fort Erie, Niagara Region

Bonaparte's Gull - Fort Erie, Niagara Region

Bonaparte's Gull - Fort Erie, Niagara Region

Bonaparte's Gull - Fort Erie, Niagara Region

One of the locations that I checked in my attempt to find the Franklin's Gull was the Catherine Street parking lot along the Niagara River in Fort Erie. Migrant Horned Grebes have also appeared on the river, and just from one location I counted 24 here - no doubt several others were underwater when I scanned their portion of the river. This individual was one of two that popped up in the shallows a few meters from where I was standing on the bank. After two quick photos they both slipped underwater, reappearing a minute later, but now 30 meters away.

Horned Grebe - Fort Erie, Niagara Region

I'll finish with a few photos of some Bonaparte's Gulls, a Little Gull and a Common Tern, both seen two days ago from the end of the Port Weller east pier. Common Terns are still sticking around - I've seen three in the past two days. While most clear out of the province in Sept/Oct, we often see a few hanging around on the Niagara River until mid November.

Bonaparte's Gull - Port Weller East, Niagara Region

Common Tern - Port Weller East, Niagara Region

Little Gull - Port Weller East, Niagara Region

Little Gull - Port Weller East, Niagara Region

Bonaparte's Gull and Common Tern - Port Weller East, Niagara Region