Sunday, 31 August 2014

Eurasian Collared-Dove twitch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Camping in Charleston Lake Provincial Park

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

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

Laura looking for Map Turtles

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Bullfrog peering through the duckweed.

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

Checking out a threat in the sky...

Laura looking like a pro ;)

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

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

A little closer....


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

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

Friday, 22 August 2014

A few more night-heron photos

When Laura and I went looking at the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron last weekend, we ran into several other birders. One of them, Hester Riches, sent me a few photos that she took of the bird at that time. Thanks for letting me share these, Hester!

I really like this photo - a great comparison of the juvenile Yellow-crowned (right) and a juvenile Black-crowned (left). The colder tones of the Yellow-crowned are really obvious here! Also note the longer legs, fine spotting on wing coverts, blunter, darker bill, and more crisp streaking on the breast.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron in Toronto

The last number of weeks have been busy for me and as a result my birding has been sporadic at best. This weekend however, with my girlfriend Laura now in town, we went camping at Charleston Lake Provincial Park for a few days with family, a trip that I will post about in the next few days. Laura and I arrived back home this afternoon and after unpacking and doing some chores, I noticed on Ontbirds that a reported Yellow-crowned Night-Heron was still being seen at Colonel Sam Smith Park in Toronto.

This juvenile night-heron was originally found and posted to Ebird by Stephen Smith on Saturday with an accompanying photo - a great example of a Yellow-crowned! Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, along with other "southern" wading birds like ibises, Little Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, and even Wood Storks, regularly disperse during mid summer to places further north with occasional individuals arriving in Ontario. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron averages about one record a year in the province. My only sighting involved a flyby of an adult at Hillman Marsh in September 2012, so I was looking forward to studying a juvenile in Ontario. I think this was the first "twitchable" one in a few years in Ontario.

The drive only took about 40 minutes and we rolled into the parking lot at Colonel Sam around 5:00 PM. The park was busy with dog-walkers and other people out enjoying the rare sunny weather. Laura and I walked over towards the pond where we ran into several birders. With no sign of the heron, I called Len Manning who had seen it earlier in the day and he pointed us into the right direction on the east side of the pond. It was Henrique Pacheco who first noticed the bird, standing on the shoreline and slowly walking along. 

Unfortunately my camera and big lens are out of commission (they don't swim well) so I was delegated to using my backup D40 with the 18-55 lens to try to digiscope the heron. As you can see they are not great photos but enough to ID the bird.

Some of the ways to tell apart a juvenile Yellow-crowned from a Black-crowned include the thick, blunt, and mostly dark bill, small white spots on the wing coverts, thin streaks on the chest, and long-legs and neck. I find that Yellow-crowneds look like a ganglier, darker bird compared to a Black-crowned Night-Heron. I never did capture a photo of it with it's neck extended.

This was the first time I actually spend studying this species at close range, and my first photos of one in Ontario. A great way to spend a Sunday afternoon!

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Panama, Day 3 (March 2, 2014)

We awoke early once again on our third full day in Gamboa and listened to the town come alive with birdsong. They were mainly common species; many of which I had finally became accustomed to after two long days of birding. I was finding it a lot easier to focus my attention on other sounds when I was out birding, and this would continue with more and more species for the next two weeks as well. It's amazing how being fully immersed in an area's birdlife will do that to you.

We decided on checking out Plantation Road, located further south than Gamboa, closer to the Pacific side of the country. The road we followed had been turned into a hiking/mountain biking trail, and passed through several different forest types, usually mature stands. Because of this the bird life was a little slow getting going in the morning compared to more open areas like wetlands and grasslands. Mature forests tend to have less overall birds, though diversity can still be quite high. 

Some of the first birds included the usual assortment of calling motmots, Great Tinamous, toucans, and trogons. At one point I flushed some doves, and after carefully peering through the understorey we found several Grey-chested Doves, my first good look at the species.

Several other species of wildlife made appearances throughout the morning. I saw two snakes, both very briefly, however! One was a young Speckled Racer (Drymobius margaritiferus) and the other a young South American Forest Racer (Dendrophidion percarinatum), a species I hadn't seen before. Would have loved to have snagged a photo!

This South American Coati was oblivious to us as it foraged down a hillside. It took a while but eventually picked up our scent! They seem like a tropical version of a Raccoon.

It's a Steve Pike in its natural habitat...

I was quickly getting used to what tropical forest birding is like - very slow periods interspersed with running into a mixed-species foraging flock. Within a few minutes the surrounding woodland can come alive with the chips and calls of the birds in these flocks. One of the more notable birds we came across by birding the mixed flocks included a Gray Elaenia foraging at treetop height. We did not expect to see this species in the canal zone, though there was a tiny dot on the range map.

A nice variety of butterfly species were along the path, most of which I hadn't seen before! Check out this stripe-streak, which I believe is Arawacus aetolus.

This is a metalmark of some sort, which I think is in the Detrivora genus. (Detritivora barnesi?)

A few more butterflies from along the road...

Bird photography wasn't always easy, as the dark forest contrasted sharply with the few brightly lit leaves and branches. However, with a cooperative bird at eye level, the shady conditions created nice soft light. This White-whiskered Puffbird was sitting quietly at eye level maybe 15 meters from the edge of the trail. It tolerated our presence and the three of us all came away with some nice photos.

This was one of my better attempts with the flash. I think I prefer the natural light shots, but it is really hard to get enough light in the dark conditions without boosting the ISO and creating a lot of noise in the photos.

A female Spotted Antbird provided great looks at the side of the road as well. These birds are usually secretive so we enjoyed our brief looks at this one!

That evening we headed back to Pipeline Road with a plan of going up the Rainforest Discovery Centre Tower for dusk. Unfortunately my phone died soon after taking photos from the top. The phone appears to be dead for good so you'll just have to take my word that the view of the setting sun over the treetops was spectacular! Hearing the species composition change as the evening progressed was a cool experience. Several raptors were heard and seen from the tower including an Osprey, a Great Black-Hawk (heard only), and a White Hawk (heard only). Parrots began flying an hour or two before dusk, though a big flight never materialized. Nevertheless we had good looks at five parrot species. Howler monkeys walked in the treetops and many passerines visited the flowers growing fully exposed to the sun. One of main targets, the Blue Cotinga, remained elusive. They often perch quietly at the top of a tree in the canopy. Spotting their bright blue plumage is a lot easier from on top of a tower! Luckily we still had some shots at this cool bird in a few more places later in the trip, so we didn't worry too much about this "miss".

The evening concluded with some calling Mottled and Crested Owls and a neat sighting of some night-monkeys on the trail during the walk back in the dark. 

The next day we planned to finally cross over to the other side of the canal and drive all the way to the Caribbean side of the country to bird Achiote Road and the Gatun Dam. We would then backtrack to Panama City and drive west to Altos del Maria later in the afternoon, where we had arranged to stay in the mountains with Alfred Raab for a few nights. 

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Panama, Day 2 (March 1, 2014)

The plan for our second full day was to bird Old Gamboa Road which is located at the edge of Soberania National Park. This used to be the main road into Gamboa but it is no longer being used. The southern end of the road is very productive for birding as it passes through dry forest and scrub, grassy areas and creek valleys. We were hoping to find some of the target birds found in the dry scrub/forest habitat, such as Rosy Thrush-Tanager, Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant, Jet Antbird and Lance-tailed Manakin. 

Lesser Kiskadee

Quite a few birds were active as we arrived early in the morning. Flycatchers such as Great Kiskadee, Tropical Kingbird, Boat-billed Flycatcher, and Rusty-margined Flycatcher were present along the roadsides, and Summer Tanagers, various warblers and tanagers were in the treetops as well, while several species of wren (Black-bellied, Rufous-and-white, Buff-breasted, House, and Rufous-breasted) called from the undergrowth. 

Great Kiskadee
 The calls of several trogon species and Whooping Motmots echoed from back in the forest as the sun rose. With it only being my second full day in the tropics, I was still getting used to seeing a crazy looking bird like a Whooping Motmot on the side of the road! Just a few days earlier the only birds I was seeing were European Starlings, House Sparrows, and Ring-billed Gulls...

Whooping Motmot

We stopped by at the Summit Ponds, located at the start of the south section of Old Gamboa Road. This can be a great spot for wading birds and is usually pretty reliable for Boat-billed Heron, which is nocturnal and not always easily seen. I was pretty happy to see a few of them across the pond. They are basically a Black-crowned Night-Heron with a massive bill!

Boat-billed Heron
We also had a flock of Greater Anis here and a few new trip birds (and lifers for me!) such as Fulvous-vented Euphonia, Lesser Kiskadee, Mangrove Swallow, etc.

nesting Mangrove Swallow
The south end of the road was no longer in use and was slowly being reclaimed by the forest in sections. Other parts were open, and for the majority of its length it was very easy walking, leading to awesome birding! While we missed Rosy Thrush-Tanager and Jet Antbird we did see many of the other dry scrub specialties. Species that stood out to me for whatever reason included Blue-black Grosbeak, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Fasciated Antshrike, and Buff-throated Saltator.

female Fasciated Antshrike
While we were walking and birding I almost stepped on a small turtle, just sitting in the middle of a road. It was a Mud Turtle! Ibelieve it is Kinosternon leucostomum, the White-lipped Mud Turtle.

Kinosternon leucostomum

Kinosternon leucostomum
Mud Turtles are notorious for being really shy when encountered making them a tough photo subject! I waited for about 15 minutes for it to come out of its shell but it was quite wary, retreating if I was within "shooting" range. Very cool turtle, though!

Kinosternon leucostomum
After a solid morning of birding we reached the south end of the road with a day list around 100 species. It was now mid morning and the sun was getting high in the sky. The morning flight of vultures began, and it wasn't long before we picked out Swainson's Hawks, Broad-winged Hawks, and Plumbeous Kites flying as well. The highlight though was a brief flyby of a Black Hawk-Eagle, a species that had been seen occasionally along Old Gamboa Road. Luckily I had my camera on me and managed a few poor record shots of the awesome bird.

Vulture kettle
Black Hawk-Eagle
Raptor migration can be pretty incredible in Panama since the shape of Central America concentrates the birds. Without really trying too hard we managed 9 species of raptor/vulture in about an hour!

Several fruiting trees along the south end of the road had attracted a variety of honeycreepers and hummingbirds, such as this Black-throated Mango.

Black-throated Mango

I photographed a few insects, including this bad-ass caterpillar. Wow!

By late morning we returned to the start of the road. The temperature had, not surprisingly, risen to about 30 degrees Celsius, just what we expectedfor the lowlands. While songbird activity quieted down we had a cool experience with a raptor.

This Crane Hawk was working its way along the trees adjacent to the paved section that sees vehicle traffic. This species reminds me of an Accipiter somewhat - almost like a melanistic Cooper's Hawk . Luckily for us, it did not seem to mind our presence, allowing us to approach closely for photos! The lighting at this time of day was obviously not ideal making it a real challenge to expose the image properly.

Crane Hawk
 We birded the area for another hour or two, slowly adding species by ones and twos. By noon we had seen 119 species which might have ended up being our top morning for the entire trip. By early afternoon however we were ready to head back to Gamboa to rest up for a few hours during the heat of the day.

That afternoon we were relaxing in the room drinking some beers and checking out our photos. Before long though we were distracted by the Geoffroy's Tamarins which had descended upon a feeding tray in the backyard of our hosts. They would come out of the nearby woods and take pieces of fruit by hand from us and were pretty comical to say the least...

I only had my long lens on my camera, making it difficult to fit them in the frame. Check out that face...

Or this one!

That afternoon we decided to drive over to the Ammo Ponds, located just outside of Gamboa. These ponds, across the road from the Panama Canal, are fantastic locations to find interesting herons, rails, and ducks. While we did not come across anything too rare during our visit, there were some interesting things to see! The afternoon clouds had rolled in making for comfortable birding.

Yellow-tailed Oriole was one bird that I was really hoping to see, and we found our first ones at the Ammo Ponds including some which likely had a nest nearby.

Yellow-tailed Oriole

Yellow-tailed Oriole

The Banded Orange Heliconian is a common species that can be found from Brazil all the way to the United States, and they are reasonably common in Panama. A few were patrolling the plants along the edge of the road near the Ammo Ponds.

Banded Orange Heliconian

Banded Orange Heliconian

Since we were right next to the Panama Canal several species of seedeaters were feeding in the open areas. Yellow-bellied was the common one though there were a few Variable Seedeaters mixed in.

We decided to walk along the beginning of Pipeline Road for the hour or two before dusk. At one point I found a Brownish Twistwing, a rather drab, dark brown species that is named for its behaviour of lifting each wing in succession over its back and down again. Another bird I was looking forward to seeing after reading about it in field guides, even though it wasn't the flashiest.

Steve and I came across this very photogenic Black-crowned Antshrike which was foraging close to the road. This species is rather common in many areas and often accompanies antwrens, warblers, tanagers, woodcreepers, and antbirds in mixed flocks.

Later that evening after eating dinner, Dave and I decided to take the rental and drive down Pipeline Road, while Steve stayed behind to organize his stuff. For the first few kilometers the road was drivable, and we stopped periodically to listen to owls. A major highlight occurred when a Northern Tamandua crossed the road right in front of us. Not only that, but a baby was clinging on to its back.

Eventually we reached a spot where we couldn't continue and walked down the road. I kept an eye out for reptiles or amphibians, but with the dry conditions not much of anything was around.

As we walked down into creek valleys, owls suddenly became apparent. The majority of the ones we heard vocalizing were Crested Owls and Mottled Owls, though Tropical Screech Owls were also in a few spots. It seemed that every creek valley had an owl or two calling and eventually Black-and-white, Spectacled, and Vermiculated Screech Owls were all heard. A few Common Potoos also called, a first for me!

While on the long walk back to the car, Dave and I found an interesting looking opossum on some waist-height vegetation, which turned out to be a Water Opossum, the only species in its genus, Chironectes. This is a pretty secretive species that is usually only seen at night, so I've read.

When it was all said and done, Dave and I had heard:
12 Crested Owls
8 Mottled Owls
3 Tropical Screech Owls
1 Spectacled Owl
1 Black-and-white Owl
1 Vermiculated Screech Owl

Earlier in the day we had also seen a Striped Owl flying across the Panama Canal at dusk, making it a 7 owl day. A great finish to an awesome second day in the canal zone!