Monday, 16 January 2017

Slaty-backed Gull saga

On New Year's Day, Chris Kundl started his year off right by discovering a Slaty-backed Gull in the shallows south of Goat Island in the Niagara River. This species is typically found in east Asia, though some breed in western Alaska as well. However it is a species that is prone to long-range vagrancy, and there are records across North America including thirteen for Ontario. I had previously seen two in my life, both in Ontario - however views were far from ideal as both birds were in the middle of the Niagara River, quite a distance from the Control Gates above Niagara Falls where I was standing on both occasions. Slaty-backed Gull was also one of the 23 bird species that I had seen in Ontario but had never photographed within the borders of the province. Because of these reasons, and because I really enjoy gull watching, this was a bird that I was itching to see.

At the time I was in Toronto birding with Jeremy Bensette, and we figured that even if we drove straight back to Niagara we would only have an hour until sundown to search for the bird. It was also only being seen on the New York side of the river at the time, likely not even visible from Ontario (and I currently have an expired passport, so crossing the border was not in the cards).

The following day I had plans with my siblings, though I birded a bit in the morning with Jeremy and Henrique. Of course there was no word of the Slaty-backed right away (we were at the Whirlpool looking for the Black-headed Gull). Only fifteen minutes after leaving Niagara I received a text from Richard Poort that the Slaty-backed was being viewed from the Control Gates, on the Ontario side of the river. Crap!! Jeremy ended up seeing the bird, a great addition to his Ontario big year, and even managed some photos when it flew into Canadian "airspace".

The gull was reported a few more times in the subsequent days, though sometimes these reports were several hours after the fact. I checked the Upper Falls almost every day during the first week of the year, figuring I was bound to cross paths with it eventually. But still no luck! The gull's appearances were sporadic on the river, and the theory among some birders was that it was likely hanging out at one of the local landfills.

birders not looking at the Slaty-backed Gull - Control Gates, Niagara Falls

On January 9, Ryan Griffiths was birding in Thorold when he made a stunning discovery - an adult Slaty-backed Gull on the ice of the Welland Canal! Photos seemed to indicate that it was the same individual seen the previous week along the Niagara River. Living only fifteen minutes from here, I raced over immediately, confident that the bird would still be present. Ryan was here, but the bird was not. Apparently I had missed it by just five minutes, and it had flown away - presumably to the nearby landfill to feed..

The next day, David Pryor re-found the Slaty-backed Gull in Thorold, but in a different location along the canal. Again I raced over immediately; again the gull had flown by the time I had arrived.

On my third try, myself (and the dozen or so other birders staked out in Thorold) looked far and wide, but it did not appear. Ugh...

But yesterday afternoon, Kayo Roy rediscovered the bird, at the same spot where David Pryor had located it. Thanks to Kayo for getting the word out quickly, and to Marcie Jacklin and Ryan Griffiths for letting me know ASAP. I was at Dufferin Islands at the time when I checked my phone and saw the messages. Twenty-two minutes later I pulled up to the spot, and there she was.

Slaty-backed Gull (right of centre with dark back) - Welland Canal, Thorold

It was just as much relief as it was excitement in finally laying eyes on this Asian beauty. I fired off a few series of photos, and checked out the bird through my spotting scope - frame-filling views. Awesome!

Slaty-backed Gull - Welland Canal, Thorold

Some of the salient field marks that identify this bird as a Slaty-backed Gull include:
-dark gray mantle (back), about the same shade as Lesser Black-backed, and a bit paler than Great Black-backed
-bright pink legs
-moderate head and neck streaking, and in particular heavy streaking around the eye and on the nape
-thick, white tertial crescent (much wider than on Lesser Black-backed Gull)
-pale yellow iris
-in flight, unique primary pattern includes "string of pearls", which are created by white subterminal spots

Slaty-backed Gull - Welland Canal, Thorold

It was a short-lived visit for the Slaty-backed, however. Despite looking comfortable only moments earlier, sound asleep on the ice, the bird got up in short order and began preening. A minute or two after that and it had taken to the wing, though this did provide great views of its primary pattern and the extensive white trailing edges to its wings. It continued due east, perhaps heading towards the landfill, or maybe even the Niagara River. Two more cars came to a screeching halt, and out jumped Marcie Jacklin and Tim Seburn from one vehicle, and Blayne and Jean Farnan from the other vehicle. Using our directions, all four of them were able to get on the quickly disappearing dark-mantled gull. Not the greatest looks, but better than missing the bird!

Unfortunately for the several other groups of birders en route, the Slaty-backed did not return. But during January 14 and 15 it returned to the Niagara River where it was seen by a handful of birders. I was fortunate in zipping out to see it on Sunday afternoon, though views were a lot more distant than with the sighting in Thorold.

Now that the Slaty-backed Gull appears to have established a bit of a pattern, the hope is it will become a bit more reliable. Good luck for those looking in subsequent days. I'll definitely be out there looking...this is a bird that does not completely satisfy with only one or two sightings!

Saturday, 14 January 2017

January 5 - a great day along the river

January 5 was a pretty solid day of birding along the Niagara River, a place I still can't believe I live right next to. After making the arduous three minute drive from my house to the Whirlpool, I met up with the Rileys, while Dave Pryor, Bonnie Kinder, Joanne Redwood and Nathan Miller were also here. Fortunately I was able to re-find the Black-headed Gull in its usual spot - flying in a big loop along the river just above the rapids signalling the start of the Whirlpool. We were able to get Joanne Redwood and Bonnie Kinder on the bird, a lifer for both of them. 

Dan and I headed downriver to Locust Grove Park to search for Black Vultures. Despite their range nearly reaching Ontario's borders, the Queenston area of Niagara is still the only place in the province where this species can regularly be found. While waiting for them to show, we contented ourselves by watching a pair of Red-tailed Hawks perching very close to each other and flying up and down the river occasionally. It is that time of year - Red-tailed Hawks can be frequently seen in pairs now. 

Red-tailed Hawk - Queenston

Numerous vultures were present, including over 20 Turkey Vultures. Most were roosting on a church on the American side of the river, but several gave us close flybys. Eventually however we were able to pick out a single Black Vulture, and later watched it fly so that we could be 100% sure of the identification. Roosting vultures at 2-3 km can be a little difficult to ID at times, but in flight the diagnostic flat-winged, short-tailed shape of Black Vulture with quite direct flight can easily be separated by the lilting flight of a Turkey Vulture, holding its wings in a slight dihedral, and exhibiting a long-tailed profile. The silvery "wingtips" of Black Vultures can be seen at extreme distances as well, while Turkey Vultures show the silver on the flight feathers from underneath.

Turkey Vulture - Queenston

Dan and I finished at Queenston and drove to the Control Gates, where we were planning on meeting back up with David Pryor and Dan's parents. The goal was, of course, to try to spot the elusive Slaty-backed Gull which had only been seen by a lucky few at this point.

Unfortunately the Slaty-backed did not show, but there was a good variety of other gull species present including Kumlien's, Glaucous, and Lesser Black-backed among dozens of Great Black-backed and hundreds/thousands of Herring and Ring-billed Gulls.

Moving downriver, a check of the Upper Falls was quite productive. An adult Little Gull was flying near the lip of the falls along with several hundred Bonaparte's Gulls, always a species that is nice to come across. We also caught sight of the continuing four male Harlequin Ducks swimming and diving constantly near the old barge. It took a few minutes due to their erratic behaviour but eventually everyone was able to get on them. Despite always being present, I see the Harlequins on less than half of my visits to this part of the river. There are just too many places for them to hide.

Dufferin Islands actually ended up being one of the highlights of the day. Bonnie and Joanne had brought some seeds and the titmice were going nuts...I think we had six or seven in view at one time! Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatch were also present, while Blue Jay, Northern Cardinal and Red-bellied Woodpecker were colorful photo subjects. At one point I looked up and was surprised to see a bright yellow bird above Joanne's head - the male Pine Warbler! It landed on the ground for a few seconds, scrounging for whatever morsels it could find. Luckily I had my camera ready and cracked off a few shots - the first time I have been able to photograph this individual.

Pine Warbler - Dufferin Islands, Niagara Falls

The titmice were quite accommodating and I was happy getting my first usable photos of this species, even if these are some of the most photographed Tufted Titmice in the world. On most visits to Dufferin Islands there are a few camo-clad photographers with fake perch setups taking photos of the titmice and chickadees. Surprisingly, despite none of us wearing any camo these titmice came right in.

Tufted Titmouse - Dufferin Islands, Niagara Falls

I said my goodbyes to Garth, Nancy, and Dan, and continued on my way upriver past Chippawa and towards Fort Erie. I scanned through quite a few ducks and Tundra Swans on my way, without seeing too much of consequence. There has to be a Barrow's Goldeneye along this stretch of the river somewhere! On a nice calm day I will have to spend some time carefully scrutinizing all of the waterfowl.

I stopped at the rail bridge in Fort Erie and began walking south towards Catherine Street, in hopes of turning up the King Eider that had been found earlier in the morning by Reuven Martin, Todd Hagedorn and Mark Dorriesfield. It took quite a bit of searching, but finally the duck floated into my scope's view. Success!

I was also surprised to hear the double-note of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and despite tracking it down to some thick tangles over the embankment, the bird would not show! It is only on rare occasions that this species attempts to overwinter in the province, as opposed to Golden-crowned Kinglets which are a common winter bird across much of southern Ontario. A Red-throated Loon was also along the river here, providing great looks. Not a bad location!

King Eider - Fort Erie

My final stop was a concession southwest of Niagara Falls where Sandhill Cranes had been seen recently. Kayo Roy had let me know about these birds, normally a difficult species to find in Niagara. He had up to 17 birds earlier in the day, an exceptional winter count for Niagara. I arrived in the failing light but managed to come across 11 of the birds in the corn stubble. The last 15 minutes of light during the day were spent watching the cranes as the snow gently fell. A fitting end to a great day in Niagara.

Sandhill Cranes - Niagara Falls

Sandhill Crane - Niagara Falls

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

More early January birding

On January 2nd I headed to the Whirlpool with Jeremy and Henrique in hopes of seeing the Black-headed Gull. Rich Poort, Mourad Jabra and Josh Niewenhuis were already staking out the gull's favorite feeding ground on the river, and had actually seen the bird prior to our arrival. Henrique soon picked it out in flight but for some reason Jeremy and I were not able to lock on to it - the bright sunlight creating harsh shadows certainly did not help! Eventually I had to pull myself away as I had plans to ski with my siblings (it's not often that the three of us are in the same country!). Of course, it just so happened that everyone else was treated to decent views of the Slaty-backed Gull later in the morning, as well as the Black-headed. Oh well, that's how it goes sometimes! I was happy to find a Northern Shrike before meeting up with my siblings, as well as two Cackling Geese with hoardes of Canada Geese near Milton.

The following morning, Henrique and I headed straight for the whirlpool to look for the Black-headed Gull and within minutes of our arrival he picked it out in flight over the rapids near the entrance to the whirlpool. A juvenile Thayer's Gull was also flying around, providing pretty decent views. I did not try photographing the Black-headed Gull this time; the following are photos I took of it back on December 10, 2016. Taking photos of birds at the Whirlpool is far from easy, due to the distance, the angle, the numbers of similar looking birds, and the difficulties in getting an in-focus photograph at such a distance (the water is a much easier target for my camera's sensor than the tiny white specks I am hoping it will focus on).

Black-headed Gull - Whirlpool, Niagara River (December 10, 2016)

Black-headed Gull - Whirlpool, Niagara River (December 10, 2016)

The Adam Beck power plants provided us with good views of another Thayer's Gull, as well as several Kumlien's Gulls and two intermediate Kumlien's/Thayer's types.  We continued on to the Upper Falls and spent a good bit of time here, however the Slaty-backed Gull refused to show. The weather conditions (light rain) certainly did not help matters!

At Dufferin Islands, Jeremy met up with us and we encountered the male Pine Warbler with its usual posse of several Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, Tufted Titmice and a Red-breasted Nuthatch, providing a welcome splash of colour on the dull gray day.

My plan the following day was to drive to Long Point to search for the long-staying Smith's Longspur. I had already viewed it earlier in December (the day after it was found), but I was looking forward to another encounter with this species, a difficult one to see well. A group of birders was already here waiting for the longspur to appear, but they had been without luck since dawn. While we waited, a few other birds could be seen here and there. Several raptors including a few Northern Harriers were in the area, and we was surprised when a young Golden Eagle suddenly appeared over the fields to the south. The views were fantastic as the bird soared overhead, holding its wings in a slight dihedral. It was a little distant for great photos, but "record" photos were easy to obtain. I think this is only the second Golden Eagle I've ever seen during the winter.

Golden Eagle - Concession A, Long Point

The longspur was still nowhere to be seen and one by one the other birders gave up, getting into their vehicles to continue on with their day. I still had some time before I had to call it quits fortunately, and sure enough the longspur finally appeared on the roadside!

Smith's Longspur - Concession A, Long Point

While wary of quick movements, the longspur was quite cooperative if one moved slowly and methodically to get into position to take photos. I lay on the road, trying to obtain a nice low angle for my photos. The lighting was a bit dull, but I am happy with how they turned out.

Smith's Longspur - Concession A, Long Point

Smith's Longspur - Concession A, Long Point

Smith's Longspur - Concession A, Long Point

Smith's Longspur - Concession A, Long Point

Smith's Longspur - Concession A, Long Point

I am glad I went back for a second look at the Smith's Longspur, as I may never have such great views of this species every again. Definitely a cool experience!

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Netitishi Point - Days 17 and 18

Weather: 6 to 8 to 8 degrees C, wind SW 10-20 km/h, nearly calm by dusk, overcast, light rain in evening
15 species

Our last full day on the coast had finally arrived. The conditions were beautiful at dawn, even though the wind was once again out of the southwest. But it was relatively calm and sunny on this day, with a light dusting of snow that melted as the temperature climbed towards the high single digits. We even experienced a brief rainbow, which I thought would make a good photo with the Motus tower in the foreground.

Motus tower - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

For those who aren't aware, Motus is a wildlife tracking system that claims to be the world's most ambitious bird tracking initiative. It is a program of Bird Studies Canada in partnership with Acadia University and in collaboration with various researchers and organizations. Several hundred of these towers have been erected along shorelines and other areas that concentrate migrating birds across North America and beyond, though most towers are located in eastern North America. These towers can pick up frequencies emitted by radio transmitters affixed to particular individual birds. This way they are able to track the exact spatial and temporal data of migrating birds passing the towers. I would encourage anyone to who is interested in this to check out some of the interactive maps found here - it is pretty interesting stuff.

Around mid-morning, Todd and I were sitting in the sea-watching shelter, hoping and praying for a bird to go by. It was that slow! It was during this lull that an interesting finch call made us pay close attention. It was an Evening Grosbeak calling from back towards the cabins! We quickly jumped up and went off in search of the grosbeak. I had never seen one at Netitishi, and my only sightings for this part of the world were a few that I have seen in Moosonee on occasion - southern James Bay is right around the northern limit of this species in Ontario. Despite triangulating the calls to a particular clump of spruce trees and listening to the bird call frequently, we never did get a visual!

Speaking of finches, a good number of individuals were flying around the camp today, and we totaled approximately 25 Pine Grosbeaks, 10 White-winged Crossbills and 20 redpolls. Watching the bay on the other hand was quite slow. We observed ten ducks on the day; not ten species, but ten individuals! Gulls were also quite scarce and only a few Herring and Ring-billed Gulls lazily floated on by.

Two Snowy Owls provided a bit of excitement during the morning. Both eventually flew off down the coast - one heading east and one heading west.

As the day came to an end our bird list had stalled at 15 species for the day. But it had been a great day for walking around in the cool northern air, and we were treated to a beautiful sunset in the evening, likely the best one of the trip. I am going to miss this place...

Sunset at Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

Sunset at Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

November 14, 2016
Weather: -2 to 0 degrees C, wind W 20 km/h, sun and clouds, trace of snow
15 species

During our final morning on the coast we were up early so that we could take care of most of the chores while it was still too early to bird. Our helicopter was scheduled to arrive by 10:00 AM to take us back to civilization.

After carrying all our gear to the coast, and setting our last garbage fire, Todd and I packed up and boarded up the cabins. We had about an hour and a half left to scan the bay. The winds had shifted slightly so that they were coming straight out of the west, and a few birds were taking advantage of the conditions. Most notable were the Red-throated Loons - at least 300 birds flew by, though they were all extremely distant, so much so that they looked like barely more than tiny black flecks in our spotting scopes. It was one of those situations where the identification is based more on how the structure of the flock looks as opposed to seeing actual field marks. Red-throated Loons will migrate in big flocks with the individuals maintaining a great deal of distance between them, so that a flock of a hundred or more birds could be spread over a vast portion of the sky. Cold, clear days in November sure seem to get the Red-throated Loons moving past southern James Bay. Todd was finally happy to get on these birds, as the distance had made it very difficult for him to get on previous flocks of Red-throated Loons I had seen earlier in the trip.

Long-tailed Ducks were also on the move today with 600+ counted, yet we only observed three individual scoters. We did see a lone Brant migrate past, the last individual of the trip. As the minutes ticked down towards 10:00 AM, the ratio of time spent looking through my eyepiece vs looking elsewhere increased. While no 11th hour rarity appeared, we did have one last great sighting, only 10-15 minutes before the distant whirr of the helicopter appeared. A bright white object appeared in my scope and I quickly directed Todd to the location - a Beluga! Todd quickly got on the whale, then we both struggled to get more than fleeting glimpses as it surfaced between the waves close to the water line.

Belugas are the only whale species to regularly enter James Bay,  as their more advances sonar allows them to more confidently navigate shallow waters. Often they will hunt very close to shore, hunting fish trapped in shallower areas.

It is still quite difficult to spot a Beluga from shore in Ontario unless one puts in a lot of time and effort sea-watching. Not because they are difficult to identify (though its surprisingly easy to confuse a distant white-cap with one!), but because there are relatively few of them over James Bay, a pretty big place. This was my fourth observation of Beluga in Ontario, and second observation at Netitishi. Of course, each time the cetaceans were too distant for good photos.

scanning the bay at Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

The helicopter arrived right on time (within 30 seconds of 10:00 on the dot!) and we quickly loaded our gear. A couple of the Cree guys whose families run the camp had arrived on the helicopter - they were planning on staying there until Christmas, trapping Pine Marten. It was nice to meet them as well.

The helicopter ride was pretty eventful as Todd pointed out a raptor to me that had passed very close to us - a young Northern Goshawk! This was likely a migrant bird, as it was moving fairly high up and along the shoreline.

Despite feeling a world away, Netitishi Point is a  mere 20 minutes from Moosonee via helicopter and we had a distant view of the town only a couple of minutes into the flight. Just like that, another trip had ended and we were back in civilization.

With about six hours to kill before our train departed for the south, we decided to have a good old fashioned diner breakfast at the Sky Ranch, the main restaurant in Moosonee. After stuffing ourselves, a walk was in order. We stashed all of our gear at the restaurant in a back room, then left on foot to check out some of the feeders in town as well as the sewage lagoons. For some reason I had decided to do the walk without my camera - after all, it was going to be a long walk carrying the thing and we weren't really expecting anything rare, given the late date.

As we were passing a small cemetery located just northeast of the lagoons, we stopped suddenly as we noticed a small bird alight on one of the headstones. A look through binoculars confirmed that it was a female Mountain Bluebird! Todd and I based in its glory and watched it for about 10 minutes as it perched, hovered, and seemingly caught various morsels in the grasses. Eventually it sat in a poplar for a few minutes, than took off over the tree line towards the sewage lagoons.

searching for the Mountain Bluebird - Moosonee, ON

Wanting to document the bird, we began the long walk back to town to fetch our cameras. Fortunately, we came across a healing lodge, located only a few minutes away. Here we were able to inquire with one of the ladies whether she could call us a taxi - she obliged, and ten minutes later the taxi rolled up. While Todd walked to the cemetery and lagoons to try to re-find the bluebird I hopped in the taxi, rode back to town, picked up my camera and returned an hour or so later. Unfortunately we could not re-find it despite spending the rest of the afternoon looking, and soon enough we had to get moving if we wanted to make our train.

This very late Greater Yellowlegs was the only shorebird at the lagoons. This is likely a record late date for southern James Bay, but I'm not certain.  With that, we completed the long walk back to town, grabbed all our gear, then walked it to the train station. Along the way an off-duty police offer saw us struggling carrying all our gear so gave us a ride to the station - thank you! By 5:00 PM the train was rolling, and another trip had concluded. Till next time...

Greater Yellowlegs - Moosonee sewage lagoons

Thursday, 5 January 2017

New Year's Day birding

It isn't too difficult for most birders to work up the motivation early in January. Every year list has been reset to zero, meaning that many birders are busy scouring their local patches or traveling further afield to discover birds for the new year list. The initial days of 2017 were no different for me as I was birding with Jeremy Bensette, helping him search for a few rarities early in the year as part of his Ontario big year attempt.

After spending a few days in Nova Scotia with Laura's family, my return flight was scheduled to land in Toronto by early evening on New Year's eve. The plan was for me to pick up Henrique Pacheco and then travel to my place in Niagara Falls, where we would be meeting up with Jeremy Bensette late in the evening. However plans do not often go exactly as planned. My flight left Halifax on time, but more than halfway through the flight there was an announcement on the PA system. Due to a mechanical failure with some instrument involved in de-icing, it would not be safe to land the plane in Toronto as it was snowing at the time, and we thus had to return to Halifax.

A plane that supposedly had all mechanical components in proper working order was waiting for us back in Halifax. Fortunately all of the passengers were quite civil about the whole experience and no one caused a scene, likely a relief for the flight crew - it can't be much fun being the bearer of bad news. We were airborne in short order, and it was almost 11:00 PM when we finally touched down on the Toronto islands. I celebrated the clock striking midnight by myself on the GO train - kind of anti-climatic!

The plane shenanigans changed the plans for Jeremy, Henrique and I. Jeremy decided to stay in Leamington for the night, planning to leave bright and early to try for the Smith's Longspur at Long Point. Due to my late arrival home, I slept in a bit and planned on skipping out on the longspur, instead meeting Jeremy at the Lark Sparrow stakeout in Toronto. Henrique would also join up with us in Toronto.

It was late morning by the time I returned to Toronto. The sun was shining and the temperature was quite reasonable, while winds remained light - just a gorgeous day! Fortunately the Lark Sparrow was quite cooperative as well, and after 20 minutes or so Jeremy and I located it in some vine tangles near where someone had placed a pile of bird seed.

Lark Sparrow - Toronto

This was the first time that I had observed a Lark Sparrow in the winter in Ontario; my previous sightings have all occurred during the spring or autumn. This bird was originally found by Matt Dil, a co-worker of mine, back on December 7, 2016 and has since remained faithful to a small patch of land within this industrial area.

Lark Sparrow - Toronto

The Lark Sparrow appeared active and healthy during our visit and showed no ill effects from surviving a month of winter in Canada. It was in the process of molting its tail feathers, and appeared to be starting to grow some of them back in. Lark Sparrow is a pretty hardy sparrow and it would not be to surprising if this individual lasted the winter, provided that a regular food source remains.

Lark Sparrow - Toronto

As a few Rock Pigeons flew over, I snapped a couple of poor shots of one of them. Why would I bother, you may ask? Well, Rock Pigeon was one species that for some reason I had never photographed in Ontario, despite my goal of photographing as many species of birds as possible in Ontario. For now, this will have to only photo of Rock Pigeon in Ontario, #358.

Rock Pigeon - Toronto

It was around this time that we heard about the Slaty-backed Gull that had been found on the New York side of the river at Niagara Falls. Unfortunately it was not visible from the Ontario side of the river, but Jeremy wanted to begin driving to Niagara in case it was relocated in Ontario. While he went in his vehicle to pick up Henrique, I began the drive down the QEW towards Niagara.

I made a brief stop at the lift bridge in Hamilton, where the numbers of birders/photographers was approximately equal to the numbers of Long-tailed Ducks that had congregated in one large flock in the canal. I was actually a little surprised at how many photographers there were! It was good to see everyone out and about enjoying the Long-tailed Ducks and other waterfowl on this gorgeous day, though the crowds were a little too thick for me to want to hang around for too long.

Long-tailed Ducks - lift bridge, Hamilton

Long-tailed Duck - lift bridge, Hamilton

One of the resident Peregrine Falcons was perched on the lift bridge, while a flock of Rock Pigeons nervously sat on the Skyway bridge. Waterfowl were well-represented and I took some digiscoped photos of the female King Eider that was sleeping alongside some scoters.

Jeremy and Henrique joined me in Niagara-on-the-Lake for the evening gull flypast, though it never seemed to materialize for us and we finished within less than a hundred Bonaparte's Gulls. I have noticed this before on really nice, calm days without any cloud cover, but can't provide an explanation why.

As darkness descended Jeremy was sitting pretty with two good birds from a big year perspective (Smith's Longspur and Lark Sparrow), with plans of searching for the two unusual gulls the following day.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Netitishi Point - Days 15 and 16

Weather: -2 to 0 to -2, wind NW 40 gusting to 55 km/h, shifting to W 20-30 km/h, mostly overcast with brief periods of sun, snowsqualls throughout morning, none in aft
24 species

Today was certainly a day to remember! I could hardly sleep through the night as I kept waking up every hour or so to keep an eye on the wind conditions, and by dawn it was still blasting out of the northwest. We were so eager that we could barely see through our scopes initially as we waited for the morning light to improve.

The day ended up being quite eventful, though identifying the birds as they disappeared in wave troughs and as we fought through snow squalls was not always an easy task! I tucked myself into the back corner of the sea-watching shelter by trimming some spruce boughs, and while my angle of view was a bit narrower it was well worth it due to the additional shelter from the wind that the trees provided. Brant and dabbling duck numbers were much reduced even given the perfect conditions - we only had one flock of Brant, one flock of Mallards/American Black Ducks, and not a single Northern Pintail for the day. I guess they have all cleared out! Scoter numbers were much increased and we had good views of two Surf Scoters, the least common of the three species on James Bay at this time of year. The big story of the day however was the number of King Eiders. We finished with exactly 25 for the day, including a pure flock of 10 birds.

Panorama of the sea-watching shelter and the coast - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

Gulls also took advantage of the excellent migration weather and we picked out occasional white-winged gulls here and there. At mid-morning I spotted an adult Thayer's Gull traveling over the waterline with a juvenile Iceland Gull, my first of the year. Closer to noon I spotted an interesting small loon that looked pretty good for Pacific Loon - unfortunately the distance was too great to confirm the identification and it remains one of the bigger holes on my southern James Bay list.

Black-capped Chickadee using the Motus tower - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

The winds began to shift more westerly in the afternoon, slowing down from ~50 km/h to ~30 km/h. The snow squalls ended soon afterwards, a welcome relief with the increased viewing opportunities that were now afforded. Our two best birds of the day happened within minutes of each other as the action began to slow down in the early afternoon. Scanning to the west, I was surprised to lock onto a small gull, arcing through the waves. It was very difficult to stay on, frequently disappearing in a wave trough and popping out several dozen meters away, but it was unmistakable - a Sabine's Gull! I frantically tried to get Todd on the bird but it was a tall order given the waves and the bird soon disappeared in one particularly deep trough. The Sabine's Gull appeared to have a gray mantle as well, indicating that it was likely an adult bird.

While scanning the bay hoping to re-find the Sabine's Gull in the ensuing minutes, I picked up a close grebe in flight, heading east while straight out in front of us. I called it out as a Red-necked Grebe and tried to get Todd on it, before it clicked - this bird was very dark, with black on top and white underneath, and with a broad white wing stripe while lacking white on the leading wing edge. It was a bird I was not expecting in the least, especially to see in flight. An Aechmophorus grebe! I corrected my initial ID to Todd, calling it out as a Western Grebe, and stayed on the bird as it continued on to the east. Todd frantically scanned for it but in his haste skipped over the bird; it was soon past us to the east. We ran out so that we could scan further down the coast, but it was no use. Perhaps the bird had landed in the water (Western Grebes rarely fly during the day) and was not visible due to the high waves, or maybe it had continued on down the coast.

Unfortunately I was not confident enough in my looks of the bird to definitely say it was a Western Grebe and not a Clark's Grebe. While Western is far more likely (there are no records of Clark's in Ontario) it can be a difficult ID, especially on a moving target such as this one.

Needless to say I was pretty excited, but also felt terrible for Todd as he missed both the grebe and the Sabine's Gull. It is a sickening feeling that all birders experience at some time or another. A small consolation for Todd was that neither birds would have been new for his Ontario list - better to miss a Sabine's Gull than, say, a Dovekie or a Northern Fulmar.

Not long afterwards as I was leaning back in my chair, I noticed movement above me as a dark shape appeared. It was a Gyrfalcon, hovering only a few meters above us! We watched the young gray morph bird as it watched us, before it powered past us to the flats. It landed among the beach grasses for a few minutes before taking flight again and continuing to the west. This put a smile back on Todd's face - Gyrfalcons make everything better!

Gyrfalcon - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

The rest of the day slowed down in a hurry as the winds kept shifting to the west, then west-southwest by dusk. The tide receded quickly as well since the water was no longer being pushed down the bay towards us by the winds. It was a great day on the coast, and an excellent way of closing out the trip, if no more "good" weather days are in store for us. 

November 12, 2016
Weather: -4 to 7 to 5 degrees C, wind SW to W 20-30 km/h, mostly overcast, some sunny patches in aft, clear by dusk, light rain in late morning but otherwise no precip
20 species

At dawn, the flats were covered by a thin layer of ice/snow for the first time all trip, after a cold night that saw the temperature drop to -4 degrees Celsius or so. We sat in the shelter waiting for high tide (11:00 AM) and watched as occasional scoters, mergansers and gulls flew past in the light west winds. I picked out a King Eider along the water line, then later spotted a Snowy Owl peeking out from behind a rock far out on the flats.

Occasional periods of light rain did not help the waterbird flight and Todd and I had difficulty staying focused throughout the afternoon. We have both reached that point in the trip where we are more then ready to head back to reality, a feeling that has increased gradually over the last number of days, though a feeling that was put on hold during yesterday's strong winds and great birding. We decided today that we will drive through the night when arriving back in Fraserdale in the evening on November 14, to get home by 8:00 AM or so as opposed to 10 PM. It will be great to have a day to relax at home before going into work the following day.

Gray Jay - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

Gray Jay - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

Feeling bored in the afternoon we took the shotgun to the coast to use up most of the remaining ammo, then to kill time in the evening we made a glorious garbage fire in one of the barrels, cleaning up around the cabins as well. The moon is full tonight and the clouds are almost non-existent, creating a nice backdrop as I sit here on the porch and write my journal entry while keeping an eye on the fire. It is hard to believe that the trip is almost over, but home beckons.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Netitishi Point - Days 13 and 14

Weather: -2 to 5 to 5 degrees C, wind S shifting to W 15-30 km/h, mostly overcast with sunny patches, light dusting of snow overnight melted by afternoon
31 species

A light dusting of snow had fallen overnight and by dawn it was calm and clear. The snow-laden spruces topped with Pine Grosbeaks while distant Gray Jays called was a beautiful scene to take in,  as I sat on the porch eating a bacon and egg wrap and sipping hot chocolate.

We arrived at the coast to begin our watch as the tide approached. The winds were out of the west (slightly better than the southwest that was forecast) and a few birds were moving, including a Snowy Owl that landed for a few minutes on the flats in front of us until the incoming tide flushed it further down the coast. Some ducks were moving sporadically, including 2 King Eiders and decent numbers of scoters and Red-breasted Mergansers. A distant flock of Snow Geese also passed by, a nice surprise given the date.

Red Squirrel - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

Around 9:00 AM we experienced a pretty interesting series of events. It all started when I noticed a small whitish shorebird along the tideline was Todd was fixing one of our sea-watching markers. A Red Phalarope! I called it out to Todd and he came sprinting back. Fortunately the phalarope decided to linger just on the far side of the creek, and we had decent views of the bird as it fed in the shallows.

Red Phalarope - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

This was yet another life bird for Todd so he was pretty thrilled. We set out on foot to hopefully get closer for photos. Just after crossing the creek, while scanning the flats for the phalarope, we picked up on another Black Guillemot, this one in flight and at relatively close range. Our fifth sighting of the trip!

Eventually I located a small gray shorebird further down the flats and so we set off after it, assuming it was the Red Phalarope. It ended up being a Sanderling, however, and it flushed as we approached. Out of nowhere a white blur entered the frame of my scope and took off after the Sanderling - it was a white-morph Gyrfalcon! The Sanderling zigged and zagged and somehow eluded the massive falcon, which continued on down the coast. Todd and I were nearly speechless, but the adventure was not over. The Gyrfalcon flushed up a second shorebird further down the coast which turned and headed in our direction - it was the Red Phalarope. We watched as the Gyrfalcon tried to catch the plump little shorebird, but it too evaded the falcon and eventually flew right past Todd and I. What a frantic few minutes, and a great example of why I love coming back to the James Bay coast.

A lost-looking adult Double-crested Cormorant was our last good bird before the tide was too low and the heat haze made long-distance sea-watching pretty useless. Tomorrow and the next day are scheduled northwest winds, likely our last two days with decent winds for the trip, so we will definitely make the most of them. Fingers crossed!

Red Fox - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

November 10, 2016
Weather: 6 to 7 to 2 degrees C, wind SW to W 5-15 km/h, by early evening wind shifted to NW 30-40 km/h, heavy overcast with showers in afternoon
21 species

Today was likely the slowest day of the trip so far and Todd and I struggled to reach 21 species of birds. We sat vigilantly at the sea-watching shelter, waiting for the winds to pick up in intensity to spur on migration. By mid-morning a light breeze began blowing, but it was from the southwest, slowly shifting to the west. By early afternoon the cloud ceiling had descended and light mist began to fall, slowly turning into rain as the west winds continued. With nothing better to do, Todd and I manned our posts at the coast. There is no point wasting daylight in the cabins when it gets dark out by 4:30 PM each day, leaving a gap of 5 hours to kill before bed time.

Todd and I killed some time by re-writing several songs, coming up with Netitishi-inspired lyrics to represent what we were thinking on this dreary day without any birds to look at or things to do. We definitely are starting to go a little crazy!

Our one highlight of the day was not a bird, but our first seal species of the trip (and Todd's first ever in Ontario). This Bearded Seal spent a few minutes at various points throughout the morning sunning itself on one of the rocks as the tide was coming in.

Bearded Seal - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

Fortunately right around dusk the winds shifted almost instantaneously to the northwest and by the evening they were really howling. That certainly improved our morale! It was quite enjoyable to sit beside the wood stove in the evening as it dried out my clothes, while reading "The Birds of Peru", (my current choice of light reading material). Anticipation was high for the next day - hopefully the winds would continue through the night to give us one more exciting blast of migration before the trip concludes.  

Saturday, 31 December 2016

An Ontario big year in 2017

Starting tomorrow morning, my good friend Jeremy Bensette will begin his Ontario Big Year. Jeremy has been planning his attempt for some time and he is hoping to go all out, in an attempt to see as many bird species as possible in the province in 2017. This will likely be the first serious big year attempt since 2012 when I and several others attempted our own big years, so it will be quite exciting to follow along with Jeremy as he guns for the record!

While big years are certainly not for everyone, they cater to a certain personality type, one that Jeremy and I certainly share. Essentially, a big year is a 366-day long strategy game, a game which requires the right ratio of luck and skill. Nothing quite beats the thrill of a big year as far as I am concerned, and I look back fondly on 2012 as it was a memorable time for me. Sure there were some low points, but the highs greatly overshadowed these.

I will be helping Jeremy out as much as possible in the upcoming year; in a sense it will be like I am living vicariously through him! We will be doing our best in the first few days of the year to clean up as many rarities as possible that are lingering in southern Ontario.

Smith's Longspur - near Long Point, Ontario

Currently, the main bird we are keeping a close watch on is the long-staying Smith's Longspur near Long Point. After being impossible to miss during its appearance alongside Concession A north of Long Point for the first few days of its stay, it disappeared recently and many birders assumed it had vacated the area or died. However in recent days it has reappeared at its favorite location and is showing no indication that it will be leaving anytime soon! While Smith's Longspur does breed in Ontario in a narrow band along the Hudson Bay coast, it is exceptionally rare in southern Ontario. In fact it is a species I missed during my big year as I never ventured to the Hudson Bay coast, also missing Willow Ptarmigan because of this. Of course if Jeremy sees the Smith's Longspur at the beginning of next year, the question will be if he will still try to get up to the Hudson Bay coast for just one main species, the Willow Ptarmigan? It can be very difficult and expensive to travel on one's own to the Hudson Bay coast, but there are inexpensive ways of doing it (such as volunteering with the shorebird/goose banding crews that go up every summer).

Lark Sparrow from Erieau - April 27, 2013

Two other rarities are persisting in southern Ontario at the moment - namely the Lark Sparrow in Toronto and the Black-headed Gull along the Niagara River. Both of these are fairly regular in Ontario with 3-8 records a year typically, but they are species that can be easily missed during a Big Year! Black-headed Gull in particular has been somewhat scarce in Ontario in recent years. It is imperative that Jeremy has these birds as main targets early in the year.

Other than these three species, no other pressing rarities are in the province and Jeremy will likely spend the next week or two targeting some tougher winter species, including Northern Hawk Owl, Barrow's Goldeneye, Gray Partridge, etc.

Jeremy has re-enacted his blog and will be providing updates on his Big Year periodically. The URL is It should be a very exciting year, and I wish Jeremy the best!

Friday, 30 December 2016

2016 (part 2)


July was a bit of a slower month from a natural history perspective. Often by this time of year I have a bit of a hangover from nature overload, and it can be tough to find the motivation to go out and search for things on my own time. The birds have all settled in, having their young, the herps are more difficult to find, and the weather can be at times oppressive. This year I focused more on exploring Niagara Region a bit more thoroughly, in particular looking for shorebirds at Mud Lake CA and the Avondale Ponds among other places. This digiscoped Stilt Sandpiper was one of several I crossed paths with this summer, along with other goodies including an adult Baird's Sandpiper. It was fun to slowly work on filling in the holes in my Niagara list as well!

The one bird twitch I experienced in July was to Bayfront Park in Hamilton to see the Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks found earlier by Eric Holden. An unusual sighting for the province, and a life bird for many who came to see them.

Ontario year list: 252
World year list: 830

Northern Pearly-eye - Cambridge, Ontario

Stilt Sandpiper - Mud Lake CA, Port Colborne, Ontario

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks - Hamilton, Ontario


The excitement of the month in the Ontario birding scene was, of course, the Common Ringed Plover discovered at Tommy Thompson Park by Paul Prior. This species is quite scarce in most of North America (apart from the Arctic where small numbers breed), and this bird represented a first record for Ontario, pending acceptance by the OBRC.

An August trip to Nova Scotia was also on the agenda this year to spend time with Laura's family. I made it out for a day of birding near Halifax and discovered this juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron at Hartlen Point near Dartmouth, a rarity for the area. It ended up being a good autumn for this species in Nova Scotia as numerous other individuals showed up, including a second bird that joined this one!

Living and birding frequently in Niagara Region payed off on August 15, as Laura and I discovered a Lark Sparrow on the end of the Port Weller east pier. This provided the third record for Niagara Region.

I visited Point Pelee for a weekend towards the end of August as well. Other than dropping my phone into the marsh, the weekend was a success. Highlights included photographing an American Bittern and studying a variety of shorebirds at close range in the Pelee marsh.

Ontario year list: 262
World year list: 837

Common Ringed Plover (right) - Tommy Thompson Park, Toronto, Ontario

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron - Hartlen Point, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

American Bittern - Point Pelee NP, Ontario

Black Tern - Point Pelee NP, Ontario

Sanderling - Leamington harbour, Ontario

Piping Plover - Burlington, Ontario


On September 3, Alan Wormington passed away while in hospice care in Leamington, Ontario. Alan was one of Canada’s and Ontario’s premier birders, and was widely considered by his peers as one of the most skilled and influential birders of his generation. Alan’s knowledge of Ontario’s birds was enormous, and he was always on the “cutting edge” of the birding scene in Ontario. In addition to birds, Alan was a keen naturalist that had a particular affinity for butterflies and moths - he found several new species for Ontario, and countless new ones for Point Pelee. Alan became a good friend of mine over the last five years or so and was a mentor to me in the birding community. I will always have fond memories of birding and hanging out together both at Point Pelee, as well as at James Bay during our expeditions together. He will be missed!

I only have one other photo to share from September since I rarely had my camera with me on outings this month for some reason. Laura and I found this Eastern Gartersnake at one of my favorite herping spots in Waterloo Region; as you can see it was in mid-struggle with a plump American Toad! We stayed until the end of the scene and yes the snake was able to eventually choke down the unfortunate anuran!

Most of the month I birded locally, focusing on the many excellent areas Niagara Region has to offer during the autumn. Highlights including finding a Prairie Warbler at Port Weller, Black Tern at Niagara Falls, and a wide variety of shorebirds and songbirds throughout the region.

Ontario year list: 267
World year list: 841

Alan Wormington at Moosonee, Ontario (September, 2012)

Eastern Gartersnake predating an American Toad - near Cambridge, Ontario


October was a month filled with a wide variety of bird and herp sightings, capped off with a trip to Netitishi Point on James Bay at the end of the month.

Early in the month, I visited Long Point with Todd Hagedorn for a day, a location that for some reason I had not visited in several years. It was a pretty active day for migration and among the day's highlights was a pair of Nelson's Sparrows that we discovered at Big Creek Wildlife Management Area. Most of the few records of Nelson's Sparrow for the Long Point area are of birds discovered at the remote banding stations, so this provided the first "chaseable" ones as far am I am aware.

Laura and I traveled to Point Pelee during the middle of the month to take part in a memorial "service" of sorts for Alan. It was great to see so many familiar faces and to spend the weekend birding and reminiscing about Alan. Some great birds were found during the weekend including a Cattle Egret, Fish Crow and Hudsonian Godwit at Hillman Marsh and a Pomarine Jaeger at the Tip. As well, we crossed paths with two Cloudless Sulphurs within the national park, a southern butterfly species that occasionally strays to southwest Ontario.

As is usually the case, October provided a smattering of rarities across the province. I was fortunate to cross paths with a few including the Le Conte's Sparrow that David Pryor found in Mississauga and the Western Sandpiper that Ken Burrell discovered at Port Maitland.

Ontario year list: 285
World year list: 854

Downy Woodpecker - Van Wagner's ponds, Hamilton, Ontario

Nelson's Sparrow - Big Creek WMA, Norfolk County, Ontario

Rock Point Provincial Park, Ontario

Black Vulture - Queenston, Ontario

female Cloudless Sulphur - Point Pelee NP, Ontario

Fish Crow - Hillman Marsh CA, Ontario

Le Conte's Sparrow - Mississauga, Ontario


Todd Hagedorn and I ventured north in late October to spend 16 full days birding the coast of James Bay, east of Moosonee at a location known as Netitishi Point. It was my fourth time visiting this remote part of the province and Todd's inaugural visit.

James Bay is a dynamic place, especially with regards to bird migration in the autumn, and Todd and I enjoyed this spectacle during the days with suitable weather conditions. But even on the slow days there were things to be seen, such as the always present boreal birds, or mammals such as the occasional Red Fox, Beluga and Bearded Seal.

Birders often venture to the James Bay coast to search for out-of-place birds, since the geography of the area acts to concentrate unusual species. This trip was above average in that regard, and while we could not find any rare seabirds (we'll get a Dovekie next time!), we did find a Western Sandpiper, Eurasian Wigeon, Western/Clark's Grebe, Sabine's Gull, Mountain Bluebird and a trio of Harlequin Ducks. Spending a few weeks away from the distractions of modern life for a few weeks was certainly welcome, and it is this just as much as the unusual birds that keeps drawing me back to James Bay.

In late November two incredible birds were found in the province that precipitated long-distance chases for me and many other birders in the province. The first was the Thick-billed Murre discovered by Burke Korol at Cobden (northwest of Ottawa), and the second was the Crested Caracara discovered by Chris Eagles in Michipicoten (about 2.5 hours north of Sault Ste. Marie). Fortunately I was successful on both chases! The caracara was particularly exciting since this species had never been photographed before in Ontario to my knowledge. An incredible bird to see so far north...

Ontario year list: 299
World year list: 866

the coast of James Bay at Netitishi Point, Ontario

Harlequin Ducks - Netitishi Point, Ontario

Red Fox - Netitishi Point, Ontario

American Three-toed Woodpecker - Netitishi Point, Ontario

Bohemian Waxwings - Netitishi Point, Ontario

Thick-billed Murre - Cobden, Ontario

Glossy Ibis - Port Hope, Ontario

Crested Caracara - Michipicoten, Ontario


One of the highlights of a quiet December for me was observing the female Smith's Longspur with Daniel Riley that had been found on the Long Point CBC by Ron Ridout and the Timpf brothers. The bird was very confiding, and we took advantage of the rare opportunity to study the bird up close. While Smith's Longspur breeds in Ontario along the Hudson Bay coast there are very few records of this often difficult to see species in southern Ontario.

Other than the longspur sighting, the month was relatively slow for me as far as birding was concerned. I did get out locally a few times throughout the month, in particular to look at gulls along the Niagara River. A Black-headed Gull at the Whirlpool was nice to see, especially since I can make it from my house to the Whirlpool in less than 5 minutes! Other highlights in December were good scope views of the 5 Harlequins Ducks at Niagara Falls, re-finding a male Pine Warbler at Dufferin Islands, and studying the wide variety of large gulls that spend much of the winter on the Niagara River.

Thank you for reading this, and I hope that 2017 is full of health, happiness and of course lots of
good birds and herps!

Ontario year list: 302
World year list: 868

Smith's Longspur - near Long Point, Ontario

Smith's Longspur - near Long Point, Ontario