Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Long weekend, Point Pelee style

With the beginning of my busy work season fast approaching, I sped down to Point Pelee for one last weekend of taking in bird migration. While migration is starting to slow down, there are still a ton of birds moving and fortunately many of these touched down at Point Pelee over the weekend.

I did not arrive into the Pelee area until around 5:00 PM on Friday and I headed straight for the park, eager to walk some of the trails. The birding was actually pretty good along the west side, and I tallied about 70 species in a couple of casual hours of birding. I ran into Jeremy Bensette, Amanda Guercio and Tim Arthur as well; it was good to spend some time with them as we explored the Northwest Beach portion of the park. This Eastern Wood-Pewee, evidently a harbinger of many this weekend, posed nicely for us on a low branch.

Eastern Wood-Pewee - Point Pelee National Park

On Saturday I was somewhat late arriving into the park so I skipped out on birding the tip area. Instead I parked at Black Willow Beach and went for a nice walk along the seasonal footpaths for a couple hours. The sun was shining, and the birding was pretty good! I had two main highlights along my walk. First up was a vocal White-eyed Vireo that I tracked down for some photos not far from the parking lot at Black Willow, followed by a Tufted Titmouse north of Pioneer about half an hour later. It has been an excellent spring for White-eyed Vireos in southern Ontario. At Pelee alone, this was already my fifth White-eyed Vireo I had found. Most springs I only find one or two it seems.

White-eyed Vireo - Black Willow, Point Pelee National Park

The birding was really productive, with birds spread out all along as I continued. Canada, Wilson's and Mourning Warblers are generally considered later migrants and all three had infiltrated the park in numbers.

Canada Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

When looking for "skulkers", Common Yellowthroats can be rather annoying at times! But they really are an attractive species (the males, at least) and I could not resist aiming my lens at this individual as he popped up onto a bare branch protruding from the Prickly Gooseberry understorey.

Common Yellowthroat - Point Pelee National Park

Baltimore Oriole just may be the most photographed bird species at Point Pelee, though Yellow Warbler and Red-winged Blackbird would also be strong contenders. While numbers of Baltimore and Orchard Orioles breed in the park, surely their numbers have been augmented by migrants passing through as well. This Baltimore Oriole was feeding down low as they often do at Point Pelee, providing great photo opportunities during May.

Baltimore Oriole - Point Pelee National Park

A few Brown-headed Cowbirds kept me entertained with their antics. These two males were clearly vying for the attention of a nearby female. Each male would take his turn contorting his body while producing his unique bubbly song. The individual that was not vocalizing would sit still with his head pointed up, trying to look as handsome as ever.

Brown-headed Cowbirds - Point Pelee National Park

While its colours may not be flashy, Gray Catbird is a charismatic species with a large vocal reportoire that at times can be extremely furtive, while at other times strangely confiding. Usually, I hear this species making a racket from somewhere deep within a shrub, but occasionally one will sit out in the open with no apparent concern for my presence.

Gray Catbird - Point Pelee National Park

At one point I ran into Jeremy Hatt and Steve Pike on the trail so I birded with them back to where the vehicles were parked. Along the way we ran into a group consisting of Jean Iron, Barb Charlton, Garth Riley, Nancy McPherson, James Carrey, Debbie Pacheco and Henrique Pacheco. While most of the birders had left the park, a few of the die-hards were still sticking around. It was great to hang out and chat with everyone for some time, exchanging stories and gossip like birders often do.

Photo courtesy of Steve Pike

For the afternoon I headed over to Kopegaron Woods for a little bit of birding and botanizing. I've started to take a greater interest in plants lately (in no small part due to iNaturalist) and it was fun to see what species I could find and identify!

Eventually I headed back into the park, making a quick stop at Wheatley Harbour along the way (where there was a single Willet). I had a great time birding with Steve Pike and Tim Arthur for a few hours before dark. The birding was a bit slow and the only bird I photographed was this Red-breasted Merganser resting on the beach.

Red-breasted Merganser - Point Pelee National Park

On Sunday morning I was in the park at 7:00 AM, and it was not until 9:00 PM that I finally left. The birding was just all around really solid, and while one particular rarity stole the show, many other species kept us on our toes.

Eastern Kingbird - Point Pelee National Park

I parked at the West Beach parking lot, where a Green Heron, certainly a recently arrived migrant, was perched on a dead tree at the south end of the parking lot. My warbler count was already approaching a dozen species by the time I parked so I knew it would be a great day!

Yellow-throated Vireo - Point Pelee National Park

While walking down to the tip, I received a text notification from the Pelee Whatsapp group. Fully expecting another post about a Mourning Warbler or something, I was quite surprised when it was a message from William Konze indicating that he had just seen the Black-billed Magpie fly over Sparrow Field. I quickened my pace as the notifications came flying in, alerting us all with the play-by-play as to where the magpie was being seen.

By the time I had reached Sparrow Field, eyes to the sky the whole time, there had not been an update for about 10 minutes. Just then Steve Pike called me to say that the magpie had flown over his head at the tram loop. A few minutes later - there it was! I caught a quick glimpse of the bird as it flew south over Sparrow Field, but it was located directly between my location and that of the sun, eliminating any chance of good looks or a photo. Fortunately that would not be my only sighting; Dan Greenham pointed it out a few minutes later as it made another pass. All told I watched the Black-billed Magpie fly over Sparrow Field on four occasions.

Black-billed Magpie - Sparrow Field, Point Pelee National Park

Black-billed Magpies are commonly found throughout the prairies, including portions of Rainy River District and scattered other locales in northwestern Ontario. While the species is mostly sedentary they do occasionally show up out of range. The vast majority of these individuals are likely wild birds, but because this is a species that is occasionally kept in captivity there are often questions of provenance with Black-billed Magpie records in southern Ontario. Quite a few of the Black-billed Magpie records from southern Ontario have been turfed by previous iterations of the Ontario Bird Records Committee, though I am convinced that several of those rejected records are actually of wild birds - it is just a hard thing to prove either way! I am anticipating a lively discussion about this particular individual at next year's AGM; we shall see.

Black-billed Magpie - Sparrow Field, Point Pelee National Park

There are certain rarities that just seem so out of place when they show up. This large black and white bird with white flashes in the wingtips was surreal to see, as it cruised overhead, sometimes at an impressive height. It certainly was a strange sight to see this magpie at Point Pelee, among the Blue Jays that it would occasionally pass near.

After the fun of the magpie experience, I was standing near the south end of Sparrow Field along the road with Sarah and Kory Renaud, their two daughters Emily and Alyssa, Steve Pike and Jeremy Bensette. Kory and I had a brief glimpse of a Mourning Warbler, and while trying to tease it in we both got on a smaller warbler a bit higher in the trees. It was a Cerulean! The views were brief - only two or three minutes elapsed before it vanished - but enough for all of use to be happy with the looks that we had. I snapped off a couple photos as well. This appeared to be an adult female, but I could be wrong.

Cerulean Warbler - Sparrow Field, Point Pelee National Park

Cerulean Warbler - Sparrow Field, Point Pelee National Park

 As I mentioned previously, the birding was really awesome on the Sunday and I rarely had dull stretches along the trail. Nearly everywhere I went, colourful tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and various warblers could be found, while all of the expected flycatchers were around as well. All six regular vireos were accounted for, including this Blue-headed Vireo which is starting to get a little late.

Blue-headed Vireo - Point Pelee National Park

Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, Tennessee, Blackburnian and American Redstart were the main warbler flavors of the day, as expected given the date and the relative abundance of the above species. But Bay-breasted Warbler also put in a good showing with 14 tallied; the same number of Canada Warblers were also on my checklist.
Bay-breasted Warbler - Point Pelee Natioanl Park

Bay-breasted Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

I can be a bit of a "robin stroker" at times with really spectacularly coloured birds like Scarlet Tanager. Just can't get enough of them! "Robin stroker" by the way is a British term for an amateur birder that gets overly excited with pretty common birds, like the European Robin. It is definitely applicable here too, and I'm not ashamed to call myself one at times...

Scarlet Tanager - Point Pelee National Park

Flycatchers were in the park in big numbers, providing an excellent opportunity to study the differences between Yellow-bellied, Least, Alder and Willow Flycatcher, and Eastern Wood-Pewee. All of the regular Ontario flycatchers were accounted for over the course of the afternoon, with the exception being Acadian Flycatcher. Talking with Tim Arthur later, he had a flycatcher clean sweep! If only a Western Kingbird had flown off the tip as well.

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher - Point Pelee National Park

Olive-sided Flycatcher - Northwest Beach, Point Pelee National Park

Magnolia Warblers are a spectacular species! There is something quite nice about hearing that distinctive, nasal "schep" call while hiking through a dense conifer stand in northern Ontario and seeing a flash of yellow deep in the shadows. On migration they are a little more photogenic as they often forage low down in deciduous vegetation.
Magnolia Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Magnolia Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

When it was all said and done, I finished with 110 species in the park on Sunday. Not anywhere close to any records, and I could have seen quite a few more if I chased a few species. But for a day of wandering around the southern half of the park I was pretty happy with my sightings. This Pelee place, it is kind of alright!

On Monday I slept in a little bit, not making it into the park until sometime after 8. I enjoyed a two hour walk near Northwest Beach, soaking in the last views of Point Pelee for me this spring. I didn't take any bird photos, but I did take a few photos of some common flowers. This one below is Herb-Robert, followed by Wild Blue Phlox. 
Herb-Robert - Point Pelee National Park

Herb-Robert - Point Pelee National Park

Wild Blue Phlox - Point Pelee National Park

Wild Blue Phlox - Point Pelee National Park

I have to say this was one of my more enjoyable springs at Point Pelee in recent years as far as the number of birds were concerned. Quite a few of my ~ 13 mornings in the park this spring were very birdy and there were rarely any slow days. Mega-rare birds were in short supply this spring, but there were good numbers of minor rarities to keep things exciting. Of course many good times were had with friends which is part of what makes Point Pelee special. I can't wait to do it again next year!

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Second Annual Point Pelee Family Weekend (Part 2)

With rain forecast throughout the morning once again, Dan Riley and I decided to enter the park on our own, while Laura, mom and dad would be entering the park and meeting us at the Tip an hour later.

We birded the Tip area until my parents and Laura arrived and had a few highlights including six Common Goldeneye offshore, a flyover Lapland Longspur and a cooperative Red-throated Loon at the Tip. Word had spread indicating that a Sedge Wren was working the root system of a partially uprooted tree right at the very Tip, so naturally that was our first destination once everyone had arrived. With a bit of patience it was not too difficult to snag a few decent photos of the wren, a species that is rarely seen out in the open like this. While cold and rainy days can be tough on migrant songbirds, one side benefit to birders is that these birds are often much easier to observe, compared to when they are on their breeding grounds.

Sedge Wren - The Tip, Point Pelee National Park

Sedge Wren - The Tip, Point Pelee National Park

Sedge Wren - The Tip, Point Pelee National Park

Sedge Wren - The Tip, Point Pelee National Park

We birded the Tip area, walked up the West Beach Footpath, cut across to Sparrow Field, and walked back to the Tram Loop via Loop Woods where we birded with Dave Szmyr and Josh Mandell for a bit. This American Robin was nesting in an extremely visible spot directly beside the trail in Loop Woods. While the birding was a bit slower than the previous morning we kept adding new birds and it did not take long for my parents to reach species #100 for their weekend, establishing their eligibility to receive their 100 species pin. The 100th species was a Northern Waterthrush singing away by the septic field east of the Visitor's Centre which flew past several times, giving us brief views.

American Robin - Loop Woods, Point Pelee National Park

American Robin - Loop Woods, Point Pelee National Park

We birded the Northwest Beach / Sanctuary area for an hour or so during the late morning, hoping that high numbers of songbirds would still be working the gooseberry in the undergrowth. While numbers were a little lower this time around, the birding was still excellent!

Lincoln's Sparrow - Northwest Beach, Point Pelee National Park

A couple from Quebec pointed out a roosting Common Nighthawk along the bike path north of Northwest Beach, then my dad spotted a different Common Nighthawk a few hundred meters further along the trail - a tough bird to find and a great spot by him!

Common Nighthawk - Northwest Beach, Point Pelee National Park

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds were still present in high numbers and this one even posed for us. If only it had turned its head just a touch more so that the brilliant ruby of the gorget would be visible!

Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Sanctuary, Point Pelee National Park

The orange-variant Scarlet Tanager was still hanging around the parking lot at Sleepy Hollow, while we also found a nice pocket of birds that were quite cooperative for photography including several Cape May and Tennessee Warblers.

Cape May Warbler - Sanctuary, Point Pelee National Park

Tennessee Warbler - Sanctuary, Point Pelee National Park

We walked along the beach back to the Northwest Beach parking lot, which was a good decision since Dan Riley quickly turned up a Five-lined Skink. Walking back to this car, an Olive-sided Flycatcher appeared on a distant snag, its white patches on its rump easily visible given the angle.

Olive-sided Flycatcher - Northwest Beach, Point Pelee National Park

As this was the last day for my parents in the Point Pelee circle, we checked out Hillman Marsh for the first time in the afternoon. Their species tally quickly shot up as many of the ducks and shorebirds were new. We weren't able to find any rarities, though we did have amazing scope views of a close Blanding's Turtle and American Bullfrog! 

American Bullfrog - Point Pelee National Park

We took the long way back to the car after scanning the shorebird cell,  checking the area where the bird banding occurs, as well as the marsh near the little boardwalk. Two new warbler species appeared - Yellow-rumped and Palm - bringing my parents and Laura up to 21 warbler species. A little better than the 9 from last year! After two days of solid birding, everyone was beginning to feel a little tired...

When it was all said and done, my parents finished with 120 species, a very respectable number! More importantly we were able to share time together as a family. This Pelee weekend will undoubtedly go down as one of the highlights of the year for me. I'm grateful to have Laura, my mom and my dad in my life, and I love that I can share my passion with them. 

photo courtesy of Steve Pike

Laura and I said our goodbyes to my parents then headed back into the park for an evening walk as the sun had come out. On the way in, I took a spin through the onion fields, finding a few flocks of shorebirds including my first Short-billed Dowitchers and Ruddy Turnstones of the year, along with a surprise Bobolink on someone's lawn and the default male Ring-necked Pheasant in the usual field off of Mersea Road 19.

We entered the park at around 6:00 PM and headed back to Sleepy Hollow. The sun had come out and it was an absolutely beautiful evening. Our walk was quite birdy too with mostly the same species as we had seen here previously, though a Yellow-throated Vireo was a nice treat as it foraged in the lower levels. Usually this species is way up in the canopy.

Yellow-throated Vireo - Sleepy Hollow, Point Pelee National Park

Laura and I met up with some friends at the Trading Post for dinner, which was fantastic by the way despite the limited menu. It is run by the same people who run the nearby Birdie's Perch (a.k.a. the Red Bus), and the food quality is just as good! By the time we returned to the Riley's cottage our eyelids were heavy and we only lasted an hour or so until it was time to go to bed.

Laura and I slept in on Monday morning, our last at Point Pelee, as we had been burning the candle on both ends over the previous few days. We avoided the Tip, instead enjoying a leisurely walk together along the Woodland Nature Trail and Redbud Footpath. Our main goal was to catch up with the male Prothonotary Warbler which had been seen occasionally at Bridge F, and which would be a lifer for Laura. The sun was intermittently shining - a nice contrast to the previous two mornings - and the trails were quite birdy.

Blackburnian Warbler - Woodland Nature Trail, Point Pelee National Park

We spotted a White-eyed Vireo just west of Bridge F, while a Black-billed Cuckoo also appeared down low in the shrubbery. The Prothonotary could be heard singing as we approached Bridge F, and eventually appropriate views were had of the Swamp Candle.

White-eyed Vireo - Woodland Nature Trail, Point Pelee National Park

Laura spotted a Green Heron in one of the sloughs along the Woodland Nature Trail, while we also found a few Philadelphia Vireos, a Blue-headed Vireo and a Yellow-throated Vireo, giving us a six-vireo hour (not sure if I've ever done that before!). We soon decided to call it a day as we had a long drive ahead of us. It had been a great weekend; hopefully a tradition we can continue in future years!

Friday, 18 May 2018

Second Annual Point Pelee Family Weekend (Part 1)

This past weekend was the second installment of what I hope will continue to be an annual tradition at Point Pelee. My parents were able to make it down for two nights, while Laura and I also drove down to meet them there. Our inaugural Pelee weekend last May was slightly hampered by cold temperatures and frequent rain, but we made the most of it and had a good time anyways (even though only 9 warbler species were seen!).

My parents drove down to their bed and breakfast in Leamington on Friday after my mom finished work, while Laura and I were not far behind them, arriving in Leamington by 10:00 PM or so. The Riley's were generously hosting Laura and I again this year. Though heavy rain was once again forecast for the whole weekend, we were determined to make the most of it.

From left to right: Dave, Josh and Fran Vandermeulen, Laura Bond, David Szmyr, Steve Pike, Josh Mandell (photo courtesy of Steve Pike)

One of the first birds I laid eyes on after arriving at the Visitor's Center on Saturday morning was a Eurasian Tree Sparrow, flying past us through the parking lot as we were getting organized in the morning, and appearing to land somewhere around the Visitor's Center. This bird was almost certainly the individual that had been seen at several locations in the southern part of the park over the previous two days.  I spent a few minutes searching for the bird with Dan Riley near the Visitor's Center but eventually gave us as the tram arrived.

Despite the cool, gloomy conditions with a threat of rain the birding was actually quite good near the Tip. I spotted an Acadian Flycatcher around the new clearing that will be the location for the proposed observation tower and within a minute or two the entire clearing was lined with birders! Word travels quickly at the Tip. We slipped away from the crowd to keep birding, being entertained by our first few warbler species, Scarlet Tanagers, and great looks at two Philadelphia Vireos, including this one which was resting on a trail-side branch with its eyes closed for a few minutes.

Philadelphia Vireo - Point Pelee National Park

Philadelphia Vireo - Point Pelee National Park

Many of the warblers were feeding down low, often walking right on the ground and occasionally popping up onto a visible twig, and we soon added Orange-crowned, Tennessee, Nashville, Cape May and Blackburnian to our lists.

Tennessee Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Birding at Pelee during May is almost as much about the social side of things as it is about the birds. It was great to run into quite a few familiar faces, many of the them I only see once a year at Point Pelee, and also to introduce Laura and my parents to so many of my friends in the birding community.

With Steve Pike (center) and Bob Curry (right) - Point Pelee National Park (photo courtesy of Steve Pike)

Three legends of the Ontario birding community - Tom Hince, Paul Pratt and Bruce Di Labio - were chosen as this year's Celebrity Birders to represent the Ontario Field Ornithologists and complete a Big Day, to help raise funds for several different causes. Tom, Paul and Bruce have been birding together for decades and have established all sorts of Big Day records. At various times they have set the Big Day records for North America, the United States, Canada, Texas, New Jersey, 7 Canadian provinces (including Ontario) and 2 territories.  The team has also won the esteemed World Series of Birding in New Jersey, the Great Texas Classic Birding competition, and the Spacecoast Flyway birding competition in Florida. Instead of completing a regular Big Day, Tom, Paul and Bruce would be completing a Big Sit, where they would be confined to a small circle for the entire day, counting whichever birds pass near the circle. We ran into the guys around 8 AM by which they had already identified over 90 species. They finished with an incredible 110 species, highlighted by a flyover Smith's Longspur!

From left to right: Paul Pratt, Tom Hince, Bruce Di Labio and Steve Pike (photo courtesy of Steve Pike)

After our morning at the tip, we hopped back on the tram which would take us back to the Visitor's Center as refreshments were overdue. Feeling satiated, we decided to go for a walk down the Redbud Trail along with Steve Pike and Victor Serrano, looping back along the Woodland Nature Trail despite the rain which had picked up in intensity. We were dressed for the weather so that would not stop us!

The birding was excellent in the rain and we found a string of good birds, one after another, which initiated a stampede of people on several occasions once I posted the sighting to the Whatsapp group. First up was a female Hooded Warbler at our feet along the Botham Trail, followed by a very cooperative male Mourning Warbler a few minutes later, then a White-eyed Vireo at the north end of Redbud, a female Mourning Warbler halfway along Redbud (that later was reported as a Connecticut for some time until photos were taken), and another White-eyed Vireo at the south end of Redbud. The birding was awesome!

White-eyed Vireo - Redbud Trail, Point Pelee National Park

This American Robin was posing on a branch with a nice background so I could not help myself with a few photos. It's a species that I do not focus on often enough.

American Robin - Point Pelee National Park

Our pace on the Woodland Nature Trail was directly correlated to the frequency by which the rain fell; indeed, we breezed through the last few hundred meters to reach the comfort of the warm and dry Visitor's Center. We decided that we would have a picnic lunch at Sleepy Hollow, where a pavilion would keep us dry. Even here the birding was excellent as about 10 different warbler species flitted low in the Prickly Gooseberry, drinking the nectar from the flowers. When insects are in short supply, nectar will do in a pinch.

Cape May Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

This Cape May Warbler had a strange growth of some sort on top of its bill. Does anyone know what's going on with this?

Cape May Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Birding at Sleepy Hollow, Point Pelee National Park (photo courtesy of Steve Pike)

Fortunately the rains tapered off and though the skies threatened, our afternoon was relatively dry. We focused on a few of the trails on the west side of the park including Pioneer, Sleepy Hollow and Northwest Beach. I have to say it was some of the best birding that I have ever had along these trails. A huge number of warblers, orioles and other songbirds were feeding down low in the gooseberry. There were rarely moments without a few warblers to look at, and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds were present in huge numbers. It was a great experience for my parents and Laura, and it made my job easier! Explaining the differences between sparrows, vireos and warblers is a lot easier when the birds in question are foraging at eye level only a few meters away.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak - Sleepy Hollow, Point Pelee National Park

We thoroughly enjoyed the walk, highlights being an adult Great Horned Owl, a singing Cerulean Warbler, and our first Yellow-throated Vireo and Wilson's Warbler of the spring. We even watched a flying Common Nighthawk at Northwest Beach land in a trailside tree, its cryptic plumage rendering it very difficult to see once it had landed. A Clay-colored Sparrow that Garth, Nancy and Dan Riley had discovered earlier was also easily seen, along with large numbers of Lincoln's Sparrows.

Common Nighthawk - Northwest Beach, Point Pelee National Park

Clay-colored Sparrow - Northwest Beach, Point Pelee National Park

My parents and Laura called it a day at this point, with my parents only 8 species shy of 100 species despite having never left the park. One hundred species appeared to be virtually guaranteed for the weekend, compared to last year which saw us desperately searching for a Swamp Sparrow along the windy Marsh Boardwalk with less an hour until my parents needed to leave. We were successful last year, but it came down to the wire!

I birded the last hour of daylight on my own and then eventually meeting up with Dan, Garth and Nancy, since I was not quite ready to call it a day, given the large numbers of birds around. In the Sanctuary parking lot I discovered this orange-variant Scarlet Tanager, happily feeding on earthworms at the edge of the parking lot. I'm not entirely sure what causes some individuals to display an orange base colour as opposed to brilliant scarlet. Perhaps it is diet related or caused by nutritional deficiencies. At any rate it was a fun bird to finish the day wish!

orange variant Scarlet Tanager - Sanctuary, Point Pelee National Park

orange variant Scarlet Tanager - Sanctuary, Point Pelee National Park