Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Odds and ends from the spring

I have been catching up with a ton of photo editing from earlier in the year recently, and I thought I would make a few posts with some of these odds and ends.

Way back on April 11 I visited a favorite location of mine. As a teenager I spent many evenings after school and mornings during the weekends to explore the swath of Carolinian woodland that covers the hillsides. Over the years I have figured out where many of the 25 species of reptiles and amphibians that live here can be most easily found. Northern Ribbonsnakes, a species at risk in Ontario, are relatively common here and on many visits they even outnumber Eastern Gartersnakes. Several of the south and west facing hillsides contain hibernacula, and on warm days as early as mid-March it is possible to find snakes basking in the warm rays.

April 11 was my first opportunity to visit this year. I was greeted by several Mourning Cloaks, often the first butterfly that I encounter in the spring. Adults of this species overwinter and by March they are not too difficult to find, if the weather cooperates of course. While most butterfly species feed on the nectar from flowers, Mourning Cloaks prefer tree sap, enabling them to survive this early before most flowers have emerged. 

Mourning Cloak

Eventually I came across a large female Northern Ribbonsnake. As I was observing it a rustle in the dead leaves announced the presence of a male, while a second male was not far behind. Eventually one of the males followed the pheromone trail left by the female and sidled up next to her.

Northern Ribbonsnakes

After a few minutes of observation I gave them some privacy.

Northern Ribbonsnakes

Next up are some photos from my time at Pelee this past spring. While I have posted about most of the highlights, some of the photos I had dropped into folders on my computer and forgot about until recently. First up is a pair of Barn Swallows, seen perching on some of the large boulders near the tip of Point Pelee in late April.

Barn Swallow - Point Pelee National Park

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers migrate through mainly in late April, though quite a few will stay to breed in the park. This individual which I photographed on April 25 is an adult male, due to the bold black "eyebrows" it shows.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher - Point Pelee National Park

Anyone who has visited Point Pelee on a frequent basis has certainly ran into Raccoons at one point or another. As a birder who is constantly scanning the trees for birds, I often see them sleeping it a crook of a branch. This one was out strolling around, hoping for a handout!

Raccoon - Point Pelee National Park

Raccoon - Point Pelee National Park

On May 1 I made a stop at the Blenheim sewage lagoons while driving down to Point Pelee on the weekend. Good numbers of shorebirds were in, including these Dunlins. The individual in the rear is more advanced in its pre-alternate molt, showing some orange in the scapulars and coverts (wing feathers on the back) and the beginning of a black belly patch. The foreground individual is still mostly in basic plumage. 

Dunlins - Blenheim lagoons

Previously, a pair of Baird's Sandpipers had been discovered at the lagoons by Jean Iron. I was happy to see that they were both accounted for in the mostly dry sprinkler cell, though they were a little distant for good photos. While Baird's Sandpiper is an uncommon but regular autumn migrant through Ontario, it is very rare during the spring as their migration takes them north through the Great Plains. This was only the second time that I had observed a spring Baird's in Ontario.

Baird's Sandpipers - Blenheim lagoons

On May 3rd I came across one of the Eurasian Collared-Doves in Leamington, sitting on a telephone wire at the usual location. They had been present since August, 2014.

Eurasian Collared-Dove - Leamington

An adult Summer Tanager had been found by Lev Frid near the tram loop when I was at the tip that morning. I had plans to walk up to the Visitors Centre through that area anyways, so I searched for the tanager with several others. It eluded our cameras for a while but eventually perched up on some Vitis vines for a few seconds. The majority of the Summer Tanagers that we see in Ontario are duller orange or yellow-green females and young males, so it is a rare treat to have great views of a bright red adult male!

Summer Tanager - Point Pelee National Park

Later that day I decided to check out Kopegaron Woods located west of Wheatley, because it was very slow for birds at Point Pelee. Often Kopegaron has a good variety of warblers and I recall seeing Worm-eating and Connecticut there last year, both of which were found by Jeremy Hatt. The birding was pretty decent this time around and I had about 10 warbler species in an hour. This Blue Jay paused nearby, providing my first decent photo of one perched.

Blue Jay - Kopegaron Woods

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

February 22, 2015 - final morning at Cayo Santa Maria

February 10-11, 2015 - Viñales Valley
February 10-11, 2015 - hotel birding in the Viñales Valley
February 12, 2015 - Parque Nacional La Guira and Soroa
February 13, 2015 - Reserva Sierra del Rosaria, town of Las Terrazas
February 14, 2015 - Soroa to Zapata
February 15, 2015 - Zapata Swamp
February 16 and 17, 2015 - Trinidad and Ancon Peninsula
February 18, 2015 - the Escambray Mountains
February 19 and 20, 2015 - Hanabanilla Reservoir, Cayo Santa Maria
February 21, 2015 - Cayo Santa Maria
February 22, 2015 - Cayo Santa Maria

The following morning I led a final pre-breakfast hike before we began our journey back to Havana. The remaining day and a half were spent in Havana and featured mostly on cultural things, so I'll end the trip report after this post.

View of part of Havana from a high rise building

Western Spindalis, formerly known as the Stripe-headed Tanager, is a common species found throughout Cuba, the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, the Cayman Islands and the island of Cozumel, Mexico. It occasionally shows up as a vagrant in southern Florida as well. I've featured the males before in earlier posts from this trip but this was my first time photographing a female. The trees surrounding our resort constantly had Western Spindalis(es?) feeding on a sort of fruit, though photography was more difficult than expected due to their propensity for having several small twigs getting in the way, preventing a clean photo.

female Western Spindalis

Of course I had to photograph a few of the males - an absolutely stunning bird in my mind.

male Western Spindalis

male Western Spindalis

Eurasian Collared-Doves have really taken over in urban areas not only in Cuba but throughout much of the world. Looking at the eBird sighting map they have yet to spread extensively in South America and Africa, while Australasia and southeast Asia also remains untouched. One feels that is just a matter of time though...

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Warblers were quite common right in the resort complex, presumably due to the large number of mature, fruiting and flowering trees that attracted many insects. Comparatively, the dry scrub that makes up the rest of the island is more of a hostile environment. Each morning we encountered about a dozen species while only walking a few dozen meters! Cape May Warblers were surprisingly abundant, while American Redstart, Northern Parula and Prairie Warblers were also accounted for in decent numbers. This sharp male Prairie Warbler was too sexy not to photograph, especially as it set at eye level for a minute or so.

Prairie Warbler

The trip was certainly a success and we managed to enjoy a wide variety of Cuba`s flora and fauna. As it was not a dedicated birding tour we missed several of the endemics, but on my next trip to Cuba I have set aside several days once the tour concludes to rent a vehicle and clean up the remaining endemics. The following are the endemic bird species of Cuba according to the most recent Clements checklist. Bold letters represent species we observed during this tour.

Gundlach's Hawk
Cuban Black Hawk
Zapata Rail
Blue-headed Quail-Dove
Gray-fronted Quail-Dove
Bare-legged Owl
Cuban Pygmy-Owl
Bee Hummingbird
Cuban Trogon
Cuban Tody
Cuban Green Woodpecker
Fernandina's Flicker
Cuban Parakeet
Giant Kingbird
Cuban Vireo
Cuban Martin (migrates to South America during winter, though wintering grounds are unknown) 
Zapata Wren
Cuban Gnatcatcher
Cuban Solitaire
Yellow-headed Warbler
Oriente Warbler
Cuban Grassquit (also introduced to Bahamas)
Zapata Sparrow
Red-shouldered Blackbird
Cuban Blackbird
Cuban Oriole

Sunday, 23 August 2015

February 21, 2015 - Cayo Santa Maria

February 10-11, 2015 - Viñales Valley
February 10-11, 2015 - hotel birding in the Viñales Valley
February 12, 2015 - Parque Nacional La Guira and Soroa
February 13, 2015 - Reserva Sierra del Rosaria, town of Las Terrazas
February 14, 2015 - Soroa to Zapata
February 15, 2015 - Zapata Swamp
February 16 and 17, 2015 - Trinidad and Ancon Peninsula
February 18, 2015 - the Escambray Mountains
February 19 and 20, 2015 - Hanabanilla Reservoir, Cayo Santa Maria
February 21, 2015 - Cayo Santa Maria
February 22, 2015 - Cayo Santa Maria

The high winds continued overnight, and by the time breakfast was finished the verdict was in that the seas were still too rough for the catamaran ride. Instead, we arranged with a local guide, Edwin Ruiz, to explore part of the national park found on Cayo Santa Maria.

breakfast companions

It was a hot and humid day, but the overcast conditions provided some shelter from the elements as we explored the dry, scrub like habitats on the island.



Cuba has a high number of endemic land snails, several species which we were able to find and photograph during the hike. Wikipedia tells me that there are over 1300 species of land gastropods in Cuba with about 94% of them endemic to the country. Most of the ones I photographed are Liguus fasciatus, a common species that can also be found in Florida.











Before long we entered a cave, the roosting site for thousands of bats. I can't recall which species they were, though Cuba has about 26 different species.



Up to this point in the trip we had yet to encounter a single snake. The weather was partly to blame - it had been unseasonably cool for the first part of the trip, and while a day time high of 20 degrees may feel comfortable to us, it is too cold for the snake species that are found in Cuba. The winter season is also quite dry. For these reasons snakes will brumate through part of the winter, emerging during periods of hot and wet weather, but generally saving their energy for the wet season when prey is much easier to find.

We finally encountered our first snake early in the afternoon as we continued hiking through the scrub habitat. It was an adult Cuban Racer (Alsophis cartherigenus) that had certainly seen better days. The snake was extremely emaciated, made no attempt to flee when we approached (very unusual for a snake called a "racer"!) and in general looked like it was on its way out of this world.



It was not the way we were hoping to see our first snake, but life and death is a part of nature, as painful as it may be to witness. One has to remember that by having the weak individuals of a species die, only the strongest will succeed in passing on their genes to the next generation, thereby improving the genetics of the species as a whole.



Of interest were the large number of ticks that had attached themselves to the snake's scales.



Someone made a great discovery by finding this Cuban Treefrog (Osteopilus septentrionalis) resting on the inside of a succulent.





We made a few more discoveries throughout the walk, including several Leiocephalus stictigaster, a type of small iguanid lizard, and several anole species. Birds included a White Ibis at the only freshwater pool we encountered on the hike, Cuban Black-Hawks overhead, the endemic subspecies of Great Lizard Cuckoo only found on several keys off the north coast of Cuba, and a variety of other scrub species such as Western Spindalis, Cuban Pewee, Cuban Vireo and a variety of wood-warblers.

Just as we were finishing the hike Glenn discovered this Cuban Racer basking at the base of a tree. Compared to the first individual, this one was much healthier looking! We did not capture this one, instead contenting ourselves by photographing it from a moderate distance. It gave a few tongue flicks, but otherwise seemed comfortable as long as we did not get too close.







I had to break out the big lens to take a few headshots...



Later that afternoon we returned to the lagoons to see what shorebirds were in. Twelve species were located including our first Semipalmated Sandpiper of the trip. All of the expected wading birds were accounted for including six Roseate Spoonbills - always a crowd pleaser! Several of the clients had been asking about American Avocet through the trip, but I told them that our chances of seeing one was very slim as they are a vagrant to Cuba.

Well wouldn't you know it, as I set up my scope I noticed two avocets swimming near the back of the lagoon. That certainly caused a bit of excitement, and was a great way to finish off a fun day on Cayo Santa Maria!

Friday, 21 August 2015

Rare warblers and a shorebird near Halifax

Last night I arrived in Halifax to spend the next 9 days or so with Laura and her family. This week she was working at a veterinary clinic and had a long day scheduled for today (Friday), which provided me with an opportunity to drop her off in the morning, go birding all day, and pick her up in the evening!

My best bird of the day came as I was birding near the back cove at Harlen Point, located near Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Hartlen Point is a fantastic rarity magnet, and was the location where I successfully twitched a provincial first Ross's Goose in January 2013, and the provincial second Eurasian Kestrel last December. Around late morning as I was exiting Back Cove, I was quite surprised to see an oystercatcher flying my way. It followed the shoreline to Back Cove, circled around, and exited the mouth of the channel, continuing north along the coast. I was hoping that it would have the diagnostic white rump of a Eurasian Oystercatcher, but unfortunately that was not the case! American Oystercatcher was actually a life bird for me as I had missed them previously in Florida, Colombia and Panama. I'm  not sure if there are any previous records of American Oystercatcher for the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM). In Canada the only place to reliable see them is around the islands off the extreme south tip of Nova Scotia where a few nest each year. The odd vagrant has shown up elsewhere in the Maritimes, while Ontario and Quebec even have the odd record. The decision to leave my camera in the car was a poor one this time, however, as I could have smoked some decent shots.

I wanted to relocate the oystercatcher so I decided to focus the rest of my birding to points further east. Unfortunately the persistent fog lasted all day, rendering beach-checking and sea-watching practically useless!

The other two highlights of the day occurred as I slowly drove a back road near Lower Three Fathom Harbour. My strategy for finding rare landbirds was to slowly troll along roads near the coast, listening for the tell tale chips, zeets and chucks of flocks of chickadees or warblers. Often rarities will join up with these roving flocks.

This strategy worked to a tee today! I stopped to investigate a few chip notes, and with a bit of "encouragement" I was able to rile up a whole flock of chickadees and warblers. Black-capped Chickadees and Yellow-rumped Warblers made up the bulk of the flock, while a few Boreal Chickadees, Common Yellowthroats and Red-breasted Nuthatches were also accounted for. Something bright and yellow down low in the alders immediately grabbed my attention. It was a Blue-winged Warbler! After a mad dash to the car, I was ready with the camera, but the bird proved very skulky and nearly impossible to focus on. As I was failing with my photography, another bright yellow bird popped up. This time it was a young female Prairie Warbler!

Eventually with a bit of patience I photographed both species, though my Blue-winged Warbler shots are less than ideal.

female Blue-winged Warbler - Lower Three Fathom Harbour, Nova Scotia (August 21, 2015)

Both Prairie and Blue-winged Warblers are species that breed further south and west of Nova Scotia, yet every autumn small numbers of mainly hatch year individuals of each species end up in the Maritimes after presumably getting blown off course. Prairie is more regular as a vagrant than Blue-winged, but both show up each autumn in Nova Scotia.
female Prairie Warbler - Lower Three Fathom Harbour, Nova Scotia (August 21, 2015)

I have to say I really enjoy birding on the east coast, where vagrant hunting seems much more productive than back home in Ontario! Rarities could be around any bend, and often they are. Now if only one of those funny looking Black Terns would end up our way...

female Prairie Warbler - Lower Three Fathom Harbour, Nova Scotia (August 21, 2015)

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Summer phalaroping

Over the last few weeks I haven't ventured outside in search of wildlife as frequently as I had earlier in the spring and summer. After a rushed spring migration followed by a long and busy field season, this late summer "hangover" is an annual occurrence for me. The period from mid July to mid August is traditionally very slow for birding in this part of the continent. The breeding birds are finishing up nesting duty and preparing for migration, remaining mostly hidden and relatively silent in the deep foliage. Reptiles and amphibians, my other main interest besides birds, are still very much present this time of year but often much more difficult to encounter than during the late spring and early summer period. The heat and humidity can be oppressive, and August signals the beginning of ragweed season for me. All the more reason to catch up on projects indoors, sit on patios, go to Jays games, and generally take a bit of a break from all that naturalizing! After all, September and October will be very busy for me with the excitement of autumn migration.

But even during the dog days of summer migration is well underway , particularly with shorebirds. Species like Short-billed Dowitcher, Least Sandpiper and Lesser Yellowlegs are some of the first birds to begin moving south. Due to the length of the migration season for yellowlegs in particular, it is not unheard of for the first autumn migrants to be returning south in June (!) while some lingering spring migrants are still making their way up north.

While shorebirding in York Region is usually rather dismal, this year the 4th cell at the Holland Landing lagoons have been partially drawn down, revealing some suitable muddy habitat for shorebirds and gulls to feed or rest on. It has been a nice break after working in the office to swing by Holland Landing on my way home and spend an hour watching the birds do their thing. It is still about a 25 minute drive for me, but I try to stop by a few times a week. (For those considering a visit - note that the lagoons are posted no trespassing, but I have never had an issue being there).

Shorebirds have generally consisted of the usual species expected this time of year - good numbers of Killdeer and Spotted Sandpipers which nest at the lagoons, a few dozen Lesser Yellowlegs, a mixture of both Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, two or three Solitary Sandpipers and the odd Pectoral Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs or Semipalmated Plover. Bonaparte's Gulls have numbered close to 200 in recent days, and the duck flock is steadily growing, incorporating close to 100 Blue-winged Teal, 30+ Green-winged Teal, American Black Ducks, and today the first Northern Shoveler. I've been keeping an eye out for a teal with a longer bill, but alas no luck with a Cinnamon Teal yet!

Last week I had finished up with the shorebirds in the 4th pond and had turned my attention to the group of Bonaparte's Gulls floating on the 3rd pond when a small white bird caught my attention way in the back. I cranked the scope up to 60x and was pleasantly surprised to see the dot morph into a very crisp, juvenile Red-necked Phalarope. Red-necked Phalaropes are generally pelagic species, breeding in the arctic and spending much of the rest of the year floating on the open ocean. But every year small numbers will pass through Ontario and it is not too uncommon for them to stop by sewage lagoons during the autumn. My checklist of York Region Birds lists Red-necked as less than annual, and there are no previous eBird records for the county. I do know of at least one relatively recent record from Holland Landing, from August, 2006. The phalarope was much too far for good photos (my phone-scoped shots are hardly worth mentioning!), so here is a photo of one that tolerated my close approach on James Bay during August, 2012.

Red-necked Phalarope - James Bay (August 9, 2012)

I called David Szmyr who lives in Barrie and is doing an Ontario "big year". He raced down and quickly added it to the list later that evening! The phalarope remained at the lagoons for at least four days, last being reported on August 13.

 I visited again yesterday after work to see what had dropped in. The fourth lagoon often has a group of gulls, ducks and shorebirds resting on a mud flat that is not visible unless one walks south down the berm for a few dozen meters, as the birds here are hidden by overgrown vegetation. I had cautiously began walking down the berm when the ducks noticed my presence, and instantly all 200+ took to the air. However, I had noticed a plump little shorebird moments before the flurry of wings and had managed to get on the bird as the ducks and Bonaparte's Gulls headed over to the 3rd pond. It appeared phalarope-like and the white rump combined with a lack of wing stripe clinched the ID as Wilson's Phalarope. After landing on the water for a few minutes, it flew back to the 4th pond and settled on the mudflat with the returning gulls.

Like the Red-necked earlier, this one was also a crisp juvenile, and it remained content to forage in the shallow water with the Lesser Yellowlegs. With the sun at my back I relished this rare opportunity (for me at least) to study a juvenile Wilson's at close range. Unfortunately my camera was at home, so phone-scoping was the order of the day. Wilson's Phalaropes are the least pelagic of the three phalarope species, breeding along ponds throughout the prairies of western North America. Ontario has a few breeding Wilson's Phalaropes including a small population in the prairie-like sedge marshes of the James Bay coast. Migrants can be generally rare to encounter, however.

Wilson's Phalarope - Holland Landing (August 18, 2015)

In the next photo, the Wilson's Phalarope is in the foreground and a Lesser Yellowlegs is feeding behind it. They can look surprisingly similar, especially when wading in moderately deep water, obscuring their legs. The very thin bill, plump white body, and facial pattern easily give it away as a Wilson's if you are looking close enough. The Wilson's also fed much more erratically and even spun around in the water a few times.

Wilson's Phalarope and two Lesser Yellowlegs - Holland Landing (August 18, 2015)

Needless to say I was on the phone with Dave again, and he had to cancel evening plans with his lady once more to race back down to the lagoons. Luckily for him, this will only happen once more this year, as Red Phalarope is the only remaining phalarope to find!

Sunday, 16 August 2015

February 19 and 20, 2015 - Hanabanilla Reservoir, Cayo Santa Maria

February 10-11, 2015 - Viñales Valley
February 10-11, 2015 - hotel birding in the Viñales Valley
February 12, 2015 - Parque Nacional La Guira and Soroa
February 13, 2015 - Reserva Sierra del Rosaria, town of Las Terrazas
February 14, 2015 - Soroa to Zapata
February 15, 2015 - Zapata Swamp
February 16 and 17, 2015 - Trinidad and Ancon Peninsula
February 18, 2015 - the Escambray Mountains
February 19 and 20, 2015 - Hanabanilla Reservoir, Cayo Santa Maria
February 21, 2015 - Cayo Santa Maria
February 22, 2015 - Cayo Santa Maria

The Hanabanilla Dam is an embankment dam along the Hanabanilla River, trapping a quarter billion cubic meters of water in a makeshift lake within a valley. The water is used for hydro generation, and it is in fact the largest generating station in the country. On February 19 we made the short drive over the mountains and down into the valley to take a boat ride across the "lake".

view of the Hanabanilla River

our trustry tour bus

The clouds were threatening and the temperature was a cool 16 degrees or so with a brisk wind. We climbed aboard, spotting a Little Blue Heron and Pied-billed Grebe close to the shoreline.

embarking our vessel

The boat ride was interesting with several nice bird sightings along the way. Scattered small groups of Lesser Scaup and American Coot, both new "trip birds", hugged the shoreline, while we encountered a large group of several hundred birds in a sheltered bay. Most of the ducks were scaup, there were small numbers of Ruddy Ducks and Blue-winged Teals, as well as a single Ringnecked Duck. Later on a Northern Pintail flew over the boat and a pair of tiny Least Grebes kept a cautious eye on us as they swam away from the boat.

After a delicious lunch outside under thatched roofs, several of the group had an opportunity make the 20 minute hike to a lookout point overlooking the reservoir. By this point the sun had came out, making for a pleasant afternoon.


We embarked on our boat once again, making the short trip to the far end of the reservoir where our bus was waiting. From here we left the south part of the country, making good time on the roads to the north coast of Cuba while our guide, Acosta explained the history of the area we were passing through and discussed the Cuban Revolution, including the role that Che Guevara played in it.

By late afternoon we crossed the 40 km or length causeway connecting the mainland to Cayo Santa Maria and surrounding keys. As this was our first taste of the north coast we became acquainted with our first Magnificent Frigatebirds, along with occasional shorebirds on the edge of the causeway. The winds had picked up by the time we arrived at our accomodations, threatening to put an end to our planned catamaran and snorkeling tour the following day.

shoreline of Cayo Santa Maria

Unfortunately the winds hadn't subsided overnight, and the wind and waves had stirred the water to such a degree as to make the visibility during snorkeling futile. Our alternate plan was to bird some of the scrub and wetlands throughout the eastern end of the island.

Wading birds were abundant, with the diversity changing by the hour. Great Egrets always had a strong presence.
Great Egrets - Cayo Santa Maria

Several terns were fishing over the wetlands, providing an opportunity for flight shots.

Royal Tern - Cayo Santa Maria

Royal Tern - Cayo Santa Maria

One of the more popular species of the day was Reddish Egret, a wading bird that is relatively localized in its worldwide distribution, with the Caribbean at the heart of its range.

Reddish Egret - Cayo Santa Maria

Reddish Egret - Cayo Santa Maria

Reddish Egret - Cayo Santa Maria

Some new shorebird species made their way onto the trip list, including Willet, Stilt Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper and a rare in winter Pectoral Sandpiper. Many of the birds were quite approachable, allowing great comparison view in the scope of Stilt Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser Yellowlegs. The 90+ flock of Black-necked Stilts was also nice to scope from close range!

 The duck list also grew, and additions of Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Red-breasted Merganser and American Wigeon left very few "easy" ones to get later.

Perhaps the biggest highlight for many of the clients was the small group of Roseate Spoonbills frequenting the wetlands. The first was nearly hidden, tucked away at the back of the wetland with some egrets, but after a while several more came in, flying low over the group.

Roseate Spoonbill - Cayo Santa Maria

The final new bird was a Sora which called once from the cover of dense vegetation, capping off an enjoyable morning of birding.