Friday, 2 December 2016

2016-2017 Ontario winter bird list

Yesterday marked the first day of winter listing, the period of time running from December 1 until February 28/29 (this season: December 1, 2016 to February 28, 2017). I will be compiling the winter bird list in Ontario again this year, the results of which can be viewed at here. I will also post regular updates on my blog periodically, and will link to the winter list from the "Ontario Winter Bird List" tab (found in the top column above the title of my most recent blog post).

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch at MacDiarmid, Thunder Bay District, Ontario (January 27, 2012)

Approximately 346 species of birds have been recorded in Ontario during the winter period, with usually between 195 and 220 species recorded in a given winter. Last winter 221 species were recorded - our second highest total after the 224 species reported in 2011-2012. Some of the highlights from last winter included Pink-footed Goose, Smew, Northern Fulmar, Great Cormorant,  Rufous Hummingbird, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Vermilion Flycatcher, Cave Swallow, Bullock's Oriole and Eurasian Tree Sparrow.

Vermilion Flycatcher - Wallaceburg, Chatham-Kent, Ontario (December 19, 2015)

Just post your sightings to Ontbirds (if sufficiently rare), or send me an email, and I will update the list accordingly and provide an update to Ontbirds every two weeks or so. That way you can check the list and inform me of any species that have been seen but are not present on the list.

We are off to a great start with the Crested Caracara in Michipicoten providing the first winter record for Ontario. Given the mild weather to start the period I think we have a really great chance of setting a new standard this winter.

Crested Caracara at Michipicoten, Algoma District, Ontario (November 30, 2016)

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Crested Caracara in Wawa(!)

Crested Caracara is a species that for many years few Ontario birders seriously expected to see at some point in their lives. You could count on one hand the number of birders who had seen one in the province - heck, you would only need 3 or 4 fingers.

But in recent years there have been more and more extralimital records of Crested Caracara, particularly north along the eastern seaboard, as well as west into California and up the Pacific coast all the way to southern British Colombia. Numerous states and provinces have added Crested Caracara to their respective lists in recent years, including New Jersey (2012), Nova Scotia (2013) Delaware (2013), Maine (2014), West Virginia (2014), Alberta (2015) and Georgia (2016). I'm sure there are more than a few states/provinces that I have missed. There are a number of old records of Crested Caracara north of their range in North America, however many of those had been rejected on questions of provenance (concern about whether they were wild birds). Crested Caracara seems to have an established trend of vagrancy and perhaps some of these old records should be re-examined. It has been surmised that vagrant Crested Caracaras likely originate from the more numerous Texas populations, though a relatively small population is found in central Florida and could be the origin of some of the records from southeastern states.

Crested Caracara - Michipicoten, Algoma District, Ontario (November 30, 2016)

Ontario even has three prior records, though unfortunately none of these birds were very chase-able. All three records occurred in July, what is typically one of the slowest months of the year for rarities in Ontario. The first was a dead bird found by a lighthouse keeper at Victoria Island, Thunder Bay in 1892; the second, a one-day-wonder only seen by a lucky few on Pelee Island in 1994; and the third, a bird that was observed in the remote First Nations community of Fort Albany for 10 days in 2002.  So when a fellow by the name of Chris Eagles posted a photo of an unknown bird visiting his work site in Wawa, Ontario on November 28, and the photo was seen by a friend (Joanne Redwood, a Hamilton-area birder), identified as a Crested Caracara and posted to the Ontario Birds Facebook group, more than a little excitement was created. Unfortunately the site where Chris had seen the bird was off limits to the public, but the following day he observed it again at the aggregate pit and later it was seen on the lawn of a nearby restaurant. Despite the fact that the bird was not "pinned down" to one location, I quickly began making plans to chase the bird with several other people including Jeremy Bensette, Henrique Pacheco and Steve Charbonneau.

Steve and Jeremy met me at a carpool lot near Guelph late on Tuesday evening, then we picked up Henrique and prepared for a long night of driving. Steve drove most of the way, even though all three of the co-pilots were sound asleep at various points! By 5:00 AM I took over in Sault Ste Marie, and dawn was just breaking as we approached Wawa to begin our search.

We briefly examined the entrance to the aggregate pit, followed by a check of the restaurant property where the bird had also been viewed. We were without luck here, though a Northern Shrike was fun to see. I decided that driving the streets of the small community of Michipicoten would be a good bet, and set off down the familiar road to one of my favorite birding spots of the area. Not five minutes later I was pretty shocked to see a long-legged, black and tan bird with a dark cap walking on a lawn. I guess I was a little casual in pointing out the bird and it took a few seconds for the other guys to clue in that I was serious and indeed the caracara was no more than 50 feet from us!

first views of the Crested Caracara - Michipicoten, Algoma District, Ontario (November 30, 2016)

We frantically took our first few photos of the beast (such as the above photo), attempted to get a hold of the other carload of birders in the area, and posted a quick message to Ontbirds. Finally I was able to call David Pryor, and in minutes Tyler Hoar, Barb Charlton, and David roared up. At this point the caracara was roosting in a tree (digesting the multitude of earthworms it had pulled out of the ground, no doubt), but provided great looks for everyone. We were more than a little excited.

from left to right: Steve Charbonneau, Henrique Pacheco, David Pryor, Barb Charlton

Crested Caracara - Michipicoten, Algoma District, Ontario (November 30, 2016)

Tyler attempted to entice the bird out of the tree first with a road-killed Gray Squirrel, and then by offering up himself to the carrion-loving bird. It did not seem interested!

Tyler Hoar baiting the Crested Caracara

Eventually the caracara decided to resume its feeding, preferring to slurp down the numerous earthworms found in the lawns and on the driveways. It tolerated our approach by vehicle, allowing us a minute or two of point blank photos.

Crested Caracara - Michipicoten, Algoma District, Ontario (November 30, 2016)

Crested Caracara - Michipicoten, Algoma District, Ontario (November 30, 2016)

While David, Tyler and Barb soon left to embark on their long journey home, the four of us (Steve, Jeremy, Henrique and I) stayed for another half hour or so, as the photographic opportunities were just too incredible to pass up. Using the car as a blind, the caracara paid us no mind as it continued to pull out earthworms from the nearby lawns.

Crested Caracara - Michipicoten, Algoma District, Ontario (November 30, 2016)

A Crested Caracara had been present in Michigan for the last few months and there is speculation that this may be that very bird. Like many out of range Crested Caracaras, the Michigan bird was first spotted in mid-summer, and was seen by many birders as it frequented the town of Munising from July 1 to November 12, 2016. Looking at photos of the Munising bird from November 12, it appears to have very similar feather wear on the wing coverts and sure looks like the same bird.

Crested Caracara - Michipicoten, Algoma District, Ontario (November 30, 2016)

It was a very successful chase for us, and I wish good luck for everyone driving up to look for this bird. Crested Caracaras, despite being a species more associated with Central and South America, can be very hearty and have been known to survive extreme cold. If it wishes to continue to eke out an existence in Wawa it will have to make its way over to the nearby landfill where there will be a constant "food" supply all winter. The bird seemed healthy enough during our visit - maybe it will finally figure out which way is south and move to a more hospitable climate before winter really arrives in Wawa.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Created Caracara in Michipicoten, Algoma District

(From my Ontbirds post)

An update on the bird:

After refinding the Caracara in Michipicoten, we watched the bird for about 15 minutes until David Pryor, Barb Charlton and Tyler Hoar arrived, at which point the bird was perched in a tree at the intersection of Whitney Street and Superior Street. After some time the bird flew to the northeast and we relocated it on a lawn located on the south side of Brock Avenue, just west of the intersection with Queen Street. There is a lighthouse shaped shed in the backyard here. It was still walking around on the lawn when we left at 9:40 AM.   

Michipicoten is located on the west side of Highway 17, just south of Wawa. 

Good birding,
Josh Vandermeulen
Jeremy Bensette
Steve Charbonneau
Henrique Pacheco

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Thick-billed Murre chase - Cobden, Ontario

Just before noon on Friday, Burke Korol made an exciting discovery as he was birding Muskrat Lake near Cobden, Ontario (about an hour northwest of Ottawa). The bird he encountered was an alcid, which he subsequently identified as a Thick-billed Murre. Thick-billed Murre breeds in large colonies on rocky cliffs in coastal parts of the Arctic, northern Europe, the Maritimes, Alaska, etc. It is truly a rare bird in Ontario, one that had only 3 records since the 1950s prior to the Cobden bird. Thick-billed Murre would occasionally arrive in Ontario in big numbers every so often, and usually separated by decades. One hypothesis is that these birds were moving west from the Gulf of the St Lawrence because of a change in their distribution or abundance of winter food, though frequently these flights were associated with strong east winds as well. During one of these murre "wrecks", 140 were counted by George North and Bill Gunn on November 26, 1950, an event that Bob Curry summarized in his excellent Birds of Hamilton. The last Thick-billed Murre flight into Ontario was in 1953 - who knows if/when the next one will occur! Since 1953, there have only been three records of Thick-billed Murre in Ontario, each involving single birds.

One of those records pertains to a bird that was discovered in Kingston by Janis Grant on December 3, 2013. That individual stuck around for two days and allowing a large number of birders to add it to their lists. Unfortunately I was working at the time and unable to get away to chase the bird. When word came in that Burke had discovered this bird near Cobden, I quickly made plans to drive up and look for it the very next day - I would not let another one slip by me.

Laura and I had plans on Saturday evening to attend my work holiday party, meaning that I needed to be back by 5:00 PM at the latest. My plan was to leave Niagara Falls at 2:00 AM on Saturday, arrive in Cobden shortly after sunrise, hopefully see the bird, and then race back to southwestern Ontario. Fortunately the plan worked, and the bird co-operated.

Thick-billed Murre - Muskrat Lake, Renfrew County

Thick-billed Murre (foreground) and Common Loon (background) - Muskrat Lake, Renfrew County

The best viewing of the bird was from the end of Summerfield Drive at the south end of the lake, and along with a contingent of Ottawa-area birders I watched the murre as it alternated between resting and diving. Fortunately the bird was well seen from the moment that I arrived at Muskrat Lake, allowing me to spend several hours observing and photographing the individual before I had to depart. Lev Frid and Amanda Guercio soon showed up - it was great to catch up with them - and Jeremy Bensette/Henrique Pacheco also arrived just as I was about to head home. It was a new Ontario bird for them as well.

Thick-billed Murre - Muskrat Lake, Renfrew County

The bird appeared to be in pretty good shape - it was active and alert, frequently diving to presumably catch fish, followed by periods of preening and resting. It is hard to know if it was successful in its fishing and if it will be able to survive for very long here in Ontario, away from the saltwater that it is used to. It is rare for a vagrant Thick-billed Murre in the interior of the continent to last more than 2-3 days. Interestingly it did nothing but preen for the last half hour that I viewed the bird - perhaps this is an indication of its worsening condition? I can only speculate.

Thick-billed Murre - Muskrat Lake, Renfrew County

The Thick-billed Murre can be aged as an immature bird, born earlier this year, by a number of features. These include its relatively small bill and duskier face and throat. Unfortunately the bird was just too distant when I was photographing it, but others managed better photos, such as the ones attached to this checklist.

Thick-billed Murre - Muskrat Lake, Renfrew County
Eventually I had to pull myself away from the murre to embark on the long, 5 or 6 hour drive back. But the murre would not be the only good bird I saw on the day - an Ontbirds post came through about a Plegadis ibis species (either Glossy or White-faced), in a small marsh on the east side of Port Hope. Fortunately my very next exit on the 401 was the Port Hope exit! 10 minutes later I was looking at the ibis, as it tried to blend in with the local Mallard flock.

one of these things is not like the other....

The bird was quite approachable, allowing me to fire off a number of photos from close range. The light, however was somewhat lacking and it was all I could do to take the somewhat OK photos shown in this post. Gloomy weather such as this can be pretty difficult to shoot in, especially given my camera setup, as I really have to push the ISO to come up with a fast enough shutter speed. 

probable Glossy Ibis - Port Hope, Northumberland County

Immature Plegadis ibises can be quite difficult to identify, and some individuals may not be identifiable at all. However I think this bird shows some features that look ok for Glossy Ibis, as opposed to White-faced Ibis. I would appreciate if anyone more experienced in immature ibis identification can chime in!

probable Glossy Ibis - Port Hope, Northumberland County

This is one of the latest ibises to show up in Ontario, though there are a handful of previous November records. I remember Alan Wormington once telling me about a long-staying Glossy Ibis that he eventually saw in early December for his "Winter List", but I do not have details of that record handy.

probable Glossy Ibis - Port Hope, Northumberland County

Despite the late date, this individual looked quite at home with the Mallards at this small wetland, successfully grabbing small fish periodically while I watched. Fortunately the weather will remain above the freezing mark for the next little while, but eventually it will be forced to vacate the province if it wishes to survive until next year. 

probable Glossy Ibis - Port Hope, Northumberland County

At one point I noticed the ibis training a wary eye to the sky (a distant gull was flying over) - I guess even heron-type birds have to constantly be vigilant of predators, especially duck-sized ones like ibises. 

probable Glossy Ibis - Port Hope, Northumberland County

Unfortunately my time with the ibis was short due to my obligations that evening, but the 15 minutes with the bird was well worth it. It was a rare opportunity to study one at such close range in Ontario, and I was happy to take a few ok photos as well. Previously my only photos I had of Plegadis ibises in Ontario consisted of very poor digiscoped shots of the bird that Tyler Hoar found at Oshawa Second Marsh last autumn, so it was nice to improve on those. 

Monday, 21 November 2016

2012 Big Year - list update

Back in 2012 I completed a Big Year in Ontario, finishing up with 344 species. It was an incredible year and I observed a lot of interesting species, however I have come to the understanding that I likely observed one fewer species than I claimed. Some of you may recall the California Gull that was present on the Niagara River from January 29 until February 20, 2012 which was found by Jim Pawlicki. I subsequently reported the bird on February 9 from the Adam Beck power plants, and thought I photographed the bird as well.

Looking back at my photos, it appears that the bird I had claimed as the California Gull was in fact not a California Gull - it was most likely a Herring Gull that appears to have a slightly darker mantle than the surrounding birds due to its angle, and several other features do not add up as well. Four and a half years later, I cannot remember if I simply photographed the wrong bird, or if I indeed misidentified the California Gull. Unfortunately I did not see any other California Gulls during 2012, so I have decided to remove it from my list. I guess we all make mistakes...

As such, my Ontario year list for 2012 now stands at 343. I guess it will make it incrementally easier when someone inevitably comes along and beats the record!

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Back from Netitishi Point

Todd and I have returned from the windswept shores of James Bay after an awesome three weeks of northern Ontario birding. As usual for this under-birded part of Ontario, we were fortunate in observing a variety of species considered unusual for the area, as well as most of the regular species which are rare in the "Banana Belt" of southwestern Ontario where I live.

We observed five species on the Ontario Bird Records Committee (OBRC) review list for the Lowlands region of Ontario, including:
- Eurasian Wigeon - 1 male on Nov 3
- Harlequin Duck - 3 female types on Oct 30
- Western Sandpiper - 1 on Oct 30
- Sabine's Gull - 1 adult on Nov 11
- Lesser Black-backed Gull - 1 adult on Oct 31

Harlequin Ducks - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District (October 28, 2016)

Additionally, a Western/Clark's Grebe was observed on Nov 11. If accepted by the OBRC this will be a new species pair for the Lowlands review list. In my original Ontbirds post I mentioned this bird was a Western Grebe; however I am not positive that I can eliminate Clark's Grebe, as unlikely as it is with no prior records for Ontario, based on the looks that I had of the bird.

The following observations are of species generally considered rare in this part of Ontario:
- 2 male Canvasbacks on Nov 2
- 1 Red-necked Grebe on Nov 5
- 1 Purple Sandpiper on Nov 5, 2 on Nov 8
- 1 Red Phalarope on Nov 9
- 5 sightings of Black Guillemot on 3 different days (Nov 6, Nov 8, Nov 9)

Birds that were fairly late included:
- 11 Snow Geese on Nov 9
- 1 male Gadwall on Nov 8
- 2 Surf Scoter on Nov 11
- 4 Hooded Mergansers on Oct 31
- 1 adult Double-created Cormorant on Nov 9
- 1 juvenile Northern Goshawk on Nov 14
- 1 adult American Golden-Plover continuing until Nov 7
- 1 Pectoral Sandpiper on Oct 30
- 1 Golden-crowned Kinglet continuing until Nov 7
- 1 Ruby-crowned Kinglet on Oct 29
- 2 American Pipit on Oct 31
- 9 American Tree Sparrows on Nov 1, and 1 staying until Nov 7

As expected given the time of year, Gyrfalcons were regular and we finished with sightings on five days, involving at least four different birds. All of the expected boreal birds were accounted for, including Spruce Grouse, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Black-backed Woodpecker, Bohemian Waxwing, Evening Grosbeak (not actually too common in southern James Bay), Pine Grosbeak and Hoary Redpoll. Snowy Owls were frequently seen during the second half of the trip and one highlight was watching one repeated dive-bombed by a Gyrfalcon.

American Three-toed Woodpecker - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District (November 6, 2016)

The dominant wind direction at southern James Bay in the autumn is southwest in my experience, and this trend continued throughout this trip as we experienced southwesterly winds on all but four days. Strong southwest winds and warm weather occurred during November 6 and 7, with the temperature reaching a balmy 16 degrees on November 7. This caused numerous insects to be seen including several Mourning Cloaks, though we were unable to find any birds with southern origins associated with this weather event.

Mourning Cloak - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District (November 6, 2016)

A moderate northwest wind on November 3 instigated a good waterbird flight that included 4681 Brant, 3755 Northern Pintail, 102 American Wigeon, 89 Green-winged Teal, 1710 Dunlin, etc. Strong northwest winds on November 11 also caused a good flight dominated by scoters and Long-tailed Ducks, though we also observed 25 King Eiders (35 total were seen on our trip) and the aforementioned Sabine's Gull and Western/Clark's Grebe.

Finally, while not bird related, we had a couple of interesting mammal sightings. These included a Bearded Seal on Nov 10 and a Beluga on November 14. Ringed Seals were not observed despite usually being somewhat common at this location.

Arriving back in Moosonee on November 14, Todd and I stashed our gear at the local restaurant in town and went for a walk to the sewage lagoons and dump to see what was happening. We discovered a Mountain Bluebird at a cemetery located only a few hundred meters from the sewage lagoons - a rarity in Ontario, and in particular the Lowlands, with only one prior record (also of a bird in Moosonee), from May 8-11, 2011. We watched the little beaut for about 10 minutes as it foraged and perched on the headstones, before it flew up over the poplars towards the lagoons. For some reason I had decided to do the walk sans 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. While Todd walked to the lagoons to search for the bluebird I hopped in a taxi to take me back into town to fetch my camera, returning an hour or so later. Unfortunately we couldn't re-find it despite spending the rest of the afternoon looking.

It was an awesome trip and I will be posting daily summaries in the upcoming weeks - stay tuned.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Quest for 400 - part 2

This post likely holds interest to only a select few - other birders who keep track of their respective state/province lists and try to add to them.

On January 14, 2014 I wrote a post titled "Quest for 400" where I predicted what bird species I would observe in Ontario to reach my goal of 400 species.. It was an idea that I had stolen from Brandon's blog. For those interested, Brandon's original post can be found here, and his update is located here. Since I will be on James Bay for three weeks with no internet access, I thought I would make a few pre-written posts that will auto-post on the blog....and this is one of them!

At the time of my original post, my Ontario list was 364, and now 2.75 years later it has climbed to 379. So let's get right to it - how well have I predicted the new additions? Here are my 15 additions in the past couple of years:

1. Smith's Longspur
2. Lark Bunting
3. Eurasian Collared-Dove
4. White Ibis
5. Eurasian Tree Sparrow
6. Mottled Duck
7. Wilson's Plover
8. Little Egret
9. Say's Phoebe
10. Pink-footed Goose
11. Bullock's Oriole
12. Vermilion Flycatcher
13. Black-necked Stilt
14. Ruff
15. Common Ringed Plover

Vermilion Flycatcher - Wallaceburg, Ontario (December 19, 2015)

In my original post, I figured that there were 25 species I was most likely to add while on my way to 400 (we will call them "Code 1" birds), and then I guessed 11 more species to round out the list to 400 ("Code 2" birds). I also provided a list of 18 other potential species which I guess you could call the "Code 3" birds. Out of my 15 additions in the time since, only 7 were "Code 1" species: Ruff, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Lark Bunting, Say's Phoebe, Black-necked Stilt, Smith's Longspur and Vermilion Flycatcher. A single "Code 2" species was added - Pink-footed Goose. And 2 "Code 3" birds were added - Bullock's Oriole and White Ibis.  The remaining 5 species you could say were not on my radar at all - Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Mottled Duck, Wilson's Plover, Little Egret and Common Ringed Plover.

Wilson's Plover - Toronto Islands, Ontario  (May 28, 2015)

I am now 21 species away from 400. What are the remaining "Code 1" birds? Well, I am going to cheat and create a new list of "Code 1" birds, since I think some of my guesses from the original post aren't that great...Here is the revised list of the Code 1 species - 10 birds which I think that I will add to my Ontario list before reaching 400.

1. Swainson's Hawk
2. Tufted Duck
3. Rufous Hummingbird
4. Ivory Gull
5. Swallow-tailed Kite
6. Tricolored Heron
7. Northern Wheatear
8. Cinnamon Teal
9. Barnacle Goose
10. Ash-throated Flycatcher

Swallow-tailed Kite - Nusagandi, Panama (March 14, 2014)

To get to 400 I will need another 11 species in addition to the 10 listed above. Here are my guesses:

Ross's Gull
Sage Thrasher
Western Wood-Pewee
Swainson's Warbler
Willow Ptarmigan
Ancient Murrelet
Snowy Plover
Fork-tailed Flycatcher
Black-headed Grosbeak
Gray Kingbird

In my original post I predicted that I would be 32 when I saw my 400th species for the province. I have been averaging about 5 new additions a year for the past four years, though that rate will no doubt decrease as fewer and fewer possibilities remain out there. If I am able to maintain a pace of 4 new birds per year, than it will likely take 5 or 6 more years until I see species #400, or when I am 31 or 32.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Five rarities that will show up at Netitishi (eventually!)

By the time this auto-posts, Todd and I will have been on the coast of James Bay for a week, if all had gone to plan.

I've touched on the potential for rare birds to show up in southern James Bay in the past (in nearly every post I write about Netitishi, probably). Every expedition to Netitishi Point has found several notable species, some of which had few or no records for Ontario. But potential remains for a wide variety of seabirds and other ocean-going species which would be considered mega-rares if and when they are found. While it is unlikely that any of these will be seen on this year's trip, I am sure that the following species do show up or fly by from time to time. The question of course is whether anyone will be stationed at Netitishi Point when they do make an appearance!

Great Skua
This big arctic bully breeds in Scandinavia, Iceland and the UK, wintering throughout the north Atlantic where they terrorize gulls for fish and other scraps. Great Skuas regularly make it all the way to North American waters where they are not too unusual of a sight on east coast pelagics during autumn and winter. Given their tendency to wander, they likely make it to Hudson's Bay from time to time.

Great Shearwater
Like most seabirds, Great Shearwaters are known to wander over great distances. They breed in Tristan da Cunha and surrounding islands, located halfway between Africa and South America in the south Atlantic, and are one of few bird species to migrate to the northern hemisphere after completing their southern hemisphere breeding. Great Shearwaters are one of the most frequently observed tubenoses in the north Atlantic and regularly wander into Baffin Bay and further into the arctic. There are several records from western Hudson Bay.

Leach's Storm-Petrel
This species has been observed once previously in southern James Bay - a bird that Alan Wormington found on October 8, 1981 at the Attawapiskat waterfront. This is another super-abundant Atlanic tubenose species that is prone to wander.

Yellow-billed Loon
Thousands of loons migrate past Netitishi Point every year, yet most are too distant to see much detail on. The interesting thing about Yellow-billed is that their Arctic breeding range comes close to the western shore of Hudson's Bay and individuals were detected in northern Manitoba during the recent breeding bird atlas. While Yellow-billed Loons winter off the coast of Alaska, this species is prone to vagrancy and there are records throughout much of the lower 48 and southern Canada. It wouldn't take much for one to fly southeast instead of west, and follow the coast of Hudson's Bay into James Bay.

Ross's Gull
This is one species that should fly past Netitishi relatively frequently, I would think. This Arctic breeder, one of the most sought after of North American birds, is known to occasionally wander south into southern Canada and the United States, as well as into western Europe. In fact Ontario has almost a dozen records already, including the first provincial record which was a bird that Ken Abraham found in Moosonee in May, 1983. These gulls are fairly distinctive and should be a relatively straightforward identification if they are within ~2 km of land. In later October and November any small gull species is rare at Netitishi Point and will be scrutinized.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Back to Netitishi Point, James Bay

The motel in Smooth Rock Falls is booked, train tickets for the Polar Bear Express to Moosonee have been purchased, and the reservations has been made with the helicopter company. I am heading back up to southern James Bay on a three week birding trip, leaving on Thursday!

I have also decided to change the banner photo for the blog, as the Semipalmated Sandpiper photo was getting a little has been replaced with a white morph Gyrfalcon from the 2013 expedition to Netitishi Point.

Netitishi Point camp - photo by Alan Wormington

This will be my fourth time visiting the southern James Bay coast in the autumn to look for migrating birds. Joining me for this adventure will be good friend Todd Hagedorn - a rookie to southern James Bay birding, though a budding naturalist with a thirst for adventure who is just as excited as I am.

Lapland Longspur - Netitishi Point (September 26, 2014)

Below is a map to Netitishi Point, located 35 km due east of Moosonee at the very bottom of James Bay. 

Netitishi is a small, raised point that is covered in tall spruces, a contrast to the surrounding coastline, which consists predominately of willows, alders and small tamaracks. Because of its location at the bottom of the bay, it is an ideal location to seawatch when the conditions are great as the coastline funnels the birds down to the bottom of the bay before they continue south at the mouth of the Harricana River, over the boreal forest towards their destination of the Great Lakes or Atlantic Coast. 

migrating Brant at Netitishi Point (October 29, 2012)

Netitishi Point is one of the few accessible locations in Ontario where it is possible to see ocean species since James Bay is connected to the Atlantic Ocean. That being said, the only "regular" ocean birds that are seen in southern James Bay include Black Guillemot (and even these are not guaranteed on a 2 week long trip), though there are a handful of other species that show up from time to time. Most of the Ontario records of Northern Fulmar, for instance have come from southern James Bay while Northern Gannet and Dovekie also appear to have an established pattern of occurrence. Other rare seabirds that have been seen at Netitishi Point include Sooty/Short-tailed Shearwater, large alcid sp. (likely a Thick-billed Murre) and Ivory Gull, all this in only about 10-12 trips that have taken place to Netitishi over the years. Of course, there is the chance of coming across something really wacky at Netitishi if the stars align. 

coastline east of Netitishi Point

The tall spruces also serve to shelter birds seeking refuge, as well as draw them in from a large radius since the forested point is noticeable from quite a distance. In the few visits birders have made to Netitishi, an excellent variety of rare songbirds have been found. 

Western Kingbird at Netitishi Point (November 1, 2012)

This year's trip will be later in the autumn than my previous trips - we are scheduled to be on the coast from October 28 to November 13, while on previous trips the latest that I have stayed was November 3. I am hoping that our odds of finding a "later season" bird like Dovekie, Thick-billed Murre, or Ivory Gull will be increased by going this late. 

The later date will, however, decrease our chances of finding interesting vagrant songbirds. By early November, even finding a Dark-eyed Junco or American Robin is somewhat notable! That being said, there are some later records of songbirds from Netitishi Point including:

-Field Sparrow - October 28 - November 2, 1996 (Roy Smith, Glenn Coady, Hugh Currie, David Tannahill
-Varied Thrush - November 10 -15, 2010 (Brandon Holden, Alan Wormington)
-Western Kingbird - November 1, 2012 (Josh Vandermeulen, Alan Wormington)
-Townsend's Solitaire - October 31, 2013 (Josh Vandermeulen, Alan Wormington)

Townsend's Solitaire - Netitishi Point (October 31, 2013)

This trip will be a little different than my three previous trips, as it will be the first time that I will not be accompanied by the late Alan Wormington. Alan was the person who opened my eyes to birding in northern Ontario. We went on three excellent expeditions to the coast, and I have many great memories from these trips. 

Alan Wormington at Netitishi Point (October 27, 2013)

Even without any rarities Netitishi Point is a spectacular place to visit. It is a ruggedly beautiful location for starters, and completely isolated from the outside world. On my first trip to Netitishi Point, I was there to look for rarities, first and foremost. In the years since, my priorities for visiting Netitishi have changed somewhat. While the rarities are still the main draw, experiencing the peace and solitude of Netitishi Point has increased in importance to me. There is something to be said about spending 2-3 weeks alone on the James Bay coast, with little to no communication to the outside world, and living in a cabin heated by a wood stove with no running water or electricity.

Many of the common bird species are ones that we don't see too often in southern Ontario, including Pine Grosbeak, Spruce Grouse, Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee, and American Three-toed Woodpecker. Gyralcons are often fairly regular in late October and November - I have seen a total of six on my previous trips.

Gyrfalcon at Netitishi Point (October 30, 2013)

The shorebird spectacle on James Bay is quite something, even in late October and November. In southern Ontario shorebird diversity dwindles by early November, yet it is still possible to get 8-10 shorebird species a day at Netitishi Point! Some of the species I have recorded on James Bay on October 30 or later include Baird's Sandpiper, American Golden-Plover, Semipalmated Sandpiper and Hudsonian Godwit, species that are all fairly rare in southern Ontario by that date. Sanderling, a species that is virtually absent in southern Ontario by late October, will linger in large flocks on James Bay until freeze up. For instance on October 28, 2012 we counted 350 Sanderling at Netitishi Point. It is not too unusually to see Red Phalarope or Purple Sandpiper in November as well.

Baird's Sandpiper at Netitishi Point (October 27, 2012)

The mammals up here are also quite intriguing - we have seen Ringed Seal, Beluga, Gray Wolf and River Otter on previous trips, as well as tracks and scat of Woodland Caribou and Black Bear. I have heard rumors of a few Polar Bear sightings on the southern James Bay coast over the past few months - a species I have never seen before, though one I have wanted to see for years. We are very cognizant of the very real danger of Polar Bears and will be taking every safety precaution.

Ringed Seal at Netitishi Point (October 23, 2012)

Red Fox at Netitishi Point (October 28, 2013)

Wish us luck, and hopefully we will have an interesting report upon our return in mid-November.  

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Le Conte's Sparrow(s) in Mississauga

On Monday morning while dutifully birding Marie Curtis Park in Mississauga, Dave Pryor encountered a Le Conte's Sparrow skulking in the long grass. Dave had been checking this park daily as good numbers of sparrows and other songbirds often can be found there, and this was the second Ammodramus sparrow that Dave had found there in less than 10 days, after a Nelson's Sparrow that he found on October 8.

I am a huge Toronto Blue Jays fan and have been trying to attend as many postseason games as I can this year, so of course I had tickets to game 3 (Don't ask me how that game went). I had about half an hour of time to search for the Le Conte's prior to meeting up with Dan Riley for the game, but unfortunately it remained hidden during my brief vigil.

The following morning, it was reported that the sparrow was still present so I was determined to try again for it on my way home. Le Conte's Sparrow is a species that I have seen in each of the past five years, but normally my sightings are of birds on the breeding grounds in northern Ontario, as well as autumn migrants while on birding trips to the Thunder Bay area or to James Bay. My only previous sighting for southern Ontario was a bird that Dan Salisbury had discovered on I believe April 30, 2012 at Point Pelee.

Le Conte's Sparrow - Marie Curtis Park, Mississauga

Luckily the Le Conte's Sparrow was easily located as 20+ birders had it cornered in some long grass when I arrived at the stakeout. It was rather shy as they tend to be, but eventually provided excellent looks as it peered at all of us from within the grasses. Eventually I was able to photograph it, though not well as there were too many grasses in the way and the light wasn't ideal.

Le Conte's Sparrow - Marie Curtis Park, Mississauga (October 18, 2016)

The bird can be aged as an adult due to the brightness of its plumage; particularly, the bright orange supercilium and upper breast. Immature birds are much duller with muted colours and more extensive streaking on the underparts.

Le Conte's Sparrow - Marie Curtis Park, Mississauga (Ocotber 18, 2016)

It was brought to my attention in an email thread with Garth Riley, Reuven Martin and David Pryor that most of the photos of the bird from October 17 (the day that David Pryor found it) show an immature Le Conte's Sparrow, while most of the photos from October 18 show an adult bird (the one I photographed). 

Below are a few eBird checklists from October 17 with embedded photos of the immature bird. In particular, notice the extensive streaking on the upperparts (including the center of the upper breast), dull, pale yellow breast (compared to bright orange on the adult bird), and yellowish supercilium with some streaking through it (compared to solid orange supercilium on the adult) among other features. Due to the wet conditions, the bird appeared a lot darker than it would with dry feathers, but the differences are still quite noticeable.  

Below is a photo of an immature Le Conte's Sparrow that I snapped at the Abitibi Canyon, Cochrane District on September 25, 2014. Note how dull and plain this bird is, much like the immature Le Conte's Sparrow photographed in the eBird links above. Of course conditions were dry so it is not as dark as the immature Le Conte's Sparrow from Marie Curtis Park.

immature Le Conte's Sparrow  - Abitibi Canyon, Cochrane District (September 25, 2014)

Dave Pryor mentioned to me in an email that when he first saw the bird on October 17, he noticed how bright it was, but when he subsequently re-found it a short time later on October 17 it was duller, which he attributed to the rain and poor light. Dave speculated that perhaps both birds were present on October 17, but that it was impossible for him to say. 

At any rate, thanks Dave for finding such a great bird (or birds?) for southern Ontario that myself and many others were able to enjoy! Perhaps the most important takeaway is that Marie Curtis Park provides excellent meadow habitat that is utilized by a wide range of species, including Ammodramus sparrows. It is one of the few remaining places along this part of the north shore of Lake Ontario that provides good meadow habitat, an extremely important type that is frequently destroyed for more "aesthetically pleasing" land uses such as manicured grass. Hopefully this does not happen and Marie Curtis Park can continue to provide meadow to a wide range of migratory songbirds in the future.