Saturday, 25 May 2019

A search for two rare butterflies

On May 17 I headed back down to Point Pelee for my last weekend of watching bird migration before my work schedule began to swing into high gear. I could have driven down to be there mid-morning on Friday but I decided to take my time and explore a few other areas on my way down. The forecast was looking sunny and warm and two rare butterfly species beckoned.

My first stop was a location in north Halton Region that is known to have a population of West Virginia Whites. This species is an uncommon resident species in Ontario, known from several widely scattered populations. It requires rich deciduous woods that contain its main footplant - Two-leaved Toothwort. West Virginia Whites only fly for a month or so in early spring and it was a species I had never searched for before since their flight period coincides with peak bird migration.

I arrived at my destination to the sound of a Yellow-throated Vireo singing from above a roadside wetland. The morning was still cool and a stubborn array of clouds just wouldn't clear away but I was hopeful that the butterflies would begin to flutter by within an hour or two as the day warmed.

Long-spurred Violet - Milton, Halton Region

Large White Trillium - Milton, Halton Region

Red Trillium - Milton, Halton Region

Downy Yellow Violet - Milton, Halton Region

Spring ephemeral wildflowers were at their peak and I thoroughly enjoyed walking along with my eyes to the ground, observing the spread of flowers in front of me. Two-leaved Toothwort, the host plant for West Virginia White, was quite common along with many other species.

Two-leaved Toothwort - Milton, Halton Region


Red Trillium - Milton, Halton Region


Canada Violet - Milton, Halton Region


Early Blue Cohosh - Milton, Halton Region


Some rustling off the path alerted me to the presence of a North American Porcupine. It took a minute before the porcupine appeared to realize that I was only six meters away, which caused it to ruffle its spines on its back and tail, and shuffle off. This was my first excellent look at a porcupine in several years. I love their spiny mohawk!

North American Porcupine - Milton, Halton Region


I walked for over two hours, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells. The clouds were long gone at this point and it was turning into one of those perfect mornings: sunny and warm (but not too warm), calm, many birds - migrant and resident species alike - singing from the canopy, flowers in bloom, no biting insects, and signs of life everywhere one looked. If only I could find a West Virginia White to make it a perfect morning.

Eastern Gartersnake - Milton, Halton Region


Unfortunately it was not to be, despite the excellent conditions, and I headed back to my car to continue on. The only butterflies I had been able to turn up were azures, an Eastern Comma and a Mourning Cloak. 

Azure sp. - Milton, Halton Region


I was about 100 meters from my car when I caught sight of a white butterfly casually flitting above a bed of wildflowers. Indeed, it was my target species. Over the next 10 minutes I followed the butterfly as it loped around, pausing periodically to rest.

West Virginia White - Milton, Halton Region


West Virginia White - Milton, Halton Region


West Virginia White looks very similar to the more widespread Mustard White, another denizen of rich deciduous woods in southern Ontario. It is best told apart from that species by the pattern of the veins on the underside of the wings. The spring form of Mustard White is quite different looking from below due to dark scaling on the veins, and shouldn't be confused with West Virginia White if one has a good look. Cabbage White, an invasive species that is one of the most common butterflies in southern Ontario, is also superficially similar to West Virginia White. The dark tips to the forewing and dark spot(s)  in the middle of the forewing on Cabbage White separate that species from West Virginia White, with its clean white wings. Cabbage White is also more likely to be found in waste areas, parklands and other open habitats.

West Virginia White - Milton, Halton Region


Spurred on by my success I returned to my car to continue my journey. I thought about heading straight to Point Pelee but decided to detour for one more special butterfly. I was feeling lucky.

For two hours I explored several tracts of land in the Long Point area, hoping to come across a rare skipper called Sleepy Duskywing. I did not have exact location information for this species but explored some general areas where I knew they were present. The day had become quite warm at this point with a breeze and butterflying was difficult. The most common species, by far, was Eastern Pine Elfin, of which I saw perhaps 15. Several American Coppers were also noted.

Eastern Pine Elfin - Norfolk County

American Copper - Norfolk County

I was not able to confirm Sleepy Duskywing but I may have seen some. White visiting one open, sandy area surrounded by oaks, I flushed at least two individual duskywings on a couple of occasions. They were both extremely skittish and difficult to stay on in flight, and I never had a confirming look through binoculars. Given the habitat and their behaviour they were likely Sleepy Duskywings. I guess I will have to return at a later date to finally nail down this species!

I watched a number of tiger beetles in a sandy patch, and took photos of several individuals. Tiger beetles are a fun group to study since they are readily observable, there is a nice variety of species in Ontario (but it is not overwhelming), and many of them have unique patterns and colors. 

Festive Tiger Beetle - Long Point area, Norfolk County

Festive Tiger Beetle - Long Point area, Norfolk County
Bronzed Tiger Beetle  - Long Point area, Norfolk County


Festive Tiger Beetle - Long Point area, Norfolk County

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Pelee weekend part 2 - Goatsuckers and more

The big news on the Saturday was the presence of not one, not two, but three species of Caprimulgidae found roosting in the park. These birds are sometimes referred to as goatsuckers due to an old belief that they sucked the milk from goats, but in reality these cryptic, crepuscular critters prefer to eat moths and other insects. In Ontario we have two regular species - the Eastern Whip-poor-will and Common Nighthawk - the former more easily heard than seen, and the latter most commonly seen at dawn and dusk as it hawks insects overhead. Day-roosting Eastern Whip-poor-wills and Common Nighthawks are occasionally reported at Point Pelee during the spring on day-roosts, allowing many birders to enjoy great views of these normally hard to see birds. The third species of Caprimulgidae that we occasionally detect in Ontario is the Chuck-will's-widow. The largest of the three species, Chucks are found to the south of us but sometimes appear in the spring far north of their range. They have even attempted nesting in Ontario on occasion.

Chuck-will's-widow - Point Pelee National Park


The Chuck-will's-widow, shown above, was found perched on a log just north of Sparrow Field. This is possibly the same bird that Ken and Mike Burrell had found along the park road near here during the previous morning (they only saw it in flight). I was pretty excited to finally see this species well in Ontario, and to obtain my first photos of it (my 377th photographed species in Ontario). Previously I had only seen two - an individual that flew over the road near the Carden Alvar on June 20, 2010, and a bird calling at dusk north of the Visitor's Centre parking lot at Point Pelee on May 3, 2012.

The Eastern Whip-poor-will was found roosting close to the ground just off of the main road, south of the Visitor's Centre. These were the best views I had ever had of the species.

Eastern Whip-poor-will - Point Pelee National Park


After seeing the Chuck earlier in the day it was great to have a nice comparison with a Whip. The size difference is super noticeable, as are some plumage and structural details, that I doubt I would ever confuse a Chuck for a Whip now, if I came across one sometime.

Eastern Whip-poor-will - Point Pelee National Park


Common Nighthawks are the most likely goatsucker to be seen at Point Pelee in mid to late May. This one had been found by others roosting high up in a tree at Sleepy Hollow.

Common Nighthawk - Point Pelee National Park

Other than the goatsuckers there were many highlights on another busy morning of birding in the park. We saw several rare warblers,  including a Cerulean Warbler feeding on insects on the ground, only a few feet away from us just south of the Visitor's Centre, and a Worm-eating Warbler along the Redbud Footpath. 

Cerulean Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Cerulean Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Earlier in the day, Dave, Josh and I had walked some of the trails on the west side of the park. It was fairly birdy with many warblers, but the highlight for us was a sharp Clay-colored Sparrow on the beach near Black Willow. 

Clay-colored Sparrow - Point Pelee National Park

Speaking of sparrows, last weekend marked the transition where White-crowned Sparrows outnumbered White-throated Sparrows. White-throated is an earlier migrant and numbers have certainly dwindled, but White-crowned are now going strong. 


White-crowned Sparrow - Point Pelee National Park

Just after finishing up our lunch at Birdie's Perch, I received a notification that Henrique Pacheco had just discovered a Summer Tanager along Point Pelee Drive near Freddy's restaurant. I was only a minute away and raced over there, seeing the Summer Tanager well with several others. Henrique had a pretty good start to his Point Pelee visit, as he later found a Yellow-breasted Chat and Kentucky Warbler that evening in the park!

Summer Tanager - Point Pelee Drive, Leamington

Summer Tanager - Point Pelee Drive, Leamington

Following a check of the onion fields and Hillman Marsh, we headed back into the park and met up with Dan Riley and Nikki Huculiak for an evening walk at DeLaurier. It was relatively birdy for the time of day, though we did not turn up any rarities. A Green Heron was hunting not far from the boardwalk, providing awesome views. 

Green Heron - Point Pelee National Park

The following morning was a beautiful day to be out, but it appeared that many of the songbirds from the previous day had vacated the park. I met up with Kory Renaud around the tip and walked back up to the Visitor's Centre, though it was rather slow for birds. One highlight was a Yellow-breasted Chat at the Botham Loop, but it neglected to stick around for very long. There were a lot of birders walking around aimlessly all morning, waiting for their phones to ping, but there was not much reported early on. Josh, Dave and I met up with Jeremy Hatt later in the the morning and had an excellent walk along some of the trails on the west side of the park. While we did not turn up anything crazy, it was great to see decent numbers of warblers, which included a Blue-winged and a Brewster's (hybrid with Golden-winged). A bit later, we wandered into Tilden's Woods as there had been several Canada Warblers reported, and it was one of the few species we had not yet crossed paths with.

Canada Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

One of the Canada Warblers was foraging on the ground, oblivious to the birders and photographers, like so many other warblers this weekend. Again, the best views I've ever had of the species.

Canada Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

At one point I was crouched along the side of the trail taking its photo when it started walking towards me. It ended up walking right underneath me as I crouched!

Canada Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

A few more photos of the beaut...

Canada Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Canada Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

We noticed several warblers (mostly Nashville Warblers and Tennessee Warblers) along with many Ruby-throated Hummingbirds feeding on Prickly Gooseberry nectar. When insects are scarce, nectar will do in a pinch!

Tennessee Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Tennessee Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

The clock was ticking and it was soon time for me to head home to Niagara. However, a brief chat with Jeremy Bensette convinced me to walk back to Sparrow Field, as the Chuck-will's-widow had been refound and was roosting in a more photography-friendly location. Along the way, a cheeky American Redstart stopped me in my tracks for a brief photoshoot.

American Redstart - Point Pelee National Park

It was a good decision to see the Chuck again, as I was the only one there initially and was able to enjoy the bird for a good five minutes before others arrived. It was super easy to find, roosting right beside the trail.

Chuck-will's-widow - Point Pelee National Park

Chuck-will's-widow - Point Pelee National Park

An Acadian Flycatcher that Jeremy Bensette had found was nearby, so I paused to check it out on my way back to the Visitor's Centre. It was great to have an opportunity to study this species from eye-level, even if it was a little distant at the time.

Acadian Flycatcher - Point Pelee National Park

And with that, it was time to head back. But wait! Kory Renaud had just rediscovered the Piping Plover at Seacliff Beach in Leamington so I dropped in briefly before continuing on.

Piping Plover - Seacliff Beach, Leamington

And that's all she wrote. Another great Pelee weekend in the books!

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Pelee weekend part 1 - insane warbler day

On Thursday afternoon I hit the road, pointing my car southwest to Essex County. Two good friends of mine, Josh Mandell and David Szmyr, were heading down from Barrie to Point Pelee for their annual trip. They were a few hours ahead of me, but we had all day Friday, Saturday, and most of Sunday to bird together. Previous days in the park had seen an epic migration out of the park one morning, and a ridiculous reverse migration at the tip during another morning, along with a nice sprinkling of rarities like Kirtland's Warblers, Yellow-throated Warblers, a Eurasian Collared-Dove, LeConte's Sparrow, Yellow-headed Blackbird and more appearing in the park. Needless to say we had high hopes for the weekend!

My first stop of the trip occurred before I even left Niagara. A Summer Tanager had been seen for a couple of days along 40 Mile Creek in Grimsby, feeding regularly in a backyard feeder along the edge of the ravine. Summer Tanagers are a regular spring overshoot in southern Ontario, but in Niagara there are often several years between records. I had never viewed one in Niagara so it was a priority.

Summer Tanager - 40 Mile Creek, Grimsby, Niagara Region

I put on my rubber boots (the parking lot and part of the pathway was flooded) and hiked over to the area where it was reported. I hardly waited five minutes before the Red-winged Redbird appeared and began feeding. Success! With the clock ticking, I enjoyed the views, snapped a couple of photos, and hiked back out, stopping to chat with Rich Poort for a few minutes on my way out.

The long drive passed by and I was soon in the Rondeau area, where I made a couple of quick stops. At Keith McLean Conservation Area the Glossy Ibis did not show, but it was great to walk around with Greg Stroud who I had never met in person before. I also made a brief stop at the Blenheim lagoons as a band of rain passed through and enjoyed viewing the Eared Grebe in the northwest cell. That evening we went for dinner/drinks at Armando's Pizza in Leamington with some friends and went to bed.

By all accounts, Friday was a spectacular day of birding at Point Pelee. Josh, Dave and I birded together, sometimes meeting up with others, and walked the trails in the south end of the park for the entire day. The birding was just that good! The insane birding day from Thursday was over, but many of Thursday's birds lingered, augmented by new arrivals from the south. The temperatures were a bit chilly and many songbirds were foraging on the ground.

Bay-breasted Warbler - Point Pelee National Park


Rose-breasted Grosbeak - Point Pelee National Park

American Redstart - Point Pelee National Park


Philadelphia Vireo - Point Pelee National Park


One of the stars of the day was a Kentucky Warbler that had been found in Tilden's Woods about 3 days previously. It was still around this morning, entertaining birders and photographers alike (and even "muggles" walking by). In the mid-morning Josh, Dave, Rick Mayos and I ventured over there for our fill! Rick had seen the bird several times previously but was happy to check it out once more.

Kentucky Warbler - Point Pelee National Park
 
This one is probably my favorite image I took of the Kentucky. We kept having to back up because the bird was too close!

Kentucky Warbler - Point Pelee National Park


While viewing the warbler, an alert went out to the Point Pelee Whatsapp group about a Swallow-tailed Kite flying over the Ander's footpath area, immediately to the north. I think Dwayne Murphy had the bird first, then the Rileys over Cactus Field. All down the peninsula, people's phones pinged and they rushed to open areas with good sight-lines. Because I have the app muted on my phone (I hate getting 50+ notifications a day from the group, having to pull out my phone constantly all day), I did not notice the alert; however Dave immediately received a text from Jeremy Hatt that said "look up!" and we quickly figured out what was happening. We rushed over to the Visitor's Center, hoping that the kite would fly over, but it was already over the Tip, and a few minutes later it flew out over the lake to the south, never to be seen again. Can't get them all!

Kentucky Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

After the kite "dip", we decided to walk back south through the park. This was an excellent choice as the Post Woods trail was quite birdy. First we twitched a Prairie Warbler that Geof Burbridge's group reported at the south end of the Woodland Nature Trail, before continuing down the Post Woods Trail.

Prairie Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

A Grasshopper Sparrow popped up for us and even sat pretty on a low branch for a minute.

Grasshopper Sparrow - Point Pelee National Park

Grasshopper Sparrow - Point Pelee National Park

A few minutes later I found a male Prairie Warbler that eventually worked its way over to us and provided incredible views. We managed to get quite a few nearby birders on it before continuing on.

Prairie Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Prairie Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

We birded the Tip area for quite a while and watched as waves of birds made their way south. As I mentioned earlier, many species were foraging on the sand making photography too easy. A unique look at many species which otherwise are only seen up in the treetops.

Bay-breasted Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Blackburnian Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Great Crested Flycatcher - Point Pelee National Park

Blue-headed Vireo - Point Pelee National Park

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher - Point Pelee National Park

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher - Point Pelee National Park
 
Bay-breasted Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Black-throated Green Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

This Scarlet Tanager provided a nice study as it foraged for bugs on the warm sand on the east side of the Tip.

Scarlet Tanager - Point Pelee National Park

Scarlet Tanager - Point Pelee National Park
 
Scarlet Tanager - Point Pelee National Park
 
Scarlet Tanager - Point Pelee National Park

Our warbler list was quite strong, well over 20 species at this point. We found four separate Hooded Warblers throughout the course of the morning, added an Orange-crowned Warbler foraging on the ground near the Tip and saw one of the Prothonotary Warblers in a slough along the Woodland Nature Trail. Hopefully with the excessive wet conditions, habitat will remain suitable for a good number of Prothons to nest at Pelee this year.

Prothonotary Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Our 25th warbler species of the day was a male Pine Warbler that we noticed in Tilden's Woods. Given the late spring, quite a few early migrant species were still being seen irregularly, including Winter Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Pine Warbler and Brown Creeper. 

Pine Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

The day just kept getting better. Josh, Dave and I had just arrived at Sleepy Hollow in the mid afternoon to have a nap in our respective vehicles, when the alert went out. Josh had just fallen asleep when we woke him to drop the news. A Yellow-throated Warbler had just been found at the east end of the Shuster Trail, likely the same bird photographed there by someone earlier that day. We raced over there and the bird cooperated. It was quite the scene - birders and photographers lined up along the path, all straining for a view. The Yellow-throated Warbler was quite accommodating, moving up and down the trail, ensuring that everyone had good views from a few feet away! Obviously the bird was just foraging in an optimum area and was likely so hungry that it did not care about the cameras pointed its way, but it was a pretty special moment.

Yellow-throated Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Yellow-throated Warbler is a rare but regular spring overshoot in Ontario, and each year usually sees between 2 and 8 spring records. It is one species that I had not much luck with and this was only my 6th for Ontario (and by far the best views). It was great to vastly improve my photo catalog of this species as well.

Yellow-throated Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

This individual exhibited just a little bit of yellow in the lores and a short bill, making it look very similar to the Yellow-throated Warblers found just to the south of us in Ohio (formerly the 'albilora' subspecies). Yellow-throated Warblers are considered by some to have several subspecies, but recent work demonstrated that characters including relative amount of yellow in the lores and bill length are clinal, increasing from west to east, and the subspecies are genetically indistinguishable ((McKay, B.D. 2008. Phenotypic variation is clinal in the Yellow-throated Warbler. Condor 110:569-574).

Yellow-throated Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Yellow-throated Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Yellow-throated Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

While we watched the warbler, I also spotted a nice male Blackpoll Warbler in the shrubs to the south, which was our 27th warbler species of the day. That evening Nancy McPherson pointed out a Blue-winged Warbler to us, our 28th and last warbler species of the day. Ontario has 36 annual warbler species, meaning we only missed 8 on the day (Kirtland's, Worm-eating, Cerulean, Canada, Mourning, Connecticut, Golden-winged and Louisiana Waterthrush).

Our Point Pelee weekend was going great and we still had two days left - that will be the subject of my next post.