Monday, 28 November 2011

Why do a Big Year?

Why do a big year? That's a question that I've asked myself numerous times ever since I starting tossing the idea back and forth in my head. And to be honest, I still don't really have a straightforward answer!

For one, I want to explore my home province a lot better. While I am pretty familiar with the southern 1/4 of the province, I haven't really made it up north yet! I've never visited Ontario's ocean coast of James and Hudson's Bay. I've never visited the prairies in the Rainy River region, or even the Boreal forest in northern Ontario! I think the farthest north that I have explored/birded in Ontario is probably the Algonquin area.
Meeting other birders is another reason I want to do this big year. Since I've only been in the "Ontario birding scene" (its actually bigger than people might think!) for a few years, I haven't even met a large percentage of birders. It will be cool and a lot of fun to put faces to names and to meet birders in far off areas of the province I haven't really explored. My knowledge of birds is far lower than many other birders in the province so it will be a great learning opportunity as well.

Like I mentioned before, the logistics of doing a big year seem to be in my favor this year, so if I ever was to do one, this would be the year. I'll be graduating with an Ecology degree in the spring, and I don't have a full time job to tie me down yet. So far, my girlfriend Laura, my family, and my friends have been really supporting of the idea of me spending an entire year driving around the province and looking at birds (hopefully they are not only supportive of the idea because it means that they won't have to put with me as much :P ). Obviously money will be an issue next year, and I haven't really figured out what I'm going to do about that. I'd like to pick up some consulting work for a few months sometime from mid June to mid August - if you hear of anything, by all means let me know. ;)

Obviously doing a big year isn't all fun and games, especially since I plan on going virtually "all out" next year. There will definitely be a lot of times when I will miss friends or family. I'm sure I'll question my decision to spend a year screwing around looking at birds instead of pursuing career opportunities with my brand spanking new Ecology degree. And of course, I'll smack myself in the head and mutter, "What the hell are you thinking?" to myself after driving all night to chase a rare bird, only to discover that it is not longer around.

While it will be cool to beat the record, I'm not sure if that's the sole reason why I'm going to do a big year. If anything, having a numeric goal will give me the excuse to go on an adventure, explore some cool areas, see some amazing birds, and meet more individuals in the birding community. I can hardly wait for it to begin :)

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Rarities on the river

Razorbill - check!
A. White Pelican - check!
Frankin's Gull - check! (x3)
California Gull - check!
Little Gull - check!

Needless to say, it was a great day birding Niagara with the University of Guelph wildlife club (our drinking club with a wildlife problem).

Our convoy of 27 enthusiastic gullers left Guelph shortly after 7 in the morning, and eventually we all arrived at Jack Custer's Bird Sanctuary near Niagara-on-the-Lake. The juvenile American White Pelican was sitting exactly where it was supposed to, hanging out in a pond that seemed much too small. What a cool bird to start the trip! After an extended photo session, we rounded up the troops and continued on.
American White Pelican - Niagara-on-the-Lake

American White Pelican - Niagara-on-the-Lake 

Niagara-on-the-Lake was our next stop, and unfortunately it was pretty slow. Despite spending over an hour here, we couldn't wrangle up any Razorbills, jaegers, or other super-neat birds. A flock of 30+ Snow Buntings was nice to see, and of course there was the usual assortment of loons, grebes, and ducks. We continued on to Queenston.

Queenston was a decent spot with lots of gulls around to study. Many people in our group got looks at their lifer Little Gull, excellently spotted by Reuven Martin. A group of 5 Turkey Vultures began to kettle, but we couldn't locate any Black Vultures with them.

Fort Niagara

We arrived at the Adam Beck power plant somewhere after 11:00 and began studying the gulls. Meanwhile, Brett Fried, Erika Hentsch, David Bell, and Emily Rooks went to the "roosting rocks" just upriver to see if the Franklin's or California Gull were present. The rest of us managed to find a crisp looking juvenile Thayer's Gull, a fugly 2nd winter Lesser Black-backed Gull, and an adult Iceland Gull. The other four found the Franklin's, so off we went!

Fortunately for us it was still present when we arrived, but it took several of us (not me of course.....haha) an embarassingly long time to pick it out on the rocks. Unfortunately there was no California Gull at the time, so we continued to Chippewa to eat lunch.

The Upper Falls (viewed from several vantage points) was next on the agenda. While we didn't see anything super rare here, it was fun to study some of the ducks, including Hooded Merganser and Gadwall. Lots of gulls, but nothing out of the ordinary (save for a couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls).

Great Black-backed Gull - Upper Falls
 
Mallard - Upper Falls

A Black-legged Kittiwake was being seen at the whirlpool (thanks for the heads-up, Barb!) but we were running a little late so we decided to skip the kittiwake to make one more run at the Razorbill at Niagara-on-the-Lake. A brief stop at Adam Beck was worthwhile as "Frank" was flying around with Herring and Ring-billed Gulls. It was nice to see some familiar faces here too, such as Kevin McLaughlin, Jean Iron, and Blake Mann. Brett texted me that they had the Razorbill at Niagara-on-the-Lake, but by the time my car came rolling in it was out of sight. A nice "consolation prize" was this beautiful intermediate-morph, juvenile Pomarine Jaeger! It chased Bonaparte's Gulls on several occasions, even getting one to spit out a fish, which it caught just before the fish hit the water. The photos definitely don't do it justice, but in the scope this bird was a thing of beauty. While scanning for the Razorbill, Brett and I caught several glimpses of it as it dove, but it was much too far out that no one else got on it. One of the flocks of Bonies heading to the river contained the Franklins Gull, which circled several times, giving good views.

juvenile Pomarine Jaeger - Niagara-on-the-Lake

While most of the group left, Ken Burrell texted me that the California Gull was being seen at Adam Beck, so the remaining 5 of us booked it over there, arriving well after sunset, but with just enough light to see the gulls! Several birders were still there, and Jean Iron and Willie D'Anna got us on the Cali Gull.  What a fitting end to a great day on the river!

Friday, 25 November 2011

Niagara tomorrow

Like many southern Ontario birders, I will heading to the Niagara River area tomorrow in search of gulls and waterfowl. This time, I will be leading a trip with the University of Guelph Wildlife Club as we do our annual gull extravaganza. There are a number of rarities that are frequenting the area, such as the long-staying Razorbill, the 3-4 Black Vultures, an adult California Gull, a Franklin's Gull, and a Black-legged Kittiwake. I'm hoping that we are able to locate at least some of these birds as many would be lifers/new Ontario birds for some of the members coming along on the trip.

In other news, tons of rarities have been showing up across the continent! Check out this White-breasted Nuthatch, the first one EVER for Newfoundland. You may have to scroll down a bit to see it.

I mentioned previously about a Graylag Goose that was present near Montreal. Amazingly, a Fulvous Whistling-Duck was found in the same flock of birds a few days later!

Gray Flycatchers are cool little birds, and one showed up near Louisiana. A few years ago one was found by the Skevingtons on a Christmas Bird Count, and it hung around for a few months! Unfortunately that was before I was into birding.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/jboslerbirds/6367234165/in/pool-ebird

BC had its 3rd ever Summer Tanager the other day - what a bird!

And of course, we can't forget the Hepburn's Gray-crowned Rosy Finch that was found near Thunder Bay a few days ago. Pretty crazy! I'm not sure if this subspecies has been seen in Ontario before?
http://northshorenature.blogspot.com/2011/11/gray-crowned-rosy-finch-hotspot-in.html

Monday, 21 November 2011

A numbers game (Big Year)


As I mentioned before, the Ontario Big Year record is 338 species, set by Glenn Coady in 1996. In preparing for my Big Year, I have categorized every Ontario species based on how likely I think I am to see it. 

I arbitrarily ranked the birds as either Code 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6, based on what I think my relative chances are of seeing each species. Code 1 birds are guaranteed, and code 6 birds are highly unlikely. This categorization is fairly arbitrary – for instance, California Gull is an OBRC bird – meaning that it is rare enough in the province that documentation needs to be sent in to the Ontario Bird Records Committee if one sees the bird. Ruff, a Eurasian species of shorebird, is not an OBRC bird – meaning that it occurs regularly enough in the province, so there is no need to send in documentation if you see one. However, I have given Ruff “Code 4 status”, and California Gull “Code 3 status”, since California Gull observations have been increasing in frequency every since the first provincial record in the early 1980s. Now there seems to be one (or multiple) birds spending a few months on the Niagara River every winter, plus a few other individuals are seen through fall, winter, and spring migration. Ruff on the other hand is a tough species to nail down and rarely do more than 1 or 2 show up a year. I haven’t even seen one yet in Ontario. I think my chances of seeing California Gull (of which I’ve found 2, and seen ~4 others) are much higher than are my chances of seeing Ruff!
Note: I wrote this post before the last one on my big year (see: ). Since then I’ve tweaked the numbers a little bit (changed Yellow-crowned Night Heron and Townsend’s Solitaire from code 3 to code 4, among other things). The numbers don’t really line up with the other post because of this.

Code 1 birds include everything from exceedingly abundant (like European Starling) to common (like Stilt Sandpiper, Snow Bunting, or Chestnut-sided Warbler). These birds I am absolutely guaranteed to see on my Big Year – I cannot afford to miss a single one! I have 219 species ranked as Code 1 birds.

White-breasted Nuthatch (code 1) - going way back into the archives for this one!

 Code 2 birds are also very common, though they may be a little tough to get. This includes everything from annual winter specialties (like Pine Grosbeak and Snowy Owl) to uncommon breeding birds (like Sedge Wren, Acadian Flycatcher, and Prairie Warbler), to uncommon migrants (Red-necked Phalarope).  I listed 62 birds as Code 2. This makes a total of 281 birds which are Code 1 or 2. I cannot afford to miss a single one of these species.
Red-necked Phalarope (code 2) - to break up the huge amount of text in this post!

 Code 3 is when it starts to get a little tricky. None of these birds are guaranteed on a big year, though if one is persistent enough one should get nearly all of these species. These include regular spring overshoots (Worm-eating Warbler, Summer Tanager), rare breeding birds (King Rail), some of the owls (Boreal Owl), some of the rare gulls (Black-legged Kittiwake, Pomarine Jaeger), etc. Some species on this list, like Cave Swallows, are common some years but absent other years. It will take a lot of luck to get all the species on this list! Out of the 38 species listed, I will only be doing well if I get AT LEAST 33 of them. To break the record I will probably need to get all 38. 

Boreal Owl - perhaps my favorite Code 3 bird

Code 4 birds are generally OBRC birds, usually birds that show up 1-5 times annually (like Western Grebe). Some on this list however (like Black-throated Gray Warbler, or Mountain Bluebird) occur less than annually. Basically, all the Code 4 birds are genuine rarities and I can’t count on any of them to show up.  There are 40 species which I’ve categorized as Code 4. The “easiest” Code 4 species are probably Laughing Gull, Black Vulture,  Townsend’s Solitaire, Black-headed Gull, and Kirtland’s Warbler. 

Black-headed Gull - an "easy" Code 4 (this one's from Nova Scotia though)

As expected, Code 5 and 6 birds are the rarest of the rare. Most Code 5 birds on my list have shown up between 5 and 20 times EVER in Ontario (like Gray Kingbird, or Slaty-backed Gull), while others (like Ivory Gull with 29 accepted records) have shown up more often. I placed Ivory Gull as a Code 5 as opposed to Code 4 because if one shows up, the chances of it hanging around long enough for me to see are very small! I have listed 65 species as Code 5.
Finally, Code 6 birds. These ones have usually been seen less than 10 times in Ontario. Out of the 59 species listed, I’ll be doing really well if I see more than 3 in this category! These include extinct species like Eskimo Curlew, crazy vagrants (Bachman’s Sparrow, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher), and one-hit wonders (Variegated Flycatcher, Black-capped Vireo, Audubon’s Shearwater, etc).  I don’t think I’ll be seeing any Passenger Pigeons or Eskimo Curlews next year.

Neotropic Cormie - one of the few "Code 6" birds I've seen!

So, to recap: There are 281 Code 1 and 2 birds which I am sure to get. There are 38 Code 3 birds, and if I get them all, it would bring me to 319 species for the year. To beat the record, I would need an additional 20 genuine rarities on top of that. For every Code 1, 2, or 3 bird I miss, I’ll need to see an extra rarity on top of the 20!

There is also one more thing: these rankings are based on my abilities to travel to all 4 (5?) corners of the province to search for birds. Smith’s Longspur and Willow Ptarmigan are both Code 2 birds, since if I make it up to the coast of Hudson’s Bay during the breeding season I will be (nearly) sure to get them. That is a big IF though, since I haven’t really figured out how I am going to be able to make it up there without having to sell all of my possessions, and possibly one or both kidneys, to afford it! Without that trip, Smith's Longspur drops to Code 4, and Willow Ptarmigan to Code 6. This is true with several other species.

I will have an extremely narrow margin of error next year to say the least! If any of my big trips (Pelee area from late April to late May, Rainy River in late May and early June, Hudson’s Bay in June or July, north shore of Lake Superior for a week or two around Oct. 1, James Bay in the mid/late autumn, etc) fall through, it will be nearly impossible to beat the record. 

Note****
I will eventually make a spreadsheet available to download right off of this blog, much the way that John Vanderpoel does on his big year blog. This spreadsheet will contain the big list (chronologically and taxonomically), the status of each species (codes 1-6), remaining target birds, etc.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Short and sweet

I'm lazy and don't feel like typing today, so this entry is mostly photos.

Instead of heading back to the tip, I spent the day birding various spots along the lake from Wheatley Harbour to Port Stanley before booking it back to Guelph (the G spot as we affectionately call it). I didn't see much! The highlight was probably a very late Semipalmated Sandpiper at the Port Stanley lagoons with 1 Pectoral, 2 White-rumps, 1 Greater Yellowlegs, and 30ish Dunlin. Strong northwest winds kept the harbours nearly devoid of gulls.

Lots of Pipits today!
American pipit - random sideroad near Hickville


Ridgetown lagoons were alright, and I found a flock of 550ish Tundra Swans and a Northern Shrike. No photos of the shrike unfortunately - it was quite sneaky.

Tundra Swans - Ridgetown

Tundra Swans - Ridgetown

Female Hooded Merganser eating a Frog! Didn't realize what it was until I blew up the photo.
Hooded Merg


Bonies are always fun to photograph.

Bonaparte's Gull - Ridgetown lagoons

Bonaparte's Gull - Ridgetown lagoons

I found a few massive flocks of gulls while driving random sideroads. Despite my best efforts, this one contained nothing other than 2,700+ Ringbilled Gulls with a handful of Bonies and Herring Gulls. My Mew Gull dreams have been squashed for another day.

Ring-billed Gulls - also from a random sideroad near Hickville, ON

And that's about it! I wasn't kidding when I said it was a slow day.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Have you met Frank?

I know I wasn't going to post until tomorrow night, but its pitch black by 6:00 PM and I have nothing better to do, so I went to McDonalds to steal their free wifi (its not stealing though - I bought a small coffee for 90 cents so that I wouldn't feel guilty).

I arrived in the Point Pelee area around 2:00 in the morning last night, and after a short sleep in my car I headed down to the Point. Driving towards the park, the winds were already very strong and the waves quite large.

I set up at the tip with Blake Mann and Kevin McLaughlin. After a while Alan Wormington showed up, as did Richard Carr (the "afternoon shift"!). Despite the heavy winds, there were very few "good" birds! Maybe we need a good bout of north winds to bring in some rarer things to Lake Erie.

Despite being a quite common species, I enjoyed watching the 10s of thousands of Red-breasted Mergansers, fighting the wind and streaming past. Occasionally flocks of other ducks would be mixed in with them, and I saw all three scoters, several Black Ducks and Mallards, many Scaup sp. (mostly Greater Scaup), Long-tailed Ducks, Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, and a few Redheads. Alan saw a Sanderling fly past. Common Loons are Horned Grebes were fairly common too, with about 18 of each seen by me. Unfortunately many of the loons were too distant for me to try to turn them into Pacific Loons!

Perhaps the highlight of the day was watching Kevin almost swimming in the lake to fetch a lost glove! Unfortunately we didn't have our cameras ready and he wasn't about to recreate the shot for us!

Kevin had seen a Franklin's Gull just north of the park on Thursday, and Alan had seen it yesterday. Franklin's Gull is a midwestern species of gull that occasionally wanders into southern Ontario, particularly after strong west winds. I figured after leaving the tip that I would chase this bird, as I've never seen one before. No luck there (its a nemesis bird of mine), so I headed back to the park. As expected there were very few songbirds around. Highlights include Chipping Sparrow, a few young Bald Eagles, and a beautiful Great Horned Owl. Any day where you see an owl is a good day, in my book!

Later that afternoon I headed back to Sturgeon Creek to try for the Franklin's Gull again. This time I lucked out, as the first bird I saw was the Franklin's flying over my car! I was surprised by how dainty they are - almost as small as a Bonaparte's Gull in flight.

I managed to fire off a few frames as it circled. The lighting wasn't the greatest and I had to use a high ISO - hence the low quality shots.
Franklin's Gull - Sturgeon Creek, Essex Co.

Franklin's Gull - Sturgeon Creek, Essex Co.

The combination of white eye-arcs, long drooping bill, buoyant tern-like flight, and dark half-hood distinguish it as a 1st cycle Franklin's Gull. In the above photo, notice the dark mantle colour and black tail band as well.

Franklin's Gull - Sturgeon Creek, Essex Co.

Spurred on by that success, I made my way over to Wheatley harbour, stopping briefly at the north end of Hillman marsh to get a few crappy photos of a Great Egret. Its starting to get late for Great Egrets.

Great Egret - Hillman Marsh
 
Along Deer Run Road (southwest of Wheatley), I saw a large flock of Ring-billed Gulls behind a house. Immediately I picked out a second Franklin's Gull. Funny how it was my nemesis bird not half an hour earlier, and now I had seen two. By the time I managed to get my camera gear and scope ready for digi-scoping, the bird was farther off in the field against the setting sun so I was unable to take any photos (you should be glad - they would have been pretty crappy quality!). Not a bad day!

Tomorrow I plan on following the lakeshore east, hitting up several harbours, beaches, and sewage lagoons. Maybe I'll see some more gulls named Frank after all these winds.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Odds and ends

I'm getting ready to leave for Pelee soon, as the forecast has remained strong. Strong southwest winds are still forecast through tonight until tomorrow night, before shifting towards west winds. Maybe I'm getting excited over nothing, but I'm pretty stoked for the potential possibilities that weather like this can bring. A Cave Swallow was seen at Pelee yesterday, and today they were reported from New Jersey and Ohio. Hopefully we'll get lucky tomorrow at the tip! Speaking of Ohio, here's a link to the photos of the state's first Black-tailed Gull found a few days ago right across the lake from Point Pelee.

http://www.rarebird.org/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=6142&PID=18445&#18445

A Grayleg goose, which apparently most birders think is a wild bird, was found on the other side of Ontario, in Montreal. If accepted, it would only be the 2nd (or 3rd) record for North America! Scroll down to the entry entitled "16 Novembre 2011". If only I knew French...

http://www.quebecoiseaux.org/index.php?option=com_oiseauxrares&Itemid=133&lang=en

Despite all the fantastic rarities being found just outside of Ontario (especially in Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota), there are still a couple of things being seen in our province. The Razorbill is still present in Niagara, as well as 3 Black Vultures which apparently could be a family group. This in particular interests me, with my big year starting in 6 short weeks. The last Razorbill seen at Niagara-on-the-lake, in 2006, was present from November 19 until January 7 the following year. I hope that this bird hangs around until the new year - it would be a great way to kick off my big year! The Black Vultures are also exceedingly interesting - while its unlikely that they will hold until the New Year, you never know...

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Excellent forecast

I just checked the forecast for Leamington. Tomorrow is supposed to be a high of 7 degrees C with southwest winds at 50km/h! If anyone knows about lakewatching at Pelee, strong winds from the southwest are often the best for bringing in rare "pelagic birds" or water birds. Things to look for this time of year include jaegers (should still be Parasitics and Pomarines around this time of year - its a good year for Poms especially, it seems), Black-legged Kittiwake, Franklin's Gull, Northern Gannet, Pacific Loon, Cave Swallows, King and Common Eiders, Harlequin Ducks, etc.
Saturday's forecast is almost as good - strong southwest winds at 35 km/h and a high of 10 degrees Celcius. Sunday has a forecast of strong southwest winds at 45 km/h and a high of 13 degrees Celcius. With all these strong, increasingly warm winds from the southwest, who knows what birds may show up. Last year around this time an Ash-throated Flycatcher was seen just north of the tip.
I can't make it out to Pelee tomorrow unfortunately, but I should be there for the whole weekend if the forecast is still good by tomorrow night. Certainly looks like half decent conditions for Cave Swallows.

Despite many days with forecasted southwest winds at Pelee this fall, little has been seen by the regulars at the tip. Maybe this will be the weekend when loads of birds are seen???? (or maybe not....)


edit: Almost forgot - there is some very interesting news from across the lake in Ohio. Yesterday, Craig Holt found a state-first Black-tailed Gull along the lakeshore at the Ashtabula power plant. I don't know of any photos posted of this bird yet, but check out the Ohio birding listserv for more info. Who knows, maybe its the same bird that graced our side of the lake 2 winters ago...

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Breaking the Big Year record

I've spent some time recently, WAY too much time actually, comparing previous years of birding in Ontario to see if it was possible to break the record in those years (the record = 338 species).

Last year was a good year for birding in Ontario, and 350 species were reported to ebird. There may have been a few other species that didn't make ebird since only a handful of Ontario's birders, perhaps half of the serious ones, post their sightings to this program. However I don't have access to last year's OBRC report, and ebird data are generally accurate, so I'll use that.

I had a particularly good year of birding in 2010, personally seeing 304 species in Ontario. As I mentioned in a previous post, I figure that I will have to see at least 16 genuine rarities (which I have labeled as codes 4-6), but probably 20 or more to break the record. Of the 304 species I saw, 14 of them were category 4-6 birds. They were:

Western Grebe - Point Pelee tip, May 13
White-faced Ibis - Amherstburg, May 1 and Windsor, May 6
Black Vulture - Dundas, March 20
Black-bellied Whistling Duck - Milford, July 25


Mississippi Kite - Point Pelee, May 15
Laughing Gull - Point Pelee, May 8 and May 10
Mew Gull - Niagara Falls, December 27
Chuck-wills-widow - Carden Plains, June 20
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - Luther Marsh, August 7


Kirtland's Warbler - Point Pelee, May 22
Spotted Towhee - Long Point, December 3
Golden-crowned Sparrow - Ottawa, October 15
Blue Grosbeak - Rondeau, May 11
Painted Bunting - Kincardine, November 26

So basically, I could have broken the record IF I saw another couple of rarities, plus got all the category 1-3 birds. The reason why I only saw 304 species was because I never made it farther north than Algonquin, thus missing all the Rainy River specialties (Franklin's Gull, Yellow Rail, Le Conte's Sparrow, Black-billed Magpie, Western Meadowlark, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Western Kingbird), the Hudson Bay specialties (Arctic Tern, Smith's Longspur, Willow Ptarmigan, Common Eider), the stuff that Alan and Brandon saw at Netitishi (Black Guillemot, Dovekie, Sooty Shearwater, Gyrfalcon, A. Three-toed Woodpecker etc) plus some other odds and ends (Eurasian Wigeon, Barrow's Goldeneye, Gray Partridge, King Rail, A. Avocet, Red Knot, Western Sandpiper, Red Phalarope, Boreal Owl, N. Hawk Owl, Bohemian Waxwing, White-winged Crossbill). All the rarities I saw wouldn't have been missed if I have gone to Rainy River in early June, Netitishi for 2 weeks in early November, and Hudson's Bay in July. Both the Chuck and the Whistling-duck were long staying so I would have gotten them regardless.

There were a number of chaseable rarities which I could have easily gotten if I was trying to do a big year, such as:
Little Blue Heron - one present at Oshawa's Second Marsh May 9-13, also one present in Cornwall September 15-21

Glossy Ibis - one present at Hullett WMA from August 26-August 31
Lark Sparrow - several seen on Pelee Island - April 30 and May 19, plus some years one (or more) are on territory near Long Point
Gray-crowned Rosy-finch - one present in Marathon from February 12 - March 13 (quite the drive but definitely chaseable!)

I'm sure I am missing a few too. So basically, last year if I had gone all out, including trips to James Bay, Hudson's Bay, Rainy River, plus chased a bunch of rarities, I could have seen around 340 species of birds. It would have been a ton of effort, and there are a LOT of Ifs there. Just goes to show that it is possible!

Sunday, 13 November 2011

A few birds from the weekend

This weekend I had plans to drive out to Kingston to visit my sister and brother, both who attend schools out there. I left Friday mid morning and planned to do a few stops along the way for birds. I didn't see much til I got to Thickson's Road area. While I was scanning the bay at the end of Thickson's Road, I was happy to hear two White-winged Crossbills fly over. They were my first WWCRs since the winter of 2008/2009! Other birds seen here included 1 Red-throated Loon and a whole bunch of ducks. I also stopped briefly at Presqui'lle Provincial Park. The male Eurasian Wigeon was still swimming near the campground office, but it was too late in the afternoon for photos, plus it was quite some distance from me. This was my second Eurasian Wigeon of the year - the first was a male I found at Blenheim in late April. Due to the waterfowl hunt I was unable to scan for shorebirds on Gull Island (I didn't want to get shot!).

I stopped at Presqui'lle again on the way back from Kingston today. This time there was no hunt going on so I was able to check out the situation. Unfortunately I neglected to bring any boots with me, so I ended up wading about 100m through ice-cold, knee-deep water to get to the island. I suppose it was worth it, since I scared up a Purple Sandpiper with all the other shorebirds. The diversity was pretty decent considering the late date - I also had:
79 Dunlin
2 White-rumped Sandpiper
10 Sanderling
6 Black-bellied Plover
2 Greater Yellowlegs

As expected, all the shorebirds were juveniles. I also had a skulking American Tree Sparrow on the island that was acting like a crazy rare sparrow or something, the way it skulked through the grasses. Other than a pipit and some Snow Buntings, it was the only Passerine I saw on Gull Island. Unfortunately there weren't any super interesting gulls or ducks out on the lake or on the island. The walk back through the icy water seemed twice as far as the walk there!

I did grab a few photos of a confiding White-rumped Sandpiper and Dunlin, so I will post them when I get time.

In recent news, check out these photos of the Lucy's Warbler found at Whitefish Point. What a crazy bird!!!

http://web.me.com/karloverman/Site/North_AmericaN_Birds_III/Pages/Lucys_Warbler.html 

We have had persistent strong south and southwest winds lately, but we haven't had any southwestern specialties to show for it. Mainly this is because the low pressure systems are passing to the west of us.Michael Butler did an excellent write-up on some of the rarities showing up just to the west of us.
http://northshorenature.blogspot.com/2011/11/rash-of-vagrant-birds-in-western-great.html

Some low pressure systems are moving in from Texas, and they look like they could be more in line to go over Ontario. The weather forecast is calling for strong south and southwest winds for the next little while! I am finally going to predict that we will be getting Cave Swallows later this week/next weekend. Ash-throated Flycatchers are another species that could very easily show up at this time. Who knows whats out there, so get out birding!
 

Saturday, 12 November 2011

An Ontario Big Year

Its official - I am going to do a big year next year. For those who don't know, a big year is an attempt to see as many species as possible in a given geographic area over a one year period. In the last few years, I've become interested in this concept, and I regularly followed Russell Cannings (http://bcbigyear.blogspot.com/) last year as he set the BC record, seeing an astonishing 373 species in his home province. This year, John Vanderpoel is attempting this on a much bigger scale - the ABA area (North America north of Mexico, essentially). He is currently sitting at 733 species, not far from the record set by Sandy Komito and made popular by the movie The Big Year (which I still have not seen, though I own the book). John's blog is http://www.bigyear2011.com/.

In Ontario, the Big Year record is an astonishing 338 species, set by Glenn Coady in 1996 as far as I am aware. This is a huge number, one that many believe won't be broken. Most years, about 350 species are seen in Ontario, including all the mega rarities. So to beat the record, I will need a ton of time, help, and luck! A few hurricanes certainly would help too. While I don't think I will break Glenn's record, I am certainly going to do my best. I haven't even seen 338 species of birds in Ontario in my life, let alone in one year so a huge effort will be required to even come close to his record!

Between now and the end of this year I will make a series of posts regarding my Big Year, including strategies, the pros and cons of doing a big year, breakdowns of possible species, etc.

Why am I doing a Big Year this year? First of all, I will be graduating from the University of Guelph in April and I plan on working as little as possible during the year. I have arranged my schedule next semester so that I am taking easy courses and have only a few classes a week. This will enable me to chase birds virtually anytime. I will need funds at some point, so hopefully I can get some contract work for a few months during the summer! Also, with no school to tie me up in the fall, I will be able to do some big trips and some serious chasing of rarities. I would love to make it up to Netitishi Point on James bay for a few weeks. Also, my girlfriend, Laura, is away in Scotland for school. It sucks that she's not around, but at the same time I will be able to devote more time to birds when she is away. It seems like this would be an ideal year for me to attempt a Big Year, so I'm gonna do my best!

I will be in Nova Scotia visiting Laura until January 6, so that will delay the beginning of the Big Year. I also am heading to Scotland for a couple weeks in February (generally a slow time for birding here, anyways), Baja California for a week or so in August, and possibly Nova Scotia for a bit in the summer. Other than that I should be around for the whole year.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Razorbill in Niagara

This morning while in class, I got a text from Brett Fried telling me to go get the Razorbill. I had been planning to go to Kingston on Friday, so I figured he meant that the Ottawa bird was back (Ottawa is only 1.5 hours from Kingston!). I checked my email and saw that Joshua Cain Stiller had found a Razorbill at the mouth of the Niagara River from the New York side on November 8. That was good enough for me, so Dave Bell and I cut our classes short and booked it on down to Niagara.

It only took about 15 minutes of scanning before I located the bird in flight near the border. It ended up flying into Ontario and landed on the water for a few minutes (so I can technically count it for both New York and Ontario). The bird dove a few times, then was gone. We ended up viewing it for about 10 minutes. A link to my Ontbirds post: http://birdingonthe.net/mailinglists/ONTB.html#1320971640

This was a new Ontario bird for me - #331 and my 3rd new Ontario bird in the past month (the previous two being Purple Gallinule and Red Phalarope).

 By the time Dave had got the cameras, the bird was no longer in flight and would have been nothing but a distant speck in our viewfinders. A few minutes later it was gone, so no photos were obtained.

We did however, see many Red-throated Loons, such as this juvie:

juv. Red-throated Loon - Niagara-on-the-lake

This tiny black speck is actually a dark morph Pomarine Jaeger, a bird seen harassing gulls. It was still present when we left. It might be some dust on my sensor, but I'm pretty sure this is the jaeger!
Pomarine Jaeger - Niagara-on-the-lake

We also spent some time near Queenston searching for the reported Franklin's Gull. No luck there, of course! This has been my nemesis bird for a few years, and I still haven't seen one anywhere. We did have this juvenile Common Loon swam right up to us, almost as if it was begging for us to throw it a fish or something. Also seen from here was a nice adult Little Gull. Dave had a Thayer's Gull in flight, but I didn't get on it.

juv Common Loon - Queenston docks



Our final stop was 50 Point CA, right at sunset. We scrambled over some rocks, unsuccessfully searching for Purple Sandpipers (it would have been a lifer for Dave).

Dave at 50 Point CA

I was kind of proud of myself as we left, since I saw what I thought was an owl, traveling low over a brushy field well after the sun had set. I still don't know how I saw it! Anyways, Dave and I got out, and I found it acting very much like a Short-eared Owl, sitting near the top of a shrubby tree. The ear tufts gave it away as a Great Horned Owl, though!

Monday, 7 November 2011

Beautiful weather, but no birds

The past few weeks have been absolutely gorgeous out, but as is typical, nice sunny weather with light winds don't bring in the mega-vagrants we birders hope for. I've been trying to get out as often as possible in between midterms, papers, classes, and group meetings. Yesterday was the Hamilton Fall Bird Count in its 38ish year. Brandon suckered me into doing his route, so I rounded up a gang of good Guelph birders (Dave, Mark, Reuven, and Matt) and we raged across the area, not letting a single species escape the views of our binoculars.

Despite our enthusiasm and effort, we couldn't turn up much. Starting bright and early in LaSalle marina, we picked up most of the regular waterfowl species and a few odds and ends like Red-necked Grebe, Hermit Thrush, and Snow Bunting. A quick stop in Burlington (just out of our area) produced the annual Brant feeding on the lawn.
Brant - Spencer Smith Park, Burlington (photo by Dave Bell)

We kept birding around the north and east part of the bay, picking up Pine Siskin and great looks at the Peregrine Falcons at the lift bridge. We finished up near Windermere Basin where we ran into a nice little flock of sparrows (including Swamp, Junco, White-crowned, and American Tree) and a few remaining waterfowl species. That afternoon we left our area since we had fully covered it and tried a few spots along the lakeshore. The end of Gray's Road was excellent with rafts of ducks extending way out into the bay. All three scoters were seen, including quite a few male Black Scoters - more than I had ever seen in Ontario before, I'm sure! Many Red-throated Loons were around as well. A typical owl spot revealed a roosting Saw-whet Owl, who watched us warily as we photographed it through out scopes. At one point it regurgitated a pellet which was cool to see.
Phone-scoped Northern Saw-whet Owl
At this point we had a few hours left of sunlight and debating driving to Niagara to chase the Franklin's Gull - I still haven't seen one anywhere. We decided we were all lazy, and drove home instead! But first, a detour at Mountsberg yielded some Greater Yellowlegs and our 22nd and 23rd duck species for the day - A. Wigeon and Wood Duck. Add to that 2 swan species, 2 loons, 2 geese, and 3 grebes - we had a pretty good day for water birds! The only regular duck we missed (and its not even that regular in November) is Blue-winged Teal. We had around 75 species for the day - not bad for November.

As I have mentioned before, I am taking an interest into birding my "local patch" of Guelph a bit more recently - its a lot cheaper on gas than my local patch of Point Pelee! Despite not known for great birding, I've picked up a number of new county birds lately. One surprise was an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull which spent part of a morning flying around my subdivision with the regular gulls, even landing on my driveway at one point. I didn't even have to leave my room!
I've also checked out some lakes in the southern part of the county (Neibaur's Marsh, Puslinch, Mountsberg, the quarries west of HWY 6, etc) and have seen a lot of waterfowl. Yesterday, Mike Cadman reported a Harlequin Duck at one of the quarries, but I couldn't find it there today. Lots of Bufflehead and Hooded Mergansers though, which I always enjoy seeing.

That's all for now! I am really busy with school this week, but I am planning on heading out to Kingston this weekend to visit my brother and sister who are both in school out there. Maybe on the way I'll stop at some of the typical lakeshore spots. A Pacific Loon or Harlequin Duck would be nice, somewhere! I was really hoping the Razorbill would hold in Ottawa, as it is "on the way", kind of, to Kingston. Oh well...hopefully another one shows up in my lifetime....

Friday, 4 November 2011

Great Smoky Mountains - October 26-29, 2011

I traveled to the Great Smoky Mountains not to long ago with a friend to look for salamanders. As opposed to most of my other trips, this one was kind of spur of the moment with no prior research done. We basically grabbed our field guides, hopped in my car and drove there.

After a 14 hour drive through the night, we arrived, found a campground, set up, and started herping. It didn't take long before I flipped a denizen of fast flowing streams throughout the park.

Desmognathus quadramaculata


Flipping rocks behind the campsite revealed a few common low to medium elevation Plethodontids.

Plethodon serratus


Plethodon glutinosus


We found a decent seep not far from our campsite. Sifting through the leaves and vegetation revealed more new species for us. The only one I photographed was this Spotted Dusky.

Desmognathus conanti


Running on absolutely no sleep, and having ingested nothing other than cold ravioli, some beer, and some energy drinks, we were pretty tired but decided to press on to a location where we had one species in mind. It took us over two hours to get there, but we finally arrived.

Chris checking for herps in the mountain stream (I was more bad-ass and waded in - no hipwaders required)

It didn't take long before we found 2 beauties crawling out in the open. These have got to be the coolest herp in North America.

Cryptobranchidae alleganiensis


Cryptobranchidae alleganiensis


Hellbender kiss

What a great start to the trip! At this point we were at almost delerious and hallucinating as we made the drive back. Somehow we arrived in one piece as darkness was arriving. Most logical thing to do = keep herping. We didn't drive 14 hours to do nothing.

We decided to go back to the rocky seep near the campground. I was happy to finally grab some shots of my first Seal Salamander.

Desmognathus monticola


Desmognathus monticola


More quads were found, as well as a few conanti.

Desmognathus conanti


I was happy to have this guy crawl out of a leaf pack. Being from Ontario, we don't get any Gyrinophilus or Pseudotriton. Unfortunately he was missing the tip of his tail.

Gyrinophilus porphyriticus danielsi


Gyrinophilus porphyriticus danielsi

Finally, we went to bed. What a day!

On day two, we "slept in" till 8:15 and decided to hit up some high elevation areas for some species - namely, Plethodon jordani. We arrived at a locality where no one ever misses them, and promptly missed them. We tried a few more spots on the way down, but still nothing! It was pretty dry and cold - maybe that had something to do with it? I got excited briefly when I found this guy - unfortunately it was a Desmognathus imitator. Nonetheless, it is a cool species and one I was happy to see.
Desmognathus imitator


We flipped a rock and found this...someone's passport photos. Kind of creepy...


The only other high elevation specialty we got was this cute little Ocoee Salamander. At first we thought it was a Desmognathus wrighti - the Pygmy Salamander. Unlike most of the creek-dwelling desmogs, the Pygmy Salamander undergoes direct development (i.e. no eggs) and spends the majority of time in the forest, away from water sources.
Desmognathus ocoee

On the way down the mountain, we passed a corner where Chris thought was a nice mountain creek. He convinced me to turn around and we checked it out. Sure enough, we found a few cool species in 15 minutes!

Desmognathus santeetlah


"stardust" form Desmognathus quadramaculata

Also seen were a few D. wrighti in moss around the edges of the creek.

Typical waterfall in the smokies:


That evening, we made the journey to a mountain peak at the east end of the park. It was foggy and raining, and the road was pretty sketchy. We were both sure we were going to die, since one small mistake could send a vehicle hurtling down the mountain. Nonetheless, we made it to the destination and began walking. Since it had been raining all day, we figured some Plethodontids may be out and about.

Unfortunately we didn't get any P. jordani, but we did get some individuals of P. glutinosus and P. teyahalee.
Plethodon teyahalee



Plethodon glutinosus or P. tayahalee (seemed somewhat intermediate)


The following day, we headed west to another part of the park. Little did we know that we would be stuck in a traffic jam behind "leafers" - people there most likely for the fall colours. Most of them didn't know how to use the pulloffs at the side of the road, so it was a frustrating drive! As well, we couldn't find our target destination, and it was raining extremely heavily. However, we walked a few creeks and turned up some Eurycea and more Spotted Duskies. One looked VERY similar to a Seepage Salamander (a species we ended up striking out on)

Desmognathus conanti


Eurycea longicauda


Eurycea longicauda


We arrived back at camp that night and decided we would stay local, checking out some streams near us. We had some fun chasing Desmogs in the fast flowing creeks, and even caught a couple!

We saw our only frog of the trip here - a Wood Frog.

Lithobates sylvaticus

Here's a picture of Chris with a tight grip on his woody. ;)


I was glad to finally obtain some good photos of the abundant Blue Ridge Two-lined Salamanders.

Eurycea wilderae

We managed to see a few more Gyrinophilus as well!
Gyrinophilus porphyriticus danielsi


Gyrinophilus porphyriticus danielsi


At this point, we had seen most of the low to mid elevation species in the area, and we didn't feel like driving up another mountain, so we decided to go home. I drove through the night again, through blizzards and swerving around deer, finally arriving back at 1:00 in the afternoon the following day. We missed a lot of targets, but it was still a decent trip.

As far as birds, we didn't see much. At one point, a Barred Owl perched on a branch beside my car one night as we were traveling up a perilous mountain road. I was also happy to see a flock of Red Crossbills (they were straddling the border so I have them on both my Tennessee and N.C. lists haha). I had never actually seen a Red Crossbill before - the one I have in Ontario was a bird calling as it flew over.