Sunday, 25 May 2014

Point Pelee! May 18 and 19

After our Big Day on the Saturday we slept in a little on Sunday with a bit of a Big Day hangover. The extra sleep sure felt nice!

Dominic and I drove into the park, and within minutes we had seen several species that we had missed the day before (Northern Mockingbird and Cooper's Hawk come to mind). Today was the day of heard-only birds. First, I heard a Kentucky Warbler singing in a spot where one had been seen earlier that morning. Despite "waiting it out", we couldn't get it to sing again or pop up for a quick look!

The Tanager show continued...

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

The second bird was the Bell's Vireo that Tom Preney had found earlier that morning. There are less than 20 records of this species in Ontario, though a good chunk come from Point Pelee. The only one I've seen in Ontario was at the tram loop on April 21, 2012. Tom found and photographed the Bell's at Sparrow Field, then Dean Ware relocated it at (you guessed it) the tram loop. Again, it wouldn't pop up for views but I heard it sing and do a few call notes from a large brush pile at the southeast corner of the tram loop. Later, Luke Berg heard it sing a number of times from the same location. Unfortunately no birders were able to get a visual on the skulker afterwards!

Baltimore Oriole

Later in the afternoon I went for a Birds and Beers stroll along the west side of the park with a good crew of fellow birders. I was happy to spot a Yellow-breasted Chat at the south end of Sanctuary, followed by a White-eyed Vireo at the north end of the Northwest Beach parking lot. We had a few other birds here and there including some later migrants.

On our last day in the Pelee area for the weekend, Dominic and I again headed into the park first thing. We ended up birding with the Riley's for a bit; always good company! I had a House Sparrow fly around the tip - actually a very scarce bird in the park! I can only recall seeing two or three in the past...Given the "influx" of Eurasian Tree-sparrows north in the past few days, I scrutinized it closely right away!


Dan Riley and I tried to relocate the Bell's again to no avail. The "best" bird of the morning was a Prairie Warbler that we heard just south of Sparrow Field. This one too had been found by none other than Tom Preney.

 It was a beautiful sunny day however, and even though there weren't a lot of birds it was pretty enjoyable. I have been very fortunate this spring to spend 3-4 days a week at Pelee from mid-April until the end of May, even while working regular hours. There have only been a few notable birds I have missed, with the only potential new Point Pelee birds that I can recall being Lazuli Bunting (only about 4 people got it) and Cattle Egret, which is annual at Point Pelee. I've managed to see 8 new Point Pelee birds and a bunch of other awesome species as well. At this point, I was pretty satisfied with how the spring shook down and it was nice to have a relaxing birding day!

Dominic and I left around noon to get back in the Toronto area at a decent time. I dropped him off and continued on my way. I remembered reading about a Summer Tanager in Toronto, and with the whole evening ahead of me I took a quick look to see where the location was. The bird was attending Christopher Escott's feeders, and his house was about a 5 minute detour off my route. I swung by, and within 90 seconds the young male came in and alighted on the suet feeder. What a great yard bird! It was great to chat with Chris and get to know him a bit. Considering he is in the city, he has a fantastic yard that backs onto a ravine. It sure doesn't feel very city-like when you are back there.

Summer Tanager - Toronto

The weekend was a definite success, with a lot of kickass birds and good times. It was great to finally catch up with Dominic again and put in 5 solid days of birding.

Friday, 23 May 2014

May 17 - a Big Day!

On Saturday, May 17, a group of us decided to do a Big Day. The decision was kind of spontaneous. Jeremy and I had tossed the idea around back in the winter, but we had left it at that. So on Friday afternoon, we made the call to do a Big Day. Reuven Martin found a Lark Bunting out on the Marsh Trail at Rondeau that evening, so the start of our route was determined! Kory Renaud was down for a Big Day as well, and so the four of us (Dominic, Josh, Kory, Jeremy) prepared for the long day of birding. We were up by 4:30 and Kory was right on time. We left for Rondeau just after 5:00 AM, the sky still pitch black.

It slowly lightened and by the time we were nearing Blenheim our first birds of the day appeared. Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, Mourning Dove. Exciting stuff! Kory spotted a Cooper’s Hawk that the rest of us couldn’t get on, our only Cooper's for the day.

We cruised into Rondeau and with the windows rolled down about 20 birds were added to the list – Marsh Wren, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Eastern Towhee, a few warblers.

Philadelphia Vireo

The Marsh trail ended up being quite birdy and the species total hit 50 in no time. There was on and off light rain for the first hour, and as a result the birds were down low for the most part. A Clay-colored Sparrow was a nice surprise, as was a flyover Northern Pintail. Most of the regular warblers and thrushes appeared, and a White-eyed Vireo sang which only 3 of us managed to hear. The Lark Bunting was a no-show unfortunately, as many of his sparrow companions were nowhere to be found. We continued adding on species – Virginia Rail, Red-breasted Merganser, Mute Swan, Black-crowned Night Heron. The pair of Sandhill Cranes noisily flying and landing in the marsh ended up being our only cranes of the day.

Sandhill Crane

We were back at the vehicles by 9:30 AM with about 85 species under our belt. The plan was to swing over to the Tulip Tree Trail to pick up a few good birds including hopefully a Prothonatary. That proved to be good choice, as not only did we quickly add the Prothon, but Canada Warbler, Northern Parula, and Wood Thrush were seen as well.

Our last stop in the park was the Spicebush Trail in hopes of hearing an Acadian Flycatcher. While the Acadian never materialized, I did locate two Hairy Woodpeckers and their nest. Along with Pileated, we had two tough species (well, one tough one and one impossible one) to get at Pelee.

The count was almost at 100 and it was only 11:00 AM. We swung by the Blenheim lagoons, hummed and hawed about whether it was worth it (rumor had it that there were very few shorebirds and ducks), but decided to in the end. Again, a good choice, as we added 5 ducks, Bobolink, flyover Greater Yellowlegs, and Eastern Meadowlark, not to mention about 3000 swallows!

At McGeachy's Pond, the long-staying Snowy owl was still sitting out in the field. At this rate it might over-summer...

Snowy Owl

The Erieau pier gave us all the terns (except Black), Little Gull and Great Black-backed Gull, while the drive west towards Point Pelee was useful in adding three common shorebird species in the fields. Wheatley Harbour had some Sanderlings, the stake-out baby Great Horned Owl was on the nest, and a flyby Peregrine Falcon near the Ring-necked Pheasant spot was a bonus! We also had a male pheasant, right on cue. Our last new bird before entering the park was a Sora in the ditch on Concession E.

We arrived at the gates of Point Pelee National Park at 2:15 PM, with our list around 130 if I recall. To this point our Big Day had been somewhat casual. We still did not linger in one spot for too long, but we weren’t exactly running around. At this point we picked up the pace just a bit, hoping to hit 150 or 160.

road Bay-breasted Warbler

We headed to the tip and began scoping for the Pacific Loon that Jean Iron had found earlier in the day. Not only was it a good bird for a Big Day, but it was also a new Pelee bird for all of us (new Ontario bird for some?). Kory and I thought that we should move up the east beach towards Sparrow Field, as the large merganser flock which the loon was associating with was easier to view from there.

Kory, Jere and Dom

We took turns scoping. Kory was at the helm when Dom and I walked back into Sparrow Field. I quickly found a female Eastern Gartersnake – a beautiful melanistic individual. What a stunner!

melanistic Eastern Gartersnake

melanistic Eastern Gartersnake

melanistic Eastern Gartersnake

Suddenly the snake was forgotten as Kory said “Um, get over here guys”. In the scope he had the Pacific Loon! We all had quick looks in the scope. Luke and Gary Berg were with us and they got on it as well. Sweet! Too far for photos, unfortunately.

These Wild Turkeys were running out to get a sip of water from the lake.

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

The four of us, spurred on by our success, headed inland to sparrow field. While we were canvassing this area, Dominic flushed a small sparrow. He said something along the lines of “Gather round boys, I have a dinky sparrow here”. We focused our attention on the area, and I noticed a bit of movement. A look with the bins confirmed it – a Henslow’s Sparrow! We all had excellent views of this bird, a lifer for Dominic. It was my 3rd this spring already. My photos are poor given the harsh lighting and grass, and Kory Renaud took some much better ones.

Henslow's Sparrow

Henslow's Sparrow

We left the sparrow after a few minutes and walked Post Woods up to the VC. WHite-crowned Sparrow, Indigo Bunting, Mourning Warbler, Olive-sided Flycatcher.

Olive-sided Flycatcher

We made a quick run up to the new Cactus Field to see what was happening. Turns out we missed a Kentucky Warbler by a few minutes, but I did come across this weird thrush. Gray-cheeked? with a red tail? Or Hermit? In the end we decided on it being just a late Hermit Thrush, though the extensive gray on the face seemed a little odd.

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

The birding was fast and furious, and in no time we had Blue-headed Vireo, Common Nighthawk and Eastern Bluebird, all easily "missable" birds on a Big Day this time of year. 

Hillman Marsh and the shorebird cell was next up as light began fading. Luckily all the remaining ducks and shorebirds were accounted for. We also ran into Kevin McLaughlin who kindly photographed the four of us. About 30 seconds prior, we were looking at our first Yellow-bellied Flycatcher of the day, species 152ish.

Two Stilt Sandpipers and a Wilson’s Phalaropes were new year bird for me, and a nice addition to the day list. Sitting at 159 at dusk, we decided to go the easy way out and pick up American Woodcock (they are very easy in the Pelee area), before finishing early. That’s exactly what we did, with a peenting American Woodcock at the DeLaurier parking lot just before dusk being species #160!

It is impossible to get everything on a Big Day, so here is a list of our Big Misses. Some embarrassing ones on there!
Black-capped Chickadee
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Lesser Yellowlegs
Green-winged Teal
Nothern Mockingbird
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Carolina Wren
House FInch

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Pelee May 16 - pretty pictures of neotropical migrants

It was one of those mornings at Point Pelee in mid-May - cool with a brisk west wind, combined with minimal leaf out and few insects in the canopy. As a result, the neotropical migrants, which had spent the better part of the last 8 or 9 months in Central or South America, were feeding down low out of the wind and illuminated by the slowly rising sun along the east side of the point.

Many birds made up this kaleidoscope of colour - Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, Scarlet Tanagers, about 15 warbler species, Gray Catbirds, five thrush species, a Brown Thrasher, and several other species. I had the best looks I've ever had at Tennessee, Cape May, Bay-breasted, Wilson's, and Blackburnian Warblers. As a result the better part of the early morning hours was a photographer's dream and I tried to make the most of it until the light became too harsh. In the warm, bright sun it was hard to keep my camera from blowing out the yellows and reds of some of the birds. For most of these photos I had to reduce the contrast and saturation a little bit. Gives you an idea of how bright some of these birds looked in real life!

Blackburnian Warbler

Cape May Warbler

Baltimore Oriole


Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

Gray Catbird

Baltimore Oriole

Blackburnian Warbler

Bay-breasted Warbler

Even the Wild Turkeys came out to enjoy the sun...

Wild Turkey

Scarlet Tanager

The Pelee mob! - probably after a tanager or something...

Pelee Mob

Cold Cliff Swallow

Throughout the rest of the day, Dominic and I birded the south end of the park, mostly. The birding was pretty steady almost anywhere, though no huge numbers of anything. I located a Yellow-breasted Chat just south of sparrow field along the beach, and got Dominic and a few others on the bird. Around this time we also had a flock of 18 Sanderlings fly down the beach, with three more running along the shore.

In the afternoon the heat of the day caused the birdsong to diminish and we had a tougher time finding birds. At one point, Len Manning texted me about an adult male Summer Tanager that was being seen well at the Cactus Field, so we headed up that way.

We arrived to see Josh Bouman trained on the tanager and we quickly got bins on it. That was easy!

It was foraging in a beehive and landing on some of the low vegetation out in the open.

Summer Tanager

Summer Tanager

Summer Tanager

Without a doubt that was a big highlight of the day. I had never seen a Summer Tanager, let alone a fancy red male, at such close range before.

This American Robin I almost ignored, but the light was hitting it just right. After seeing the previous bird, it was hard to get excited to look at the robins!

American Robin

We took it easy throughout the rest of the afternoon, touring the onion fields and then briefly Hillman Marsh. We finished with about 100 species on the day.

That evening, we stayed over at Jeremy Bensette's place in Leamington. We began chatting about Big Days and decided that we would do one the following day (we had been talking about doing one for a few weeks now). We arranged with Kory Renaud, and he planned to pick us up at 5:00 AM the following morning. We would head straight to Rondeau where Reuven Martin had found a Lark Bunting and Neotropic Cormorant in the last day and a half. From there, we would bird the Rondeau area until noon and then head west to Pelee, checking the park then finishing up in the onion fields and then Hillman. It was going to be fun...

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Pelee and area - May 15

I picked Dominic up in Guelph and I made the familiar drive southwest towards Windsor, Ontario. We got off the highway at Ridgetown, checking out the lagoons (always worth a check, especially in the height of migration!). The water levels were fairly high, but warbler song drew our attention to the woodlot west of the building. There was a flurry of songbird activity, including 9 species of warblers, Scarlet Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles, and a Gray-cheeked Thrush. We had high hopes that Point Pelee had similar numbers of birds!

The Blenheim lagoons were next on the agenda, though they were largely devoid of shorebirds and only contained a few common duck species (though we did not check the back lagoon). This flock of Ruddy Ducks at the water treatment building had seen better days...we figured they had been sucked up through a pipe or something.

former Ruddy Ducks - Blenheim lagoons

We briefly checked the Erieau pier, carefully sorting through all the birds. Of course in the next few days both a Franklin's Gull and Neotropic Cormorant would be found here, though both were not present for us...

We arrived in the Pelee area in the mid afternoon and immediately towards the park. As we were nearing Hillman Marsh I noticed an Ontbirds message about a Cattle Egret just west of the shorebird cell. We stopped by and ran into Ken Burrell who had seen the birds earlier. Apparently they had left right before we arrived! Oh well, can't get them all...

We continued driving to the park and headed down to the main lot. Do to the threat of rain I left my camera in the car as Dominic and I walked south from the Visitor's Centre along the main park road. Quite a few birds were down low in the woods, and the numbers increased towards the tip. In the cold weather and with the lack of insects in the canopy, neotropical migrants were feeding down low, allowing close approach by birders and photographers. Highlights included our only Orange-crowned Warbler of the trip and great looks at 18 other warbler species including my first Cape May Warblers of the year. 

Swainson's Thrush - Point Pelee

For the last couple of days a Franklin's Gull and Laughing Gull had turned up. They had found each other and I guess they figured that they looked similar enough to warrant hanging out in the unfamiliar landscape of Ontario. Dominic and I birded the onion fields north of the park and came across the birds in a field close to where the Smith's Longspurs had been seen earlier in the month. I picked out the Laugher to Dom in my scope, then he took a turn and promptly found Frank sitting about 10 feet to the left. Pretty sweet to see those two species side by side! 

Our final stop was Wheatley harbour. The first few Whimbrels of the season had been seen in the area, and we arrived to see 3 Whimbrels standing on top of the rock island, with one Jean Iron standing on the pier, digiscoping them. We ventured out to join Jean and I snapped a few photos of them as well. Whimbrels are unique in that the majority of their population that passes through the Great Lakes do so over a span of about a week - one of the more narrow windows out of any North American species. These were my earliest Whimbrels for Ontario, surprising since my latest spring migrant is only a few weeks later! We finished the day by downing a cold brew or two and camping out while American Woodcocks peented away. One day down, four more to go.

Whimbrels - Wheatley harbour

Monday, 19 May 2014

Another long weekend at Pelee

After a quick three-day week where I managed to put in all my hours, I was on my way again to Point Pelee and area on Thursday morning for a 5 day trip, this time with Dominic Cormier, a friend of mine that I met at the University of Guelph. Dominic is from Nova Scotia and we try to meet up for a day of birding when I'm out that way visiting Laura. We also worked together for a summer during 2012, going on trips to Rainy River.

We had an awesome time at Pelee, seeing a bunch of good birds including a few rarities among our 177 species. I'll be posting day-by-day recaps this week, but for now, here are the highlights

-going on an impromptu Big Day with Kory Renaud and Jeremy Bensette, seeing 160 species between Rondeau and Point Pelee
-Pacific Loon found by Jean Iron that we relocated off of Sparrow Field during our Big Day with Luke Berg and his father (a new Point Pelee and Essex County bird for me, #296 and #301)
-finding a Henslow's Sparrow right about the loon - a pretty sweet 15 minutes
-side-by-side Laughing and Franklin's Gulls in a field north of Hillman Marsh
-Bell's Vireo singing at the tram loop, found earlier in the day by Tom Preney
-a few other nice birds (Olive-sided Flycatcher, White-eyed Vireo, Canvasbacks, Snowy Owl, Clay-colored Sparrows)
-26 warbler species (not bad for the semi-late date, with highlights being Prairie, 2 Prothonotarys, Kentucky and 2 Yellow-breasted Chats)

Here are a few "photogenic" (= cold and hungry) tanagers, swallows, and warblers from the tip on May 16.

Cape May Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Cliff Swallow - Point Pelee National Park

female Scarlet Tanager - Point Pelee National Park

I had to reduce the saturation on this tanager shot, and even still it is "too" bright! These things glow, I tell you...
male Scarlet Tanager - Point Pelee National Park

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Rare flycatchers!! Pelee - May 11

I'm getting a little behind on postings and have a ton of new material, but for now here is the remainder of the posts from last weekend.

On May 11 I headed into the park with the Riley family and we took the train down to the tip. I only had a few hours in the morning to bird the park as I had a family get-together near St Catherine's in the afternoon. It was a warm and calm morning and the lake was as calm as glass at the tip. I don't think I have ever seen the lake that calm before.

The reverse migration was slow but steady, with small numbers of the usual birds (orioles, Indigo Buntings, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, American Goldfinches, Blue Jays, Cedar Waxwings, some warblers, etc) flying off the tip into the slowly developing south wind. A Long-tailed Duck in fine breeding plumage was nice to see as it flew by the tip heading west. Long-tailed Duck can be a tough bird on western Lake Erie and they are more regular in the autumn than the spring at Pelee. Every May, however, one or two are seen with the duck flocks and other individuals may occasionally fly by. 

We had a nice group of warblers near the tip as well, containing Bay-breasted, Wilson's, Blackburnian, Blackpoll, etc. Both a male Hooded Warbler and Blue-winged Warbler reversed off the tip.

The main highlight of the morning was a yellow bellied kingbird that flew overhead in a beeline for Ohio, called out by Cameron Cox of Tropical Birding. Brandon and I both got photos, and they seem to point to the bird being a Western Kingbird. I was pretty happy with this as it was a new Pelee bird for me (#295). The bird was high and tough to pick out in the blue sky so only a dozen or so birders got it. 

Western Kingbird - Point Pelee National Park

But the excitement wasn't over after the Western! About half an hour later - BAM! Scissor-tailed Flycatcher flopping on by, heading out over the lake! A stunning bird and one that I had dreamed about seeing at the Reverse Migration Watch. Luckily I had my camera ready and nailed off a series of photos. 

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - Point Pelee National Park

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - Point Pelee National Park

Is this the same Scissor-tailed Flycatcher that was seen two days prior in the park? Considering it is a fairly rare bird it is easy to assume that it has to be the same bird. However, that bird was last seen flying off the tip at 6:00 PM two days prior. I think there is a pretty good chance that there are two birds involved, but who knows. I haven't really looked at the photos of the two birds closely enough to see if they are indeed different birds. 
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - Point Pelee National Park

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - Point Pelee National Park

We continued watching from the tip for another hour or so but the flight seemed to have died down, so I took the train back to the Visitor's Centre and drove home. After spending countless hours watching the reverse migration over the past three springs, it was nice to get some killer birds!!