Saturday, 12 March 2016

2015-2016 Ontario winter bird list

As we are now well into the month of March with temperatures rising well above the freezing mark and new spring migrants arriving daily, the winter birding season is now firmly in the rearview mirror. The winter birding season stretches from the beginning of December through the end of February and keeping a winter list has become a pretty popular thing to do throughout Canada (and gaining traction in the States as well). I was approached by the late Blake Maybank several years ago to see if I had any interest in compiling the Ontario sightings; this is now my fifth winter keeping track of the official list. For those interested, I have created a spreadsheet visible here which includes the tallies from all the winters since 2007-2008, as well as the cumulative total of species that have records during the winter period in Ontario.

This most recent iteration of winter was one of the mildest I can recall, and perhaps one of the mildest all time not only in Ontario but throughout much of North America. As a result it is no great surprise that 221 species were reported, our second highest total ever behind the 224 during the winter of 2011-2012. In general, the vast majority of "good" winter birds are found during the first few weeks of December, as lingering birds that are normally well south of Ontario are discovered before the cold winter weather really sets in. Generally, few birds are added to the list in the latter half of January and throughout February.

An exceptionally warm December this winter allowed many unusual birds to persist in this province until their discovery, as extended periods of temperatures below the freezing mark never happened in the south of the province. This set the tone for the rest of the winter; even into January, word of new species for the list kept trickling in.

The birders in Eastern Ontario produced many of Ontario's highlights in 2015 and they did not slow down into December. Ontario's first ever, and long-awaited, Pink-footed Goose was discovered near Casselman in late October, eventually continuing until December where it became the first "winter" record for the province. A Northern Fulmar was also discovered along the Ottawa River, one of few chaseable individuals of this species ever to be seen in the province. Unfortunately it was just a one-day wonder so only local birders were able to view it. A Summer Tanager survived much of the winter in Ottawa, an extremely late Wood Thrush was discovered on the Ottawa-Gatineau C.B.C. on December 20, while a Smew spent several at least 10 days on the St. Lawrence River west of Cornwall. One of the highlights of the winter period was a female Bullock's Oriole found in Pakenham that entertained many birders during its stay of over a month. In early January it was taken in to a rehabilitation center by those concerned about its well-being as it was emaciated and in very poor health. While at the rehab center, genetic tests were run on the bird. While the oriole's mitochondrial DNA suggested that somewhere down the line it had Baltimore Oriole genes on its mother's side, a nuclear DNA marker suggested that both of its parent's were Bullock's Orioles. An informative post about its identification can be found here.  

While eastern Ontario produced many of this winter's highlights, many other interesting birds were discovered throughout the province. One highlight for many birders was a Vermilion Flycatcher that was quite reliable for several weeks in late December near Wallaceburg - only the sixth or so for the province. This southwestern rarity is quite unusual in Canada and many birders added it to their lists during its stay.

Vermilion Flycatcher - Wallaceburg (December 19, 2015)

Many lingering warblers were discovered in the province including several at famous Sedgewick Park in Oakville. Here a Palm Warbler appears to have successfully overwintered, while a total of 14 warbler species were reported throughout the province. Other warbler highlights included a Black-throated Green Warbler in Guelph and a Yellow-breasted Chat in Kingston.

Providing what is likely the first winter record for Ontario, two Bewick's Swans were found in a large flock near Shrewsbury in early February. Unusually, one of the birds appeared to be partially leucistic, while the other was "normal". I'm not sure what this means for the provenance of these individuals, and I'm not sure if we will ever know.

A Eurasian Tree Sparrow attended a feeder on the Bruce Peninsula from late November into at least early January, one of very few winter records for the province. In the last few years there have been quite a few records of this species in Ontario; a species native to Eurasia but introduced into the midwestern United States. It is presumed that the birds showing up in Ontario are natural vagrants from the Illinois/Iowa/Missouri population. The widely reported and long-staying individual in Niagara-on-the-Lake during the winter of 2014-2015 received much more fanfare as it was the first chaseable one during the winter.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow - Niagara-on-the-Lake (December 5, 2014)

February is often a slow month for birding during Ontario - few rarities are observed, and most birders are at that point where they are just waiting for spring to arrive. I am also guilty of this and do my very best to vacate the province in search of warmer climates during the later stages of winter However, one intrepid birder discovered an Audubon's Yellow-rumped Warbler at Point Pelee, while a Spotted Towhee appeared at a feeder in Thunder Bay on February 7.

Mountain Bluebird had a good showing in the eastern part of North America for the first time in several winters. Two separate individuals were discovered within Ontario's borders including one south of Ottawa and this bird which spent about two weeks in late November/early December at Hall's Road, Whitby.

Mountain Bluebird - Whiby (November 30, 2015)

One of the least expected birds from this past winter was an Empidonax flycatcher discovered west of Kingsville in Essex County during the Cedar Creek C.B.C. on December 19. Any Empid found late in the autumn raises alarms as more often than not it ends up being one of the southwestern species. Numerous excellent photos were obtained of this bird and opinions of its identification included Yellow-bellied, Acadian and Western (Pacific-slope/Cordilleran), with the consensus at this time being that the bird was in fact a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. This is one of very few winter records of Yellow-bellied Flycatcher for North America; needless to say almost unheard of in Ontario and quite possibly the bird of the winter! I know that several birders were hoping that it would turn out to be a first provincial record Western Flycatcher, as quite a few of them were discovered in the northeast during late autumn and early winter, but Yellow-bellied was even more unexpected. Unfortunately the bird was not relocated on subsequent days.

Quite a few other rarities observed in the province during the winter included a flyby Great Cormorant in Stoney Creek, a Eurasian Collared-Dove attending a feeder in Earlton, Timiskaming District, and a Rufous Hummingbird at a residence near Rice Lake. Two separate Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches were observed in northern Ontario as well - one in Thunder Bay and the other in Atikokan. This western finch has become annual in recent winters. Providing one of few winter records for Ontario, a Sora was discovered in Toronto and observed sporadically over an eight day period.

Pine Grosbeak - White River (January 25, 2012)

While it was a fantastic winter for the number of rarities that were seen, many of the winter specialties such as owls and finches remaining mostly in the north. Moderate numbers of Snowy Owls appeared in the southern part of the province, but Boreal, Great Gray and Northern Hawk Owls were all but absent. Crossbills, Pine Grosbeaks and Evening Grosbeaks were also fairly scarce (though the two grosbeaks were regular in central and northern Ontario), but redpolls showed up in moderate numbers. Bohemian Waxwings were also fairly scarce though a few flocks could be found here and there. 

There were no really big misses last winter, but, as is always the case there were a handful of species that usually are seen at some point that failed to show last winter. Some of these misses include Blue-winged Teal (found in 6 of last 8 winters),  Slaty-backed Gull (found in 6 of last 8 winters), Pomarine Jaeger (found in 5 of last 8 winters), and "Hornemann's" Hoary Redpoll (found in 5 of last 8 winters).

It was a great winter of birding, but spring is well on its way with new migrants arriving daily, and we are only about six weeks away from the first neotropical migrants. Bring it on!

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