Saturday 24 December 2016

Expedition to Netitishi - Days 9 and 10

Weather: 3 to 4 to 3 degrees C, wind WNW to NW 20-30 km/h, mostly overcast with some sun in aft, brief periods of light rain throughout day
30 species

We set our alarms for 7:00 AM and after a light breakfast headed out to the coast, eagerly anticipating the predicted northwest winds from our now two day old weather forecast. The winds were fairly light and out of the west-northwest by dawn, and we sat and waited for the day to brighten as the tide slowly receded from the high watermark reached an hour before sunrise. In general, the birding was very slow throughout the morning as the big flocks just did not materialize;  however, we finished with at least ten flocks each of Brant and dabbling ducks throughout the course of the day, though there were never any prolonged moments of activity. Other than occasional scoters and goldeneye very few waterbirds were observed today. Long-tailed Ducks kept us entertained as distant flocks twinkled against the deep gray sky, lit up by brief moments of sunshine during the afternoon, before continuing on to points further south. Redpolls were also on the move today and we tallied around 70 (still no Hoary, though!). I am sure that a percentage of the redpolls flying by are Hoaries, but it is difficult to see the flocks well and even more unusual to find a flock that is not on the move. A single Bohemian Waxwing also appeared at the top of a spruce, providing great looks despite the gloomy lighting conditions.

Bohemian Waxwing - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

Luckily the northwest winds, which had increased in intensity during the day, kept the low tide much closer than usual while the high tide was practically lapping at our feet. Todd and I kept watch, huddled back and nestled in among the spruces especially during the occasional rain shower. We wanted to be ready in case a rarity flew on past - totally possible given the weather conditions! I must admit though, it was difficult to remain vigilant since not much of anything was migrating in numbers. Even the shorebirds and gulls, common in previous days, were much reduced in numbers and we somehow managed to miss Sanderling and Black-bellied Plover for the day!

Shortly after 5:00 PM, Todd got on what he thought was a loon and using his directions I quickly set my scope on the bird. It turned out to be a Red-necked Grebe flying with some Red-breasted Mergansers; a minor rarity on James Bay and a trip bird. This kept our attention high for the remainder of the day. Twenty minutes later I was manning my scope while Todd walked out to check on the tide's progress. At one poit I noticed a close shorebird going by along the shoreline towards the east. Expecting a Dunlin, I was surprised to see it was actually a very dark, slightly larger shorebird - the first Purple Sandpiper of the trip. I eventually got Todd's attention but by then the bird was long gone. He had let his attention wane for no more than a couple of minutes and it was during this time that the bird of the day made its appearance. He was pretty bummed to have missed it, but luckily there is a lot of time left in the trip to see more. Of course it is better to miss a Purple Sandpiper than a rarity such as a Dovekie or shearwater!

I was able to eventually get through to Laura on the satellite phone in the evening - it was great to catch up with her! Laura also provided me with a weather forecast. While most of the next week will be dominated by southwest winds and warmer temperatures, northwest winds were forecasted for November 8, and by the 10th or 11th the temperatures will drop back down to the freezing mark with more northwest winds. That will likely be a big period of migration and likely will be our best shot for rarities, especially alcids and pelagic species. The warmer weather and strong southwest winds forecasted in the next few days could possibly push some species north to us so we will certainly be keeping a close eye on the chickadee flocks and the forest edges. We don't want to miss that vagrant Dark-eyed Junco! ;)

November 6, 2016
Weather: 4 to 10 to 7 degrees C, wind variable between SW and SE 20-30 km/h, clear skies
25 species

James Bay is full of surprises. Given that today's temperature reached a high mark of 11 degrees C, and we were able to walk around in t-shirts for most of the afternoon, it may seem surprising that our three "trip birds" today were all species we associate with colder, wintry weather: Hoary Redpoll, Snowy Owl and Black Guillemot.

Despite the poor wind conditions, the warm weather and clear blue skies certainly did wonders for our morale after endless days of gray skies and temperatures only a few degrees above freezing. The sun and warm breeze on our skin was a welcome sensation, something that made us temporarily forget about the lack of birds during a slow day of birding. The birding began with a male American Three-toed Woodpecker that Todd spotted as it worked over a spruce south of the cabins. We watched it for a while and it allowed a moderately close approach where we were able to obtain some photos. An awesome species that I never tire of.

American Three-toed Woodpecker - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

The waterbird flight was very slow throughout the day. We observed a grand total of three species of ducks, while our day list was missing species like Brant, Northern Pintail, Great Black-backed Gull, Sanderling and Dunlin. Despite finishing with only 25 species, our lowest daily species total of the trip so far, it was actually one of the more memorable days - quality over quantity, as they say.

It took over two months of autumn birding at Netitishi, but I finally ended my Snowy Owl curse when I spotted a bird on the flats to the west early in the morning. I located a second bird as well, a little further down the coast. At one point the more distant Snowy Owl managed to catch and eat a shorebird; likely a Black-bellied Plover. A Common Raven came by to clean up the scraps. While scoping the owl as it rested on a ridge soon afterwards, I was surprised to see a big falcon heading towards the owl. It was a brown Gyrfalcon, and I watched in awe as it dive-bombed the owl. Todd came back to the coast just in time to see this happen a second time. We walked west towards the creek mouth to have better views but eventually the gyr continued along down the coast.

Attempting to traverse the creek - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

We kept watch during the morning, though not much was flying and the haze over the water severely limited the visibility. Some redpolls were coming in off the bay and one flock contained a frosty-looking Hoary Redpoll, my first in quite some time.

The rest of the afternoon was very slow for birds. Todd went hunting (unsuccessfully) and then swam in the creek, while I walked to the meadows east of the point and relaxed at the cabin while the warm south winds continued unabated.

just a regular November day on James Bay

Insects began emerging - most were midges and flies - but we also spotted two Mourning Cloaks. This is a pretty late date for the species up here, but not unexpected given the conditions. Mourning Cloaks are one of the few butterfly species here in Ontario where the adults will overwinter in a sheltered area, awakening in the spring (or occasionally in the winter, if it is a sufficiently warm day!).

Mourning Cloak - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

As I was back at the cabins during the mid afternoon, I thought I heard distant yelling. Seconds later Todd came running down the trail leading to the cabins, screaming something about a guillemot! That grabbed my attention and I took off behind him in a dead sprint back to the coast, not worrying to grab my binoculars or camera ahead of time. I knew my scope was set up at the sea-watching shelter anyways!

After a tense 15 seconds of straining through our scopes, Todd re-found the Black Guillemot close to the shoreline. Even though the tide was already half-way in and the bird only a few hundred metres away, the haze and heat shimmer created from the warm air blowing over the bay made it very difficult to pick up fine details on the bird. While we were watching, I noticed a second Black Guillemot fly through my scope's view. We followed the small white alcid as it continued east, eventually losing it somewhere down the coast, while the original bird remained.

Todd scoping for guillemots - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

After fetching our scopes Todd and I walked out to the water line, in hopes of watching the Black Guillemot from close range with much reduced heat shimmer. The guillemot flew away during our walk, but 20 minutes after returning to the shelter we picked it up again with our scopes as it rested near the shoreline, so we tried once again. The sun was setting behind us as we made the long trek over the flats, but the bird stayed put and before long we were watching it through our scopes from a mere 30 or 40 meters away.

1st cycle Black Guillemot - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

Black Guillemot is an ocean species whose breeding range makes it to the islands in James and Hudson Bays. The only reliable place to see this species in Ontario is along the James Bay coast, with expeditions to Netitishi Point from late October to mid November being the best way to encounter them. That being said, this was only the second time that I had seen a guillemot at Netitishi Point, after having two birds together on October 29, 2012. My only other sighting for the province was a single bird, in breeding plumage no less, during my trip to Longridge Point in early August, 2012. Apart from James and Hudson Bays there is only one sighting for the rest of the province - a bird that spent 14-21 November, 2006 at Massey (west of Sudbury). It was of the eastern Arctic subspecies that breeds on James Bay, as expected given the location.

sunset at Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

It was a fantastic experience as we watched the bird from close range while it rested and preened just offshore. The setting sun behind us left a pink hue in the sky as the light faded. We stayed on the one remaining spit of land not yet submerged by the rising tide well after the sun had gone down, taking in every detail of the bird - our best looks by far of Ontario's only regular alcid species.  What an experience!

Todd scoping the Black Guillemot - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

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