Monday, 19 June 2017

Violet-green Swallow twitch to Thunder Bay

On June 12 local Thunder Bay birder Chris Johnston observed an unusual looking swallow at the Thunder Bay marina. She deduced that the bird was a female Violet-green Swallow and posted her sighting to the NWObirds group, the message board for bird sightings in northwestern Ontario. The most unusual aspect of Chris' discovery was that the Violet-green Swallow appeared to be paired up with a male Tree Swallow. They were seen carrying nesting material into one of the nest boxes and the male would chase off other prospective suitors. While Violet-green Swallow and Tree Swallow look superficially similar, this hybrid combination is quite rare, and has only been documented a couple of times.

The Violet-green Swallow continued to be seen the following day and appeared to be getting comfortable so I decided to do something crazy - I would fly up to Thunder Bay to chase this bird. After all, Violet-green Swallow is a species that had only been observed four times previously in the province, with none of those birds particularly chase-able (though a lucky few were successful with the Ottawa bird in 2013). Opportunities to chase birds that would be new to my Ontario list are few and far between these days and Violet-green Swallow is definitely one worth trying for. I convinced Jeremy Bensette to come along with me and by 11:00 that evening we were on a flight to Thunder Bay, using some of my saved up aeroplan points. It just so happened that Glenn Stronks, a local Thunder Bay birder, was also on our flight as he was returning home after a few days of work in Toronto. Glenn kindly offered his place for us to stay for the night, and by 1:30 his wife, Joanne, had picked the three of us up and driven us back to their place.

The morning dawned windy and cold with a steel gray sky and the threat of rain. After an hour on site Glenn, Jeremy and I had not seen the Violet-green Swallow and an iota of worry began to creep into my brain. While we waited, this Beaver swam past us, not the least bit concerned with our presence. I guess this one is used to a lot of foot traffic.

Beaver - Thunder Bay marina

At approximately 9:20 AM an "interesting" looking swallow materialized then quickly vanished into the nest box that we had staked out, followed closely by what appeared to be a male Tree Swallow. After a tense few seconds a swallow appeared at the entrance of the nest box - it was the Violet-green! We all instantly felt a wave of relief; at least I did!

female Violet-green Swallow -Thunder Bay marina

The hour long wait was well worth it as the Violet-green Swallow continued to hang around the area for the next few hours. It would alternate between sitting in the nest box, perching on nearby poplars and a dead snag directly in front of the next box, and foraging over the nearby pool and surrounding fields.

female Violet-green Swallow - Thunder Bay marina

We quickly clued into its routine and over time she became very easy to pick out in flight among the other swallows due to her smaller size and unique impression she gave off due to her white face and collar and extensive white along the sides of her rump. This is one of few flight photos of mine that turned out; unfortunately not showing any of the above mentioned features!

female Violet-green Swallow -Thunder Bay marina

The male Tree Swallow kept a close eye on his exotic beauty, keeping watch especially when she was inside of the nest box, though they both took turns entering the nest box. We never did see either bird carry nesting material into the box but they certainly appeared to be paired up, with the male making several unsuccessful copulation attempts!

female Violet-green Swallow (left) and male Tree Swallow (in box) -Thunder Bay marina

male Tree Swallow (left) and female Violet-green Swallow -Thunder Bay marina

male Tree Swallow (in flight) and female Violet-green Swallow -Thunder Bay marina

female Violet-green Swallow -Thunder Bay marina

With nothing better to do (what could top a cooperative Violet-green Swallow?) Jeremy and I continued to bird around the pond, occasionally connecting with local birders who dropped in to take a look. It was great to run into Michael Butler who was in the area for field work, as well as Fred Jennings who I hadn't seen since January of 2012 back when he was hosting a Spotted Towhee at his house in Longlac. Chris Johnston, the finder of the Violet-green Swallow, soon arrived to check in on the rare visitor. Chris, along with her husband Jim, chauffeured Jeremy and I around for a few hours in the afternoon to visit a few local hospots. The generosity of people in northern Ontario always amazes me!

female Violet-green Swallow -Thunder Bay marina

While Violet-green Swallows appear somewhat similar to Tree Swallows there are some clear differences. Overall Tree Swallows are a bit larger, though this is difficult to see without direct comparison to other swallows. Violet-green Swallow also has much longer wings which extend well past the tail tip when at rest.

female Violet-green Swallow (left) and male Tree Swallow -Thunder Bay marina

female Violet-green Swallow -Thunder Bay marina

One of the more noticeable features, as I mentioned above, is the extensive white, which wraps around the sides of the rump so that the bird shows much more white from above. Violet-green Swallows also show much more white on the face including the area above the eye, while Tree Swallows have a striking blue head with while restricted to the lower half of the face. This feature is a little reduced on females but is a striking field mark on males.  Being a female, the Violet-green Swallow had a neat brown cap contrasting with the green of the upper back.

female Violet-green Swallow -Thunder Bay marina

Violet-green Swallow quite clearly gets its name from the brilliant green and violet feathers that adorn its mantle and rump feathers. Even the females, normally the duller sex in the bird world, are strikingly beautiful. Even apart from its rarity in this part of the world this makes it a bird worthy of study. 

female Violet-green Swallow -Thunder Bay marina

During our stay both the male Tree Swallow and female Violet-green Swallow frequently entered the nest box, though nesting material was never observed being brought in. During a lull in the action when both birds were foraging over the pond we took a quick look inside of the nest box. While the bottom was covered with feathers a defined nest was not present, nor were any eggs. Birders visiting a few days later noted a possible predation event by a Red Squirrel. The rodent visited the nest box for a few minutes to the agitation of the two swallows, though it was apparently unclear whether it actually consumed any eggs. It will be interesting to see in the coming days if the Violet-green Swallow continues to frequent the area and if she attempts to nest.

female Violet-green Swallow -Thunder Bay marina

Finally by early afternoon we tore ourselves away after a thoroughly enjoyable five hours with the bird. Chris Johnston and her husband Jim offered to drive us to Mission Island to see what birds and mammals we could scare up. Some of the deer on Mission Island are exceedingly tame, leading to easy photo ops.

After an enjoyable few hours birding with Jim and Chris we made our way back to the airport as our flight back home beckoned. The trip may have only been just 26 hours in length but it will certainly go down as one of the highlights of the year. Thanks to Glenn and Joanne for their hospitality and to Chris for discovering the bird!

Friday, 9 June 2017

Early April herping

Early April in southern Ontario is the ideal time to do two of my absolute favorite activities. The first is searching for amphibians, in particular Ambystomatid salamanders, as they migrate to and breed in ephemeral wetlands. The second activity is returning to a favored location where it is easy to see dozens of Northern Ribbonsnakes, Eastern Gartersnakes and other species as they bask on wooded hillsides near where they spent the previous winter hibernating within. Back on April 8/9 I had the opportunity to do both activities!

Saturday was a glorious warm, sunny day, and though Laura and I had plans earlier in the day, we decided to head down to our favorite set of ponds near Cambridge that evening. The temperature would be dropping to the low single digits overnight and rain was not in the forecast so we were not expecting to see the mass rush of Blue-spotted and Spotted Salamanders heading to the ponds. That being said, it was a nice night to be out and we had a lot of fun turning up some herps. Stepping out of the car, the chorus created by the Spring Peepers and Western Chorus Frogs was deafening, while the low, quacking calls of the Wood Frogs could also be heard if one was listening closely.

We spent a little bit of time searching for Four-toed Salamanders and eventually turned up two individuals. This diminutive species is one of my favorites and always a treat to see. While somewhat common in suitable habitat in Ontario, Four-toed Salamanders are rarely observed except by those searching specifically for this species. Unlike the much more common Red-backed Salamander that any naturalist in Ontario would be familiar with, a species which can be found in a variety of woodland habitats, Four-toed Salamanders are quite specialized in their habitat choices and prefer treed swamps with an abundance of sphagnum moss. The salamanders spend much of the year living inside clumps of moss, with females laying their clutch of eggs in a section of sphagnum overhanging a pool so that the freshly-hatched larvae can drop down into the water. I have occasionally found this species under logs and rocks throughout the forest, but most of my sightings involve individuals hiding within the sphagnum. One has to take care so as to not rip or dislodge chunks of moss when looking for this salamander as it is very easy to damage this type of habitat. I did not have my camera with me this time so here is a photo of one from a few years ago.

Four-toed Salamander

After our success with the Four-toed Salamanders we met up with a friend of ours from university, Pauline, who had recently moved back to Guelph after a stint in Winnipeg. The three of us explored a large pond that has been productive in the past. Even though the wetland was beginning to fill in and a few small fish were seen along the edges, salamanders were still breeding in the pond as numerous egg masses were visible. Most were from Spotted Salamanders but there were also a few from the Blue-spotted/Jefferson Salamander complex as well. Eastern Newts were quite commonly seen here; no doubt they prey on the numerous salamander eggs. While the frenzied rush of breeding had likely already occurred there were still a few salamanders in the wetland and we were happy to see a couple of Spotted Salamanders. Below is a photo of one from a few years back.

Spotted Salamander

The following day I returned to the same area with Laura as well as my parents as it was forecast to be a warm, sunny afternoon; perfect for snaking!

Before beginning our hike we went for a drive to see if we could turn up any interesting birds in the nearby fields. Great looks were had of a pair of Eastern Bluebirds, a favorite of my mom's, but the highlight was this pair of Sandhill Cranes that were content to forage on a lawn not far from us.

Sandhill Cranes

Upon our arrival it was evident that it would be a perfect day to find snakes and it did not take long before we came across our first few rustlers, easily audible from several meters away. Finding snakes is as much about listening as it is seeing, especially in a forest carpeted with dead, crispy leaves this time of year!

Laura with a Northern Ribbonsnake

Eastern Gartersnake

Northern Ribbonsnake

This particular woodland is home to about equal numbers of Eastern Gartersnakes and Northern Ribbonsnakes. While most people in southern Ontario are quite familiar with Eastern Gartersnake, the latter is a species at risk that is more restricted in its habitat preferences.

The Northern Ribbonsnakes at this site prefer to spend their summers in several large wetlands, but they appear to hibernate in certain wooded hillsides surrounding the wetlands. In early spring it is easy to see a dozen or more in an hour, if you pick a suitable hillside with ample hibernacula opportunities and a southwest facing slope. This one we spotted before it spotted us, allowing a stealthy approach. It happened to be coiled in a very photogenic position and remained there for a few minutes while we photographed it.

Northern Ribbonsnake

Occasionally one can find Dekay's Brownsnake or Northern Redbelly Snake at this site, especially during early spring when they are more likely to be discovered out and about. Mom made a great spot with this tiny redbelly, moving through the leaf litter.

Northern Redbelly Snake

Many of the woodland wildflowers bloom in April and May, before the profusion of new green leaves in the canopy later in the spring limit the amount of sunlight that filters to the ground.

Round-lobed Hepatica

Several of the vernal ponds were alive with the odd quacking calls of Wood Frogs. Wood Frogs are one of the earliest amphibians to become active in the spring and they are likely the quickest to wrap up their breeding activities. While other early spring breeding species like Western Chorus Frog and Spring Peeper will call into late spring and even early summer, Wood Frogs usually go silent by the middle or end of April; their sprawling, globular egg masses the only remaining evidence of their presence.

Wood Frog

Wood Frog

Several butteflies were flitting around - about even numbers of Mourning Cloaks and Eastern Commas.

Eastern Comma

Birds were few and far between on this spring day as our attention was focused elsewhere, though occasional individuals were identified. Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Brown Creepers were in full song; nice to hear after a long winter!

It was an awesome spring weekend with some of my favorite people!

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Shorebirding at the Hearst lagoons

Since Thursday I have been crisscrossing  the northeast region of Ontario with a coworker on a work trip. Starting in Barrie, our route has taken us north to Sudbury, Matheson, Englehart, Temagami, Hearst, Chapleau and now Wawa. We still have dates in Chapleau, Sault Ste Marie and Sudbury before heading back this weekend, which will thus conclude a busy but productive week and a half in northern Ontario.

On Sunday I had a few hours free in the evening so I took a swing south of town towards the sewage lagoons. The Hearst lagoons are some of the most productive for birds that I have seen in Ontario. Four massive cells are arranged in a square while three smaller cells are arranged off to one side. On most visits it is not uncommon to see a thousand or more individual ducks and the rarity potential is always quite high. The surrounding forest contains a typical representation of boreal species, providing a nice soundtrack while one is scanning through the ducks.

Early June is peak migration season for several arctic breeding shorebirds. While the surrounding landscape doesn't provide much in way of habitat for migrating shorebirds, the Hearst sewage lagoons stand out like a shimmering oasis for those birds that are looking for somewhere to land that isn't at the top of a Black Spruce.

I was barely halfway through scanning across the northeast cell when two tiny shorebirds appeared on the water, dwarfed by the surrounding ducks. Of course a few seconds later my presence was detected by the wary waterfowl with most birds taking off in one raucous flock, splitting off into smaller factions before landing in more distant cells. A scope can look suspiciously like something more dangerous to these ducks! Fortunately, the two shorebirds had remained, perched in the water and spinning around, picking at morsels of food. They were two Red-necked Phalaropes molting into their breeding plumage, a species I don't see too often in the spring.

Red-necked Phalaropes - Hearst lagoons, Cochrane District

Red-necked Phalarope is one of three species of phalarope found in the world; the other two being Wilson's Phalarope and Red Phalarope. Wilson's Phalarope is considered more of a terrestrial species than the other two as it breeds across the prairies of North America. Both Red-necked and Red Phalaropes breed high in the Arctic, spending the majority of the rest of the year in flocks out in the open ocean. At least part of the population will migrate overland though few pit stops are needed on this journey. Luckily, I happened to be in Hearst around the time that these two dropped in. Red-necked Phalaropes in breeding plumage are pretty cool looking shorebirds; its too bad these ones were on the other side of the lagoon!

Another fun fact about phalaropes is that they exhibit a reverse sex-role. The females are larger with brighter colours and will display/fight over the males, while the smaller, more cryptic males will take care of all aspects of incubation and chick care. The females will even begin their southbound migration earlier in the summer, leaving the males to finish rearing the chicks.

Red-necked Phalaropes - Hearst lagoons, Cochrane District

The Red-necked Phalaropes were fun to see but soon I came across an even rarer shorebird in these parts. As I was scanning some Bonaparte's Gulls in the next cell I noticed a few shorebirds on the muddy edge of the lagoon. Among them was a Willet! I was without my camera but was able to take a few digiscoped photos of the bird as it foraged in the shallows.

Willet - Hearst lagoons, Cochrane District

Willet comprises two subspecies. The Atlantic form is seldom found far from the ocean, ranging from the Canadian Maritime provinces south to South America. The Western form breeds in the prairies in western North America, migrating to both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. In Ontario Western Willets are a rare but regular spring migrant in southwestern Ontario, particularly in Essex, Chatham-Kent and Norfolk counties. They are rare further east and north in the province but there are usually a handful seen each spring along Lake Ontario.

Willet - Hearst lagoons, Cochrane District

There are currently 20 accepted records of Willet for northern Ontario, though there are several more that have not been submitted to the OBRC. Of the 20, most sightings are of single birds in Thunder Bay District during the spring, though there have also been a flock of 9 and a flock of 12. A further four records are from the Rainy River area while two are from the Hudson Bay coast. New Liskeard, Marathon, and Neys Provincial Park all have one accepted record. This is the second record for Cochrane District I believe; the first was a bird found by Doug McRae and Liam Curson on August 22, 2016 at Longridge Point in southern James Bay.

Willet - Hearst lagoons, Cochrane District

So far we do not yet have our first accepted record of Eastern Willet for Ontario, though there have been a couple of birds that have shown traits of this subspecies including one from earlier this year in Toronto.

I think the Hearst bird is of the expected western subspecies. Eastern Willet is smaller and streakier with more brown tones in its plumage along with a shorter, stubbier bill, while Western has longer legs and a longer bill, as well as a paler gray plumage among a few other features. There can be a fair bit of variation among individual birds. I sent the photos to a few people and the consensus is that this is an adult Western Willet in high breeding plumage. The birds we see in southern Ontario in the spring are often much grayer; likely because they haven't finished their molt.
Willet size comparison with Lesser Yellowlegs - Hearst lagoons, Cochrane District

For comparison to the Hearst bird, here are some photos of Willets from southwestern Ontario in early May.

Willets - Point Pelee National Park (May 2, 2013)

Willet - Point Pelee National Park (May 2, 2013)

Willet - Point Pelee National Park (May 1, 2014)

One striking fieldmark among an otherwise relatively plain gray bird is the bold black and white wing pattern, visible when the bird is in flight. This photo below was taken at the Blenheim lagoons on September 4, 2015.

Willet - Blenheim lagoons (September 4, 2015)

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Clay-colored Sparrow in Niagara Falls

On May 21, Bob Highcock and Jean Hampson discovered a singing Clay-colored Sparrow in an old field along Dell Road in Niagara Falls. The other day I dropped by the spot and had already heard the bird singing its distinctive song (2-5 low, monotone buzzes) before I had stopped my car.

Clay-colored Sparrow - Niagara Falls

The bird was not too bothered by my presence and with a bit of patience I was able to take some reasonable photos from a close distance. While I was watching it, a second Clay-colored sounded off in the distance.

Clay-colored Sparrow - Niagara Falls

Clay-colored Sparrow is a common species throughout the prairies in the center of North America, but in southern Ontario it is a relatively rare species. Within Niagara Region Clay-colored Sparrow has always been considered an extremely rare breeding species, though in my experience they are increasing in number and I have observed birds on territory in a handful of different locations. In particular, a lot of the lands bordering the Welland Canal provide suitable habitat for Clay-colored Sparrow.  I wish I had more free time during June and July (my busiest season at work) to explore some of these areas!

Clay-colored Sparrow - Niagara Falls

Clay-colored Sparrow - Niagara Falls

Eventually I continued on my way after an enjoyable half an hour in the Clay-colored field. I did not find a female while I was there, but hopefully one shows up soon! The Clay-colored Sparrow was still buzzing away as I drove away from the field.

Clay-colored Sparrow - Niagara Falls

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Point Pelee weekend - Part 2 (Sunday and Monday)

A significant migration appeared to take place overnight so spirits were high as Dan Riley and I entered the park. We were not disappointed and had a great morning of birding.

Within minutes of our arrival at the Tip word got out about a singing Kirtland's Warbler located on the boardwalk directly south of the tram loop. Apparently it was loudly singing for quite some time before someone clued in that it was in fact a Kirtland's who was singing! Dan and I rushed over and were treated to good, though backlit, views of the warbler as it flitted among the red cedars, occasionally giving us all a rendition of his explosive song.

Kirtland's Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

I was thrilled with the sighting since Kirtland's Warbler is a species that I have not had much luck with over the years. I had only viewed two individuals previously: the first was a bird I discovered along the West Beach footpath at Point Pelee on May 22, 2010, and the second was a singing male on territory in Petawawa in 2012, though I only managed a few glimpses of that bird between singing bouts.

The Kirtland's disappeared after a few minutes so Dan and I made a hasty retreat from the area just as the next wave of birders and photographers arrived on the tram. A few minutes later and we had relocated the Kirtland's with some other birders on the western side of the Tip; the stampede of birders followed shortly thereafter!

Kirtland's Warbler mob - Point Pelee National Park

The rest of the morning was pretty productive as Dan and I birded with Steve Pike and later with Pauline Catling and her mom. We focused on the west side of the park and walked most of the trails from the Tip to Dunes. A distant Olive-sided Flycatcher in Sparrow Field was nice to see.

Olive-sided Flycatcher - Point Pelee National Park

I went out of my way to take this poor photo of a Gray-cheeked Thrush, a new one for my "Photographed in Ontario" list. The Gray-cheeked was one of the few low-hanging fruits left; now, the easiest remaining species are Connecticut Warbler, King Rail, Yellow Rail, Northern Gannet and California Gull. A tall order!

Gray-cheeked Thrush - Point Pelee National Park

As we passed the trail leading to the Pioneer parking lot we stopped abruptly as a White-eyed Vireo belted out its distinctive song from the trailside shrubbery. Awesome! White-eyed Vireo, while common in much of its range to the south, is quite scarce in Ontario with only a handful of breeding pairs. They are an uncommon species at Point Pelee, where most individuals sighted in the spring are likely overshoots.

White-eyed Vireo - Point Pelee National Park

After taking a break for a couple of hours in the afternoon I headed back into the park, specifically to see if the Kirtland's Warbler was still around. Prior to my encounter with the bird earlier in the day I had never photographed a Kirtland's Warbler, so I was hoping to improve on my poor record shots from earlier!

I had barely entered the park when three Cattle Egrets were reported from just outside the park along Concession E. Since I was only a few minutes away I drove by to check them out as they went about their business, searching for grasshoppers in the grass.

Cattle Egret - Leamington onion fields

Leaving Concession E I quickly checked my phone before returning into the park. There was a new message on WEPbirds, the local listserv, about a White-winged Dove that was visiting Tern Inn, a bed and breakfast operated by Kelly Moore and Heidi Staniforth, two local birders. What a great bird for their yard! I raced over to their place, seeing many familiar faces who had arrived in the minutes preceding me. Sure enough the White-winged Dove was perched in one of the backyard tree, and after a few minutes dropped onto the fence. I only stayed for a few minutes since I wanted to get back into the park before it was too late in the evening. White-winged Dove is a common species in much of North and Central America but is still a rare species in Ontario. This was my first for Point Pelee, as it was for many of the other birders there. Great find, Heidi and Kelly.

White-winged Dove - Leamington

It only took a few minutes of searching before I re-located the Kirtland's Warbler at the Tip. Along with two other photographers I enjoyed studying the bird at close range as it foraged for insects, lit up with the evening sunshine. Eventually it came close enough for a few photos as well. I must admit, having the bird to myself was a welcome contrast to the pandemonium of the morning. Don't get me wrong, the interest in birds and birding is fantastic to see and it is great that so many people want to observe a reported Kirtland's Warbler, but it can be a little difficult to enjoy the bird among the chaos!

Kirtland's Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Kirtland's Warbler was on the brink of extinction but due to the careful management of their breeding habitat, namely young Jack Pine stands, the population has increased to approximately 5,000 individuals, most confined to a small portion of Michigan. It is a rare but somewhat regular migrant through southwestern Ontario in the spring and most years 3-8 individuals are sighted, with the majority of individuals found at Point Pelee.

Kirtland's Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

This Orange-crowned Warbler was a little further up along the path from the Kirtland's. It was by far the most "cooperative" Orange-crowned I have ever encountered, allowing a prolonged photo shoot. They say that one of the field marks for Orange-crowned Warbler is that it exhibits a lack of field marks, but I think they have a subtle beauty. Of course it is easier to appreciate this when watching one flit about only a few feet away, in gorgeous evening light.
Orange-crowned Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Orange-crowned Warbler - Point Pelee National

The Monday was a protracted day of birding as I had a four hour drive ahead of me to get back home, and I was hoping to be back in a reasonable time. The birding was pretty steady all morning on Monday as well, though songbird numbers appeared to be a little lower than the previous day.

This Northern Mockingbird was a nice surprise along the east side of the tip. They are not too common of a sight in the Point Pelee circle.

Northern Mockingbird - Point Pelee National Park

After birding at the Tip for a couple of hours, I was walking back up the road with a few others when a singing Cerulean Warbler caught the attention of our ears. This was most likely the same bird that was seen right at the Tip earlier in the morning but which had disappeared before too many birders had seen it. Cerulean's are one of my favorites and not a species I see in migration every year. It stayed a little ways up in the canopy but occasionally ventured low enough where photos were possible. Cerulean Warbler is yet another species of bird that has declined substantially in recent years.

Cerulean Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

The most popular bird of the day was the female Blue Grosbeak that Pete Read discovered in Sparrow Field. A nice bird to be able to study in Ontario, and one that I don't see every year. Thanks, Pete!

Blue Grosbeak - Point Pelee National Park

And with that, another fantastic weekend had come and gone. It is amazing how quickly May seems to go by...