Thursday, 5 January 2017

New Year's Day birding

It isn't too difficult for most birders to work up the motivation early in January. Every year list has been reset to zero, meaning that many birders are busy scouring their local patches or traveling further afield to discover birds for the new year list. The initial days of 2017 were no different for me as I was birding with Jeremy Bensette, helping him search for a few rarities early in the year as part of his Ontario big year attempt.

After spending a few days in Nova Scotia with Laura's family, my return flight was scheduled to land in Toronto by early evening on New Year's eve. The plan was for me to pick up Henrique Pacheco and then travel to my place in Niagara Falls, where we would be meeting up with Jeremy Bensette late in the evening. However plans do not often go exactly as planned. My flight left Halifax on time, but more than halfway through the flight there was an announcement on the PA system. Due to a mechanical failure with some instrument involved in de-icing, it would not be safe to land the plane in Toronto as it was snowing at the time, and we thus had to return to Halifax.

A plane that supposedly had all mechanical components in proper working order was waiting for us back in Halifax. Fortunately all of the passengers were quite civil about the whole experience and no one caused a scene, likely a relief for the flight crew - it can't be much fun being the bearer of bad news. We were airborne in short order, and it was almost 11:00 PM when we finally touched down on the Toronto islands. I celebrated the clock striking midnight by myself on the GO train - kind of anti-climatic!

The plane shenanigans changed the plans for Jeremy, Henrique and I. Jeremy decided to stay in Leamington for the night, planning to leave bright and early to try for the Smith's Longspur at Long Point. Due to my late arrival home, I slept in a bit and planned on skipping out on the longspur, instead meeting Jeremy at the Lark Sparrow stakeout in Toronto. Henrique would also join up with us in Toronto.

It was late morning by the time I returned to Toronto. The sun was shining and the temperature was quite reasonable, while winds remained light - just a gorgeous day! Fortunately the Lark Sparrow was quite cooperative as well, and after 20 minutes or so Jeremy and I located it in some vine tangles near where someone had placed a pile of bird seed.

Lark Sparrow - Toronto

This was the first time that I had observed a Lark Sparrow in the winter in Ontario; my previous sightings have all occurred during the spring or autumn. This bird was originally found by Matt Dil, a co-worker of mine, back on December 7, 2016 and has since remained faithful to a small patch of land within this industrial area.

Lark Sparrow - Toronto

The Lark Sparrow appeared active and healthy during our visit and showed no ill effects from surviving a month of winter in Canada. It was in the process of molting its tail feathers, and appeared to be starting to grow some of them back in. Lark Sparrow is a pretty hardy sparrow and it would not be to surprising if this individual lasted the winter, provided that a regular food source remains.

Lark Sparrow - Toronto

As a few Rock Pigeons flew over, I snapped a couple of poor shots of one of them. Why would I bother, you may ask? Well, Rock Pigeon was one species that for some reason I had never photographed in Ontario, despite my goal of photographing as many species of birds as possible in Ontario. For now, this will have to do...my only photo of Rock Pigeon in Ontario, #358.

Rock Pigeon - Toronto

It was around this time that we heard about the Slaty-backed Gull that had been found on the New York side of the river at Niagara Falls. Unfortunately it was not visible from the Ontario side of the river, but Jeremy wanted to begin driving to Niagara in case it was relocated in Ontario. While he went in his vehicle to pick up Henrique, I began the drive down the QEW towards Niagara.

I made a brief stop at the lift bridge in Hamilton, where the numbers of birders/photographers was approximately equal to the numbers of Long-tailed Ducks that had congregated in one large flock in the canal. I was actually a little surprised at how many photographers there were! It was good to see everyone out and about enjoying the Long-tailed Ducks and other waterfowl on this gorgeous day, though the crowds were a little too thick for me to want to hang around for too long.

Long-tailed Ducks - lift bridge, Hamilton

Long-tailed Duck - lift bridge, Hamilton

One of the resident Peregrine Falcons was perched on the lift bridge, while a flock of Rock Pigeons nervously sat on the Skyway bridge. Waterfowl were well-represented and I took some digiscoped photos of the female King Eider that was sleeping alongside some scoters.

Jeremy and Henrique joined me in Niagara-on-the-Lake for the evening gull flypast, though it never seemed to materialize for us and we finished within less than a hundred Bonaparte's Gulls. I have noticed this before on really nice, calm days without any cloud cover, but can't provide an explanation why.

As darkness descended Jeremy was sitting pretty with two good birds from a big year perspective (Smith's Longspur and Lark Sparrow), with plans of searching for the two unusual gulls the following day.

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