Sunday, 19 March 2017

Northern trip - Owl and mammal encounters

After our extended redpoll photo session at Hilliardton Marsh the four of us hopped back into our vehicles to start driving northwest towards Cochrane and beyond. We weren't sure how far we would make it that night, perhaps we would be arriving at the burn near Hearst in the late afternoon, or it might be something we would postpone until the following morning.

It was another beautiful day - sunny with not a cloud in the sky - though the temperature hovered around the -20 mark. We kept an eye out of the truck windows while we drove, in hopes of seeing birds, but as expected very little was around. It is a poor winter for finches in this part of Ontario, and large swathes of the boreal forest can be practically devoid of birds during the winter. We had hoped to see a Northern Hawk Owl or two as higher than usual numbers had been reported along Highway 11, but it was not to be.

After gassing up and grabbing a few groceries in Cochrane, Jeremy and I drove north to investigate some agricultural fields, while Todd and Mark headed northeast from Cochrane, checking a few other roads. It was here that I had one of the most memorable mammal experiences that I have ever had. We approached a dead end road and decided to turn onto a different road, when at the last second decided that we might as well drive to the end of the dead end road anyways. You never know what could be down there! Just as Jeremy was backing the truck up, a white flash appeared on the shoulder of the road. Jeremy let out some choice words just as I saw what was happening. A Short-tailed Weasel was trotting alongside the shoulder of the road right towards us!!

What happened next was seemingly unreal, and though the entire encounter lasted about 30 seconds, it felt like it was ten times as long. The weasel quickly dove into the roadside snowbank and pulled out a vole, which I think is a Meadow Vole. In a matter of seconds it had pierced the back of the skull, swiftly killing the vole, then took off running along the roadside and into a nearby field, proudly carrying its prey. A few seconds later and it had ducked into a hole along the side of a snow pile.

Short-tailed Weasel and vole sp. - north of Cochrane

Short-tailed Weasel and vole sp. - north of Cochrane

Short-tailed Weasel and vole sp. - north of Cochrane

Short-tailed Weasel and vole sp. - north of Cochrane

Jeremy and I were in shock! This was only the second Short-tailed Weasel that I had ever seen (I think Jeremy had seen two previously), and to not only see it well but to watch it hunt was pretty incredible.

We continued on, getting back on Highway 11 and driving west towards Hearst. Most towns were pretty quiet, bird wise, but wherever we found bird feeders we also discovered small numbers of Pine Grosbeaks and Common Redpolls. Interestingly, the redpolls were mostly Common Redpolls, while at Hilliardton Marsh Hoary Redpoll was the dominant species.

Pine Grosbeak - Moonbeam, Cochrane District

Pine Grosbeak - Moonbeam, Cochrane District

To this point we were kind of surprised that we had not encountered any Northern Hawk Owls, given how many had been reported during the last month. Our luck finally changed near the town of Opasatika as Todd and Mark, driving ahead of us, had spotted one from the highway.

Northern Hawk Owl - east of Opasatika, Cochrane District

Originally the bird was quite distant on the edge of a wetland and just when I was about to look at it through the scope it dropped off its snag and disappeared. Ten seconds later, a black and white, falcon-shaped bird came streaking in, flying directly at us, and came up for a landing on a nearby utility pole. It was the hawk owl! The lighting was terrible where I was standing, but Jeremy managed to grab some great in-flight shots!

A few seconds later the owl re-positioned, landing on the top of a conifer. We enjoyed the few minutes here with the owl before it continued on to a more distant perch at the edge of the marsh. Just incredible!

Northern Hawk Owl - east of Opasatika, Cochrane District

Northern Hawk Owl - east of Opasatika, Cochrane District

Northern Hawk Owl - east of Opasatika, Cochrane District

The flood gates had been opened and only fifteen minutes later Jeremy and I came across another Northern Hawk Owl. Mark and Todd showed up a few minutes later to enjoy this bird as well.

Watching the Northern Hawk Owl (can you spot it?)

Northern Hawk Owl - west of Opasatika, Cochrane District

We were making good time and so decided that we would continue driving west past Hearst towards Longlac to spend the night. The time of day was perfect for owls, though no more would make an appearance for us.

At one point as I was staring diligently out of the window I was shocked to see a Gray Wolf standing in the snow. We quickly turned the truck around; luckily the wolf had remained.

Gray Wolf - west of Hearst, Cochrane District

I've seen occasional Gray Wolves in northern Ontario over the years while doing field work but this was the first one that hung around long enough for good looks and photos. A great way to end the day!

Gray Wolf - west of Hearst, Cochrane District

The following morning we would begin heading back east, stopping at the burn to look for woodpeckers. That will be subject of the next post!

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Northern trip - redpolls, redpolls and more redpolls

Friday morning saw Jeremy and I heading north after a quick stop at Port Dalhousie to look for Fish Crows. We saw two crows cross the road in front of our car, and heard what sounded like a single note of a Fish Crow a few minutes later coming from the general area where the crows appeared to be heading, but that was all we would get!

Most of the day was spent driving and as the hours went by the thermometer in Jeremy's truck consistently dropped, one degree at a time. By mid afternoon we had made it to Hilliardton Marsh, located in Timiskaming District and north of New Liskeard (now known as Temiskaming Shores). I have always found it interesting how there are three different spellings in this part of the world: Timiskaming District, Temiskaming Shores, and the town of Temiscaming, located south of here on the Quebec side.

Our plan was to meet up with Todd Hagedorn and Mark Dorriesfield at some point during this trip as they had also driven up in Todd's car. As we approached Hilliardton we noticed two birders leaving the marsh, and were pleasantly surprised to see it was Todd and Mark, bundled up to stave off the -20 degree weather.

Redpolls - Hilliardton Marsh

The four of us returned to the feeders which were occupied by a decent number of redpolls. Historically, redpolls have been treated as three species; two found in both North America and Eurasia (Common Redpoll and Hoary Redpoll), with an additional species (Lesser Redpoll) limited to Europe. However recent research suggests that each of the three types really aren't that different genetically, which suggests that there is quite a bit of gene flow between the three "species". It seems like only a matter of time until the redpolls are "lumped" back together, but until then birders can enjoy arbitrarily placing birds they see into Hoary, Lesser or Common boxes!

Is this a Hoary or a Common Redpoll? - Hilliardton Marsh, Timiskaming District

We studied the redpolls for about an hour, but it was getting late in the day and the numbers of birds began dropping off. Our plan was to return in the morning for an extended photoshoot. At any rate, we did see a handful of clear cut Hoary examples, so Jeremy could rest easy with his big year :)

Hoary Redpoll - Hilliardton Marsh

We spent an hour or so right around sunset cruising some agricultural areas with hopes of crossing paths with a Great Gray Owl but were not in luck. A few Ruffed Grouse just after sunset ended up being the last birds of the day.

Our accommodations in Hilliardton

In the morning we left the warm confines of our accommodations (thanks Bruce!) and braved the -28 weather, which coupled with the wind chill left it feeling about -36 degrees Celsius. We ventured back to the marsh and enjoyed studying the redpolls.

Jeremy Bensette (left) and Mark Dorriesfield at Hilliardton Marsh

Todd Hagedorn at Hilliardton Marsh

Hoary-looking birds are usually quite rare in southern Ontario, with single individuals usually found scattered among the more numerous Common Redpolls, though some winters sees a bigger influx of them. However in northern Ontario Hoary Redpolls are much easier to come by. During some winters redpolls are quite common in the province, and in other years they are virtually absent. This winter, while not one of the extremes, trended towards a poor year for redpolls, but you wouldn't know that based on the activity at Hilliardton Marsh. Below are some of the individuals that fall on the Hoary side of the spectrum.

Hoary Redpoll - Hilliardton Marsh

Hoary Redpolls are best identified using a suite of characteristics and many individuals are best left unidentified. In general, Hoary Redpolls are a frostier white colour with limited streaking, particularly on the flanks, undertail coverts and rump. Hoary Redpolls often show extensive white along the edges of the flight feathers and coverts, adding to their frosty appearance. The red "poll" on the top of their head is usually smaller than in Common Redpoll, and the bill often appears more pushed in due to the presence of feathers draped over the base of the bill. I haven't really found the last feature to be that obvious in the field, and slight changes in the angle makes the bill's projection appear drastically different. Males have much reduced red on the breast while a male Common Redpoll shows extensive red colour on the breast and even down towards the flanks.

Hoary Redpolls - Hilliardton Marsh

Hoary Redpoll - Hilliardton Marsh

Hoary Redpoll - Hilliardton Marsh

Hoary Redpoll - Hilliardton Marsh

Hoary Redpoll - Hilliardton Marsh

Hoary Redpolls - Hilliardton Marsh

Hoary Redpoll - Hilliardton Marsh

A few birds were classic Common Redpolls as well, such as the individuals below. Compared to Hoary, Common Redpoll is generally much darker and streakier.

Common Redpoll - Hilliardton Marsh

The two redpolls on the left hand side of this image are male Common Redpolls, showing the extensive red on the breast.

And a few images of some intermediate looking redpolls.

Redpoll sp. - Hilliardton Marsh

Common Redpoll - Hilliardton Marsh

Redpoll sp. - Hilliardton Marsh

Redpoll sp. - Hilliardton Marsh

There were few other birds at the feeders, though we did see a couple of Evening Grosbeaks as they flew over.

Evening Grosbeaks - Hilliardton Marsh

Two American Tree Sparrows were also hanging tough, frequently visiting the feeders. This is right around the northern limit of this species' winter distribution.

American Tree Sparrows - Hilliardton Marsh

This redpoll appeared to be a little larger than the other Hoaries and had very minimal streaking, causing us to think that it may be a member of the Hornemann's subspecies, which breeds in Greenland. It is difficult to say, however.

Hoary Redpoll - Hilliardton Marsh

We finished up at Hilliardton by mid-morning on the Saturday and began the long trek north towards Cochrane and west to Hearst, but that will have to be the subject of the next post!

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Northern Ontario road trip!

Two days ago, Jeremy Bensette and I decided to drive north for a few hours until we reached the boreal forest. Todd Hagedorn and Mark Dorriesfield met up with us in New Liskeard, and in the day and a half since we have traveled north and then west to Longlac, Ontario. I don't have time right now for a full post, but here are a few "teaser" photos from yesterday! I will write a full report at some point once we return.

This morning we will be checking out a large burn near Hearst with hopes of finding Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers. Should be fun!!

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Journey to the Southern Cone: Part 7 (Chiloe Island)

January 14, 2017

It was a long overnight bus ride, but we had finally made it to southern Chile. The cool, moist air was a welcome contrast to the dry heat we had experienced over the previous few days. As our bus waited for the ferry to take us to Chiloe Island, we hopped out for a few minutes to see what birds were present at the docks. Given the lush surroundings, layer of fog, cool ocean breeze and familiar smell of sea salt, this place reminded me of the east coast of Canada in the summertime. The Magellanic Penguins swimming close to the docks and the flocks of Imperial and Red-legged Cormorants flying by offshore were a quick reminder that we were in fact on the opposite side of the world.

Imperial Cormorant - ferry to Chiloe Island, Chile

The ferry ride was exciting as it was our first time birding the waters in this part of the world. We constantly stayed vigilant in hopes of seeing a Pincoya Storm-Petrel, which is a recently described, poorly known species that so far is only known from a tiny area in the vicinity of Puerto Montt and Chiloe Island. Most birders who encounter this species do so from this particular ferry crossing, if they are not able to charter a boat to access deeper waters. Unfortunately we had no luck during this ferry crossing, though thousands of Sooty Shearwaters and South American Terns kept us occupied! Mostly we were happy to be birding after a very long bus ride. Our first Magellanic Diving-Petrels were flushed by the ferry, and we enjoyed the Magellanic Penguins. I could hardly believe I was seeing penguins after dreaming about seeing then from a young age, but here they were.

Flightless Steamer-Duck - Chiloe Island, Chile

Trock bars are delicious after long bus rides

We successfully found a hostel, grabbed some dinner and then headed back to the ferry as it was relatively late in the day and we wanted another shot at the storm-petrel. We were able to ride the ferry to the mainland and back for free, but unfortunately the storm-petrels were a no show once again. Due to the long days during the austral summer, it was quite late when we arrived back at our hostel.

January 15, 2016

First order of business  was to bird some locations where Slender-billed Parakeets, Des Mur's Wiretails, and various tapaculos had been seen, as these are some of the main specialty birds on Chiloe Island. It was a warm but not hot, overcast day with only a slight breeze; ideal birding conditions.

Chiloe Island, Chile

Chiloe Island, Chile

Our first stop was incredibly successful and in no time at all we had dug up some Chucao and Ochre-flanked Tapaculos and a handful of Des Mur's Wiretails. The wiretail was on my most wanted list for this trip, in no small part to that long, thin tail. What an interesting little bird.

Des Mur's Wiretail - Chiloe Island, Chile

Des Mur's Wiretail - Chiloe Island, Chile

A couple of flocks of Slender-billed Parakeets screeched loudly as they wheeled by overhead. This unique species found only in Chile has a long, thin bill; an aptly named species. Eventually some of the birds did land in a distant tree, providing decent looks as they foraged.

Slender-billed Parakeets - Chiloe Island, Chile

One of our more interesting finds of our time on Chiloe Island was discovering a Hellmayr's Pipit, a vagrant to this area that has no eBird records for Chiloe Island, with the nearest records occurring about 200 km to the north. Unfortunately our photos leave a lot to be desired.

Hellmayr's Pipit - Chiloe Island, Chile

Austral Negritos are one of the most common species in this part of the world, though I never became sick of them throughout the trip. This pair was likely nesting nearby, allowing us quite good looks and photos.

female Austral Negrito - Chiloe Island, Chile

male Austral Negrito - Chiloe Island, Chile

Our next birding location was the Senda Darwin Biological Station, a field station set back in regenerating forest that is often visited by birders. This Chilean Flicker alighted on a telephone pole adjacent to the gravel path that led to the biological station.

Chilean Flicker - Chiloe Island, Chile

We were pleasantly surprised to see a Plumbeous Rail when the road crossed over a small creek.

Plumbeous Rail - Chiloe Island, Chile

Plumbeous Rail - Chiloe Island, Chile

Our main goal at the station was to see Black-throated Huet-Huet, the last remaining tapaculo species that we had yet to encounter in Chile. We eventually heard one distantly, though we would have to wait to get a glimpse of this species. While we were at the station, we took advantage of the overcast, even lighting to photograph a few of the other birds that we came across.

Southern Lapwing - Chiloe Island, Chile

Black-faced Ibis - Chiloe Island, Chile

Austral Blackbirds - Chiloe Island, Chile

Chilean Swallow - Chiloe Island, Chile

It was now around 1 PM so we decided to head back to Ancud before planning our next move. It took a while, but eventually we were able to catch a bus back. While relying on public transportation is a lot cheaper than renting a vehicle, it did mean that throughout the trip we experienced several hours waiting on the shoulder of the road for our bus to show up.

Coastal areas of Chile often have excellent seafood and after a long morning of birding this big platter of seafood sure went down quite well.

By mid afternoon we were eager to head off to find more birds, with our goal to lay eyes on a Black-throated Huet-Huet. We took off on foot for a few kilometers west of Ancud, and eventually found a dirt road that ascended into some remnant patches of woodland.

birding the forest fragments west of Ancud - Chiloe Island, Chile

A fourth comrade joined our cause for part of the afternoon, though she was more interested in fetching rocks then looking for birds!

bird dog - west of Ancud, Chiloe Island, Chile

After passing through some farmland we took a side road to access a relatively large forest patch that we had noticed on satellite imagery of the area. Extensive logging was taking place here, yet still the birds hung on. Thorn-tailed Rayaditos were a common presence here, as well as anywhere else in the temperate forests of this latitude. They, along with White-crested Elaenias, provided a constant soundtrack to our hiking.

Thorn-tailed Rayadito - Chiloe Island, Chile

Tapaculos were also present and our hunch was correct; we heard several Black-throated Huet-Huets calling at various points. Try as we might, the best we could do was a very brief glimpse of one! Chucao, Ochre-flanked, and Magellanic Tapaculos also were located, and we had a Bicolored Hawk fly over, our first of the trip. Des Mur's Wiretails provided some great looks, and another flock of Slender-billed Parakeets flew overhead.

logging road west of Ancud  - Chiloe Island, Chile

After several hours of hiking we emerged back onto the main road and began the long walk back to our hostel in Ancud. As we passed an area known as Lechagua we noticed some steamer ducks that looked a little different compared to the Flightless Steamer-Ducks we had seen earlier. They were in fact a family of Flying Steamer-Ducks. Steamer-ducks are intriguing to me for several reasons. First and foremost, only one out of the four species have retained the ability to fly, while the other three have lost that capability over thousands of years.  These species have no need to fly - their coastal habitats provide a steady source of mollusks and other prey items. The Flying Steamer-Duck however uses its flying capabilities to access inland lakes, where it consumes a variety of different prey items. Steamer-ducks are also well known for being quite aggressive towards other ducks, utilizing their keratinized spurs on each wing to lay a beat-down; due to their massive size I can imagine that they are feared by the other ducks that share habitat with them!

Flying Steamer-Duck family - Chiloe Island, Chile

It was a long day of hiking on Chiloe Island (we covered about 25 km on foot) but a very productive one, nonetheless. The following day we were hoping to visit a colony of Magellanic and Humboldt Penguins!