Saturday, 15 September 2018

Shorebirding at the Atlantis Niagara Winery in Beamsville

Shorebirds are one of my favourite groups of birds, though we do not always have excellent shorebird habitat locally here in Niagara. The past couple of years had been good but this year most of the usual spots are unsuitable due to high water levels, fields becoming overgrown, and various other reasons. Earlier this summer Ryan Griffiths, a local birder here in Niagara, discovered a great spot that is very accessible just off of the QEW near the border of Lincoln and Beamsville. The Atlantis Niagara Winery has a section of flooded field that has proven to be quite attractive to a variety of species. I have not had a chance to stop there very often, but fortunately several other intrepid birders have stopped in frequently and had some great finds.

For those of you interested in visiting the Atlantis Niagara Winery, I've attached a map showing the location of the shorebird habitat. Also note the large man-made pond to the immediate east, which often attracts shorebirds, while some of the fields in the area have been tilled and are proving quite attractive to Killdeer and other plovers. The orchard east of the pond has been flooded at times, and shorebirds sometimes can be found in there too. If visiting, the winery requests that you park in front of the main building as opposed to parking by the shorebird habitat.


On August 24, Judy Robins discovered a juvenile Wilson's Phalarope at Atlantis which was kind enough to stick around for several days. This prairie species is pretty rare in Niagara and some years go by without any records. Out of the three species of phalaropes, two (Red-necked and Red) are primarily ocean-going, generall only spending time on land when they nest in the Arctic. Wilson's Phalarope is the outlier as it is much more terrestrial, preferring shallow wetlands throughout the prairies (and a small population in the Hudson Bay lowlands). You would never see one in the open ocean like you would the other two species.

The Wilson's Phalarope was a little distant for my camera so I resorted to snapping a few digiscoped photos. The views, however, were awesome!

Wilson's Phalarope - Atlantis Niagara Winery, Beamsville, ON

Much more confiding was one of the Pectoral Sandpipers. While I have only ever seen Pecs during migration and on the wintering grounds I would love to make it to the Arctic one day to witness the spectacular displays that males will perform.

Pectoral Sandpiper - Atlantis Niagara Winery, Beamsville, ON

On the evening of August 31 Ryan Griffiths discovered a crisp juvenile Willet at the winery. Willet is a relatively rare species in the province with most records each year pertaining to birds along the Lake Erie shoreline in May, but Niagara has not seen too many records in recent years. Fortunately for the rest of us the Willet decided that it would stay at Atlantis for an extended period of time. Laura and I dropped in on our way home from Pelee on September 3 and lucked out with the Willet feeding at close range. An exciting new species for my Niagara list, and for Laura's Ontario list!

Willet - Atlantis Niagara Winery, Beamsville, ON

Willet - Atlantis Niagara Winery, Beamsville, ON

The Willet towered over all the shorebirds, presenting itself as an imposing presence in the wetland.

Willet - Atlantis Niagara Winery, Beamsville, ON

Willet - Atlantis Niagara Winery, Beamsville, ON

Last Thursday I was happy to see that a Baird's Sandpiper was working the very south edge of the flooded field. With a bit of stealth it was not too hard to approach close enough to see each detail on every feather. Photoshoots with Baird's Sandpipers do not seem to happen too much for me so I take advantage when given an opportunity.

Baird's Sandpiper - Atlantis Niagara Winery, Beamsville, ON

Baird's Sandpiper generally migrates through the Great Plains; however, small numbers, especially juveniles, pass through Ontario in August through October. This autumn anecdotally quite a few have been seen in southern Ontario, though I can't say this with certainty.

Baird's Sandpiper - Atlantis Niagara Winery, Beamsville, ON


Compared to the typical "peeps" that we see in large numbers in southern Ontario (Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers), Baird's Sandpipers have a much different profile due to the length of their primaries which extend beyond their tail. This gives them a sleek and attenuated appearance, which, when combined with the crisp scaling of their scapulars and wing coverts, make them a very attractive shorebird indeed.

Baird's Sandpiper - Atlantis Niagara Winery, Beamsville, ON

Baird's Sandpipers prefer drier land than many of the other shorebirds and they are commonly observed in recently tilled fields or other habitats far from water. When they do enter water they typically stick to the edge, whereas other species will wade much deeper.

Baird's Sandpiper - Atlantis Niagara Winery, Beamsville, ON

The field between the shorebird habitat and the North Service Road is proving to be very attractive to the Killdeers. I have been checking for some of the more unusual plover-type shorebirds that prefer this habitat, including Buff-breasted Sandpiper, American Golden-Plover and Black-bellied Plover. So far I have lucked out with the latter two species. Here's hoping we can luck into a Buff-breasted before their window closes by early October or so.

American Golden-Plovers - Atlantis Niagara Winery, Beamsville, ON

American Golden-Plover - Atlantis Niagara Winery, Beamsville, ON

It has been an excellent autumn at the Atlantis Niagara Winery so far. Hopefully the habitat remains over the next two months, and if it does, it will be very interesting to see what else will drop in.

Monday, 10 September 2018

Curve-lined Owlet - a new species for Canada

While we are on the theme of species new for Canada...

Over the Labour Day long weekend, Laura and I traveled to Amherstburg and Point Pelee to catch up with some friends and to do some exploring, the results of which I will detail in a different blog post. On the Monday, we were hiking in the Cactus Field at Point Pelee National Park when Laura drew my attention to this spectacular caterpillar, resting on some Greenbrier (Smilax sp.).


We had never seen anything like it in Ontario and took a bunch of photographs, hoping to identify it later. That afternoon we determined that it was a Curve-lined Owlet, a species of moth typically found in the southeastern United States and that specializes by feeding on Smilax. I sent the photos to David Beadle, who, along with Christian Schmidt, confirmed that this is the first documented sighting of Curve-lined Owlet in Ontario and Canada.


Considering the prevalence of Smilax at Point Pelee and the presence of larva, Curve-lined Owlet must certainly have a population at Point Pelee. It would be interesting to see what other "southern" species not known to Canada might be present at Point Pelee if an extensive inventory of moths was completed in the park. The diversity of moths in our province is mind-boggling (over 3300 species and counting), and examples like this illustrate how much more there is to learn about their natural history here locally.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Great Kiskadee - a new species for Canada

Yesterday afternoon, an iNaturalist user by the name of rainbowdragon posted photos of a Great Kiskadee to iNaturalist, taken that morning at Rondeau Provincial Park. Mike Burrell was tagged on the record by another user and he quickly got the word out to Ontbirds. Needless to say, pandemonium quickly ensued. The reason? Here is a range map of Great Kiskadee sightings, taken from eBird.

Great Kiskadee range (via eBird)

Zoomed in to show just North America:

Great Kiskadee range (via eBird)

Yesterday evening, several birders were rewarded with brief views of the Great Kiskadee, though many other struck out. I was in Grimsby when I heard about the Great Kiskadee and could have made it to Rondeau 15 minutes before sunset, but figured that I would hold off. That proved to be the correct decision since it was not seen, following the brief encounter shortly after 6:00 PM.

This morning my alarm went off at 3:00 AM and I was soon on the road. By 6:30 AM I had pulled into the parking lot at the Marsh Trail just as the sky was brightening, signalling the the start of another day. Already at that early hour 20 vehicles were present.

Over the next hour small groups of birders collected at various intervals along the trail. I was staking out an area with Brett Fried and Erika Hentsch when a yell from down the trail sent us sprinting. The Great Kiskadee had just been spotted! It had ducked behind a willow when we arrived a few seconds later, but soon it reappeared, providing awesome looks, though somewhat obscured by vegetation, for the forty or so birders that were present. The bird was tucked away behind some vegetation which made photography a little tricky. This was the best I could do initially!

Great Kiskadee - Rondeau Provincial Park, Ontario

Fortunately the Great Kiskadee was happy to sit on the branch for the next ten minutes or so and eventually many of the birders present were able to soak in the views of the rare southern vagrant. Photos were a little tricky since there were only a few windows through the vegetation. This is the best I could manage.

Great Kiskadee - Rondeau Provincial Park, Ontario

It sure seemed more than a little out of place observing a Great Kiskadee along the shores of Rondeau Bay. Anyone who has visited the Neotropics can attest to how Great Kiskadee is one of the more noticeable birds throughout much of their range, and their calls are constantly heard even during the heat of the day.

Despite its status as a tropical species that only reaches as far north as Texas, Great Kiskadee was not totally off the radar for Ontario birders. In recent years there have been records far to the north of their known range, including South Dakota, Kansas, Colorado, South Carolina and Tennessee (according to eBird). I am sure I am not alone among Ontario birders, having daydreamed about finding one at my local patch. But to see one in the flesh was much better than any daydream!

Great Kiskadee - Rondeau Provincial Park, Ontario

Not only is Great Kiskadee a new species for Ontario, but it is new to Canada as well. There were many smiling faces at Rondeau this morning!

Great Kiskadee twitch - Rondeau Provincial Park, Ontario

As of the time of this writing the Great Kiskadee is still present, though it has been rather elusive and only occasionally showing itself. Several birders have reported that they have heard it call (the classic "kis-ka-dee" call) so it is no doubt still present. What a crazy few weeks it has been in Ontario birding!

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago: Part 9 (Cock-of-the-rock lek, drive to Surama)

Introduction
January 25-27, 2018 - Rupununi savannah, Karanambu Lodge
January 27, 2018 - Karanambu Lodge, boat cruise on the Rupununi River
January 28, 2018 - Rupununi savannah, Rock View Lodge
January 29, 2018 - Rock View Lodge and surroundings
January 30, 2018 - Rock View Lodge, drive to Atta Lodge
January 31, 2018 - First complete day at Atta Lodge
February 1, 2018 - Second complete day at Atta Lodge
February 2, 2018 - Cock-of-the-rock lek, drive to Surama


----------

February 2, 2018

The Guianan Red Howler Monkeys began calling well before dawn, followed a short time later by the sound of rain falling on the roof. We waited it out while having coffee and tea, but the clouds had descended and visibility was poor. Eventually we made the decision to forgo one last morning on the canopy walkway. Given the conditions, we would not have seen very much anyways.

Thomas would be arriving sometime after breakfast to transport us to our next lodge, Surama, so time was rather limited this morning. We packed up our gear and ate breakfast and the rain stopped shortly thereafter.

Delon was able to pull out one more epic bird for us while we were enjoying breakfast (bake, which is a doughy pastry, eggs, fruit, and pepperpot, a traditional Guyanese dish made with beef). Once again, it was the cotinga tree that pulled through.

"Crimson Fruitcrow!" Delon proclaimed and I went running for the scope. Guyana is full of unique cotingas, and the Crimson Fruitcrow is high up the list of most-desirable for visiting birders. Until only a few years many facets of its life history were unknown. It is the only member of the genus Haematoderus, and spends much of its day sitting quietly in the canopy where it keeps a sharp eye out for its preferred prey - large insects such as cicadas, beetles and katydids. Crimson Fruitcrow is almost entirely restricted to the Guianan Shield, though recently some have been discovered towards the Amazon River. The forests of central Guyana are some of the more reliable places to encounter this bird, yet even still, it took until the 11th hour for Laura and I to encounter one (thanks to Delon).

Crimson Fruitcrow - Atta Lodge, Guyana

For close to 30 minutes the Crimson Fruitcrow sat in the cotinga tree, generally sitting still but making a few quick sallies to snag large insects. It was great to have a prolonged chance to study an enigmatic species like this for so long in the scope. Below is a quick video I made with my phone through the scope.


The "cotinga tree" is the tallest one in the image below. Due to its height above the rest of the canopy it is a preferred vantage spot for many species of birds, cotinga or otherwise.

Scoping the Crimson Fruitcrow - Atta Lodge, Guyana

Thomas arrived and we said our goodbyes to Delon, Kendrick, John, and some of the other staff at the lodge. Just as we were leaving I spotted a small bird on the lawn which we identified as a Chestnut-bellied Seedeater, the last lifer before we hit the road.

Surama EcoLodge is situated partway between the town of Annai (where Rock View Lodge is located) and Atta Lodge. It lies in a transitional area between the savannah to the west and the forest to the east, and contains a variety of different habitats. Between Atta Lodge and Surama Ecolodge is a location where Guianan Cock-of-the-Rocks nest so I inquired with Thomas if he knew of the area and if he would be willing to stop for an hour while we check it out. Thomas knew of the spot (I had maps with its location just in case), so by mid-morning we parked along the side of the road and walked down a narrow trail scarcely visible from the roadside.

Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock cave - Cock-of-the-Rock trail, Iwokrama, Guyana

One of the more spectacular birds found in Guyana, the Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock is a species of cotinga that is limited in range to the Guianan Shield region. Males gather in groups called leks, where they bob and weave, showing off their spectacular plumage and slick moves, in hopes of gaining the affection of a female. Preferred lekking areas are often located near caves or rock faces where the females nest, and this lek was popular with visiting birders because it can be accessed by a short 15 minute walk off of the main highway.

Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock cave - Cock-of-the-Rock trail, Iwokrama, Guyana

We walked to the caves, pausing briefly to investigate a mixed species flock which included my first Brown-bellied Antwrens. We walked up to the caves, took a look down the hillside and immediately noticed several fiery-red blobs in the understorey. Guianan Cock-of-the-Rocks!

Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock - Cock-of-the-Rock trail, Iwokrama, Guyana

Two males were present and one of the males performed a half-hearted display, fluffing himself up and bobbing up and down on his perch. After about 10 minutes both males dispersed into the forest. Lekking only takes place for part of the day, then it is time to forage.

We found a single female sitting on a nest along one of the rock walls. The differences in plumage between males and females really is quite dramatic.
Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock - Cock-of-the-Rock trail, Iwokrama, Guyana

While we watched the cocks, some rustling in the trees above provided us with our first excellent looks at Guiana Spider Monkeys!

Guiana Spider Monkey - Cock-of-the-Rock trail, Iwokrama, Guyana

It was a productive stop on our way to Surama, and broke up the drive nicely. I should mention that today was Laura's birthday as well, and the morning had been filled with some great sightings: Guianan Cock-of-the-Rocks, Guiana Spider Monkeys, and a Crimson Fruitcrow!

An hour later we rolled into Surama Ecolodge. Laura had taken Gravol prior to the drive to Surama and as a result did not feel any nausea; she even managed to doze off for a bit along the drive.

Our benab - Surama Ecolodge, Guyana

Surama Ecolodge is run by Surama Village, home to approximately 300 people. The lodge is entirely community-run and all of the profits go directly back into the community, for the purposes of conservation as well as community development. Surama Ecolodge is located at the edge of Surama Village and is located within an area of savannah and surrounded by forest. The Burro Burro River is located about about five kilometers from the lodge deep within the forest.

Lodging at Surama Ecolodge is in the buildings shown above, which are somewhat similar to traditional benabs used by the Macushi.

Interior of our benab - Surama Ecolodge, Guyana

Four benabs circled the main building, which included the dining area at the ground level, and a bar and sitting area complete with hammocks, above. The building was open air and was a great location to sit and read, journal, or watch the savannah.  When viewed from the sky, the main building plus the four benabs takes the appearance of a jaguar footprint.

Surama Ecolodge, Guyana

Surama Ecolodge, Guyana

Upon arrival we were shown to our benab, enjoyed lunch, and then relaxed while we waited for our guide, Stefano, to arrive. I went for a walk in the savannah near the main lodge while Laura caught up on some journaling. Highlights from my walk included a Plain-crested Elaenia, several Rainbow Whiptails, and some flyover Golden-winged Parakeets and Chapman's Swifts.

Rainbow Whiptail (Cnemidophorus lemniscatus) - Surama Ecolodge, Guyana

Soon Stefano arrived to meet us and to discuss the plans for the upcoming days. Like at Atta previously we had three nights scheduled at Surama. Stefano was a relatively new guide, and made it clear from the start that he was really only interested in birds. Laura and I tried to stress that our interests included herps and mammals especially, in addition to birds, and that we did not want to spend our entire time at Surama only looking for particular stakeout birds. We wanted to explore the forest and look for herps primarily, with a little birding here and there. Stefano wanted to spend the afternoon trying for several species of crakes in the long grass near the lodge. As this wasn't exactly the sort of thing that Laura really enjoys (and it was her birthday, after all!), I suggested instead we explore some of the nearby forest in the afternoon.

Laura and I headed back to the benab after our meeting with Stefano since we had about two hours to kill before our late afternoon walk was scheduled. I had been going pretty hard all trip without taking any breaks - I didn't want to miss any lifers - and so I lay down on the bed for five minutes (which turned into 90 minutes, somehow...). It was certainly needed and I woke up feeling a little groggy but definitely refreshed.


Common Tody-Flycatchers were nesting near our benab, while a tree by the main lodge was populated with several dozen hanging nests belonging to Yellow-rumped Caciques. Savannah Hawks patrolled the grounds, including one youngster that was quite content to sit out in the open about five meters from where we were sitting at the main lodge.

Common Tody-Flycatcher - Surama Ecolodge, Guyana

Savanna Hawk - Surama Ecolodge, Guyana

Savanna Hawk - Surama Ecolodge, Guyana

Savanna Hawk - Surama Ecolodge, Guyana

A band of rain approached from the east in the mid-afternoon, sweeping across the savannah in front of us while we sat in the main lodge and watched.

Surama Ecolodge, Guyana

The rain cleared, Stefano arrived, and we set off down a path towards the forest.

Forest trail near Surama Ecolodge, Guyana

Exploring at Surama Ecolodge, Guyana

The walk was great and we saw a nice variety of species, plus it was good to chat with Stefano and get to know him. He was from a different village but moved to Surama since his wife was from there. Following our time at Atta with Delon, the differences between Delon and Stefano were quite drastic since Delon was an incredible birder while Stefano was still learning his craft. Part of the problem was that Stefano did not have access to any tapes, nor did he have sufficient optics, because the lodge was not able to provide them (meanwhile Delon had all the bird songs plus an excellent pair of binoculars and scope). At times it did feel like we were guiding Stefano, as he frequently looked to me to come up with an identification when we heard something in the forest or saw a bird in a distant tree. That being said, he was a great spotter and he noticed several roosting Spix's Guans in the canopy. He was full of enthusiasm as well.

Exploring at Surama Ecolodge, Guyana

At one point Stefano brought us to an area where he had a stakeout bird to show us. Laura's eyes were too keen and she spoiled the surprise, spotting the Least Nighthawk roosting in the tree before Stefano had a chance to point it out!

Least Nighthawk - Surama Ecolodge, Guyana

As dusk fell we turned back from deep within the forest to make the twenty minute walk to the lodge. Quite a few tinamous were calling and I identified Cinerous, Red-legged, Great and Variegated. I also pointed out a singing Tawny-bellied Screech-Owl and a Blue-throated Piping-Guan to Stefano and Laura, and we saw several Weeping Capuchins scampering in the tree tops. All told it was a great walk! As we hiked back to the lodge, several Lesser Nighthawks flew low over the savannah near the main lodge.  We spotted eyeshine on the main trail and I quickly got the scope on the Common Pauraque (after Stefano had spent a while trying, unsuccessfully). Stefano then took a good long look in the scope and I had to eventually ask him to let Laura have a look. He stepped aside but the bird flew a few seconds after Laura peered in the scope. Clearly Stefano was excited to see this species well in the scope, but it did feel like we were providing the guiding service to him as opposed to the other way around.

We showered and had dinner at the dining hall which was a little uninspiring when compared to the amazing meals we had experienced at the other lodges. Dinner consisted mostly of starches with a little meat and few vegetables, and unfortunately no dessert for Laura. I had also informed the lodge ahead of time that Laura's birthday was on February 2 and hopefully they could provide a cake, but unfortunately this had been completely forgotten by the lodge. At any rate we were not about to let some negative things ruin our time at Surama. After all, it was located in a beautiful spot full of amazing wildlife. The next few days would be an improvement!
----------

Introduction
January 25-27, 2018 - Rupununi savannah, Karanambu Lodge
January 27, 2018 - Karanambu Lodge, boat cruise on the Rupununi River
January 28, 2018 - Rupununi savannah, Rock View Lodge
January 29, 2018 - Rock View Lodge and surroundings
January 30, 2018 - Rock View Lodge, drive to Atta Lodge
January 31, 2018 - First complete day at Atta Lodge
February 1, 2018 - Second complete day at Atta Lodge
February 2, 2018 - Cock-of-the-rock lek, drive to Surama

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Swallow-tailed Kite at Wasaga Beach

The birding in southern Ontario has been pretty good over the last month or so, especially for those among us who enjoying seeing unusual birds for the province, or adding to our respective lists. A string of species with affinities to the southern United States have appeared within the province with many sticking around for quite some time, enabling hundreds of people to observe them. Among the more regular rarities have been a few Yellow-crowned Night-Herons (Hamilton, Cambridge, Manitoulin), a Little Blue Heron (Oxford Co.) and a Snowy Egret (near Rondeau). In addition to these birds there have been a trio of species typically associated with the southeastern United States. An adult Purple Gallinule was found near Kingsville several weeks ago, and it has been observed daily at the John R. Park Homestead.There are only 20 previous records of Purple Gallinule in Ontario and it had been seven years since the last "twitchable" one. Then there was the provincial first Reddish Egret that was found in Oliphant, and which is still present as of the time of this writing.

Reddish Egret - Oliphant, Bruce County (August 22, 2018)

The latest rare bird to be discovered within Ontario's borders was a Swallow-tailed Kite. This large and unmistakable raptor is a familiar species to anyone who has birded the tropics of Central or South America, or who has explored in the southeastern United States. Swallow-tailed Kites will spend many hours each day soaring above the forests and wetlands to forage on insects, but also lizards, tree frogs and other small vertebrates that they pluck from the treetops.

On August 25, a guy by the name of Matt Stuart was mowing his lawn - he's located in the country south of Wasaga Beach - when he looked up and noticed the distinctive bird, flying above the yard and nearby pine plantation. He contacted Scott Gibson, a birder, and Scott put the word out later that evening. The following day, Matt observed the Swallow-tailed Kite again and this time was able to take a cell phone snap, helping to confirm its identity. A few birders were out looking in the afternoon but the bird was not seen again.

I decided later that evening that I was going to drive up and try for the bird. Swallow-tailed Kite was one of my most wanted birds for Ontario and all the items on my agenda for the next day could be postponed...the decision was made.

I drove through Toronto before rush hour began in earnest, making good time during the pre-dawn hours. I detoured briefly to check out the sod farms in Beeton at dawn. Fortuitously, the Willet that had been found the previous day was still present (an excellent record for Simcoe), while I added three other species to my Simcoe County list.


By 9:00 AM or so I positioned myself in the general area where the bird had been seen. Three other birders were lined up alongside the roadway so I decided to drive some nearby concessions instead. After all, Swallow-tailed Kites are typically quite wide-ranging in their daily habits.  At around 9:45 AM I passed by a hedgerow on one of the concessions and I happened to turn and quickly look down it while I drove past. A big black and white raptor was sitting on one of the dead snags! My heart skipped a beat and my hands trembled as I stopped the vehicle and reached for my bins. It was the kite!

Swallow-tailed Kite - Wasaga Beach, Simcoe County

I quickly posted to Ontbirds and set up my scope to take a video of the bird. Suddenly it began to preen and within 60 seconds was airborne. It performed incredible acrobatics in flight over the nearby soybean field and I struggled to follow it with my car before it lifted up higher in the air and disappeared just over the treeline.

Swallow-tailed Kite - Wasaga Beach, Simcoe County

Lucky for the other birders present, Dan MacNeal was able to re-discover the kite almost two hours later in the same field. Along with dozens of other birders I enjoyed excellent views of the kite sitting in the tree, and in flight, foraging for insects low over the soybeans. For the next half hour I soaked in the views with the others, while it was great to catch up with many familiar faces. This bird was particularly notable for Garth Riley as it represented his 400th species for his Ontario list. Congrats Garth!

Swallow-tailed Kite - Wasaga Beach, Simcoe County

In the days since the Swallow-tailed Kite remained in the same general area, though it played hard to get with some observers. I believe the last sighting was mid-day on August 29. That evening, a cold front passed through, and the bird has not been seen since.

Swallow-tailed Kite - Wasaga Beach, Simcoe County

It sure has been an exciting few weeks here in Ontario. What will be next? Roseate Spoonbills are showing up all over the place far to the north of their range and maybe Ontario is next.