Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Early May Birding At Rock Point

It is finally here. May is, without a doubt, my favourite time of year to be a naturalist in Ontario. Signs of life are everywhere, but the main draw for me is the rush of bird migration. The spring of 2021 has turned out much differently than I had planned. Originally, I was scheduled to spend much of the month on Pelee Island, in the Point Pelee area, and in Prince Edward County leading bird tours, with plenty of time built into my schedule for some non-tour birding (and mothing!) as well.

Carolina Wren - Rock Point Provincial Park

But, like just about every other plan that I have made in the last fifteen months, it fell through. The timing of Ontario's latest lockdown has coincided exactly with the peak of spring bird migration, and I haven't been able to lead any tours due to the current restrictions in place. 

Unfortunately, Point Pelee is not in the cards for me this spring as I have been staying closer to home. Laura and I are currently residing in Fonthill, located in about the exact middle of the Niagara Peninsula, and great birding areas can be found just a short drive away.

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Tuesday, 4 May 2021

A Trio Of Rarities In The H.S.A.

The Hamilton Study Area is a circle with a radius of 25 miles (~40.2 km) that is centred on Dundurn Castle in Hamilton, Ontario. It is the official area of study for the Hamilton Naturalists Club, and many local birders keep an HSA list. For some, this is their most revered bird list. For me, it is a few rungs lower (following my World List, Canada List, Ontario List, World Photographed List, Ontario Photographed List, and a few others), but I always jump at the chance to add a new species to my HSA list. I grew up in south Cambridge, which is situated within the western boundary of the HSA. My formative years as a birder took place predominately in the HSA; not only in south Cambridge, but also in south Guelph where I attended university. In the years since, I have lived elsewhere, though the HSA has always been just a short drive away. 


In recent weeks the HSA has produced several fantastic rare birds; the crown jewel being the Yellow-browed Warbler (Canada's 2nd ever record), but more on that bird in a minute. All told, I have added three species to my HSA list recently, bringing it up to 309. A good start.


California Gull (foreground) - Brantford, Brant County

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Sunday, 18 April 2021

Catching Up: March Birds and Bugs

My last post covered some of my mothing excursions from early this spring. I have been getting out during the day as well, and have taken my camera with me some of the time. Below are some of the diurnal spring highlights so far from the second half of March. 

Barred Owl - Amherst Island, Lennox and Addington County

Laura and I ran a very successful Amherst Island tour on March 18. Of course the owls were the show-stoppers, but we encountered many other species of birds. My eBird checklist for the day tallied nearly 50 species, including some first of year migrants such as Eastern Meadowlarks and Wilson's Snipes. A flyover Red Crossbill in Owl Woods was a rare sighting for the island. 

Snowy Owl - Amherst Island, Lennox and Addington County

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Monday, 12 April 2021

Early Spring Mothing Adventures

 Early spring is one of my favourite times of the year to be a naturalist. Winter in Canada is far too long for my liking and naturalizing opportunities are few and far between. There is only so much winter birding I can do, and identifying frozen mosses or undertaking winter plant ID only holds my interest for so long.

As the snow recedes and the temperatures warm up, migrant birds appear - first waterfowl and Horned Larks, then waves of robins, blackbirds and Killdeers, and eventually the kinglets, creepers, and sparrows in early April. Observing each "first of year" species brings a smile to one's face, while also providing a reminder of the waves of migration still to come. Observing the phenomenon of bird migration really gets my blood pumping!

Brown Creeper - Port Weller East Pier, Niagara Region

The first reptiles of the year are found on warm, sunny March days, filling a void that had been absent since the autumn. Once the ice has receded from the ponds and the first warm rains of the spring fall, the voices of Spring Peepers, Western Chorus Frogs and Wood Frogs emanate from vernal wetlands while salamanders rush to the ponds to lay their eggs.

Northern Ribbonsnake (Thamnophis saurita septentrionalis)

Meanwhile, the first ephemeral wildflowers - usually Hepatica in my experience - add a jolt of colour to the otherwise brown tones of a deciduous forest floor. Early beetles, bees, and moths appear, eager to get on with their lifecycles during these initial spring days.

Round-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica anemone)

It is the last group - the moths - that has captured my attention this spring. I only got hooked on mothing recently, during the summer of 2019. Last spring I was pre-occupied with other things and I did not set up my moth sheet for the first time until early June. Therefore, 2021 has been my first spring of mothing in Ontario. Almost everything has been new, which is always a lot of fun!

Citrine Sallow (Pyreferra citrombra) - St. John's CA, Niagara Region

I previously blogged about some of my finds from the first mothing session of the year during unseasonably warm temperatures on March 10. Since then, I have gone out on five other occasions, as documented below. 

Friday, 2 April 2021

Final Post From Costa Rica - The Orosí Area

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On the morning of March 22 we packed up at the Mountain House and drove to the Kilometre 76 Road leading to Providencia, a road which Laura and I had visited on our own, several weeks earlier. Starting at over 3000 m in elevation, this dirt road alongside the edge of Parque Nacional Los Quetzales cuts through beautiful montane forest and descends to 2000 m and beyond. We only had a few hours budgeted this time, but made the most of it. The highlight was a Resplendent Quetzal that showed well for my parents and Laura. I missed it, as I was walking back uphill to fetch the vehicle. I heard a singing Ochraceous Pewee during this time, but it refused to show itself despite my best efforts. This was one of the few Talamancan species I had not detected up to this point. 

After a thoroughly enjoyable hour and fourty-five minutes on the Kilometre 76 Road, we climbed back into the Rav4 and left Parque Nacional Los Quetzales behind. Our destination for the night was the Orosí Valley, a location only around 40 kilometres from San José that is famed for its beautiful scenery, lush countryside, coffee plantations and quaint towns. We had a flight to catch the next day - this would be our final night in Costa Rica. 

That afternoon, we relaxed in our excellent accommodations within the town of Orosí. I tallied close to 30 bird species from the front porch of our room; mostly common Costa Rica species, but nice to see regardless. A flyover White-tailed Kite was my first in Costa Rica. I tried to soak in the views of every species; who knows when I would have the chance to see them again? 

Scarlet-rumped Tanager - Orosí, Cartago, Costa Rica

That evening we visited a nearby restaurant that specializes in wood-fired pizzas. Laura and I had stopped here on our visit a few weeks earlier, and the pizzas were as delicious as we had remembered. 

As dawn broke on March 23, the persistent vocalizations of Tropical Kingbirds, Great-tailed Grackles and White-winged Doves provided the soundtrack. A flock of Crimson-fronted Parakeets screeched overhead. 

White-winged Dove - Orosí, Cartago, Costa Rica

Tropical Kingbird - Orosí, Cartago, Costa Rica

We enjoyed an excellent breakfast at a local cafe before making the short drive towards the entrance to Parque Nacional Tapantí. 

To reach Tapantí, one crosses over the Río Orosí. The immediate environs at the bridge can be quite productive for birding; it has even been afforded eBird hotspot status. We stopped here and spent quite a bit of time birding the woodland beside the river and the scrubby fields along the roadside beyond the bridge. 

 Puente Purisil, Cartago, Costa Rica

Along the roadside just before the bridge, a covey of Black-breasted Wood-Quail ducked off the road. In the immediate vicinity of the bridge we saw our first Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush and Rufous-capped Warblers in Costa Rica, a solid diversity of tanagers, warblers and flycatchers, and even a Green Basilisk that was resting a few meters from the water's edge. 

Green Basilisk - Puente Purisil, Cartago, Costa Rica

Our species list drastically climbed as we explored some of the pastures along the roadside. Disturbed, open habitats are often productive birding locations, even if the majority of the species you find are widespread birds that easily colonize areas that humans have opened up. It is a superficial kind of diversity, as it can seem way birdier than a pristine tract of rainforest during one short visit. But given enough time, the undisturbed forest will produce a much higher list, including many specialized birds.  

Roadside birding - Puente Purisil, Cartago, Costa Rica

Photography is easy in these habitats. As it was approaching mid-day, the swirling clouds above us muted the harsh light from time to time. 

Bronzed Cowbird - Puente Purisil, Cartago, Costa Rica

Yellow-bellied Elaenia - Puente Purisil, Cartago, Costa Rica

Common Tody-Flycatcher - Puente Purisil, Cartago, Costa Rica

Some of my favourite finds from along the roadside included Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher and Lesser Elaenia, two species that I have only seen before on a handful of occasions. 

Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher - Puente Purisil, Cartago, Costa Rica

Ruddy Ground Dove - Puente Purisil, Cartago, Costa Rica

The clouds were looking more menacing by the minute. We drove towards the entrance gate to the park, but decided against forking out the cash for a few hours in the park. As the first few raindrops fell we enjoyed the sights and sounds of the forest flanking the entrance road. 

Cyanopepla scintillans - P.N. Tapantí Area, Cartago, Costa Rica

The birds were active in the overcast conditions. We chanced upon a few small mixed flocks and enjoyed species like Emerald Tanager, Golden-browed Chlorophonia and Spotted Woodcreeper. Others remained hidden in the wall of green and were only appreciated by ear - Yellow-throated Toucan, Black-faced Solitaire, Buff-rumped Warbler. A Stripe-throated Hermit buzzed us, and a flock of White-collared Swifts chattered away high in the sky. I guess they are used to swirling gray clouds and erratic rain. As we left the forest behind and walked into the pasture, a Black Phoebe hunted from the fence line, unperturbed by the drizzly conditions. 

Black Phoebe - P.N, Tapantí Area, Cartago, Costa Rica

We finished our walk, hopped back in the car and began driving towards to San José. With a little time left to kill, one final stop near Ujarrás was on the agenda. Laura and I had visited this area briefly on our earlier pass through the area, searching unsuccessfully for Cabanis's Ground-Sparrow. This time, we ventured down a narrow dirt track towards an overlook of Lago Cachí. This lake was created in the 1970s with the construction of the Represa de Cachí (Cachí dam), and it was chock full of vegetation from our vantage point. 

Birding Lago Cachí, Cartago, Costa Rica

We noted many wetland species including heard-only White-throated Crakes and a single Gray-breasted Crake, a typical selection of herons, and a distant Muscovy Duck. We also enjoyed stellar views of a Barred Antshrike and Tropical Gnatcatcher. As we left Ujarrás a group of roadside Collared Aracaris demanded one more brief diversion. And with that, we completed the rest of the drive and made our flight with plenty of time. 

----------------------------------

As I write this, more than a full year has passed since our flight departed Costa Rica and touched down in Toronto. It has been a challenging year for many people to say the least. With vaccine programs ramping up in some parts of the world, there is now hope on the horizon. Laura and I still very much have plans to return to Central and South America as soon as reasonably possible, perhaps as soon as this autumn (however, I generally have an optimistic, and not realistic, outlook).  There are still many unfinished chapters to write. 

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

A Winter Wonderland

The title of this post may seem strange, given the beautiful spring weather that has arrived in Ontario in recent days. But even as southern Ontario sees temperatures soaring to the high teens, with frogs singing and migrant birds arriving by the minute, it was not that long ago that I was surrounded by cold, crisp weather in northern Ontario. Winter held the landscape firmly in its icy grip, and signs of spring were quite difficult to locate. Even the migrant American Crows had not made it this far north.


I had a reason to leave the relative balminess of southern Ontario behind and make the long trek to the Cochrane area and beyond, where the snow was close to a metre in depth and the temperatures were -20 and below. That reason was to search for Willow Ptarmigans. This species breeds in the Arctic but it is migratory, and some years they appear far enough south that they can be searched for along the roads south of James Bay. This winter was shaping up to be a good one. Ptarmigans had been reported in many locations on the Quebec side, and in late February, adventurous birders Jeff Skevington and Vincent Fyson located a group of them on the Ontario side. They had discovered the birds over 150 km northeast of Cochrane, along the paved road leading to the remote Detour Gold Mine. Several other birders made the trek in subsequent weeks, finding success as well. As I had never observed this species before in Ontario, I was keen to take a detour up to the mine.

Canada Jay - Detour Mine Road, Cochrane District


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Monday, 15 February 2021

Nearing the End of Our Costa Rica Trip - Savegre Valley

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Our trip was quickly coming to a close with just a few days left. Perhaps I would have been a bit more sentimental during these final days if I had realized that these would be the last experiences I would have in the tropics for well over a year (thanks, Covid!). At the time, I remained foolishly optimistic that we would only be in Canada for a couple of months before returning again to the Neotropics. 

We left the Quepos area behind and headed southeast, following the coastline for a while. It was another perfectly sunny day in paradise. We made one final stop along the Pacific to take in the view, but then it was time to climb into the mountains and head towards cooler climes. 

The car's thermometer steadily dropped as we navigated higher into the mountains. The periwinkle sky was replaced with swirling clouds and bands of fog, and soon we had arrived at our destination - a restaurant called La Georgina that is located just outside Parque Nacional Los Quetzales. We were now situated over 3000 m in elevation. Here, there was very little (if any) overlap with the bird species we had been watching just a few hours earlier along the Pacific coast. At the hummingbird feeders we watched the antics of Talamanca, Volcano and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds. A loose flock of Mountain and Sooty Thrushes passed through, while Band-tailed Pigeons and Swallow-tailed Kites winged by overhead. Large-footed Finch, Slaty Flowerpiercer, Black-and-yellow Silky Flycatcher and Hairy Woodpecker rounded out some of the other bird species.

Fiery-throated Hummingbird - La Georgina Restaurant, Cartago, Costa Rica

Photographing a Fiery-throated Hummingbird - La Georgina Restaurant, Cartago, Costa Rica

Lunch here was cafeteria style and nothing special, but the price was right and included access to the well stocked hummingbird feeders. Feeling sated, we continued onward to even higher elevations. 

Road to the Cerro Buenavista communication towers, San José, Costa Rica

Laura and I had visited the Cerro Buenavista communication towers earlier in our trip. A gravel road meanders up the hillside towards these towers, providing access to the stunted forest found at this elevation. Some refer to this habitat as páramo, but it looks very different from the Espletia and Puya-bromeliad dominated páramo that we have explored in the Andes of South America. At over 3400 m in elevation, these radio towers are about as high in elevation that one can easily visit in Costa Rica. 

The sun had reappeared, helping to warm the landscape by counteracting the cool breeze. This was a neat environment for us to explore. And doubly so, considering that we had been in the steamy Pacific lowlands just a few hours earlier. We enjoyed watching Volcano Juncos foraging on the ground, and I even lucked out with a heard-only Peg-billed Finch. It would not respond to my playback, though. This was not surprising, given the time of day and the fact that these birds are lusted after by birders during most days of the year. This road to the radio towers is one of the most accessible locations to search for this scarce, range-restricted species. 

Road to the Cerro Buenavista communication towers, San José, Costa Rica

We left the high elevation shrubland behind and finished driving to our accommodations for two nights, a rustic mountain cabin located in the upper reaches of the Savegre Valley. The air was cool as afternoon turned to evening and we made good use of the space heaters and extra blankets that night. Despite the temperatures, I optimistically set up my moth sheet. The strong breeze did not help matters and I eventually gave up after an hour with absolutely no moth sightings. My owling attempts were equally unsuccessful. Bare-shanked Screech-Owl was one of my remaining targets birds from the Talamanca mountains and they are often reported from this area. Again, the strong winds did not help my cause and I eventually admitted defeat. A vocalizing Dusky Nightjar was the only night-bird of any consequence. 

I awoke by dawn and eagerly awaited the sun cresting over the mountains, along with the inevitable bird chorus. The birding was far better than the previous evening and I soon tallied Resplendent Quetzal (heard only), Barred Parakeet, Dark Pewee, Acorn Woodpecker, White-throated Mountain-Gem and a mixed flock of songbirds that contained Wilson's, Tennessee and Black-throated Green Warblers, Collared Redstart, Yellow-winged Vireo, Flame-coloured Tanager and more. Not a bad start to the day before the morning's coffee.

Wilson's Warbler - Dantica, Savegre Valley, San Jose, Costa Rica

Rufous-collared Sparrow - Dantica, Savegre Valley, San Jose, Costa Rica

Even better, a small group of Spotted Wood-Quails appeared at the edge of the property! Laura and I had briefly seen a pair dart off the road a few weeks earlier, and we had also heard this species once, but this encounter was far more satisfying. Luckily, all four of us managed excellent views of this attractive species before they disappeared down the hillside and into deep cover. 

Spotted Wood-Quail - Dantica, Savegre Valley, San José, Costa Rica

Too many of the wood-quails on my life list are heard only, and I have only photographed a handful of the other species. Any time that I can obtain photos of an elusive wood-quail species is a good day in my books.

Spotted Wood-Quail - Dantica, Savegre Valley, San José, Costa Rica

Our plan for the day was to drive down to the bottom of the valley and visit the Savegre Hotel and Spa. While the rooms here were a bit too expensive for our budget, the hotel owns an extensive swath of forest, complete with hiking trails that go on for miles. For a small fee, one can access these trails for the day. 

Hiking at the Savegre Hotel trails, San José, Costa Rica

My target list of Talamancan bird specialties was dwindling, but there were still a few that I could seek out here; Silvery-throated Jay, Streak-breasted Treehunter, Elegant Euphonia and Sulphur-winged Parakeet among them. Before we could reach the Savegre Hotel, I slammed on the brakes as a Northern Emerald-Toucanet appeared on the road. 

Northern Emerald-Toucanet - Savegre Valley, San José, Costa Rica

Toucanets may look beautiful, but they too will eat a tasty dead bird without thinking twice about it. This one was attempting to consume a baby thrush of some kind. 

Northern Emerald-Toucanet - Savegre Valley, San José, Costa Rica

Northern Emerald-Toucanet - Savegre Valley, San José, Costa Rica

For some reason everyone else got a kick out of me lying down on the road to photograph the bird. Those delicious low angles are worth it, I'm telling ya... 

Photographing a Northern Emerald-Toucanet - Savegre Valley, San José, Costa Rica

Our next stop was only a few minutes further down the mountain. This time, it was a conspicuous Golden-bellied Flycatcher that drew my attention. 

Golden-bellied Flycatcher - Savegre Valley, San José, Costa Rica

Eventually we reached the Savegre Hotel and found an employee in the lobby to settle up the trail fee ($10 USD per person). Not a bad deal for Costa Rica, where everything is about twice as expensive as it should be. 

Our Toyota Rav4 had no issues climbing the rough gravel road to where some of the trailheads originate. The air temperature had warmed slightly and it was a very pleasant morning with minimal wind and numerous birds. The mature oak forest here was just gorgeous. 

Savegre Hotel trails, San José, Costa Rica

The Savegre Valley is an excellent location to observe several thrush species. This Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush was the very first one we had seen (all previous encounters were heard-only). 

Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush - Savegre Hotel trails, San José, Costa Rica

The Collared Redstart is said to be a friendly little bird with little fear of humans. We had found this species on a few occasions with mixed flocks, but those views had been frustratingly fleeting. Our luck would turn scarcely ten minutes after we had started hiking. 

Collared Redstart - Savegre Hotel trails, San José, Costa Rica

Collared Redstart - Savegre Hotel trails, San José, Costa Rica

Collared Redstart - Savegre Hotel trails, San José, Costa Rica

Collared Redstart - Savegre Hotel trails, San José, Costa Rica

The birding remained active even as we approached the noon hour. Laura spotted a female Resplendent Quetzal (though it did not stick around for very long), I got on to my first Elegant Euphonia, we finally experienced excellent views of a Wrenthrush, and we noted many mixed flocks of birds. 

Flame-colored Tanager - Savegre Hotel trails, San José, Costa Rica

Savegre Hotel trails, San José, Costa Rica

As we rounded a bend, my mom exclaimed that she had found an impressive moth. What a beaut, indeed!

Godman's Silkmoth - Savegre Hotel trails, San José, Costa Rica

This behe-moth is known as the Godman's Silkmoth (Antheraea godmani). It is one of four species from this genus found in the Americas (including the familiar Polyphemus Moth), but the Godman's Silkmoth is the largest and rarest of them. It finds habitat in pristine montane forest in Central America, especially in areas with an abundance of oak as this is the food plant for the caterpillars. This species reaches a wingspan of nearly 20 centimetres. 

Godman's Silkmoth - Savegre Hotel trails, San José, Costa Rica

This one must have recently emerged, as its wings were very fresh.

Godman's Silkmoth - Savegre Hotel trails, San José, Costa Rica

We finished our hike and drove back down to the hotel at the urging of our rumbling bellies. Following this well-needed diversion, it was back to the birds! The gardens around the hotel included many flowering and fruiting species, and birds were common. I heard some squawking sounds that piqued my interest and followed the noises to an apple tree. My hunches were confirmed when I noticed several Sulphur-winged Parakeets tucking into the ripe apples. Awesome! 

Sulphur-winged Parakeet - Savegre Hotel trails, San José, Costa Rica

I called the others over to observe this special species. Sulphur-winged Parakeet is another Talamancan specialty, being found only in the mountains of Costa Rica and western Panama. They are not particularly rare, but for some reason we had not encountered any up to this point. Most of my parakeet sightings seem to consist of backlit, screeching silhouettes wheeling over the trees. This intimate experience was a welcome change.

Sulphur-winged Parakeet - Savegre Hotel trails, San José, Costa Rica

Sulphur-winged Parakeets - Savegre Hotel trails, San José, Costa Rica

That evening I tried once again for owls from our accommodations in Dantica. I even walked up the road for a while and played the tape periodically. Unfortunately, the screech-owls remained silent once again. That is birding for you.