Monday, 20 November 2017

Mountain Bluebird ties the record!

It has been an exciting few weeks in Ontario, in no small part to all of the rare birds that are being observed in the southern portion of the province. An Anna's Hummingbird, only the third to be documented in Ontario, was discovered at a bird feeder in Carleton Place early in November and its presence was made public to the birding community last week. A Townsend's Warbler has become quite regular in its habits in Bate's Subdivision near Rondeau Provincial Park, in the week since its discovery by Jim Burk. A Black-throated Gray Warbler has been reliably seen in Ottawa for almost three weeks. This was just one of three excellent birds that Bruce DiLabio came across, with the other two being Razorbill and Northern Gannet (I think I need to put a radio-tracker in Bruce and follow him around - its a good strategy to see rarities). A Summer Tanager is visiting a feeder in Sudbury. And a whole variety of "lesser rarities" have been seen throughout the province including a smattering of Cattle Egrets, Red Phalaropes, Black-legged Kittiwakes, a Black-headed Gull, Pacific Loons and more. Late fall can be a spectacular time for birding even though most of the landbirds have cleared out.

On November 18 another rarity was added to the list, when Anthony Vanderheyden discovered a female Mountain Bluebird at Snyder's Flats in Waterloo. Mountain Bluebird is a western species that is at home in open, scrubby areas throughout the Rocky Mountains and across the Great Plains. It also has a tendency to turn up in out of the way places and rarely but regularly appears in Ontario. There are 43 OBRC accepted records of Mountain Bluebird, with most records occurring in late autumn or early winter.

Mountain Bluebird - Snyder's Flats, Waterloo Region (November 19, 2017)

At the time I was at Point Pelee National Park with Todd Hagedorn for the weekend, and staying with Jeremy Bensette in Leamington. Jeremy was eager to get to the bluebird as it would be a potential year bird for him; the record-tying bird. It was too late in the day to chase the bluebird on Saturday so Jeremy planned to be there the following day. Todd and I planned on birding the Pelee and Rondeau areas before making our way back home. Upon our return to the Kitchener-Waterloo area we would look for the bluebird if it was still around.

The next morning Todd and I had a pretty productive day of birding that I will probably detail in another blog post. The bluebird was still being viewed, despite the high winds and occasional flurries, typical of late November it seems. Jeremy was already on site having already viewed the bird, and Todd and I met up with Ken Burrell and Dan MacNeal to conduct our own search. We had only been on site for half an hour when we received a call from Jeremy. He was looking at the bird with Owen Yates and Tim Arthur, only a short distance away Todd, Ken, Dan and I.

Mountain Bluebird - Snyder's Flats, Waterloo Region (November 19, 2017)

The Mountain Bluebird was actively searching for prey during the entire time that we watched it. The bird would frequently perch on the tips of willow and alder bushes to have a better view of the ground below, not always an easy task due to the strong winds almost blowing it off its perches on occasion. Being a bird of the Great Plains, I am certain that Mountain Bluebirds are well adapted to strong winds.

Mountain Bluebird - Snyder's Flats, Waterloo Region (November 19, 2017)

Mountain Bluebird - Snyder's Flats, Waterloo Region (November 19, 2017)

She appeared to be pretty successful, catching and gulping down a few grasshoppers while we watched. On a few occasions the bird hovered before dropping down, a behavior frequently shown by Mountain Bluebird which isn't seen as often by Eastern Bluebird, the expected species in southern Ontario.

Mountain Bluebird - Snyder's Flats, Waterloo Region (November 19, 2017)

Male Mountain Bluebirds are visually quite appealing due to their unmistakable sky blue coloration. The females, while a little more muted in color show subtle beauty in their own right. They still exhibit some blue, particularly on the tail and in the folded wings. In flight the blue flash was quite striking when she hovered above the ground facing away from us.

Mountain Bluebird - Snyder's Flats, Waterloo Region (November 19, 2017)

This photo, taken just after she hopped off her perch, illustrates some of the blue easily seen in the flight feathers.

Mountain Bluebird - Snyder's Flats, Waterloo Region (November 19, 2017)

Sometimes she would hunt from the ground, taking advantage of the relative shelter from the wind provided by a nearby gravel hillside.

Mountain Bluebird - Snyder's Flats, Waterloo Region (November 19, 2017)

We enjoyed the twenty minutes or so that we spent with her. At one point she came to within about five meters of our group, seemingly unconcerned with our presence. Finding food was of primary importance.

Mountain Bluebird - Snyder's Flats, Waterloo Region (November 19, 2017)

The Mountain Bluebird represented the 343rd bird species seen or heard by Jeremy Bensette this year, officially tying the big year record which I set in 2012. Congrats Jeremy! It was great to share this moment with him, as Jeremy is one of my best friends who I have shared a lot of time (and birds) with over the last few years. The Mountain Bluebird was just one of many highlights this year which also included Jeremy standing in my wedding party in early September. Luckily for him he did not miss any year birds due to the wedding festivities, and no rarities showed up during the day of the wedding, which would have given Jeremy a very difficult decision to make!

Photo courtesy of Corynn Fowler Photogrpahy

And a photo of Jeremy with his record tying bird...

Jeremy Bensette with Mountain Bluebird - Snyder's Flats, Waterloo Region (November 19, 2017)

While I am sure it will not be long until he sees another year bird to take sole possession of the record, for a brief moment at least we both share the record, which is pretty cool. Jeremy has certainly put in the time and effort (and mileage) in his big year attempt and is very deserving of the record. Here's to many more year birds before the year is out; lets see how high you can push the record, Jere!

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Borneo - an Introduction

Earlier this year, I was approached by Quest Nature Tours to see if I had any interest in leading a tour to Borneo and Bali for 12 days in October of 2017. Borneo had always been on my short list of must-visit destinations and so I jumped at the opportunity. It would be a different kind of tour for me as well. While past tours I've led for Quest have been traditional nature tours, this trip would be with an alumni group from Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH. The college has a travel alumni organization that helps to organize trips for their members throughout the world, often accompanied by one of their professors who is an expert in their field. This trip would consist of eight days in Borneo and three days in Bali, with the Borneo portion focused on wildlife and ecology, while the Bali segment would have more of a focus on the culture and religions of the area. The group would be accompanied by Dr. Nate Dominy, a world renowned anthropologist and evolutionary ecologist at Dartmouth College who specializes in primate behaviour, morphology and ecology. I would act as the Quest representative, and we would also have local guides with us throughout the duration of the trip. With only four travelers signed up it would be a nice cozy group!

Having never been to Asia before, I made the prudent decision to fly in about a week and a half ahead of the tour. This would give me a chance to get my feet wet with the ecology and wildlife present in Borneo, and though I would still have a lot to learn as the trip commenced at least these extra days would give me a bit of a running start. Not only that, but it was an opportunity to explore on my own, in one of the most biodiverse corners of this world. A good decision, I think.

Before I get into the meat of the report, I wanted to briefly provide some background information on the island of Borneo. 

The island of Borneo is the third largest island in the world, only trailing Greenland and New Guinea. Located southeast of mainland Asia and northwest of Australia, Borneo is actually composed of three different countries.  The northern 1/3 of the island belongs to Malaysia and the southern 2/3 belongs to Indonesia, while the sovereign state of Brunei is located in the northern part of the island. The Malaysian side is composed of two states: Sarawak in the south and west, and Sabah in the northeast. Several other large islands are located near Borneo. To the east is Sulawesi, to the south is Java and to the west is Sumatra. 

While Borneo is currently manifested as an island, over geological time this is usually not the case. The waters between mainland southeast Asia, Java, Sumatra and Borneo are all quite shallow, and during periods of low water levels (such as during glacial maxima) these areas can be all connected by land, which is the case about 80% of the time.  Collectively, this part of the world is known as the Sundaic shelf and Borneo, Java, Sumatra and mainland Mayalsia/Thailand share many species as a result.   

Sir Alfred Russel Wallace was one of the first naturalists to devote a lot of his time to understanding the biogreography of the Sundaic shelf and the Indonesian archipelago; in fact he is often referred to as the father of biogeography. Sir Wallace is perhaps most famous for conceiving of the idea of the theory of evolution and natural selection based off of his findings and discoveries as he traveled throughout the area. He came upon the idea independently of Charles Darwin, prompting Charles Darwin to rush to publish his thoughts. One of Sir Wallace's other important findings was the discovery of Wallace's Line; that is, a deep sea trench that essentially splits the Indonesian archipelago in half, running north-south and passing to the east of Borneo. Wallace found it interesting how the islands of Bali and Lombok, despite only being separated by 35 km, had vastly different flora and fauna. In his book "The Malay Archipelago" he states "In Bali we have barbets, fruit thrushes and woodpeckers; on passing over to Lombok we see these no more, but on Lombok we have an abundance of cockatoos, honeysuckers and brush-turkeys which we do not see in Bali or further west". Wallace observed similar differences between the fauna of Borneo and Sulawesi, and elsewhere in the archipelago. We now know that deep-sea trenches form Wallace's Line. Even during times of glacial maxima when sea levels are at the lowest, the depth of these trenches prevent land bridges from joining the islands on either side of the line. As a result, the flora and fauna west of the line are Asian in origin, while to the east of the line the flora and fauna are decidedly Australasian in origin. Many species groups will not cross over open water, causing the line to act as a barrier preventing gene flow.

One tenet of island biogeography is that in general, biological diversity is proportional to the size of the island. Being one of the largest islands in the region Borneo is quite diverse, even rivaling the mainland (Thailand, Malaysia) in species diversity. While formerly Borneo was blanketed with tropical forest, deforestation within the last 60 years has affected most of the island. The Indonesian portion of the island has been the most heavily affected and forests are continually being turned into oil palm plantations each and every day. While only about 30% of the original forest cover remains in Borneo, many organizations have been hard at work in recent years advocating for the protection of the remaining forests. The Malaysian government has stepped up and now some areas in the Malaysian side of the island receive protection. Ecotourism has exploded in recent years as world class eco-lodges have began popping up over the northern part of the island (Sabah province). Hopefully this will lead to more interest in Borneo and more protection for the areas that has not yet been exploited by deforestation.

The above map shows each of the locations that I visited, numbered by the order that I visited them. I flew into Kota Kinabalu in the northwest, rented a car at the airport and explored the area for nine days. I then returned the car and flew east to Sandakan to meet my group. We explored the eastern side of the island and flew out of Tawau, arriving later that day in Bali. Red lines note travel by car/bus, green shows a flight, and blue represents a boat. A brief synopsis on each location that I visited:

1. Gunung (Mount) Kinabalu.
This is one of the most famous names in southeast Asia for birders as southeast Asia's highest peak also is the easiest location to see many of the endemic species found in Borneo. Mountains lack species diversity but they are often hotspots of endemism, and Mount Kinabalu is no different. Within the national park exists an excellent trail system that provides access to pristine forests from about 1400 m to 1800 m. The summit trail allows one to explore the elevations of 1800 m to the summit at 4,095 m; unfortunately day passes are no longer available and the only way to visit the high elevations along the summit trail is to sign up for a two day trip with a guide, to reach the summit by sunrise on day 2. This needs to be booked well in advance and is not cheap; needless to say I missed the few endemics that are only seen along the summit trail! There are a wide variety of accommodations either in the national park or in the nearby town of Kundasang. I spent the better part of three full days within this part of the national park.

2. Poring Hot Springs / Langanan Waterfall
While also located within Mount Kinabalu National Park, the Poring Hot Springs are located at the low elevation of 500 m. A trail leading to the Langanan Waterfall starts at the hot springs and finishes at an elevation around 1200 m, providing access to lower elevation forest than what one can explore near the main entrance to Mount Kinabalu National Park. I spend one full day walking to the waterfall and back, and since it is only located 45 mins from the entrance to Mount Kinabalu National Park it is easy to do in a day trip.

3. Crocker Range: Gunung (Mount) Alab 
The Crocker Range starts north of Mount Kinabalu and continues to the southwest, effectively separating the east and west coasts of Sabah province in north Borneo. Near the Gunung Alab substation and Rafflesia Information Center is access to high quality submontane forest where several of the tough mountain endemic birds can be found more reliably than at Mount Kinabalu. The only accommodations are in the very basic Gunung Alab "Resort" (quotation marks added by me).

Crocker Range - Sabah Province, Malaysia

4. Tanjung (Point) Aru
This beach is located within the city of Kota Kinabalu. I made a brief stop here during the heat of the afternoon to look for the introduced Blue-naped Parrots, a scarce Philippine species that has established itself at this park. Unfortunately I dipped on the parrots, but the park does provide a great introduction to the common coastal species.

5. Klias Peatswamp Reserve
Peatswamp forest is one of the rarer forest types in Sabah Province, though it is much more common in the Indonesian side of Borneo. A field station located within the Klias reserve has constructed an extensive boardwalk which provides access to this unusual forest type. Some of the main target species for visiting birders are the scarce Hook-billed Bulbul, Gray-breasted Babbler, Scarlet-breasted Flowerpecker, Brown-backed Flowerpecker and Red-crowned Barbet. I stayed at the River Hotel in nearby Beaufort, which was excellent, and I birded the Klias reserve for one morning.

6. Sepilok Rainforest Discovery Center
Located on the edge of lowland rainforest, the Sepilok RDC has an extensive trail system and excellent canopy walkway. This is one of the better locations to encounter the highly sought after Bornean Bristlehead, while most Bornean lowland species can also be found here. Within the village of Sepilok is also the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center and Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center.

Black-and-red Broadbill - Sepilok RDC

7. Kinabatangan River: Sukau
The Kinabatangan River is the second largest river in Sabah, flowing from the highlands to the coast near the city of Sandakan. Most of the forest surrounding the lower reaches of the river is protected, and a number of eco-lodges are located in several clusters along the river. All excursions are done by boat here, cruising the main river and some of the tributaries in search of Proboscis Monkeys, Orangutans, Bornean Pygmy Elephants, Reticulated Pythons, Saltwater Crocodiles and a wide variety of birds and other wildlife. We stayed at the Borneo Nature Lodge, near Sukau.

8. Gomantong Caves
This is one of the largest limestone caves in Sabah Province providing habitat for millions of bats and swiftlets, including the famous White-nest, Black-nest and Mossy-nest Swiftlets. Surrounding the caves is high quality lowland rainforest, and wild Orangutans can sometimes be seen here. We only made a brief stop here to break up the drive to the Danum Valley.

9. Danum Valley 
The crown jewel of Sabah province, the Danum Valley is a 438 sq. km tract of undisturbed lowland forest, representing some of the best quality primary forest in southeast Asia. Almost every bird species known from the lowlands of Sabah has been observed here at some point. We stayed at the decadent Borneo Rainforest Lodge for three nights and explored the surrounding forests on foot. A seriously impressive canopy walkway and an excellent trail system provides access to the forest, while the guides here are some of the best in Borneo. Spending time here among the colossal trees and surrounded by Red Leaf Monkeys, Orangutans, civets, snakes and more was easily the highlight of the trip for me.

Ok, that is enough rambling for now. The next post will cover my first few days in Borneo!

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Van Wagner's Beach lakewatch

Life has been busy since my return from Borneo and Bali and I haven't had much of a chance to do any birding in the two weeks since my return. This week was particularly heavy, work-wise, but I managed to push a few big reports out the door and have a bit of a lighter schedule coming up, so hopefully I will be able to devote more time to birding in southwestern Ontario! I made sure that my schedule for Saturday remained clear, and given the forecast for moderate east winds picking up through the day, a visit to Van Wagner's Beach was in order.

Van Wagner's Beach is a well known location to pretty much any birder in southern Ontario. Due to its location on the far western end of Lake Ontario, migrant species present on the lake sometimes fly past during ideal weather conditions, such as during north, northeast or east winds in the autumn. Sometimes the various waterbird species migrating between James Bay and the Atlantic coast make a stopover on Lake Ontario; these are the birds that we are hoping to see at Van Wagner's! Given the time of year, I was hoping for Parasitic and Pomarine Jaeger, Black-legged Kittiwake, Red-throated Loons and maybe some Brant.

Only a few other birders were there upon my arrival at 9:00 AM including some familiar faces. The first few hours of the morning were quite productive though no rarities showed. I was really enjoying getting back into waterbird identification as I was a little out of practice! Lots of birds were on the move, namely scoters, Common Goldeneye, and Long-tailed Ducks, along with mixed flocks of dabbling ducks. It was a great day for loon migration and at any given point a loon was visible, somewhere over the water. A handful of distant Red-throated Loons were also seen, the harbingers of many more slated to come through this month.

Around 10:00 AM I spotted a Black-legged Kittiwake that was nearly upon us, only a few meters offshore and coming in hot and heavy from the west. Fortunately I had stepped back from my scope or else I surely would have missed this bird too! We all enjoyed the fantastic views as it cruised past, continuing down the beach.I was a little slow to the draw with my camera but eventually fired off a few photos as it flew directly away.

The next great bird came only a few minutes after the kittiwake. A small jaeger also flew down the beach, so close that we all could have easily missed it as well if we were looking through our scopes. Upon seeing the jaeger a few things were apparent - it lacked the warm tones associated with Parasitic Jaeger, exhibited a heavily barred undertail and uppertail coverts, and flew with the typical bouncy flight of Long-tailed Jaeger. Fortunately my camera was resting on the bench in front of me and after the kittiwake fly-by I was a little more prepared. It helped that the jaeger flew slowly down the beach, allowing Jeremy Bensette and I to snap a handful of photos as it drifted past, mere meters away. Looking at the photos the consensus among the group was that it was a juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger. Long-tailed is generally thought of as an earlier migrant, and each autumn a handful of individuals are seen from late August through September, with occasional records from October as well. There are only a couple of previous November records for Ontario, and this may be one of the latest for the province.

juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger - Van Wagner's Beach, City of Hamilton (November 4, 2017)

Some of the features that identify this bird as a juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger include the following:

-small slim jaeger appearing more front-heavy with attenuated rear
-bouncy, tern-like flight
-apparent small size
-"cold" tones throughout plumage, lacking rufous tones often seen in Parasitic Jaeger
-extensive white barring on upper and under tail coverts
-only a couple of white primary shafts on upper side of wings, lacking the extensive white flash
-short, relatively thick bill with black distal half and pale proximal half
-white barring on under wing coverts
-blunt-tipped central rectrices

juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger - Van Wagner's Beach, City of Hamilton (November 4, 2017)

The rest of the day was awesome - more Black-legged Kittiwake sightings, a Brant, decent numbers of ducks and other waterbirds and even some shorebirds. A flock of 12 Dunlins went by during the mid-morning, while a single White-rumped Sandpiper and two Sanderlings were also seen during my watch.

Sanderlings - Van Wagner's Beach, City of Hamilton (November 4, 2017)

Sanderlings - Van Wagner's Beach, City of Hamilton (November 4, 2017)

These two birds are both juvenile birds undergoing their first pre-basic molt. The dark brown and white juvenile feathers on the wings are being replaced with plain gray feathers. These new gray feathers are easily seen on the scapular (back) feathers, while a few have also come in on the wing coverts.

Sanderlings - Van Wagner's Beach, City of Hamilton (November 4, 2017)

By early afternoon I left to drive back to Niagara as I was hoping to catch up with a Franklin's Gull that had been found by Marcie Jacklin along the Niagara River in Fort Erie. She had observed the bird for three days in a row, including earlier in the morning. Unfortunately I couldn't dig it up, but I did enjoy taking some photos of some Bonaparte's Gulls that were actively feeding. Speaking of which - they have recently invaded the Niagara River in big numbers. My last stop at the Control Gates above the Falls was productive, as thousands were present. An adult Little Gull was mixed in with them, as was an individual that still showed a complete hood. We often get one or two of these each winter on the river.

Bonaparte's Gull - Fort Erie, Niagara Region

Bonaparte's Gull - Fort Erie, Niagara Region

Bonaparte's Gull - Fort Erie, Niagara Region

Bonaparte's Gull - Fort Erie, Niagara Region

Bonaparte's Gull - Fort Erie, Niagara Region

One of the locations that I checked in my attempt to find the Franklin's Gull was the Catherine Street parking lot along the Niagara River in Fort Erie. Migrant Horned Grebes have also appeared on the river, and just from one location I counted 24 here - no doubt several others were underwater when I scanned their portion of the river. This individual was one of two that popped up in the shallows a few meters from where I was standing on the bank. After two quick photos they both slipped underwater, reappearing a minute later, but now 30 meters away.

Horned Grebe - Fort Erie, Niagara Region

I'll finish with a few photos of some Bonaparte's Gulls, a Little Gull and a Common Tern, both seen two days ago from the end of the Port Weller east pier. Common Terns are still sticking around - I've seen three in the past two days. While most clear out of the province in Sept/Oct, we often see a few hanging around on the Niagara River until mid November.

Bonaparte's Gull - Port Weller East, Niagara Region

Common Tern - Port Weller East, Niagara Region

Little Gull - Port Weller East, Niagara Region

Little Gull - Port Weller East, Niagara Region

Bonaparte's Gull and Common Tern - Port Weller East, Niagara Region

Friday, 20 October 2017

Scenes of Borneo

Kinabatangan River

Canopy walkway through dipterocarp primary forest - Danum Valley 

Man of the forest: male Bornean Orangutan - Danum Valley

Blue-eared Kingfisher - Kinabatangan River

Red Giant Flying Squirrel - Sepilok

Paradise Flying Tree Snake - Danum Valley

Bornean Anglehead  Lizard (Gonocephalus bornensis) - Danum Valley

Blue Jay (Graphium evemon) - Mount Kinabalu

Rhinoceros Hornbills in the mist - Danum Valley

Storm's Stork - Kinabatangan River

Bornean Pygmy (Asian) Elephants - Kinabatangan River

Thursday, 5 October 2017


I've been a little M.I.A. over the last month or so, but for good reasons. On September 9th Laura and I got married, and a few weekends later we flew to Nova Scotia for the "second wedding"; really just a big party for everyone from Laura's side who couldn't make it to Ontario. And then to top it off I have been madly planning and studying for my trip to Borneo.

Fast forward a few weeks, and here I am, in Borneo - a place I've always dreamed of visiting! I landed on the evening of October 2 in Kota Kinabalu, located in the western part of Sabah Province, on the Malaysian side of Borneo. I picked up my rental car and drove straight to the famous Mt. Kinabalu which is where I have been stationed for the last three nights.

Borneo has been absolutely incredible to say the least and I've enjoyed marveling at the magnificent trees, searching out many of the rare and unusual bird species, and coming upon unexpected surprises around each and every bend (today I found a Rafflesia flower! Not in bloom though...). Driving on the left has been a lot of fun, especially when jostling with trucks up windy mountain roads!

I don't have a lot of time to write many details, as bedtime beckons - those 4:30 wakeup calls come quickly - so I'll leave with one highlight from today.

My plan for today was to park at the Poring Hot Springs and hike up to the Langanan waterfall, one of the largest in Sabah province. This trail is well known among visiting birders due to its large bird list, including several highly sought after species such as Hose's Broadbill, Bornean Banded Pitta and Blue-banded Pitta. The Blue-banded was one of my most wanted birds of the trip; perhaps because its stunning beauty adorns the cover of one of my Borneo field guides, so it was one of the first Borneo birds I became familiar with when researching the island. This scarce endemic is occasionally found on the Langanan waterfall trail but I was not holding my breath, especially since the two semi-reliable locations along the trail proved fruitless to me on my walk to the waterfall.

I completed the long and arduous hike up to the waterfall, stopping frequently to scan for birds, of which there were many vocalizing from the cathedral like trees, but few low enough to identify visually. At one point I stopped at a particularly scenic bend in the trail, and paused for 10 or 15 minutes to scan the treetops and record the vocalizations of some of the barbets that were calling incessantly. Not expecting much, I played a snippet of the song of Blue-banded Pitta - a moderately long, mournful whistle - and as expected, there was no response. I resumed recording the birdsong, focusing on a Black-and-yellow Broadbill that had fired up. Suddenly I heard a peculiar whistle, not far off the was a Blue-banded Pitta! I kept the recording going as the pitta sang two or three other times - I couldn't believe my luck.

Blue-banded Pittas can be quite shy so I was not expecting to see this bird. Just in case, I set my camera to "pitta mode", cranking the ISO up to 4000 and setting the aperture to be wide open, to let in as much light as possible in the dark understorey. Suddenly, there it was - a fiery red blob hopped into view, staring right at me! I slowly brought up my camera, cracking off a few dozen frames through the foliage, before lowering it and bringing my binoculars up to take in its beauty. For the next 30 seconds or so I stared at the pitta as he began flipping over some leaves, presumably looking for some morsel underneath. A few hops later and he was out of sight, while I stood there with my jaw open (probably). I couldn't believe the sequence of events!

Tomorrow I will be heading back into Kinabalu Park with a dwindling "hit list" as it has been a successful few days. I have yet to catch up with an Everett's Thrush, Mountain Wren-Babbler, Whitehead's Trogon or Bare-headed Laughingthrush; maybe with a bit of luck I will stumble upon one or two of those tomorrow! From there I will be spending a day in the Crocker Range to the south, followed by a night near the Klias Peatswamp reserve, before returning my rental car to the airport and flying across Sabah to meet up with my group.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Late summer rattlesnakes in the Muskokas

A few weekends back, several of my closest friends and I spent three nights up at Dan Riley's family cottage, located on the west shore of Lake Simcoe. It was a bachelor weekend of sorts for us, but instead of strippers and casinos, we had hiking and rattlesnake-ing on the agenda.

During two of our days at the cottage several of us decided we would go for a drive to check out a favourite herping spot, a location where among ten species of snakes, Eastern Massasaugas are regularly encountered. Todd Hagedorn, Dan Riley, my brother Isaac and I composed the intrepid herping crew on both days. I was really hoping that we would luck into finding a few Eastern Massasaugas - not only because it is my favorite species of reptile in Ontario but because it would be a first for my brother, who was my original herping buddy during our formative years.

Todd (foreground) and Dan looking for snakes - Muskoka District, Ontario

Isaac looking for snakes - Muskoka District, Ontario

We could not have asked for better weather conditions for both days. While the afternoons were warm, the heat was far from oppressive, and a light breeze whisked away any perspiration quickly and efficiently. Due to the time of year the majority of the biting insects were nowhere to be found, exponentially increasing our collective levels of comfort.

Birds were eerily silent out in the rock barrens. Since the breeding season is essentially finished, most species were staying quiet (no need to draw undue attention), while other species were absent, having already departed for warmer climes further south. But we were not here to look for birds - the snakes were the object of our searching and we were not disappointed with our haul.

I was fortunate to spot a couple of Smooth Greensnakes out and about during our first day as we herped a familiar location, a place where I have visited on at least 20 occasions. Smooth Greensnakes are a common but inconspicuous species found in this part of Ontario; when crossing an open rock barren they are much easier to spot!

Smooth Greensnake photoshoot - Muskoka District, Ontario

Todd and Smooth Greensnake - Muskoka District, Ontario

Since I did not have my camera and lens with me on Day 1 I did not focus on photographing the smaller snakes as much, though I took a couple of quick snaps with my phone. Nothern Ring-necked Snakes are probably the most abundant species of snake in this habitat (open rock barrens, oak/maple woodland, and scattered wetlands).

Northern Ring-necked Snake - Muskoka District, Ontario

Within an hour of our arrival on Day 1 we hit the jackpot. A yell from Dan got the attention of Isaac, Todd and I. Dan had discovered a "nest" of baby Eastern Massasaugas, all coiled up, under the edge of a massive rock that was propped up, creating a large cavity underneath. This turned out to be one of two "nests" we would find on the day, totaling 14 rattlesnakes! This photo below is of the second nest which Todd first spotted. My picture is of fairly poor quality (the iPhone doesn't handle contrast-y scenes too well), but hopefully you can make out a couple of the baby rattlesnakes tucked in against the rock.

Eastern Massasaugas - Muskoka District, Ontario

We were ecstatic with our finds and soaked up the views of the baby rattlesnakes. Like all rattlesnakes Eastern Massasaugas are ovoviviparous; meaning that they give birth to live young, though the developing young are fed by egg yolk (vs being fed through the placenta, as what happens in humans and other viviparous species). The young rattlesnakes often remain in the same birthing area, sometimes with the mother nearby, for a period of several weeks before dispersing throughout the surrounding landscape. I can count on one hand the number of Eastern Massasauga nests I have stumbled across; it's always cause for celebration!

Below is a photo of a neonate Eastern Massasauga that I took several years ago. This photo illustrates not only the neonate's excellent camouflage on the open bedrock, but also the single "button" it possesses, compared to the multi-segmented rattle that older snakes have. I have to admit, these snakes are as cute as a button!

Towards the end of our hike on Day 1 I spotted this gorgeous Eastern Massasauga in a rock pile where I have seen them in the past. Dan and I were both kicking ourselves for having left our cameras behind, forcing us to resort to our phones for photographs.

Eastern Massasauga - Muskoka District, Ontario

On our second day, Todd, Isaac, Dan and I decided to check out a new area, something that I don't do as much as I should. In the past when I was much more involved in the herping "scene" I would frequently widen my search radius to explore new areas; nowadays, I tend to return to the same tried and true locations that I have been visiting for years. Our gamble paid off handsomely this time as we found quite a variety of reptiles and amphibians; I believe we totaled seven snake species on Day 2, giving us eight species for the weekend. I even remembered to bring my camera this time, giving me a chance to test out the new D7500 and 300 mm lens.

Dekay's Brownsnake is well known to most naturalist-types in southern Ontario, in part due to the species' ubiquity, but here on the barrens they are much more difficult to come across. I certainly see more Eastern Massasaugas than I do Dekay's Brownsnakes up here, for some reason! This individual was the only one of the weekend; it was found under a rock in some barrens that look very similar to the above photo.

Dekay's Brownsnake - Muskoka District, Ontario

We came across this interesting scene as we hiked along. The wet summer that we have been experiencing likely contributed to high water levels which presumably burst through a beaver dam, almost completely draining this wetland. The water level had diminished by well over a meter. Needless to say there is a beaver out there that has had its engineering degree revoked.

I don't usually see shorebirds when in Muskoka District (apart from occasional individuals at the Bracebridge sewage lagoons), but we were happy to see that several shorebirds were making use of the recently exposed mud caused by the draining of the wetland. Among those present were Solitary Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs and Semipalmated Plover.

Solitary Sandpiper - Muskoka District, Ontario

For much of our hike on the second day we explored the periphery of a large wetland complex; as a result we encountered numerous Northern Watersnakes and Northern Ribbonsnakes moving through the sedge meadows surrounding the wetland, or basking higher up on the lichen-encrusted bedrock that circled the wetland.

Northern Watersnake - Muskoka District, Ontario

Northern Ribbonsnake - Muskoka District, Ontario

Todd (left) and Dan - Muskoka District, Ontario

Snakes are not the only reptiles that frequent the barrens; Ontario's only lizard species can also be found, if one knows where to look. This little gaffer is a young Five-lined Skink, as told by its bright turquoise tail. As they age they lose the blue colouration while the stripes will fade as well. 

Five-lined Skink - Muskoka District, Ontario

Dan made a great spot with this adult Eastern Massasauga, representing the highlight of the day (for me, at least!). While every encounter with this species is worth remembering, this one was made extra special because the snake was found in a new location for us.
Eastern Massasauga - Muskoka District, Ontario

Eastern Massasauga - Muskoka District, Ontario

Our last snake of the day was a little Red-bellied that Todd found alongside the trail. There are two common colour morphs of this species that we see in Ontario - this individual was of the gray morph, which is my favourite of the two morphs, while they also come in brown. Both morphs show the striking red ventrum. 

It was a great weekend with the guys, in one of my favorite parts of Ontario. I'm already looking forward to visiting again; unfortunately it won't be until next spring.