Friday 28 October 2011

Quick update from North Carolina

As some as you know, I am currently in the southern Appalachians (along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee) on the hunt for salamanders with Chris Law. We have had a bit of success so far, but have struck out on many target species. A shot to whet your appetites for more to come...

Eastern Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) - North Carolina

Saturday 22 October 2011

October 22 - Port Stanley and area

Today, a large group of us from the University of Guelph wildlife club headed down to Port Stanley to spend a day at the hawkwatch.

As soon as we arrived it was obvious that there were large numbers of passerines. Among the highlights were 5 species of woodpeckers (including Pileated), Blue-headed Vireo, Fox Sparrows, and 5 species of warblers including 5 Orange-crowned and 1 Tennessee.

Orange-crowned Warbler - Hawk Cliff

After about an hour, the raptors really started moving and it was obvious that there would be a huge Turkey Vulture migration. Here is one fine individual:

Turkey Vulture - Hawk Cliff

Here is a huge TV next to a tiny Sharp-shinned Hawk (or a "shin" as the grizzled veteran hawkwatchers call them)

Turkey Vulture and Sharp-shinned Hawk - Hawk Cliff

I was happy to spot a two Common Loons circling high overhead. Not a species that I was expecting to see!

Common Loon - Hawk Cliff

Eventually, an eagle passed over, way overhead. Based on its proportions and its underwing pattern, we determined it was a Golden. The only one we saw today, though the official counters tallied several more throughout the day.

Golden Eagle - Hawk Cliff

Here is a normal Baldy for comparison. The head of Bald Eagles sticks out much farther than for Golden Eagles, especially when they are in a "tuck" such as the above Golden Eagle.

Bald Eagle - Hawk Cliff

There were quite a few Accipiters, flying over high and low. Among the many Sharpies, we picked out a few Cooper's Hawks.

Cooper`s Hawk - Hawk Cliff

The third species of Accipiter (Northern Goshawk) finally made an appearance in the mid afternoon. It was a juvenile bird and, despite the (lack of) quality photo, it passed over quite close and I had fantastic views in the scope. This was only the second Goshawk I have seen this year.

Northern Goshawk - Hawk Cliff

Turkey Vultures kept streaming over all day, and by the time we left the official counters had counted over 8,000 of them, smashing the all time high for one day! This is just an example of what the skies were filled with all day. If you squint, you can see hundreds of TVs.

Turkey Vultures - Hawk Cliff

After leaving the hawkwatch (Turkey Vultures were still streaming overhead), we headed down to the town of Port Stanley to check a few spots. I was hoping that after the strong west winds over the weekend, followed by the strong east winds on Wednesday, that something decent would be at the harbour. As I was scanning the east pier, I noticed a phalarope swimming close to the pier. After getting Andy's scope (mine did not have a zoom lens), we were able to determine it was a Red Phalarope. The bird was in basic plumage and had an unstreaked, grey back, relatively thick bill, and completely white underwing. I was pretty stoked as this was my first one that I have seen in Ontario. Here is the best photo I got (as you can see, all the photos in this post are Nat. Geo quality).

Red Phalarope - Port Stanley harbour

We quickly checked out the lagoons (scoring about 6 species of ducks, some Bonaparte's Gulls, a Horned Grebe, and about 8 Greater Yellowlegs), then headed on home. Not a bad day!!!

What a day

Just got in the door after an awesome day of birding in the Port Stanley area. I am short on time - full writeup coming tomorrow. Anyways the highlights included a Golden Eagle, a Northern Goshawk, and the all time single day record for Turkey Vultures at Hawk Cliff. The day ended with finding a Red Phalarope at the harbour. This was a new Ontario bird for me (#330). Quick photo:

Red Phalarope - Port Stanley (photo by Andrew Keaveney)

Friday 21 October 2011

Recent happenings

Yesterday, after competing a midterm, David Bell and I headed down to Hamilton to do a lakewatch. The weather was perfect:  45+ km/h northeast winds. Brandon did a full write-up of the sightings of the day here:

Despite not arriving until 2:30, we had the majority of the species that Brandon mentioned. Seeing all three species of jaegers within an hour was pretty cool, as was the adult Little Gull that was flying with about a dozen Bonaparte's Gulls. Unfortunately I didn't see the Kittiwake(s) that was around. There was also a Yellow-billed Loon reported from the New York side of Lake Ontario a few days ago, last seen flying west. Unfortunately this bird didn't materialize at Van Wagner's!
I didn't take any photos due to the crappy weather.

Today I went for a 2 hour hike around the arboretum in Guelph, taking the advice of friend and fellow student Reuven Martin. He was there yesterday and had huge numbers of all the expected mid-late October migrants.

The day did not disappoint! Among the highlights were cracking looks at an Orange-crowned Warbler, an Eastern Towhee, 39 Hermit Thrushes (yep - I counted every last one), 5 Blue-headed Vireos (a pretty good count for October 21!), and my first 3 Fox Sparrows of the year. I also had both Swamp and Lincoln's Sparrow to round off a good afternoon.

So what's next on the agenda? I am heading to Hawk Cliff tomorrow with the U of G wildlife club, and then on Tuesday/Wednesday I am going on a road trip for 4/5 days to look for herps....more info on that trip coming up soon. It should be epic, with loads of salamander species!

Monday 17 October 2011

Wet and wild times at Pelee

This weekend I zipped down to Pelee, hoping, as usual, for uber-rare vagrant birds. Strong west winds were forecasted for the weekend and I hoped that this would cause some Franklin's Gulls, cool shorebirds, or if we were really lucky, a rare western flycatcher to be found down in the southwestern corner of the province.

When it was all said and done, it was an excellent weekend with good company and a couple of decent birds (despite the persistent rain).

My first destination was a flooded field near Comber at the north end of the county. Large numbers of shorebirds had consistently been found there over the past week or two. When I arrived, there was no sign of the 11 Godwits which were frequenting the spot. However, one lonely Hudsonian Godwit was still present. The winds were so strong here that I had to hide in the cornfield next to the muddy field, using it as a windbreak. This was fairly succesful and I picked out the remaining species, in order of abundance. By the way, most of these counts are estimates:

Black-bellied Plover (250)
Dunlin (150)
White-rumped Sandpiper (60)
Semipalmated Sandpiper (50)
American Golden-Plover (25)
Killdeer (10)
Baird's Sandpiper (2)
and singles of Long-billed Dowitcher, Least Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper, and of course the Hudsonian Godwit.
I ended up walking in the muddy field to get closer views at the peeps since I suspected one was a Western from a distance. Sure enough, it was! It was a fairly long-billed "female-type" bird. The Spotted Sandpiper is a pretty late date for the species.

A brief check of Tilbury yielded virtually nothing, so I headed on down towards Point Pelee. Wheatley harbour had a really fresh, crisp juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull but not much else. The onion fields were pretty devoid of all life too, so I called it a day early and headed to my favorite local joint (McDonald's for the free wifi - where else!) and Skype-called Laura from halfway around the world. Ah, modern technology. After that it was drinks with a good friend in Leamington, then I called it a night and slept in my car.

Sunday was as the forecast predicted - miserable with rain out of the southwest. I headed down to the tip and did a bit of a lakewatch with "the regulars" - Alan Wormington, Blake Mann, Richard Carr, Kevin McLaughlin, Steve Pike, and Marianne Balkwill. It was nice to finally meet Marianne!

Despite the winds it was pretty slow at the tip - highlights were probably Ring-billed Gull and Red-breasted Merganser... Well it wasn't THAT bad. A juvenile Red-necked Phalarope was nice to see and a Lesser Black-backed Gull made a few passes. The odd Merlin and Common Tern flew by as well. Despite scanning thousands of gulls, we didn't come up with any Franklins!

Steve was pretty stoked about the large number of "dicky-birds" around in the woods so I joined him for a bit in sparrow field then birded by myself for a few hours at the tip and along Shuster. There were Yellow-rumped Warblers everywhere, and I picked out 9 other species of warblers with them, including Orange-crowned, Magnolia, and Wilson's. All the other expected October fare was present, including Winter Wren, both kinglets, Eastern Phoebes, Hermit Thrushes, Rusty Blackbirds, and a Blue-headed Vireo. Steve mentioned that this was the most number of birds he had seen in the park all autumn.

My next stop was Hillman marsh where I donned the hipwaders and went splashing after Nelson's Sparrows. Despite the high winds I was somewhat successful in this venture, flushing three possible Nelson's (of which I only got a decent look at one of them). I also walked through the grassy field directly north of the shorebird cell and scared up a bunch of sparrows, including one that may or may not have been a Le Conte's. Sometimes they get away from you!

A quick check of Erieau harbour produced an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull and not much else. I checked Blenheim lagoons around sunset and found a few shorebirds in the sprinklers (including White-rumped and Long-billed Dowitcher). One shorebird had me stumped - it was hanging out with Lesser Yellowlegs and exhibited similar behaviour, but its bill was shaped more like a Stilt Sandpiper. It was a juvenile bird, and it was slightly smaller than the LEYEs but appeared marginally chunkier. It had a different facial pattern too - much blander actually, and with less of an obvious capped appearance. I only wish the lighting was better since I couldn't pick up much on this bird! Maybe it will hang around and someone will notice it and clear up it's identification.

All in all it was a decent weekend and really nice to get away from schoolwork for a bit. The few photos I took from the weekend will be added once I get a chance (might not be for a couple of days)

Thursday 13 October 2011

Why I love fall

The mid to late autumn is probably my favorite time of year to go birding in Ontario for many reasons. First of all, the oppressing heat and mosquitoes from the summer is long behind us. Secondly, raptor, shorebird, and passerine migration is still in full swing. Third of all, this is a really good time of year to find semi-rare birds in southern Ontario such as Pomarine Jaegers, Greater White-fronted and Ross's Geese, Hudsonian Godwits, and Nelson's Sparrows. But the main reason I love birding in the fall is the sheer number of mega-rarities that occur!

Don't get me wrong - the celebrated migration in May is phenomenal, but there is something to be said for all the vagrants that seem to occur with each passing weather system in the autumn. Rare flycatchers and sparrows tend to be the theme during the autumn. The maritime provinces are already doing a great job, with Lark Sparrows reported EVERYWHERE. Illinois has its first Green-tailed Towhee in about a decade (see photo here:)

Wheatears are another species that are in the news. Incredibly, Prince Edward Island had not only it's first provincial record of Northern Wheatear this week, but also its second! A few others have been showing up in the maritimes, and Pennsylvania had one too (photos here).
Oh, and PEI had its first Fork-tailed Flycatcher this week too.

So why am I writing this post?
Crazy weather systems are one of the biggest factors that spead rarities across the continent. A nice one is coming up from the west, with 25-40 km/h south or southwest winds being forecast for Friday through Tuesday in much of Ontario. I know I'll be out birding this weekend - who knows what will show up!

One of these would be nice...

Black-throated Sparrow - August 30, 2009 (Port Burwell, ON)

Monday 10 October 2011

Gallinule photos

I wasn't expecting the bird to be so far away, so the photos are very heavily cropped. Nonetheless, they are identifiable (brownish gallinule with white undertail coverts, greenish/blueish wings, yellow legs). This bird is obviously a juvenile which will gradually molt into 1st alternate plumage (vibrant greens,blues, yellows, and purples) throughout the winter.

juvenile Purple Gallinule - Port Weller east

juvenile Purple Gallinule - Port Weller east

juvenile Purple Gallinule - Port Weller east

The lighthouse at Port Weller


It had been a while since I had chased a rare bird. Come to think of it, the last time I drove more than 10 minutes to see a rare bird was the Mountain Bluebird in Stony Creek from March. This was mainly because nothing much was being reported across the province. That changed this weekend, as Dan Salisbury and John Black made a great find with a Purple Gallinule at the pond on the Port Weller pier. It was a juvenile, and if accepted would be the 15th record for Ontario.

I had some free time this morning so I booked it down to Niagara to take a look at this bird. After a brief wait it started foraging out in the open on the far side of the pond. It was a juvenile bird, but a hint of blue was starting to show on the wings. What really struck me was how obvious the white undertail coverts were! After enjoying the bird for a little over 1/2 an hour I moseyed on back to my car.
Other birds seen on the pier included Hermit Thrush, Orange-crowned, and Blackpoll warblers. The Gallinule was my 329th Ontario bird (the first new one since Glossy Ibis in May). Not a bad way to end this unseasonably warm Thanksgiving weekend!

I took a few poor photos of the bird which I will post later. Until then, check out Ken's much better photos of the bird on his blog here:

What's next on the agenda?
This week isn't looking too busy school wise, so I might do a day trip somewhere. I am also hoping on venturing to a quite unexpected location this weekend to do a Nelson's Sparrow hunt - stay tuned! The looks I had of the one in Hamilton just weren't quite satisfying enough.

Friday 7 October 2011

Hamilton birding (October 7)

After writing my first midterm of the semester, I thought I would celebrate/relax by doing some birding towards Hamilton. The first stop on the agenda was Coote's Paradise, a favorite place of mine. Everytime I go there I seem to see decent birds - recent visits have produced both godwits and Nelson's Sparrows.

The day was absolutely beautiful - 23 degrees C and sunny. If it wasn't for the hoardes of Yellow-rumped Warblers and White-throated Sparrows, one might think it was still August.

As expected, the usual creek cormorants kept a close watch on me.

Double-crested Cormorant - Coote's Paradise

An American Mink patrolled the far bank of the creek.

American Mink - Coote's Paradise

Eventually I arrived at the large pond on the south side of the trail - a place which happens to be a favored haunt of Nelson's Sparrows. These secretive sparrows are rare to uncommon migrants in southern Ontario, though Coote's Paradise usually has some present for a few weeks in early October. I only took about 15 steps before flushing a little grey and brown sparrow. A few seconds of quiet pishing got it to perch up for me, just long enough to confirm its identify as a Nelson's, before it dashed back down. Eventually it crept back up into the higher parts of the grasses and I was able to grab a diagnostic shot.

Nelson's Sparrow - Coote's Paradise

As I continued, I ran into Barb Charlton and Dave Don who had just returned from a trek to the end of "the willows". They informed me that 2 Hudsonian Godwits were feeding on the mud at the end. Perfect! After a brief chat I continued on my way, but not before I photographed some Rusty Blackbirds at the edge of the mud.

Rusty Blackbirds - Coote's Paradise

female Rusty Blackbird - Coote's Paradise

The Hudwits were still there when I arrived - two juvenile birds in crisp plumage. I spent some time taking some shots of them since they were relatively close and the first ones I had seen in quite some time.

Hudsonian Godwits - Coote's Paradise

Hudsonian Godwits - Coote's Paradise

I eventually made it all the way back to my car (no easy task while carrying binoculars, a camera, and scope on tripod!) and headed back to Guelph. On the way I made a brief detour to check out Mountsberg Reservoir since I had never been there before. 3 Greater Yellowlegs, 1 Lesser Yellowlegs, about 60 coots, and some ducks (Redhead, Hooded Merg, Woodie, A. Black, both teals) were the highlights.

Local rarities

I've managed to get out locally a fair amount in the last little while, and as a result have some birds to show for it.

When birders think of Guelph and Wellington County, there's not much that comes to mind. Guelph isn't a hotspot for raptors, shorebirds, ducks, gulls, warblers, vireos, or really, anything. I guess Snowy Owls do come down into the northern part of the county most winters, which is pretty cool I guess. But that's about it.

However, Wellington county is where I have decided to make my home for 4 years (I am in the final year, now), so you make do with what you are given. I like to think that over the past little while I have seen some decent birds in the county (best was last year's Parasitic Jaeger and Connecticut Warbler, probably).

Anyways, so recently I've gone out and seen some "local" rarities. The first was a juvenile Red-necked Grebe. I first heard about this bird from a posting by Fred Urie on a local birding forum. The bird was hanging out in a smallish pond along Wellington Road 32 and present for a few days . Red-necked Grebes are abundant in Lake Ontario, but not so much inland. I went out on October 4, and there it was, the little stripey-headed bastard in all his glory.

juvenile Red-necked Grebe, Guelph

Earlier in the week I was looking at some google maps and came across the "Hespeler Mill Pond" in north Cambridge, which looked promising. I decided to check it out since it was only a couple minutes from the Red-necked Grebe spot.

Surprisingly it was actually quite productive! A Great Egret, a nice variety of puddle ducks, some kingfishers, Cape May and Bay-breasted Warblers and some random shorebirds. Shorebirds are tough to come by in this part of the world, so to get 10 species in one spot was quite something! The best of the bunch were a pair of Long-billed Dowitchers, closely followed by Black-bellied Plover and Wilson's Snipe. I think there are only a couple of county records for LBDO prior to these ones (This spot was just over the county line, in Waterloo).

juvenile Long-billed Dowitchers feeding

Other than these birds, it has been pretty decent in Orange-crowned Warbler here, a Cackling Goose (or 6) there. And this morning I woke up to the thump of a junco hitting my window. Winter's almost here! By the way, he sat on the ground for about 10 minutes before flying away.

Sunday 2 October 2011

Recent news (or lack thereof)

Yeah, I haven't updated the blog with epic bird sightings over the past week. But there is a good reason for that! Mainly because I have not had any epic bird sightings lately.

Ever since being back at school, I have been quite busy and haven't really been out much. Some of this is schoolwork, but mostly it is socializing since that didn't happen a whole lot this summer. I had grand plans this weekend to do some birding, but yesterday and today left me nursing a hangover instead. Oh well.

I did actually get out for a bit yesterday afternoon and headed over to Guelph Lake in the north part of town. This man-made lake is a favorite local spot of mine and the site where Dan Riley and I had a Parasitic Jaeger (first Wellington Co. record I think?) on October 22, 2010. Unfortunately it was very quiet there today. Water levels were way down leaving quite a lot of mudflats, however only Killdeer and a single Spotted Sandpiper were present. A few ducks included an American Wigeon and some Green-winged Teal. Various songbirds were flitting around the edges, but nothing noteworthy.
I then checked out the ponds along York Road east of downtown, and was surprised to see several hundred geese hanging out. They seemed to be mostly the interior subspecies, and with them were 6 spanking Cackling Geese. The cacklers were hanging out in a type group off to the edge of the flock.

Here are a few photos I took at the OFO conference a few weekends back that I finally got around to editing.

White-rumped and Pectoral Sandpipers - Tilbury lagoons

Double-crested Cormorant - Point Pelee tip

Orange Sulfur - west beach footpath, Point Pelee

Fiery Skipper - west beach footpath, Point Pelee

In other news....
It is now October, which means it is prime rarity finding time! Once this weather system finally passes to the east and more birders get out with the fine weather forecasted, I wouldn't be surprised if a few good birds turn up.
The season is definitely heating up and there have been some decent sightings lately.

- Holiday Beach had its second Swainson's Hawk of the season yesterday, a dark-morph adult. Jealous...

- at least 2 Lark Sparrows have been found in the province, and there could definitely be more!

- an American Avocet made an appearance at Rondeau yesterday (J. Burk) and there was a flock reported from Port Burwell as well (J. Stephenson et. al)

- a female Common Eider was reported from Grafton (between Cobourg and Presquille) and is still being seen (M. Bain)

Also, check out these photos of a Franklin's and Black-headed Gull from across the pond in Ohio. Taken by Geoff Malosh. This location also had 4 American Avocets. Why is it that some of these places along the lake get avocets just about every day, and on our side they are relatively rare?

That's all for now.