Saturday 31 December 2011

Some strategy to start the year.

Being New Years eve, I am pretty excited for my big year to start next year. However, I am currently many miles away at Laura's place just outside of Halifax and I don't enter the province until January 6. There are several rare birds that are around the province and if nothing else changes between now and then, here is a strategy of attack:

The only super rare birds still in the province are the 6 Black Vultures at Niagara and the Black-throated Gray Warbler in Hamilton, refound recently by the Hamilton crew. So on January 7I'll probably go to Niagara for first light, hope the vultures fly from their roosting tree over the Niagara River, then go upriver where the Black-headed Gull (code 4) and Black-legged Kittiwake (code 3) are being seen. Hopefully they will also fly over the border! I'll definitely keep an eye out for the Mew Gull that was seen (only once) at Adam Beck and the Slaty-backed Gull which may still be present along the Upper Falls.

The famous Bayfront Park Black-throated Gray Warbler

I'll then spend the rest of the day at Bayfront Park in Hamilton looking for the Black-throated Gray. If I have time, I might make a quick detour for the King Eider at Port Weller before getting to Hamilton.

The following day I might go back to Hamilton or Niagara to pick up whatever I missed the day before. If I did really well on the 7th, I'll probably do a day trip to the Pelee area to grab the Great Gray Owl (code 3). If I can get Great Gray early in the year it could definitely save some considerably effort later on as it can be a notoriously difficult species to find. Barb almost missed this species in her Big Year, and probably would have if this bird didn't show up near Kingsville!

Once I've seen the big rarities that are in the province, I'll spend the next few days/week trying to get the rest of the semi rare birds that are in southern Ontario at the moment - Barrow's Goldeneye, Harlequin Duck, Purple Sandpiper, some owls, finches, etc.

Of course, if the Smew is re-found or something else rare shows up, these plans may be completely dropped.

Happy new years everyone, and good birding!

Thursday 29 December 2011

2011 Year in Review

Now that I am spending the remainder of the year and first 6 days of the new year in Nova Scotia visiting my lovely girlfriend, I thought I would take the time to post a few photos to sum up the year.

January was fairly uneventful, but in early to mid February I traveled to southern California and Arizona on a whirlwind trip with 3 buddies - Matt Strimas-Mackey, Brett Fried, and David Bell. We basically flew to Los Angeles, rented a van and toured around the southwestern US nonstop, looking for birds and other wildlife along the way. These few photos sum up the experience.

As winter turned to spring it was time for the annual "salamander migration". I spent about 5 consecutive nights during the peak of amphibian season in my hipwaders at my favorite spot with good friends.

After exams finished in April I headed down to Windsor to do some environmental consulting for a highway project. Fortunately the location was close enough to Pelee that I managed to get down there 2-4 times a week during migration. I didn't "find" any mega rarities this spring but did find an Eared Grebe, Snowy Egret, Eurasian Wigeon, Kentucky Warbler, and a few other odds and ends. A highlight was seeing this Neotropic Cormorant, found by Brandon Holden on April 24, providing the second record for Ontario.

As the summer went on I bought my first telephoto lens, a 300 mm f/4, and I started getting into butterflies around the same time. Working in tallgrass prairie all day every day was phenomenal and I managed to see about 60 species. The lens was a perfect length for butterfly photography.

Spending the summer tracking Butler's Gartersnakes and Eastern Foxsnakes was a lot of fun and we got to witness a lot of cool behaviour.

Summer and autumn is shorebird time in southern Ontario. I put in a lot of hours searching for them this year and ended up finding 31 species, including this American Avocet.

In early September I visited Nova Scotia for about a week. It was fun exploring some new parts of the province with Laura! I was happy to see some of the pelagic species that we don't get in Ontario.

This fall I was fairly busy with school but made it out quite a few times nonetheless. On a trip to the Bruce Peninsula in late September I was happy to find a Lark Sparrow and a neonate Eastern Massasauga among 9 species of snakes.

In October I went to the Great Smoky Mountains with my buddy Chris for 3 days of solid herping. Without a doubt the highlight were the 2 Hellbenders we saw!

This fall was fairly slow for rarities, but it really picked up in December! Among the highlights for me were Slaty-backed Gull, Franklin's Gulls (3 different birds), California Gull, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, and Smew.

This gnatcatcher was one of 2 that were (are?) present along with several rare warblers at Bayshore Park in Hamilton.

I had some big misses in Ontario in 2011, even though I ended up with a year list of 287. Biggest misses include:
Least Bittern
Spruce Grouse
Upland Sandpiper
Long-eared and Short-eared Owls (!)
Whip-poor-will (!!!!)
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Summer Tanager
Pine Grosbeak

See you all next year!

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Hey look, its a Smew

Last night when checking my email on my phone, a message popped up from Glenn Coady. I could only read part of the message's title, which read: "Miracle on Brock Street: ". Knowing that when Glenn posts its usually a rare bird, I clicked on the message and was shocked to read that a Smew had been found by Jim Robinson at Whitby harbour!!! Since Smew was my most wanted Ontario bird, I tried to find out a way I could finagle my schedule to see it today.

After an appointment I couldn't cancel, I picked up Brett Fried and Erika Hentsch and we booked it down to the harbour. I had Christmas dinner at 3, and I didn't pick up Brett and Erika til 11:30, so it was going to be close! If anyone knows me I don't like to miss a meal let alone a Christmas feast.

Fortunately when we arrived a hoard of birders already had their scopes set up on this bird, potentially Ontario's 3rd accepted record of this Eurasian species of duck. When we first arrived, this is how far away the bird was. It's between the raft of ducks and the Mute Swans:

waterfowl at Whitby harbour (Smew is in there!)

A Snowy Owl was conspicuous on the breakwall as well.

Snowy Owl - Whitby harbour

Eventually, the 1st winter male Smew took off and flew right at us. It ended up landing in the water not far off from where we were all standing, so everyone ended up with great looks at this bird.

Smew - Whitby harbour

Most wanted Ontario bird: Check! Now we just need an adult male to show up.

Smew - Whitby harbour

Thanks to Jim Robinson  for finding the bird and to Glenn Coady and Jean Iron for providing regular updates throughout the day. Brett, Erika and I had to leave after about 10 minutes, we raced back home (except for moments of heavy traffic) and I ran in the door just as everyone was sitting down for Christmas dinner! Perfect.

Some more shots...

Smew - Whitby harbour

Smew - Whitby harbour

Check out Jean's photos.

If only this bird hangs around for a while! Not only would it be great to have more extended views to study the bird, but it would also be a good way to kick off the big year.

Monday 26 December 2011

Common Yellowthroat - Wellington County

Found by Fred Urie on December 25. The entire time I was at the spot the bird wouldn't stop calling and flying around. Not a shy bird at all! Also in the same marsh were at least 1 Swamp Sparrow and 1 female Red-winged Blackbird. Beautiful day to be out.

The location is on the east side of Cambridge. The bird was in a cattail marsh on the east side of Townline Road just north of the intersection with Saginaw Parkway. This location is in the extreme southwest corner of Wellington County and in the northwest part of the Hamilton Study Area.

Excuse the quality of the shots. Despite the bird's boldness it was hard to get an unobstructed view of it.

Common Yellowthroat - Puslinch

Common Yellowthroat - Puslinch

Common Yellowthroat - Puslinch

Saturday 24 December 2011

An 'owl'right day of birding in Guelph

Between yesterday and today I spent about 12 hours doing some serious birding in Guelph. The weather for both days was supposed to be excellent and I happened to luck out and see some really awesome birds, including one that is at the bottom of the post and who's identity inspired that "clever" title for this post. But first, yesterday.

I started out by skipping Puslinch and Mountsberg and only hitting up the quarries in the southern part of the county. Several cool birds seen here so far this winter - Harlequin Duck, Bonaparte's Gull, Iceland Gull, Common Loon, Red-throated Loon, Long-tailed Duck. However there is also a high turnover of waterfowl, and needless to say the Common Loon that Mike Cadman had found here a few days previous was no longer present.

Undeterred, I pressed on and ended up at the Heritage Ponds (intersection of the Hanlon and the 401). Getting out of my car I was surprised to see a flock of Snow Buntings wheeling around - my first for the Guelph area this season. I picked out two darker birds in flight, and by approaching the flock, managed to obtain reasonable views of a Lapland Longspur. The other dark bird was most likely a "lappie" as well. There was a nice selection of waterfowl present including 15 Greater Scaup (rare in Wellington County in winter) and 6 Redhead (also rare in Wellington in the winter).

Driving north, I stopped at a little marsh to see if I could turn up a Swamp Sparrow that was found on the Christmas Bird Count by Val Wyatt and co. No luck with that, but a Common Raven croaked as it flew overhead. They seem to be getting more and more common in the county all the time!

I spent much of the afternoon thoroughly checking out Guelph Lake. Along the southeast side of the "island", viewed from the bottom of the hill along Wellington Road 124, were 1 Ring-necked Duck, a group of 3 richardsonii Cackling Geese with some Canadas, and a swan which was most likely a Trumpeter. The distance was far so it was hard to be 100% certain, but it was a young bird and was retaining a lot of brown coloration. 1st year Mute and Tundra should both be mostly/completely white by now.

The previous day, a Greater White-fronted Goose was reported to the WELLbirds listserv by Rohan Van Twest at Guelph lake. While walking out to the island off of Conservation Road in search of Rohan's Greater White-fronted Goose I came across a nice flock of birds which contained mostly robins but also a few Northern Flickers and other things.

By 4:00 in the afternoon I still had no white-fronted goose despite looking at every single bird in the area at least 5 times! Geese had just started to leave the lake so I parked myself up on top of the dam and watched the flocks lift off.

waterfowl taking off - Guelph Lake

While scanning, I noticed a flock of about 15 birds coming in, and one on the far right looked to have a white "front" as the flock flew head-on towards me. I suddenly released that my camera was still in the car so figuring that I had enough time, I sprinted back (actually) and grabbed the camera from my front seat. Much to my dismay I realized not only that I was still very much out of shape, but that the flock had flown quicker than I had anticipated and was over the dam, flying away. I fired off a few shots, not knowing if I captured the goose or not. Fortunately by cropping the photo I can see the goose in the lower part of the frame!

Greater White-fronted Goose - Guelph Lake

When I got back to my car I noticed a flash of gray and white and saw a shrike dive into some nearby bushes in hot pursuit of a junco. It emerged, unsuccessfully I should add, and perched on a nearby wire. Northern Shrikes are the badasses of the songbird world. They readily catch birds or rodents that weight almost as much as them and impale the unfortunate prey on hawthorns and even barbed wire.

Northern Shrike - Guelph Lake

Today I ventured back out to the Guelph area. I didn't see a whole lot throughout the late morning and early afternoon but it was nice to be out in the sun, especially since there was very little wind. Around noon I checked my email and saw that a Barred Owl was seen at Guelph Lake, so off I went!

Upon arriving the bird was nowhere to be found. I walked around a little bit and turned up a few kinglets and chickadees, had a House Finch fly over me calling, and finally found my first Hairy Woodpecker for Wellington county this winter.

Hairy Woodpecker - Guelph Lake

Eventually I ran into several of Guelph's finest birders - Mike Cadman, Brian Wyatt, and Larry Staniforth, and we decided that we should split up to find the sucker. After about 20 minutes, I turned around to greet some dog walkers who were walking past and looked up, right at the beautiful Barred Owl that I must have walked right past! The boys came by and we were all happy to have great views of this amazing bird. Wow! Almost as cool as the Great Gray Owl that showed up in Essex County recently. A great early Christmas present for us Guelphites.

Barred Owl - Guelph Lake

Barred Owl - Guelph Lake

Friday 23 December 2011

Winter bird list update #3

A few days ago, I posted to ONTbirds again about the Ontario winter bird list. Since then, I have received word of several new species to the list which I will mention first. These 3 species bring the winter list up to 203. I have also removed Willow Ptarmigan from the list since the last confirmed sighting of the Darlington bird was November 30. There were rumours of a sighting in December and someone is looking into this.

Gray Partridge: 3 birds seen on the Woodhouse CBC (December 18)
Townsend's Solitaire: 2 birds. One on the Manitoulin CBC (December 17) and one on the Aurora CBC (December 17)
Brewer's Blackbird: seen on the Port Burwell CBC (December 18)

And, the email I sent to the listserv:


In the past week an additional 12 species have been seen in Ontario and brought to my attention, bringing the 2011-2012 winter list up to an even 200. I am not sure what the all time high for one winter was, but last year's 201 will almost certainly be passed! How high will the winter list get? Undoubtedly the highlight from last week came from Bayfront Park in Hamilton where up to 5 species of warblers have been seen along with several Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and a Blue-headed Vireo. I will send the list to Blake Maybank and hopefully he will post the results on the website soon. A link to the webpage:

The new species to the 2011-2012 Ontario winter list are as follows:
Blue-winged Teal
American Woodcock
Boreal Owl
White-eyed Vireo
House Wren
Yellow Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Gray Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Wilson's Warbler
Palm Warbler
Baltimore Oriole

Out of the missing species to the winter list, the most likely to be added include:

Eurasian Wigeon
Gray Partridge
Virginia Rail
Barn Owl
Townsend's Solitaire
Pine Warbler
Vesper Sparrow
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Brewer's Blackbird

If anyone has heard of sightings of the missing species, just shoot me an email.

Thursday 22 December 2011

Rules for my Big Year

With any game or sport, there has to be some groundrules so that everyone is on the same page. With my proposed big year, that is no different. These are some of the rules that I will follow next year. If anyone has any comments/suggestions, just let me know. If I think of any more rules that I have so far forgotten about, I will add them to this page.

- The period runs from January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2012. Obviously.

- Taxonomic changes that happen in the future will not affect my big year total. For instance, say I see both subspecies of Yellow-rumped Warbler next year (Audobon's and Myrtle). Since they are not recognized by the OBRC as distinct species, they only count as 1 species for my total. However, say 5 years down the road the OBRC decided that the evidence is sufficient to "split" Yellow-rumped Warbler into 2 species. I will not go back and modify my totals to accommodate this change. I think of splitting and lumping as random error - splits and lumps will continue to occur, but this variation is roughly equal.  

- Species that are OBRC rarities and with potentially questionable provenance will only be counted if the OBRC accepts the record. For instance, say that I chase a European Goldfinch in May, but the OBRC decides that the evidence isn't enough to determine that it is a wild bird (as opposed to an escaped bird), and subsequently does not accept the record. Even if I think it is a countable bird, I will not count it.However if, in the future, the OBRC goes back and accepts the record, based on new evidence or whatever, then I will modify my Big Year totals depending on the OBRC's decision. This is the only case where I will go back and modify my big year totals.

- I will only count species that I see or hear sufficiently to ID independently. Let's say I go chase a Thick-billed Murre in Kingston. Just as I arrive, I see a flash of black and white as the bird flies away out of sight, never to be seen again. Even though dozens of good, reputable birders are on site and inform me that that was indeed the Thick-billed Murre, I will not count it because I didn't see it well enough to be 100% sure.

- I will count birds that are heard only, but only if I am 100% sure (or as close to 100% as one can be). There will probably only be a couple species that I will "hear only" next year and I'll have to look at them on a case by case basis. If I hear a Whip-poor-will calling in central Ontario in June, I can be reasonably sure in my identification to count it. However, if I hear the song of a Kirtland's Warbler at Point Pelee in May, I will probably not count it on that alone. It could have been another birder playing a tape, it could have been another species sounding similar, etc. Hopefully I will see every species next year so I don't have to rely on heard only birds!

-The birds have to be wild. I won't count the Ring-necked Pheasants I see on Pelee Island, since the island is regularly stocked with this species for hunting every year. I will have to count Ring-necked Pheasants that I see elsewhere, where I can be reasonably sure that there are from a wild, established breeding population.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Great day along the bay

Today, Laura had plans to meet up with some friends in Hamilton for the day. I was more than willing to drive her down, spend the full day birding around the lakeshore, then picking her up and driving back home.

I met up with the one and only Barb Charlton this morning to look for rare Passerines at Bayfront Park in Hamilton. Barb was "stuck" on 320 species for the year in Ontario, and with no new rarities around for her to try for, we decided our best bet to find something interesting was to check out the Waterfront Trail. If you can recall a number of really rare December birds had shown up in recent weeks including Black-throated Green, Black-throated Gray, Wilson's, and Orange-crowned Warblers; a Blue-headed Vireo, and multiple Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers (check out Brandon's photos of some of the goodies here:

Barb and I didn't have much success though we briefly heard a gnatcatcher. A few Mockingbirds kept a close eye on us, however.

"Mocker" mocking us

She left to do some Christmas shopping and I would have been wise to follow her lead and get started on mine. Instead, I headed back down the waterfront trail, determined to find some of these birds. I made it all the way to Princess Point before turning back. There was not much to show for it except for this extremely RARE morph of a Double-crested Cormorant. The only field mark to distinguish it from a normal "cormie" is that it only has one wing.

Double-crested Cormorant, one-winged variant

Eventually I saw some of the birds as the Black-throated Gray put in an encore performance. I ran into Ross Wood here, and he was pleased to add this bird to his Ontario list.

Black-throated Gray Warbler - Bayfront Park, Hamilton

Heading back to my car, I found not one, but two gnatcatchers! The second was crawling around near my feet, gleaning insects. This photo is about 90% full frame, and I was shooting with a 300 mm lens. Gives you an idea how close I was!

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher - Bayfront Park, Hamilton

Around this time, I had an interesting conversation:

Random passerby: "Hello."
Me: "Hello." (just being friendly, ya know)
R.P.: "Are you with a school group or anything? There's all these young guys walking around and taking pictures."
Me: "Nope, not with a school group. Just looking for birds!"
R.P: "You're a birdwatcher? I thought all birdwatchers were old and wore floppy hats!"
Me: "Actually the demographics are changing- you'd be surprised how many of us young guys and gals there are."

It's a conversation I have all the time! Lets break that stereotype (except for the Tilly hats -they're pretty awesome).

Just then, Tim King posted a nearby Snow Goose to the listserv, so I hustled over and watched it for a while. Nice bird!

Snow Goose - Bayfront Park, Hamilton

And a CANG, cause no one gives them any love.

Canada Goose - Bayfront Park, Hamilton

With a few hours to spare I headed over to Bronte Provincial Park for no particular reason. I walked around for a few hours, enjoying the crisp air and seeing a few birds (Pileated Woodpecker, White-crowned Sparrow, Northern Mockingbird, Eastern Bluebird,etc). Twas a great day in the field, but I think now I better get started on whittling down that Christmas list!

Eastern Bluebird - Bronte Creek Provincial Park