Monday 31 December 2012

If I could re-do the year 2012...

WARNING: this post contains epic amounts of rambling. Excuse my lack of coherency.


2012 will be over in a few hours, and barring a last minute rarity that someone finds, Ontario's final bird list for 2012 stands around 374 species, a very impressive number. As far as I am aware this is the highest number of bird species ever reported in Ontario in one year! Last year, for example, about 355 species were reported.

This year I missed about 30 species that were reported by others. It got me thinking - how high could my list have been if I had done a few things differently?? That's what the point of this post is! Obviously there have to be some ground rules:

-It has to be something that would seem logical to do at the time (for instance, I can't say that I would decide to do some birding in Arnprior on December 15 and happen to find the Ivory Gull. It just wouldn't be something that I would decide to do at the time)
-My monetary situation would be the same (no unlimited funds)


Obviously, one thing that I could have changed would be to be in Ontario for all 366 days of 2012. I happened to be out of province for about 41 days and that cost me a few birds. Mind you, if I was doing the year over again I would still choose to be gone for those days, since it was time well spent with Laura. But if my only goal for the year would be to rack up a big year list, that could a change that I could do.

On my first out of province trip, I missed one species - Black-throated Gray Warbler. It was seen in Hamilton up to January 3, conveniently disappearing before I arrived in the province late on January 6. It would have been an easy tick on January 1!

My next trip in late February and early March was a well timed trip. There were no birds that I missed! A Heerman's Gull was reported but it was so distant that the views were sh!t so that the birders couldn't conclusively ID it. Plus, it wasn't seen by birders chasing it the next day. I happened to return to the province just in time to chase the Smew.

SMEW!! (not the Long Point bird)

My third out of province trip was for 10 days in early September. And this one cost me one potential species, and a big one at that - Kelp Gull! Most of the birders who read this blog know the story behind this one - found by Alan on day 1, not seen on day 2, seen by Alan on day 3, correctly IDed that evening and posted to Ontbirds, never seen again! It's hard to say for sure, but if I was in the province Alan might have told me about this bird before he re-found it on day 3 and confirmed the ID, and I might have seen it. Hard to say, though.

And finally, my fourth out of province trip was from December 26 to the end of the year and beyond. A Slaty-backed Gull was reported yesterday around noon, and if I was in the province I most likely would have chased it that afternoon. It has been re-found today (though on the American side of the river).

In summary, if I had spent all 366 days in Ontario, I would have seen 2 or 3 more species.


Next up: Netitishi Point. It was a success for me since I added 8 year birds. Two of them (Purple Sandpiper and Black-legged Kittiwake) were easy later in the year. So my Netitishi trip gave me 6 crucial year birds: Gyrfalcon, Common Eider, Northern Gannet, Northern Fulmar, Great Cormorant and Western Kingbird. However when I was gone, I missed 6 crucial year birds: Leach's Storm-petrel, Wilson's Storm-petrel, Glossy Ibis, Tufted Duck, Ross's Gull, and Razorbill. All of these, except Razorbill, I would have most likely seen had I been in southern Ontario instead. I have spent a lot of time contemplating what would be the best way to time my Netitishi trip to maximize getting the rarities I did see as well as everything that I missed.

Purple Sandpiper - December 1, 2012

In hindsight, the best possible scenario would be going to Netitshi in early and mid November. The two year-birds that I added in mid November (Cave Swallow and Pacific Loon) were both chase-able during late October, so I wouldn't have to worry about them. That way, I would definitely add 5 birds I did not see: both storm-petrels, Ross's Gull, Tufted Duck, and Glossy Ibis. Additionally, the re-scheduled Netitishi trip in mid November would net Gyrfalcon and most likely 2 or 3 other rarities. When Andrew Keaveney went up in mid November, he added 2 rarities: Northern Fulmar and Dovekie.

In summary, if I had gone to Netitishi in mid November instead of late October, I would have added 1 or 2 additional year birds.


In a recent post I talked about the Say's Pheobe/Western Tanager dilemma I was faced with from April. Simply put, I chased the Western Tanager instead of the Say's Phoebe on April 22nd, and I ended up missing the Say's Phoebe for the year. If I had done the opposite, the tanager would have been easy to get sometime in the following days, since it ended up hanging around. That would have given me an additional species!


Swainson's Hawk: The main reason I missed this species this autumn was lack of effort. About 10 were seen by others at various points between September and November, mostly at hawk-watches in southern Ontario. I really only put two or three solid days in because I do not really enjoy hawk-watching. If I had spent most of the decent days in the autumn hawk-watching I would have seen one eventually!


Barn Owl: Another one you can chalk up to lack of effort. There is no guarantee I would have found one if I tried hard enough, but in all honesty I only spent one full evening searching for this endangered species. 


Finally: Hudson's Bay. I'm not sure if this was even a possibility but if I was proactive I may have been able to find a way to volunteer at Hudson's Bay for a few weeks this summer. It would have netted me 2 additional species in Smith's Longspur and Willow Ptarmigan and if I timed it right I wouldn't have missed anything in southern Ontario while I was gone. One possibility would be if I could have gone up for the first two weeks of August, instead of volunteering in southern James Bay. I would have still seen the ptarmigan and longspur as well as Arctic Tern, the only species I saw on that James Bay trip that I did not see elsewhere.

So in summary: if I had done a few things different, I could have added somewhere between 5 and 10 additional species. 350 would have been a definite possibility!

Anyways, enough rambling. Thank you for reading (if you somehow made it through the entire post!!)

Friday 28 December 2012

My biggest misses this year (part 3)

Here are my 5 biggest misses in Ontario this year!

5. Mississippi Kite
I spent a LOT of time hawk-watching at Point Pelee this spring, since Mississippi Kites are pretty much annual it seems. At one point, during perhaps ideal MIKI conditions, a Peregrine Falcon buzzed low over us (causing several people to excitedly shout out, "Mississippi Kite!!!). This species can often be confused for MIKIs at Point Pelee in May, but it was just a Peregrine this time. Later in the spring, I was driving by the Bird Studies Canada HQ in Port Rowan, ON. Little did I know, but I drove by within 5 minutes of when Ron Ridout and Jon McCracken had a Mississippi Kite fly by. It probably flew right over my car...

Mississippi Kite (from Wikipedia)

4. Swainson`s Hawk
It seems that just about everyone and their brother reported one this autumn. I heard of at least 10 reports! Despite a moderate amount of hawk-watching, I just could not turn one of those Northern Harriers into one ;)
Unfortunately, there were no chase-able SWHAs this year - all of the reports were of migrating birds.

3. Brown Pelican
For much of the autumn there was at least one Brown Pelican on Lake Erie. Often when they show up out of range, they "stick" for a few days, but this was not the case. The closest I got to it was actually the first day that it was found. I was birding at Point Pelee on August 24th, spending a good chunk of the day along the west side of the peninsula. I even completed a tip watch with Alan for a few hours, hoping for something interesting to fly by. Little did we know, but some fishermen were looking at a Brown Pelican near their fishing boats only a few hundred meters offshore! I am not sure how we did not see it. It was later seen at Rondeau, Long Point, and eventually roosted at Buffalo Harbour (somewhat viewable from Fort Erie, Ontario). I was there in the morning, hoping to see it fly from its roost at the harbour, but it never did materialize.

Brown Pelican (from Wikipedia)

2. Barn Owl
Barn Owl - a species that breeds in southern Ontario, yet one that is present in low numbers and difficult to detect, that they are rarely seen by birders. A few of course were in known locations, but I am not privy to that kind of information! It is probably a good thing that the locations for endangered species like Barn Owls are kept quiet from birders, since even the best intentioned folk can cause harm. I don't necessarily agree on all the resources that go to protecting a species as cosmopolitanly abundant as the Barn Owl, but that's a whole other argument!

At any rate, I still tried several times to find Barn Owls, by slowing driving county roads near old fields in southwestern Ontario and listening for their calls at night. One one such night, a wayward deer derailed by owling plans...

1. Glossy Ibis
And the number one miss of the year - Glossy Ibis. This also happened to be the only code-3 species that I did not see in 2012. Normally Glossy Ibises are semi regular, with about 5 sightings every spring. Often, these birds are in southwestern Ontario, and since I was spending most of late April/May/early June at Point Pelee, I figured I would have ample opportunity to chase them! I chased a few reports, unsuccessfully. One of these was at Long Point in March, but it just wouldn't co-operate for us.

Throughout the summer/fall there are sometimes additional Glossy Ibises reported. Almost every fall, one shows up for a week or more at a time. This happened in 2012, but the bird did not show up until very late in the year....right around the time I left for Netitishi Point (October 22)!

The Gosport Glossy Ibis was seen by many during its October 22 to November 2 stay. It conveniently was last seen on the day before Alan and I returned to civilization from Netitishi Point!

My biggest misses this year (part 2)

A continuation from part 1. These are my top 10 biggest misses in Ontario this year!

10. Sage Thrasher
It was a toss up between this and Fork-tailed Flycatcher for #10, but I went with Sage Thrasher for no real reason whatsoever. This autumn, a Sage Thrasher was found at the tip of Long Point, and it hung around at least one more day as well. Unfortunately, like I mentioned in the previous post, this is a location that is virtually inaccessible for a "twitching" birder at the last minute! It was painful reading about it being seen the following day, knowing full well that if it was on the mainland it would be very chase-able.

9. Tufted Duck
Well, this one kind of stings as well. I had just arrived in Moosonee in late October and Alan and I were getting ready for our Netitishi trip, when the news broke about the Tufted Duck in Ottawa. It was seen the next few days as well, so I was hopeful that it would stay put for a few weeks (like they often do) so that I could chase it when I got back. Well, it stayed put for a few days, but not nearly long enough. Those are the most frustrating birds of the year - the ones that were entirely chase-able, but that I was just not in a position where I could chase it! Additionally, it is difficult to tell from the photos and I don't know much about Tufted Duck hybrids, but it is possible that the bird is not "pure" and may not be accepted by the OBRC.

I did see Tufted Ducks this Scotland

8. Say`s Phoebe
On April 22, while based at Point Pelee, I heard about a Western Tanager coming to a feeder in the Bruce Peninsula that I was given access to go visit. At 3:00 PM, I was along Lake Huron near Kincardine when the news broke of the Say's Phoebe in the Carden Plain. I had a very crucial decision to make. On one hand, I was only 1.5 hours away from the Western Tanager, and it was still being seen regularly at the bird feeder. The Say's Phoebe was 3 hours away, so if I chased it I would have 2 hours of light to search for it. However, the tanager had been seen for several days straight while the phoebe had just been found (and was less of a sure thing, since it could easily never be seen again). I decided to go for the "sure thing" and grabbed the tanager, resolving to chase the phoebe if it was relocated the following morning. It was seen all evening, but not again! I think at the time I made the right decision to go for the tanager, though in hindsight if I had driven straight to where the phoebe was, I would have definitely seen it. The tanager continued to be seen for several more days on the Bruce Peninsula. This is one of those situations where I made the call based on probabilities, but it came back to bite me!

7. Eurasian Collared-dove
I heard three reports of this species this year. First was one that was seen in flight by a birder near Cottom, ON (north of Point Pelee). It was never seen again, despite him checking the area several more times. The second was a one-day wonder in the Ottawa area in late spring. The third was the bird from Powassan, ON found in early October. Since I was coming back from Sault Ste. Marie with Mark Jennings and Alan Wormington, this wasn't far out of the way! We showed up late in the afternoon and immediately found the bird sitting in their tree out front! Unfortunately, the bird was rather small, too pale, and the wing and tail pattern was off. Alas, it was not a Eurasian Collared-dove but a Ringed Turtle-dove, a domestic form that is popular in the pet trade and not a truly "wild" species.

Ringed Turtle-Dove

6. Rufous Hummingbird
There were at least 3 this year coming to bird feeders, but none that I could chase. The first was a male coming to a bird feeder in Pass Lake, Ontario. The home-owners weren't receptive to birders visiting, plus I did not have time to chase anyways since I was leaving for the James Bay coast. The next was in early August, seen one evening by the Presqu'ile birders. Bill Gilmour was the lucky host of this beaut! Finally, one showed up at a bird feeder in Bowmanville this fall. I actually passed through Bowmanville on HWY 401 around the time it was around! But, again, the home-owners weren't receptive to birders coming and I did not hear about this bird until after it was long gone. Such is life! On a related note, there were at least 12 Rufous Hummingbirds coming to bird feeders in Ohio at one time this autumn. The Great Lakes sure are an imposing barrier for hummingbirds.

Stay tuned for big misses #5 to #1!

Thursday 27 December 2012

My biggest misses this year (part 1)

For the next little while, I will continue to make summary posts about my Big Year attempt. This one will be about all of the birds that I missed!

Despite seeing 344 species of birds this year, there were still at least 30 species that others saw which I did not! As well, a bunch of other species show up often in Ontario, but did not in 2012. These include Ruff, Northern Wheatear, Slaty-backed Gull, and Tricolored Heron. Though they are expected regularly in Ontario, I will not include these species in my list of biggest misses this year.

Part 1 of the post will include 20 species that were reported in Ontario this year that I missed, but that weren`t my "biggest misses". Part 2 will include my top 10 biggest misses of the year.

shearwater sp.
While at Netitishi Point, Alan managed to see a shearwater sp. way out in the distance, while I was seawatching from a different location. This was one of the few times all trip we seawatched from a different location, which makes this a big miss. However since the bird couldn't be pinned down to a species, I don't really feel that bad about missing it. Yeah, shearwater sp. would have been a new one for my year list, but its just not the same as having a "good" species on the list!

Leach's Storm-petrel and Wilson's Storm-petrel
These two go hand in hand. Both mega-rarities, both seen within 20 minutes of each other in my local birding area (centered around Hamilton). Both are misses that really sting. They showed up during Hurricane Sandy, when I was stuck up on the coast of James Bay. Though I missed these species, I happened to see other rarities that weren't seen anywhere else in the province this year while up on James Bay (Northern Gannet, Great Cormorant, Common Eider, etc).

Neotropic Cormorant
Found by the tag team known as the Burrell brothers on Pelee Island in May. It was a one day wonder! I actually spend the rest of the afternoon with Gavin Platt at the tip of Point Pelee hoping it would fly by, but it was not to be.

White Ibis
Stu Mackenzie must have had a horseshoe up his butt to get a pair of White Ibises fly right over him at Long Point! These were also never seen again, so not really a big miss for me since I couldn't have chased them.

White-faced Ibis
I just did not have my ibis mojo working this year. There were several sightings of the White-faced variety, including one that was seen at least twice near Lake St. Clair, but I couldn't turn it up in several visits in May and June.

Swallow-tailed Kite
One was seen well by a family in Udora, Ontario on April 14. I actually chased it with Brett Fried the following day, but it was no longer around.

Cinnamon Teal
This autumn, a hunter shot and killed a nice male at Long Point!

Willow Ptarmigan
Unfortunately I wasn't able to make it up to the Hudson's Bay coast this year, where ptarmigans are a dime a dozen. I am assuming that Rock Ptarmigans were also present, but its nearly impossible to find a way to go birding up there in the winter months.

Ross`s Gull
Another miss, brought to you by Hurricane Sandy! The Burrell brothers, Brandon, Ross, and David Beadle were among the lucky few to see this northern beaut along Waverly Beach on November 1. This was the same day that Alan and I found a Western Kingbird and Great Cormorant at Netitishi Point, so I don't feel too bad about this one.

Kelp Gull
Alan Wormington found this bird, a first for Canada! Unfortunately for Ontario birders, it wasn't conclusively identified until a few days later, and it was never seen again. I was in Nova Scotia at the time so I couldn't have chased it, even if it had been reported publicly right away.

Ivory Gull
Argg!! That's all I can say about that. A one day wonder in Ottawa of my most wanted Ontario bird.

Glenn Coady had one fly by, courtesy of Hurricane Sandy. A few other large alcids were seen by others flying by at a distance which may have been this species. I probably had one too at Netitishi, but I couldn't be sure!

There are only about a dozen records of this ocean-going species in Ontario, with only 4 being reviewed and accepted by the OBRC. I was specifically watching for this species while at Netitishi Point since Brandon and Alan had two of them in November, 2010. This year, we didn't get any Dovekies, though Andrew Keaveney went to Netitishi by himself later in November and happened to get one. Argghh!!

Fork-tailed Flycatcher
This species is also one of my most wanted Ontario birds, along with Ivory Gull. The crew at the tip of Long Point were able to find one and then band it. It hung around for two days, as well. Unfortunately, there is no public access to the tip so I was unable to chase this bird.

Black-throated Gray Warbler
This bird showed up in mid December in Hamilton. I was hoping it would hang around until the new year, and fortunately, it did! Unfortunately though, it was last seen on January 3, a few days before I arrived in the province to start my big year.

Golden-crowned Sparrow
This one was very frustrating since it was a bird that I could have seen if its presence had been made public. It came to a feeder near Ottawa for several weeks in February/March and only a few lucky birders were given access to go see this bird.

Smith`s Longspur
Smith's Longspurs breed along the coast of Hudson's Bay in Ontario, much like Willow Ptarmigans. Their migration path takes them west of the province though, so they are rarely seen in the south. Andrew Keaveney went to Rainy River to specifically look for this species in migration, even though there were few/no records from the district prior to this year. He lucked out with two of them! For me it just wasn't practical to travel to RR in late September, since it would be an expensive trip, I had all the other specialties for the region, and the chances of actually getting Smith's Longspur seemed extremely minute.

Painted Bunting
A nice Painted Bunting showed up at a feeder in Toronto for a week while I was up north at Netitishi Point. It's presence was not made known to the birding community, so no one was able to chase it.

The next post will cover my top 10 biggest misses of the year!

Wednesday 26 December 2012

Summary of my 2012 Ontario Big Year

In 2 hours from now, I will be on the road driving towards the airport, and from there I will be heading to Nova Scotia. Therefore, even if another potential year bird shows up, I can't chase it! Unless a Brambling suddenly appears at my parent's bird feeder, or a Prairie Falcon flies over us while we are on the 401, my Big Year is finished. I decided to make a summary of some of the highlights of my big year, which will be posted in the tab "My 2012 Ontario Big Year" (right under the photo of the Spring Peeper).


In the year 2012 I attempted what is known as a Big Year in Ontario. In the hobby (or obsession) of birding, a Big Year is essentially an attempt to see as many bird species as possible in one given year, starting from January 1 at midnight to December 31 at midnight. My 2012 big year included all of Ontario.

Prior to 2012, the record for a big year in Ontario stood at 338 species, set by Glenn Coady in 1996. Glenn went all out that year, even camping out in the tundra along the Hudson's Bay coastline by himself at one point to pick up arctic species, all the while dodging black and polar bears. He visited all corners of the province in search of birds and was aided by the remnants of Hurricane Fran which brought several rare east coast birds to Ontario. For me to beat the record, I would have had to see every single bird species that is annual (seen at least once a year in Ontario), as well as about 20 rarities on top of that.

Fortunately, I picked the right year to do a big year. Several notable weather events led to an abnormal number of rarities to show up. The mild weather last autumn into January and February led to a number of rarities persisting well into the new year. Several species that I added, such as White-winged Dove, Band-tailed Pigeon, and Spotted Towhee were possibly because of this. Additionally, a pair of rarities (Fish Crow and Black Vulture) expanded their range to include Ontario's Niagara frontier region. The Fish Crows were really exciting since they were not only self-found (with Andrew Keaveney), but they were also species #100 for the year.

White-winged Dove - North Bay

In late February I had plans to visit Laura in Scotland, where she is studying veterinary medicine. I lucked out in that I didn't miss any rarities while I was gone, with the exception of a Mew Gull that hung around for about 5 minutes and a possible Heerman's Gull who's ID wasn't conclusively nailed down and which did not linger for more than a few hours. I arrived home just in time to chase a reported Smew at Long Point, and on my third try I finally had the bird, flying out into the bay with some other ducks. A huge rarity (the first code 6 of the year) and a great addition to my year list!

The spring migration was off to an early start, and by mid April several large storms brought big numbers of rarities into the province. In mid to late April I was able to add unexpected rarities like Western Tanager, Bell's Vireo, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and Western Grebe, though I missed Fork-tailed Flycatcher and Say's Phoebe which also showed up around then. I had already seen 13 code 4 or higher rarities and was on a good pace.

Western Tanager - Bruce Peninsula

Unfortunately, May was a bit of a letdown at Pelee. There were few days with "fallouts", and mega rarities just did not materialize anywhere in the province. However, I lived out of my car, or the homes of generous birders in the Pelee area, for 6 weeks. I was able to catch up with all the regular spring rarities such as Blue Grosbeak, Chuck-will's Widow, Kentucky Warbler, Summer Tanager, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Worm-eating Warbler by the time I left Pelee in late May! A big highlight was seeing the Piping Plovers at Wasaga Beach with Barb Charlton on May 18th, my 300th species for the year.

Piping Plover - Wasaga Beach

Late May is what really saved my year and gave me hope that I could reach my goal of 339 species. Being May 19th and June 5, I was able to add several code 4+ rarities, highlighted by Curlew Sandpiper, Kirtland's Warbler (on the breeding grounds, no less), and Northern Bobwhite. Additionally I was lucky enough to cross paths with King Rail, Henslow's Sparrow, Western Sandpiper, Dickcissel, and Cattle Egret! I was at 314 by June 5th, giving me almost 7 months to add the last 25 species.

Cattle Egret - Keswick

I was very fortunate this summer to be able to work for just over a month, doing bird surveys in the north. I was sent to Rainy River on two different occasions; trips that were essential to my big year. I added most of the Rainy River specialties, with highlights for me including families of Sharp-tailed Grouse, a Northern Hawk-owl, and thousands of Franklin's Gulls!

Franklin's Gulls - Rainy River

I also happened to be home the weekend the Magnificent Frigatebird was found at Rondeau Provincial Park (found by Dave Martin and Linda Wladarski). Driving there with my incredibly supportive girlfriend, this bird was one of the bigger highlights of the year. Not only was it a "mega" rarity (many of Ontario's top listers added it to their Ontario list over the few days it hung around), but it was also great to share the moment with Laura.

Magificent Frigatebird (top centre) with Laura and I - Rondeau 

Another trip I was excited for was the trek to Ontario's ocean coast of James Bay with the ROM crew in late summer. We were able to gather important data on the shorebirds of that region, and I added 5 birds to my year list, highlighted by a single Arctic Tern. I returned from James Bay in time to be around for Ontario' first ever Thick-billed Kingbird, found by Bill Gilmour. This was undoubtedly the "bird of the year" and it was great sharing in the experience with many of Ontario's birders. It was nice to finally meet Glenn Coady at this location.

Thick-billed Kingbird - Presqu'ile PP

The autumn months of September and late October were relatively slow, rarity-wise. A major highlight was finding a Yellow-crowned Night-heron at Pelee, but I was also successful chasing Red Phalarope, Mew Gull, and Townsend's Solitaire, bringing me within 4 birds of the record by late October.

Townsend's Solitaire - Hamilton

It was then that I embarked on what was perhaps the best trip of the year - a jaunt to Netitishi Point with Alan Wormington. In the first few days of the trip we lucked out with northern-ish winds and cool weather, and I added Purple Sandpiper, Gyrfalcon, Common Eider, and Northern Gannet (only the second record for northern Ontario) in quick succession, tying the record. However we had to wait for almost a week before the record-breaking bird came into view. It was pretty exciting to spot the Northern Fulmar as it sheared over the waves, and it was great to share the moment with Alan who was extremely helpful in my big year planning and strategy, and who had shared many "year birds" with me in 2012. Netitishi was a complete success and I left its windswept shores with 342 species under my belt.

Western Kingbird - Netitishi Point

Little did we know at the time, but the strong winds we saw at Netitishi were a direct result of post-tropical storm Sandy, ripping through Ontario. While we were gone, we missed rarities such as Tufted Duck, Glossy Ibis, Razorbill, 2 types of storm-petrels, and Ross's Gull! It just goes to show that no matter how well you plan a big year, you simply cannot be everywhere all the time and see all the birds.

The year ended with a bit of a whimper. I was only able to add two more birds (Cave Swallow and Pacific Loon) for the rest of the year, and with debt piling up and a car that seemed to break down frequently I did not bird as hard as I had in the beginning of the year. I finished the year with 344 species.

Cave Swallow - Point Pelee NP

 And for those of you who wonder if I'll attempt another Ontario big year in the future (especially if someone else breaks the record of 344), I can tell you emphatically that I won't! While the year was a complete success and I had a lot of fun throughout the year, it also gave me appreciation of many other things in the natural world. I came to the realization that the final number is not what it is all about - in fact it is the experiences that we gain along the way. Despite what the recent film "The Big Year" proclaims, having the "biggest" year does not make you the best birder in the province. One Big Year was enough for me, and I am looking forward to nature discovery on a much smaller scale in the new year. It was definitely a wild ride and I will have some incredible memories which will stay with me for many years to come. Thanks to all who helped make my Big Year a reality!

Tuesday 25 December 2012

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone! I didn't have any good photos of red birds, so the Rosy-finch's reddish brown colour will have to do ;)

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch - MacDiarmid, Ontario

Thanks so much to everyone who has supported me in one way or another throughout my big year. It has been a blast!!!

Wishing everyone health in 2013 and beyond. 

Sunday 23 December 2012

December warblers and swallows

This morning, I had to be in Toronto for some interviews so I thought I might as well go birding for the afternoon on my way home. I started out at Colonel Sam Smith Park in west Toronto around noon. The wind and gloomy weather was not ideal for finding birds, though I did come across some good winter birds in 3 Red-necked Grebes and 1 Pied-billed Grebe. The Pied-billed Grebe was my 100th species for the City of Toronto. I know that is not very impressive, but that means that I have seen at least 100 bird species in 22 of Ontario's 50 counties. Not a bad start considering that I only had seen 100 species in 10 counties prior to this year. Check out this photo that I took of the Pied-billed with my phone - perhaps my finest work yet.

Pied-billed Grebe - Toronto

Next up was Sedgewick Park in Oakville. The Blackpoll was seen again by birders that morning, so I was hoping that the 3rd time would be the charm for me. After about 1/2 an hour of checking the area thoroughly, I found the Blackpoll creeping along near the creek among the tangles. There were at least 2 Orange-crowned Warblers (talking to Rob Dobos later in the day, he mentioned that there were possibly 3 Orange-crowned present), a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 2 Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a Nashville Warbler. After almost two hours I could not re-find the Blackpoll or find the Cape May, so I continued on.

The day of chasing good winter birds with success continued, as I was easily able to relocate the 2 Barn Swallows hawking insects above the sewage treatment plant in Burlington. Cool! Perhaps these birds will hang on into the new year, making a pretty excellent January record for this species.

I checked a few spots around the bay, not seeing much out of the ordinary, and headed home as it started getting darker and gloomier out. While driving past Rock Chapel Golf Course I noticed quite a few geese on the lawn, so I pulled in to scan them. A Richardson's Cackling Goose was nice to see, and that was followed up with a nice blue-morph Snow Goose. Eventually I was able to get some poor phone-scoped photos of it as well. Not a bad way to end the day!

Snow Goose - Clappison's Corners

Unfortunately, it looks like that my Big Year may be over. Of course if something rare is found tomorrow or on Christmas I may be able to chase it, but otherwise I don't see myself getting out, especially with all of the get-togethers that happen this time of year. Then on December 26th, I am off to Nova Scotia to finish the year with Laura. Can't wait!

Saturday 22 December 2012

Media links...

For those that are interested in that sort of thing, here are a couple more links about my "Big Year" attempt.

The Univerity of Guelph wrote an article about it a few weeks ago. The link:

I think it is very well written for an article on birding! The author actually explains a bit of the strategy of the big year, all the facts are correct, and he stays away from most of those cliches that often show up in articles about birders (example: the birders flocked to the spot where the rare bird was).

Yesterday morning I was on CBC's Ontario Morning radio show talking about my big year. The link can be found here:

It is the first segment in the podcast from December 21. Near the beginning of the interview my phone was having reception problems, so some of my answers are cut off. Additionally, I wasn't fully awake, since the interview was at 6:10 AM. I had set my alarm, but then fell back asleep and woke up to my phone ringing and the person telling me, "You're live in 30 seconds". lol. That might explain why I said the Thick-billed Kingbird showed up on October 28 instead of August 28.

Thursday 20 December 2012

Is it a hawk or an owl?

This morning, I met up with Brett Fried and Erika Hentsch at the brutal hour of way-before-sunrise. We had plans to look for the long-staying Northern Hawk Owl west of Peterborough, a species that they needed for the year. Brett was stuck on 299 species this year in Ontario, and with time running out, it might have been his last chance to hit the magical mark of 300.

The drive to Peterborough took much shorter than I remembered from previous trips to that part of Ontario, and we arrived at the site before sunrise. After unsuccessfully checking Meadowview Road as the sun rose, we turned our attention to the rail trail running parallel to it; a location where the owl had been seen the previous day.

As the sun rose, the bird life became active. It wasn't long before we had our first chickadees and crows, and while we were scanning the chickadees a high rattling trill was heard. Bohemian Waxwing! This was a lifer for Erika, though we couldn't see it. After a bit of pishing, the Bohemian made its location known as it flushed out of the cedars. Not a great look, but still better than nothing.

Eventually, Brett and I were scanning when we both saw this odd lump at the top of a tree along a farmer's hedgerow. Could it be?

Indeed it was - the Northern Hawk Owl! As we walked closer, the owl left its perch and flew right towards us, alighting at the very tip of a tree along the edge of the path.

Northern Hawk Owl - near Peterborough, Ontario

Northern Hawk-owl is one of the 3 species of highly desirable "northern owls" that show up in Ontario, along with Great Gray Owl and Boreal Owl. During the summer this generally uncommon species breeds in birch and poplar stands, and more commonly large bogs in the boreal forest. They generally stay in their breeding range year round, though some winters occasional individuals will irrupt southwards. Despite being extremely conspicuous when they are present, they are rarely seen this far south in Ontario with usually less than 5 reported each winter.

Northern Hawk Owl - near Peterborough, Ontario

I was excited to get this bird for the day. I had one previous sighting of this species this year - a single bird perched on a hydro wire in the Rainy River District. Unfortunately my camera was packed away at the time so I was unable to photograph it. This was another species which I can take off the "only seen once this year and with no photos" list! I don't need to photograph a bird for it to count on my big year, but there are definitely skeptics out there so it certainly doesn't hurt!

Northern Hawk Owl - near Peterborough, Ontario

After checking out some more spots around Peterborough and generally not seeing much, we debated heading north to Haliburton. A "possible" Slaty-backed Gull (one I still need for the year) had been reported, though the identification wasn't certain since gull identification is tricky. Unfortunately it hadn't been seen since. Since that would have added 3 hours in total to our drive, we decided to skip it. Instead, we stopped in Oshawa on the way home to take a look at a Western Tanager which had shown up in a sketchy looking park.

The tanager took a bit of effort, but eventually I caught a glimpse of it and called Brett, Erika, and Doug McRae over. Doug was on his way to Toronto so he popped in to take a look at the tanager. Of course, it had disappeared when they arrived, so while Brett made fun of me for mis-identifying a chickadee (screw you, Brett) we waited for it to show up. Eventually it did and we watched it for a while foraging for whatever it could find on this chilly December day. I only managed a couple of distant photos since the bird was very fidgity and constantly on the move.

Western Tanager - Oshawa, Ontario

This was another species which I had only seen once this year before this sighting. It was the third one of the year for Brett.

That afternoon, on an unsuccessful quest for Barred Owls, we happened across a little mob of chickadees and nuthatches. Unfortunately we had no bird seed and so the birds were none too pleased. This is what an angry Red-breasted Nuthatch looks like!

Red-breasted Nuthatch - Oshawa, Ontario

It was a successful day in the field - perhaps one of the last times I will get out before the year ends. It appears all but inevitable that I will end the year with 344 species. Special thanks to my mom for letting me borrow her camera today! The Northern Hawk-owl was my 300th species photographed in Ontario this year.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Current birding plans

It is now December 19. The big year is all but over. I have only 6 full days left before I leave the province, and the last two days I will be busy with Christmas things with the family. Therefore, I have only 4 full days left in my big year!

The last few days, Laura and I have stayed fairly local. We checked out a good spot for Eastern Screech Owls yesterday, and after a fair bit of effort we were able to get one of the local birds (probably the female) fly in to her favorite tree, allowing us great looks at her.

Eastern Screech-Owl

The above bird is one of the birds in this pair, taken back in March of this year.

Today we checked out a few spots around Cambridge. We actually spent quite a bit of time feeding the chickadees, and we didn't see a whole lot else! However we did get some Sandhill Cranes in the field south of Grass Lake, which Laura first picked out. A pretty good record for this late in the year!


What are my birding plans for the next 4 days? Yesterday a "possible" Slaty-backed Gull was seen at the Haliburton landfill. This is a fair ways to drive for a possible bird, but it is probably the only hope I have at this point at adding something new. Unless of course, I decide to try my luck at a Barn Owl search, a prospect that doesn't seem to inviting at this point. 

Stay tuned for news on the Slaty-backed - I may end up driving to Haliburton for it at some point this week. There is also a Northern Hawk Owl "on the way" to Haliburton, a species which I have only seen once this year. I wouldn't mind seeing one again and getting some photos of one.That would be a great species for #300 this year!

Speaking of which, my dad's backup camera which I have been using has crapped out on me, unfortunately. Once again I am completely without a camera so from now on out I will be forced to digi-scope with my phone. Oh well!

Monday 17 December 2012

Warbler insanity


As most readers are aware, the Ivory Gull is no longer being seen in Ottawa. It was found by Mike Runtz in the early afternoon and word got out to the birding community. It was seen all afternoon, last seen by Mike roosting out on the ice, seemingly for the night.

Unfortunately for observers searching the next morning, the bird failed to show up, making it another Ivory Gull that was a one-day wonder in Ontario. 

I was picking up Laura up at the airport the day it was found so obviously couldn't chase it, but if I had, I would have arrived after dark and missed it since it would have been a 5 hours drive for me. Makes me glad I didn't go! For some reason I have had a great deal of luck (or as I like to think - skill) in picking which birds to chase and which ones not to. It worked out again, this time.

Warning: It may make you green with jealousy, cause I certainly am! The kicker is the last photo, with Ben Di Labio AND the Ivory Gull in the frame. Ughh!!!!! lol


Rare (for winter) warblers and other neotropical migrants continue to be reported in some locations in Ontario. An Indigo Bunting and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher were found in Toronto on the CBC, a Cape May Warbler was at Turkey Point, and a variety of warblers have been found on various CBCs (Common Yellowthroat, Nashville, Orange-crowned, Pine, etc). Perhaps best of all was the new addition to Sedgewick Park in Oakville: the Blackpoll Warbler that David Bell and Jesse Pakkala found yesterday.

Laura and I happened to check it out yesterday to see if we could turn it up. As soon as we got out of the car though, the rain came pouring down. Half an hour later we hadn't seen the Blackpoll (though we had all the other warblers) so we left.

Today, I dropped Laura off to meet some friends in Hamilton and had the afternoon to do some birding. I decided to continue looking for rare warblers. I checked a bunch of spots in Burlington and Oakville, turning up Yellow-rumped Warblers in a couple locations, but nothing else of note. I eventually ended up at Sedgewick and began looking for the warblers.

not a warbler (Burlington, ON)

On my 3rd visit, I finally got a look at the Ruby-crowned Kinglets and even managed a photo of one. The yellow/green on the wings really stood out in the dull light! 

Ruby-crowned Kinglet - Sedgewick Park, Oakville

In short order I ended up seeing all the warblers that were present, except for the Blackpoll. I ended up staying for 2 hours, checking out all the warblers and kinglets over and over again. I checked over most of the park, thinking the Blackpoll may have moved, but no luck there. Oh well, that's how it goes sometimes! At least I managed crappy photos of all the other species there. I'll start with the crappiest photos, so that each subsequent photo is better and when you are done reading you have forgotten about the crappiest photos.

Nashville Warbler - Sedgewick Park, Oakville

Orange-crowned Warbler - Sedgewick Park, Oakville

Orange-crowned Warbler - Sedgewick Park, Oakville

All of the warblers and kinglets seem to be doing really well. There was a fresh hatch of midges today and the insects were all over the place, providing a feast for them. But that will only last so long, as the temperature will drop to -3 as a high by the weekend. That being said, that is 5 days from now, more than enough time for another warbler or two to pop in!

Yellow-rumped Warbler - Sedgewick Park, Oakville

Cape May Warbler - Sedgewick Park, Oakville

For those keeping score at home, the total for this tiny little park for the last week includes:

2 Ruby-crowned Kinglets
2 Orange-crowned Warblers
1 Cape May Warbler
1 Blackpoll Warbler
1 Nashville Warbler
2 Yellow-rumped Warblers 
1 Hermit Thrush

Not bad for mid-December. 

I also happened to cross paths with a bright Pine Warbler in some tall pines in Village Wood Park, located just west of Bronte. It was high in the pines with a flock of Black-capped Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches. Apparently Gavin Edmondstone had 3(!!!) in the area on the CBC. 

If I had seen the Blackpoll, and tried to pick up a Common Yellowthroat somewhere, it would have been a 7 warbler species afternoon!!

Saturday 15 December 2012

Ivory Gull??? WTF

From Ontbirds:

Hi all
"First winter Ivory Gull feeding on a dead duck. Seen from the east end of Baskin Drive, Madawaska head pond of the Madawaska River.
Take 417 exit at White Lake junction (look for Tim Hortons)"
- Michael Runtz

In other news, I will be going to the Toronto airport to pick up Laura this evening! Getting excited :) I probably won't be able to chase this bird until Thursday, however. That is, if it hangs around.
About half of Ontario's Ivory Gulls are one day wonders. The other half generally hang around for 3 days to a week. The longest staying Ivory Gull was one on Amherst Island that hung around for 14 days (January 3 to January 17, 2001).  

Winter bird list update

Please excuse the formatting in the email - when I emailed it to myself it all looked good, but when I sent it to the listserv it was all f-ed up...don't know what's wrong with ONTbirds! Anyways, here is the latest installment of the Ontario winter bird list. We are on a pretty good pace, but a bunch of rarities have to be found on the Christmas counts to even come close to last year's total!


ONTbirds subscribers,

After two weeks we are at 178 total bird species reported in Ontario this winter so far. With the Christmas Bird Counts starting this weekend we can hopefully fill in the few remaining gaps and add some rarities to the list. I have sent the list to Blake Maybank and he will post the results on his website soon. A link to the webpage:

Since the first update, the following species have been added, bringing the total to 179 species:

Western/Clark's Grebe Aechmophorus sp. (December 15)
Ring-necked Pheasant (December 3)
Spruce Grouse (December 1)
Sharp-tailed Grouse (December 7)
Greater Yellowlegs (December 10)
Red-headed Woodpecker (December 8)
Eastern Phoebe (first week of December)
Gray Jay (December 9)
Barn Swallow (December 12)
Northern Rough-winged Swallow (December 13)
Nashville Warbler (December 11)
Pine Warbler (December 14)
Savannah Sparrow (December 4)
Eastern Meadowlark (December 3)

Some of the more notable misses so far include Brant, Gray Partridge, Wilson's Snipe, California Gull, Slaty-backed Gull, Pomarine Jaeger, Boreal Owl, Barn Owl, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Blue-headed Vireo, House Wren, Gray Catbird, Vesper Sparrow, and Brewer's Blackbird. Send me an email if you know of any sightings of the missing species, or anything else that would be new to the list.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Potential year birds remaining: One last look

Throughout the year I have posted updates detailing how my big year is progressing, how many potential species are remaining, and the odds of getting each one of them. I still haven't seen a new year bird since November 18 (24 days in a row now, my longest cold streak of the year so far) and I have only 13 full days remaining until I vacate the province until the new year. During those 13 days, I will be busy with Christmas get-togethers and relaxing with friends, family, and of course Laura. Therefore, I hold very little hope that I will add any more year birds!

With that being said, there still are almost 2 weeks for a new bird to show up. What I decided to do, of course, is go through the OBRC data to find some answers!

What I looked for are records of species that  I need for my Big Year that were found between the dates of December 12 and December 26. Here is what I came up with:

The only birds which are NOT reviewable by the Ontario Bird Records Committee (the committee reviews the super rare birds in Ontario), which I still need for my year, are as follows: Smith's Longspur (non-reviewable only in northern Ontario), Ruff (non-reviewable only in southern Ontario), and both Ptarmigans (non reviewable in northern Ontario). There has not been a recent record of either Ptarmigan anywhere south of Ontario's ocean coast during that time frame. There has never been a Smith's Longspur anywhere in Ontario between December 12 and 26 that I am aware of and the same goes for Ruff (though isn't there an early December record? Maybe Hamilton?).

Therefore, my only hope lies with a different rarity showing up in these next two weeks. Broken down year by year, here are the species that have been seen in Ontario, between the dates of December 12 and December 26. Only species I need for my Big Year count!

Black-throated Gray Warbler - December 14 to January 3
Barn Owl (found dead) - December 17

Slaty-backed Gull - December 24 to December 29

none (though there was a Yellow-billed Loon December 31)

Slaty-backed Gull - December 13 to January 24




Pyrrhuloxia - December 23 to January 1

Gray Flycatcher  - December 14 to January 7

Ivory Gull - December 16 to April 6

Bewick's Wren - December 18 to March 4
(There was also a Black-necked Stilt found December 27)

Ivory Gull - December 17 to December 25





Tufted Duck - December 22 to January 1
Ivory Gull - December 23 to December 26


Brambling - December 24 to April 14


But what does it all mean?????
In the last 20 years, there have been 12 individual birds which would be potential year birds, if they had showed up this year instead. I knew these data would not be significant, but one simplistic way to look at would be to say there is a 12/20 or 60% that a potential year bird shows up for me in the next two weeks.

The good news is this: With the exception of the Barn Owl last year, every other one of those birds is one that hung around and would certainly be "chaseable".

What are the chances I get two more birds?? Well, that would have been possible in only 1 out of the past 20 years. Of course, who knows how the rest of the year plays out, but it looks grim that I add 2 new birds this year. At best I can hope for one more. The leading candidates, at least according to the last 20 years, would be Slaty-backed Gull or Ivory Gull. I sure wouldn't mind it if another Pyrrhuloxia shows up.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

December warblering

Everyone knows that December is the best time to see warblers in Ontario. Err...well maybe not, but things have been a-happening down at Sedgewick Park in Oakville! 3 days ago, Cheryl Edgecombe found a Ruby-crowned Kinglet here. While not a warbler, it is a tough bird to get in the "winter birding period" which extends from December 1st to the end of February. The following day, Cheryl returned with Rob Dobos and they were able to turn up a male Cape May Warbler, 2 Orange-crowned Warblers, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler along with the kinglet.

A second kinglet turned up yesterday along with the other birds, so I decided that I would make the trek down there this afternoon. I am not one of the hardcore winter listers by any means, but I do enjoy seeing odd birds in the winter and the Cape May fit the bill. But more importantly, I was wondering what else could be lurking with these birds here! Black-throated Gray Warbler would be one of the more regular western warblers in Ontario, a species which is prone to being found in late autumn and early winter in Ontario.

Black-throated Gray Warbler - Bayfront Park (December 20, 2011)

Remember that little bugger in the above photo? That is the Black-throated Gray Warbler that Rob Dobos found at Bayfront Park in Hamilton, last December. The story there is similar to Sedgewick Park's story this year. A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher was originally found, then the Patagonia Picnic Table effect took over. While searching for the gnatcatcher, the following list of birds ended up being found: 2 Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, 1 Black-throated Gray Warbler, 1 Black-throated Green Warbler, 1 Wilson's Warbler, 1 Orange-crowned Warbler, and several Yellow-rumped Warblers. Not bad!

I arrived at Sedgewick this afternoon and began looking. Almost immediately when I arrived at the spot where the warblers had been seen, a flash of green caught my attention. I looked at the skulker and eventually had a half decent look - a bright Nashville Warbler! This can be a very difficult bird to get in December - in fact there hasn't been one in at least the last 5 years. If anyone knows when the last winter Nashville Warbler was, please let me know. The only other one I can find on Ebird was from 1996.

Nashville Warbler - Sedgewick Park, Oakville

Eventually it popped out in the open long enough to get at least a half decent photo. There was limited light and my camera has extremely poor ISO performance so the photos are less than ideal! This was, by the way, photographed species #299 this year in Ontario for me. Still need Rock Pigeon!

It was actively foraging in the same manner as the Orange-crowned Warblers, gleaning who know's what (spiders, maybe?) from the insides of rolled up dead leaves.

Nashville Warbler - Sedgewick Park, Oakville

I worked over the area along the little creek east of the water treatment facility to see what else I could find. This looked like an ideal spot for a lost neotropical migrant to try to eke out a living in mid December. It was a sheltered location, there was moving water (some of the warblers would drink from it periodically), it was directly next to the water treatment plant which was pumping out warm water, and the thickets held berries.

In short order, both Orange-crowned Warblers showed themselves, but they remained very skulky and I was unable to get photos of either. One was brighter than the other, though they both appeared to be the regular form we get in Ontario.

The Cape May Warbler was next on the agenda, a bird I was happy to catch up with. It was very active, keeping an eye on me for a lot of the time I was there.

Cape May Warbler - Sedgewick Park, Oakville

Cape May Warbler - Sedgewick Park, Oakville

The Yellow-rumped Warbler announced it's presence with a few "chup" notes, and I eventually was able to see it and photograph it too, for a 4 warbler day! Last but not least, I heard a Ruby-crowned Kinglet calling from deep within a thicket but I was unable to coax it out. I ended up staying at Sedgewick for almost two hours when it was all said and done. No Black-throated Gray Warbler, but I was happy to find the Nashville!

Yellow-rumped Warbler - Sedgewick Park, Oakville

I guess the moral of the story is this: Get out and check all of those little creeks and sheltered places along the Lake Erie and Ontario shorelines! The odds are very high this time of year that if you find a warbler, it could be some western warbler, like a Townsend's or Black-throated Gray. This December has already seen a higher number of warblers, so this could be the year that a pesky Lucy's or Grace's Warbler is found.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Recent birding

I have been pretty busy the last few days with a little bit of birding thrown in as well. Consequently, the blog gets neglected a little bit!

Since my last post, I have stayed fairly local in my birding. On December 5th, I spent much of the day at home until I heard about a Hoary Redpoll at the University of Guelph. That was a good enough excuse for me (I hadn't seen one before in the Hamilton Study Area, and this bird was just inside the northern border by about 100 meters) and so I drove up there and saw the redpoll. A resulting walk around the arboretum was largely unproductive birdwise, but the weather was great. Cool, crisp, sunny, and wind-less!

December 6th was mostly a birdless day. The only Ebird checklist I made was from my 5k run, a nice little loop that takes me around the back of a local pond. Unfortunately the Evening Grosbeaks that I have had coming to someone's feeder weren't present anymore, nor were the 3 Common Ravens I had two days previously. However, the Trumpeter Swan pair was still around, despite the pond being 95% frozen. They usually hang around until freeze-up, departing until sometime in March.

On December 7th I met up with David Bell to do some birding along the Lake Ontario shore east of Burlington. We had some interesting birds along the way, including a singing Winter Wren at Richard's Memorial Park, and both a Tufted Titmouse and Common Yellowthroat at Rattray Marsh. We finished up the day walking around Bronte Creek Provincial Park. At one point I mentioned that it looked good for a Barred Owl here, then not 10 minutes later David looked up and casually mentioned, "Well there's one". This is a very difficult bird to get in Hamilton so we were pretty happy. Check out my awesome back-lit phone-scoped shot!!

Barred Owl - Bronte Creek P.P.

Finally, yesterday I met up with Brandon Holden, Ross Wood, Barb Charlton, and Ken Burrell for a day of looking at fog and rain at Niagara. I think we may have seen a gull or two as well. Brandon hosted a house-warming shindig at his newly acquired condo along the Hamilton waterfront that evening - it was a lot of fun, certainly compared to the birding that day!

Oh yeah, I phone-scoped this Tufted Titmouse at Niagara yesterday. It was a new photographed bird for me this year, bringing the list up to 298. I still need Rock Pigeon, so I think I will have to photograph one soon, so that it doesn't become the 300th species! I think that a Townsend's Warbler or perhaps an Atlantic Puffin would be a good candidate for #300, certainly a lot better than a pigeon. Also, I really need to start taking pictures with the real camera instead of using the lazy man's method of phone-scoping!

Tufted Titmouse - Dufferin Islands