Saturday 31 March 2012

Gone shriking

Brett had plans to hit up the Carden Alvar north of Toronto today, so I, of course, couldn't refuse the trip!
The Carden Alvar is one of Ontario's best known birding hotspots, and for good reason. It is one of the last remaining expanses of open prairie, rough pastureland, and hawthorn alvar left in southern Ontario. Consequently it holds a large number of breeding grassland species, including Eastern Bluebirds, Common Nighthawks, Bobolinks, Clay-colored and about 10 other species of sparrows, Upland Sandpiper, and of course the Loggerhead Shrike. Add to that a variety of marsh birds such as Sedge Wren, Virginia Rail, and American Bittern as well as about 15 or more species of breeding warblers (many with much more northern affinities) and you have the makings of a very unique area.

But, the shrikes.

This is one of only a few locations left in Ontario where Loggerhead Shrikes breed. They are doing fairly well throughout most of their range but in Ontario they are down to a few dozen pairs, mainly due to habitat loss and conversion of pastureland into monoculture. Fortunately, efforts are underway to protect this unique area and several conservation groups are attempting to buy more of the land to protect. Not only does this protect the shrike, but also the myriad of other species utilizing the area.

Brett, Erika, Reuven (of Guelph FISH CROW fame), and myself headed up fairly early in the morning and were on site around 8:00. I heard a distant winnowing Wilson's Snipe, we saw the first of many Eastern Meadowlarks, and we just about ran over a Ruffed Grouse that didn't like the idea of moving off the road. Red-winged Blackbirds were singing the songs of spring.

It wasn't long before we spotted our first Loggerhead Shrikes - an unbanded pair on McNamee Road just east of Wylie Road. This individual was unique in the limited black mask, but every other character lined up for it to be a Loggerhead Shrike. Its mate was more typical looking.

Most of the spring migrants hadn't returned yet to the alvar, but we did get a few species of sparrows including 2 Field, 3 Swamp, and 2 Savannah to go along with the hoards of Song Sparrows. A few Eastern Meadowlarks and Eastern Bluebirds were in attendance at nearly every stop. Several Sandhill Cranes flew over and I grabbed a quick shot of of a Canada Goose.

We found a further 3 shrikes on the day. One was on the west side of Wylie Road near bluebird box 21; two banded individuals were in the field on McNamee opposite the quarry road.

Is that a bear? Nope, just a blurry porcupine.

It's obvious that all the landowners in the Carden area welcome birders with open arms.

That's all for now, folks. The two year birds brings me up 167. I am heading north in the very near future - I'll comment on that later!

Thursday 29 March 2012

Little bit of this, little bit of that

I haven't got out a whole lot in the last few days but I'm hoping to do a fair bit of birding this weekend. I have been picking up birds, slow and steady, as they arrive in Guelph. The other day I went for an afternoon stroll around Guelph Lake. The day was mild and sunny with a brisk wind, but with very little birdlife was around, I was happy to spot a pair of Eastern Bluebirds in the campground. For some reason I rarely encounter this species. According to Ebird I have 29 total sightings of this species since I saw my first bluebirds in June, 2007. Only 5 of those sightings are in Wellington County. On the other hand, I have 38 independent sightings of Lesser Black-backed Gull. Figure that one out. Also, I have seen more Summer Tanagers and just as many Eurasian Wigeons as Upland Sandpipers in Ontario, but I digress.

Eastern Bluebird - Guelph Lake CA

The birds were few and far between but I did get a Great Blue Heron fly over and there were a few Redhead and Lesser Scaup way out on the lake. Both these species are considered rare in the county but I've seen them just about every single time I look for ducks! Mountsburg and Puslinch usually have a few of each species.

New for my "photographed big year" were Cedar Waxwing, White-breasted Nuthatch, etc. Snapped a couple photos of a chickadee, just 'cause.

Black-capped Chickadee - Guelph Lake

Driving around the lake I was happy to see that one of the Osprey were back on a nest! This was year bird 164.

Osprey - Guelph Lake

The other day I got a text from David Bell saying something like "I'm pretty sure a Purple Martin flew by, heading your way....". Dave lives just down the street (about 1/2 a km), so I stood vigil for a few minutes and had 2 Purple Martins fly by! Later on Dave had 6 of them nearby! Nice to see them back in town. That was year bird 165.

Monday 26 March 2012

Less than one month to go

It's almost that time of year and I'm getting pretty excited. Generally things start really getting exciting around my birthday (April 25). Last year I had a nice birthday surprise by finding an Eared Grebe and Eurasian Wigeon, and the previous day I found a Snowy Egret, flock of Willets, and also saw Brandon's Neotropic Cormorant.

With this crazy weather I still don't expect the "magic date" of April 24/25 to be much different this year. As many people have alluded to, neotropical migrants usually cue migration by photoperiod as well as a proposed internal clock. These birds in Brazil, Panama, and elsewhere have no idea what sort of heat wave we are going through - no idea that in order for them to arrive at "peak time", they need to leave three weeks early. Once they do arrive on the gulf coast in early April, I wouldn't be surprised if they migrant north quicker than usual since everything is so far along this year. So perhaps instead of having an average arrival date of May 1 for neotropical species X, it may arrive by April 27 or something.

Temperate migrants, on the other hand, seem to be more cued by temperature and local conditions. That may explain why we are seeing extremely early dates of birds like Long-billed Dowitcher, Pine Warbler, various sparrows and swallows, etc. In Ohio, Louisiana Waterthrushes, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons and Yellow-throated Warblers are already on territory!

At any rate, I am done exams on April 18th and expect to be down in Pelee by no later than April 20 this year (I need a day or two to move all my stuff from my Guelph house to my parent's in Cambridge). Between now and April 20, there are a few species that I am targeting.

Boreal Owl, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Spruce Grouse, Sharp-tailed Grouse
 I am currently planning an in-and-out 3 day whirlwind trip to the Marathon area - about 15 hours away. Boreal Owls breed here (and will be calling, unlike on my January trip), American Three-toed Woodpeckers seem reliable (and I'll spend more than 3 hours one afternoon searching, unlike last trip!), and I have a few chances for Spruce Grouse and Sharp-tailed Grouse on the way up. If I get all those species, the only boreal specialty I will still need is Northern Hawk-owl. More on this trip later, but I am currently shooting for the dates of April 10-12ish, nestled in right between exams...

Loggerhead Shrike, Yellow Rail
-the Carden shrikes (code 2) have returned (see I'm not sure yet if I'll tack on a trip to the Carden Alvar after the northern trip, or if I'll do a separate day trip there. I may hold out on going until April 15/16ish, right before my last exam. Yellow Rails (code 3) may even be back ticking in the marsh, depending on how early they arrive this year! If not, I'll still have chances at them in Rainy River and James Bay.

Rare birds that sometimes show up early
-the Piping Plovers (code 2) that breed at Sauble/Wasaga usually show up by mid April. Ideally I could grab these on the way back from Carden on April 15/16th!
-in most recent years at least one Western Grebe (code 4) has been reported sometime in April, and usually is "chaseable"
-Eared Grebes (code 3) also are usually "chaseable" in April
-Cattle Egrets, American White Pelicans and occasional Plegadis Ibises (White-faced or Glossy) sometimes show up in mid April
-other rarities that have a history of showing up before things really get going in late April include ducks like Cinnamon Teal, Tufted Duck, and Garganey; Swainson's Hawk (not in recent years, however); gulls like Mew and Laughing, Bewick's Wren (not recently though), Yellow-throated Warbler, and the odd rare sparrow.

Sunday 25 March 2012

March Jaeger?!

Today, Reuven and I headed to Toronto in chase of a reported Eared Grebe. We arrived at the east bay of Colonel Sam Smith Park to several birders looking at the bird, however the lighting was bad and the bird was distant so it was hard to see well. We moved farther west and had much better views of it in better light and it became apparent that the bird was in fact a Horned Grebe in heavy molt with an interestingly placed tuft on its head. Oh well, that's how it goes sometimes!

the culprit - Toronto, ON

While we were here we enjoyed the sights and sounds of hundreds of Red-necked Grebes calling back and forth. This is a major staging ground for them and there are presumably several thousand between Toronto and Oakville on the lakefront. There has got to be a Western Grebe mixed in somewhere!

Red-necked Grebes - Toronto, ON

Garth Riley had found a Pomarine Jaeger earlier in the day way out over the lake, a crazy March record for Ontario. Most likely this was a bird that wintered on the Great Lakes. Several Pomarine and Parasitic Jaegers continued to be seen at Niagara-on-the-Lake until mid December, at least.

Reuven and I set up our scopes with Garth, as well as Andrew Keaveney and Sarah Jane Stranger-Guy who had arrived. After about 20 minutes of scanning I picked up a darkish jaeger barreling in. We all got on it but it was very distant. Several times it harassed some gulls, and it even flew out over land at Humber Bay to the west!

Pomarine Jaeger - Toronto, ON

We squabbled a bit over the ID but the bird appears to be an intermediate morph immature Pomarine Jaeger. This is a code-3 bird for me, and quite an unexpected one! This may save me from a few trips down to Van Wagner's beach in the fall, though I'll probably still go since jaegering can be a lot of fun (with rarity potential).

Pomarine Jaeger - Toronto, ON

Reuven and I slowly started to make our way back to Guelph, stopping at a few lakefront parks without seeing much. A few cormies were here and there.

Double-crested Cormorant - Port Credit, ON

 We stopped at Mountsberg once we got off the highway to check out the situation. No shorebirds yet, but there were a few ducks including a pair of Blue-winged Teal. Since I'm trying to photograph as many species as I can this year, I grabbed some crappy digi-scoped shots (species #105 photographed this year). What better way to finish off a blog entry than with a blurry, cropped photo?

Blue-winged Teal - Mountsberg reservoir

Saturday 24 March 2012

A salamander named Jeff

Jefferson's Salamanders are one of my favorite Ontario salamanders, for several reasons, the least of which is their "rare" factor as they can only be found in a small handful of locations in Ontario. The ROM's website says that they are found at 30 sites in the province. They are listed provincially as "Threatened" due to a number of reasons, including road mortality, loss of habitat, being at the northern extent of their range, and strangely enough, genetics.

Jefferson Salamander - Waterloo Region

The story behind the genetics of Jefferson Salamanders and a few other closely related species is a long and complicated one that still has unanswered questions. I'll try to summarize it as best and briefly as I can. In the past, a hybrid event occurred with this species as well as others, and unisexual female salamanders were the result. In this part of Ontario the unisexuals make up the majority of most populations in southern Ontario and contain the Blue-spotted Salamander alleles ("L", for Ambystoma laterale) and Jefferson Salamander alleles ("J", for A. jeffersonianum). Instead of having the usual 2 alleles, these unisexuals have 3 alleles (in other areas, up to 5 alleles have been noted). For instance, they could be LLJ, or LJJ. The offspring they produce are essentially clones of the mother. They don't reproduce parthenogenically - rather, they use the sperm from one of the parent species to stimulate egg development, though no genetic material is contributed. LLJ salamanders use the sperm from a male Blue-spotted Salamander to stimulate egg development, and LJJ salamanders use the sperm from a male Jefferson's Salamander. All of the unisexuals are female.

female "unisexual" salamander - April 7, 2010

Since all the unisexuals are female, any male salamander that is found is a pure diploid individual of the parent species. Females, however, are impossible to identify in the field - it can only be done definitively by looking at their genome in the lab.

In this southern Ontario population, there are male and female Jefferson Salamanders, male and female Blue-spotted Salamanders, female "LLJ" salamanders, and female "LJJ" salamanders as far as I am aware. What I would speculate is that the Jefferson Salamander males often fertilize these unisexual salamanders, leaving the female Jefferson Salamanders unable to reproduce that year. Over time, some populations only have the unisexuals, with one of the parent species (usually Jefferson Salamander) no longer present.

Jefferson (left) and Blue-spotted Salamanders

As you can see from the above photo, the Jefferson Salamander is a lighter gray colour with tiny blue flecks, is larger in size, has long limbs, a long tail, and a long snout. Blue-spotted Salamanders are generally darker with large blue spots, have short limbs, a shorter snout, shorter tail and are overall smaller. The unisexuals are intermediate but with a wide range of variation.

I have been fortunate to stumble across several sites over the years where I believe I have found pure Jefferson Salamanders. I think that they are more common than what they're given credit for, but at the same time I have only seen about 35 individuals in my life, compared to exactly 450 Blue-spotted and "unisexual" salamanders. Last night, while out herping with some close friends, Chris stumbled across a perfect example of a Jefferson Salamander. They're still holding on in my area!

male Jefferson Salamander - March 23, 2012

male Jefferson Salamander - March 23, 2012

male Jefferson Salamander - March 23, 2012

Friday 23 March 2012

A few photos from the last herp outing

Just thought I would put up a few recent photos from the last herping trip to the local ponds. It was on Monday, and appeared to be the peak season. All the regular species of frogs were present and calling, and salamanders were still going strong. I even found the first Four-toed Salamander on territory, something that normally doesn't happen around here until late April.

Green frogs were everywhere - they may start breeding soon at this pace! Normally Green Frogs are summer breeders.

Green Frog

So are Gray Treefrogs (I usually get the first ones calling sometime in late April), but a friend heard some calling a few days ago! I will be heading out to the ponds again tonight and if the weather is warm and rainy they may be calling. We did find a few Gray Treefrogs on Monday - previously the earliest ones I had seen were on April 7, 2010 on a warm rainy night.

Gray Treefrog


Gray Treefrog

More typical pose

Gray Treefrog

I haven't seen any Pickerel Frogs yet this spring. They inhabit cool, spring-fed streams, seeps, and bogs in this part of Ontario. While there is a lot of potential habitat I've rarely encountered them. Here is one from 2010 in Cambridge. Note the square blotches in two rows down its dorsum and the bright  yellow inner legs, two features that aren't seen in the more abundant Northern Leopard Frog.

Pickerel Frog - Waterloo Region

Finally, the female Four-toed Salamander from Monday.

Four-toed Salamander

Birding news: The migrants are on their way, though the "colder" temperatures and north/east winds may stall things a bit. I had a FOS Ruby-crowned Kinglet in my front tree this morning, singing up a storm, and things like Barn Swallow, American Bittern, both Yellowlegs, Virginia Rail etc have been reported.

This weekend I don't have any big birding plans. I'll do a bit of local stuff, and maybe make it out to the ponds. But its still early and I think I'll wait for the birds to come to me for a little while.

Also, Doug McCrae et. al had a Plegadis ibis in Presqui'lle today. That's a bit of a drive for me, but if it is re-found, and especially if its a White-faced Ibis, I'll probably chase it at some point.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Home from Pelee

Due to a huge stack of papers and projects to do I cut my Pelee trip short a day. It was still a decent couple of days and I had a few highlights. Don't expect any photos or anything for a few days.

I'm pretty tired so I may forgot one or two highlights but here goes.

March 20

Ridgetown Lagoons 
-14 (13 white, 1 blue) Snow Geese
-Glaucous Gull in a nearby field

checked out a lot of the other usual places on the way down (Blenheim, Tilbury, Wheatley harbour, etc) with nothing crazy being seen

Point Pelee 
-the weather was a definite highlight - it felt like late April! 
-lots of birds! Kinglets (all GCKI) were more than abundant. 
-good numbers of Tree Swallows, Horned Grebes, Eastern Phoebes, sparrows, etc
-Chipping, Field, and Fox Sparrows at West Beach
-2 migrant Hermit Thrushes - I think Alan said these would be record early spring migrants for Pelee but could be wrong. He also had some independently
-1 Tufted Titmouse singing south of the VC - record early spring migrant for Pelee
-1 Spring Azure (ok, not a bird). This is the first March record for Point Pelee

March 21
-1 Vesper Sparrow singing in the onion fields
-2 flyover American Pipits
-1 Marsh Wren singing at the marsh boardwalk - perhaps record early for Pelee if it is a spring migrant?
- more of the same from yesterday (Hermit Thrush, Chippies, phoebes, etc)
-a TON of Blanding's Turtle in my secret little spot

and this. Photo taken with my phone so not the best quality. Oh, and its not my car.

NOT a preferred parking spot.

So there you have it! I finished with about 80 species for the 2 days, which isn't a bad total considering it IS March 21 and I spent a lot of time looking for herps, lying in the sun, and driving to McDonald's to use their wifi to do some assignments! I had a few record early things, as expected with this ridiculous weather, but not the species I predicted. I had 5 year birds, those being Chipping Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Marsh Wren, Winter Wren, and Hermit Thrush.

 From a Big Year perspective, the trip was unproductive as the only new birds that I saw are ones I should encounter frequently throughout the year. But from a real life perspective it was a complete success because the weather was perfect, there were a lot of birds and herps to see, it was relaxing, and I was able to dodge school once again (mostly).  Off to the real world for a few days now.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Off to Pelee

I got in the door about an hour ago from another fantastic expedition to the ponds to primarily look for amphibians. I'll put the photos up eventually when I get the time. Which reminds me, I also need to make a few Scotland and Spain posts from my trip in late February.

Anyways, some highlights from the night include my first American Toad (calling), Northern Leopard Frog (calling) and Gray Treefrogs of the year. These are the earliest I have had all 3 species. I also found a female Four-toed Salamander on territory, the earliest I've had that by a full month! Spring Peeper numbers are up, but very few Chorus Frogs were calling which is a bit worrying.

Several Great Blue Herons were seen which was a year bird for me (surprisingly). We also had Sandhill Cranes, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Meadowlark, Wood Duck etc at dusk and several pairs of Screech-owls calling again.

In a few hours I am leaving for Pelee for three days. The weather forecast is HOT and relatively calm...hopefully I will get a crazy early migrant or too! I would predict a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Louisiana Waterthrush, and some cool swallows, but that would be jinxing it....

Sunday 18 March 2012

The salamanders are moving

Between midterms, papers, and St. Patrick's Day festivities, I have made it out to the ponds a couple of times to see what amphibians were around.

The first night was warm, but dry, and I was a little worried that we wouldn't see good numbers of amphibians. Every vernal pond was completely ice-free and it wasn't long before we saw the first of many newts on the evening.

Red-spotted Newt

Every pond we checked had decent numbers of Spotted and Blue-spotted Salamanders, but there were only a few frogs. Spring Peepers were only sporadically calling, as were Wood Frogs. A few more days of warm weather, especially if we get a good deluge of rain, and there will be huge numbers of several species. Even still, we did get a few Wood Frogs.

Wood Frog

Matt holding on to his woodie...hehe.

We did find a big ole Bullfrog just hanging out on the trail. Bullfrogs aren't very common on the site - in fact I have seen less than 20 of them over the years.

American Bullfrog

Reuven made a great find with a Northern Brownsnake under a log. This was, by over two weeks, the earliest Brownsnake I have had at the site.

Northern Brownsnake

Of course, several first-of-year Green Frogs were swimming along the edges of the vernal ponds, and tadpoles, which take over a year to metamorphisize and spend the winter in the ponds, were also easy to find in the larger vernal ponds.

Green Frog

Matt found a snake as well - this time a Northern Ribbonsnake. While they are easy to find in the day, I have only ever found two before at night during the early spring.

The entire evening we were being serenaded by several owls, including 7+ Eastern Screech-owls and 1 Great Horned Owl. A few packs of coyotes howled in the distance, and lightning danced on the horizon though rain never did arrive. Several of the screech-owls came to check us out.

Eastern Screech-Owl

The following night was more of the same - same weather conditions and same species observed. I managed to photograph several Spring Peepers, including this individual. Unfortunately they were a bit camera-shy and wouldn't call while we were photographing them. As the spring wears on, their boldness will increase!

Spring Peeper

A Blue-spotted Salamander crossing the road to reach its vernal pond. Fortunately car traffic on this road is quite light so only a few individuals get killed annually. In other areas road mortality is a huge problem.

Blue-spotted Salamander

Natasha with a Blue-spotted Salamander

And finally, one of the many dozens of Spotted Salamanders that breed in these vernal ponds. We also saw a single male Four-toed Salamander crossing the trail (not photographed by me), the first of the year.

Spotted Salamander

Coming up - I will be traveling to Point Pelee and area for a few days this week. Hoping for some record early spring migrants!

Thursday 15 March 2012

First snakes of the year

With the blazing hot weather yesterday, I couldn't resist spending the afternoon looking for some early season snakes at one of my favorite spots. I headed down with Pauline and Chris, first stopping at Mountsburg to see what waterfowl were in. Not a whole lot was around compared to yesterday, maybe 10 species of the common things, so we headed west to check out Puslinch. On the way we paused to watch the antics of a few Eastern Meadowlarks.

Eastern Meadowlark

I really like this shot for some reason...its a little bit different. What do you think? Being limited to a 300 mm lens, about equivalent to 6 or 8 x zoom, means I have a lot more of these types of photos and less of the full frame, close-ups of birds. Even the meadowlark shot above was cropped a fair bit.

Eastern Meadowlark

A few roadside ponds had turtles basking - all Midland Painted Turtles of course. 

Midland Painted Turtle

We eventually made it to our spot and started looking for snakes. As I was walking a hillside I heard Chris yell that he had a snake - the first Northern Ribbonsnake of the year. 

Northern Ribbonsnake

It was great to get reacquainted with this beautiful species as I've spent hundreds of hours with it in the past. Without a doubt it is my favorite Ontario snake, though the Massasauga and Queen Snake aren't far behind.

Early in the season ribbonsnakes are quite approachable as they bask quietly in the sun. With any quick movement they take off, but if one exercises a bit of stealth it is possible to get quite close. In the past I have had ribbonsnakes that I was photographing crawl over my hands or my camera. This photo I took yesterday was from a snake I had crept up to. Full-frame.

Northern Ribbonsnake 

As we walked through the woodland signs of spring were apparent. Skunk cabbage were well on they way through the wet soil, chickadees attempted to outdo each other with their "fee-beee" song, and four species of woodpeckers were making a racket as they chased each other around and drilled cavities into trees. By turning over a few stones we found our first Ambystoma of the year - a young Blue-spotted Salamander.

Blue-spotted Salamander

Eastern Redback Salamanders were also plentiful under every other stone. This species occurs in 2 general colour morphs, with the occasional intermediate individual. This one is of the more common "redback" form, while some individuals have no red strip and are a coal gray/black colour on their dorsum. Over the years at this location, 74.9%  of the Eastern Redback Salamanders I have classified as "red-backed", 25.1% have been "lead-backed" (n=606). 

"redback" phase Eastern Redback Salamander

We heard several choruses of Spring Peepers as well as one or two lone Western Chorus Frogs. W. Chorus Frogs have been decreasing steadily in Ontario over the past number of decades and they are a candidate to be a Species at Risk. This part of Ontario still has strong populations, but it was a little disconcerting to only hear a couple of them mixed in with the peepers. Normally they readily sing in the daytime early in the season while the peepers have their loudest choruses at night. Hopefully the lack of W. Chorus Frogs was due to the early date and not a decline in their numbers. Here is a photo of one from a previous spring...

Western Chorus Frog

Chris keeping a wary eye out for snakes

Pauline - herper extraordinaire

Anyways, as the afternoon wore on we kept seeing good numbers of both N. Ribbonsnakes (Thamnophis sauritus septentrionalis) as well as the slightly less numerous Eastern Gartersnake (T. sirtalis sirtalis). These are the two earliest snakes I see at this site, with my first snake of the year usually a N. Ribbonsnake. Within a week or two Northern Brownsnakes, followed shortly by Redbelly Snakes should appear. Northern Watersnakes will be out any day, and the remaining snakes at the site (Smooth Greensnake, Eastern Milksnake, N. Ringneck Snake) don't usually appear until mid or late April. Most of the gartersnakes and ribbonsnakes we saw on the day were very close to known hibernacula, and I didn't see any in areas where I suspect there are no hibernacula. To me this means that they had recently emerged and within a few days they will probably disperse over all the hillsides.

Northern Ribbonsnake

I would elaborate more on Northern Ribbonsnakes, their hibernacula, and other things, but I've already made this long-winded enough. They are a fascinating species though, and its good to see several populations in the Cambridge/Guelph area that are doing very strong as they are a Species of Special Concern in Ontario.