Friday 27 July 2012

James Bay trip

Tomorrow morning I leave for nearly 3 weeks to survey shorebirds along Canada's ocean coast of James Bay. I will be going with a crew of 4/5 others to Longridge Point, about 60 km northeast of Moosonee, to survey Red Knots and other shorebirds.

The above image I stole from Jean Iron's website - I hope she's ok with that! :)
Longridge Point, along with most of southwestern James Bay, is part of the migratory route of millions of shorebirds and is a crucial stopover ground for many of them. The extensive tidal flats and coastal marshes provide ideal conditions for these shorebirds to fatten up being their long flights to the next stopover site or their wintering ground. We will focus our efforts on the endangered "rufa" subspecies of Red Knot, but there should be very good numbers of other shorebird species, such as Semipalmated and White-rumped Sandpipers, Hudsonian Godwits, and Dunlin. Of course there will be smaller numbers of 20 or so other species throughout the duration of my stay.

This will be a cool experience since I have never been up here before in my life. It will be awesome to see the massive flocks of shorebirds, to experience species more associated with the arctic, and to reacquaint myself with mosquitoes, something I have dearly missed since being home from all my field work in the north.

From a big year perspective, I have 3 species that I need to/should get this trip. The main goal is Arctic Tern since I missed it on its spring migration through eastern Ontario. This will likely be my last opportunity for this species as they rarely are seen in the autumn in southern Ontario. Arctic Terns regularly can be seen in southwestern James Bay in August, but they are by no means common and I could potentially miss this species.

The other two species I am hoping to get are somewhat easier. Nelson's Sparrows breed up here and may still be singing. I should be able to get this species without too much effort. Red Knots I will be studying and I should see hundreds of them!

Longridge Point is in a pretty good location to get vagrants that are lost over James Bay. Recently in North America there have been more than the usual amount of Little Stints, Ruffs, and Red-necked Stints being seen. I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for these Siberian/European species as well as others such as Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits, Curlew Sandpiper, Common Ringed Plover, European Golden-Plover, Common and Spotted Redshank, etc. You just never know!

Other, potential year birds that may be a bit more likely include Red Phalarope, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Parasitic and Long-tailed Jaeger, Common Eider, Pacific Loon, and Sabine's Gull. All these species still aren't very likely but I am hoping to maybe get one of the above.

At any rate, I would consider the trip a success if I get my main 3 targets and I don't miss too many rarities in the south while I am gone!

Thursday 26 July 2012


I thought that the Little Blue Heron I saw yesterday would be my last year bird before I leave for James Bay, but it turns out that that wasn't the case! This afternoon Mike Cadman found a male Red-necked Phalarope hanging out at the north end of Mountsberg Conservation Area, southeast of Guelph in Wellington County so Laura and I went to check it out this evening. My post to the listserv....


I checked out the north end of Mountsberg this evening (7:30 PM) with my girlfriend Laura to look for the Red-necked Phalarope that Mike Cadman had found earlier in the day. At the north end, looking through the patch in the cedars, I had:

10+ Killdeer
5+ Spotted Sandpiper
20+ Lesser Yellowlegs
3 Greater Yellowlegs
7 Solitary Sandpiper
1 Stilt Sandpiper (adult)
30+ Least Sandpiper
3 Baird's Sandpiper 
20+ Semipalmated Sandpiper
6 Pectoral Sandpiper
1 Red-necked Phalarope (adult male)

The location is east of HWY 6 and south of HWY 401. From HWY 6, take Leslie Road heading east. After the intersection with Watson Road, the north end of Mountsberg is on the right after a few hundred meters. The mudflats are quite extensive and should be productive for shorebirds for some time. This is in Wellington County and is a part of the Hamilton Study Area.


I didn't get any photos due to the distance so here are some shots of a Red-necked Phalarope from Tilbury last year. The one today was an adult male, unlike the juvenile in these photos.

Red-necked Phalarope - Tilbury lagoons

Red-necked Phalarope - Tilbury lagoons

So there you go - up to 321 before the James Bay trip! The Red-necked Phalarope was a code-2 bird, meaning that the only code 2 birds left are Red Knot, Purple Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Parasitic Jaeger, Arctic Tern, and Nelson's Sparrow.

Little Blue Heron at Big Creek Conservation Area

This evening Laura and I headed down to Big Creek Conservation Area to search for the Little Blue Heron. Kory Renaud and Chip Weseloh had originally found it two nights ago, coming in to roost with all the Great Egrets and visible from the hawk tower. Andrew Keaveney had relocated it last night around the same time (8:00 PM) flying around, so I was hoping that this bird would do the same thing for the 3rd night in a row.

After a 3.5 hour drive we pulled into the parking lot for the hawk tower right around 7:00 PM and climbed to the top to begin our search. It was hot and sticky with not even a hint of a breeze as Laura and I started scanning. Some Common Gallinules here, a Pied-billed Grebe there. A flock of Bonaparte's Gulls, about 4 species of swallows, and some Lesser Yellowlegs. Our shirts were soaked with sweat but we kept searching. Eventually we saw a few American White Pelicans off in the distance. I noticed 3, but there could have been more as I barely even glanced at them - visions of Little Blue Herons were still dancing in my mind.

Eventually some of the egrets started to fly around and settle in a woodlot to the southwest of the hawk tower to roost for the night. This is where it started to get tricky, and I was very glad to have Laura manning the scope while I used my binoculars. Between the two of us we hoped that the small, white egret with grayish legs and bill wouldn't slip by undetected.

At 7:23 PM I was scanning with my binoculars when I picked up a smaller heron high above the trees. It circled around a few times, and as it descended below the treeline I could see that it didn't have a bright orange bill like all the Great Egrets. Laura quickly got on it, but not long after it disappeared behind some trees and landed. It was either a Snowy Egret or juvenile Little Blue Heron, but I couldn't say with certainty due to the back lit view and the distance. Fortunately for us, about 10 minutes later it took off again, flying around. We could see it a little better this time, and sure enough it did not have the yellow feet of a Snowy Egret! I blew my photos but you can kind of see the size difference between it and a Great Egret...

small white blob (left), large white blob (right)

This time it settled in the main woodlot with all of the other herons, though hidden out of view. Eventually it walked out to the open and we were able to study it at 60x magnification with the scope. They weren't the best views, but it was definitely a Little Blue Heron!

Little Blue Heron (left) - Big Creek CA

Eventually Jeremy Hatt and Mark Field arrived, hoping to get this bird after a long day of birding various locations across southern Ontario. Of course by this point it was no longer being seen but with some patience Jeremy picked it out again. We watched it for a few more minutes and it even gave us a pretty close flyby! Again, the lighting was shit so this was the best I could do as it flew back towards the woodlot.

Little Blue Heron - Big Creek CA

This Little Blue Heron was my 320th species of the year, but more importantly, another code 4+ bird in the bag! I now have 20 of them and will need another 5 or more to break the record, but probably close to 10 more. This was also a new Ontario bird for me, giving me 350. Just like after seeing the Magnificent Frigatebird earlier this month we celebrated again by going to McDonald's for dinner. Hopefully no more rarities show up soon so that this doesn't become a trend...

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Rarity round up

I have about 5 days remaining before I leave for my trip to James Bay and suddenly, rarities are starting to show up in Ontario! Yesterday, Rick Lauzon found a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron at the Tam O'Shanter Golf Course in Scarborough. That evening, Chip Wesoloh and Kory Renaud found a Little Blue Heron coming in to roost at Amherstburg.

Little Blue Heron from Florida - February 17, 2009

Both these birds I have never seen in Ontario, let alone this year! I have them both listed as Code 4 species (rarities that I don't expect to see this year). What is my plan of attack?

This evening Laura and I have tickets for the Jays game in Toronto, so we're going to leave a bit early and check for the Yellow-crowned Nigh-Heron in Scarborough. Then, if the Little Blue Heron is seen again, I may race down to be for sunrise tomorrow. We'll see!

July is obviously slow for rarities, but stuff has certainly been happening lately. Click on the links to see photos of the species mentioned...

-Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Nova Scotia
-Little Stint and Bar-tailed Godwit in Massachusetts
-Black-tailed Godwit in Delaware
-Black-bellied Whistling Ducks in New Jersey
-1 of 3 Ruffs that are present at Jamaica Bay in New York
-Black-billed Magpie on Manitou Island in Michigan

Rare herons have started their "post-breeding dispersal", with a WHITE IBIS showing up at Point Mouille, along with Cattle and Snowy Egrets. Little Blue Herons have also been seen recently in Ohio, so perhaps a bigger than usual post-breeding dispersal will occur and Ontario will see a good number of these southern herons!

Thursday 19 July 2012

Ontario rarities by month - July

This is one of the slowest times of year for birding in southern Ontario to say the least! First there was the mad panic of spring migration, with rarities left, right, and centre until the second week of June or so. Then it was time for the breeding birds, since everything was on territory, singing away. It is now mid July and the dawn singing is limited to an hour or two around sunrise. For instance, today while birding up in Grey County I IDed very few birds by song - in fact most of the warblers I saw today were in mixed flocks with chickadees, obviously gearing up for fall migration now that their breeding season is over.
The temperature is up, making it difficult to get motivated and making land-birding mostly futile by late morning.
I wish I could say that July was a great month for rarities since its not good for anything else, but alas it isn't. The odd mega shows up every few years but there are just very few "lesser" rarities to keep us on our toes! Some years there are a few rare herons that show up, and some years a mega shorebird might grace us with its presence.

Since I am doing a big year, it is especially tough to find new birds this time of year. There is literally not a single species in Ontario (south of James Bay) right now that I could add to my yearlist. This will be changing soon though, once fall migration really kicks into high gear in August. In the meantime, I thought I would take a look at every single rarity that has shown up in southern Ontario in JULY and accepted by the OBRC. I am only including species that are currently on the review list, and they have to be birds that were first discovered by someone in July (for example, I don't include birds that were found in June and hung around into July). I may have missed a few but here goes anyway.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck: 1 of 5 records
Common Eider: 1 of 20 southern Ontario records
Yellow-nosed Albatross: July 4, 2010 (the only Ontario record)
Leach's Storm-Petrel: 1 of 3 records
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel: 1 of 2 records
Anhinga: 1 of 4 records
Little Blue Heron: 6 of 72 records
Tricolored Heron: 1 of 37 records
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron: 1 of 42 records
Glossy Ibis: 1 of 55 records
White-faced Ibis: 1 of 9 records
Black Vulture: 5 of 72 records
Swallow-tailed Kite: 1 of 15 records
Crested Caracara: all 3 records
Purple Gallinule: 1 of 14 records
Wandering Tattler: 1 of 3 records (though all 3 coming in the summer)
Spotted Redshank: 2 of 4 records
Little Stint: July 25, 1992 (only Ontario record)
Palearctic Dunlin: July 31, 1994 (only Ontario record)
Curlew Sandpiper:4 of 28 records
Mew Gull: 1 of 22 records
Arctic Tern: 1 of 19 records
Black Skimmer:1 of 4 records
Eurasian Collared-Dove: 4 of 12 records
White-winged Dove: 6 of 35 records
Rufous Hummingbird: 5 of 23 records
Say's Phoebe: 1 of 12 records
Gray Kingbird: 2 of 7 records
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher: 5 of 58 records
Sage Thrasher: 1 of 14 records
Lark Sparrow: 1 of 91 records
Henslow's Sparrow: 1 of 22 records
Gray-crowned Rosy-finch: 1 of 2 southern Ontario records

So there you have it. It looks like a long list, but is relatively tiny compared to pretty much any other month! There have only been 65 "rarities" show up in southern Ontario in July since we started keeping track, while there have probably been close to 1000 in May (though I haven't checked!).

The only species that seem to show up with some regularity in July are mega shorebirds, such as the Little Stint, Tattler, 2 Spotted Redshanks, some Curlew Sandpipers, etc. Crested Caracara is another obvious one to look out for, as all 3 Ontarior records have come in July! Very occasionally a rare heron shows up in July, but normally they don't arrive until August or September.

Quite a few rare doves have shown up in July - 4 Eurasian Collared Doves and 6 White-winged Doves to be exact. The lack of Passerines on this list is astonishing - only 12 individual rare passerines have ever been found in July in southern Ontario!!

Rufous Hummingbird was one that I was surprised with as I typically think of this species as one that shows up in October/November. It is hard to believe that we have 5 July records!

What does this tell you? When birding in July, stick to the water! Look for rare shorebirds along the lakeshores and at the lagoons and check out any decent marshy spot for a rare heron. Scan through the tern flocks, check out all those doves on the wires and as usual, expect anything. Another option is just to stop birding entirely and do more important things in life, since birding will be picking up in a few short weeks.

Wednesday 18 July 2012

A new year bird....finally

After a dry spell of over two weeks I finally added a new bird to my list today. I had kind of taken it easy since returning from Rainy River with my birding adventures limited to a few mornings somewhat locally. I spent a morning last week in Halton Region, adding about 20 birds to my Halton list which is now approaching 200. A few days later I drove around the backroads of Brant County, a location where I had never really done any birding before despite it being so close to home. Among the 72 species I saw were a few "good" ones in Red-headed Woodpecker, Common Gallinule, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Winter Wren, Black-billed Cuckoo, and Sandhill Crane. Nothing earth shattering and certainly no year birds, but it was fun just to explore new areas in places where birders rarely, if ever, go. I did stop to photograph a pair of Barn Swallows that morning since they were letting me approach closely and I hadn't ever photographed that species before.

Barn Swallow - Brant County

 Barn Swallow is a Threatened species in Ontario, despite still being common in most rural areas. The reason for Barn Swallows being listed is the sharp decline that they have gone under - about 65% between 1966 and 2009 (Sauer et al., 2011).

Barn Swallow - Brant County

Today I decided to try my hand at some shorebirding at some of the lagoons west of the Kitchener/Waterloo area. This is a good time of year for rare shorebirds to show up and Ruff, a European species, has been in the news recently with multiple birds being scattered across North America. I have it listed as a code-4 bird for Ontario.

I checked a number of lagoons - Tavistock, Milverton, Mitchell, Dublin, Seaforth, and Hensall - with Milverton and Mitchell both having excellent habitat and quite a few birds! I was hoping to make it over to Exeter, Grand Bend, Forest, and Strathroy but ran out of time and motivation once the temperature started soaring around noon.

At Milverton the front cell and middle cells were mostly empty, but the back cell had lowered water levels creating a huge expanse of mudflats that the shorebirds were utilizing. After a few minutes of scanning I was pleased to pick up an adult alternate-plumaged Stilt Sandpiper - quite a striking bird and a new year bird! I took a few crappy phone-scoped shots since I had purposely left my camera in the car and it was quite the walk back. Leaving the camera in the car usually increases the odds of finding a rarer bird.

Stilt Sandpiper - Milverton lagoons

The total shorebird list for Milverton was:
~30 Killdeer
~80 Lesser Yellowlegs
~15 Greater Yellowlegs
6 Solitary Sandpiper
~25 Spotted Sandpiper
~30 Least Sandpiper
4 Semipalmated Sandpiper
2 hendersonii Short-billed Dowitcher
1 Stilt Sandpiper
1 Pectoral Sandpiper

Mitchell was even better. I was surprised to see the main pond was drained but the pond down the path and behind the chain-link fence had great habitat and was crawling with shorebirds! My counts for here were:

~60 Killdeer
~20 Spotted Sandpiper
~160 Lesser Yellowlegs
~30 Greater Yellowlegs
~50 Least Sandpiper
~10 Semipalmated Sandpiper
~30 Pectoral Sandpiper
6 Stilt Sandpiper
24 Solitary Sandpiper

I actually got a photo of one of the Stilts with the real camera this time, though the photos were quite distant.

I scrutinized every bird as closely as I could but unfortunately there wasn't a Ruff mixed in. A small, bright peep almost made my heart jump until I realized that it was just my first juvenile Least Sandpiper of the season. One of these days someone will turn up a Little or Red-necked Stint somewhere!

While driving a backroad in Perth county, I stumbled upon 3 of these cuties playing on the road...

Red Fox

Red Fox

Red Fox

That's it for now. I think I may head up to Grey County tomorrow morning since I haven't ever birded up there, and there's nothing to chase in Ontario at the moment. I'll also post about my upcoming trip to James Bay soon.

Sauer, J.R., J.E. Hines, J.E. Fallon, K.L. Pardieck, D.J. Ziolkowski, Jr., and W.A. Link.
2011. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966 -
2009. Version 3.23.2011. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD.

Monday 16 July 2012

California and Arizona - February, 2011: part 2

February 19 and 20, 2011 - Los Angeles area
February 21 and 22, 2011 - San Diego and the Salton Sea
February 23, 2011 - Phoenix, Tucson, the Santa Cruz flats and Madera Canyon
February 24, 2011 - Madera Canyon, Patagonia, and the San Rafael Grasslands
February 25, 2011 - Cave Creek Canyon, Barfoot Canyon, drive to Ventura, CA
February 26, 2011 - Kern and Santa Barbara Counties, CA
February 27, 2011 - Santa Cruz Island
February 28, 2011 - Los Angeles, flight home

February 21
After not sleeping in two days, it was pretty tough getting up the next morning but by 6:30 we were out the door and headed for Tijuana Slough. What a cool place! Before long we had Light-footed Clapper Rails calling and even had some out in the open. Belding’s Savannah Sparrows were singing and we had a look at a Large-billed Savannah Sparrow. There were tons of shorebirds, and I was happy to have a Long-billed Curlew and Clapper Rail in my scope at the same time. We scanned over the lake, hoping for tubenoses or alcids, but instead were rewarded with singles of Parasitic and Pomarine Jaegers. Some confiding Willets and Marbled Godwits on the beach sure were nice in the morning light!

Marbled Godwit - Tijuana Slough

Marbled Godwit and Willet - Tijuana Slough

Marbled Godwit - Tijuana Slough

Willet - Tijuana Slough

 We enjoyed excellent views of Pelagic Cormorants here as well. I was happy to see a few Rock Squirrels, lots of Marsh Squirrels, and singles of Telephone Pole Squirrels and Car Squirrels (subspecies Ford, if I recall). Later on we walked a nearby field and found Western Meadowlarks, our first Say’s Phoebe of the trip, and a few Anna’s Hummingbirds.

Anna's Hummingbird - Tijuana Slough

Western Meadowlark - almost as pretty as the development behind it.

Western Meadowlark - Tijuana Slough

 Dave and I heard a Gnatcatcher call but it was a Blue-gray instead of the hoped for California Gnatcatcher (we would end up missing that species on the trip). We stopped at a great Mexican place to eat lunch. Brett and I had crab stuffed shrimps, wrapped in bacon, and served with refried beans, avocado, corn tortillas, rice, and salsa. Mmmm!! We were disallowed from purchasing a pitcher of Mexican beer because 3 of us were underage in the states..... After this, we made a few more stops along the coast for waterbirds. We turned up our only Brant of the trip and also saw some bottlenose dolphins feeding. We had great looks at about 8 Black and 1 Ruddy Turnstone, but no surfbirds, tattlers, or oystercatchers.

All of the world's turnstones in one photo!

Western Fence Lizard - San Diego

Our next stop produced one of our best finds of the trip. I can’t recall the name of this small park, but it was right near the Mexican border. We turned up some cool things like Hutton’s Vireos, Bewick’s Wrens, and a Pacific Wren, as well as dozens of Orange-crowned Warblers. The subspecies in the west is a lot brighter than ours. Dave and I then heard a Pine Warbler calling from the top of a coniferous tree. When we reconvened with Brett and Matt, Brett also mentioned that he had a Pine Warbler singing. It wasn’t til later in the trip when we realized that this was actually a very good bird for California in the winter with only a couple seen each year. Our next stop was alongside a road that paralleled the Mexican border. We had an interesting chat with a border guard, added Red-tailed Hawk and Common Raven to our Mexican lists (they flew over the border), and saw our first Wrentits, Cal Thrashers, and White-tailed Kites of the trip.

birding the border

birding the border

 Also, somewhere in our travels in San Diego we twitched the Thick-billed Kingbird that had been hanging out for a while (but hadn’t been reported in recent days). Almost immediately after getting out of the car, Matt and I saw a kingbird-ish bird flying in someone’s backyard. Matt claimed “there is no way that is the Kingbird.” but we took a second look anyways. Turns out that it was the bird! Up next was DeGuido State Park. It was no surprise that we ended up getting lost on the way and we found ourselves halfway up a mountain (the theme of the trip!). At this point we still had not seen a Cassin’s Kingbird, so I called out that I was going to find one. Not 10 seconds later we caught a glimpse of one on a wire, so we piled out of the van to take a look. While there, Brett found a Lark Sparrow just down the road! We eventually arrived at the State Park and enjoyed more great views of Say’s Phoebes and Cassin’s Kingbirds. Many Clark’s Grebes were on the lake, and we saw some road squirrels, rock squirrels, and tree squirrels. Brett and I had a surprise Gray Flycatcher and we also had our first White-throated Swift. This was a great spot and especially nice in the evening light. Unfortunately, we couldn’t tease out a California gnatcatcher out of the chaparral. This was the last possible area we could get this species, so it looks like we will have to return to soCal in the future. We left DeGuido and headed to Dave’s great uncle’s place in Desert Hot Springs – conveniently located near the Salton Sea. We enjoyed a great meal of barbecued chicken, spinach salad, and potato salad along with a couple glasses of wine. We were especially grateful for their hospitality and beds to sleep in!

February 22
Today was spent entirely at the Salton Sea. Immediately after waking up, we could hear the calls of White-crowned Sparrows around the cabin. This was the first time I had been in a desert before so it was great to soak up the scenery as the sun rose! I was impressed with how flat the desert was, with mountains surrounding us in all directions.

the desert

We arrived at the sea, seeing the first of many American White Pelicans of the day. Bombay Beach was an interesting town – pretty unfriendly looking, but we found a pretty sweet dog that we nicknamed Jimmy. Jimmy was the trip mascot and we debated taking him (her?) with us.

Along the lake here, we had a Thayer’s Gull, Black-necked Stilts, and hundreds of Eared Grebes. The Wister Unit was next, and in short order we had great looks at Gambel’s Quail, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and others. At the end of the road, we came upon thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl. By picking through them, we found our first Cinnamon Teal of the trip, many Dowitchers (both species), Yellowlegs, Green-winged Teals, and others. Dave got a dirt squirrel which I missed.

Matt scoping the sea

At one point I was listing some species in my scope....”Cinnamon Teal, Lesser yellowlegs, dowitchers, avocet, flamingos, green-winged teal, wait a minute did I just say flamingo?!” The flamingos were pretty kickass to see, even if they aren’t “countable”. We drove around the fields for a bit, struck out on dirtpipers (yup, still extinct), but did find flocks of Snow Geese, Ross’s Geese, Cattle Egrets, and White-faced Ibis.

more pretty development

We hiked around a nature center and caught a glimpse of a very bad-ass bird – Greater Roadrunner. This was definitely one of my favourite birds. An older couple put us on a Barn Owl roosting in a Palm tree which was great to see. The rest of the afternoon was spent checking out various spots along the lake, hoping to find a Yellow-footed Gull (there had been one hanging out along the western part of the lake). We did not have any luck, though we did come across another Burrowing Owl!

Burrowing Owl - Salton Sea

Our final stop was Salton City where a Pacific Golden-Plover had been overwintering. Brett located it almost immediately so Dave and I snuck up to it and got some half decent (half decent = shitty) shots.

Pacific Golden-Plover - Salton Sea

Pacific Golden-Plover - Salton Sea

 Not long after, I picked out an interesting dark-mantled gull to the north, and Dave confirmed my suspicions that it was an adult Yellow-footed Gull. Right after, a second YFGU (this time a first year bird) flew right over us! The Salton Sea ended up being one of our most productive days – we saw just about everything we looked for.

Dave after getting Yellow-footed Gull

We left for the long drive to Phoenix, stopped at a little Mexican place along the way, and crossed the border into AZ. We found an RV park but the owners weren’t around so we found a nice site and set up camp. What nice people at the RV park, allowing us to sneak a free night, complete with showers and everything. Ah, nothing like sleeping in a van with a bunch of other guys with the window open and the temperature below freezing. It was about 3 in the morning before we realized the window was open, but none-the-less I don’t think Brett or Dave got much sleep. I didn’t care though since my sleeping bag is awesome! ;)


The following day we had plans to enter Arizona, bird the Tuscon and Phoenix areas, and make our way to Madera Canyon to spend the night, which I will cover in part 3.

Friday 13 July 2012

California and Arizona - February, 2011: part 1

Even a big year birder takes a bit of time off from the birds every now and then. For the last 4 weeks I have been working steadily with very little time off for recreational birding. Mind you for some of those weeks I was getting paid to do bird surveys in Rainy River of all places, a location where I picked up 4 rather crucial year birds. The last week I have been in the office and I shall remain there for a little bit longer. This is a slow time of year, and though I would like to spend all year birding, I need to finance it as well! In just over 2 weeks, however, I leave on a helicopter to the southwest coast of James Bay to do Red Knot surveys, but more on that later!

In the meantime, I thought that I would take advantage of this slow time of year to catch up on posting about a major birding trip I took to the American southwest last winter. With no further ado...


February 19 and 20, 2011 - Los Angeles area
February 21 and 22, 2011 - San Diego and the Salton Sea
February 23, 2011 - Phoenix, Tucson, the Santa Cruz flats and Madera Canyon
February 24, 2011 - Madera Canyon, Patagonia, and the San Rafael Grasslands
February 25, 2011 - Cave Creek Canyon, Barfoot Canyon, drive to Ventura, CA
February 26, 2011 - Kern and Santa Barbara Counties, CA
February 27, 2011 - Santa Cruz Island
February 28, 2011 - Los Angeles, flight home

Back in February of 2011 I went on an epic adventure with three good buddies. The place was the southwestern United States, and the goal was to see birds, herps, insects, mammals, the desert, the mountains, the ocean, and cool local restaurants. But mostly, birds.

The planning had been done the previous autumn as I was keen on going on a trip somewhere over my February reading week at school. Brett Fried, a birder from Cambridge and a friend who I’ve known for a couple of years, was game right from the start, so we planned on Costa Rica. Unfortunately for us the flight tickets doubled in price the day before we were going to order them so we started thinking of other possibilities.  David Bell, a Sault-Ste-Marie birder who also attends the University of Guelph, was keen on going, and he mentioned southern California and Arizona. It didn’t take much to get my buddy Matt Strimas-Mackey, another U of G student, to commit to the trip. I think our conversation went something like “Hey, do you want to go to Cali with us next month?” “Yeah sure, I’m in!” And so the trip was a go.
Dave planned most of the itinerary and Matt got the rental car (with full insurance cause we were going to beat it to shit!) and accommodations ready. Before we knew it, the day had arrived!

Matt Strimas-Mackey: Matt had many nicknames by the end of the trip, such as Mr. U-turn (he made exactly 307 of them this trip and the guy with no respect for stop signs or red lights. Check out that intense look!

Matt Strimas-Mackey

David Bell: a.k.a. trip planner extraordinaire. He could tell you exactly what species we could find at every single location we might go to on this trip, straight from memory. And 99.9% of the time, he was right! Except when he said that Mountain Plovers exist - we actually found out later in the trip that they don't.

David Bell

Brett Fried: a.k.a. the guy we brought along to help pay for gas and to be the butt end of our jokes. Well, he also has a pretty sweet scope. 

Brett Fried

February 19, 2011
I picked up David and Matt and by 12:30 we were on our way. After a bit of a detour and great views of a Bald Eagle we arrived at Brett’s place, and from there left to go to Detroit. On the drive, we had our only Tundra Swans of the trip (perhaps newly arrived migrants). We crossed the border, went to the Park and Fly, and arrived at the airport. The guys got on their flight OK but it turned out that I was with a different airline, so I had to take another shuttle to the other terminal. Finally, we were off! My plane was a dinky little plane with about 40 seats. I arrived in Chicago, gave Laura a quick call, and hopped on my plane to LA. On the flight, I had a nice chat with a lawyer from LA and a college student from Detroit. I only got about 30 minutes of sleep, and after a while we touched down in LA. After a bit of confusion I saw the guys in the rental van while they were driving around looking for the hostel. They picked me up, we had some amazing food at In n Out, and had a hell of a time finding the hostel. Finally we arrived but at this point it was 2:00 AM. We were going to leave to start our big day at 3:00, so our 55$ for the hostel was spent sitting around in the room and making use of the free wifi.

February 20, 2011.
Our big day in Los Angeles county! We picked up John Garrett, a student in grade 12 who knew the area well as well as a phenomenal birder. Upon meeting him at his house he said that the mountains were closed due to heavy snow. Great.... So instead of starting the big day with Spotted Owls, the best we could do was drive up the foothills for some semi-montane species.

birding in the hills above Los Angeles - February 20, 2011

location of our only Canvasback for the trip

Needless to say, we could see why the mountains were closed. There was about 8 inches of snow everywhere and the roads were slick. We ended up getting lost about 3 times but finally the sun rose and we were kind of in the right area. The first Cali bird = a flock of Western Bluebirds off in the distance.

Western Bluebird (from later in the trip)

In short order we saw Red-tailed Hawk, Common Raven, and White-crowned Sparrow (ended up being the most common bird of the trip, most likely). At this point the air temperature was 20 degrees Fahrenheit but as the morning wore on, the sun came out and warmed things up to the balmy temperature of 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Ah, spring break in southern California!

Dave keeping track of the number of ravens while John looks on

 The birds were slow to come, but eventually they woke up and we found them. California Quail, Lincoln’s Sparrows, Red-shouldered Hawks, and Oak Titmice graced our binocular views in short order along with some other expected foothills species. It was exciting to be in a completely new area – even Black Phoebes (they ended up being insanely common on this trip) were a lifer so we stopped to view the first one for quite some time. Fortunately John humoured the idiots from Canada and let us stop to appreciate the common southwestern species for the first time.

Phainopepla - accidental in Brampton, common in SoCal

Before long we hit up the desert, picking up things like Loggerhead Shrike and some ducks (Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, etc) near an impoundment. The highlight of the day was when we hiked along a wash in the Antelope valley. Dave had a great find with 2 LeConte’s thashers! These had been previously found by others, but it was still satisfying to relocate this difficult species.

Antelope Valley

Oh look, a Rock Wren!

 Another highlight from the Antelope valley was this scenic piece of concrete. Unfortunately a pesky Burrowing Owl kept getting in my photo.

Burrowing Owl - Antelope Valley

The Antelope Valley is where our epic Mountain Plover saga began. And I don’t take the words “epic” and “saga” very lightly!   John thought they would be pretty much guaranteed at one spot, but we couldn’t turn them up (a dark-morph Ferruginous Hawk was a nice consolation prize, however). This was the theme of the trip – everywhere we went, we couldn’t turn up the stupid Mountain Plovers, a.k.a. Dirtpipers, a.k.a. Colorado Dirt Plovers. We are pretty sure they are extinct. The American Coot below was the closest we got to them.

American Beach-coot

Brett, Matt and I had picked up a fair number of lifers, but the big day wasn’t as big as we had hoped at this point. It was already noon and we were only at about 65 species. There was still hope, however, as we hadn’t done any birding near the coast yet. The next stop, Lake Palmdale, was quite productive and just the type of stop one needs on a big day....Get in, see the birds, and get out without f*cking around too much. The location was essentially a city park/pond in the middle of the Antelope Valley where a Greater White-fronted Goose and Ross’s Goose were supposedly over-wintering. Without too much trouble we relocated these super tame geese hanging out with all the mutants, as well as a surprise Snow Goose.

Ross's Goose at Lake Palmdale

Greater White-fronted Goose at Lake Palmdale

 We had a pile of waterfowl and our first Violet-green Swallows of the trip here. A couple more stops at various lakes to pick up odds and ends, and by late afternoon we found ourselves on the coast. Bird 100 of the day was a Forster’s Tern. Along the cliffs we had decent views at a number of gull species as well as Western, Eared, and Clarke’s Grebes.

Eared Grebe - February 20, 2011

We raced along to the coast, with John seeing a Cassin’s Kingbird on the wire, and arrived at Malibu lagoon with about an hour or two of light left. A highlight for me here was getting my lifer Snowy Plovers, and some killer photos of them to boot.

Snowy Plover - Los Angeles

Snowy Plover - Los Angeles

Love that evening light!!

Snowy Plover - Los Angeles

 Also seen here were good looks at Glaucous-winged and Mew Gulls, and a few other shorebirds and waterfowl. We had brief looks at an Allen’s Hummingbird as well. Our plan from here was to race to the Spotted Dove location to close out the day, but we were stuck in traffic, adding only Marbled Godwit (there was a flock on a beach). 

Marbled Godwit - Los Angeles

The Spotted Doves would have to wait til the end of the trip! Instead, we tried for Western Screech Owl at John’s neighbourhood in Pasadena after dark. We do remember hearing them and eventually having great looks at them, but we were also running on about 5 minutes of sleep in the past 2 days so we might just have been hallucinating.  Anyways, the owls were a  sweet way to end to the big day and species number 123. This was a lot less than our goal of 150, but still not too bad for a bunch of Easterners who were beyond the point of exhaustion. Somehow we managed to drive to San Diego without falling asleep at the wheel that night, rolled into our motel, and crashed.