Thursday 30 August 2012

James Bay part 3 (August 3 to August 5, 2012)

Introductory Post
July 28 to 30, 2012 - Moosonee, Little Piskwamish Point
July 31 to August 2, 2012 - Little Piskwamish Point
August 3 to 5, 2012 - Longridge Point
August 6 to 8, 2012 - Longridge Point
August 9 to 12, 2012 - Longridge Point
August 12 to 15, 2012 - Longridge Point

August 3, 2012
If you recall, at this point I had been at Little Piskwamish, the camp located furthest south, with Andrew Keaveney and Ian Sturdee for 3 days. The plan was for us to walk the 15 km to Little Piskwamish Point to spend the rest of the trip with Jean Iron, Barb Charlton, and Deborah Cramer.

August 3 broke calm and sunny with a light breeze from the south. Via satellite phone with Mark Peck the previous night, we had determined that the conditions would be perfect for the long walk. We woke up, cleaned up the camp, and prepared for the long walk, which we would soon discover was a lot longer than we were originally told! We each had a pack with all of our gear as well as our scope and the shotgun, adding to the difficulty. Unfortunately for Ian, he had a couple of up-close and personal experiences with the mud.

The day was cool, sunny with the winds at our back as we hiked. Fortunately the terrain was excellent and we followed a series of gravel ridges for most of the day, making for easy walking. Every 1 or 2 kilometres we would take a break, something that was entirely necessary because of how much extra weight in gear we were lugging along! At one point we reached an extensive marsh where last year's crew had found some Marsh Wrens the previous year. We didn't get any wrens but I was happy to see and photograph my first Mustard Whites.

What was probably the bird of the entire trip ended up being one that got away. As we were walking we heard an unfamiliar shorebird call. The bird repeated the loud "curr-EEE" call several times as it flew over. I got on the large shorebird as it was heading away from us. It was up high but easy to see it was a tawny-brown in colour. Eventually we lost it as it disappeared far to the south. My first thought was Marbled Godwit as I couldn't recall what that species sounds like. Andrew played a bunch of calls on his phone and one of the calls matched perfectly! It was the call of Long-billed Curlew (which is also large and buffy/brown coloured). Unfortunately the bird was long gone...

Around mid afternoon we came across the old barge that I photographed earlier from the helicopter. Supposedly this was only a few km from the end!

Self portrait - trying to convey how exhausted I felt...It turned out looking like I was confused, more than anything!

All along the walk I kept an eye and an ear open for Arctic Terns. This was really my only target species remaining for the trip! There were several Common Terns as well as some farther out that may have been Arctic Terns but it was really too tough to be sure.

After about 22 km of walking we finally reached the final bend and could see the camp out in the distance! Barb came out to meet us and we walked the last kilometre to camp, where the ladies had cooked us a huge feast of sausauge, cajun-style potatoes and onions, salad, pasta, beers, and chocolate for dessert. It sure beat what we were eating at the other camp - usually a can of beans/stew/chili or oatmeal. I have to say it was one of the hardest walks I have done!

August 4, 2012
We all slept in that morning then went out as a group to the end of Longridge Point which was about 6 km from camp. During high tide parts of the point are covered with waist deep water so one has to time the walk just right to make it to the end and back. In the photo below, the camp is near the bottom and the tip of Longridge Point is near the top right - not visible due to the fog.

We did not see a whole lot of interesting birds that day, specifically, not a single Red Knot. Apparently they were all but absent from this sight so far! One possible reason could be due to a failed breeding season, with many of the adults departing early. Another reason is that the preferred food item for Red Knots in James Bay, a type of bivalve, may not be present due to shifting water currents bringing the larvae elsewhere.
Bird highlights for the day included a flock of 16 Red Crossbills which was previously thought to occur only very occasionally in southern James Bay. We ended up seeing them almost every day, along with hundreds of White-winged Crossbills. I was very happy to hear a Yellow Rail ticking away near camp, which was a new Ontario "self-found" bird.

August 5, 2012
Today I had plans to check out the west bay and points beyond with Barb and Deborah, about a 16 km round trip. I still wasn't fully recovered from the long walk a few days ago, but it sure was nice walking on a flat beach without being encumbered by a large pack!

I had a bit of fun taking some landscape shots with the interesting sky and flat beach.

Eventually we made it out to the point just as the tide was starting to come in. We had some good birds, including a few Red Knots and a handful of Whimbrels flying by. Hudwits were common everywhere we went at this site...

I was busy scanning for shorebirds and mostly, scanning for Arctic Terns when Barb calmly mentions from beside me, "I think I have a guillemot sitting on a rock". I think my response was along the lines of "Sure you do, Barb", since Black Guillemots aren't really found in this part of James Bay this time of year. She was serious though, so I took a look in her scope. Sure enough, sitting on a pile of rocks next to 4 cormorants, was a small black bird with a broad white wing patch sitting on the rock! It was very distant, but we could clearly see its upright posture and its diagnostic black and white breeding plumage. Wow! I had not expected this species at all! Black Guillemots are somewhat regular in late autumn and I had hoped to see it at Netitishi Point in the fall, so I had it categorized as a code 3. Even then, they are not guaranteed at Netitishi so this was a bonus bird, and year bird # 324. I took my scope and Barb's camera with a plan to walk all the way around the bay to the point when the birds were roosting, but I was called back after I had just started since it had disappeared once the tide had started to cover its rocks.

On the walk back to camp, we had a few more interesting birds including a flock of Red Knots where I was able to read one flag. We had our first Short-billed Dowitcher of the trip, a crisp looking juvenile. I'll add the photo once Barb emails it to me (it is on her camera since I didn't bring my bird lens with me that day).  I did grab this photo of a Yellow Warbler later that day which was a new photographed species for the year.

It was a great day with an unexpected year bird. I still didn't have an Arctic Tern, a fact that I was starting to get slightly worried about since James Bay would be my last chance for it. But on the bright side we still had another 10 days or so on the coast. Stay tuned for post four as I continue my quest for Arctic Terns!

Wednesday 29 August 2012

Crazy day with two year birds

It all started last night around 8:00 when I received a phone call from Andrew Keaveney. "Dude, check ONTbirds, there's a Thick-billed Kingbird in Presqu'ille!"
It turns out, last night Bill Gilmour heard an unfamiliar call and looked up to see an odd kingbird sitting in a tree with a massive bill. He knew right away what it was - a Thick-billed Kingbird, a species that has never before been recorded in Ontario!

Within the next half hour my phone was constantly ringing as I tried to sort out plans with others about how we were going to get to Presqu'ille. I had planned to stay at home in Cambridge for the day - doing some yard work, going for a run, catching up on photo editing, and relaxing. This changed everything though! By 9:15 PM I was headed towards a carpool lot where I was meeting up with Brandon Holden and Ken Burrell. We had arranged to stay with Mike Burrell for the night (he recently moved to a location only 1/2 hour from Presqu'ille) and then to be on site before sunrise.

We were up at 4:45 AM and on site shortly after 6:00 AM. Already there were over 20 birders on the scene and we joined them, waiting by the tree where the kingbird had apparently gone to spend the night.

At 6:25 AM, we heard the loud emphatic call of the kingbird as it flew east and perched in an open tree - needless to say there were a lot of exclamatory remarks and high-fives as everyone ran over to see the bird perching in the open! My camera had recently bitten the dust but fortunately my dad was letting me use his backup camera. It was having troubles but started co-operating after a few minutes!

Thick-billed Kingbird - Presqu'ille Provincial Park

Within the next few hours a huge majority of the Ontario birding community came by to see this bird. It was nice to see familiar faces and be introduced to others who I have known about but not actually met in person. Everyone who came was treated to this bird!

Thick-billed Kingbird - Presqu'ille Provincial Park

It spent its time "flycatching" and was quite successful in catching its preferred choice in wasps. Eventually it perched quietly in the sun and relaxed.

Thick-billed Kingbird - Presqu'ille Provincial Park

This is obviously a first provincial record and may end up being one of the rarest birds ever to be found in Ontario. The closest record is one from Colorado! There is a single British Columbia record as well. Most of the records of this bird north of Mexico include a few breeding pairs in southern Arizona and the occasional vagrant to California (one of which I successfully saw a few years ago).

What a great find by Bill! This is certainly the bird of the year for Ontario so far.

Thick-billed Kingbird - Presqu'ille Provincial Park

The rest of the morning at Presqu'ille was relatively uneventful, though there were a fair number of warblers and other songbirds around (including a flock of 18 Red Crossbills). After a hearty breakfast at a locally recommended place in Brighton, the four of us were on our way!

We arrived back around 1:30, and Brandon and I decided that the conditions were good enough to take his zodiac for a spin out on the lake. By 3:00 we were on the water and attracting a good number of Ring-billed and Herring Gulls with old bread. After an hour or so we hadn't seen much and I remarked that I might miss Sabine's Gull for the year since I will be leaving the province in a few days and will be back right at the tail end of Sabine's season in Hamilton. Not 5 seconds later, Brandon mentions casually, "Well there's three of them." Wow! 3 juvenile Sabine's Gulls were flying around the edge of the gull flock looking for the smallest pieces of bread. I managed to fire off several frames as these graceful birds flew around and called - no easy feat given the relatively high waves rocking the boat! The Sabine's Gulls only hung around for a couple of minutes before continuing. This was year bird # 329 (a code 3 bird).

Sabine's Gull - Van Wagner's Beach, Hamilton

We were hoping for jaegers and almost got skunked. Eventually we spotted an immature jaeger come in to the boat which ended up being a Long-tailed. We had pretty good looks as it approached the boat but unfortunately it took off soon after, never to be seen again.

It was a fantastic day with one incredible bird and a second species (the Sabine's) a great bonus. How many people can say they have seen a Thick-billed Kingbird and Sabine's Gull in the same day?

One more for the road

Tuesday 28 August 2012


Read this on ONTbirds a few minutes ago...

Reporting for Bill Gilmour and Doug McRae. Tonite at 7:10 a Thick-billed Kingbird is being seen just east of the bridge at the Calf Pasture just where the first cottage begines on along Bayshore Drive. Mark Presquile is well posted from the 401 and is in the town of Brighton. Mark Ansell 
Needless to say this is a first record for Ontario - the first new bird since2010, when we had 2 provincial firsts (Yellow-nosed Albatross and Anna's Hummingbird), both which weren't chaseable.

WOW! I guess I will see many of the birders who read this blog at some point tomorrow morning down at Presquille...

Oh and by the way, I dipped on the Brown Pelican today. Damn pelicans.

Monday 27 August 2012

The Brown Pelican... currently roosting in Buffalo Harbour, less than 1 km from Ontario. You might even be able to see it from Fort Erie! Thanks to Brandon for the heads up...

I know where I will be at sunrise!!!

Number 327!!!

Stuff has been happening lately in Ontario, with interesting birds popping up here and there. A Magnificent Frigatebird (!!!!!), the second in Ontario in 2 months, was seen from the shore of Lake Huron a few days ago. A Brown Pelican was seen at Rondeau on August 24th, and the same or a different Brown Pelican was seen by some fishermen at Point Pelee the same day. Shorebirds, particularly Buff-breasted Sandpipers and the occasional Western Sandpiper, have started to appear throughout Ontario. And finally, some jaegers were seen at Van Wagner's Beach by a lucky few on August 24th.

Since I already had Magnificent Frigatebird for the year, the Brown Pelican wasn't pinned down to a single location, and I had seen a few Buff-breasted Sandpipers, I turned my attention to jaegers on August 25.

Parasitic Jaeger (from last year)

The wind wasn't ideal as it was very light from the south. I was hoping that it would pick up as the day went along and ideally switch to the east. The good news is that it did shift to the east but the bad news is that it was never stronger than about 5 km/h, not strong enough to push jaegers up against the shore in Hamilton.

I set up my scope around 8:00 and started scanning. The water was fairly calm and visibility was pretty good, and at 8:30 I was surprised to see a jaeger off in the distance. It came in from the south and passed in front of the wave tower, at which point I could see it was a juvenile Long-tailed! After a few minutes it ended up flying back to the south and out over the lake.

Long-tailed Jaegers are usually the first species to show up on the lake, usually with the first few sightings in late August. It's rare to see one later than mid September in Ontario. The more common Parasitic Jaeger also sometimes can be found in August, but they peak during September and even into October. Finally, Pomarine Jaegers ( a species I already had from March, most likely an overwintering bird) don't usually show up until late September at the earliest and can sometimes be seen all the way into December.

Pomarine Jaeger - March 25, 2012

 I ended up spending the rest of the day by the lake, hoping for more jaegers. Other birders came and left throughout the day, though no more jeagers decided to make appearances! I have to say that the people-watching on this hot day at the beach was much more entertaining. I stuck with it til about 14:30 then called it quits! The best is certainly yet to come at the beach, as we can expect all three jaegers, Sabine's Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake, phalaropes, interesting gulls, and perhaps a gannet as the fall progresses.


Tropical Storm Isaac......

I'm sure many birders who read this blog already have been following Tropical Storm Isaac for several days. Yes, it sure is starting to look like it may pass over Ontario!

The only problem is that it is still relatively weak, though it is expected to be upgraded to hurricane status in a day or so. Currently the maximum sustained winds are around 100 km/h. Also, look at Isaac's will spend a loooong time over land before approaching Ontario. Compare this to the track for Hurricane Fran in 1996, a storm that brought with it numerous pelagic species into Ontario, including Black-capped Petrels, Sooty Terns, Wilson's Storm-Petrels and American Oystercatchers. Hurricane Fran also reached speeds of 195 km/h, about double that of Isaac's.

Taken from 

While Hurricane Isaac might not be strong enough to bring huge numbers of pelagic birds into Ontario, it may still cause some interesting things. Anytime there is a big weather system, the chances for rarities to be found increase. There is the possibility it may bring a few pelagic birds, like maybe another Brown Pelican or frigatebird, and of course large weather systems can cause high flying migrant shorebirds, terns, jaegers, etc to be forced to land. I'm sure some interesting things will show up if Isaac ends up going over southern Ontario!


I'm off on another big trip in a few days! No, not James or Hudson's Bay, or anywhere else in Ontario. I'm off to Nova Soctia on September 2nd to spend 9 days with my beautiful girlfriend Laura. Unfortunately Tropical Storm Isaac is predicted to hit southern Ontario about a day after I leave, but that's how it goes sometimes. At any rate I am looking forward to surfing, birding, and exploring Canada's east coast with Laura and I'll try not to check ONTbirds too often ;)

Looking forward to seeing these in a few days!

I have a few other trips in the works for this autumn, namely the Moosonee area in late September and possibly the James Bay coast later in the autumn. Should be interesting to see how the rest of the year plays out!

Sunday 26 August 2012

Photos from Pelee (part 2)

I had a few other target species for the trip. The first was Dainty Sulfur - they had colonized Hillman Marsh this year and could be easily found there - and the second was Common Checkered-skipper. Prior to 2010 or so Common Checkered-skipper was extremely rare in Ontario with individuals seen in only a few years. But they have become relatively common in the south recently and this year was no exception. I saw about 50 of these during the trip!

Common Checkered-Skipper

Common Checkered-Skipper

On the third day I met up with Alan again and we covered mainly the west side of the park, south of the Visitor's Center. Again, the numbers of butterflies were much lower than the previous days and we were unable to find anything really rare. Just like with birds during migration, some days a huge influx shows up, with numbers dwindling over the successive days. We spent some time at the tip looking for birds and were rewarded with a small flock of shorebirds. I was happy to see that one of them was a Buff-breasted - a species I rarely get to see up close!

Buff-breasted Sandpiper - Point Pelee

Buff-breasted Sandpipers breed in the high arctic and migrate through the Great Plains. Occasionally southern Ontario gets a few wayward individuals in the autumn - usually juvenile birds in fields or sod farms with other shorebirds that prefer these dry habitats. The above individual can be aged as a juvenile due to the very fresh wing and back feathers, neatly arranged. Adults show a fair bit of wear this time of year.

Giant Swallowtails are abundant at Pelee and some years throughout much of southwestern Ontario. It still never gets old seeing one of these beauts floating along in the treetops or along the shoreline.

Giant Swallowtail - Point Pelee

Alan and I searched all along the shoreline with Funereal Duskywing in mind. It was not to be, but we did get a good photo opportunity with the most common duskywing this time of year at Pelee - the Wild Indigo Duskywing.

Wild Indigo Duskywing - Point Pelee

As it was getting hot and uncomfortable in the park, we decided to take a lunch break at the big red bus outside the park gate. This was quickly becoming a favorite of mine - great food, big portions, quick service, and cheap prices! We unexpectedly ran into Jeremy Hatt who was on an unsuccessful quest for Buff-breasted Sandpipers (though he did get some today).

From here I headed over to Hillman Marsh to try to get some photos of the Dainty Sulfurs, since its not every year you get that opportunity. I was successful in that regard and also had very high counts of Fiery Skippers and Common Checkered-skippers!

Dainty Sulfur - Hillman Marsh

Fiery Skipper - Hillman Marsh

It was a pretty good little jaunt to Pelee - I had birds such as Dickcissel, Acadian Flycatcher and Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and most of the target butterflies I had hoped to see. The only negative is that apparently a BROWN PELICAN was seen off of the West Beach of Pelee by some fishermen on August 24 - the day that Alan and I were walking up the west side. We must have just missed it!!!

I will finish with a few more photos from the trip.

Least Skipper - Point Pelee

Pearl Crescent - Point Pelee

Easterm Tailed-Blue - Point Pelee

Hackberry Emperor - Point Pelee

Saturday 25 August 2012

Photos from Pelee (part 1)

As I mentioned in the last post, I spent August 22 to 24 at Point Pelee National Park and area. On August 22nd I spent most of the day looking for butterflies with Chris Law and Alan Wormington. It was hot and calm and quite a few butterflies were present.

This was one of 3 Tawny Emperors I saw for the trip. This species only has one brood at Point Pelee so this worn individual was a fairly late record.

Tawny Emperor - Point Pelee

The main reason I was at Pelee wasn't for some of the regular species that are permanent residents there. I was mainly looking for southern immigrants. Just like birds, certain butterflies exhibit vagrancy, and this was turning out to be a phenomenal year! Earlier this spring, Steve Pike and I found the first Sleepy Orange of several that showed up at Pelee. Around the same time, I saw several Dainty Sulfurs and a Cloudless Sulfur. All three of these species were very rare in Canada, with only a few previous records of Sleepy Orange and Dainty Sulfur.

In the past few weeks, other southern species were showing up - 3 of them which would be lifers for me. The first one, White-M Hairstreak, took a bit of effort but eventually we found one on some goldenrod in the Sparrow Field.

White-M Hairstreak - Point Pelee

Compared to the similar (but smaller) Gray Hairstreak, the White-M Hairstreak has a brilliant blue upperside (only viewable in flight), the white "m" mark near the base of the hindwing, and a small white mark part way up the hindwing, which you can see in these photos.

White-M Hairstreak - Point Pelee

Another common species at Point Pelee is the American Snout, aptly named for its long snout!

American Snout - Point Pelee

We were seeing many Gray Hairstreaks from the start so we made an effort to count them all see if we could set a new record count for Point Pelee.

Gray Hairstreak - Point Pelee

From the visitor's centre south, we managed to find 57 Gray Hairstreaks, smashing the old record high of 48. This individual below was extremely fresh and a great photo subject - too bad the light was really harsh!

Gray Hairstreak - Point Pelee

Target #2 took a bit of effort. A few weeks ago, Sachems (a small skipper) started to show up across Ontario. According to Alan's book (published in 2001), Sachem had only been reported at Point Pelee in 1988 and 1991. Unfortunately many of the skippers had cleared out, but Chris found a female along the west beach for me.

Sachem - Point Pelee

I ended up seeing about 5 for the trip - a far cry from the dozens that people had been seeing previously, but I was happy!

Another southern species of skipper that immigrates north is the Fiery Skipper, though it shows up most years in southern Ontario. This was the most abundant skipper I saw on my trip, with well over 50 seen.

Fiery Skippers - Point Pelee

The following day I slept in a bit before heading into the park. I decided to do a bit of birding for a few hours and was rewarded with an Acadian Flycatcher. I managed to see every species of Ontario flycatcher except Olive-sided just at the DeLaurier trail! I also managed to grab photos of several common species of birds that I had neglected to photograph so far. As well as doing my big year, I am attempting to photograph 300 species in Ontario. With Downy Woodpecker, Willow Flycatcher, Eastern Wood-pewee, Common Yellowthroat, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher I climbed up to 259.

Great Blue Heron - Sturgeon Creek

Unfortunately the numbers of butterflies were a little lower on my second day at Pelee but there were still some good ones around. I was looking for my third target species, the Funereal Duskywing, which has only been seen in Ontario a handful of times. Several had been seen recently at Pelee! No dice with the Funereal but this worn Horace's Duskywing, also very rare in Ontario, was a nice consolation prize.

Horace's Duskywing - Point Pelee

To be continued...

Friday 24 August 2012

Point Pelee - August 22 to August 24

The last three days I have been looking for birds, butterflies, and whatever else I could find in the Point Pelee area. It's fairly late now and I need to get up early tomorrow morning to go birding, so I am making this quick! I'll put up more photos whenever I can. I also have a few James Bay posts almost ready so I will get them up as soon as possible.

Point Pelee has been getting some really good records of butterflies lately, and with the lack of potential year-birds being reported, I was encouraged to spend 3 days looking for them. Starting with the Sleepy Oranges and Dainty Sulfurs back in May, rarities have continued to arrive including White-M Hairstreaks and Funereal Duskywings recently.

In general, butterfly numbers were way down from what they were and most of the skippers had cleared out of Pelee. I was still able to get two of my main three targets (White-M Hairstreak and Sachem), only missing Funereal Duskywing.

5+ Dainty Sulfur
57 Gray Hairstreak on August 22 (record high count for Point Pelee)
1 Horace' Duskywing
50+ Common Checkered-skipper
50+ Fiery Skipper
4 Sachem
3 White-M Hairstreak

Plus many of the other regular southern butterflies! Here is one early edit of a White-M Hairstreak:

White-M Hairstreak on Solidago - Point Pelee

Birding was a little less of a priority, however there were a few highlights. On August 23 I had an Acadian Flycatcher, only the second I've got this year and the first I've actually seen! It was at DeLaurier with a roving flock of flycatchers, warblers, and vireos - most likely a migrant.

Today while standing around at the tip, Alan Wormington and I watched a small flock of shorebirds come in off of the lake. It contained one Least Sandpiper, 4 Baird's Sandpipers, and 1 Buff-breasted Sandpiper! This was actually a new Pelee bird for me and I was happy to get a few photos at close range until a child came by with its parents and scared it off.

juvenile Buff-breasted Sandpiper - Point Pelee

I had planned to spend tomorrow relaxing at home and taking care of some errands but, as usual, birds come along tp screw up those plans. A few Long-tailed Jaegers were seen off of Van Wagner's Beach (Hamilton) today during a light onshore wind. This is a code-3 species and possibly one I will either get in the next 10 days or not get at all (I'm leaving the province for the 10 days following that). Additionally, a Brown Pelican was spotted by the McArthurs at Rondeau today! It was last seen flying east but could very well be in the area or any sheltered cove or harbour on Lake Erie. This is a code-5 bird. My plan is still to go to Van Wagner's Beach for first light and hopefully get a jaeger or two. The winds are forecasted to be from the south, so who knows. If I get a Long-tailed Jaeger early, I'll probably head to Lake Erie and start a pelican search. If at any point I hear that the pelican has been refound, I will abandon all other plans and head straight there! Could be an interesting day...

Monday 20 August 2012

James Bay part 2 (July 31 to August 2, 2012)

Introductory Post
July 28 to 30, 2012 - Moosonee, Little Piskwamish Point
July 31 to August 2, 2012 - Little Piskwamish Point
August 3 to 5, 2012 - Longridge Point
August 6 to 8, 2012 - Longridge Point
August 9 to 12, 2012 - Longridge Point
August 12 to 15, 2012 - Longridge Point

July 31, 2012
I actually had a pretty good sleep the first night! Ian and I shared the mattress and became a couple for the time we were at Little Piskwamish (sorry Laura!). I was up at 6 or so that morning because I was anxious to get out and see the coast of James Bay from the ground for the first time.

I made my way through the swarms of mosquitoes that were present in the marshy area near camp and the sedge meadows further east and eventually made my way out to the coast. I couldn't help but notice the shear number of Nelson's Sparrows singing and I took some time to get a good look at them. A Le Conte's Sparrow was fairly close so I grabbed a few shots of it skulking around in the bushes.

Le Conte's Sparrow - Little Piskwamish

 The water was pretty much at the low tide mark and the mud flats stretched for miles! I noticed too that once you were on the mudflats the mosquitoes completely disappeared (except for the cloud that followed you out there). Eventually due to a combination of swatting them and the cool breeze, I was mosquito free.

I'll have to admit, it felt pretty awesome standing alone on the mudflats without seeing the presence of another human as flocks of White-rumped Sandpipers whirred by! Down the beach was a female Black Bear with her 2 cubs, foraging in the sedge meadow. Just as I was heading back to the camp, a single breeding plumaged Hudsonian Godwit flew by at close range, calling. Pretty spectacular to see, though maybe less so since I knew I would be seeing hundreds shortly!

Ian and Andrew had made a fire so we able to have some hot food, a nice change from the night before. It was here that I found my first Hudson Bay Toad - a brightly colored but poorly known taxa of the familiar American Toad from back home. Some consider it a full species (Anaxyrus copei), others a subspecies of American Toads (Anaxyrus americanus copei), and others just a unique color variation of American Toad that is found in the far north (Anaxyrus americanus). Whatever they are, they sure are beautiful with a boldly spotted ventrum, orange/red and black dorsum, and bright white dorsal line running all the way posteriorly down the body.

Hudson Bay Toad - Little Piskwamish

Hudson Bay Toad - Little Piskwamish

Hudson Bay Toad - Little Piskwamish

I should probably take the time to briefly introduce the other two guys I was with. Andrew Keaveney (a.k.a. "twitcher")  is a birder/ from Etobicoke. He has spent the last number of years chasing birds not only in Ontario but around the world. He is also doing a big year in Ontario this year and nipping at my heels!

Andrew pretending to bird for the camera

Ian Sturdee (a.k.a. "the old guy") is also from the GTA though he splits his time between Toronto and his cottage in Peterborough. He spends a lot of time at the Leslie Street Spit in Toronto, helping out with bird surveys and the banding operation.

Ian Sturdee - looking intense

The three of us left to survey for Red Knots as the tide came in - I headed north, while Ian and Andrew headed south. There were two main goals of this project, a joint venture between the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR), Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), Natural Heritage Information Centre (NHIC), and the Moose Cree First Nation (MCFN). The first was to census the shorebirds that use this globally important stopover site, and the second was to identify certain individual Red Knots. It took me about an hour until I saw my first flock of Red Knots fly by, then soon enough I came across a big flock of them!

Red Knots - Little Piskwamish

About 10% of the Endangered rufa subspecies of Red Knot have been banded and flagged - some in the US, some in Brazil, even Argentina and Chile. Each flag has a unique 2 or 3 digit code and these flags can be read from in the field. The trick was getting close enough to a flock to read the flag combinations, a task made difficult due to passing raptors, noisy yellowlegs, and unseen "dangers" causing the knots to flush very easily. Eventually I managed to get close to some flocks and managed to read about 15 flags over the coarse of the day.

Red Knots - Little Piskwamish

I wasn't able to get close enough to get photos of jewelry wearing knots, though Jean Iron has some at her website:

We ended up spending 3 full days at Little Piskwamish and surveying for Red Knots and between the 3 of us we observed 50 unique flags. Of course, there were many other shorebirds present - thousands of White-rumped and Semipalmated Sandpipers, hundreds of Hudsonian Godwits, and lesser numbers of about 17 other species of shorebirds. Highlights for me on July 31 was a single Stilt Sandpiper. Other interesting birds we had that day were a flock of 34 Redheads, 11 American White Pelicans flying by, and a healthy dose of boreal birds including Boreal Chickadee, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Blue-headed Vireo, Blackpoll Warbler, and Lincoln's Sparrow. That evening a Common Nighthawk "peent"ed overhead.

White-rumped Sandpipers - Little Piskwamish

August 1, 2012
I spent a few hours that morning trying to stalk some Nelson's Sparrows to get some photos. The job was made a little difficult because I was limited to my 300 mm lens and the mosquitoes were as friendly as ever. However, with a little patience I was able to get a few I was pleased with.

Nelson's Sparrow - Little Piskwamish 

Nelson's Sparrow - Little Piskwamish 

Nelson's Sparrow - Little Piskwamish 

Day two at Little Piskwamish was pretty frustrating when it came to the Red Knots. I spent several hours as the tide came in unsuccessfully sneaking up to the birds while an ominous black cloud hung over the land to the west. Eventually the rains came, and though they were never heavy, they were steady and lasted for most of the afternoon. I neglected to bring my rain pants with me to Little Piskwamish but fortunately I had a rain cover for the pack I was wearing and I had my raincoat. The extra rain combined with the high tide made it very difficult to navigate the many creaks that meandered to the coast. Inevitably I soaked both boots and spent the rest of the day completed drenched from the waist down. I completely struck out on the knots though the other two guys managed to get some later in the afternoon.

It was hard to get too discouraged since we were on the James Bay coast, after all. A single Marbled Godwit was probably my favorite bird sighting, though we also heard a Yellow Rail ticking and Ian and I had an adult goshawk flying low out of the forest.

August 2, 2012
Day three was a little better than the previous! It didn't start out so well as I managed to burn a big hole in the only pair of field pants I brought with me to Little Pisk while drying them out. To add insult to injury, it happened right after I told Andrew that I wasn't going to burn them since he had just warned me! I quickly learned that quick dry pants don't have to actually be touching the fire to burn. I spent a bit of time that morning taking some photos around camp while I waited for the rest of my clothes to dry.

The above photo is the main cabin where the three of us stayed. There were a couple of run down cabins near by as well as a new cabin farther down which we didn't use. The building supplies are brought in by snowmobile during the winter.

Above are two photos showing the inside of the main cabin. And no, the stove on the left doesn't use electricity! Below is a photo of Andrew and Ian by the fire.

The weather was a little better today though with a brisk north wind as usual. I ended up going south while Andrew went north and Ian hung out in front of the camp. I ended up walking about 10 km without getting any Red Knot flags but right at the end of the day everything lined up perfectly. The wind had died down a bit, the sun was at our backs, and the birds tolerated our presence while they fed rapidly. I'm not sure how many flags we got in that last hour, but it was probably close to 30 unique flags.

We had a few more good birds on August 2nd. I had an adult male Red-necked Phalarope briefly land with the flock of knots before continuing southward, a Brant with a flock of Canada Geese 4 km south of camp, and Andrew had 2 Little Gulls. The highlight of the day though was the Bohemian Waxwing that we heard several times in the morning.

Andy on the mudflats

I'll end the post here since it is getting a little long-winded. The next installment will cover the hike to Longridge Point and the first few days there.