Wednesday 27 February 2013

California and Arizona - February, 2011: part 7

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 27
The next morning we headed on down to the Ventura docks once again, hoping that this time, the trip was a go. The morning was cool and sunny with a light wind, and shortly after we received confirmation that the trip was on! While waiting for the boarding call, we checked out the rocky shoreline and turned up several shorebirds.


Sanderling (back) and Black Turnstone (front)

a medley of rockpipers

The trip through the east Santa Barbara Channel was quite successful, though the big waves made alcid identification tough. Nonetheless we were able to see 6 species, including rare in February Pigeon Guillemot and Ancient Murrelet, several Scripp's Murrelets, and quite a few Rhinoceros and Cassin's Auklets.

Soon upon arrival on the island, Matt and I were quick to turn up a few herps like this fence lizard, Sceloporus occidentalis. I believe that this is the subspecies becki, which is endemic to the Channel Islands.

Sceloporus occidentalis becki

A little farther up the path we found a few Western Side-blotched Lizards (Uta stansburniana elegans).

Uta stansburniana elegans

The main reason why we added Santa Cruz Island to the itinerary was for a certain jay, however. The Island Scrub Jay is endemic to Santa Cruz Island with there being no evidence that it was ever found on any of the other channel islands. Despite its small geographical range, there are an estimated 9000 birds on the island, so we had high hopes of coming across one. 

We didn't see one. I think we actually saw 15 or so! They were indeed common, and their vocalizations could be heard regularly. This species is a brighter blue with a larger bill and overall body size than the mainland Western Scrub-Jays. 

Island Scrub Jay - Santa Cruz Island

The Channel Islands (like most islands) have a fair bit of rarity potential. This was evident with the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker that the other three found while I was chasing jays! I never did catch up with the sapsucker. 

Looking southeast from Prisoner's Harbor

Dave (left) and Matt (right)

Matt spend some time flipping rocks, and he was lucky enough to turn up some of these Jerusalem Crickets. Cool. 

Jerusalem cricket

I was excited to see both species of Santa Cruz's endemic salamanders. This one is Batrachoseps nigriventis.

Batrachoseps nigriventis - Santa Cruz Island

The day was beginning to get long in the tooth and it would soon be time to board the boat to take us back to the mainland. While waiting around at the docks, we saw a pair of Black Oystercatchers just hanging out.

Black Oystercatcher - Santa Cruz Island

We did some tide-pooling as well.

sea star - Santa Cruz Island

Adult Western Gull - a common species on the coast, and one I tried to familiarize myself with for that fateful day when I discover one in Ontario (one can dream)

Western Gull - Santa Cruz Island

I was finally able to get a decent alcid shot on the boat trip back to the mainland, due to the slightly calmer conditions. This is a Common Murre.

Common Murre - Santa Barbara channel

It was on this boat trip that we witnessed one of the greatest wildlife spectacles we had ever seen. A large dark spot way up ahead turned out to be a group of several thousand Common Dolphins. As we approached, they quickly surrounded the boat! In all directions, the swirling mass of dolphins extended far out in the distance.

Common Dolphins - Santa Barbara channel

Some of the dolphins swam right up along the side of the boat. If you tried, you probably could have touched them. Awesome!!!

Common Dolphin - Santa Barbara channel

They were so quick that it was tough to focus on them with my camera. I found that the best strategy was to simply take lots of photos in anticipation that some dolphins would appear in the frame. I was moderately successful and finally caught one in mid air.

Common Dolphins - Santa Barbara channel

Eventually the dolphins continued on, leaving us behind. For the rest of the boat trip, nothing we saw was even remotely as interesting as the dolphin experience.

Though, these water wolves were pretty cool.

California Sea Lions - Santa Barbara channel

California Sea Lions - Santa Barbara channel

This was our last full day of the trip. The next post will cover our final morning in L.A. before our flight, as well as a trip list. 

Tuesday 26 February 2013

Late winter birding

Yesterday evening, I had plans to attend Brandon's talk on Hurricane Sandy in Burlington, so I decided to leave Cambridge in the early afternoon and check a few spots along the way.

It started off well when I saw a few birds sitting low in some trees just off the road. Turning around, I was happy to see that they were Bohemian Waxwings, not European Starlings as I had originally suspected. About 60 of them, their trills ringing in the air. Last winter I had exactly 1 sighting of this species in Ontario. This was my 10th sighting already this winter.

Continuing on, 10 minutes later I noticed a massive flock of redpolls, so I pulled over and scanned them. At least one bright, frosty redpoll stood out (an exilipes Hoary Redpoll), though the flock was constantly flushing and it was difficult to get an accurate look at them.

Redpolls - Peter's Corners

I made it to Hamilton and checked several locations along the harbour and lakeshore, all the way to Stony Creek. The only highlight was this Eastern Screech-Owl sitting 10 feet up a tree. The condions were calm on the lake, but most ducks were too far out to see well!

Eastern Screech-Owl - Burlington

Eastern Screech-Owl - Burlington

I eventually made it to to the Saltfleet area above the escarpment and finally came across the small flock of Eastern Meadowlarks that had been overwintering. Some were even in full song! Spring was in the air. A Northern Shrike was watching a flock of House Sparrows and American Tree Sparrows, Northern Harriers cruised the fields, and a nice dark morph Rough-legged Hawk was perched on the smallest branch at the very tip of a tree.

Eastern Meadowlark - Saltfleet

A few days ago, I joined Mark Field in a trip to Niagara to look at gulls and ducks. To be perfectly honest, we didn't have a very good day bird wise, though an adult Little Gull down at the Queenston Docks was nice to see! I was able to get a couple of half decent, although distant, photographs in the falling snow.

Little Gull - Queenston

And the other day I was out walking around at a natural area near my house when I came across this very photogenic White-breasted Nuthatch. This is the first good photo I have of that species now!

White-breasted Nuthatch - Cambridge

As I write this, Northern Cardinals and House Finches are singing outside my window - a welcome sound indeed. Though we are getting another bout of winter weather today and tomorrow followed by cold and sunny conditions, we are almost into the month of March. Once we get a bit of warmer weather I'll probably do a 2-3 day trip to the Pelee area to see some early migrants and hopefully find some rare waterfowl. But that will have to wait a week or more!

Monday 25 February 2013

California and Arizona - February, 2011: part 6

Fun fact of the day:
The week between February 19 and February 25 is traditionally the slowest week of the year to find rarities in Ontario. As of 2011, there have only been two OBRC-reviewable rarities found in this stretch of 7 days ever. A Mountain Bluebird found February 22, 2000 at Prince Edward Point, and a Sage Thrasher found at Port Weller on February 24, 2006. Well after today, this week will be in the rearview mirror! The next two weeks each have had a whopping 5 OBRC-reviewable rarities found. These 10 records include 4 Ross's Geese records (which is no longer on the review list), Mew Gull, Tufted Duck, Western Tanager (?!), Townsend's Solitaire, Western Grebe, and Gray-crowned Rosy-finch.

It's cold, it's wintry outside, and I don't have a lot of motivation to go outside and get fresh, new, and exciting blog material. That means: it's time to catch up on things I have been meaning to for a while! Like finishing my series of posts from the trip I took in February a couple of years ago. I wish I was there now....


9 hours and many torrential downpours later we finally pulled into the marina at Ventura only to find that the boat trip had been cancelled due to the weather. Not to worry as we had 2 days planned on the coast. So we switched up our itinerary and spent the day in the mountains, with a plan to hit up our boat trip to Santa Cruz Island the following day.

Dave knew of a spot called Happy Canyon that was supposedly pretty good so we made that our first stop. Our main target here was Yellow-billed Magpie. The habitat ranged from low farmland to oak forests to montane scrub to Ponderosa pine. 

dawn at Happy Canyon

As we headed up the road we saw many bluebirds (including our first Mountains!), California Quail, Bewick’s Wren, and quite a few of our target birds. We had great looks at many of these birds on the way up and the way down the canyon.
We were soon in the montane scrub so we spent some time beating the bushes for whatever bird life there was.

hills above Happy Canyon

A few sparrows, including Golden-crowned and Fox were around, as was a Wrentit and surprise Cassin’s Vireo. Further up the mountain snow started appearing on the road. Naturally, the road was closed with only a light sprinkling of snow blanketing it. Well, I guess this is California! We walked up the road a bit further and picked up Band-tailed Pigeon, Stellar’s Jay (finally!), and Mountain Chickadee.

Canadians back in their element

Home of Mountain Chickadees

It was getting late in the morning so it was back down the mountain and over to the coast. It was a great morning up the mountain and some of the vistas were absolutely breathtaking!

We stopped at Lompoc, a “sure bet” for Chestnut-backed Chickadee at their southernmost breeding spot. In the estuary were many shorebirds, herons, and waterbirds including Western and Clark’s Grebe and Snowy Plover. 

Western Grebe

We briefly checked the beach and in the high winds we picked out an alcid sp, many gulls including Mew and Glaucous-winged, Surf Scoter, and Pacific Loon. I thought it was really cool on this trip to do a sea watch and see all these species that rarely, if ever, we get on our Ontario lake-watches.
No luck with the chickadees, but then we found a decent patch of willows and decided to give it a shot. Brett flushed a Short-eared Owl, we saw a Pacific Wren, and eventually a few Chestnut-backed Chickadees showed! With the Mountain Chickadees earlier in the day, the Mexican Chickadees in Arizona, and the Black-capped and Boreal I had a few weeks prior to the trip in Ontario, that made it 5 (out of 6) of the North American chickadees for me.

We grabbed some lunch in town and headed towards Mount Pinos in an attempt to see some more montane specialties. In particular, we were hoping to see the noblest of all birds - the White-headed Woodpecker. Well, near the top of the mountain it was -10 C with 2 feet of snow on the ground! I think the only bird we saw here was a Golden-crowned Kinglet but we did play in the snow for a bit! I guess the woodpecker will have to wait until the next trip.

Yup, that's Fahrenheit

Group shot

 A snowstorm was moving in so we started heading back down the mountain. We ended up in Ventura, grabbed a hotel, and even picked up a few beers. We only got through 1 or 2 before total exhaustion kicked in and we crashed. Considering that the morning had started off with the disappointment of having our boat trip cancelled, we had a pretty good day with most of our target birds acquired. It is pretty amazing that we can see coastal species (Western Grebe, Pacific Loon, Sanderling, etc), montane species (Steller's Jay, Mountain Chickadee), local specialties (Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Yellow-billed Magpie) and everything in between in just one day!

Part 7 will cover our boat trip to Santa Cruz Island. 

Friday 22 February 2013

Signs of life....

It is now February 22 so we are inching ever closer to the first official day of spring. The last few days it has been cold and windy, but the forecast is finally calling for weather above 0 degrees Celsius, with the mercury supposed to hit 2 degrees Celsius on Saturday. Not much, but it is better than nothing.

Horned Larks have been singing away in fields since late January, and migrant waterfowl have started to appear. We haven't really had a warm snap with south winds in a while but the next one we get will surely bring with it migrant waterfowl, including probably more Snow or Greater White-fronted Geese, most of the puddle ducks, and maybe a Eurasian Wigeon or two.

Snow Goose - Guelph, ON (March 6, 2012)

It won't be long until the first Blue-winged Teal is reported, followed shortly by the first Eastern Phoebe of the spring.

Speaking of migrant waterfowl, the southwest corner of the province has had a number of great records so far. Blake mentioned on his blog about 10 Ross's Geese at Erieau, and there have been several Greater White-fronted Geese at Hillman Marsh the last week or so (Alan Wormington sent me a photo of 34 the other day - a record high count for Point Pelee).

One activity that I seem to do more frequently as the winter drags on is check the Ebird maps to see where spring migrants are being reported south of Ontario. I find it is more fun to do with species that do not overwinter in North America, since they are "true" migrants to the continent, working their way north to Ontario. Other species, like Killdeers or blackbirds, may travel north in late winter, spurred on by warmer weather. However if a bout of cold weather follows, it seems likely that they may retreat south. Once the South American migrants start showing up, they are here for good! Check out this screen shot of the current map for Purple Martin, where individuals have already been reported in Tennessee. In just over a month's time Ontario should start to see them. Last year, David Bell and I had some Purple Martins in Guelph on March 28. They do have somewhat of a staggered migration with Ontario not seeing numbers of martins until  mid April, but still it is fun to track their movement northward.

Purple Martins in N.A. - February 22, 2013

While small numbers of Red-winged Blackbird and Brown-headed Cowbirds (with occasional Rusty Blackbirds or Common Grackles) overwinter in the south, they don't start "singing" and setting up breeding territories until early March, where I live. This will be happening within two weeks!!

Sandhill Cranes are one of my favorite Ontario species of birds, and their return is something that I look forward to every March. While the odd flock of cranes overwinters, they don't show up in numbers (and pairing up) until March. I took these photos on March 11 of last year.

Hang in there - spring is around the corner!

Tuesday 19 February 2013

Mopping up the rarities

On Jeremy's second and final day to bird this part of Ontario, we decided to hit areas further east to see if we could turn up the lingering rarities for him. Being from Essex County, he has never done any birding any further then about Rondeau so most "northern" species would be lifers for him.

We started out in Kendal where the Townsend's Solitaire has been regular since it was found by Richard Pope, Margaret Bain, and Paul Riss on January 9th. It didn't take long before this western beauty showed itself way off the road in some juniper bushes beside a house. It never did venture any closer, forcing us to be satisfied with less than stellar views. At least we got the bird!

It was nice to finally meet Rohan VanTwest here, a local Guelph birder that until now I had never crossed paths with. Jeremy and I spent an hour walking the road with Chris Law, hoping to turn up some interesting birds. While the Pine Grosbeaks eluded us, we did catch site of a Pileated Woodpecker and later a flock of Evening Grosbeaks, both lifers for Jeremy.

Evening Grosbeak - Kendal, Durham Region

We made a brief stop or two (including seeing some Trumpeter Swans - lifer #4 of the day for Jeremy) before ending up at Frenchman's Bay in Pickering. Here, several thousand geese were present and we were hoping to see the continuing Snow Geese or Greater White-fronted Goose.

We ended up locating a nice Cackling Goose walking on the ice with some Canadas, and finally I spotted a blue-morph Snow Goose. There was an interesting goose walking behind it, which at the time I thought might have been the Greater White-fronted since it had been reported always being within 10 feet of the blue-morph adult Snow Goose. But it was following the Snow Goose around, and after a bit of research, it appears that this was a young blue-morph Snow Goose (my first). Maybe there actually is a Greater White-fronted Goose around too? Who knows. The two Snow Geese were really distant so here is the best that I could do.

Snow Geese - Frenchman's Bay, Pickering

The swans all flushed at one point, so I used the excellent light to my advantage and took my first good quality Mute Swan pics. Yeah I know, this species is loathed by most birders, but still I was happy to finally have something usable with this species.

Mute Swan - Frenchman's Bay, Pickering

Mute Swan - Frenchman's Bay, Pickering

While we were here a beautiful Snowy Owl made a pass overhead, eventually settling in a tree at the south end of the harbour (much to the delight of the numerous photographers here to see the owl). An American Crow took exception to the owl's presence, but after a few minutes of hounding the owl, the crow gave up and flew away.

Snowy Owl harassed by American Crow - Pickering

Here is a random obscure road sign. I guess all of the normal names were taken.

Our last stop of the day was Ellis Road in Cambridge, home of Wellington County's second ever Harris's Sparrow. When we arrived several birders were a few doors down, looking intently into a Spruce Tree. There it was, tucked up inside of the tree! Lifer #5 for Jeremy.

Harris's Sparrow - east of Cambridge

And #6 was a bonus species that we weren't expecting. We could hear the trills of Bohemian Waxwings nearby and sure enough, they settled in the tree above our head - 15 of them, to be exact. It was certainly the best look I have had at this species.

Bohemian Waxwings - east Cambridge

It was a very successful two days. Jeremy was able to add 10 birds to his life list, we had a nice find in a California Gull, and we picked up most of the rarities we tried for. I will probably take it easy for the next few weeks, though a Tufted Duck is in Buffalo and probably forays to the Ontario side of the Niagara River. It would be a new Ontario bird for me, so stay tuned...

Sunday 17 February 2013

Gulling it up in Niagara

Jeremy Bensette from Leamington drove up today so we could do some gulling in the Niagara area. Despite frigid temperatures and a brisk wind we were able to stir up some interesting birds.

At Port Weller, the main target (the adult male King Eider) was easy to locate in the Welland Canal. This is almost certainly the same bird that spent part of last winter in the exact same location. We also found a Red-shouldered Hawk here, in addition to a pretty good count of 73 Double-crested Cormorants along the edge of the canal. There were probably many more along the rest of the canal but we weren't feeling too keen on exploring further due to the wind!

The Niagara River was actually pretty devoid of gulls (until Queenston). Undoubtedly the highlight for us came when we were scanning above the falls. I got on an interesting gull that was loafing with the Herring and Ring-billed Gulls - an adult California Gull! We had distant but decent looks at it as it walked around, flew about, but mostly just slept. It also was fairly advanced into its alternate plumage, much like the bird I saw on the river last February. Pretty cool! This bird was most likely a spring migrant.

The Queenston docks was another highlight as several thousand large gulls were present. Quite a few white-winged gulls were seen - I think we estimated 30 Kumlien's Gulls and 10-15 Glaucous Gulls, of all ages. Unfortunately we couldn't pick out anything else interesting with the lot! Lots of Bonaparte's Gulls hanging on still, but no Little Gulls.

We finished the day by checking out the long-staying Snowy Owl in Vineland. The usual paparazzi were there photographing it. It was a lifer for Jeremy!

pristine habitat

Last time I was there, some of the photographers were baiting the owl right next to the road. This time, some of them were trespassing onto the farmer's field to get closer to the owl. A look at the perpetrators...

Up to no good

Tomorrow, we are probably going to blitz some areas farther east. Hopefully we can nab the long-staying Townsend's Solitaire!

Saturday 16 February 2013

Harris's Sparrow!

Question: What is the only species of bird whose entire breeding range is limited to Canada (endemic to Canada)?

Answer: Harris's Sparrow!

This morning Rohan van Twest had a great find with an adult Harris's Sparrow just east of Cambridge. I was doing some birding in North Dumfries (southwest of Cambridge) at the time, so I raced up to the site where it had been seen. After about an hour of waiting, the 3 other birders and I were able to see it appear magically under the bird feeder. I was even able to document it with extremely poor photos!

Harris's Sparrow - Cambridge, Ontario

Harris's Sparrows breed along the northern edge of the boreal forest across Canada and migrate through the interior of the continent. They are actually regular migrants in the far west of Ontario but aren't located in the south too often, with perhaps 5 every year in southern Ontario. This is the second record for Wellington County. The last Harris's Sparrow in the Hamilton Study Area was a one day wonder in spring, 2000 that was reported after the fact. Prior to that, the next previous record was in the mid 80s. Great find, Rohan!

Harris's Sparrow - Cambridge, Ontario

Spurred on by that success I decided to head down to Brantford and see the Gray Partridge that had been reported. Being unemployed, I have done a ton of birding this year and as a result my winter list was getting quite high. I don't really know what record is for one winter, but I think it was set last winter, perhaps being around 170.

At Brantford I was able to spot a covey of 9 Gray Partridges huddling together in a field, and later on spotted a single Savannah Sparrow and Field Sparrow mixed in with the tree sparrows and juncos. This brought my winter list up to 162. Maybe I'll be able to hit 170 if I try hard enough in the last 12 days of the month. I still need some that are around like King Eider, Common Grackle, any rare gull, Eastern Phoebe, Western Grebe, Black-crowned Night-heron etc.

 Tomorrow I will be birding the Niagara River with a friend. Hopefully we will be able to turn up something good!