Monday 10 June 2013

A Medium Day

On Sunday, I met up with David Szmyr for to attempt a Big Day across Simcoe County, Kawartha Lakes, and York Region. David approached me with the idea last week, and since races against the clock are a lot of fun, I quickly agreed.

The Ontario "Big Day" record was actually set this spring by the Cygnus Crusaders, a group of birders who work for the Long Point Bird Observatory. They managed to see an incredible 204 species, starting in Algonquin Provincial Park and finishing at Long Point.

Obviously that was way out of reach for Dave and I for several reasons. First of all, we would miss any and all migrant birds due to the time of year we would be attempting our big day. We would have easily seen an additional 30+ species if we had attempted it in mid to late May instead! Second, we kind of decided spur of the moment to attempt a big day, so our scouting in the days leading up was limited. To truly be successful on a Big Day, one should have every non-guaranteed species pinned down to a location! That includes raptor nests, owls on territory, even ducks in sewage lagoons. Instead of just birding decent habitat, hoping to come across your target species, one should literally run from one staked out species to the next. Third, we would not be crisscrossing the province. The northern birds (several warblers and owls, Gray Jay, Spruce Grouse, etc) would be missed, as would the southern Carolinian species.

I picked Dave up at 2:30 AM and we arrived at the Carden Alvar by 3:48 AM. Bird #1 was a Marsh Wren singing away in the pitch black at the Prospect Road Marsh. This was a great stop and we added both rails, both bitterns, Whip-poor-will, and more. Standing under the stars while a medley of marsh birds call all around is something that everyone should experience at some point! It's a pretty incredible experience.

From here we drove to Alvar Road, picking up a number of singing grassland species along the way. While we struck out on the previously reported Northern Saw-whet Owls, a Barred Owl did call a few times. Our 33rd species of the day was the first bird that we actually saw - a Brown Thrasher. Birding by ear is critical to a big day's success!

Brown Thrasher (taken May 31, 2012)

Until 9:30 we birded the Carden area, seeing all the specialties including Upland Sandpiper, Loggerhead Shrike, and Prairie Warbler. Some species that can be easily missed on a big day were seen - Brown Creeper, Merlin, and Purple Finch. But other ones were missed, including Canada Warbler, Northern Parula, Ruffed Grouse, Sedge Wren, and Clay-colored Sparrow! At one point we had a Reuven Martin sighting (he had an Upland Sandpiper in his scope). Maybe the highlight of Carden was a very friendly cat that hopped in my car for a ride!

We left Carden with 97 species and headed west for a quick stop at Tiny Marsh where we found Black Terns along with 6 other "day birds". Wasaga Beach was next, and within 30 seconds we had our Piping Plover! We debated spending the rest of the day drinking beer and playing beach volleyball, but reluctantly left the shenanigans behind and meandered down to Collingwood.

Piping Plover (taken May 18, 2012)

Collingwood did not disappoint and my staked out Bufflehead and Great Egret were right where they were supposed to be. The Common Mergansers were a no show, but a Gadwall and Red-breasted Merganser pair was a nice consolation! On to the Stayner sewage lagoons.

All three staked out ducks that I had found the day previous (Greater Scaup, American Wigeon, and American Black Duck) were right where they were supposed to be, and with 122 species under our belts, we continued on to the Minesing Swamp.

It was now the heat of the day and so several targets birds, including Blue-headed Vireo, Carolina Wren, and Ruffed Grouse refused to reveal themselves. Our only Yellow-throated Vireo was singing right where he was supposed to, as was a male Pine Warbler. We finally got our first hummingbird and cardinal here, too!

Yellow-throated Vireo (taken May 2, 2013)

Dave and I were feeling a little tired and run down, so we had a much needed stop for refreshments at his place in Barrie. Eventually, the obligation of the big day pushed our asses out the door, and we jumped on the highway to my "local patch".

Because we missed Clay-colored Sparrow at several locations already, we were forced to waste half an hour to get them at the Cawthra-Mulock Reserve in Newmarket. We watched one carry a juicy caterpillar to a shrub, and leave without the insect, so perhaps a little nest searching is in order the next time I return!

With the daylight slowly ticking away, I had to make some decisions about what to cut out and what to go for. Our only chance for Orchard Oriole and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher was scrapped, but we had enough time to quickly grab the old reliable Blue-headed Vireo. We decided to finish off the day by hiking around the Happy Valley Forest.

I had a number of staked out birds at Happy Valley and happily (see what I did there?), we were successful with most of them. Two Acadian Flycatchers were calling back and forth to each other - definitely a highlight! We did not "need" Pileated Woodpecker but we stopped to check out the active nest, much to the chagrin of one of the parents. Self-preservation can be a strong motivator, and since neither of us wanted "death by angry Pileated Woodpecker drilling into our skulls", we left the distraught woodpecker alone.

Pileated Woodpecker (taken February 7, 2013)

Our last bird of the day took a bit of effort, but eventually we heard the male Hooded Warbler singing; a few hundred meters away from where he usually is. Species #137, and a great one to end the day with! 137 isn't that Big of a day (it's pretty easy to do at Point Pelee in the spring without trying toooooo hard), but I like to think it is OK for mid-June in the City of Kawartha Lakes, Simcoe County and York Region. With more preparation and a quicker pace, we could have seen maybe 160 or 170 in the same area on the same date.

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