Thursday 29 August 2013

Rattlesnakes and Two-lined Salamanders

After the excitement of the Brown Pelican last Friday, the weekend was far from over and Laura and I had ambitious plans to drive north and look for a few target herp species.

The first target was Eastern Massasauga so Laura and I headed north to the Gravenhurst area to see what we could turn up. There we met up with herper extraordinaire Patrick Moldowan, a close friend of both of us who we went to university with in Guelph.

It was a beautiful sunny day as we started out - good weather for Massasaugas! Throughout the morning we checked many excellent locations for them, but did not have any luck. Perhaps it was due to the time of year - by now, the rattlesnakes should have all given birth so there is just not the same need for the females to thermo-regulate. Because of that, the 'saugas were proving tough to find!

Our first herp of the day was this Northern Brownsnake under a flat rock. It would prove to be the only snake of the day found by flipping rocks, a herping technique proving more futile by the minute as the temperature rose. It was simply too hot out for herps to be under rocks.

Dekay's Brownsnake

We approached an area where I had seen about a dozen separate rattlesnakes over the years. In a clearing was a large flat rock, perhaps 6 feet in diameter, propped up in such a way that it created a deep crevice reaching a ways underground. It had been a favoured haunt of rattlesnakes in the past, and today was no different!

Eastern Massasauga

It was a female Eastern Massasauga, looking quite deflated as she had recently given birth. I find that Eastern Massasaugas are often quite docile, just sitting quietly and minding their own business. It is too bad that rattlesnakes get such a bad rap, especially this species in Ontario which averages less than 2 feet in length full grown and which will not bite unless provoked.

Eastern Massasauga

It gave off a few few warning buzzes as we took photos, just to let us know to keep our distance.

Eastern Massasauga

The rest of the afternoon was a bit slow for herps. We were able to see several Five-lined Skinks, a neonate Northern Ribbonsnake, a few Eastern Gartersnakes (normally surprisingly uncommon in this area), and a beautiful Northern Watersnake. Midland Painted Turtles were seen occasionally basking at the edges of some of the wetlands and we saw about 7 amphibian species.

Patrick and Laura with a watersnake

The following day, Laura and I drove up to Algonquin to meet up with Patrick once again. He is stationed at the Wildife Research Station as he completes field work with Painted Turtles for his Master's degree. We had a great time paddling, swimming, and checking out some lakes that are not accessible to the public. The highlight for me though was becoming re-acquainted with the Northern Two-lined Salamander, a "lifer" for Laura.

Northern Two-lined Salamander - Algonquin

In Ontario, Northern Two-lined Salamanders are found in the southern Canadian Shield region from Georgian Bay in the west to the Ottawa region in the east. They are one species that is probably far more common than what is known in central Ontario.

Northern Two-lined Salamander - Algonquin

Northern Two-lined Salamanders inhabit cool, moderately to fast flowing rocky streams. They are closely associated with these streams and rarely venture too far from the banks during most of the year. In the summer they may travel a few hundred metres from their home stream to forage and are occasionally seen in the surrounding woodlands. Most of the year however, they are found under partly submerged rocks in the streams.

Two-lined Salamandering

Northern Two-lined Salamander - Algonquin 

We found close to 10 Northern Two-lined Salamanders over the course of an hour or so. In my experience they can be very skittish and tough to photograph, however this one individual was more "obliging" than most.

Northern Two-lined Salamander - Algonquin 

It was another great weekend with some fantastic herps and awesome company!

Friday 23 August 2013

Brown Pelican at Wheatley Harbour!

The big news in Ontario birding this week was most certainly the Brown Pelican at Wheatley harbour. Alan Wormington was standing on the pier at Wheatley Tuesday morning when the pelican came in and landed on the breakwall. What a bird! Unfortunately I was on my way to work when I heard the news and I had a busy few days of work lined up.

The bird continued to be seen the rest of the day and then Wednesday, so when it was reported to still be present on Thursday Laura and I made plans to drive down to Pelee and see it. Not only would this be a new Point Pelee bird for me, but a new Ontario bird!

Unfortunately I was delayed for a crucial 15 minutes at work. These 15 minutes, combined with the highway being paved near Rondeau, delayed us just enough that by the time we rolled into Wheatley harbour the sky was dark. Not even a trace of the daylight remained, yet we still walked up to the edge of the water and still scanned the pier, lit with the dim glow of the distant harbour lights. We did see a mysterious large, light brown object roosting on top of the pier, but couldn't say for sure that it was the pelican! Admitting defeat, we were determined to find it the next morning.

We arrived around 7:30 and sure enough, there was the pelican on top of the breakwall! It turns out that it almost certainly was the mysterious bird was the previous night. We were pretty excited and I took a few photos of the bird as it slept.

Brown Pelican - Wheatley Harbour

Brown Pelican - Wheatley Harbour

After about 1/2 an hour of watching, the bird finally woke and stretched its wings. Eventually it took off in flight, heading southeast out to the lake. There it landed on the water and sat for about 5 minutes before returning back to the breakwall.

Brown Pelican - Wheatley Harbour

An adult Osprey flew over at one point.

Osprey - Wheatley Harbour

This bird was originally found in Cleveland back in June I believe, and it had been seen there on and off (mostly on) ever since. On August 16 it disappeared. Perhaps it had been using Wheatley harbour in the days prior to Alan finding it.

Brown Pelican - Wheatley Harbour

There are only 8 previously accepted records of this species for Ontario; most occuring in 2002 and 1994 when several pelicans were found in various locations in the province. The 1994 records are thought to pertain to the same adult Brown Pelican. Previously this year, Brown Pelicans were reported from Niagara Falls and Leamington both earlier this summer. Maybe this is the same bird?

Brown Pelican - Wheatley Harbour

After the pelican excitement we made our way back home, stopping at a couple of sewage lagoons to check for shorebirds. The highlight at Ridgetown were 3 phalaropes (1 Red-necked, 2 Wilson's) as well as 5 Stilt Sandpipers. Hespeler Mill Pond in Cambridge had lower numbers of shorebirds than on my last visit, though the locally uncommon Stilt Sandpiper and Short-billed Dowitcher were still present.

It was a quick visit to the Pelee area but certainly worthwhile! Now Laura and I can each say that we have seen both species of Ontario pelican in one week.

Monday 19 August 2013

Queen snake!

This past weekend, Laura and I were hanging around at my parent's place in Cambridge, feeling a little bored and needing to go for a hike. It was about 3 in the afternoon, and with a fair bit of light left in the day, we decided to check out a location where I had seen a Queen Snake once before.

Queen Snakes are quite possibly the least encountered species out of any Ontario snake. They are an Endangered species in the province, only being found along a couple of the major rivers in southern Ontario. Even at these river systems, the populations are few and far between.  I had found a single Queen Snake at our chosen herping spot about 4 years ago, but I did not have high hopes that we would find one since I had been back several times without any luck.

Here is a picture of some suitable habitat for Queen Snakes. This isn't the actual spot (I don't want to give away the location) but it is a stretch of river that looks similar.

Queen Snake habitat?

I explained to Laura a few techniques to search for this rare species and we continued on our way, slowly moving along the edge of the water. We had gone less than 10 meters when Laura shouted out that she had a Queen Snake! No way!!!

Queen Snake - Grand River

It was a gorgeous little male of about 16 inches in length. Most Queen Snakes are relatively banged up looking, the result of a lifetime of poking their noses under rocks to search for crayfish, pretty much exclusively their only prey item. This little snake was in impeccable condition - a beautiful animal. After a few quick photos we let him go on his way right where we found him.
Queen Snake - Grand River

Queen Snake - Grand River

We couldn't believe our luck as we kept searching. Unfortunately that would be our only snake of the outing - even the ubiquitous Eastern Gartersnakes and Northern Watersnakes remained hidden. But it was definitely a worthwhile trip, and it was a great way for Laura to get another "lifer"!

I'll finish up this post with a nice Green Frog that wasn't too bothered with my presence, allowing me to grab a few shots while it "posed".

Queen Snake - Grand River

And one more of the Queen....

Queen Snake - Grand River

Sunday 18 August 2013

Cambridge shorebirding!

Yesterday around noon I drove to the Hespeler Mill Pond, in north Cambridge, to see what shorebirds were present. This year it is shaping out to be a fantastic autumn there as a ton of shorebird habitat exists with the potential for there to be more. Waterloo Region is a bit of a dead zone for shorebirds with very few good locations to check. As a result, I had only seen 14 species in the region, despite living in it for the first 20 years of my life.

Right away after arriving, I noticed a juvenile Baird's Sandpiper in the back, a relatively uncommon bird for the county. It was found a few days ago by Fred Urie. Due to the distance I had to resort to digiscoping with my iPhone, so excuse the poor photo.

Baird's Sandpiper - Hespeler Mill Pond

Dozens of Lesser Yellowlegs were present, along with a half-dozen Greaters and a single Solitary Sandpiper. Hanging out with the bunch was a juvenile Stilt Sandpiper, my first for the county.

Stilt Sandpiper (right) - Hespeler Mill Pond

Two Pectoral Sandpipers and a single Short-billed Dowitcher rounded out the shorebird highlights. A decent hour well spent, for sure!

Pectoral Sandpiper - Hespeler Mill Pond

Short-billed Dowitcher - Hespeler Mill Pond

Good numbers of Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons were here as well, making this location look like a possible candidate to host a rarer species. I would be happy with a Tricolored Heron.

Great Egret - Hespeler Mill Pond

Here is a total list of the shorebirds that were present. There were many more (mostly yellowlegs) hidden in the aquatic vegetation behind the mudflats as well.

1   Semipalmated Plover
15 Killdeer (estimate)
2   Spotted Sandpiper
1   Solitary Sandpiper
6   Greater Yellowlegs
59 Lesser Yellowlegs
10 Semipalmated Sandpiper (estimate)
25 Least Sandpiper (estimate)
1   Baird's Sandpiper
2   Pectoral Sandpiper
1   Stilt Sandpiper
1   Short-billed Dowitcher

Friday 16 August 2013

Kayaking in the Pelee marsh

Last weekend after the Parasitic Jaeger excitement in the morning, a few of us decided to go for a paddle in the Pelee marsh to see what shorebirds we could find. Kory and Sarah Renaud let me borrow their canoe (thanks!!), so Chris Law, Pauline Catling, Laura Bond, and I paddled that while Steve Pike, Mike Baker, and Jeremy Bensette took their kayaks.

We paddled through the stand of American Lotus, an emergent aquatic plant with massive yellow and white flowers and leaves that I've never really looked at closely before. Eventually we arrived at some mudflats and immediately found some shorebirds. Both Semipalmated Plovers and Semipalmated Sandpipers were common. Here is a Semi Plover hanging out with a juvenile Short-billed Dowitcher - another common species in the marsh that day.

shorebirds - Point Pelee National Park (Aug 10, 2013)

Photography is made easy in the marsh since most of the shorebird species seem to tolerate watercraft. It was tougher to sneak up to the birds in the canoe with four people, but we eventually had stunning looks at some of the species. The dowitcher again...

Short-billed Dowitcher - Point Pelee National Park (Aug 10, 2013)

Half a dozen Wilson's Snipe were hidden in the grassy areas at the edge of the mud. This one was resting out in the open.

Wilson's Snipe - Point Pelee National Park (Aug 10, 2013)

One can't go to any southern Ontario shorebird hotspot in July or August and not see Spotted Sandpipers. This is one of the few shorebird species that regularly breed in southern Ontario.

Spotted Sandpiper - Point Pelee National Park (Aug 10, 2013)

Of course there were several turtles out basking as well. This is a large female Common Map Turtle that we had great views of! ;)

Common Map Turtle - Point Pelee National Park (Aug 10, 2013)

The world's smallest shorebird, the Least Sandpiper, was also present in moderate numbers. This very crisp juvenile allowed us to approach really close in our boats, allowing for some great photo opportunities.

Least Sandpiper - Point Pelee National Park (Aug 10, 2013)

Monday 12 August 2013

Parasitic Jaeger at Pelee

This past weekend, Laura and I made the drive down to the Point Pelee area so meet up with the usual crew to look for birds, bugs, and anything else of interest. The main event, certainly the highlight of the weekend,was a barbeque hosted by Kory and Sarah Renaud on the Saturday evening. But the avian highlight for me was certainly a jaeger that some of us saw along the West Beach Footpath.

A large group of us had taken the tram down to the tip and were in the process of walking up the west beach footpath, in search of primarily interesting butterflies. I believe the group at this point included Blake Mann, Jeremy Bensette, Jeremy Hatt, Chris Law, Pauline Catling, Steve Pike, Mike (can't recall last name), Kory Renaud, Laura Bond, and I (hopefully I didn't miss anyone!). I was near the back of the group near Kory Renaud when he noticed an odd bird flying north and passing over us. He alerted me to it and I looked up to see a jaeger cruising on by! I called out "jaeger" and most of the group was able to see it briefly. I was focused on trying to take photos and despite the autofocus on my camera set to the wrong setting, I was able to have one frame where the bird was in focus and not obscured by trees! Here it is without a crop. The tree in the foreground is the well known "Serengeti Tree".

Here it is cropped:

And cropped some more.

My initial impression in the field, based on the very brief look, was of a large barrel chested jaeger and so I tentatively called it a Pomarine. But looking at the photo, it appears to be a subadult (2nd alternate?) Parasitic Jaeger. Later, as we were milling about near the west side of the tip parking lot, I got on the jaeger again, this time heading west straight over the lake. Unfortunately it never banked and the looks were far from conclusive.

Jaegers are rare but regular at Point Pelee, but a record this early in August is unusual. Long-tailed would probably be the "expected" species this time of year. I'm not sure what to make of this record - an early returning migrant? A summering bird? Several jaegers have already been noted in a few locations on Lake Ontario and Erie already this summer, including several Parasitic in Buffalo.

Friday 9 August 2013

Nice evening light

Back in mid-July I spent an evening at the Cawthra-Mulock preserve. This tract of conservation land is located west of Newmarket and is only about 10 minutes from my place. It is an interesting area with a wide array of interesting plants, birds, and insects, and is a good location to see Clay-colored Sparrows and Purple Martins in King Township, York Region. The lighting was perfect as the sun crept towards the western horizon and so I took advantage, shooting a few different dragonflies.

Widow Skimmer - Newmarket, ON (July 17, 2013)

This is one example of a photo that would look a lot better blown up, as opposed to this 850 pixel image!

Calico Pennant - Newmarket, ON (July 17, 2013)

 My attention was drawn to this scolding Warbling Vireo as I was apparently too close to his nest. Nearby, a female skulked near the trunk of a Common Buckthorn - presumably near her nest.

Warbling Vireo - Newmarket, ON (July 17, 2013)

Warbling Vireo - Newmarket, ON (July 17, 2013)

Meadowhawk sp. - Newmarket, ON (July 17, 2013)

Dragonflies are a lot of fun to photograph. For one, they look really badass, and macro photography can reveal the intricacies of their mouthparts, eyes, appendages, etc. Second, they have great proportions lending themselves to be framed nicely in an image. Photographing a snake for instance is a lot tougher because they are so long and skinny. Third, dragonflies love to perch at the tips of vegetation. Its relatively easy to photograph them in such a way that the background is nice and clean.

Meadowhawk sp. - Newmarket, ON (July 17, 2013)

Meadowhawk sp. - Newmarket, ON (July 17, 2013)

That's all for now! Tomorrow Laura and I are heading to the Point Pelee area for the weekend, so hopefully we can turn up something of interest!

Monday 5 August 2013

York Region Eared Grebe

This morning, Laura and I were were relaxing at my parents place in Cambridge, making use of their hot tub and pool while they were away traveling, when I heard news of an Eared Grebe at Reesor Pond in southeastern York Region, found and reported by Stan Long early in the morning. Now that I am a resident of York Region, this was of interest to me. Eared Grebes are quite rare here, occurring less than annually but probably more than 1 every 10 years.

We budgeted time on our drive back home to check up on the Eared Grebe in the evening and after breezing through Toronto we arrived at the pond at around 6:30 in the evening. I was confident that the grebe would still be present as grebes often move/migrate at night, and within 10 seconds of arriving my suspicions were confirmed. There was the little long-necked, pointy-headed grebe diving actively for food.

Eared Grebe - Markham, ON (August 5, 2013)

This was the second Eared Grebe that Laura had seen in Ontario, and my first since last May. A great bird to see, and a bonus that it was still sporting its breeding plumage. Laura and I agreed that Eared Grebes are likely demonic, with their evil looking bright red eyes!

Eared Grebe - Markham, ON (August 5, 2013)

I did not have my camera with me so those above iPhone-scoped photos will have to do. Here is a slightly better photo of the Eared Grebe I found with Barb Charlton, Brett Fried, Georg Hentsch, and Ron Ridout last April at Long Point. Cool little birds!

Eared Grebe - Long Point (April 1, 2012)

Sunday 4 August 2013

Ontario rare birds by month - August

You may recall that last July I made a post about the rare birds that have shown up in July in Ontario. I thought that this could be a fun series of blog posts, so today I present you with the August edition.

Ontario has a bird records committee which has been in existence since the early 1980s. The committee is made up of a rotating panel of experts, and their primary goal is to vote on records of rare birds that have shown up in Ontario. So for instance, if someone was to find a rarity (usually a species that shows up less than 4 times annually is fair game), they are encouraged to write up a rare bird report. The OBRC votes on all these records and publishes the results each year. While not every rarity that is seen in the province is voted on by the OBRC, the majority of them are.

As a birder, one of the most exciting things for me is the thrill of finding a rare bird (or "chasing" a rare bird found by someone else). To be a successful rare bird finder draws upon a few things including the amount of time spent birding, the observer's skill in identifying birds, and a bit of "luck". Another way to improve the odds of finding rare birds is knowing where to look for certain possible rarities at certain times of the year. In an effort to become better versed in this latter aspect of rare bird finding, I have been perusing all of the old OBRC publications. I have an Excel spreadsheet that details every record that has been accepted and rejected by the OBRC, and I will use that for the premise of this post.

August is generally a slow month for rare birds in Ontario. That is not to say it is a poor month for birding in general as it can be exceptionally good. Shorebirds are at the peak of migration, as are many neotropical songbirds. It is possible to see 120+ species in a day along the shores of the Great Lakes on a good migration day in late August. But the number of rare birds just aren't there!

This graph shows all of the total records of rare birds accepted by the OBRC since its existence. The second graph is the same as the first with all records of Cave Swallow removed. Cave Swallows used to be super rare in the province, until they started to show up regularly in late fall. As a result, 61 records of Cave Swallow were accepted for late October/early November from 1999 to 2009, when it was finally removed from the review list. Some observers have seen over 100 in a single day.

As you can see by the above graph, August is one of the slower months for rare birds. It is only better than the months of July, January, February, and March.

So, what are these August rarities? Are there any trends of particular species having a tendency of showing up in August? I'm only including birds that were first discovered in August.  If someone found a rare bird in July and it stuck around until August, that does not count. I am also only including birds that are still currently on the review list. For instance, Long-tailed Jaegers have 8 accepted records from August, but they are now regularly seen in late August along western Lake Ontario, and are no longer a review species.

- a total of 128 rare birds (of 62 species), first discovered in August, have been accepted by the OBRC.

- herons are well represented. Little Blue Heron (9 out of 73 total records), Glossy or White-faced Ibis (7 out of 129 total records), Yellow-crowned Night-heron (5 out of 43 total records), and Wood Stork (4 out of 9 total records).

- Curlew Sandpiper (8 out of its 29 total records) and Piping Plover (6 out of its 73 records) are well represented. Other shorebirds on the list include Willet (2 out of 18 records for northern Ontario), Western Sandpiper (2 out of 2 records for northern Ontario), Long-billed Dowitcher (1 out of 7 records for northern Ontario) and Long-billed Curlew (1 out of 2 records for Ontario). There have also been single records of these Eurasian megas: Sharp-tailed Sandpipiper and Spotted Redshank, each with 3 accepted records for Ontario.

- There are 5 accepted records of Rufous Hummingbird in August, out of 23 total records. I find it surprising that 10 out of the 23 total records pertain to birds found in July or August. I always used to think that this was a species that was seen most frequently in late autumn.

- as expected, there are very few records of rare Passerines: only 27 records of 17 species. The only species to have shown up more than twice include Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (4 out of  59 total records), and Kirtland's Warbler (3 out of 51 total records).

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - an occasional August vagrant

- Several species of mega-rare seabirds have shown up in August, with some of them assisted by hurricanes. These species include Band-rumped, Leach's, and Wilson's Storm-petrel, Frigatebird sp., Great and Manx Shearwaters, and Black-capped Petrel.

- August is a slow month for rarities in general, but there have been some fantastic rarities over the years! As well as the species mentioned above, some additional megas include Ontario's only Royal Tern and Lesser Goldfinch records, 1 of 2 Black-throated Sparrow, Long-billed Curlew, Cassin's Finch, and Prairie Falcon records, and 1 of 3 Common Ground-Dove records. Not included in my spreadsheet, since it only covers to the end of the 2011 OBRC report, is last year's Thick-billed Kingbird from Presqu'ile Provincial Park. It was the first record for Ontario, the second for Canada, and one of the biggest rarities to ever show up in the province.

Ontario's first Thick-billed Kingbird