Sunday 29 September 2013

Moosonee "highlights" so far

It has been a slow trip to say the least. The winds consistently have been from the southwest, and combined with warm temperatures no new birds are coming in from the north. Whatever birds have blown in with the southwest winds have been difficult to find in the conditions.

Before I get into some of the sightings from Moosonee, I should mention that we did see two groups of Sharp-tailed Grouses (totalling 5 birds) from the train to Moosonee. They were lifers for Jeremy and finished of the trifecta of Ontario grouse in one day!

Sharp-tailed Grouse - as seen from the train

On our first day in Moosonee we were dropped off south of town. We checked the dump before heading up to the lagoons. Right away we spotted a medium-sized bird sitting on one of the fence posts. A shrike!

Unfortunately, a closer look revealed it to be a Northern, not the hoped for Loggerhead. Still, a good find for late September in town.

Northern Shrike - Moosonee sewage lagoons

The typical ducks were in the lagoon. 3 Pectoral and 1 Lesser Yellowlegs were around the edges of one of the ponds, and an adult Bonaparte's Gull was a surprise.

Bonaparte's Gull - Moosonee sewage lagoons

Alan noticed an Atlantis Fritillary, a record late date for southern James Bay. Other insects seen included several dragonflies and damselflies, Common Sulfurs, and an Orange Sulfur.

Atlastis Fritillary - Moosonee sewage lagoons

The long walk back to town was largely uneventful from an avian standpoint. However, this Striped Skunk made an appearance, trotting down the road towards us.

Striped Skunk - Moosonee

Jeremy and I also found an underwing moth clinging to the road. According to Alan it is likely a Briseus Underwing (Catocala briseus). Their foodplant includes Trembling Aspen, a common tree of the area.

Yesterday was another slow day. We wandered around in Moosonee, mainly focusing on the river and the north end of town. Highlights included the first American Tree Sparrow of the autumn, a Le Conte's Sparrow (lifer for Jeremy and a year bird for me), and several raptors including Rough-legged Hawks and Peregrine Falcons.


Ravens are always interesting with their antics...

Common Raven - Moosonee

Common Raven - Moosonee

Saturday 28 September 2013

Some more chickens from the north

The title says it all - some more photos of some Spruce Grouse from northwest of Cochrane, Ontario.

We saw all three species of grouses that day, all of them lifers for Jeremy.

I kind of like this one. Inadvertently having a slow shutter speed created an interesting effect.

I used the van as a blind and crawled on my belly to photograph this female.

At one point we found two pairs of Spruce Grouse together on the side of the road. They flushed up into some White Spruce and I was able to get some decent photos of them.

A male keeping an eye on us.

Friday 27 September 2013

Days 1 and 2 of the Moosonee trip

Two days have passed and now Alan Wormington, Jeremy Bensette, and I are sitting in a hotel room in Moosonee with 5 more days of birding ahead of us. A quick synapsis of the past two days:

Yesterday, Alan and Jeremy picked me up around 3 AM and we were on our way. We made a few stops, and didn't see a whole lot!

Jeremy trespassed a fair bit...

We saw 31 American Golden-plovers at the Powassan lagoons, a group flying over. Near the Callandar lagoons were 2 Green Herons, a relatively north location for that species. Other than that, it was pretty much the usual species at all the spots we checked! We did see a Black-backed Woodpecker in an area of dead spruce trees near Marten River, Jeremy's first. The weather was hot and sunny and birds were essentially absent from most places we checked though, unfortunately. We ended up in Cochrane to spend the night.

This morning we drove some roads north of Smooth Rock Falls before catching the Polar Bear Express in Fraserdale. We were hoping to get Jeremy some lifers, and it wasn't long before we had less than satisfying looks at Gray Jays flying over the highway - the first lifer of the day for Jeremy! Finally, as the temperature crept above 4 degrees Celcius we came across a familiar black lump on the edge of the road - a Spruce Grouse (lifer #3 for Jeremy). With the cooler autumn temperatures, male Spruce Grouses get the urge to reproduce and will display frequently for the females who are often much less interested. Its quite an elaborate plumage and display this little chicken has!

Spruce Grouses ended up being abundant on the roads with a total of 13 seen! Mixed in were 4 Ruffed Grouses.

Female Spruce Grouses, while not having the gaudy red eye-combs or orange and black tail of the male, are subtlely beautiful with intricate patterns. I'll have more photos of these in a future post.

While driving backroads looking for grouses, we came across this mural painted on the wall of a local shack. Apparently the owner has a bone to pick with someone...

I'll end the post on that note...

More to come!

Tuesday 24 September 2013

Swainson's Hawk retraction

So a few other birders who know more about raptor ID than I do have come to the conclusion that the bird I photographed in Leamington the other day is most likely a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk, not a Swainson's as I had originally thought. Some ID features include the dark patagial bar that is somewhat visible on some of the lightened photos, a faint belly band, and relatively broad wingtips. I am not sure why the bird appears to have dark flight feathers but it may just be an artifact of the light!

To be honest when I first observed the bird, it did not give me the impression of a Red-tailed Hawk. It seemed too long-winged, narrow-winged, and long-tailed (plus of course the two-toned wing that recalls Swainson's Hawk). But, it was a very brief field observation (that was backlit) and so I am not sure how accurate my impressions of the bird in the field were.

Right from the start, I had problems with the faint belly band that was visible and the relatively broad wingtips. I convinced myself that the belly band was an artifact of the bad light, but I couldn't justify the broad wingtips. Swainson's Hawk is supposed to have relatively pointed wingtips - like a Broad-winged Hawk with longer wings.

At any rate, that's the way it goes sometimes. Here's hoping the next SWHA that I call is actually one.

I guess that's how you learn right?

Sunday 22 September 2013

Swainson's Hawk at Point Pelee

It looks like I made a pretty accurate prediction in my last post.

After birding in the park all morning yesterday, I noticed that the winds had started to shift a little more to the northwest, as opposed to the solid west winds they had been early in the morning. This time of year, thousands of hawks and other raptors are migrating south, and north winds push them to the shores of the Great Lakes. Raptors don't like flying over water - thermals only really form over land - and so they follow the coastlines south and west.

I headed to the Seacliff Hawkwatch around noon, located in Leamington and officially inside the Point Pelee Birding Area. I set up my scope, set up my cooler against the back of my car to act as a makeshift seat/wind break, put on my sunglasses, and sipped my coffee.

Eventually I started noticing a few raptors floating on by, fighting the winds that were still rather westerly. A few "kettles" of Broad-winged Hawks began to drift on by as the skies slowly cleared. After about an hour of watching, I got on one bird to the south of me, directly over the treeline along the edge of Seacliff Drive. Unfortunately the sun was making the bird backlit and I immediately guessed it was a Northern Harrier due to the wing shape and somewhat wobbly flight. I got on it with my scope and studied it for about 15 seconds. The bird seemed too Buteo-like and thoughts of Swainson's Hawks danced in my head. I ran to get my camera (I had left it inside my car, while I was standing with my scope about 10 meters away), and fired off a dozen shots or so. The bird was very distant for a 300 mm lens, but when cropped you can make out some details.

I continued watching the bird for another 10 or 20 seconds before it drifted farther south and became hidden by the treeline.

Looking at the photos on my computer after, the bird appeared to be a Swainson's Hawk. I sent a few emails out with a cell phone shot of the photo on my computer screen, and everyone agreed that it was likely a Swainson's. Here they are!

This first photo is the original file straight out of the camera. Even at that distance, the long-winged look is evident.

Here is a crop of the same photo that has also been brightened...

It appeared to be a light morph adult Swainson's Hawk. The hooded effect can be seen in the above photo.

The next two photos are the same image with the second version lightened by a few stops. The dark flight feathers (primaries and secondaries) are one ID feature of a Swainson's Hawk. One issue with the bird is that the wingtips aren't pointed like what is usually seen with Swainson's Hawk, but I don't have much first-hand experience with the species...

You can also see the relatively long tail in the next photo - a feature which makes Swainson's Hawks look more like Northern Harriers. Most Buteos have short tails. Undoubtedly more than a few Northern Harriers have been called Swainson's Hawks before in Ontario. This image shows that the bird may have broader wings than what it seems like in the previous images. I'm not sure if it is the angle or if my initial impressions of the bird are off...

Swainson's Hawk is an exciting find for me. It was a new Ontario bird, only the 3rd species I've added to my Ontario list this year despite a considerable amount of time birding. I have some doubts about the bird though, such as the lack of pointed wingtips, plus the fact that my ID was based off of analyzing the photos more so than what I saw with my eyes, since the lighting was so poor. I sent the photo off to a few other birders, and some thought it looked good while others were not sure. At any rate I'll do more looking into this bird to determine if it actually is a Swainson's Hawk.

Swainson's Hawks show up every year in Ontario, usually at hawk watches flying by. As of the end of the 2011 report, there were 52 accepted records for Ontario. However, their status as a rarity is somewhat skewed. There are hawk watching stations set up in about 5 places in Ontario that are manned nearly every day during migration for most of the day. With such a large amount of time spent every day dedicated to hawk-watching, Swainson's Hawks appear more common than what is actually the case compared to other rarities. Just think - if there were manned bird observatories in 5 or 6 places along the north shore of Ontario in Hudson's/James Bay that scanned the ocean for 8 hours a day every day during the spring and autumn, how many shearwaters would be found in Ontario! I would imagine that a lot of species would prove to be quite regular; species which may only currently have one or two records in Ontario.

Saturday 21 September 2013

Pelee rarities

Im testing out the Blogger app so that I can make blog posts from the field - hope it works!

It looks like the massive front that pushed through has brought some good birds with it. 

Yesterday morning, I slept through my 3:00 AM alarm, opting for the 5:00 AM one instead. That cost me a Least Tern, as Alan Wormington found one flying by the tip at 8:40 AM! I instead arrived in the Pelee area by 10:00 AM.  This is about the 6th or so record for Ontario, and the second for Point Pelee. 

Despite that huge miss, birding has been pretty awesome this weekend! I've found 4 rarities of varying levels so far, and hoping for another couple.

Red Phalarope: flyby at the tip yesterday just before noon. It came racing down the west side of the tip, crossed over, and headed east. Only my 3rd REPH for Ontario.

Glossy/White-faced Ibis: this is one that got away! After using the facilities at the Hillman Marsh shorebird cell, I was just getting back to my car when I saw an interesting bird heading towards looked like an ibis, so I sprinted the last 5 steps to my car and grabbed my binoculars. Unfortunately by the time I got on the bird, it was heading east away from me and I couldn't tell which species of dark ibis it was. Glossy is usually more likely in Ontario, though this weather system rolling in from the west, along with the presence of a few western birds in the province (Least Tern, Franklins Gulls) make me think it could have been a White-faced. I searched the Hillman area for an hour or two with no luck. My guess is its hanging out at the Couture Dyke, or feeding in one of the flooded fields in the area.

This was the first ibis I've found in Ontario so it was frustrating to not be able to pin it to species. Hopefully it's re-found this weekend!

Worm-eating Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler: these two beauts were in the same foraging flock of warblers at DeLaurier this morning. I actually saw them about 3 minutes apart, in almost the exact same spot! The Worm-eating was my first autumn record for Ontario and only perhaps the 5th or 6th I've seen.  The Golden-winged Warb was my second autumn record, with my first coming a few ago at Point Pelee with Kory Renaud.

The skies are clearing and the wind is shifting north - maybe it's time to do some hawk-watching. I still need Swainson's hawk for Ontario...

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Jaegers in Mississauga!

This evening, David Szmyr and I drove down to the Lake Ontario shoreline after work to try to find some migrant songbirds. With the cold front moving through, reports were coming in from Hamilton that a lot of birds were at the local migrant traps!

We met up with Kory Renaud (who was in Mississauga this week for work) and checked out Rattray Marsh. Much to our surprise, it was completely devoid of migrants! I don't think we found a single migrant songbird in the 45 minutes or so we walked around the place. Eventually we decided to check out the lake to see what was out there.

Not 5 minutes later, Dave had picked out a jaeger heading east! We got on it - an intermediate juvenile Parasitic that was not too distant. It was a lifer for Dave and only the second one ever for Kory, so it was pretty exciting to watch it pick up speed and harass gulls.

Kory looking for jaegers

We got on a second jaeger not long after - a Long-tailed! It was either an adult or second alternate bird and was a lifer for both Kory and Dave. We spent the rest of the evening parked out on the lake, hoping for more pelagic species as a light southeast wind blew off the lake. Two more jaegers appeared briefly from the west, traveling together. They picked on a few gulls before turning and heading back the way they came. Those ones were different individuals than the previous jaegers and were likely both Parasitics (tough to say for sure with distant looks).

Throughout the rest of the evening we got brief looks at the Long-tailed flying around to the east, but no other pelagics showed. It was an exciting few hours at the lake, and certainly beat the lack of songbirds!

As far as I am aware there are no previous records of Long-tailed Jaeger from the Regional Municipality of Peel. If someone knows otherwise, please let me know. :)

Toronto as seen from Rattray Marsh

Monday 16 September 2013

Back from Nova Scotia and an upcoming rarity-hunting trip!

On Saturday night I returned from a 6 day trip to Nova Scotia with Laura. She has family out there, and it has become a tradition of mine to go out there for a week or so every year around this time! We didn't get out for any birding this trip, though I did see some Northern Fulmars from shore on my first day there, when we visited a little harbour on the Bay of Fundy. Here is the only other fulmar I've seen in Nova Scotia - from early September, 2011.

It has also been a tradition over the last couple of years that whenever I go on my late summer trip to Nova Scotia, a first for Canada shows up! Last autumn it was the Kelp Gull found by Alan Wormington, and this autumn it was the Brown-chested Martin found by Brandon Holden. What will it be next year???


Now that I am back in the province, I'm really starting to look forward to a trip that is in the works. Next week, I leave with Alan Wormington and Jeremy Bensette on a week long rarity blitz of northern Ontario. Our general plan is to spend 4 days/3 nights in Moosonee, with a day or two on either side to check out some rarity hotspots (such as hydroelectric dams and small towns) on the way to and from Moosonee. We will be following essentially the same route that Alan, Mark Jennings, and I went on last year, and it will be nearly the same dates as well. Last year it was a phenomenal trip and here were a few highlights:

Nelson's Sparrows at the Powassan lagoons
-one of few records for Parry Sound District

Lesser Black-backed Gulls at the North Bay landfill
-ditto, except Nipissing District

Lesser Black-backed Gull - North Bay landfill

Northern Hawk Owl from the train to Moosonee (Mark only)

Other northern birds such as Le Conte's Sparrows, finches, Gray Jays, Spruce Grouse, etc

Spruce Grouse - road to Abitibi dam

Canvasback in Moosonee (twitched)
-only about the 3rd record for southern James Bay I believe

Canvasback (lower right) - Moosonee, ON

Harlan's Hawk in Moosonee
-first record for northern Ontario, and 2nd accepted record for Ontario
-there have been a couple of other records, but they haven't been reviewed by the OBRC

Harlan's Hawk - Moosonee, ON

Carolina Wren in Moosonee
-first record for the Hudson Bay lowlands, and possibly the most northerly record of this species ever
-identified by song, and later photographed

Carolina Wren - Moosonee, ON

Indigo Bunting at the Moosonee sewage lagoons
-another local rarity: perhaps a half dozen previous records for southern James Bay

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in Kapuskasing
-second record for Cochrane District
-expertly spotted by Alan while we were traveling 110 km/h along the highway

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - Fauquier, ON

Mew Gull in Sault Ste. Marie
-twitched on the way home!

As you can see this part of Ontario is a magnet for rarities, especially during the "magic window" of mid September to mid October. I've created a list of target species for me this trip that I think have the potential to show up in the Moosonee area in late September/early October! Obviously, we probably won't see any of these but maybe we will get lucky and one of these species will be found!

-Northern Wheatear
-Sage Thrasher
-Say's Phoebe
-rare empid (Dusky Flycatcher, Gray Flycatcher, Western Wood-pewee etc)
-Mountain Bluebird
-Prairie Falcon (just maybe the one seen this summer along the coast decides to spend time in town)
-Black-throated Gray Warbler
-Ross's Gull
-Lark Bunting
-southern warbler (Prothonotary, Hooded, Worm-eating etc)

Wednesday 11 September 2013

Peep show

Peeps can be a tough group of shorebirds to identify. They are tiny, they are often seen at a distance, and they can have a myriad of plumages depending on the time of year. Juvenal plumage. Alternate plumage. Basic plumage. Intermediates between all of the above.

But when seen up close, such as by kayak, they can be very approachable! Here are a few from a photoshoot of a juvenile Least Sandpiper last weekend in the Point Pelee marsh.

Least Sandpiper - Point Pelee National Park

Jeremy Bensette and I had let the wind push our kayaks up to the mudflat that the little guy was hunkered down on. It didn't seem at all worried with our presence and picked away at the mud, occasionally giving us a wary glance.

Least Sandpiper - Point Pelee National Park

Least Sandpiper - Point Pelee National Park

Least Sandpiper - Point Pelee National Park

Every now and then it peered up an some unseen (by us) danger in the sky.

Least Sandpiper - Point Pelee National Park

This is a very bright juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper. Young Semipalmated Sandpipers can have a surprising amount of rufous in the scapulars, similar to a Western Sandpiper. The structure of the bird, pattern of the coverts, and bill length and shape all point to a Semipalmated, however.

Ontario has 5 regular species that are referred to as peeps: the common Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, the rare but somewhat regular Western Sandpiper, and the two larger peeps: White-rumped and Baird's. Compared to the smaller three species, these two have a very long primary projection, giving them a longer, more attenuated profile. The photo below is of a group of White-rumped Sandpipers.

White-rumped and Baird's Sandpipers have the longer tapered appearance to the back end because they have really long wings. Here is a photo of some in flight, along with some Semipalmated Sandpipers and the larger Pectoral Sandpipers. Look at the 3 birds at the bottom-middle of the frame. The lower two are peeps with a longer-winged White-rumped just above them in the frame.

I have yet to obtain good photos of a Baird's Sandpiper, so the below photo will have to do (from James Bay last summer). We see predominately juveniles in Ontario during fall migration, and only occasionally is a Baird's seen somewhere in the province in the spring. 

This Baird's below has the long, attenuated profile, because of the long wings, a "buffier" upper breast/throat/head, a plainer face, and a scaly looking back caused by the silver and black patterning of the scapulars (back feathers). 

Baird`s Sandpiper - Longridge Point, James Bay

Update: Here are some better photos of a juvenile Baird`s; a very late bird that lingered until November at Netitishi Point in 2012.

Baird`s Sandpiper - Netitishi Point, James Bay

Baird`s Sandpiper - Netitishi Point, James Bay

Baird`s Sandpiper - Netitishi Point, James Bay

The next species isn't a peep - rather it is a plover. But Semipalmated Plovers are so darn cute that I had to throw in a few photos of them from last weekend!