Saturday 30 November 2013

"Yellow-legged" Gull saga continues

You may recall the interesting gull that several of us found at Niagara Falls on Saturday, November 23, 2013. I talked about it extensively here....

At the time, several birders/fanatical gullers pronounced the bird a graellsi Lesser Black-backed Gull (LBBG) and that seemed to be the consensus. However, after additional photos were circulated and extensive dialogue among many birders continued, the tide seemed to shift and Yellow-legged Gull YLGU) remained a possibility, as did Lesser Black-backed Gull x American Herring Gull (AHGU).

Yesterday the interesting gull made a second appearance to gullers on the Niagara River and several people were able to obtain good quality photos. Jean Iron has some posted on her blog here. Willie D'Anna has posted some photos on his Flickr page here.

I won't go over every single ID feature at the time, but thought I would mention a few characters that are present on this bird.

Mantle colour: Intermediate between AHGU and LBBG, though slightly closer to AHGU. Mantle shows no evidence of brownish tones, a feature which is often seen on LBBG

Legs: Bright yellow, no hint of pink like most LBBG x AHGU

Bill: bright yellow bill, bright red and large gonydeal spot, strongly curved culmen

Orbital Ring: appeared red in the field, though it was not as bright as it would be on a breeding plumage YLGU or LBBG

Primary pattern: short P9 and P10, indicating that the bird is still growing them in. This is also to blame why the bird has less extensive black on the wingtip than what is normal for a YLGU. Small mirror on P10, no mirrors on any other primaries, narrow subapical bar on P5, and a small black spot on P4. This wingtip pattern, to me, looks like it could fit either YLGU or LBBG, but it is hard to tell with the two outer primaries still growing in.

Size/structure: About the same size as a AHGU, though perhaps a touch smaller. Some observers though it appeared longer legged than nearby LBBG (I did not notice this in the field, though). Did not appear "long-winged" like one would expect in a LBBG, however that was because primaries P9 and P10 were not finished growing

At the moment, only two characters appear out of odds with an atlantis YLGU: the light streaking on the head, neck, and upper breast, and the molt timing. YLGU should have the streaking restricted to the head, with the heaviest streaking around the eye. Apparently streaking should never extend onto the neck and lower breast. In doing some research, several photos have emerged of YLGUs with streaking extending well onto the hind nape and onto the throat. Check out this bad boy!!!. At any rate, while still a very useful ID feature, there are some exceptions to the rule.

I am not sure what to make of the molt timing. LBBG can be a late molter, and the YLGUs they get in Newfoundland have completed their primary molt by October.

Personally, I am not convinced at this point in time that this is a YLGU. I think the most likely scenario is that it is a hybrid that very closely mimics a YLGU. After looking at hundreds of images of Yellow-legged Gulls, presumed hybrids, and LBBGs, I just don't get a YLGU "feel" from this bird. It is hard to quantify why that is, but I think it has to do with the head shape, for one. Obviously the head streaking appears to be a red flag and the molt timing is off for a typical atlantis YLGU in North America. We are still receiving feedback, especially from European birders who are more familiar with the local races of Herring, Lesser Black-backed, and Yellow-legged Gulls.

I'll close with the following quotes from various birders and gull experts who weighed in on this bird, though I'll leave their names out. 

"The number of characters for which the bird shows an absence of any notion of intermediacy betweensmithsonianus (referring to Herring Gull)and fuscus (referring to Lesser Black-backed Gull)is definitely becoming most impressive to me.">

"The question that arises too, is can the make-up of the head streaking be considered as being diagnostically incorrect for YLG or can this be a case of individual variation within the species, albeit an uncommon one? Moreover, can the possible variance of this one plumage character overcome the suite of features, as you have spelled out, that point to a pure YLG? To further, where are the intermediate characters on the Niagara gull that we associate with at least a first generation hybrid? I am not seeing any."

"This gull is unusual and very interesting. It is not a classic example of anything, no species or any typical hybrid result.  We grapple for a label but as is common among gulls there is no clear answer.  I think it would be a big mistake to force the identification of this gull as Yellow-legged Gull."

"Another interesting point, too, is that the original August 1973 specimen of atlantis Yellow-legged Gull from the Madeleine Islands of Quebec was originally published as a possible HERG x LBBG hybrid! The urge to strive to be conservative is always commendable, but one has to guard against it sometimes blinkering us to what might otherwise be obvious when orthodoxies are questioned."

"In examining the Birdguides photos, I found that the vast majority of definitive plumaged YLGs had only the subapical bar on P5. However, what was of great intrigue to me was that about six individuals possessed the precise same combined pattern of a P5 black bar and a small round black mark on P4 in the exact spot as was on the Niagara gull! I am not able to say if any putative hybrid gull resembling the Niagara bird could have this pattern on P4 and P5. I have also, at this time, not examined any kindred “pure” species for a similar pattern.The fact that even a small number of definitive YLGs have this combined character on P4 and P5 certainly warrants further investigation and suggests a regularly occurring though very uncommon trait in that species. That this feature was also present on the Niagara gull speaks to me of the possibility of this being more than a co-incidence."

"Notice, too, that this attached photo of a Newfoundland Yellow-legged Gull shows exactly the same pattern that you are describing too. Even more interesting to me is that bird has a virtually identical bill structure, bill colour, bill length and thickness ratio and gonydeal spot placement, colour and extent as our Niagara Falls bird. The leg colour tone is essentially identical too as is my field impression of mantle shade.""I agree that this seems perhaps more than mere coincidence.  That AHG x LBBG hybrids might mimic YLGU so convincingly for so many of these traits while altering solely the head pattern is becoming more of a problem for me to logically reconcile, particularly since we know Yellow-legged Gull has been occurring in Canada since at least the early 1970s and is now annual in Newfoundland."

"I fully agree with you that this should be a hybrid (LBBG x AHGU), mainly due to the extensive head and breast streaking, but also late primary moult. An adult Yellow-legged Gull should have finished its primary moult sometime in October already, while this bird is still growing P9-10 (and some inner secondaries). The seemingly rather dull colour of the orbital ring may also be of help. Note, however, that the primary pattern is quite identical to that of michahellis (referring to another subspecies of YLGU)."

"No clear answers with gulls is so often the rule rather than the exception also."

If anyone else would like to weight in on the gull, feel free to send me an email or write a comment below.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Netitishi day 8

Introductory Post
Day 1 and 2 - October 24 and 25, 2013
Day 3 and 4 - October 26 and 27, 2013
Day 5 - October 28, 2013
Day 6 - October 29, 2013
Day 7 - October 30, 2013
Day 8 - October 31, 2013
Day 9 - November 1, 2013
Day 10 and 11 - November 2 and 3, 2013

October 31, 2013
Weather: between 2 and 8 degrees, overcast with some periods of sun, very light west wind and calm at dusk. 
31 species
Ebird checklist:

I had considered the Netitishi trip a definite success after the Gyrfalcon excitement of yesterday. This morning started calm and cool, though as the day wore on the temperature increased. We hadn't seen much and were back at the cabins having a coffee break around mid-morning. We were sitting in the chairs on the porch of the cabin, when out of the corner of my eye I caught a familiar looking bird coming in for a landing in the marsh. It was a Great Blue Heron! The marsh had been frozen only a few days prior, though it had partly thawed at this point. The heron landed out of sight in the back of the marsh. Here is an aerial of the cabins and the marsh,that Alan took when we were flown in at the start of the trip.

cabins at Netitishi Point - photo by Alan Wormington

I walked behind the cabins around the east end of the marsh looking for the heron. For some reason it was no longer present and must have flown off when I ran to get my camera.

After circling the marsh, I walked back to the cabin and we were sitting there again when I noticed a medium sized bird coming in for a landing. The only medium sized birds that we were seeing regularly were Pine Grosbeaks and the odd American Robin. This bird was a little different, and I realized it was likely a Townsend's Solitaire. I yelled it out to Alan, snapped a few quick photos, and confirmed that it was a solitaire. We both shot a series of photos of it backlit at the far end out of the marsh before it flew down out of site.

Townsend's Solitaire - Netitishi Point

We attempted to relocate the bird by walking around in the spruces near that end of the marsh. After about 15 minutes, I was standing at the far edge of the marsh when I observed a medium-sized bird landing in the top of a spruce near the camp. It was the solitaire again!

Townsend's Solitaire - Netitishi Point

After calling Alan over, we walked towards where the bird had landed. While walking through an area of dense forest, we stopped suddenly when a bird moved really close to the path. It was the bird again!

Townsend's Solitaire - Netitishi Point

This rarity was the first record for all of Cochrane District and the Hudson's Bay lowlands. Just another testament to the potential that exists here at Netitishi.

Townsend's Solitaire - Netitishi Point

After about 15 minutes, the solitaire flew towards the marsh and we lost it.

Townsend's Solitaire - Netitishi Point

The rest of the day was fairly non-eventful bird wise. Both a Black-bellied Plover and American Golden-plover were seen, and some Spruce Grouse were near the camp. The solitaire was undoubtedly the highlight of the trip so far!

Sunday 24 November 2013

Netitishi day 7 - Gyrfalcon photoshoot!

Introductory Post
Day 1 and 2 - October 24 and 25, 2013
Day 3 and 4 - October 26 and 27, 2013
Day 5 - October 28, 2013
Day 6 - October 29, 2013
Day 7 - October 30, 2013
Day 8 - October 31, 2013
Day 9 - November 1, 2013
Day 10 and 11 - November 2 and 3, 2013

October 30, 2013
Weather: between -7 and -2 degrees Celsius, mostly clear, winds WSW 10-20 km/h and calm at dusk. 
45 species
Ebird checklist:

This proved to be a fantastic day at Netitishi Point. We observed 45 species of birds, the higher daily count for the trip. There were no really noticeable groups of birds to steal the show - instead, we were able to see most of the expected species. Late shorebirds included two Black-bellied Plovers, two American Golden-plovers, a Greater Yellowlegs, and a Hudsonian Godwit. Two new birds were added to the trip list - a group of three Ruffed Grouse that I found near the camp, and a Red Phalarope an hour later.

I sat down at my scope and  was scanning over the calm sea, lit up with late October sunshine. After a few minutes of watching flocks of Dunlin flying by but not much else, I got on a plump gray shorebird with a narrow white wingstripe and white underwing. It was a Red Phalarope and I stayed on it as it for about a minute as it motored on a few hundred meters off shore, heading west. Red Phalaropes are uncommon but regular in the autumn in southern James Bay and I was happy to finally see my first.

Later in the afternoon, Alan returned from a walk down to meadows east of the point. He was within earshot when I noticed a large pale bird of prey coming in off the bay and flying straight at us. "Look up!" I yelled. We watched as the white morph Gyrfalcon came straight at us, curious as to who we were.

Gyrfalcon - Netitishi Point

It ended up being one of the most memorable wildlife experiences that I have ever had. The lighting was perfect, I happened to have my camera on me, and I was in perfect position with the sun at my back to capture flight photos. The Gyrfalcon was immaculate!

Gyrfalcon - Netitishi Point

The Gyrfalcon buzzed us not once but four times over the course of several minutes. Twice it perched at the pinnacle of a nearby spruce, allowing us to have prolonged views of this arctic beauty.

Gyrfalcon - Netitishi Point

Big wing stretch!

Gyrfalcon - Netitishi Point

Wow. Flying directly at me...what an experience!

Gyrfalcon - Netitishi Point

This following photograph was certainly my favorite of the bunch. One of my goals of the trip was to get re-acquanted with Gyrfalcons, a species that in Ontario can only be somewhat reliably seen in James Bay in late autumn. I had always dreamed of having a photoshoot with a gyr, but never imagined that it could have gone this well. This is definitely my favorite photo of the bird!

Gyrfalcon - Netitishi Point

Eventually the Gyrfalcon had enough of us, and after one more flyby, it powered off over the frozen coastline to the west.

Gyrfalcon - Netitishi Point

Gyrfalcon - Netitishi Point

Gyrfalcon - Netitishi Point

Needless to say, after building a fire that evening we broke out the whiskey to celebrate a successful day at Netitishi Point. The Gyrfalcon photoshoot was undoubtedly the main highlight of the trip at this point, but it was only going to get better the next day...

Saturday 23 November 2013

Possible Yellow-legged Gull consensus and photos

This afternoon I was birding the Control Gates above Niagara Falls with the University of Guelph Wildlife Club, on their annual gull-watching trip to the Niagara River. We had already seen the continuing Elegant Tern (a lifer for almost everyone) and a few interesting gulls, such as an adult Thayer's, some Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and several Glaucous and Iceland Gulls. I noticed an interesting bird on the breakwall that I initially thought was a hybrid Lesser Black-backed Gull x Herring Gull. I told David Beadle, Bob Yukich and Glenn Coady and we studied the bird. David moved further down eventually to get closer looks and photos of the bird. It definitely seemed paler than a Lesser Black-backed, but had bright yellow legs and did not appear to be a hybrid gull on several fronts (not very streaky, very clean bill, legs were very bright yellow etc). A large group of birders here studied the bird for a while as it sat on the breakwall and in the water. David Beadle and I managed to take some photos of the bird in flight, though as you will see my photos aren't very good. The possibility of the bird being a Yellow-legged Gull, a species never before recorded in Ontario, emerged as we continued to study the bird. I put a message on Ontbirds about the possible Yellow-legged Gull in case birders were in the area, though I mentioned that we hadn't definitely eliminated a hybrid Lesser Black-backed x Herring.

Photos were circulated to a few experts on gull identification and the consensus seemed to be that it was a Lesser Black-backed Gull, though one with very minimal head streaking for the time of year.

Goes to show that gull identification, even of adult birds seen from close range in good lighting by a number of experienced birders, is not always easy. A learning experience for sure. Without further ado, here are some photos taken by Barb Charlton and I.

The bird is second from the right. Mantle colour is intermediate between Herring Gull and Great Black-backed Gull, though to me it looks a touch closer to Herring Gull.

Two closer shots by Barb. The bill colour and shape, red orbital ring (hard to see in the photo but was seen in the field), and leg colour is good for both Yellow-legged Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull. Note the fine streaks that extend down to the chest, a feature that should never exist in Yellow-legged Gull. Streaking should be concentrated around the eye and towards the front of the face, though never extending to the neck and chest.

I took this photo of the bird on the water with a Herring Gull, though they were drifting away from me by the time I walked down closer to the shore. As you can see, the mantle colour is not nearly as dark as on a Lesser Black-backed Gull. At certain angles and lighting situations the mantle appeared darker than this.

This is one of the few flight shots I managed of the bird, though the angle is too steep to see really well. Yellow-legged Gull should have one small window on P10, no windows on the other primaries, extensive black on the primaries P6 to P10, a thin band on P5, and a relatively sharp delineation with the black and the gray.

If anyone has additional comments, they are welcome.

Friday 22 November 2013

A dramatic tern of events

Wow, what an insane bird to show up on the Niagara River. I thought the Brown Booby was unexpected and would be unparalleled in 2013, but an Elegant Tern is just as big as a rarity; one that I certainly did not have on my radar.

Sure, this tropical Pacific species has been exhibiting vagrancy in recent decades. Almost all of the handful of east coast records have been in the last decade. But this is a coastal species that rarely is seen inland.

That is the magic of the Great Lakes for you! Coastal species that somehow find themselves lost over the giant landmass of North America may eventually pass over the Great Lakes. It is not ideal, but it kind of looks like the ocean, and it sure as hell beats landing in a cornfield in Iowa or something.

And so Ontario's first Elegant Tern was seen this way! The Niagara River is an amazing spot to catch rarities. Waterbirds lost on Lake Erie may wander the shoreline and at some point approach the mouth of the Niagara River. There are many birds there but most importantly there are a lot of fish! Emerald Shiners make up an important level on this trophic pyramid and are the main food source of the thousands of gulls and other waterbirds that end up on the river.

At 9:23 AM the message came across the Genesee Birds (Buffalo area) listserv - the bird was present. At 10:48 AM an Ontbirds post mentioned that the bird was being seen well by birders in Ontario, viewing it sitting on a pier on the New York side. My main concern was alleviated - that the distance would be too great along the river to see the tern from Ontario.

I tied up a few loose ends at work, told the other biologist that I was working with that I had to go (he understands my crazy bird obsession), and by 12:05 I was on the road. No time to stop at home to grab my camera, passport, or warm weather gear. Luckily I always have my spotting scope and binoculars in the car. The drive seemed agonizingly long, as is often the case when chasing a rarity, even without any traffic between Aurora and Niagara Falls! But eventually I arrived and Glenn Coady had the bird in his scope for me when I arrived.

I enjoyed the rest of the afternoon and evening (if you can even call it an evening when the sun is set by 5:00 PM) studying the bird as it mainly rested on the pier with a flock of Bonaparte's Gulls. At times it would fly off the pier when all the gulls spooked for some unknown reason but it was always the first bird back on the pier.

Alan Wormington soon showed up to see the bird and it was just him and I watching it until dusk. We were hoping to see it fly somewhere to roost and presumably pass into Ontario waters. While it did get up and fish continuously (and rather successfully) for about 20 minutes, it never appeared to fly into Ontario waters, despite the border appearing to be closer to the New York shoreline. It may have at one point but it was impossible to be sure. Apparently some birders earlier in the day definitely observed the bird pass into Ontario, so it will likely be accepted as a new bird for the Ontario list! Oh, those political boundaries....

Unfortunately no photos of the bird from me, but several birders on the NY side captured excellent shots. Check out Jim Pawlicki's photostream...   

Thursday 21 November 2013

Elegant Tern on the Niagara River!

Yesterday afternoon an orange-billed tern was found on the Niagara River by Vicky Rothman, who notified Jim Pawlicki. Jim and Vicky relocated the bird and were surprised to see it was apparently a 1st cycle Elegant Tern! They observed the bird was Beaver Island State Park on Grand Island, Erie County, New York. As far as I am aware the bird was not seen on the Ontario side of the river, though the border is much closer to the New York side than the Ontario side at this point. If the bird sticks around, it seems like only a matter of time until it flies into Ontario airspace.

Jim took a few photos, which can be viewed on his Flickr page here. He also has a map of the area where the bird was seen on his Flickr page.

 There are no records for Ontario or the entire Great Lakes region, much like the Brown Booby from earlier this autumn. In fact 10 years ago there were only two records of Elegant Tern in eastern North America: a bird in Corpus Christi, Texas on July 25, 1889 and one from June 20, 1985 at Chincoteague NWR, Virginia. Elegant Terns breed in the Gulf of California and are regular in southern California; however, in recent years they have been exhibiting vagrancy up the Pacific Coast with records as far north as British Columbia. On the east coast they are still a major rarity though there have been somewhere between 5 and 10 records. In fact, vagrants have been seen as far afield as Denmark, Ireland, Belgium, and South Africa!

Wikipedia tells me this is what they look like

I am currently at work but if this tern decides to make an appearance at the river today, I'll see what I can do. Good luck to those looking right now!

Sunday 17 November 2013

Pelee rarities day 3 and a dead gull...

This morning, Jeremy and I headed down to the tip nearly first thing in the morning, though Blake Mann and a few others had us beat...luckily we hadn't missed any Pacific Loons at this point, unlike yesterday! Before reaching the point, Jeremy and I stopped after noticing an Eastern Screech-owl peeking out of a hole in a tree near the Sparrow Field.

Fewer birds were flying by, though the winds continued strong out of the SSW. After a while of scanning through dwindling numbers of Common Loons, Red-breasted Merganers, all 3 scoters, and Horned Grebes filtering down the east side of the tip, Blake happened to notice a jaeger powering down the west side!

We all jumped up and got on the bird as it flew straight towards the point. I was really hoping for a Pomarine Jaeger, however the slender build and rufous tones on the bird made it clear that it was a Parasitic! Still, this was a good find since jaegers can be pretty scarce at Pelee. Despite a birder or rarely, several birders at the tip most days throughout the fall, only a handful are seen each season. This was my third Point Pelee Parasitic Jaeger after singles on September 24, 2010 and August 10, 2013. I didn't try for photos though Jeremy Bensette managed a few decent ones.

About an hour later, I was sitting on a strategically placed bench when Kory Renaud casually asked me if I wanted a new Pelee bird. He told me to look at the tip, and sure enough a Purple Sandpiper had landed there! Spot on!

I successfully managed to flush all the gulls off of the tip while the sandpiper stayed put, allowing me to take some half decent photos of the purp-etrator!

This was my second new Pelee bird for the weekend after the Bohemian Waxwing yesterday. I am slowly creeping up to #300...

A few Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks were repeatedly flying out to the tip before looping back around.

This bat was tucked away in a corner at the washroom by the tram stop. I think it is an Eastern Pipistrelle based on its tiny size, reddish forelimbs, black wing linings, and golden brown fir.

The rest of the day was fairly uneventful sightings wise. A group of us checked DeLaurier for the Bohemian Waxwing, and only one or two people had brief glimpses at it, leaving many of us disappointed. There were thousands of Cedar Waxwings around and this bird could very well stay for a few more days or longer!

I later checked the south end of Hillman Marsh with Jeremy Bensette, turning up a Greater Yellowlegs and 10 Pectoral Sandpipers. About two dozen Dunlins were still hanging on - good numbers for the date!
The north end of Hillman Marsh as well as Wheatley harbour were both busts, so I continued on my way home.

Driving on Highway #3 along the lakeshore, I turned down the road leading to Erie Beach, hoping to see an interesting feeder bird or maybe something in a field. Cattle Egret perhaps?

That was not to be, but as I was driving along I glimpsed a dead gull on the road. As I flew past it, I was shocked to see it had a darker mantle! I had thoughts of Franklin's Gulls in my head when  turned the car around. What was the bird? You guessed it...

Gulls were feeding in an adjacent field and washing off in the lake, thus constantly flying across the road. It wasn't a very busy stretch, but this very unlucky Franklin's Gull made a slight miscalculation - its last.

I emailed a photo to several local birders. Funny enough, Steve Charbonneau (a resident of Erie Beach) mentioned finding a first cycle Franklin's Gull at the nearby Blenheim lagoons earlier in the day. He had passed by the spot (where I later found the dead gull) several times through the course of the day and did not see it. It was still warm when I happened across it an hour before dusk.

Not the way I prefer seeing Franklin's Gulls, but it is safely stored in my freezer and will be transported to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto when I get a chance. Hopefully my (non-birder) roommates don't open the suspicious plastic bag with my name on it in the freezer...

McGeachy's Pond near Erieau held hundreds of geese. I was surprised to see a group of 5 Snow Geese, but as I was pulling up they took off, with the Canada Geese staying on the pond.

Saturday 16 November 2013

Pelee rarities day two...

Another great day of birding at Point Pelee...

photo by Jeremy Bensette

I was a little late arriving at the tip this morning, and Steve Pike and Alan Wormington had already seen a Pacific Loon fly by with three Common Loons. That would have been a new Pelee bird for me. It didn't take long for another great bird to make a sighting. It was a juvenile Black-legged Kittiwake that Alan spotted, and it was close enough that we were able to take a few distant photographs.

Kittiwakes are pretty much annual at Pelee, and this was the second one this year after one seen in early January.

Not long later, I got on a second kittiwake flying south along the east side of the tip. This one was even closer and we were able to see it circling over the tip.

Other highlights included many pipits and Horned Larks, a bunch of Horned Grebes, two more Eared Grebes (including one that sat in the water offshore for a few minutes), a Merlin, a Long-tailed Duck, a Red-throated Loon, and many Common Loons. Not a bad morning at all!

Steve Pike and I birded together for the rest of the day and had a few notable sightings. The first was an Evening Grosbeak that we heard several times near the end of Shuster trail. A decent group of birds were there too, including many Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Later we checked DeLaurier. We ran into Alan who had spent several hours there, seeing a House Wren, Gray Catbird, and a bird that got away that might have been a Townsend's Solitaire. Steve and I had only walked south for about 15 minutes when we happened upon several groups of Cedar Waxwings. He saw a suspiciously large bird with them, yelled it out, and I got on it as well just before it landed in the trees. He thought it might have been a Bohemian Waxwing, though we both weren't certain that was what it was.

We walked up to the group of trees while the waxwings stayed there, feeding off a type of berries. The larger bird was there and it appeared to be a Bohemian! The rufous undertail coverts really stood out.

Other ID features include longer crest, gray body, larger size, and more drawn out, rattling call. Bohemian Waxwings aren't annual at Point Pelee and it was in fact my first and Steve's second.

We finished the day by checking the onion fields, Hillman Marsh, and Wheatley harbour. A ton of gulls were in the harbour but we weren't unable to turn up anything too interesting in the fading light. 

It was another great day in the Pelee area and we have high hopes for tomorrow morning.

Friday 15 November 2013

Point Pelee rarity trip

While some birders are heading up to Netitishi this weekend, I took off and drove down to Pelee. I arrived late last night, slept in my car, and by morning stationed myself at the tip.

The winds were out of the southwest and picked up as the morning wore on. The forecast was for continued south winds for the full weekend, and the temperature was supposed to increase to a balmy 14 degrees. I was definitely hoping that a few good birds would be around.

View from the tip

There were a decent number of birds moving throughout the morning. Thousands of Red-breasted Mergansers, a bunch of White-winged Scoters and scaup, and dozens of Horned Grebes and Common Loons. At one point we saw a Red-throated Loon flying by near a Common Loon - a nice comparison of the two species.

In the late morning we had our best birds of the day in a pair of Eared Grebes. The first was flying with 3 Horned Grebes, heading east down the point. The Eared had a clearly smaller and duskier head, lacking the obvious white cheek patch of a Horned. It was also a little bit smaller and darker on the back.Eventually the four birds disappeared to the south.

Fifteen minutes later, Alan spotted an interesting grebe resting in the water by the tip. It too was an Eared Grebe! I walked out with my camera and managed a few distant shots.

I later noticed a different gull sitting on the tip. It had a darker mantle, but everything about it pointed towards a hybrid Herring x Great Black-backed Gull. Later on I saw a juvenile Lesser Black-backed with Kory Renaud.

Passerines were scarce today but I did scare up a few interesting things. Fox sparrows were the most frequently encountered sparrow in the park, and DeLaurier held a flock of at least 55 bluebirds. I was sorting through a flock of 25 (including the bird below) when 30 more flew overhead calling.

A surprise was a late Orange-crowned Warbler in the southeastern corner of sparrow field. It was all by itself, gleaning insects from some of the low plants and shrubs.

I later checked a few spots outside the park including Towle Harbour, Sturgeon Creek, the onion fields, and the south end of Hillman Marsh. Check out this thing...

There were 10 of them along with a few fat chickens in someone's yard...

I later checked Hillman before sunset and was surprised to find a diverse group of shorebirds at the north end of the marsh. Included with the Killdeers and Dunlins were two Pectoral Sandpipers and a juvenile Baird's Sandpiper! These were the latest migrants I had seen for either species in Ontario.

At dusk I met up with Jeremy Bensette and we went to a spot that hosts Long-eared Owls every winter. We waited until it was dark, but eventually several owls flew out of the cedars. We even recorded one barking a few times! Another one flew overhead carrying a mouse. It was a pretty cool way to end the day.

Wednesday 13 November 2013

Probable Glaucous-winged Gull in Michigan and Ontario?

Those of you following the Michigan listservs or our listserv, Ontbirds, have probably heard about the Glaucous-winged Gull that has been reported at Port Huron, on both the Michigan and (for the first time today) on the Ontario side of the river. I'm not sure what the consensus is on its identification, but it is being eBirded in Michigan as a Glaucous-winged Gull. This eBird checklist contains two photos of the bird. Its a tough angle and hard to get a judge on the "stoutness" of the bill among other features, but it does kinda look like a Glaucous-winged Gull.

Glaucous-winged Gull is a western species that has strayed to the Great Lakes several times, and even twice to Newfoundland! However, it has never been confirmed for Ontario. You may recall that back in July of 2011 I picked this species as the #4 most likely species to be added to the Ontario checklist. Since then, some very unexpected species were added to the Ontario checklist (pending acceptance by the OBRC) in Thick-billed Kingbird, Kelp Gull, Brown-chested Martin, and Brown Booby. Who would have seen that coming?

This probable Glaucous-winged Gull in Michigan was first reported by Ryan Dziedzic to the "Michigan Listers" listserv on Friday, November 8 and had been reported on the 9th and 10th as well.

 Today, Sean Jenniskens posted to Ontbirds:
 "90% sure that I had the Glaucous-winged Gull that has been being seen from port Huron today at 2:35pm from Point Edward Lighthouse. It was first seen on the US Coastguard pier, but after about 5min of viewing half the gulls took off and I followed the gull in flight as it flew north towards a distant group of gulls on US shore."

The identification of a 1st cycle Glaucous-winged Gull is fairly straightforward - a big gull with a stout dark bill, finely patterned upperparts, and wingtips that are a milky brown color (matching the color of the rest of the upperparts). The angle of the head often gives a GWGU an "angry" appearance (as opposed to a more gentler expression, like what one would see with an Iceland Gull, for instance).

It gets more difficult though - Glaucous-winged Gulls freely hybridize, especially with Herring Gulls, Glaucous Gulls, and Western Gulls. In some parts of the Pacific northwest, Glaucous-winged Gulls and Western Gulls hybridize to such a great extent that it can be hard finding pure individuals!

For this to get accepted as a new species for the Ontario checklist, these hybrids will have to be clearly and unequivocally eliminated and detailed photos will probably be needed.

I have plans to spend the weekend in the Point Pelee area - more on that later. But this Glaucous-winged Gull might change my mind. Normally I would drop (nearly) everything to chase a potential new species for the province (see: Brown Booby)  but I'm kind of hesitant on this one. First, the gull hasn't been easy to find and has been playing hide and seek on the Michigan side, plus has only been reported once on the Ontario side. I did not see any reports from November 11 or 12. Second, it can be hard to get motivated to chase an "unspectacular" first for the province, if there ever was such a thing, such as a fugly 1st cycle gull. Third, who's to say that this thing isn't a hybird or a backcross as of right now? And of course it could disappear before I could have a chance to chase it on Friday!

Anyways, I guess we'll see how this one plays out in the coming days...

Monday 11 November 2013

Netitishi day 6

Introductory Post
Day 1 and 2 - October 24 and 25, 2013
Day 3 and 4 - October 26 and 27, 2013
Day 5 - October 28, 2013
Day 6 - October 29, 2013
Day 7 - October 30, 2013
Day 8 - October 31, 2013
Day 9 - November 1, 2013
Day 10 and 11 - November 2 and 3, 2013

October 29, 2013
Weather: between -12 and -5, mostly clear with some overcast periods, winds variable NW to S 10-20 km/h.
44 species
Ebird checklist:

Despite cold condiions and winds that didn't really do much, we ended up having a pretty good day at Netitishi and ended up with one of the highest single day totals EVER for Netitishi point in late October - 44 species! :)

The day began with very cold temperatures. When I awoke to temperatures hovering below -12 degrees I immediately regretted my decision to not stoke my wood stove during the middle of the night. I think I got dressed in record time that morning.

We sat out at the coast and fortunately (from a temperature regulation standpoint) the wind was quite minimal, but unfortunately (from a seeing birds standpoint) the wind was quite minimal. Eventually as we sat there, wondering where the birds were, I heard an odd but familiar sound - Snow Geese! We looked up just in time to see a large flock (about 59 birds) heading due east over us. This was our second sighting of this species for the trip.

Snow Geese - Netitishi Point

Another Thayer's Gull made an appearance - this one flying close enough to shore to warrant some heavily
cropped photos. We saw a total of 4 Thayer's Gull during the trip - a juv/1st winter, a 2nd winter, a 3rd winter, and an adult.

Thayer's Gull - Netitishi Point

Throughout the trip only two species of raptors made regular appearances. The first was a juvenile Northern Goshawk which appeared to have claimed Netitishi Point as it's territory. It was seen usually once a day - either blasting through the spruce trees at approximately a million miles an hour, or terrorizing the Snow Buntings in the grasses between the spruces and the mudflats (also at a million miles an hour). The other regular species was Northern Harrier which was also seen daily (or nearly so). I would imagine that harriers cover a large territory, as we would often go several days between seeing what I presumed to be the same individuals.

Northern Harrier - Netitishi Point

Spruce Grouses were regular inhabitants of the woods around the cabins. On this particular day at least three were seen. I took the time to photograph one of the tasty looking chickens.

Spruce Grouse - Netitishi Point

As is often the case at Netitishi, some of the biggest highlights were the shorebirds! Today, Hudsonian Godwits stole the show. Nine birds flew by throughout the day, always in groups of ones and twos. That is one species that I never tire of seeing! Unfortunately none of them had white underwings...Some of these birds were possibly repeats but most were flying west to east (the usual direction of migrating birds at Netitishi). These sightings really were bizarre. Alan and Doug McRae did not have any HUGOs during their six week 1981 Netithishi trip after October 24, and I don't think any were seen on the 1996 autumn trip. None were seen in 2010, 2011, or 2012 - the only other late October through November trips to Netitishi. So WHY did we see so many HUGOs??? Who knows. But we weren't complaining.

Two Least Sandpipers were an interesting sight. They came in really close, flying east to west, and actually joined up with a swirling flock of Snow Buntings for a few seconds before turning around and flying back east. Our final interesting shorebird highlights were two Lesser Yellowlegs (Alan only) and three juvenile American Golden-plovers, both species that should be long gone in Ontario by this point. Though the same can be said for Least Sandpipers, Hudsonian Godwits, Semipalmated Sandpipers, and Sanderlings - all regular-ish species on this trip.

Also, here is a photo of the World's Smallest Spruce Tree. I did not notice it at the time but apparently some currency was in the photo.

world's smallest tree

That's it for day 6 - stay tuned for days 7 through 11! Our rarest bird of the trip is still ahead...