Thursday 30 January 2014

Upcoming trip

It is that time of year again - the middle of winter. The last two months have been the coldest, windiest, and snowiest in recent memory for December and January. There is well over a foot of snow here in King Township and this is unlikely to change in the next little while. Fortunately I have a few trips planned in the next few months that I am looking forward to.

One of the perks of my job is the ability to work a lot of hours during certain times of the year and bank those hours so I can take time off during slower parts of the year. I managed to bank quite a few hours in May through July of 2013, and despite several autumn and early winter trips, I have a few more weeks of banked time to use up! Here is my plan:

February 27 to March 16 - hardcore birding trip to Panama

On Thursday, February 27 I am flying from Toronto to Panama City, where I will meet up with David Bell (who is currently tearing it up in Mexico) and Steve Pike. Our itinerary, as it currently looks:

February 28, March 1, and March 2:
Birding the Gamboa area in central Panama. This area is located near the Panama Canal and consists of lowland tropical rainforest. There are a ton of specialty birds found in this area, and it is a well known destination to birders visiting Panama. The world famous Pipeline Road travels through Soberania National Park, home to well over 500 species of birds. Pipeline Road in particular goes through a diversity of habitat types - it is possible to see 300 species in a single day here! Ebird lists 418 species that have been recorded from Pipeline Road. I have visited Pipeline Road in the past when I went on an epic herping trip to Panama. One of the highlights was doing some night-hiking in this area.

March 3 to March 5:
Leave Gamboa mid day on March 3, driving southwest into the Pacific foothills to Altos del Maria. We will bird this area for two full days, not leaving until the morning of March 6. March 6 will take us to El Valle, a town nestled in a formerly active volcano. Here the birding is excellent as there are several big changes in elevation and habitat types.

March 6
We leave El Valle, and end up in El Cope. This is really cool tropical rainforest at a relatively high elevation. The plant life is diverse and so are many vertebrate species.

March 7
The next day, we leave El Cope, and spend the whole day driving with some birding stops, all the way into the Darien province in Yaviza. This leads to one of the most remote areas of central America, in an area where there are no roads across.

March 8-12
We will boat into the Ranger's station where we will stay for 4 nights, hiking in the area and seeing a lot of endemic birds (hopefully!). There is a good chance at Harpy Eagle.

March 13 to 16
We leave the Darien on March 13 and start heading back to Panama City. In our last full day we can bird anywhere near the city, for example Cerro Azul for some endemic birds. The following day, Dave flies out, so Steve and I drop him off and have one more day to bird near the city. He leaves the next morning, and I leave the evening of the 16th.

It should be a great trip, and it will be nice to focus on birds and photography this trip, instead of just being dedicated to herps like the last one. We likely won't see as many good herps (we had 15 species of snakes, including one that was new to science last time, and a ton of amphibians!) but we should still see a good variety. I'm not sure how many birds we will see, but there is probably potential for 500 if we put in a really good effort. As well, it will be great to get out of the cold for a few weeks by heading to tropical climes...a welcome change for sure. Until then, I have about four more full weeks to go!

Monday 27 January 2014

Common backyard birds! Photoshoot!

On Saturday I headed over to F.W.R. Dickson Wilderness Area located southwest of Cambridge to do a bit of snowshoeing. The snow had abated after dumping a good 20 cm on top of the 20-30 cm already covering the ground. Though the winds were still moderately strong, the temperature was much warmer than it had been in recent days.

I arrived at the location and was pleasantly surprised to find that I was the only one there. The new snowshoes (thanks Mom and Dad!) worked great and I explored the very familiar trails.

I arrived at a boardwalk that has a few bird feeders and immediately the chickadees began to hound me for seeds. Luckily for them I had a pocketful of black oil sunflower seeds! I set up some of the seeds on the boardwalk and tried a bit of photography with not only the chickadees but some of the other species which are common there in the winter.

A single White-breasted Nuthatch returned time after time to snatch a seed before quickly disappearing to the far side of some tree trunk.

This is definitely a species that I often don't appreciate as much as I probably should, but they can be quite entertaining to watch as they scale trees upside down.

A pair of Northern Cardinals were loudly chipping in the shrubs. Once the chickadees and sparrows began feasting on the sunflower seeds, the male cardinal shortly followed suit.

What are you looking at?

Despite being an abundant bird throughout southern Ontario, Northern Cardinals are one of my favorite. Even after being around these guys for my whole life, it still is mind-numbingly awesome how bright red they can be. What a spectacular bird!

I find Northern Cardinals to actually be quite difficult to photograph, and these were my first decent shots of the species. While common, they can be very secretive, preferring to stay low in the shrubbery, rarely allowing a clean shot at a photograph.

Five different sparrow species were seen on the afternoon, including three species I did not photograph (American Tree, Song, and White-throated). The most numerous though were Dark-eyed Juncos. All appeared to be of the expected Slate-colored subspecies. 

The most unexpected bird of the day was a Swamp Sparrow which skulked around the boardwalk. Swamp Sparrows do winter in very small numbers in southwestern Ontario, though this winter is the coldest in years (decades?) and very few Swamp Sparrows have been reported. I have often seen this species here in the winter before.

One of the most attractive species to be seen on the day was this Red-bellied Woodpecker. It, too, came close to check out the sunflower seeds on the boardwalk. Red-bellied Woodpeckers used to be quite rare in Ontario, but have since invaded from the south. They are now regular through most of southern Ontario with occasional individuals seen in the winter coming to bird feeders in central Ontario. 

Last but not least, well maybe least if you are going by size, is the Black-capped Chickadee. For years these birds had been banded at this site. The majority of the chickadees I saw had bands, so maybe it is still going on.

Saturday 25 January 2014

Spotted Towhee photoshoot

Last Saturday morning the news came across the Ontbirds listserv about a Spotted Towhee that was regularly attending a bird feeder in the community of Glen Williams, located near Georgetown in the north part of Halton Region. At the time I was birding with Dave Szmyr in Niagara, but since I had not seen a Spotted Towhee in two years and it would be a lifer for Dave, our day of studying 50 shades of gray gulls was cut short so we could chase the towhee.

Unfortunately the towhee did not show up that afternoon despite us staking out the feeder it was attending as well as other suitable locations in the community. I returned the following morning to meet up with Barb Charlton, the plan being to see the towhee first thing in the morning (when it was more reliable) and then check out some other spots the rest of the day. It turns out that I missed the towhee by 15 minutes that morning (Barb was there earlier and had fantastic views of it), but the day was young and so we waited by the feeders for a repeat performance. It was not to be, so by 11:00 AM we were on our way to do some other birding. It just so happened that the towhee was seen right after we left, and continued to be seen for almost two hours! So that afternoon, after arriving back at the Trafalgar Road carpool lot so Barb could grab her car, I decided to try once more for the towhee. It was only 15 minutes away. The war was on with the cheeky towhee who had thwarted my attempts at seeing it.

I waited until it was nearly dusk with several other intrepid birders. I even volunteered to leave with 20 minutes of light left since I was the obvious reason that the bird did not show. No luck. Damn bird.

Yesterday morning I awoke to a voicemail and text from Dave, who had the day off work and wanted to try for the towhee again. He just so happened to be going right past my house. I hastily neglected to grab a slingshot to take care of the Spotted bastard, but we were on the road. 

It turns out the fourth time was the charm. As we pulled up, a flash of orange, black, and white disappeared into a nearby shrub. Undoubtedly the towhee sensed my presence and tried to make a hasty exit, but we saw him just in time! I was now batting .250 in my attempts to see the bird!

Spotted Towhee - Glen Williams

Eventually he emerged from the shrubs to wait his turn to grab a seed under the feeder. It actually is a very attractive bird, with rufous flanks, a black head, red eye, and white spots on its wing coverts and scapulars. This species used to be considered the same species as Eastern Towhee, which is the common species we get in Ontario (and eastern North America in general).

Spotted Towhee - Glen Williams

Spotted Towhees are a type of sparrow. They often forage by scratching in the leaf litter, dislodging what they can, in a manner similar to Fox Sparrows. Check out those huge feet - perfect for this type of foraging!

Spotted Towhee - Glen Williams

The bird would come out onto the deck from the small shrub immediately beside it. It would quickly nab a seed and retreat back to the safety of the shrub.

Spotted Towhee - Glen Williams

Spotted Towhee records from Ontario universally fall into two categories. There are occasional spring records, usually of a bird seen only for a day at a migration hotspot. Then there are the late autumn/winter records that involve birds which show up at someone's bird feeder, usually in October through December. Unlike many vagrant birds that attempt to overwinter in Ontario, Spotted Towhees have a track record of being quite successful and many birds hang around until March or April when they presumably depart for their breeding grounds. 

Wednesday 22 January 2014

A day of Niagara/Hamilton birding

Last Saturday David Szmyr and I birded the Niagara and Hamilton areas for a full day. Fortunately the weather co-operated and the temperatures remained pleasant (only -5 to -10, as opposed to -20 to -25!) and we had a fair bit of success.

The day started off at the lift bridge where an abundance of diving ducks were easily found. I devoted quite a bit of time to sifting through the numerous Common Goldeneye and Greater Scaup, though of course a Barrow's Goldeneye or Tufted Duck eluded me, unsurprisingly.

The two female King Eiders were right where they were supposed to be, diving for food at the north end of the piers.

King Eider - Burlington, ON

While we were out there, the Great Black-backed Gulls were going crazy and we clued in to the source of their agitation - a Snowy Owl sitting out on the ice flow! It was a bit distant for good photos, but after looking at them on the computer I realized that the owl was swallowing something huge! It looks like a duck of some sort, but the photos leave a lot to be desired.

Snowy Owl and dead duck sp. - Burlington, ON

In hindsight, it was obvious why the gulls were going crazy - they wanted in on the action! The Snowy Owl successfully managed to fend them off and choke down its prey...

Snowy Owl - Burlington, ON

We checked several other spots in Hamilton seeing quite a few species which were new for the year for both of us. I think I ended up with 33 year birds in total for the day, one of which was Black-crowned Night-Heron. The Red Hill Creek outlet is a popular spot for overwintering herons and several Black-crowned Night-Herons and Great Blue Herons were perched quietly along the edge of the warm(ish) water.

Black-crowned Night-Heron - Hamilton, ON

From there we drove to Fort Erie and spent a bit of time sifting through the huge numbers of waterfowl. The best bird find of the day for us was probably this Snow Goose that Dave first noticed with a flock of Canada Geese at the mouth of Miller Creek. Snow Geese are rare but regular in the winter in southern Ontario, often associating with the Canada Geese. There sure hasn't been a lot of them reported this winter - in fact there are no other Snow Geese on ebird for Ontario for the year 2014.

Snow Goose - Fort Erie, ON

Snow Goose - Fort Erie, ON

Few large gulls were on the river compared to previous years, and in our limited time studying the gulls we were unable to turn up anything really odd. We did have a nice adult Thayer's Gull on the breakwall at the Control Gates above the falls, and occasional Iceland, Glaucous, and Lesser Black-backed at various locations.

I was happy to finally obtain my first good photos of a Red-tailed Hawk - this one was perched in a tree somewhere near Chippewa along the Niagara Parkway.

Red-tailed Hawk - Chippewa area, ON

A quick check of Dufferin Islands yielded several new species for the day including Tufted Titmouse, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and Belted Kingfisher. The titmice were competing with the ubiquitous House Sparrows for prime feeding opportunities at the feeders. NOTE: the following two photos are of baited birds.

House Sparrow - Dufferin Islands

Tufted Titmouse - Dufferin Islands

We sort of rushed through the rest of the day in the Niagara Region as a Spotted Towhee was reported coming to a feeder near Georgetown - a potential lifer for Dave.

After getting into my vehicle at the location where we carpooled we headed up to Georgetown, though I made a quick stop in Oakville to check in on the Harlequin Ducks that had been reported there. The sun had come out and birds were apparently very close to shore so I was hoping to get some decent photos of them. When I arrived, several other birders were "on the scene" including a friend of mine, Jon Pleizier, who I had worked with at a consulting firm in 2011 and 2012. It was good to catch up!

The harlies were present but just so happened to be backlit in the afternoon sun. With daylight slowly beginning to run out I did not feel like waiting them out until they were in a better position for photography, so this will have to do for now!

Harlequin Ducks - Oakville, ON

Unfortunately the Spotted Towhee was a no-show for us. It appears that this bird only visits the bird feeders first thing in the morning as well as from late morning to very early afternoon.

The trip to Georgetown wasn't entirely in vain, as we had a Barb Charlton sighting, as well as a Long-eared Owl sighting! I mentioned this bird in a previous post, but here is one more photo:

Long-eared Owl - Georgetown, ON

With the sun setting, I eventually began the drive back home to Schomberg. Not five minutes later I noticed a suspicious lump perched atop a tree on the edge of an agricultural field east of Georgetown. Yep, another Snowy Owl...

Snowy Owl - Georgetown, ON

I'm not sure what our species total for the day was, but I think it was in the mid-60s. Pretty good for a bleak January day during the coldest winter we have seen in years!

Monday 20 January 2014

Great Gray Owl photoshoot

Yesterday afternoon, Barb Charlton and I drove east to the town of Brooklin, located just north of Whitby, Ontario. About a week ago, Charmaine Andersen discovered a Great Gray Owl along a country road just north of here and the owl had continued to be seen by numerous observers in subsequent days.

I had only ever seen two Great Gray Owls before so naturally I was hoping to observe this beautiful bird. Barb and I drove across the city to get to the location, arriving in the early afternoon.

We arrived, and sure enough, there was the owl, crouched down on the snow in the middle of the field! We had barely exited the cars when it flew towards us, alighting on a shrub not much higher than eye level.

It was one of those perfect moments for photography. The lighting was ideal, the owl was the perfect distance from us for frame-filling images, there was a nice smooth background, and the falling snow added a wintry touch.

Great Gray Owl - Brookin

In this particular situation the images were mostly gray, making the yellow eyes and bill of the owl stand out even more.

Great Gray Owl - Brookin

The owl was constantly on alert for rodent prey items, and it swiveled its head back and forth. It was somewhat of a challenge to take a photo with the owl looking right back at me.

Great Gray Owl - Brookin

Needless to say it was a pretty awesome experience being so close to a Great Gray Owl in perfect photography conditions. Being very close to the town of Whitby as well as surrounded by 30+ onlookers, birders, and photographers took away from the experience a little bit. Still, it was an awesome encounter with a really cool species.

Great Gray Owl - Brookin

Hopefully this summer I am able to cross paths with a Great Gray somewhere in northern Ontario, maybe on the edge of a bog surrounded by pristine boreal forest...

Great Gray Owl - Brookin

Great Gray Owl - Brookin

Great Gray Owl - Brookin

Saturday 18 January 2014

Loblaw's Long-eared Owl

Today was spent touring around the Hamilton and Niagara areas with David Szmyr. I will put a blog post up in the next few days detailing our sightings with some pictures, but in the mean time I wanted to post some shots of a Long-eared Owl in a very strange location in Georgetown.

What were we doing in Georgetown, you may ask? As it turns out, a Spotted Towhee has been frequenting a bird feeder there for the past little while and was posted to Ontbirds by Jean Farnan this morning. Spotted Towhees are rare but annual in the province and I have them listed as a code 4 species, with 27 accepted records as of the end of 2011. I have seen only two Spotted Towhees in Ontario - one at Port Rowan in 2010, and one near Thunder Bay in 2012 and so I was eager to see a third. David had never seen one in the province before. It was on the way home for us so we stopped in to have a look.

In the limited amount of time we had before sunset we were unable to turn the little guy up. Apparently it had been frequenting several feeders in the area and was more reliable in the AM. While there, we ran into Barb Charlton who mentioned a Long-eared Owl that was easy to see in a busy plaza near downtown Georgetown.

If you look closely at the above photo, you will see a dark lump perched at the top of one of the ornamental trees.

Long-eared Owl - Glen Williams

Yep, it's an owl! Long-eared Owls are well known for their secrecy and most birders only ever see them buried away in the deepest part of a stand of White Spruce or other conifers. They are much more skittish than other owls and are rarely photographed without a twig (or 50) in the frame!

Why would a species that seems to shun open spaces during the daytime be found roosting in a sparse deciduous tree right next to a Loblaws and a Goodlife Fitness in downtown Georgetown? Unfortunately it probably does not bode well for the owl as this is not a normal thing that Long-eared Owls do. Some theories:

 1) It had been moving around at night, hunting, and eventually ended up at this location. Perhaps there was a great food source near the plaza (mice near the garbage bins?) and it spent the night into the early morning hunting there. For this to happen, there was probably a food shortage at its usual hunting location(s). Long-eared Owls are nocturnal and it is probably very dangerous for the owl to leave the relative "safety" of its perch during the day to find a more suitable location. A Long-eared Owl would make a nice snack for a Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl, Red-tailed Hawk, etc.

2). It had been flushed from its usual stand of conifers and deemed it un-suitable to return, and was forced to land in these particular trees.

3) It is a bird experiencing some sort of migration. Maybe there is an incursion of Long-eared Owls to the south? (Who knows, just a theory!) Birds that are actively migrating often end up in strange places (often weather or diet related).

Long-eared Owl - Glen Williams

These are just a few ideas off the top of my head and is based on nothing more than pure speculation. I don't pretend to be an expert on Long-eared Owls and I haven't done any research into the above theories! Does anyone else have any ideas?

Whatever the case, the bird is likely stressed and/or hungry. Luckily when Dave and I were there, the other people that had stopped along the sidewalk to marvel at the bird gave it its space and did not approach it. For the owl's sake I hope it continues on and finds a safer place to hunt and roost.

Long-eared Owl - Glen Williams