Friday 28 February 2014

Panama: January 2010 (part 2)

Part 1 - Gamboa lowlands and Pipeline Road
Part 2 - Road-cruising and night-hiking at El Valle de Anton
Part 3 - More from El Valle de Anton
Part 4 - Creek-walking in El Valle de Anton
Part 5 - A brand new species for science!
Part 6 - Snakes and interesting frogs at El Valle de Anton
Part 7 - Night-hiking at El Valle de Anton
Part 8 - El Cope
Part 9 - El Cope, again
Part 10 - Back to El Valle de Anton
Part 11 - Night-hiking at Pipeline Road

A good chunk of our trip was spent in El Valle, a town of 4,500 nestled in the base of an inactive volcano. This area sees a significant change in elevation from the town to the top of Cerro Gaital, one of the ridges forming the rim of the volcano. Here is a pic of Jon overlooking the crater containing the town.

Fortunately for us, Jon's aunt lived a short distance away from El Valle towards the Pacific Coast, providing us with a free place to stay. A typical day for us would involve sleeping in a bit and making it to El Valle for late morning. We would do a long afternoon hike or two, then head back to the town of El Valle for a delicious meal (often consisting of rice, chicken, vegetables, fired plantains, and several Balboas (the local beer). 

After dinner we would do a quick "road-cruise" around dusk, hoping to see snakes or other herps taking advantage of the warm surface after the sun had set. Once it was dark, we would head to one of the many creeks or trails in the area and night-hike deep into the middle of the night. Usually by 2 or 3 AM we would retire and head back to our accommodations. Obviously this schedule allowed us to maximize the amount of herping time, as night-hiking along creeks is often the most productive way to find many species. As a result we were usually sleeping at dawn, so I missed a lot of opportunities to see birds. 

Road-cruising wasn't entirely productive during our time in El Valle. For one, the elevation meant that the temperatures simply weren't warm enough to entice a lot of herps onto the roads. Secondly, we did not receive any rain during our time in El Valle, dramatically cutting down on the species that were actually active. 

One common snake we saw while out cruising was the Fer-de-lance, a species that I really wanted to see on the trip. We came across multiple individuals; nearly always, they were young individuals. 

Bothrops asper - Fer-de-lance

One particular road Jon had named "Fer-de-lance Alley" on a previous trip, and it certainly produced on this one, with every pass down the road yielding another snake. Occasionally locals would be seen walking along this road at night - often barefoot and without a flashlight. This venomous species is nick-named "equis" by the locals - that means "x" and it refers to the dorsal pattern of the snake. 

Bothrops asper - Fer-de-lance

Undoubtedly most of the trip's highlights came while the sun was set. Night-hiking is incredible in the tropics and there is so much to look at. Should I spend time finding and attempting to identify and photograph the numerous frog species that are nearly everywhere I look? Or scan the branches of the shrubbery for the distinctive shine of a snake? Or look for sleeping lizards on a rock along the edge of a fast-flowing stream? Or look for Bolitoglossa salamanders crawling around and hunting? Of course, those are just some of the possibilities, and do not even include the invertebrate diversity, or nocturnal mammals, or owls (Mottled Owls were seen frequently). 

One of the most fascinating groups of organisms we observed were the climbing salamanders of the Bolitoglossa genus. Also known as the web-footed salamanders, these species are well adapted to climbing up trees and over plants to search for prey. We were fortunate to find two species on our trip - the more common B. schizodactyla and the rarer B. colonnea

Bolitoglossa schizodactyla

Bolitoglossa colonnea

Bolitoglossa colonnea

Glass frogs are a hugely diverse family of frogs (Centrolenidae) that range throughout Central America and parts of South America. Many people are familiar with what glass frogs are due to their unique translucent skin. They can be incredibly tough to identify, however! I positively identified three species and saw several others that went unidentified.

Some are tiny...

Jon was friends with Mario, a herpetologist who ran a local serpentarium and also provided guiding services. Mario accompanied us on several of our nocturnal excursions and was instrumental in finding quite a few of the rarer species. Below are a few shots around the serpentarium.

I mentioned in the previous post that Mario allowed us to photograph a few of his snakes. In particular I was interested in photographing his Speckled Racer, since Jon and I had a few glimpses of one but were unable to apprehend it. In addition to his racer, we also photographed this coral snake, Micrurus multifasciatus.

You may not be able to tell from that photo, but the snake was actually dead. Most of the locals kill any snake that they see, especially a venomous coral snake. This snake was brought into the serpentarium by a local. It was in two pieces, but we magically "reassembled" the decapitated snake for photos. One day I would love to see a live individual of this gorgeous species.

Part 3 contains more images from El Valle, including some species from the diverse "rain frog" family.

Sunday 23 February 2014


The first signs of spring are finally beginning to show. For the past few weeks I have heard a Northern Cardinal singing his cheery song outside my window, and chickadees have been "fee-bee"ing for almost a month. Over-wintering American Robins have started to sing and their numbers will soon be augmented with many more.

I would imagine that birders feel the changing of the seasons sooner and more vividly than a lot of other people. For many, spring still seems a month away as the temperatures are still, on average, below 0 degrees Celsius and at least a foot of snow is hugging the ground everywhere in the province. Despite that, spring is well underway to birders! Horned Larks are beginning to invade the province in big numbers, and male Common Goldeneye, Common Mergansers, and others are busy displaying to the females. The wintering Ring-billed Gulls in their drab winter plumage are now being joined by new migrants from the south, sporting clean white heads and bright yellow bills and legs. Since I am stuck working regular office hours during the winter, the onset of spring is quite apparent as the hours of daylight have been increasing steadily. I now have more than an hour of daylight once I leave the office! It won't be long now until the snow melts, flocks of Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds start to become numerous, and flocks of geese, ducks, and swans feed in the open, snow-less areas.

Red-winged Blackbirds - Schomberg

One of my favorite spring activities is to put on my hipwaders, grab my headlamp and camera, and venture out to damp woodlands in search for amphibians on their way to their breeding ponds. Usually this begins in earnest sometime between mid March and early April.

Green Frog

Gray Treefrog

Spotted Salamander

Jefferson Salamander

Spring Peeper

I will miss the early part of spring this year as I have a 2.5 week trip to Panama coming up, followed by a two week visit to Europe almost immediately afterwards (more on this trip later!). Hopefully I will return in time to witness the annual "migration of the salamanders"!

Thursday 20 February 2014

Monthly trip to Pelee

This past weekend I made the long and familiar drive down to Point Pelee on my monthly visit to the area. The Point Pelee area is a home away from home for me. In the summers of 2010 and 2011 I was working in the Windsor area so whenever I could, I would make the 45 minute drive to Hillman Marsh, the onion fields, or the National Park itself. In 2012 I devoted five weeks of my Big Year (from late April to early June) to living and birding in the Point Pelee area and I also made numerous trips to the area throughout the rest of the year. Some of my most notable birds on my big year were seen in the Point Pelee Birding Area. Quite a few of those species I did not observe anywhere else in Ontario throughout the year, like Bell's Vireo, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Worm-eating Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Chuck-will's Widow, Summer Tanager, American Avocet, Cave Swallow, Red Phalarope, Henslow's Sparrow, Acadian Flycatcher, Curlew Sandpiper, Lark Sparrow, and Prothonotary Warbler, to name a few.  While I now live north of Toronto, I still visit the area regularly; in fact, in 2013 I visited during every month with the exception being October (though I had two April and two September visits, plus 12 days in late April and early May). I've seen most of the common species on the Point Pelee checklist, with big misses being Short-eared Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Northern Shrike, Western Kingbird, Hudsonian Godwit, Cattle Egret, Pacific Loon, etc. Not a lot left to see, apart from rarities!

I arrived late Friday night and stayed at Jeremy Bensette's place. The next morning we were up relatively late and did not arrive into the park until mid-morning where we met up with Kory Renaud and Blake Mann.


A check of the areas around the VC parking lot and the Shuster Trail revealed several Yellow-rumped Warblers and some Hermit Thrushes. At the east end of Shuster Trail it looked like a bleak winter landscape, though there was some open water. The winds were from the west and the north, pushing a lot of the ice on Lake Erie away from shore. While the Great Lakes are predominately frozen over, the ice is dynamic and constantly shifting, creating polynyas (cracks containing open water) which ducks and other waterbirds will use.

A total of 9 Bald Eagles were flying around at different points. Jeremy, Kory, and Blake all obtained excellent images. My camera was safely stowed in my car.

Jeremy and I did a check along Point Pelee Drive around noon. While the landscape was mostly devoid of birds, several bird feeders had birds visiting. One of the blackbird flocks contained a nice male Brewer's! We had it in the scope when Steve Pike arrived.

Later that afternoon, while enjoying a barbeque lunch at Blue Heron, Kory and I happened to notice a large white bird slowly flying by out over the marsh. A check with the bins revealed that it was a Snowy Owl! Who knows if this is a local bird flying around, perhaps to move between new hunting areas, an individual from further north moving south (as has been happening since the autumn) or if it was a returning bird from south of the Great Lakes.

While driving out of the park, Jeremy and I stopped on occasion to check out the several screech owls, all sunning at the entrance to their tree cavities. Check out this red-morph!

Later in the afternoon several of us drove around in the onion fields, hoping to scare up some interesting birds. Three Tundra Swans were seen (spring migrants? please???), as well as several Rough-legged Hawks and Northern Harriers. The usually predictable Long-eared Owl location was devoid of owls (as has been the case for most of the winter), so here is a shot of one from last year instead.

The following day was fairly uneventful bird-wise. I birded by myself for most of the day and did not see a whole lot. Certainly the highlight of the day was snow-shoeing around the Hillman Marsh Couture Dyke at dusk. While I did not see the Northern Shrike that had taken up residence here, I did find a Great Horned Owl sitting on a dead snag out in the marsh. A great way to end the day!

On Monday (long weekend! woo!), Jeremy and I did a quick run around the onion fields. Once again, we were not surprised by a lack of birds and I have to say I'm pretty much at that point where I would be ok with winter coming to an end!

I left Pelee around noon, arriving at the Thames River in London by mid-afternoon. Over the last few weeks an interesting phenomena has been occurring with sea-ducks and grebes showing up on inland waterways in Ontario. White-winged Scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers, Greater Scaup, Horned and Red-necked Grebes and even Red-throated Loons have been the reported species, and most of these had been seen recently on the Thames River in London, southwest of the water treatment plant. One theory that seems plausible and is being thrown around by many is that these birds had been frozen out of some of the Great Lakes, likely Lake Huron (including Georgian Bay) in this case. With the recent freezing of Huron, ducks and other waterbirds have been pushed south, stopping wherever they can find open water. Tens of thousands of Long-tailed Ducks are now crammed into the St. Clair River, for instance. Quite a few of the displaced ducks have been reported dead and dying, and some have been found landing on roads which can give off the appearance of a river to a flying waterbird, especially at night. There is also the possibility of early "spring" migrants augmenting the numbers of waterbirds, as some species including Red-necked Grebes and Red-throated Loons are known to have some individuals that migrate as early as February. Most Red-necked Grebes, however, stage on Lake Ontario which is the only Great Lake that is mostly ice free.

Different numbers of diving ducks had been reported at several locations along the Thames so I decided to do a long walk along the south bank to try to tally up everything. Unfortunately I only had about 3 hours to spare, otherwise I would have covered a much larger distance.

I started at the west end of Springbank Park (Halls Mill Road) and walked pretty much non-stop to the water treatment plant at the east edge of Greenway Park, a distance of just under 6 km. In that stretch I came across quite a few ducks, including some of the unusual species.

My totals:
380 Canada Goose
21 American Black Duck
935 Mallard
3 Canvasback
22 Greater Scaup
4 White-winged Scoter
8 Long-tailed Duck
27 Bufflehead
157 Common Goldeneye
32 Common Merganser
3 Red-breasted Merganser

Not a bad haul for a river in the middle of Middlesex! I missed a few of the reported species including Red-throated Loon (which apparently was a one-day wonder) and Redhead. There has been the occasional report of Lesser Scaup as well (including on the same day as my visit) but I only saw Greaters! ;)

Other highlights in London included a beautiful Snowy Owl and a 3rd cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull, both near the landfill south of London on Manning Drive.

Sunday 16 February 2014

Great Gray photos - take 2

Back in January I visited an area north of Whitby, Ontario with Barb Charlton to take a look at a Great Gray Owl that had decided to take up residence for the winter there. I posted some of my photos here. 

On Thursday I had a doctor's appointment in Markham, so afterwards I drove back to the area to hopefully see the bird again. Just like on my previous visit the owl was immediately found, right out in the open on a shrub near the roadside. The sun was hidden behind some clouds and it was late in the day so my photos this time around were not as good as the first time, but I came away with a few that I am happy with.

After a few minutes the owl alighted and flew back towards the far east end of the field.

Wednesday 12 February 2014

Timmins - Day 2

To read Part 1, click here.

The following morning we slept in a little bit after having seen most of our target birds on the previous day. By 9:00 AM we were back at the burn. The temperature was below -20 at dawn but had increased to a balmy -15 or so when we arrived. The wind was non-existent and the sun was shining.

Once again, the woodpeckers did not disappoint. Dave and I headed east down Cache Road, while Tyler walked along the highway. We each came up with good numbers of Black-backed Woodpeckers tapping and even drumming loudly. Tyler also heard a Three-toed Woopecker to the west, perhaps one of the birds we had the night before. Dave and I watched a trio of Black-backed Woodpeckers working the trees near the road. 

In the extremely calm conditions it was easy to hear other birds flying around, and we quickly added two new species of finch to the trip list - Evening Grosbeak and White-winged Crossbill, bringing our total to nine species. The only regular Ontario finch that we missed was House Finch; a species only found in the south.

We spent about two hours snowshoeing in the burn itself. At one point I veered off the trail deep into the woods, and followed some tapping right to a Black-backed Woodpecker. I could not get close enough for good photos, but I grabbed a few landscape shots with my phone.

By noon I met back up with Dave and Tyler who had seen a few more Black-backed Woodpeckers as well as two Pileated Woodpeckers (Tyler only). Eager on checking new areas, we headed south along the highway, stopping periodically to listen. On Kenogamissi  McKeown Road we hit a gold mine.

Immediately it became apparent that woodpeckers were using this area as trees were missing pieces of bark all along the roadside. A Common Raven flew overhead as well.

The above male Black-backed Woodpecker was feeding at eye level right along the road. Even in ideal conditions such as thee it was tough to take a clear photo of the bird without any twigs in the way. It is a testament to their feeding ecology more than anything!

These somewhat nomadic species are attracted to areas which have recently experienced forest fires, as recently killed trees attract high densities of bark beetles (Scolytinae) and wood-boring beetles (Cerambycidae and Buprestidae), a favored food source of Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers.

As Dave and I were watching the Black-backed Woodpecker, Tyler motioned for us to come quick as he was frantically pointing towards a stand of spruce just off of the path. He excitedly mentioned that there was a Three-toed Woodpecker at eye level! We arrived and the three of us quickly realized that there was a second male in the same tree!

As I was photographing one of the males, Tyler happened to notice a third American Three-toed Woodpcker; this time a female! She was working a spruce tree on the other side of the road and did not pay much attention to us. It was a pretty incredible moment to have this trio of woodpeckers all in one spot while Black-backed and Hairy Woodpeckers tapped nearby. My main goal of the trip was to photograph an American Three-toed Woodpecker, and this was the perfect opportunity. It was almost too easy to have clear, unobstructed views at close range!

We left the burn completely satisfied with the experience. Our totals for the two days were 29 Black-backed Woodpeckers and 7 American Three-toed Woodpeckers; an excellent count! The Timmins 9 Fire was absolutely massive and based on our rough estimates in the small part of the burn that we could cover (30+ woodpeckers in maybe 300-500 hectares), it wouldn't suprise me if there were several thousand woodpeckers in total. It certainly would be a lot of fun to return in the spring when the unplowed roads are drivable and a lack of snow makes it easier to access a greater portion of the burn. 

We made a couple of stops on the way home, namely the Cartier Dump and Kelly Lake in Sudbury to look (unsuccessfully) for two Gyrfalcons which had been seen earlier in the year. The remainder of the drive was uneventful and I was back home by 10 PM that evening. Other than the woodpecker show we had seen almost all of our target birds. These included nine species of finch, Gray Jay, Spruce and Ruffed Grouses, and Northern Hawk Owl. It was a great weekend with good friends!

Tuesday 11 February 2014

Weekend trip to Timmins - Day 1

To read Part 2, click here.

A few weeks ago, friend and fellow birder Tyler Hoar invited David Szmyr and I on a trip to the boreal forest of Ontario to look for northern birds and to do some snowshoeing. He did not need to ask me twice as I really love the north. Sure the north is cold this time of year and birds are few and far between, but who can turn down an opportunity to snow-shoe in the boreal forest, away from cars, pollution, and people?

Our plan was to spend all day Saturday birding our way up to Timmins, including stops in North Bay, Temagami, Temiskaming Shores, and anywhere else that looked decent.

My alarm went off at 2:30 AM and I actually did not even feel tired. Perhaps my body thought it was just a nap since I had fallen asleep only a couple of hours previously. At any rate, my gear was packed and Tyler soon showed up at my front door. After a quick rendez-vous to scoop Dave from his place in Barrie we were on our way to the North Bay area.

Our first target of the day was a Northern Hawk Owl which had been staking out a farm where it presumably had been feeding on a steady supply of rodents attracted to the barn. Dave had never seen one before, and any moment with a Northern Hawk Owl is an awesome experience. We drove up and down the road without seeing it (though a couple of Ruffed Grouse were on the road and in the surrounding woodland), but on our second pass through the area a Common Raven was spotted dive-bombing something. The obvious shape of the owl stood out with the naked eye at quite a distance even in the dim pre-dawn light. Success!

Northern Hawk Owl - North Bay, ON

Northern Hawk Owls always seem to pick the most conspicuous perch at the very top of a tree, from which they can survey the fields below. It looked at us on occasion but its gaze (or rather its hearing) was, more often than not, focused on some unseen rodents below.

Northern Hawk Owl - North Bay, ON

Northern Hawk Owls are a personal favorite of mine; a species that is always high on the target lists of visiting birders to Ontario. While seldom seen south of the boreal forest, at least a couple are observed every winter in the North Bay to Peterborough to Ottawa areas. I do not think that I could ever tire of this awesome species! One of my personal birding goals is to find a Northern Hawk Owl on territory, maybe with a nest and young, in the boreal forest during the summer.

Northern Hawk Owl - North Bay, ON

Spurred on with our success, we checked a few bird feeders in the vicinity (seeing our first two finch species of the day - Purple Finch and American Goldfinch) before continuing our drive north.

Arriving in Temagami we took a short detour off the highway to check some areas containing both Eastern White and Red Pines. This area is a stronghold for Red Crossbills in Ontario. While driving through the town a pair of Gray Jays casually flopped on by to the backyard of a house - another lifer for Dave! We were giving him a lot of grief throughout the trip over the fact that he had been to Algonquin several times, had even added Boreal Chickadee to his life list, but had never seen a Gray Jay!

Temagami was a bit of a goldmine and in short order we added Pine Siskin to our finch list. Lifer #3 on the day for Dave was a gorgeous male Red Crossbill that I watched fly in and perch, fully sunlit, on the tip of a branch.

We made several stops throughout Timiskaming District, including in the towns of Cobalt, Haileybury, New Liskeard, and some backroads in Dymond Township. One surprise was a flyby Pileated Woodpecker in "downtown" Cobalt. It was the first time that I can recall seeing a downtown Pileated, though Cobalt hardly counts as a town containing a down. We also marveled at the extensive cone crops and Mountain Ash berries in the town, yet not a single waxwing or grosbeak was making use of them! I guess there must be enough to eat in the woods.

From here, we headed west along Highway 560, through Elk Lake and towards Gowganda. At one point we noticed some birds fly off the road a ways ahead of the car, and I commented that they seemed redpoll shaped. Of course, nary a single redpoll has been seen in the south all winter. We exited the car and immediately heard the distinctive chatter of redpolls! Certainly the biggest surprise of the trip was the frosty male Hoary Redpoll that accompanied the group. This was the first Hoary Redpoll to be reported in Ontario all winter!

Redpolling somewhere west of Elk Lake

The Common Redpoll was finch #5, and the Hoary, #6. The Hoary was also another lifer for Dave, his 4th on the day!

As you can see from the above photo, the weather was absolutely perfect. Calm, sunny, and only about -10, which is quite comfortable when there is not any wind!

We continued west, scaring up some Pine Grosbeaks off the road (finch #7), before turning north at Highway 144. After an hour of driving we began to see the beginnings of the Timmins 9 Fire. This was the largest forest fire of the 2012 season in central Ontario, burning 39,524 hectares of spruce forest. This was precisely why we were here. American Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers are both somewhat nomadic species that often can be found in large numbers in recently burned areas. I will comment more on this behaviour in the next post.

From 3:30 PM onwards, we strapped on our shoeshoes and headed out into the burn through 3 feet of soft powder. It was absolutely gorgeous in the burn.

The woodpeckers were almost too easy. Almost immediately after arriving, I heard a Black-backed Woodpecker quietly tapping away in a grove containing several spruce. She ignored us as we approached closer for better looks. Evidently there were more important things in her life, like extracting beetles from beneath the bark, than worrying about the strange looking caribou making weird sounds nearby.

Black-backed Woodpecker - Timmins 9 Fire area

Tyler heard a distant American Three-toed Woodpecker and went south in pursuit. Dave and I continued west, finding several Black-backed Woodpeckers working the trees. I thought I heard a Three-toed and a brief few seconds of playback initiated the bird to come out of the woodwork and check us out. Both these species of woodpeckers were lifers for Dave, # 5 and #6. It had been a pretty spectacular day!

Here are a few photos of the 3 compadres...

Tyler snow-shoeing the Timmins 9 Fire area

Josh snow-shoeing the Timmins 9 Fire area

A bank robber snow-shoeing the Timmins 9 Fire area

As the sun slowly set we retreated back to the car. It had been a spectacular day to put it mildly! It is easy to get down and depressed in the middle of the winter, especially for someone who feels the need to connect with nature on a regular basis. I find the best way to cope is to go out and embrace winter. Snow-showing in pristine powder in the boreal forest, with the only sounds being the quiet rhythmic tapping of Black-backed Woodpeckers, certainly had been one of the highlights of the winter for me.

Saturday 8 February 2014

Spotted Towhee and Varied Thrush twitchfest

I took Friday off of work this week because 5-day work-weeks are for suckers, and decided that I would spend the morning twitching some of the rarities that had been seen southwest of where I live. I had already seen the Spotted Towhee that was coming to a feeder near Glen Williams, but that was my first destination in the morning as I was hoping to take a few better photos in the fore-casted sunlight.

The gracious home-owners mentioned that I could stand on their porch, and so I settled in with my camera ready, watching the juncos and tree sparrows feeding below the round feeder on the porch. Eventually a flash of orange and black appeared in my peripheral vision and I quickly looked up to see the Spotted Towhee perching in a shrub near the feeders. Eventually he hopped down to the porch to grab a seed or two before disappearing. 

Spotted Towhee - Glen Williams

The bird was much less skittish than when it first arrived and he seemed to have taken control of the feeder. Whenever the funny looking orange and black bird landed on the porch all the other sparrows gave him his space to feed...

Spotted Towhee - Glen Williams

Here are a few final photos from the impromptu photoshoot. I left the bird satisfied with the results!

Spotted Towhee - Glen Williams

Spotted Towhee - Glen Williams

Spotted Towhee - Glen Williams

My next stop was to twitch the female Varied Thrush that had been found at Guelph Lake. The thrush, originally found by Andrew Bailey earlier in the week, had been feeding on crabapples and buckthorn berries at the north end of the dam just west of the Nature Centre. 

The wind had picked up at this point and standing on the dam while retaining some warmth proved to be a challenge. Fortunately the conversation with Len Manning, Barry Coombs, and several others was pretty lively, and it did not take long for the thrush to suddenly appear before our eyes!

Varied Thrush - Guelph Lake C.A.

The photos are not quite ideal because she was tucked in deep in the shrubs to stay partially out of the wind, but it was pretty cool to study a western rarity such as this. Hopefully the supply of fruit lasts so she can survive the winter!

Varied Thrush - Guelph Lake C.A.

Varied Thrush - Guelph Lake C.A.