Saturday 27 September 2014

Smooth Rock Falls to Moosonee

Day one of the 2014 Netitishi expedition began in Smooth Rock Falls. The following evening I had driven up from Aurora, arriving around 2:00 AM at the motel. By 7:00 AM Alan and I were out the door, heading north of Smooth Rock Falls towards the dam at the Abitibi Canyon.

This drive is excellent for boreal birds and Spruce Grouse in particular are abundant along this road - we ended up seeing 6 this time.

The day was warm and sunny and by 8:00 AM we were birding the open shrubby areas surrounding the dam.

Abitibi Dam

Sparrows were common in several spots and I was happy to come across a family of Le Conte's Sparrows, my first in about a year.

Le Conte's Sparrow - Abitibi dam

Le Conte's Sparrow - Abitibi dam

One of the adults sat in a tree less than a meter above my head and watched me.

Le Conte's Sparrow - Abitibi dam

One of the babies tolerated my approach and sat up on some grass for some time, allowing a rare clean chance at a photo with this usually secretive species.

Le Conte's Sparrow - Abitibi dam

Some other birds seen here included a vocal male Eastern Bluebird, a flock of Rusty Blackbirds, 9 species of sparrows, Pileated Woodpecker, and a group of Palm Warblers.

Palm Warbler - Abitibi dam

Flyover Pipit...many more of these to come in the next few weeks!

American Pipit - Abitibi dam

The train ride to Moosonee was fairly non-eventful though we did have a few good bird sightings. Less than half an hour into the ride I noticed a Northern Hawk Owl glide away from the tracks and alight in a tree along the edge of the treeline - unfortunately much poorer looks than I would have liked. We also watched three groups of Sharp-tailed Grouse (15 birds in total) flush from the short grasses near the train tracks as we roared on by.

By mid afternoon we had arrived in Moosonee and immediately checked out the sewage lagoons south of town. We had 9 Wilson's Snipes, several yellowlegs and a Pectoral Sandpiper, a single Bonaparte's Gull, ten Redheads and a Peregrine Falcon harassing a Common Raven way up in the sky. On the walk back Alan and I came across a few Boreal Chickadees - my first of the year, but certainly the first of many more to come in the next few weeks. Boreal Chickadees were much more common than Black-capped Chickadees on last year's Netitishi trip.

By the time this robo-blog post is about to auto-post the four of us should be at the coast. The weather forecast is still holding as I write this on Thursday night...26 degrees on Thursday, forecasted 25, 24, and 15 degrees through the weekend, followed by some cooler temperatures. Should be a lot of fun!

Wednesday 24 September 2014


About 24 hours from now I will be on a train to Moosonee, and from there catching a helicopter to the shores of southern James Bay where I will spend two weeks with Alan Wormington, Jeremy Bensette and Kory Renaud. This will be my third autumn trip in three years to the James Bay coast - probably my favorite birding location in Ontario.

Netitishi is 21 miles due east of Moosonee, on a small point facing north along the south James Bay coast.

My previous two trips to the coast were with Alan Wormington and both fell on dates between October 21 and November 3. We had a bunch of good birds on both trips - here's a selection of the highlights:

October 21 to November 3, 2012
-Northern Fulmar (awesome!!)
-Great Cormorant (would have been the 1st record for northern Ontario, if it had been accepted by the OBRC....)
-shearwater sp. (Alan only! I'm really glad it was too far to ID...)
-Common Eider
-Northern Gannet (2nd record for northern Ontario)
-Western Kingbird
-Harlequin Duck, 2 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, 2 Pomarine Jaegers, 2 Black-legged Kittiwakes (all OBRC review birds in the north)
-2 Black Guillemots
-plus Purple Sandpipers, Gyrfalcons, King Eiders, etc

October 24 to November 3, 2013
-Townsend's Solitaire (first record for Cochrane District!)
-Harlequin Duck
-tons of late shorebirds (12 Hudsonian Godwits between Oct 28 and 30, record late Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, American Golden-Plover)
-Golden Eagle, Red Phalarope, Short-eared Owl
-Gyrfalcon photoshoot

As you can see our first trip turned up way more rarities, but both trips have been very productive. Last year's trip, while still excellent bird-wise, did cause me to decide that I would not do another late autumn trip to Netitishi for a while. For one, the temperatures were very cold most of the time, and for most of the trip there were very few migrant passerines. The waterbird numbers were also way down as many had left the bay due to the late October freeze-up.

I have always wanted to do a late September to mid October trip to Netitishi. It seems that this time frame is extremely productive for birding in northern Ontario and a large number of rarities often show up then. We should be on the coast for peak flights for many waterbird species.  I think our chances at seabirds are better now than in early November. We may have lower chances at finding alcids, but we missed them last year anyways. What's most intriguing for me is the potential for rare passerines!

Netitishi has already proven itself to be a magnet for rare songbirds. In Alan and Brandon's mid November 2010 trip, they found a Varied Thrush. In 2012 Alan and I found a Western Kingbird. Then last year was the Townsend's Solitaire. And these were all during a time of year where very few songbirds were migrating. What if birders visited Netitishi during a period when songbirds were actually migrating?

One more thing is making this trip seem very exciting. I have heard from several birders that arctic breeding birds have had a good year. Already good numbers of jaegers, Sabine's Gulls, phalaropes etc have been showing up in the south in good numbers. Northern Wheatears have put in a strong showing too. If it is indeed true that the arctic had a good breeding season, then we could definitely benefit by being along the coast!

It is currently 18 and sunny with south winds in Moosonee and will be 24 degrees Celsius when we arrive on the coast Friday afternoon. These are good conditions to bring up a few southern vagrants to the north.

I've made a list of ten target birds that I have on my wishlist. I tried to make most of the selections here actually somewhat realistic, though most of these are crazy dream birds...I would be ecstatic to just get one of these species!!

Northern Wheatear
Say's Phoebe
Rock Wren
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper
Ross's Gull
Leach's Storm-petrel
Great Shearwater
Sage Thrasher
Swainson's Hawk

Monday 22 September 2014

Weekend trip to Point Pelee - Days 2 and 3

The Saturday morning dawned warm with a strong southwest wind. Dave and I slept in a bit later than hoped and arrived at the tip around 8:15. Blake Mann and Jeremy Hatt were already there, having stationed themselves on the west side of the tip along one of the openings in the trees along the path. It provided a bit more protection from the elements than the very tip while also giving a great view of the action on the lake. Bonaparte's were streaming by when we arrived and sure enough, they had seen a Sabine's Gull about 15 minutes earlier as it flew by closely with some Bonaparte's. A great find, and one that I still needed for my Pelee list.

Blake called out a shorebird which Jeremy and I happened to get on right away. I watched it for a while - a phalarope with a gray back and white wingstripe that we concluded was a Red Phalarope. I find that normally views of phalaropes are often fleeting as the tiny shorebird whizzes by. This was one of the better and longer looks I had had at a flyby phalarope and definitely a nice change!

Dwayne Murphy stopped on by and Jeremy Bensette showed up as well. As I was scanning the horizon I spotted what looked like a jaeger coming in. It ended up flying right as us, banking as it approached the shoreline. It was close enough that we were able to photograph the adult Parasitic Jaeger relatively well (for a jaeger). This was a new Pelee bird for some and a year bird for everyone present. I think it was my third Parasitic that I've seen at Pelee - all along the west side.

Parasitic Jaeger - Point Pelee National Park

Parasitic Jaeger - Point Pelee National Park

Even apart from the rarities, the lake watching was actually pretty decent. It is too early to get large numbers of ducks, loons or grebes, but terns are still going by. Ten juvenile Black Terns were seen, two Caspian Terns, and the odd Forster's Tern was mixed in with the Commons. This time of year Forster's Terns show a diagnostic black patch around their eye that does not extend to the nape. Here is one with a group of Bonaparte's.

Forster`s Tern (second from left) - Point Pelee National Park

A massive flock of Ring-billed and Bonaparte's Gulls was offshore to the northwest - usually at too great a distance to thoroughly scan through. At times a distant jaeger would send a bunch of them flying around in a panic. Too far to identify, though!

By noon the lake watch was dying down so we continued up the west side to the tram loop. Dave spotted this little Dekay's Brownsnake on the path, likely a neonate born only a few months prior.

Northern Brownsnake - Point Pelee National Park

The rest of the day was non-eventful bird wise. The strong winds weren't really conducive to passerine birding and the wrong direction for hawks. Dave, Jeremy Hatt and I decided to explore the Couture Dyke at Hillman Marsh as it is a place that is rarely checked by birders. The dyke goes out into the marsh and completed a big loop and passes through several habitat types. I have seen a few good birds there in the past (Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, American Avocet, American White Pelicans, weird ducks in the summer, etc) and sometimes shorebirds are there so it is always worth checking on a slow day! While the walk was nice the birds did not really co-operate on this day. It was pretty warm out in the marsh as well and certainly felt like mid-summer for one of the last times of the year.

On Sunday morning Dave, Jeremy and I left Jeremy Bensette's place and in the park early as the winds were again forecast out of the southwest, switching to northwest as the day wore on. We were the first ones in the park at dawn and immediately walked down to the tip. While the winds were due west the birds were flying by and it was shaping up to be a good morning of lakewatching.

The highlight of the morning happened around 9:00 AM just as Jeremy Bensette arrived. I was scoping to the right when I caught site of a close jaeger, blasting through my scope view. Jeremy immediately got on it as well and we watched the bird, a subadult Pomarine Jaeger as it cruised on by not far from shore. Dave and Jeremy got on it as well and had decent views of their lifer Pom! The Pom was a satisfying new Pelee bird for me as it was #300.

Later on I had brief views of a distant phalarope cruising by low to the water. Unfortunately it was very distant and I wasn't able to confidently ID it before it was out of site.

Several ducks (Green-winged Teal, Red-breasted Merganser, scaup, etc) went past, a sign of more to come in the coming weeks. An adult Little Gull also streamed by with a flock of Bonaparte's. All in all it was a great morning of lake watching!

We called it quits by 1:00 PM and Dave and I were on our way, slowly making our way back home. Lunch again was at the Red Bus (Birdie's Perch) along Point Pelee drive, the third time in three days for us...

A check of Wheatley harbour was next (nothing there but a whole pile of Ring-billed Gulls!) and Dave and I were on our way. We did make one brief side-trip up to Waterloo to look for a long-staying Snowy Egret, but it eluded us during the torrential downpour that ensued as we arrived.

It had been another successful trip to the Pelee area with some great birds - I can't wait to get back.

I am now back at work for a few days before leaving for Smooth Rock Falls on Wednesday evening. From there I will meet up with Alan Wormington and take the train to Moosonee where we will stay for a night, meet up with Jeremy Bensette and Kory Renaud, and take a helicopter to the James Bay coast. It will be my third Netitishi trip in three years and my first during the late September/early October time-frame - I'm pretty excited for a few weeks on the coast doing nothing but birding. I'll have more on that trip sometime over the next few days.

Weekend Trip to Point Pelee - Day 1

This weekend, Dave Szmyr and I had a plan to take the Friday off of work and drive down to Point Pelee. By Thursday afternoon I was on my way to pick him up, and we headed down HWYs 400 and 401.

After staying over at Jeremy Bensette's place, Dave and I first drove by the school east of Leamington on Seacliffe Drive to try for the long staying pair of Eurasian Collared-Doves. The mornings and evenings seem to be most reliable for observing them as the perch on the roadside hydro wires. Sure enough, the early dawn sunlight illuminated several doves on the wires including two chunky gray ones.

Eurasian Collared-Dove - Leamington

Eurasian Collared-Dove - Leamington

After the dove success we entered the park, hoping to find warblers and other passerines in the trees. The night before we had heard dozens of migrating songbirds over head including Swainson's Thrush, Grey-cheeked Thrush, Veery, etc.

Passerine birding was fairly productive throughout the morning on the east side of the park. We ran into several large pockets of warblers at the east end of Shuster Trail as well as the Sparrow Field. Among our 19 warbler species for the day were good numbers of Magnolia and Nashville. Bay-breasted put in a good showing and a young male Canada Warbler was singing. Surprisingly we missed some easy ones including Blackpoll and Ovenbird. Lincoln's Sparrow was more numerous than any other sparrow, and several Indigo Buntings and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were fun to see. Mid-to-late September is a great time to see a wide variety of species in southern Ontario.

Some flycatchers made their presence known including a few late-ish Yellow-bellied Flycatchers.

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher - Point Pelee

Late September birding at Point Pelee means raptors and lots of them. Sharp-shinned Hawks are constantly flying over the park and diving through the woods, while three species of falcon are regular and Broad-winged Hawks sometimes soar over. 

This Merlin was one of several seen in the morning.

Merlin - Point Pelee

This Painted Lady was powering up in the sun on the east side of the tip. The cool morning quickly gave way to a beautiful warm, sunny day. It meant that birding was relatively unproductive later on, however!

Painted Lady - Point Pelee

 We checked several other locations in the afternoon including Hillman Marsh, the Onion Fields and again at Point Pelee. At the end of the day we were sitting around 96 species - not bad for the first day. The forecast for the next day, Saturday, was looking excellent with strong southwest winds predicted. Southwest is often the best wind at the tip of Point Pelee National Park and we were hoping for some good birds the next morning!

Tuesday 16 September 2014

White Ibis in Wheatley

Last night a juvenile White Ibis was eBirded by Saffron Mrva at the bridge near the Two Creeks campground at Wheatley Provincial Park. It wasn't posted to eBird until later in the evening, but Kory Renaud decided to scour the park early this morning in hopes of turning it up. He quickly relocated it and posted to the listserv. Other local birders managed to see the bird and it was reported all morning.

This was a bird I really wanted to chase, as I had never seen one in Canada before. Prior to this year the OBRC had only accepted 5 records of this species, with only one of those birds staying in one spot for more than a day (October 1990, Turkey Point). Surprisingly Ontario has had three juvenile White Ibis reported in the past three weeks. One was near Napanee from August 24-26, then a bird only staying fora few hours at Oshawa Second Marsh on September 11. Is this one bird making its way down the lower Great Lakes? Or do we have several White Ibises (ibi?) in the province right now? I would be inclined to think that the Pelee bird is different than the Lake Ontario bird(s) - its a hell of a distance from Oshawa to Wheatley, switching lakes, no less. This individual would be the second record for Point Pelee, (the first consisted of a brief flyover on September 27, 1970) and the first for Chatham-Kent..

I wasn't going to chase the bird at first, but after tying up some things at work and realizing that I could finish early for the day, I worked through lunch than packed up at 2:00, and by 2:20 I had left my house in Aurora.

Some traffic in London delayed my drive down, but around 6:30 PM I finally pulled in to Wheatley Provincial Park. Jeremy Bensette  and Chris Gaffan had arrived an hour earlier and Jeremy called to let me know that the bird was still there. A relief!

I parked in the Two Creeks campground near the bridge in question just as the skies, which had threatened all along my drive, were looking ominous again. A group of about a dozen birders were lined up on the bridge, all staring intently to the north.

juvenile White Ibis - Wheatley Provincial Park

The bird was distant but easily identifiable as a juvenile White Ibis! While adults of this species are all white with pink legs and faces, the juveniles are a dingy brown colour from a distance. Up close however the orange facial skin, chocolate-brown back, and white flanks were quite noticeable! After watching the bird forage near a Black-crowned Night-Heron and Great Egret along the creek, I headed along a trail running parallel to the creek for some closer looks. The ibis foraged constantly and certainly looked content!

juvenile White Ibis - Wheatley Provincial Park

Eventually as darkness encroached most of the herons got up and began flying around. The ibis soon left flying south down the creek. We did not see where exactly it landed but it didn't look like it was planning on going very far, and is likely roosting in a tree somewhere for the night. Here's hoping it returns to the same spot for others who are searching tomorrow!

juvenile White Ibis - Wheatley Provincial Park

Thursday 11 September 2014

Panama - Day 4 (March 3, 2014)


For our third day in the Canal Zone, and last day before checking out other areas of Panama, the three of us decided to drive over to Achiote Road located in the lowlands on the Caribbean side. The previous day (which included a check of Plantation Road) only netted me nine new trip birds - a weak showing given that it was only our third full day.

We were hoping that Achiote Road would reveal to us a large number of new birds since we were venturing further afield and into new habitats. Sure enough it came through, and when it was all said and done I had added 29 new trip birds of which 13 were new for my life list.

Our first stop just after dawn was at the Gatun Dam- an impressive series of locks used to allow massive ships entrance into Gatun Lake, which later empties into the Panama Canal. We were more focused on some of the birds that could be found in the grassy areas nearby and in short order had seen our first Red-breasted Blackbirds of the trip - an absolutely stunning species. I also spotted my first Striated Heron in a roadside ditch while we were driving, and we had a few more interesting birds including Eastern Meadowlark (yep, that Eastern Meadowlark!). 

We arrived at Achiote Road around 7:00 AM and began walking the roadside. Despite occasional vehicles, the road was surprisingly birdy and I was excited checking out the Caribbean slope birds for the first time! 

birding Achiote Road, Panama

Some of the highlights along Achiote Road included Spot-crowned Barbet, Black-chested Jay, Collared Aracari, Crimson-crested Woodpecker and Long-tailed Tyrant. At one point Dave and I had an interesting bird fly over which we both identified as a female Blue Cotinga as it landed briefly in a tree - my first cotinga and a huge target bird for Steve. Unfortunately he missed it! Luckily sweet redemption was made later on in the trip during the Darien extension, which you will read about at some point...

Howler Monkeys were abundant (and quite vocal!) along the road, allowing for some neat photo opportunities.

Mantled Howlers - Achiote Road, Panama

Mantled Howlers - Achiote Road, Panama

Mantled Howlers - Achiote Road, Panama

I also took a moment to snap a photo of this Malachite - a stunning species that happens to be quite common throughout Central America.

*Edit: Several readers have mentioned that this butterfly is in fact a Philaethria dido. It has many common names, such as Green Heliconian, False Malachite and Dido Longwing. 

False Malachite (Philaethria dido) - Achiote Road, Panama

As the morning wore on it became quite hot and humid, so we retreated to some roadside trails to try our luck with some different species. While we missed most of our targets (White-headed Wren is one that comes to mind), we did add a few other interesting ones. A highlight for me was certainly this young Rufescent Tiger-Heron that flushed from a small creek into a nearby tree. 

Rufescent Tiger-Heron - Achiote Road, Panama

Rufescent Tiger-Heron - Achiote Road, Panama

We spotted several snakes, both of which got away unfortunately. One was likely a Dendrophidion percarinatus. I also managed my first photos of this really awesome clearwing butterfly!

Blushing Phantom (Cithaerias pireta) - Achiote Road, Panama

Blushing Phantom (Cithaerias pireta) - Achiote Road, Panama

We finished up with about 100 species for the area and checked out the town of Achiote where we happened to stumble across a "restaurant" for the locals in the town. They do not get many visitors and were quite happy to cook us up a big meal of fish with fried plantains - delicious! Of course by the end of the meal Steve had made friends with everyone in the restaurant and several others in the town! 

By this time it was mid-afternoon and the birding had slowed down considerably so we began the long drive to Altos del Maria located in the foothills west of the Canal Zone. Here we had arranged to stay with local birder Alfred Raab for several nights. Alfred splits his time between Altos and the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario and was a good friend of Steve's. 

The drive was long and fairly uneventful with the exception being the Carnival festivities/street parties going on in every single small town along the highway! Eventually we made it to Altos del Maria by late afternoon. We did see what was my first Fork-tailed Flycatcher in a roadside field - a common bird through much of Panama but one that I was just dying to see. My photos of this one leave a lot to be desired but I did snag a few decent ones later in the trip.

That night Alfred discovered a massive locust of some sort on his door so we played around with some photos of the massive (7+ inches) insect!

We were excited to be in this new area and especially thrilled that Alfred was willing to spend two full days showing us around his "local patch". Dozens of lifers awaited us...

Total bird species so far: 242

Sunday 7 September 2014

Back on the east coast!

Yesterday evening, Laura and I hopped on a plane and flew to Nova Scotia to spend the next week. Since we began dating 5 years ago I have visited her and her family twice each year - this was my 11th trip already, and 6th for either late August or early September.

Laura's parents live on a gorgeous lake about half an hour outside of Halifax. An old railway line runs along the east side of the lake and can often be very productive for flocks of warblers, vireos, chickadees, and other songbirds. I have had some success over the years here at the lake, with highlights being Warbling Vireo and Bicknell's Thrush during autumn migration.

This morning was overcast and fairly calm so I decided to do the ~ 5 km loop around the lake. While I didn't see any rarities this time around, it was a great walk with quite a few birds including several warbler flocks. Here are a few photos from the excursion!

White-throated Sparrow

Black-and-white Warbler

Canada Warbler

Black-throated Green Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler

Black-throated Green Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Swamp Sparrow

Black-and-white Warbler

Friday 5 September 2014

Ontario's prettiest snake

Despite living in the "Great White North", we are fortunate to have a variety of awesome snake species here in southern Ontario. While we don't have the diversity of places further south, our fifteen species of snakes in Ontario is certainly a lot higher than any other Canadian province. Some can be absolutely gorgeous - like the jet blacks of a melanistic Eastern Gartersnake, or the bold reds, coppers, and tans of an Eastern Milksnake, or the multitude of colors that Eastern Hognose Snakes can come in.Then there are Eastern Foxsnakes, Eastern Massasaugas and Ringneck Snakes....

One of my favorite Ontario snakes, and certainly one of the most beautiful, is the diminutive Smooth Greensnake. Found in grassy fields, alvars, rock barrens, and other open habitat types, Smooth Greensnakes are relatively common throughout south and central Ontario. Despite this they can be very difficult to find as their emerald coloration blends right in with their favorite habitat type - grasses. I am usually only fortunate in seeing a handful or so every year.

On Monday Laura and I celebrated labour day by driving north to a favorite locale of mine and working hard to try to find some snakes. We were hoping to locate Eastern Massasaugas as gravid females would have given birth by now. While we struck out with those, we did see a number of other cool herps,including Five-lined Skinks, Eastern Gartersnakes, a half dozen amphibian species, Midland Painted Turtles, and a Northern Ringneck Snake.

Northern Ringneck Snake

The highlight for us though were two Smooth Greensnakes that Laura managed to find. The first, an adult male, was under a small board around the perimeter of a junk pile less than an hour into our hike. It was Laura's first for Ontario, though she has found a few in her native Nova Scotia!

After a quick photo session we let the little guy on his way and continued our hike.

Smooth Greensnake

Several hours later, after cooling off in a nearby lake, Laura and I headed back to the car as the skies were threatening with rain. It had been hot and humid all day but a combination of the late afternoon clouds and a few raindrops cooled the air significantly. As we were walking along an open rock barren, Laura suddenly noticed a second Smooth Greensnake, this one crawling around in the open.

Smooth Greensnake

As you can see its camouflage was not as effective with this sort of substrate. Despite that, it would sway the anterior third of its body back and forth, likely mimicking a piece of grass blowing in the wind. Perhaps it would have been more successful in a grassy environment!

Smooth Greensnake

Tongue flick....

Smooth Greensnake

The Smooth Greensnake ended up being our last snake of the day, which had been quite successful despite striking out on rattlesnakes. A great way to spend a free afternoon!

Smooth Greensnake in habitat