Wednesday 26 November 2014

Niagara pulls through....again!

The Niagara River has a long and storied history of excellent birds being found there time and time again. Many of the best birds seen along the river are found in autumn and early winter, as large numbers of gulls, ducks and other waterbirds congregate at the river due to the abundant food source in the river - shiners. The Niagara River of course is a world renowned gull watching location and it is possible to see up to 14 species of gulls there in a single day if the stars align just right. Last year, two fantastic birds turned up along the river, both ending up being new species for Ontario. These were of course the Brown Booby in October and Elegant Tern in November. 

The autumn of 2011 was another great one along the river, and at times it was possible to see Razorbill, Black Vultures, Fish Crows, Slaty-backed Gull, Franklin's Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake and California Gull all in one day. Some of the other notable rarities to turn up along the Niagara River in years past include Common Eider, Great Cormorant, Ivory Gull, Ross's Gull, Smew, etc.

This year we hadn't yet seen our annual late fall "mega" along the river - something that changed this morning.

While I was out in the field working yesterday morning I saw the Ontbirds birds by Craig Corcoran about the Eurasian Tree Sparrow that Brianne Corcoran had spotted at their bird feeders in front of their house along the Niagara Parkway south of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

What the heck would a Eurasian species be doing along the Niagara River, you may ask? Twelve Eurasian Tree-Sparrows were actually introduced into the vicinity around St. Louis, Missouri in the year 1870, and though they have never been as successful as  their relative (the ubiquitous House Sparrow) they have increased in number to around 15,000 birds, spreading out into nearby Illinois and Iowa. Because this species has become well established for many years they are considered "countable" by the American Ornithological Union (AOU). The same goes for other introduced species like Ring-necked Pheasant, Eurasian Collared-Dove, and even Mute Swan, House Sparrow and European Starling.  Here is an ebird map showing the North American range of Eurasian Tree Sparrow. The darker purple squares indicate higher relative abundance.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow sightings submitted to eBird (as of November 26, 2014)

As you can see from the above map there have actually been a few sightings in Ontario in the past - including four prior to this year that have been accepted by the Ontario Bird Records Committee. However, few of these birds have lingered for more than a day (or a few hours) in one location.

1 in Eastnor Township, Bruce 16-18 Feb, 1994 (Russell Ferguson, Katherine Ferguson)
1 at Sturgeon Creek, Essex 20 May, 1999 (Paul D. Pratt)
1 at Leamington, Essex 24 Aug, 2003 (Jeanette B. Pepper)
1 at Port Burwell, Elgin 10 May, 2008 (Aaron Allensen)

This year at least two prior sightings have occurred. Alan Wormington found two at Terrace Bay, Thunder Bay on May 18, and one was banded at the tip of Long Point, Norfolk on 19 May.

At any rate, I was determined to finish my work for the day early and drive down to Niagara-on-the-lake before dark to look for the bird, as they are usually one day wonders. A good rule of thumb when chasing a rare bird is to get there the day it is found. So many times a rarity is seen until dusk but not relocated in subsequent days.

I finished up my surveys and hit the road by 1:15 PM, spurred on by a positive Ontbirds post by Barb Charlton that the bird was still attending the feeder.

I rolled in shortly after 3:00 PM to see about a dozen cars parked along the road in front of the house and a small group of birders standing around. It turns out that the sparrow hadn't been seen since early that afternoon, nor had the big flock of House Sparrows that it was associating with. There was some thought that the large amount of birders present may have prevented the sparrows from returning, but that is hard to determine of course. A group of 60 or so House Sparrows came in eventually (smaller than the 200 or so seen earlier), but the bird was not with them. Compared to the closely related House Sparrow, Eurasian Tree-Sparrow has a rufous/brown cap, black auriculars (ear), white surrounding the auriculars, and a white collar. It is also slightly smaller than House Sparrow with a slightly smaller bill.

I decided that I was going to stick it out until dusk since I had no other pressing plans that evening and dusk was before 5:00 PM, leaving me lots of time to get back home afterwards and still do a few hours of work.

Most birders cleared out around 4:20 PM as few birds were seen around the feeders and the Eurasian Tree Sparrow was MIA. I ended up being the last birder there, so I sat quietly in my car and kept an eye on the feeders. With fewer people around, more birds started coming in to the feeders- a pair of Pine Siskins, some Dark-eyed Juncos, a few Mourning Doves, and half a dozen Northern Cardinals.

I was actually on the phone with Jeremy Bensette when a sparrow-sized bird landed on the feeder. I was shocked to see it was the Eurasian Tree Sparrow! After a few quick expletives I hastily hung up on Jeremy and watched the bird. Surprisingly it was all by itself, not associating with any House Sparrows as it had earlier in the day. It only stayed on the feeder for about 20 seconds. I ended up spending the last ten seconds of the observation fumbling with my camera's autofocus and failing to get even a single photo off. No photos and a 10-second look are better than no looks at all though.

Good luck to all those who look today! I just saw an update that it finally returned to the feeder, so no doubt many people have added it to their Ontario list. I'll be returning on the weekend for some Niagara River gulling so hopefully I can drop in and grab some photos. In the meantime, here is a link to some taken by Barb Charlton yesterday.

Good birding!

Sunday 23 November 2014

Netitishi Day 6

Day 1: September 26, 2014
Day 2: September 27, 2014
Day 3: September 28, 2014
Day 4: September 29, 2014
Day 5: September 30, 2014
Day 6: October 1, 2014
Day 7: October 2, 2014
Day 8: October 3, 2014
Day 9: October 4, 2014
Day 10: October 5, 2014
Day 11: October 6, 2014
Day 12: October 7, 2014
Days 13 and 14: October 8 and 9, 2014

October 1, 2014
Weather: 5 to 17 to 12 degrees C, wind ESE to SW 10 -30 km/h, clear skies, light overcast at dusk
53 species
Ebird checklist:

In my notebook I began this day's entry with "A very slow day at Netitishi. The morning tide was low - seawatching was pointless"...a theme that would happen more frequently than I would have cared on this year's trip. As you can see from the weather information above, it was a warm day with moderate winds with a southerly component once again; the poor migration weather led to few waterbirds being seen. Nine ducks were seen today. No, not nine species - nine individual ducks.

It can be an strange feeling sitting out by the coast and scanning from the far left to the far right, covering quite a large swath of open water, and come up with exactly zero ducks. Sometimes, it can be a relief to spot a few distant Ring-billed Gulls to break up the monotony! It sure is much different than birding the lower Great Lakes, where no matter what, there are always birds going by - even if they are "just" Red-breasted Mergansers or Long-tailed Ducks. But the few really excellent migration days on James Bay certainly make up for the slow ones!

But enough about the negative - we did see a few interesting birds today including a very distant Short-eared Owl that was migrating from east to west over the bay, following a similar route that Rough-legged Hawks take; we also had 19 Roughies today. This was my second SEOW for Netitishi and our first for this trip.

The usual crew of Peregrine Falcons was out controlling songbird numbers today. Occasionally one would blast by in full chase mode. More frequently they were seen soaring and cruising by slowly, keeping an eye out for potential meals.

Peregrine Falcon - Netitishi Point

Speaking of songbirds, they were active on a sunny warm day like today. New for our trip was a Western Palm Warbler that was seen on occasion along the edge of spruces along the coastline. Too quick for photos, however! Sparrows were also around, though in relatively low numbers, and by the end of the day we had dug out ten species. Many of these sparrows were to the east around the point. We also heard a Ruffed Grouse drumming far to the east, our third "trip bird" of the day. The fourth trip bird ended up being a flock of nine Least Sandpipers (Alan only). We would see more later in the trip.

Alan scanning the shoreline

Dragonflies were out in full force on the first day of the new month. These solar powered arthropods seem to disappear within seconds of the sun going behind a cloud. I'll make a post detailing the dragonfly species of Netitishi at a later date.

By evening the winds were out of the southwest and a thin layer of clouds had obscured the fading sun. To close things out, here is a photo looking southwest from the cabins across the small wetland an hour or two before dusk.

wetland near Netitishi Point

Thursday 20 November 2014

Netitishi Day 5

Day 1: September 26, 2014
Day 2: September 27, 2014
Day 3: September 28, 2014
Day 4: September 29, 2014
Day 5: September 30, 2014
Day 6: October 1, 2014
Day 7: October 2, 2014
Day 8: October 3, 2014
Day 9: October 4, 2014
Day 10: October 5, 2014
Day 11: October 6, 2014
Day 12: October 7, 2014
Days 13 and 14: October 8 and 9, 2014

September 30, 2014
2 to 12 to 4 degrees C, wind light and variable, clear skies
55 species 
Ebird checklist:

The morning dawned cold and clear and a thin layer of frost covered everything. The winds were dead calm but the sun quickly warmed the landscape, melting the frost in the open areas. Seawatching at the coast was futile at best as nothing much was migrating due to the lack of a breeze. Only five species of ducks were seen, all in very low numbers. A strange sight first thing in the morning was a group of Common Ravens that eventually grew to 47 in number, all moving slowly east in one large flock along the shoreline. Usually just the local pair (and perhaps an additional bird or two) are tallied in a given day.

A walk behind the line of spruces as the sun warmed the landscape turned up several sparrows species and a somewhat photogenic Hairy Woodpecker. Jeremy and I had a brief look at a Hermit Thrush - though long enough for us to take quick record photos through the shrubs.

Hairy Woodpecker - Netitishi Point

Hermit Thrush - Netitishi Point

A morning walk to the "Warbler Corner" failed to turn up any of the desired warblers, though this Red Squirrel kept a close eye on me as it ripped apart cones.

Red Squirrel - Netitishi Point

By late morning the tide had completely receded and so I went for a walk by myself down the coast to the east to see what songbirds were active in the sunny calm weather. Among the highlights were good numbers of Fox Sparrows, a Savannah Sparrow, a Lincoln's Sparrow and a Rusty Blackbird. This Lapland Longspur foraged quietly along the tidal wrack.

Lapland Lonspur - Netitishi Point

Lapland Lonspur - Netitishi Point

By the time I returned to the cabins it was close to 2:00 PM. The sun was relatively high in the sky, raising the temperature to a balmy 12 degrees - quite comfortable when there is no wind. Jeremy, Kory and I went on a water run to the creek to the west. The swiftly flowing watercourse was looking rather inviting and so I stripped down and jumped in. The ice-cold creek water was refreshing to say the least!

As we began the half kilometer walk back we birded along a ridge, hoping to find flocks of sparrows as they moved up and down the ridge or within the dogwoods. As Kory and I passed an open area, he stopped and immediately got his bins on a bird - a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher! The tiny songbird flit in the dogwoods, evidently on the hunt for flies. Jeremy came running and got on the bird as well before it ducked back into the thicket. Since I did not have any optics on me I hustled back to the camp.

Fifteen minutes later I returned with all our cameras and with Alan not far behind. The guys had lost the gnatcatcher but were back in the thicket looking. I parked myself at the original location where Kory had spotted the bird and within minutes it re-appeared!

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher - Netitishi Point

Eventually the four of us convened around the bird as it continued on foraging, occasionally flashing the black and white tail that is diagnostic for Blue-gray Gnatcatcher when compared to the other three gnatcatcher species in North America. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, however is the only species on the Ontario list.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher - Netitishi Point

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher - Netitishi Point

 Blue-gray Gnatcatchers can be moderately common in willows, riparian areas and thickets; wherever suitable habitat occurs in southern Ontario. They are found in very low numbers north of Lake Ontario and can regularly be found north to Kawartha Lakes, Simcoe and Frontenac Counties. Vagrancy is common with this species and young birds in particular can be found far off course. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher has occurred about 20 times in northern Ontario including four previous times in the southern James Bay area.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher - Netitishi Point

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher - Netitishi Point

We finished the day with a respectable 55 species - a good total considering the poor lake-watching weather. Up to this point in the trip we had tallied 97 species.

Saturday 15 November 2014

Netitishi Day 4

Day 1: September 26, 2014
Day 2: September 27, 2014
Day 3: September 28, 2014
Day 4: September 29, 2014
Day 5: September 30, 2014
Day 6: October 1, 2014
Day 7: October 2, 2014
Day 8: October 3, 2014
Day 9: October 4, 2014
Day 10: October 5, 2014
Day 11: October 6, 2014
Day 12: October 7, 2014
Days 13 and 14: October 8 and 9, 2014

September 29, 2014
Weather: 8 to 12 degrees C, wind ESE to NE 20-30 km/h, overcast at dawn and clearing mid-morning
57 species
Ebird checklist:

September 29 was just a great day of birding the James Bay coast. Although the winds were not ideal (from the southeast for most of the day), an OK variety of waterbirds was observed nonetheless including our only Ring-necked Duck of the trip. The sun came out mid-morning and the mercury rose to a balmy 12 degrees Celsius. Good numbers of songbirds were around to keep us entertained during low tide and it was just a beautiful autumn day. 

The "best" bird of the morning was probably the Cackling Goose that Alan spotted with a flock of Canada Geese loafing on the flats to the west - a surprisingly scarce species for the area. Up to that point the birding had been very slow so I figured I would kill some time and go for a walk out onto the flats to get a better look and maybe some photos.  

Shorebirds are a constant feature of the southern James Bay mudflats this time of year. A small group of American Golden-Plovers and various other shorebirds tolerated my presence for a few minutes as I stopped to photograph them fifteen minutes into my walk towards the geese. 

It is interesting how my perspective on the timing of shorebird migration has changed since I've started going to Netitishi Point. Semipalmated Sandpipers, such as the individual below, generally vacate the province by early October. Yet at Netitishi it isn't uncommon to see them late into the year - last year we even had this species into November. Pectoral Sandpipers are another species that remains very common at Netitishi much later into the year than some would think! Every year we have seen numerous shorebird species much later into the year than what one would expect for even southern Ontario - Hudsonian Godwits, Least Sandpipers, and Sanderlings to name a few more. I guess it goes to show that as long as the habitat exists and the food remains plentiful, the birds will have no need to leave. The extensive mudflats of James Bay complete with an abundance of invertebrates (delicious!) are perfect for hungry, migrating shorebirds and individuals may often spend weeks at a time bulking up for the long southbound migration.

Semipalmated Sandpiper - Netitishi Point

Pectoral Sandpiper - Netitishi Point

After 2 - 3 km of walking I finally was close enough to photograph the geese. They certainly looked a bit closer through the spotting scope...

The Cackling is the little guy on the right!

Cackling (far right) and Canada Geese - Netitishi Point

The geese were somewhat skittish and the Cackling Goose eventually flushed, allowing me to grab some distant flight shots. After completing the fly around it -rejoined its compatriots on the mudflats.

Cackling Goose - Netitishi Point

We saw a few other interesting birds during the day. At one point Alan and I watched an interesting loon fly by heading east. Unfortunately, as is almost always the case at Netitishi, the loon was too distant to see well. It was probably a Pacific (they actually breed on the north coast of Ontario) but the views were inconclusive due to the distance. It would definitely be nice to finally get a good look at a Pac Loon at Netitishi - I feel like I'm due. 

A Horned Grebe also graced us with a flyby - another species that is uncommon along the south James Bay coast. 

I walked around looking for songbirds for a bit of time in the afternoon because the waterbird "flight" was pretty much non-existent. Kory had found a Nashville Warbler at one point along the north shore of the marsh near the cabins. We both went back to try to relocate it and came across the bird along with two Orange-crowned Warblers and one Yellow-rumped Warbler. And "Warbler Corner" was dubbed.

Kory and I also were entertained by a vocal A. Three-toed Woodpecker. It flew right past us - awesome but brief views of a normally tough to see species

When "taking care of business" in the woods you are always under the watchful eyes of several spastic Red Squirrels....

Red Squirrel - Netitishi Point

And finally, here's a photo of a female White-winged Crossbill. The chattering calls of a roving flock of this species was almost always evident from the tops of the spruces near the cabins. This species occasionally "irrupts" into southern Ontario during some winters but is scarce at best most years. Nice to get reacquainted with this species....

female White-winged Crossbill - Netitishi Point

Thursday 13 November 2014

Point Pelee - November 8 and 9

November 8, 2014

I awoke to the sound of wind blowing in the trees before dawn. It was straight out of the southwest, one of the best winds for seeing birds at Point Pelee.

Blake Mann and Kevin McLaughlin were already manning scopes on the east side of the tip where it was noticeably less windy. Alan Wormington, Jeremy Hatt, Steve Pike and Lindsay Allison soon arrived. Red-breasted Mergansers were the most numerous species (as expected) and both Horned Grebes and Common Loon continually flew by as well. I ended up staying at the tip with Jeremy and Blake till nearly 1:00 PM since the birding was so good. Some highlights:

-3 Red-throated loons
-11 Long-tailed Ducks (I've never seen more than 2 in one day at Pelee before)
-1 Eared Grebe (flying south with two Horned Grebes)
-1 Red-necked Grebe (only my 3rd for the Pelee circle!)
-1 Purple Sandpiper (spotted by Jeremy as it cruised south along the east side of the tip)
-1 Little Gull (adult spotted by Blake)
-various random ducks (one Northern Pintail, one Ring-necked Duck, three scoter species, etc)

Not a bad morning at all! Cue some terrible record shots of the Red-necked Grebe and Little Gull.

Little Gull - Point Pelee National Park

Red-necked (2nd from left) and Horned Grebes - Point Pelee National Park

The rest of the day was fairly uneventful other than some delicious Taco Tony's in Leamington with Steve, Lindsay and Jeremy! I did get out for a few hours after lunch but its tough this time of year when the sun sets by 5:00 PM. The weirdest bird was an adult Little Gull flying over some tilled fields with a group of 30 Bonaparte's Gulls north of the park. Not a species I usually associated with the "Onion Fields".

November 9, 2014

On my final morning the temperature was a bit warmer, the winds a touch lighter, and the sunrise significantly more vibrant. Not a bad view out of my hotel room (a.k.a. my car's window). I used a cheap HDR program for my iPhone and I think it over saturated the colors a little bit.

sunrise near Hillman Marsh

I met up with Ken Burrell at the Point Pelee tip as he had the morning to kill in the park due to the ferry service canceling his boat to Pelee Island. Steve Pike eventually arrived on the scene and Kevin McLaughlin was also present; his last day in the Pelee circle after birding here for the past week. A formidable crew of birders!

Certainly the highlight of the morning was an unexpected adult Pacific Loon that magically appeared in my scope as I was scanning a close group of Red-breasted Mergansers and Common Loons that were feeding heavily on a school of fish. The Pacific Loon was still in mostly alternate plumage with bold white spots on the back and a silvery nape that really stuck out. It lacked the black throat of a bird fully in breeding plumage, however.

Eventually Steve, Ken and Kevin all got on the bird as it quickly made its way north with the mergansers, diving frequently, until it was out of sight. This was a gratifying find but not completely surprising, given that loons were streaming by all morning.  It sure seems like it has been a "banner year" for Pacific Loons in southern Ontario this autumn. Personally I have seen five individuals - three at Lake Simcoe and now two at Point Pelee (plus another one at Pelee earlier this spring). There have been a few other Pacific Loons reported elsewhere in the province as well. Most years see three to five records throughout the south of the province - this year has had close to 10!

Other highlights during our morning lakewatch included two more Eared Grebes that were both spotted by Ken - one was flying south with some Horned Grebes, and another appeared in the merganser and loon feeding frenzy as we were trying to relocate the Pacific Loon. We also saw several Red-throated Loons, 81 Tundra Swans in several flocks, 18 duck species including a Canvasback, all three mergansers and scoters, and 3 Long-tailed Ducks. A "small crow" flew by a couple of times first thing in the morning. It stayed clear from the big flock of American Crows that roamed up and down the peninsula and certainly seemed Fish Crow-y. Unfortunately it didn't feel like speaking which would have cleared up its identity!

I headed home shortly after. It had been another excellent weekend of birding in the Point Pelee area with good friends!

Monday 10 November 2014

Tilbury to Pelee - November 7

This past weekend I made the long familiar drive back down to the Pelee area for a few days of solid birding. With southwest winds forecasted for Saturday and Sunday I was hoping that the lake-watching would be excellent!

A big highlight on the Friday was seeing the Cattle Egret that Brandon had first reported at the Tilbury lagoons a few weeks ago. It had remained on and off in the area in the weeks since, and at one point was briefly joined by three others! 

I had almost circled the lagoons when I finally spotted it hunched down behind some plants at the water's edge, taking shelter from the wind. Strangely, it flew towards me and landed on the dyke only ten feet from my car...

At one point I walked down to the water's edge so that I could try my hand at eye-level photos as the bird foraged for grasshoppers (rather successfully!) on the berm only a few meters from me. Needless to say it was one of the few instances where I removed the teleconverter from my need for the magnification...

Cattle Egret - Tilbury lagoons

Cattle Egrets are "native" to southern Europe and tropical Africa and Asia, though they began a rapid expansion across much of the globe in the late 1800's. The first confirmed breeding record in North America was from Florida in 1953. They quickly spread throughout North America and for a time in the 1970s it seemed like they would soon be a regular Ontario species....Despite a few breeding records, that was not to be and Cattle Egrets remain a rare species in the province. Every spring and fall, however, there are multiple Cattle Egrets seen in the province.

This was only the 3rd Cattle Egret I had seen in the province, and my first for Essex County. For some reason I don't see too many of them!

Cattle Egret - Tilbury lagoons

My favorite photo of the bunch! It was extremely difficult getting a clean shot without a ton of vegetation in the way.

Cattle Egret - Tilbury lagoons

It was extremely efficient at hunting grasshoppers and grabbed about five big ones in less than a minute. It also didn't seem to mind me hanging out with it...I think it would make a good pet.

Cattle Egret - Tilbury lagoons

A check of Wheatley harbour turned up a number of Horned Grebes but not the Eared. For some reason I didn't look at my photos closely enough and I mistakenly thought this was the Eared.

Horned Grebe - Wheatley Harbour

A nice looking Horned Grebe...

Horned Grebe - Wheatley Harbour

A final highlight on Friday was spending over an hour to sift through the massive flock of ducks on the east side of the tip. The lighting was on my back, the winds had died down and the ducks were mostly milling about (as opposed to frequently diving) making identification easier. There were over 15,000 present making it very tough picking out that "needle in a haystack" such as an eider, Harlequin Duck, or something crazier. Needless to say I did not see any of the above species, though it was nice to have prolonged close-up views of three scoter species as well as some locally uncommon Long-tailed Ducks. Greater Scaup outnumbered the Lesser Scaup slightly.

ducks - Point Pelee National Park

That's all I've got for the Friday!

Saturday 8 November 2014

Hamilton Fall Bird Count - November 2

On Sunday morning I drove back down to Hamilton from my parent’s place in Cambridge to spend the day completing the Fall Bird Count. This is an annual count that takes place in early November every year and takes place within the Hamilton Study Area, a circle with a 25 mile radius, centered at Dundurn Castle in Hamilton.

I joined up with Brett Fried and Erika Hentsch at Van Wagner’s Beach in the morning. The plan was to lakewatch all day, eventually being joined by Bill Crins and in the afternoon by Barb Charlton.
The winds were out of the northwest and not as powerful as the day before, where they were strong from the due north. Generally north or northeast winds are the best to blow birds past Van Wagner’s Beach. Though the conditions were not ideal, they were good enough to spur hundreds of ducks and a good number of loons to fly past. At one point in the day at least six Red-throated Loons were on the water. some at close range.

One highlight came mid-morning when Bill spotted a Short-eared Owl way out over the lake. It lazily flopped its way to shore, escorted by a group of eager gulls. Lucky for us, the owl happened to fly directly over our heads as we watched from Hutch’s Restaurant.

Short-eared Owl - Van Wagner's Beach, Hamilton

Another major highlight was an excellent look at an adult Pomarine Jaeger that cruised by right along the shoreline. We were given a 15 second warning when the gulls in front of us got up in a panic. It appeared to be the same Pomarine Jaeger that had been photographed and seen by a group of birders the previous day. We ended up seeing the Pom a few times over the course of the day as well as the occasional unidentified distant jaeger.

At one point I left the beach to do some “poaching” in some other count areas as there were good birds around. The Wilson’s Phalarope at Princess Point was still keeping company with some Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and I scored a bonus Blue-winged Teal in the process. Of course not 5 minutes after I had left, Brett texted me about a Red Phalarope that he and Erika had observed not far offshore! Earlier we had been joking that I was the sacrificial birder, and that a good bird would be found once I left....

Later in the day once the lakewatching really died down I took a spin around the harbour to check out a few more spots. The Eared Grebe was still alive and well, diving frequently south of the island off of the parking lot for Canada Center for Inland Waters in Burlington.

Eared Grebe - Burlington

A Brant had been found at Spencer Smith Park in Burlington and was apparently quite tame, feeding on the grassy lawn. I was hoping to smoke some photos of it and came away with a few decent frames. The lighting was a bit harsh and it was tough getting a low angle with all the goose crap on the lawn...

Brant - Spencer Smith Park, Burlington

Brant - Spencer Smith Park, Burlington

The count ended up setting a new record and 152 species were tallied. Among the highlights seen by others were a Yellow-headed Blackbird, Swainson’s Thrush, Gray-cheeked Thrush and Brewer’s Blackbird.

Tuesday 4 November 2014

A day in Hamilton and Niagara

This past Saturday I joined several friends that I met while studying at the University of Guelph - Todd Hagedorn, Reuven Martin, and Mark Dorriesfield - for a day of birding in the Hamilton and Niagara areas. The weather was forecast to be cold with a strong north wind. We debated going hawk watching, but ultimately made what turned out to be the right call and did a little lake watching instead.

We carpooled south of Guelph and continued on down Highway 6. Approaching the lift bridge over Hamilton Harbour, we stopped in at Canada Centre for Inland Waters to give the lake a very quick scan. As per usual, not much was there on first glance. Some Green-winged Teal and Hooded Mergansers, a few other random ducks out in the lake, and a few Horned Grebes. One of the grebes looked a little funny with a duskier cheek and peaked head.

grebes - Burlington

We went back for our scopes and had much better looks as the grebes approached more closely. The interesting one was definitely an Eared Grebe, a western species that occasionally strays to Ontario. Maybe a dozen or so are reported each year, though most are during the spring when they have a striking black and chestnut plumage with yellow cheek plumes, such as this bird from a few years back.

Eared Grebe - Point Pelee National Park (April 30, 2012)

In basic (winter) plumage, Eared Grebes still show the characteristic small, peaked head, smaller bill, and slimmer neck when compared to a Horned Grebe. They often sit a little higher on the water than Horned Grebes and overall have a daintier appearance.

Eared Grebe - Burlington

After that great start to the day we continued on to Van Wagner's Beach where the winds were blowing in from the north. Len Manning was there and Brandon was sending him updates from his condo, located just down the shore towards Stoney Creek. Several distant jaegers had been seen as well as a single Brant. We watched for an hour or so without much to show for our efforts, so we abandoned the lake watch as we still had a lot of ground still to cover.

We drove to Niagara-on-the-Lake and pulled in to Queen's Royal Park near the mouth of the Niagara River. Almost immediately a group of 25 or so Brant flew past us, heading upriver for a few hundred metres before turning around and continuing on to the east into New York waters. We ended up watching the rolling swells with the wind pounding in our faces for a good hour or so. A second flock of 80 Brant flew by at one point. I was having trouble focusing my lens and botched the photos...

Brant - Niagara-on-the-Lake

Brant are a rare autumn migrant on Lake Ontario and during certain weather they are sometimes pushed past the west end of the lake. It is a brief but annual event - as long as the weather co-operates. These Brant likely had flown off James Bay the previous day. When Alan Wormington and I were on the coast in late October 2012, a few days of steady north winds caused a mass migration of many waterfowl species including Brant. On October 29 a total of 24100 flew past Netitishi Point, no doubt headed south over southeastern Ontario.

We continued on, making a stop at the Queenston docks where we watched an adult Little Gull and a 1st winter tern feeding with the Bonaparte's. The tern was a good study as it was quite faded showing minimal wing markings. After watching it for a while though it started to look more and more like a Common Tern.

Few gulls were at Adam Beck or the roosting rocks so we continued upriver towards the falls. We parked at Dufferin Islands and walked down to the touristy area right at the falls. Looking down one could see a few hundred Bonaparte's Gulls circling at the base of the Horseshoe Falls. With the bonies were two very striking juvenile Sabine's Gulls!

Bonaparte's Gulls and Sabine's Gull - Niagara Falls

The Sabine's could be watched with the naked eye - that pattern is hard to miss. It was an awesome rare look for this scarce species, usually seen at a distance out over open water and never from above like this! Sabine's Gulls mostly migrate well offshore over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans en route to the southern hemisphere from their Arctic breeding grounds. A few migrate over the Great Lakes however and can sometimes be seen with onshore winds. I thought that I would miss this species for the year since most pass through in late August through September and only occasionally do any linger into November.

juvenile Sabine's Gull - Niagara Falls

Juveniles have a white face and brownish nape and back contrasting with the strong black and white wing and tail pattern. Adults have gray instead of brown along with a black head in breeding plumage, but have the same wing pattern. The vast majority of Sabine's Gulls seen on the Great Lakes are juveniles such as these birds.

juvenile Sabine's Gull - Niagara Falls

WIth the overcast skies, the light began fading by this point and we headed back. It was an awesome day of birding during one of the best times of the year. I'm sure a few really interesting birds will be found throughout the rest of the month in Ontario - I think we are due for something epic.