Saturday 30 May 2015

Wilson's Plover in Toronto

On Wednesday afternoon, Glenn Coady was birding Hanlan's Point beach on the Toronto Islands when he discovered two fantastic rarities - a Wilson's Plover and a Snowy Plover. Four Piping Plovers were taking up residence along the same stretch of beach as well, providing a trio of rare plover species for Ontario. Unfortunately the Snowy Plover did not stick around long, but the Wilson's continued to be seen throughout the rest of the day. Both Snowy and Wilson's Plovers are quite unusual in the province. I am not sure how many total records their have been of each species, but a quick look of the OBRC database shows that there are eight accepted records of Snowy Plover and four of Wilson's Plover.

I had been in Kenora from Monday through Wednesday for work and my flight unfortunately touched down at Billy Bishop airport on the Toronto Islands after sunset, meaning I wasn't able to chase the bird until the following day. The Wilson's Plover continued to be seen on Thursday, and with eager anticipation I drove down to Bay Street and boarded the ferry to head across.

Toronto from the Hanlan's Point ferry

After taking the short 10 minute ferry across I headed southwest towards Hanlan's Point beach. Even though it was early afternoon a variety of birds were vocalizing, including a Baltimore Oriole, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Willow Flycatcher, Savannah Sparrows, and Warbling Vireos. A Bobolink sang from somewhere in the grassy field over the airport fence, while several Blackpoll Warblers, one of the latest arriving migrants, sang from somewhere unseen in the forest edge.

I arrived at the beach and scanned with my binoculars to the north where the plovers had been located, while to the south, quite a few Torontonians were enjoying the hot weather at the nude beach.

It did not take too long until a Piping Plover landed in front of me. I paused to view the plover, then continued scanning up the beach. A group of birders were intently watching something on the sand, and my gaze picked up another plover shape - this one sporting a big black bill.

I joined the group of birders watching the Wilson's Plover, which paid no mind to us and casually walked by within 4 of 5 meters at times. The sun was still high in the sky at 3:00 PM, causing harsh shadows and tough photography conditions, but with the sun sort of at my back I tried to make the best of the situation. Seeing such an incredible rarity is always the main goal for me, but obtaining decent photos is just a bonus.

Wilson's Plover - Hanlan Point beach, Toronto Islands (May 28, 2015)

Wilson's Plover - Hanlan Point beach, Toronto Islands (May 28, 2015)

On several occasions, Wilson sat down in the sand amongst the beach detritus, proving very difficult to spot unless you knew exactly where to look.

Wilson's Plover - Hanlan Point beach, Toronto Islands (May 28, 2015)

 Three Piping Plovers were also present - a pair that kept close company, and a single bird further down the beach. The Piping Plover is listed as Endangered in Ontario and there are only about 100 pairs in the Great Lakes region. They are only found at a handful of beaches in Ontario, and this is the first time that I can recall a pair taking up residence in Toronto. Perhaps it is a small sign that the population is slowly increasing.

Piping Plover - Hanlan Point beach, Toronto Islands (May 28, 2015)

After an hour or so with the plovers I made my way back to the ferry docks as I had to make my way east to Havelock to complete Whip-poor-will surveys that evening. Here's one more parting shot of the Wilson's, a life bird for me.

Wilson's Plover - Hanlan Point beach, Toronto Islands (May 28, 2015)

Monday 25 May 2015

Point Pelee and Blenheim lagoons - May 10, 2015

The park was relatively slow this morning, though Dan Riley and I had an American Bittern fly over us heading north up the main park road at dawn. That's one of the cool things about migration - you end up seeing birds in weird locations sometimes!

I stood around at the tip for a while, but not much of anything was flying around. Most of the ducks had now vacated the park, with only a few scaup and Red-breasted Mergansers remaining. We hung around and watched the moderate reverse migration for a while, but it was very slow in comparison to previous days. Eventually I headed north with a few others to bird some trails.

A strange phenomena occurs during the spring at Pelee. Since most birders visit during the first 2-3 weeks of May, common species that migrate either earlier or later than that become highly desirable for some, especially those who keep annual lists for their spring Pelee visits.. This is why something like a Mourning Warbler, one of the more common warbler species found in regenerating habitat in central Ontario, can draw a crowd like this! It is a later migrant with most pushing through in late May.

Mourning Warbler madness - Point Pelee National Park

Dan Riley, Jeremy Bensette and I eventually walked up the west beach footpath. We did not see much of note, although there were a few warblers here and there, a Ruddy Duck offshore and a dead Canvasback along the beach. A Kirtland's Warbler was found along the footpath several hours after we had walked it, but we sure didn't see it!

Veery - Point Pelee National Park

It just wasn't my lucky day, as not only did I miss the Kirtland's (I was on my way home when it was reported), but I also missed Fish Crow and Mississippi Kite that were found by others later that day. You win some, you lose some!

A brief stop at the Blenheim lagoons was certainly productive due to the abundance of shorebird habitat in the sprinkler cells. Around 400 Dunlin were in and I came up with an exact-ish count of 83 Least Sandpipers. Both a male and female Wilson's Phalarope were strutting around the lagoons, and a handful of sharp Short-billed Dowitchers were also probing the mud with their distinctive "sewing machine" feeding style. While Wilson's Phalaropes breed in very small numbers in southern Ontario and these individuals may even stick around to breed, the dowitchers were just making a stopover on the way to their summer grounds in the prairies and taiga of northern Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and southern Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

Wilson's Phalarope - Blenheim sewage lagoons 

Wilson's Phalarope - Blenheim sewage lagoons

Short-billed Dowitcher - Blenheim sewage lagoons 

Short-billed Dowitchers - Blenheim sewage lagoons 

Thursday 21 May 2015

Point Pelee and area- May 9, 2015

It has been a while since my last post due to a combination of work (its getting to be that busy time of year for us biologists!) as well as the fact that it is the month of May and I've been birding during every spare opportunity. This past weekend I was in the Point Pelee area for four full days during one of the best rarity weekends of the year so far, so needless to say I have a few photos and stories that will come out of that at some point. But for now, I'm going to try to keep things going chronologically and so will post the rest of the photos from the weekend before, also spent at Pelee of course.

The morning dawned clear with a light south wind, prompting a moderate reverse migration to take place at the tip. I stationed myself there with the group of regulars to watch the flight. Indigo Buntings made up a good percentage of the birds, while oriole numbers were down (they had dominated the previous day's flight). Tanagers were making a good showing and I eventually spotted this Summer Tanager going over. Some of the key ID features which separate this individual from a female Scarlet Tanager include the overall body colouration (Scarlet often appears more lemon-yellow, even in the warm morning light), only moderate contrast in colour between the body and wings, olive/yellow underside to the tail (vs gray in Scarlet Tanager), larger bill size, and hint of an eye-line.

female Summer Tanager - Point Pelee National Park

A few other interesting birds were seen around the tip, including an Olive-sided Flycatcher that Bill Lamond and I watched circle out over the lake twice.  This Northern Mockingbird also vacated the tip several times, returning back to the mainland after flying out over the lake for several hundred meters. This was surprisingly my first mockingbird in Ontario so far this year! For some reason they can be somewhat hard to come by in the Point Pelee area, and it is a bird that I rarely see within the boundaries of the national park. Northern Mockingbirds are not abundant anywhere in Ontario, though they are frequently encountered in the Niagara-Hamilton-Toronto corridor.

Northern Mockingbird - Point Pelee National Park

No mid-May visit to the tip of Point Pelee is complete without a few sightings of Red-headed Woodpeckers flying around. Despite multiple sightings of these striking birds it is likely that only two or three individuals were involved. Red-headed Woodpecker is another species that seems to frequently take part in this faux reverse migration, continually flying out over the lake and looping back. It is not entirely known why some birds do this.

Red-headed Woodpecker - Point Pelee National Park

I ended up birding for most of the day with Daniel Riley, David Szmyr and Josh Mandell. It was a beautiful day to be out which made the hiking quite enjoyable. The birding however was a bit slow, but I'll take a slow day in May over a great day in February any time! We had to work hard for warblers, but by the end of the day we had tallied 18 species, most in ones and twos. Our best warbler was a Kentucky that Marianne Balkwill had discovered near The Dunes picnic area, which after some time gave reasonable views as it skulked in the undergrowth. We also found a nice male Hooded Warbler along the seasonal trail to the beach just north of here, a bird which even serenaded us with a few renditions of its loud, clear song.

birding near The Tip

Philadelphia Vireo is one species that seems to regularly elude my camera lens; likely due to their tendency to often perch fairly high in the treetops. This one however was fairly low, and we enjoyed great views as it flitted around, catching insects just above the trail.

Philadelphia Vireo - Point Pelee National Park

While Point Pelee can often be extremely busy with other birders during May, one side benefit is that even on slow days someone usually finds something rare. Today it was Adam Pinch's turn, and during that mid afternoon lull he discovered a Pacific Loon offshore, just north of Northwest Beach. We stopped by to check out the bird, and while it was too far for photos, it was close enough for a great look. This is the best I could muster with my 300mm lens, a lens that is great with close birds but not exactly suited to photographing a loon half a km away. I need to get my hands on one of those superzoom point and shoot cameras for that one of these days. Regardless, it was a fantastic bird to finish off a pretty good day at Pelee!

Pacific Loon - Point Pelee National Park

Monday 11 May 2015

Point Pelee - Friday, May 8

Thursday evening saw warm weather and moderate south winds throughout Ontario, causing a large amount of migrant songbirds to steadily push northward. I had arrived for another weekend at Pelee, and by dawn on Friday I was stationed at the tip along with David Szmyr, Josh Mandell, Daniel Riley and many other birders, anticipating a great morning of birding.

As expected, a steady "reverse migration" was underway, dominated by Baltimore Orioles but with good numbers of other migrant songbirds such as Orchard Orioles, Indigo Buntings, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and various warblers. Bobolinks put in a good showing with around 30 individuals seen - a decent amount for the date.

Bobolink - Point Pelee National Park (May 8, 2015)

Large groups of Blue Jays would appear overhead and fly out several hundred meters over the lake before looping back and landing north of the tip area. Occasionally one would fly close enough for good photos. Compared to a lot of the smaller songbirds, Blue Jays are much easier to photograph in flight as they present a larger, slower, less erratic target.

Blue Jay - Point Pelee National Park (May 8, 2015)

While Mourning Doves race by at fast speeds, they also are a large target that moves in a consistent manner, meaning they too are not too difficult to photograph, as long as you get on the bird as soon as it appears over the trees.

Mourning Dove - Point Pelee National Park (May 8, 2015)

Without a doubt the highlight of the morning (and the weekend) came around 7:00 AM. As we were standing there, a small pale sparrow flew over which about a dozen of us managed to see. Brandon Holden happened to be ready with his camera and fired away a series of photos of the suspicious songbird. It was a Eurasian Tree Sparrow! We were all surprised to say the least, but his photos held the proof. The bird had circled out over the water and eventually returned, landing somewhere north of the tip. A minute later it suddenly appeared at the top of a nearby tree, allowing decent looks for most of the 50 or so birders that were in the area. The sounds of camera shutters clicked from all around before the sparrow disappeared from view once more.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow - Point Pelee National Park (May 8, 2015)

Eurasian Tree Sparrows were introduced from Eurasia to parts of the midwest United States, and currently form a stable population in Iowa, Missouri and Illinois, primarily. Vagrant birds have shown up in Ontario before, and this sighting represents a potential 9th provincial record, and third Point Pelee record. One of these previous Ontario records came last year as a bird regularly attended a feeder in Niagara-on-the-Lake for parts of the late autumn and winter. The potential for some of these birds to have been released/escaped cage birds always should be considered, and the fact that five of these nine records have been in the last 13 months is a bit strange. It will be interesting to see how the OBRC votes on this and other recent records, as Eurasian Tree Sparrow has never been rejected on basis of origin yet (I have yet to see the results of the 2014 voting however).

The rest of the morning provided a few more nice birds, though nothing could really top the sparrow as far as I was concerned! I spotted a Prothonotary Warbler overhead, while a Clay-colored Sparrow lingered at the tip for a few seconds as well.

Prothonotary Warbler - Point Pelee National Park (May 8, 2015)

At one point Brandon called out a 1st summer Little Gull as it whipped around the point with a flock of Bonaparte's. This Merlin also made a couple of brief appearance; always a nice bird to see in the spring at Pelee.

Merlin - Point Pelee National Park (May 8, 2015)

Dave, Josh, Daniel and I eventually left the tip area, choosing to walk north through Loop Woods and Post Woods back to the Visitor's Centre. Birding was pretty good along the entire route and we saw a Mourning Warbler pointed out to us in Loop Woods and a Hooded Warbler near the Botham Trail, singing its heart out. We also stopped to photograph this Rose-breasted Grosbeak, perched low down in the vegetation with a nice backdrop, providing decent eye-level photos.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak - Point Pelee National Park (May 8, 2015)

We ended up birding in the park for most of the day, coming up with 109 species in the park including 23 warblers - not a bad day at Pelee.  It was great to finally have a day where a decent number and variety of songbirds were found on most trails, and many first-of-year species were seen. Some of the later migrants were in such as Red-eyed and Philadelphia Vireo, Traill's Flycatcher, Swainson's Thrush, and Canada, Mourning, and Wilson's Warblers, mixed in with some earlier ones, such as Pine Siskin, Yellow-rumped Warbler, White-throated Sparrow and Blue-headed Vireo.

In the evening, Jeremy Bensette and Emma Buck relocated the female Prairie Warbler that the Rileys had found earlier in the day, so I stopped by to check it out. Dave and Josh arrived around dusk and we finished the day by watching an American Woodcock peenting and displaying at Northwest Beach.

American Woodcock - Point Pelee National Park (May 8, 2015)

Thursday 7 May 2015

May 1, 2015 - Kentucky Warbler photoshoot

Last weekend I visited Point Pelee once again, making the long drive into the banana belt of Ontario on Friday afternoon. Due to my early afternoon departure I arrived in the southwest of the province with time to spare, and I checked out the Blenheim lagoons and Wheatley harbour before making my way into Point Pelee National Park.

Earlier in the day Mike Bouman had discovered a male Kentucky Warbler along Ander's footpath, linking the Chinquapin Oak Trail to De Laurier. The bird had been reported in the same general area throughout the day, and I headed straight for DeLaurier hoping to come across this scarce, but annual southern overshoot in southwestern Ontario.

Luckily a couple from Quebec who I run into frequently at Pelee were on the bird as I approached and they were more than happy to point it out as it foraged in the undergrowth. This was a typical view for us - a large yellow and olive warbler with a black mustache walking on the ground and searching under dead leaves for invertebrates.

Kentucky Warbler - Point Pelee National Park (May 1, 2015)

Eventually the warbler foraged a bit closer, and was unconcerned with our presence as it continued to search for little morsels. I stayed with it for twenty minutes, filling my memory cards in the rapidly failing light. I think this is my favorite of the bunch, as it maneuvered across a log in the undergrowth. I think the twigs in the foreground do not detract to this image as is usually the case, as it provides a sense of the habitat that Kentucky Warblers utilize.

Kentucky Warbler - Point Pelee National Park (May 1, 2015)

Occasionally it would pop up onto a rare unobstructed perch, providing a great clean look; rarely seen when the vegetation is taller. This early spring had delayed the emergence of most herbaceous species, providing great looks at skulkers such as this Kentucky Warbler.

Kentucky Warbler - Point Pelee National Park (May 1, 2015)

This was my fifth Ontario Kentucky Warbler, all of which have been from Point Pelee. My first was in early May 2010 and I have seen exactly one in each subsequent year. This was by far my best looks at one, and the first time that I have photograhed one.

Kentucky Warbler - Point Pelee National Park (May 1, 2015)

The last few days have been excellent at Point Pelee, making it very difficult for me to stay focused on proposal writing and other office work during the last few days. Luckily I have also been busy this week with evening amphibian surveys to provide me with a nature fix, but I'm itching to get back down to Pelee! The forecast this weekend looks hot with southerly winds and a few bouts of precipitation. We are in the peak of migration now and these conditions could provide a healthy dose of migrants, with hopefully several good rarities mixed in. Check out Brandon's weather blog for more details on this weekend's weather and potential for rare birds. Just in the last few days in Ontario there have been 2 possibly legit Barnacle Geese near Ottawa (potential 2nd provincial record?), Great Cormorant at Prince Edward Point and Presquile, Western Tanager near Thunder Bay, Spotted Towhee in Marathon, a Northern Gannet at Holiday Beach, 36 species of warblers in southern Ontario (all the annual ones minus Kirland's), and a smattering of American Avocets and Willets among other great birds.   I'll be driving down tonight for a long weekend of birding - should be fun!