Friday 26 June 2015

Little Egret redemption in Ottawa

Back on June 2nd, Ben Di Labio discovered a Little Egret near Carp, Ontario, a location just west of Ottawa. This was a monumental find for several reasons. Not only was it a first provincial record for Ontario, but it was an excellent rarity for North America. Little Egret is the Old World equivalent of Snowy Egret, a bird found throughout much of the Americas that occasionally appears in southern Ontario. Little Egret, on the other hand, rarely turns up across the pond, though sightings have increased in frequency somewhat in recent years. There is even a small population breeding in the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean.

Needless to say, this sighting caused shockwaves throughout the Ontario birding scene, and quite a few local birders were able to observe the bird throughout the afternoon and evening of June 2nd. Many of us, myself included, had to wait until the following morning to try for the bird. Needless to say, we didn't see the bird on June one did, except for Ben right at 6:00 AM at the same location, before the bird flew away. It was a long drive back.

The Little Egret played hide and seek over the next few weeks, turning up sporadically in various locations in the Ottawa area on June 7, 8, and 17. Unfortunately, being tied up with fieldwork in the north, I was unable to chase the bird on any of these occasions. And even for those who were lucky enough to try for it, many returned home disappointed after. With my next month or so looking extremely busy, it looked like I would be unable to chase the egret until August, though there was no guarantee that it would turn up again.

Yesterday morning, I was completing some surveys in the Hamilton area when word came about that a photographer had rediscovered the egret at a new location - this time, Andrew Haydon Park along the Ottawa River. I had plans to fly to Thunder Bay the following morning, and I had a busy day planned of report writing and packing once returning home from my Hamilton surveys. Needless to say, I said screw it to my priorities and began driving to Ottawa! The only guarantee in birding is that if you don't chase the bird you won't see it. It was a risk worth taking in my opinion!

Barb Charlton, who had missed the bird twice already, was also in the Toronto area for work. It did not take much convincing before she decided to join me. We left my ailing car in Oshawa (I'm in the market for a new one) and I jumped in her vehicle. The four hour drive to Ottawa was completed in just over 3 hours. We would have been even quicker if it were not for the higher than usual amount of people slowly putting along in the fast lane.

Bruce Di Labio, a long-time Ottawa birder (and the father of Ben, who had found the bird while Bruce was in Alberta) was keeping tabs on the bird and providing frequent updates on the bird's status. Luckily for us, it appeared content to feed and preen in the shallow bay at the west end of Andrew Haydon Park. Finally, we pulled in to the parking area around 3:00 PM, and met Bruce along the trail leading to where the egret was. He had grim news - it had literally JUST flown, moments before our arrival, and no one knew where it was. Fortunately for us, however, I looked up and spotted a small white egret flying away from us - it was the bird!

Little Egret - Ottawa River

The Little Egret eventually returned to its favored bay, and Bruce, Barb and I joined a group of about a dozen birders to watch and photograph it. It was a little too far for good photos given my camera set up, but with some heavy cropping they are serviceable and show the pertinent ID features.

Little Egret - Ottawa River

Compared to Snowy Egret, Little Egret shows gray lores, while Snowy Egret has bright yellow lores this time of year. Little Egret also has stringy breast plumes, and in breeding plumage two long head plumes. When the Little Egret was originally found it sported these two plumes, but they had since broken off. Everything else about the bird looks the same as when Ben found it.

Little Egret - Ottawa River

Little Egret - Ottawa River

Little Egret - Ottawa River

Little Egret - Ottawa River

 A Great Egret was also fishing in the bay so I snagged a few photos after the Little Egret had walked out of view behind some reeds. On several occasions the Great Egret had chased the Little Egret off of its preferred stump.

Great Egret - Ottawa River

Great Egret - Ottawa River

Back in 2011 I made two blog posts highlighting the 20 bird species I considered most likely to be new additions to the Ontario checklist. I did not see Thick-billed Kingbird, Kelp Gull, Brown Booby or Elegant Tern coming, but had predicted Little Egret....not a great batting average though! Looking back at that list, there are definitely a few that have my scratching my head why I picked them...

Needless to say the long drive back to Toronto was a little less painful this time around after the sweet success of the egret. What will be the next big rarity for Ontario this year, after the incredible spring we have just had?

Tuesday 23 June 2015

Blue Grosbeak at Pelee? May 18, 2015

During the morning of May 18, I stationed myself at the tip once again, to see what interesting reverse migrants we could turn up on the light south winds. For some reason, light south winds create good conditions for some species of passerines and other small songbirds to fly out over the lake from the tip of Point Pelee, a phenomenon seen at other points jutting south into Lake Erie, most notably Pelee Island. The long points of both Fish Point at Pelee Island and the tip of Point Pelee National Park funnel birds south, and from there during certain days in the spring hundreds of birds may fly off the tip. Some of these birds continue on south, while other ones loop back north, sometimes returning to the tip and repeating this process over and over again. There are many theories behind this phenomenon dubbed 'reverse migration', and lots that we still do not know about it, but I don't want to get into that here. I just wanted to post some photos of a bird that I've tentatively identified as a Blue Grosbeak, and see if anyone agrees with me based on the poor photos!

The following sections I have taken directly from the report I wrote up for the OBRC:

Circumstances of the observation:
I had stationed myself at the tip early in the morning with several others, anticipating a good reverse migration as the winds were light out of the south. A moderate reverse migration was taking place, not big numbers by any means. Indigo Buntings dominated the reverse migration, with smaller numbers of Warbling Vireo and occasional warblers and other songbirds. Around 7:45 AM I noticed an “interesting” bird flying over, so I started taking photos and alerted those near me to its presence. Kory Renaud, Luke Berg and I studied the bird, but due to the height it flying at it was tough to get a good read on it. It was slightly larger than most of the songbirds we were seeing (Indigo Bunting, warblers, Chipping Sparrows, etc), and smaller than a Blue Jay or American Robin. I was on the alert for Blue Grosbeaks that morning as it is one that very occasionally is seen in a reverse migration, and lots of Indigo Buntings were on the move. After zooming in on my photos it became apparent that the bird in question was likely a Blue Grosbeak. I called it out as a possible Blue Grosbeak and several others got on the bird and watched it circle the tip a couple of times. It was last seen flying south over the lake, though given the behaviour of many passerines during a reverse migration in these conditions, it likely looped back into the park. We didn’t see it go over the tip any other times. I showed the photos on the back of my camera to several others present and Blue Grosbeak seemed like the best fit. I’ve  cropped several of the photos when the bird was at its closest point and attached them to this report. The photos are very poor but look like a female Blue Grosbeak to me.

Description (including how similar species were eliminated):
Some thoughts on its identification:

The bird was noticeably larger than Indigo Bunting. We had lots of INBU to compare it to that morning at the tip and I can say for sure that this bird was definitely larger.

Overall the bird appeared to be a warm brown passerine, with darker primaries and tail. It appeared to be unstreaked below, though of course with such a heavy crop on the photos it is tough to be certain. I think photo 2 show this reasonably well.

The bird appeared to show two distinct buffy wingbars. In photos 1 and 3 this can be seen somewhat on the bird’s left wing.

The size and shape of the bill are what I think are the most diagnostic features in the photos for Blue Grosbeak. Photo 3 is the best shot showing the bill, while in the other two photos the bird is facing away and the bill is tough to see. The bill is clearly quite large, and the lower mandible appears to be paler than the upper mandible.

We did not hear the bird call, possibly due to wave noise and the height that it was flying at.

I think the only bird that it could be confused with from the photos is female Brown-headed Cowbird. Compared to female BHCO:

-the body colour is a much warmer brown. I find that female BHCOs appear more of a gray-brown, noticeable in flight during a reverse migration. BHCOs have light streaking underneath. To be honest I’ve never photographed one in flight before, but I would imagine that this might appear in a photograph, even as poor quality as the ones I’ve provided.

-the bill seems much too large to suit BHCO, and the lower mandible was definitely paler. Female BHCO’s bill appears dark, and the upper and lower mandibles often appear to be the same colour (though looking at photos online, this feature is variable and some birds show a slightly paler lower mandible).

-the buffy wingbars look too prominent to fit female BHCO. When looking at photos online, most female BHCOs did not show any hint of a wingbar, though some showed some light edging to the flight feathers. I couldn’t find any photos showing buffy wingbars.

-the tail does not appear as rounded as BLGR shown in Sibley, and most of my photos don’t show the tail really well. This is one point of contention I have with convincing myself it is a BLGR.

BHCOs are seen fairly regularly during reverse migrations, but they usually seem to appear in small groups with other BHCOs, or with other blackbirds such as Red-winged Blackbird and Common Grackle. I think it is pretty rare to get a female by itself go over, or at least I haven’t seen it too often. BHCOs also seem to fly a little lower and faster than what this bird showed. Obviously not really a feature to be used in identification, but anecdotally this is worth mentioning. This bird was acting similar to the young male Blue Grosbeak that several of us observed flying over the tip on May 20, 2012. It was flying slowly into the headwind, looping back around over the tip and then flying out again in the same manner, repeating this several times.

Photo 1 (moderate crop with minimal editing):

probable Blue Grosbeak - Point Pelee NP

Photo 1 (heavy crop with some lightening of the image):

probable Blue Grosbeak - Point Pelee NP

Photo 2:

probable Blue Grosbeak - Point Pelee NP

Photo 3:

probable Blue Grosbeak - Point Pelee NP

So, what do you think? Is it a Blue Grosbeak? A Brown-headed Cowbird? A mutant Indigo Bunting? Something else? 

Sunday 21 June 2015

Point Pelee and area - May 16

It's been a while since I've actually had time to post to the blog due to a very busy field season which has taken me to a few different places throughout northern Ontario, including Fort Albany, Kenora, and Weagamow Lake (currently the furthest north I've ever been in Ontario!). I still have quite a few photos to go through from the spring, so here's a few more from an extremely productive weekend in the Pelee area.

Being a turtle in southern Ontario is wrought with danger especially due to the high concentration of roadways. Turtles are on the move during the spring and many meet their demise at the wheel of a vehicle. This young Snapping Turtle, disguised as a small rock, was sitting in the middle of the roadway when several of us drove by in Kory's vehicle. It was one of the lucky ones!

Snapping Turtle - Leamington onion fields.

Speaking of turtles, the Point Pelee area (and most of the few remaining natural areas in Essex County) is home to old yellow chin, the Blanding's Turtle. It is quite common to see them basking during warm days in the spring, along with the more numerous Midland Painted Turtle. A few Blanding's Turtles were seen by many throughout May in the shorebird cell and had grown accustomed to the throngs of birders that passed by at close range. Normally this species is quite wary, making it hard to secure decent photos of them basking. It was lightly raining when I took this picture, but the sun's rays were strong enough to entice the turtles to remain on the log.

Blanding's Turtles and Midland Painted Turtles - Hillman Marsh CA

It certainly seemed to be the spring of the Mississippi Kite in Ontario. Normally only a couple are seen each spring, and some years none at all are reported. It seemed that every day or two another Mississippi Kite was found somewhere in Ontario in mid to late May this year! Ken Burrell and Adam Timpf found this Mississippi Kite flying over Hillman Marsh on May 15 and it was seen by many in the area north of the marsh into the evening. Unfortunately my arrival into the Pelee area was too late to search for the kite, but it remained for another day, hunting along Mersea Road 2, the east-west road along the north shore of Hillman Marsh. Jeremy Hatt, Kory Renaud and I caught up with the bird in early afternoon, and even managed some identifiable photos despite the back lit conditions and the height that the bird was flying at. Certainly not good photos by any means, but I was happy as it was my first photographed kite in Ontario.

Mississippi Kite - Hillman Marsh CA

The kite appeared to be very close to having complete adult plumage, although the white secondaries have yet to come in fully, as seen in the below photo. Additionally, the bird showed barring on the underside of the tail, another trait consistent with young birds. Mississippi Kites often molt much of the head and body feathers on the wintering grounds in South America, with the remainder of their second prebasic molt usually occurring on the breeding grounds (Howell, 2010). Given that information, this bird appears to be in its second calendar year, having partially completed it's second prebasic molt.
Mississippi Kite - Hillman Marsh CA

 Mississippi Kites breed in a wide band across the south-east and south-central United States and winter in South America. It is speculated that many records of Mississippi Kite in Ontario originate from the population found in the Mississippi River valley, found as close to the province as southern Indiana and Illinois. Out of the 44 records of Mississippi Kite accepted by the Ontario Bird Records Committee (2014 report), 41 records are from the spring, while the remaining 3 are from September. The vast majority of the spring records fall between the dates of roughly May 11 to May 28. The record early spring migrant is May 5, and record late is June 13. This one was right on schedule!

Mississippi Kite - Hillman Marsh CA

Along with a few other birders, I was invited to visit a small breeding colony of Henslow's Sparrows later that afternoon. Unfortunately I can't provide the location as the site is not accessible to the public. Henslow's Sparrows used to be a relatively common bird in weedy, grassy fields in southern Ontario, but their numbers have dwindled to the point that now only a few known colonies remain. This has caused Henslow's to be listed as an Endangered species in Ontario. Certaily the improved efficiency of agriculture has been a contributing factor in their decline, as few sufficient weedy fields are left fallow. This was my first time seeing Henslow's Sparrow on territory, with all my previous sightings involving spring migrants/overshoots at Point Pelee National Park. The field happened to be a great location for a wide variety of sparrows and we came up with 10 species including numerous Vesper and Grasshopper Sparrows along with the Henslow's.

Henslow's Sparrow - Essex County

Henslow's Sparrow - Essex County

Henslow's Sparrow - Essex County

Howell, Steve N.G. (2010). Molt in North American Birds. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Sunday 7 June 2015

A day of herping

While birding has taken up a rather large chunk of my time over the last six of seven years, my first love was reptiles and amphibians. I don't get out looking for them as often anymore but I try to make the most of my opportunities when I get a chance.

My good friend Todd Hagedorn was itching to get some herping in, and I had a brief window in my busy field schedule, so we planned a quick 24 hour-long herping trip to one of my favorite locations near Gravenhurst, Ontario. We did not arrive at our destination until after sunset, but as we opened the car doors several booming Common Nighthawks greeted us, while the Eastern Whip-poor-wills started up shortly after as we were setting up the tent.

Rip-roaring campfire

The following morning dawned cool and sunny with a light breeze, and we were anxious to find some herps. We wandered off on a little known trail through rock barrens, while many bird species typical of that habitat serenaded us, including Eastern Towhee, Field Sparrow, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Indigo Bunting and Brown Thrasher. The nearby oak-maple woods held a different assortment of birds and amongst the numerous Ovenbirds, American Redstarts and White-throated Sparrows, we soon added Scarlet Tanager, Black-and-white Warbler and Rose-breasted Grosbeak to our growing bird list. Surprisingly, the biting insects were in short supply. Normally this area is notorious for the flocks of deerflies and mosquitoes that almost carry you away.

rock barren habitat - Muskoka District

The first snake of the day was a neonate Eastern Gartersnake (an uncommon species in these particular rock barrens), followed shortly by a pair of Ring-necked Snakes. These diminutive salamander-eating snakes are always fun to come across!

Northern Ringneck Snake - Muskoka District

The Five-lined Skink is Ontario's only lizard species, and while listed as a species at risk it can be quite common in suitable habitat. We ended up tallying over 20 during the morning. Some of the females were looking rather large and will be laying their clutches of eggs in the coming weeks.

Five-lined Skink - Muskoka District

The sun rose higher in the sky, burning off the cool morning air and allowing reptiles the opportunity to regulate their body temperatures by lying in the sun. As Todd walked by a juniper bush, this pretty lady alerted us to her presence with a quick shake of her rattle. It was a gorgeous Eastern Massasauga, warming herself in a nice sheltered spot on the lee side of the juniper bush.

Eastern Massasauga - Muskoka District

Eastern Massasaugas are without a doubt my favorite species that calls Ontario home, and always a treat to come across. Despite their reputation, rattlesnakes would much rather be left alone than to waste their precious venom on biting something other than a potential food source. During the time we watched this massasauga she sat quietly in the sun, tolerating our presence but certainly not acting aggressive in any way. It's interesting to note that the vast majority of rattlesnake bites occur when someone is trying to handle the rattlesnake, or attempting to kill it (illegal to do in Ontario, by the way, as Eastern Massasaugas are listed as a Threatened species). We are lucky here in Ontario to have such a highly specialized and unique species as part of our herpetofauna.
Eastern Massasauga - Muskoka District

A shot showing the pattern of the massasauga's scales...

Eastern Massasauga - Muskoka District

We left the Eastern Massasauga to continue soaking up the warm rays, and continued on to see what else we could find. I stumbled upon two separate Smooth Greensnakes within the course of an hour, both out in the open along the edges of the rock barrens. Smooth Greensnakes have to be one of the most beautiful and docile of Ontario's snakes - I don't think a Smooth Greensnake could bite someone if it wanted to! Unlike the vast majority of Ontario's snakes, Smooth Greensnakes are the only one to regularly eat insects.

Smooth Greensnake - Muskoka District

In the early afternoon Todd and I began our walk back to the car to have a late lunch. We were only a few hundred meters from the vehicle when Todd looked down and spotted this...

Eastern Hognose Snake - Muskoka District

It was a neonate Eastern Hognose Snake, all six inches of it stretched out along the trail. This was an incredible find, as this species is known to be in the general area, but has never been found before at this particular site, as far as I am aware. It also happened to be Todd's first ever hoggie!

Eastern Hognose Snake - Muskoka District

Eastern Hognose Snakes are listed as a Threatened species in Ontario and are often found in relatively low densities throughout the province, making them quite difficult to find in most areas. They dine almost exclusively on American Toads in Ontario, and prefer habitat that contains sandy or loamy soil. Their upturned snout is a unique adaptation they have, used for borrowing in the sand. This particular area has very little sand (it is mostly bedrock interspersed with wetlands), or toads, so it is not that surprising that Eastern Hoggies are rather rare in the area.

Eastern Hognose Snake - Muskoka District

Eastern Hognose Snakes are famous for the elaborate "death-feigning" display that they perform when threatened in some way. It may involve them rolling onto their back with their tongue hanging out of their mouth, while spraying feces around as they writhe on the ground. The whole purpose of the display is to make them seem thoroughly unappetizing to a would be predator. We were careful when observing the snake not to stress it out too much to cause the display, as I can't imagine it is very pleasant for the snake, as well as quite energy-taxing.

Eastern Hognose Snake - Muskoka District

After such a productive morning, we decided we would spend the rest of the afternoon birding at the Carden Alvar - an extensive area of prairies, alvar, and low-intensity livestrock grazing. Many grassland species call the alvar home, species that are in general declining across their range as low-intensity agriculture is being replaced with "efficient" monocultures. Eastern Meadowlarks, Bobolinks, Grasshopper Sparrows and Eastern Bluebirds are some of the common birds here; species that are always fun to see!

Tree Swallow - Carden Alvar

We had a productive few hours on the alvar, finding a pair of Upland Sandpipers right next to Victoria Road, observing several Loggerhead Shrikes from the various gravel roads that crisscross the area, and listening to at least four Sedge Wrens rattling away in the aptly named Sedge Wren Marsh on Wylie Road. Our last stop was the Prospect Road Marsh, where we were treated to close views of a Least Bittern as it flew low over the marsh in perfect lighting.

It was a simply amazing day in a beautiful part of Ontario. We ended up with close to 100 bird and 9 reptile species for the day.

Monday 1 June 2015

White-faced Ibises at Long Point - May 15, 2015

I endured a normal-length work week during mid-May, always a difficult thing to do during the peak of spring migration. But by Friday afternoon I was on my way back south, ready to enjoy a long weekend at Point Pelee and the surrounding area

On the way down I made a few stops, including one along the Lakeshore Road fields near Long Point. On May 14, Ted and Paula Gent discovered a pair of White-faced Ibises in a small wetland close to Lakeshore Road. Ron Ridout posted the observation to Ontbirds, and many birders came down to view the birds on May 14 as well as the next morning.

It had been a few years since my last sighting of White-faced Ibis in Ontario, so I was eager to hopefully observe these birds at a relatively close range. I drove down from Aurora, stopping briefly in Cambridge to pick up my car (it had been in the shop all week) and to catch up with my dad. I continued to the Long Point area and by 5:30 had arrived at the location. I initially drove right past the spot, as the birds were not visible in the wetland (and I wasn't exactly sure which puddle these birds were supposed to be in). But on my second pass I caught a glimpse of a dark shape huddled against the back side of a berm, revealing itself to be an ibis. I ended up watching the ibises for quite a while in my scope - as satisfying a look as any! They were just a little too far for decent results with my 300 mm lens, but with some cropping they certainly are good enough for identification purposes.

White-faced Ibises - Port Royal, Ontario (May 15, 2015)

White-faced Ibises closely resemble their more widely distributed counterpart, the Glossy Ibis. While White-faced Ibises are found throughout western North America and southern South America, Glossy Ibises can be found throughout much of the tropics and subtropics throughout the world. Both are rare in Ontario however, with Glossy Ibises originating from the southeast, and White-faced from the southwest. Identifying individuals of these species can be tricky, but luckily adults in breeding plumage are pretty straightforward, as long as you can have a good look at the face. White-faced Ibises have bold white feathering surrounding the red facial skin, while adult Glossy Ibises show a blue face with pale borders, and lack the bold white feathering around the face. The brighter red legs shown in adult White-faced Ibises is another good ID feature.

White-faced Ibises - Port Royal, Ontario (May 15, 2015)

The White-faced Ibises were a great way to kick off what would prove to be an awesome weekend of birding in southwestern Ontario. More to come...