Wednesday 29 July 2015

Point Pelee - May 18 and 19

The second last in a series of posts about an awesome extended weekend of birding in the Pelee area...

I started the morning by quickly checking Leamington harbour and Seacliff beach with David Szmyr, where we found our first Sanderling of the year along with some Ruddy Turnstones and the usual species of gulls. From there it was on to the national park to take in the reverse migration at the tip. I've discussed the morning in a previous post, as we had what was probably a Blue Grosbeak fly over us. As is usually the case when visiting Point Pelee in mid-May, we kept crossing paths with familiar faces and birders we haven't seen in a while. It was good to catch up with both Josh Bouman and Luke Berg this day as I hadn't done much birding with them recently. 

The Blue Grosbeak was not the only highlight of the morning. A White-eyed Vireo also took part in the reverse migration, while two small loons went by with a few Common Loons - both appeared to be Red-throated Loons. We even had a Green Heron fly out over the tip a few times! A Brewster's Warbler, which is a hybrid Golden-winged x Blue-winged Warbler, winged overhead as well while several of us obtained poor photos. 

Green Heron - Point Pelee NP

Later that day I joined Dan Riley and his girlfriend Nikki to check out the Woodland Nature Trail. We couldn`t come up with a reported Worm-eating Warbler but the long staying male Prothonotary Warbler was singing away along where the boardwalk crosses a wet slough at the south end of the trail.

Prothonotary Warbler - Point Pelee NP

The following morning was my last until I had to drive back home for some work surveys. I joined the Riley's for a morning of birding, though the reverse migration wasn't really happening that day.

We ran into Mike Nelson at the tip who informed us of a Prothonotary Warbler that he had discovered along the east side of the tip. When we arrived at the spot the bird was foraging low to the ground, gleaning insects and spiders off of the leafy vegetation while the sun warmed the area. Prothonotary Warblers breed in wooded sloughs and other dark, sheltered swampy deciduous habitats, so it seemed a little unusual to be photographing one at close range along the shore of Lake Erie!

Prothonotary Warbler - Point Pelee NP

Prothonotary Warbler is an Endangered species in Ontario, breeding in only a small handful of sites in the southwest of the province. In 2008, it was estimated that less than a dozen pairs were present within the province, and approximately half of these were in Rondeau Provincial Park. A lack of suitable habitat such as mature deciduous swamps in the extreme southwest of the province seems to be the limiting factor for this species in Ontario.

Prothonotary Warbler - Point Pelee NP

Despite its rarity as a breeding species in Ontario, Prothonotary Warbler is somewhat rare but regular in migration, particularly at Point Pelee and other natural areas on the north shore of Lake Erie. While some of these migrants are undoubtedly Ontario breeders, I would imagine that a large percentage of Prothonotary Warblers seen during spring migration are southern overshoots.

Prothonotary Warbler - Point Pelee NP

Prothonotary Warbler - Point Pelee NP

After filling our memory cards, we left the Prothonotary and continued up the beach to see what other migrants might be undertaking the same foraging strategy. It was fairly quiet for birds, though we did come across two cuckoos quite close to each other. One was a Black-billed, and the other a Yellow-billed!

Birding was fairly slow but steady, but it wasn't long until the sun was high in the sky, killing most of the remaining bird activity. I began the long drive back home, hoping to make a few stops along the way.

Hillman Marsh was crawling with shorebirds - not a surprise, given the time of year and amount of available habitat compared to other places in the area. Among the twelve species were the continuing American Avocet pair, six Short-billed Dowitchers, a lone Whimbrel, and two White-rumped Sandpipers. The latter two species were both year birds for me.

I continued on, stopping briefly at Wheatley harbour where not much was happening. My next stop was the Erieau pier, and as I was about to get out of my car, Reuven Martin appeared. Reuven had been working at nearby Rondeau Provincial Park during the spring, leading hikes for the Friends of Rondeau. Together, we decided to scan the pier, and eventually walked down the pier to see if any shorebirds were settled on the beach.Dozens of birds stretched out in small groups along the shoreline - a somewhat unusual sight at this particular beach. Immediately I spotted a larger one with the group of predominately Black-bellied Plovers and Ruddy Turnstones, which upon closer inspection revealed itself as a Willet.

We drove down the beach a ways to obtain better views. As is usually the case, this Willet was quite tolerant of my approach, allowing some relatively close photos. Cool!

The bird appeared to be of the expected Western subspecies. Eastern Willet has yet to turn up by birders in Ontario, but it is certainly one on the radar.

"Western" Willet - Erieau

Reuven and I quickly checked the Blenheim lagoons where a small number of shorebirds were congregating. There were fewer shorebirds than usual and we were unable to pick out anything too interesting. The Tundra Swan however was still hanging out in the back cell (#5). Undoubtedly it was unable to fly or had some other physical ailment preventing it from flying north with all the other Tundra Swans early in the spring.

I continued home, making one final stop to break up the drive at a woodlot near Brantford where a Prothonotary Warbler had taken up residence. Sure enough, it was singing away loudly when I arrived, even though the rest of the bird song was almost non-existent due to the cool, overcast and windy weather.

I arrived at my parent's place in Cambridge that evening, with plans of waking up early the next morning to complete some breeding bird surveys near Hamilton. Little did I know that a mega rarity found later that evening at Point Pelee would change these plans...

Wednesday 15 July 2015

Point Pelee and area - May 17

Continuing on with a series of posts about an extremely productive long weekend of birding, centered around May 16. For the May 15 report look here, and for the May 16 report, look here.

May 17th was similar to the previous few days - the winds were light and the weather forecast was for hot and sunny conditions. David Szmyr and I headed out to the tip, though things were rather slow and not much was flying overhead, so we bailed on the reverse migration fairly early in the morning. As we were walking up the west beach footpath I received a call from Steve Pike, who had been with us earlier at the tip. He had just had brief looks at what he thought was a Le Conte's Sparrow further up the west side of the tip, near the Solar Panel building. We were only two minutes away so naturally we headed over to take a look at the bird. A group of thirty or so birders and photographers had assembled a few minutes later as we waited for the bird to pop up again out of the cedars. It finally did, and everyone oohed and aahed while dozens of camera shutters went off. I took a really good long look at the bird instead of reaching for my camera, and realized that the bird in question was a Nelson's Sparrow! Unfortunately, shortly after proclaiming this to the group of birders standing around, the bird flitted back into the deep grasses and was only seen poorly for the next few seconds until it disappeared for good.

 Nelson's Sparrow breeds in several places in Ontario. The subspecies "alterus" breeds in sedge and willow meadows along the James Bay and Hudson Bay coasts. The nominate subspecies "nelsoni" breeds in the prairies, just barely reaching western Ontario in Rainy River District. Compared to alterus, nelsoni is somewhat brighter with more vivid colours. While southern Ontario sees very small numbers of Nelson's Sparrows passing through in the autumn, it is a rare species during spring migration. Perhaps this is due to its secretive habits, affinity for sedge marshes with standing water (a habitat that birders rarely explore thoroughly), and late migration window. Let's face it - few birders are out tromping around in mosquito infested marshes in late May searching for Nelson's Sparrows. At any rate, it was my first spring Nelson's Sparrow, and only my second observation for the Point Pelee Birding Area. A few years back I explored Hillman Marsh on foot in October and managed to scare a couple of them up.

Additionally, it was my 1000th species of bird I had observed in 2015, a goal of mine that I've had ever since the beginning of the year. This was a good year to try and see 1000, as I had trips to Colombia, Morocco, Scotland, and Cuba in the early part of the year. I guess I should make a new goal of seeing 2000 species in a year! :)

  The following photo I took of an alterus Nelson's Sparrow at Little Piskwamish Point, James Bay in July, 2012.

Nelson's Sparrow - Little Piskwamish Point, James Bay

Dave and I birded for a short while longer in the park, though few birds were around and not much was singing. We did hear both Willow and Alder Flycatcher, and had crippling views of a male Mourning Warbler.

A Glossy Ibis had been seen sporadically at Hillman Marsh over the previous few days, and with a positive report of it returning to the shorebird cell Dave and I motored over there. Dave is doing an Ontario Big Year, and Glossy Ibis was a really good one that he did not want to miss. Back in 2012 I managed to strike out on all of the ibises during my Big Year attempt.

The ibis was showing well from the back of the shorebird cell and we ended up watching it with the Rileys who had beaten us there. Due to the heat haze, harsh mid-day lighting and distance it was one of the worst looks I've had at an ibis, but any look is better than no look. In fact it was only my second ever Glossy Ibis for Ontario.

I did pause for a few moments at Hillman to photograph this Green Frog as well as several wildflowers in the soft muted lighting once the sun was obscured by clouds.

Green Frog - Hillman Marsh CA

Green Frog - Hillman Marsh CA

The afternoon was spent relaxing with a few beers at the Riley's cottage, but by 6:00 PM the air temperature had cooled sufficiently to head back into the park. We didn't see much during the few hours at Point Pelee, though we did come across a vocalizing Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, my first of the year. As we were standing around and not really finding birds, an Ontbirds post by Adam Pinch made up our minds as to where we should go. He had discovered a Snowy Egret with Dean Ware in the onion fields north of the park. I drove to the spot, met up with Luke Berg and David Szmyr, and made the long walk down the dyke to where the egret was hanging out. For some reason I did not bring my camera - an obvious mistake as the bird flew past us, no more than 10 m away and in great light! It eventually alighted on a wooden piling on the other side of the canal, allowing for more distant digiscoped photos. Dave was particularly happy to see the egret - a great bird for his year list.

Snowy Egret - onion fields

Tuesday 7 July 2015

Rainy River part 2 - Windy Point

I decided to explore Windy Point, an island in Lake of the Woods located about half a kilometer offshore from the Harris Hill Resort, after a successful morning of birding the open fields and woodlands further south. Originally I was going to rent a boat/outboard motor from a different resort to explore the Sable Islands, an excellent rarity magnet that has records of Black-necked Stilt, Cinnamon Teal, Snowy Egret, Western Sandpiper, Green Heron, Willet (several) and a few other species rare for northwestern Ontario. However, I did not have a boat license, nor did I have the free time or inclination to take the online test. Additionally I did not want to spend a lot of money on either acquiring the license or renting a boat, so I decided that the 20$ fee to visit Windy Point for the afternoon was a better option. Normally it's 10$ a person, but since I was on my own the fee was 20$.

Gary, one of the owners of the Harris Hill Resort, was happy to take me across to windswept sandy island. I arranged with him to pick me up at 6:00 PM, giving me ample time to roam the island.

In its current iteration, the interior of the island is marshy, while sandy beaches surround the west, north and east facing shorelines.The south shore is largely vegetated with spillover marsh vegetation. A large sandspit extends several hundred meters to the northeast, while several sandbars provide loafing areas for gulls off of the easterly point of the island. Of course, water currents transform these easily malleable, sandy islands each year, particularly along the edges where vegetation has yet to take hold.

One of the first things I noticed after Gary dropped me off at the southeast corner of the island was the constant singing of Yellow-headed Blackbirds - one of my favorite sounding birds for sure! I peaked over some willows to gain a view into the marshy interior and saw at least a half dozen male Yellow-headed Blackbirds perched on the reeds, singing their hearts out. Others were chasing each other, while the odd female flew by as well. Red-winged Blackbirds were also present, but in far less numbers than their golden-headed cousins. I also heard a Nelson's Sparrow since occasionally from somewhere within the marsh, a "song" that is easy to miss.

Yellow-headed Blackbird - Windy Point, Rainy River District

Yellow-headed Blackbird - Windy Point, Rainy River District

My attention was soon grabbed by the large flock of gulls that flushed from a sandbar as I passed into their line of sight - Franklin's Gulls! Dozens had been resting on the east tip of the island while close to a thousand had been biding their time on a nearby sandbar a hundred meters offshore.

Franklin's Gulls - Windy Point, Rainy River District

I was actually a little surprised that so many Franklin's Gulls were present, considering it was still the month of June. Franklin's Gulls do not breed in Ontario, but rather visit Lake of the Woods in early summer after breeding further west, so I'm told. The Ontario Field Ornithologists trip only a couple of weeks earlier had missed them.

Since it had only been a short while since they had departed the breeding grounds, most of the gulls looked pretty spiffy and many still exhibited a light pink wash across their undersides. It was tough getting close enough to resting birds to photograph them, but birds were constantly flying by at close range, providing near constant photographic opportunities.

Franklin's Gull - Windy Point, Rainy River District

Franklin's Gull - Windy Point, Rainy River District

It was around this time that I began noticing the dark storm clouds forming far to the west. When I had arrived on the island it was mostly clear with just a few clouds, but before long two massive cells had appeared, heading my way. I should have checked the radar before deciding to explore the largely treeless, open island! Luckily I at least had some foresight to pack a raincoat, and my pack also had a rain cover.

Storm a brewing - Windy Point, Rainy River District

One benefit of the imminent storm was that the dramatic lighting made for nice results with birds in flight. The dark gray backgrounds really helped the birds "pop" from the image. In this image below you can really appreciate the variability in the amount of black in the primaries of Franklin's Gull.

Franklin's Gulls - Windy Point, Rainy River District

I walked out to the end of the sand spit as I wanted to scan all the birds and make it back to the relative safety of the few scraggly trees before the weather hit. A Greater Yellowlegs landed nearby and screamed at me, while I located an adult Least Sandpiper not long after. Presumably both of these birds were either autumn migrants or summering individuals.

Greater Yellowlegs - Windy Point, Rainy River District

Least Sandpiper - Windy Point, Rainy River District

I heard a Piping Plover call from somewhere near the end of the spit, but decided against continuing further as the storm was coming in hot and heavy and I was the tallest object out on the sand spit. Lightning was going off every few seconds from the direction of the storms. Piping Plovers occasionally breed out here, and Gary had mentioned that the previous day some other birders were out there and located a single Piping Plover.

Storm a brewing - Windy Point, Rainy River District

Taking shelter on the lee side of a young basswood, the storm raged around me, and even with the tree for shelter and a raincoat I was soaked pretty quickly. Luckily the contents of my pack (including my phone and camera) remained bone dry, and I was wearing quick-dry clothing which allowed me to somewhat dry out between blasts of thunderstorms.

The Franklin's Gulls and American White Pelicans began flying again once the first wave of the storm had passed. I contented myself with attempting flight photos once again, though the light was weaker making it more difficult to obtain a sharp, "noise"-free photo.

American White Pelican - Windy Point, Rainy River District

Franklin's Gull - Windy Point, Rainy River District

Franklin's Gull - Windy Point, Rainy River District

 Three young Bonaparte's Gulls were in the large gull flock, though they usually remained along the perimeter or mostly apart from the Franklin's.

Bonaparte's and Franklin's Gulls - Windy Point, Rainy River District

Bonaparte's Gull - Windy Point, Rainy River District

Given the nice lighting, I even stopped to photograph a Ring-billed Gull - a striking gull in its own right if you catch it in its breeding finery.

Ring-billed Gull - Windy Point, Rainy River District

This American White Pelican flew a little too close for a good flight photo and I clipped the wingtips. However with a little cropping I like how it turned out.

American White Pelican - Windy Point, Rainy River District

Yellow-headed Blackbirds were flying out to the beach every now and then, but they are just a little too quick for the auto-focus of my camera combined with my slow reflexes. Regardless, a few turned out OK.

Yellow-headed Blackbird - Windy Point, Rainy River District

Yellow-headed Blackbird - Windy Point, Rainy River District

I eventually wandered back out to the sand spit but was unable to located the Piping Plover. Perhaps it had taken shelter elsewhere around the island during the storm. This Killdeer was one of many roaming the beaches.

Killdeer - Windy Point, Rainy River District

Before long the next wave of thunderstorms hit, delegating me back to the trusty basswood to wait it out. Unfortunately the rain was unrelenting this time and effectively put an end to the productive birding. The weather did finally break around 6:00 PM, allowing Gary to zip out and pick me up fortunately.

Despite the unsavory weather I was quite happy with my time at Windy Point and I encountered all the "target" birds that I was hoping for - a rare event when it happens but always enjoyable. The storm itself was also pretty exciting as it was certainly one of the most intense thunderstorms I had ever been exposed to. Nature can sure be powerful, especially when you are huddled behind a scraggly basswood on a windswept island while lightning strikes the nearby shorelines, thunderclaps are constantly going off above you, and the rain pours down. A neat experience to say the least, and perhaps the most memorable part of my visit to Rainy River.

Monday 6 July 2015

Rainy River!! (part 1)

I have been pretty fortunate this year to be able to travel extensively throughout Ontario for work surveys. So far I have been on two trips to Kenora, two trips to Windigo Lake (3 hours north of Pickle Lake in northwestern Ontario), a trip to Fort Albany on James Bay, and a variety of southern Ontario locations from Cornwall to Niagara. I am actually in my room at the only lodge in Fort Albany at the moment, where I will be completing the final round of breeding bird surveys and other work this week. While busy, this field season has afforded me the opportunity to get acquainted with all of the boreal bird species found in Ontario, along with a few interesting amphibians, mammals, reptiles and insects.

Last week I completed my last surveys for my Kenora site and with two days to kill before my next trip I drove south to the open prairies and aspen woods of western Rainy River district. This part of Ontario serves as a sort of crossroads for habitat types and their resulting species. Boreal meets western meets southern here, and it is not difficult to rack up a huge bird list in a day or two of birding in June. Several species are easier to find in Rainy River than elsewhere in Ontario, such as Black-billed Magpie, Franklin's Gull, Western Meadowlark, Brewer's Blackbird and Yellow-headed Blackbird. Sharp-tailed Grouse are common throughout the grassy areas, while Sedge Wrens and Le Conte's Sparrows make up a significant percentage of the songbirds heard singing throughout the prairies. Connecticut Warblers can be found both in aspen woods and spruce bogs, while other typically boreal species such as Black-backed Woodpecker, Olive-sided Flycatcher and Spruce Grouse are occasionally seen.

male Brewer`s Blackbird - near Rainy River, Ontario

I left Kenora at 3:00 AM, making decent time on the drive down. I did make a few stops while still in Kenora District before dawn, as the chorus was deafening! This gave me a few final Kenora "ticks" including Palm Warbler and Clay-colored Sparrow.

Several of the lakes were occupied by fishing American White Pelican. I'm not sure what species of fish this is, but the pelican had no trouble with it! While American White Pelicans are spreading eastward in Ontario and have recently begun to colonize Thunder Bay District and James Bay, they are still uncommon in Ontario and the large population in Rainy River District is always fun to see.

American White Pelican - near Crow Lake, Kenora District

I drove some backroads north of Emo, working my way slowly west towards the town of Rainy River. The first Black-billed Mapgies appeared in some of the fields, near farms, or in flight. They were all ridiculously hard to photograph, and despite my best efforts I hardly could even manage a "record shot". Singing Sedge Wrens and Le Conte's Sparrows were even less accommodating, though I was in a hurry and I'm sure with a little effort it wouldn't have been difficult to tease one or two up from the depths of the weedy fields.

I was a little surprised to see this adult Bald Eagle on a fence post while traveling west on Highway 11. It allowed me to take just this one photo before taking off.

Bald Eagle - near Pinewood, Rainy River District

Without a doubt the highlight of my day was coming across a pair of Great Gray Owls. I had checked out a location on a tip from Tyler Hoar where he had seen one Great Gray Owl a week or two earlier. It was pretty surprising to see not only one but two of them within 100 m of each other along the road!

Great Gray Owl - western Rainy River District

For much of the observation, the owls would sit quietly, listening intently to the rustlings in the grass below along the edge of the road.

Great Gray Owl - western Rainy River District

 The second owl was perched conspicuously on a fence post at the edge of a field. This was actually a new addition to my northern Ontario list - all of my previous sightings of Great Gray Owls had been in the south! Somewhat surprising, given the amount of time I've spent in the north over the last few years. Maybe I just suck at finding owls...

Great Gray Owl - western Rainy River District

Great Gray Owl - western Rainy River District

Great Gray Owl - western Rainy River District

I left the owls after twenty minutes of observation, eager to see what else I could turn up. Another location for Great Grays turned up nothing, though a distant Connecticut Warbler was singing from within the bog and I heard my first Palm Warblers for Rainy River District. Driving some nearby fields south of Highway 11 was productive as I finally saw a Sharp-tailed Grouse - typically poor in-flight views! A nearby riparian corridor held my first two White-breasted Nuthatches for the district - another southern species that is rare in most of northern Ontario.

White-tailed Deer are abundant in the fields and forests of western Rainy River District

By late morning, with over 90 species under my belt, I drove up to the Rainy River sewage lagoons. The water levels were very high leaving no shorebird habitat, but quite a few species of waterfowl were frequenting the ponds. Common Goldeneyes, Wood Ducks and Mallards were toting around large groups of youngsters, while both teal species, Ring-necked Duck, Hooded Merganser and a pair of Lesser Scaup were also present. Singles of Pied-billed Grebe and American Coot were added to the list, while the only shorebirds I saw were a pair of Spotted Sandpipers. This one was keeping a vigilant eye on me, while the other was presumably sitting on a nearby nest.

Spotted Sandpiper - Rainy River lagoons

These bluets were the most common of the odonate species at the lagoons - I`ll have to ID it when I am home and can check some resources, unless someone reading this blog knows what it is!

As I was getting ready to leave the lagoons, a Red-bellied Woodpecker called from the aspen grove to the south. This species is expanding its range northward, and now can be found with some regularity in parts of western Rainy River District. As I was listening to the woodpecker, a group of 24 American White Pelicans cruised by - such a bizarre sight that takes a little bit of time to get used to for a southern Ontario birder like me!

The afternoon was spent visiting Windy Point, an island in Lake of the Woods, which my next post will detail.