Wednesday 19 August 2015

Summer phalaroping

Over the last few weeks I haven't ventured outside in search of wildlife as frequently as I had earlier in the spring and summer. After a rushed spring migration followed by a long and busy field season, this late summer "hangover" is an annual occurrence for me. The period from mid July to mid August is traditionally very slow for birding in this part of the continent. The breeding birds are finishing up nesting duty and preparing for migration, remaining mostly hidden and relatively silent in the deep foliage. Reptiles and amphibians, my other main interest besides birds, are still very much present this time of year but often much more difficult to encounter than during the late spring and early summer period. The heat and humidity can be oppressive, and August signals the beginning of ragweed season for me. All the more reason to catch up on projects indoors, sit on patios, go to Jays games, and generally take a bit of a break from all that naturalizing! After all, September and October will be very busy for me with the excitement of autumn migration.

But even during the dog days of summer migration is well underway , particularly with shorebirds. Species like Short-billed Dowitcher, Least Sandpiper and Lesser Yellowlegs are some of the first birds to begin moving south. Due to the length of the migration season for yellowlegs in particular, it is not unheard of for the first autumn migrants to be returning south in June (!) while some lingering spring migrants are still making their way up north.

While shorebirding in York Region is usually rather dismal, this year the 4th cell at the Holland Landing lagoons have been partially drawn down, revealing some suitable muddy habitat for shorebirds and gulls to feed or rest on. It has been a nice break after working in the office to swing by Holland Landing on my way home and spend an hour watching the birds do their thing. It is still about a 25 minute drive for me, but I try to stop by a few times a week. (For those considering a visit - note that the lagoons are posted no trespassing, but I have never had an issue being there).

Shorebirds have generally consisted of the usual species expected this time of year - good numbers of Killdeer and Spotted Sandpipers which nest at the lagoons, a few dozen Lesser Yellowlegs, a mixture of both Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, two or three Solitary Sandpipers and the odd Pectoral Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs or Semipalmated Plover. Bonaparte's Gulls have numbered close to 200 in recent days, and the duck flock is steadily growing, incorporating close to 100 Blue-winged Teal, 30+ Green-winged Teal, American Black Ducks, and today the first Northern Shoveler. I've been keeping an eye out for a teal with a longer bill, but alas no luck with a Cinnamon Teal yet!

Last week I had finished up with the shorebirds in the 4th pond and had turned my attention to the group of Bonaparte's Gulls floating on the 3rd pond when a small white bird caught my attention way in the back. I cranked the scope up to 60x and was pleasantly surprised to see the dot morph into a very crisp, juvenile Red-necked Phalarope. Red-necked Phalaropes are generally pelagic species, breeding in the arctic and spending much of the rest of the year floating on the open ocean. But every year small numbers will pass through Ontario and it is not too uncommon for them to stop by sewage lagoons during the autumn. My checklist of York Region Birds lists Red-necked as less than annual, and there are no previous eBird records for the county. I do know of at least one relatively recent record from Holland Landing, from August, 2006. The phalarope was much too far for good photos (my phone-scoped shots are hardly worth mentioning!), so here is a photo of one that tolerated my close approach on James Bay during August, 2012.

Red-necked Phalarope - James Bay (August 9, 2012)

I called David Szmyr who lives in Barrie and is doing an Ontario "big year". He raced down and quickly added it to the list later that evening! The phalarope remained at the lagoons for at least four days, last being reported on August 13.

 I visited again yesterday after work to see what had dropped in. The fourth lagoon often has a group of gulls, ducks and shorebirds resting on a mud flat that is not visible unless one walks south down the berm for a few dozen meters, as the birds here are hidden by overgrown vegetation. I had cautiously began walking down the berm when the ducks noticed my presence, and instantly all 200+ took to the air. However, I had noticed a plump little shorebird moments before the flurry of wings and had managed to get on the bird as the ducks and Bonaparte's Gulls headed over to the 3rd pond. It appeared phalarope-like and the white rump combined with a lack of wing stripe clinched the ID as Wilson's Phalarope. After landing on the water for a few minutes, it flew back to the 4th pond and settled on the mudflat with the returning gulls.

Like the Red-necked earlier, this one was also a crisp juvenile, and it remained content to forage in the shallow water with the Lesser Yellowlegs. With the sun at my back I relished this rare opportunity (for me at least) to study a juvenile Wilson's at close range. Unfortunately my camera was at home, so phone-scoping was the order of the day. Wilson's Phalaropes are the least pelagic of the three phalarope species, breeding along ponds throughout the prairies of western North America. Ontario has a few breeding Wilson's Phalaropes including a small population in the prairie-like sedge marshes of the James Bay coast. Migrants can be generally rare to encounter, however.

Wilson's Phalarope - Holland Landing (August 18, 2015)

In the next photo, the Wilson's Phalarope is in the foreground and a Lesser Yellowlegs is feeding behind it. They can look surprisingly similar, especially when wading in moderately deep water, obscuring their legs. The very thin bill, plump white body, and facial pattern easily give it away as a Wilson's if you are looking close enough. The Wilson's also fed much more erratically and even spun around in the water a few times.

Wilson's Phalarope and two Lesser Yellowlegs - Holland Landing (August 18, 2015)

Needless to say I was on the phone with Dave again, and he had to cancel evening plans with his lady once more to race back down to the lagoons. Luckily for him, this will only happen once more this year, as Red Phalarope is the only remaining phalarope to find!

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