Monday 12 October 2015

Nelson's Sparrow at Oliphant, Bruce Peninsula

October 1-2, 2015 - Niagara-on-the-Lake to Marathon
October 3, 2015 - Marathon to Rossport
October 4, 2015 - Rossport to Hurkett Cove
October 5, 2015 - Sibley Peninsula to Thunder Bay
October 6, 2015 - Thunder Bay to Rossport
October 7, 2015 - Rossport to Wawa
October 8, 2015 - Wawa to Manitoulin Island
October 9, 2015 - Nelson's Sparrow in Oliphant
October 9-10, 2015 - Manitoulin Island to Tobermory, Tobermory to Niagara-on-the-Lake

This is a trip report from my 10-day drive along the north shore of Lake Superior from October 1 to 10, 2015. I began in Sault Ste Marie and worked my way north and west to Thunder Bay, before retracing my steps back south towards Sault Ste. Marie. From I there I headed then south through Manitoulin Island, across to Tobermory, and south through southern Ontario to get back home to Niagara-on-the-Lake. The links above will bring you to that particular day of the trip. Any links in the text below brings you to the eBird checklist corresponding with that location.


On the evening of Friday, October 9 I took the Chi-Cheemaun ferry from South Baymouth, Manitoulin Island to Tobermory, Bruce Peninsula before driving to my friends Michael and Martha's place to stay the night (thanks guys!). This put me in a good position to bird the Bruce Peninsula on Saturday, slowly working my way south back to Niagara on my last day of the trip.

One of my first stops on Saturday was at the flats on the west side of the Bruce Peninsula near the picturesque cottage community of Oliphant. This is the location where Michael discovered a juvenile Eurasian Dotterel on October 3, a remarkable record for the Bruce Peninsula, Ontario, and Eastern North America. While the bird did not linger long and was likely now many miles from Oliphant, the slim possibility remained that it could be hiding somewhere nearby. At the very least I was hoping to find some shorebirds as these flats can be notoriously good at times.

Oliphant flats, Bruce County

While the shorebird numbers were down during my visit, consisting of just a few yellowlegs and two fly-by White-rumped Sandpipers, the beautiful calm autumn morning made the walk quite enjoyable.

Oliphant flats, Bruce County

At one point I was walking through some relatively short, sparse grass growing in about a centimetre of standing water when I flushed a small sparrow. Eventually I had a good luck at it with my binoculars, fully expecting a Savannah Sparrow or perhaps a Swamp Sparrow. I was quite surprised to see a Nelson's Sparrow staring back at me!

Nelson's Sparrow, formerly known as Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow belongs to Ammodramus, a genus that includes nine species of sparrows found in the Americas. Like most species in this genus Nelson's Sparrows are very secretive, often preferring to run between clumps of grass and other hiding spots when discovered. There are three distinct populations in North America - one that breeds in salt marshes along the Atlantic coast, another found in the Hudson Bay lowlands, and a third that prefers freshwater marshes and wet meadows in the prairies.  Nelson's Sparrow is a rare spring migrant and uncommon but regular autumn migrant through southern Ontario. Undoubtedly many Nelson's Sparrows go undetected in southern Ontario due to their secretive habits and penchant for areas with standing water.

I knew that Nelson's Sparrow was an unusual bird for Bruce County so I made a point to try to take photos of the beast. Because I was carrying my scope and walking a good distance over the flats I had neglected to bring my camera with me. This increased the difficulty of documenting the bird as I was limited to my iPhone and spotting scope. After a few minutes the bird was in an area where the grasses were not as dense. It paused, watching me, which allowed me time to set up my scope on the bird and eventually fire off a few poor record shots. Phone-scoping an Ammodramus sparrow is never easy!

Nelson's Sparrow - Oliphant flats, Bruce County

Nelson's Sparrow - Oliphant flats, Bruce County

I continued on with my day, checking out several other places along the west side of the Bruce Peninsula and further south along the Lake Huron coast, which I'll detail in another post. The Nelson's Sparrow remained in the area later that day and Alfred Raab managed some excellent photos of it, two of which he has allowed me to post. Thanks Alfred! I first met Alfred at his winter home in Altos del Maria, Panama. Alfred hosted David Bell, Steve Pike and I for a few nights and guided us in the mist-shrouded hills that he knows so well. I've detailed our time here in this blog post...

Nelson's Sparrow - Oliphant flats, Bruce County (photo by Alfred Raab)
This Nelson's Sparrow appears to be of the subspecies alterus, breeding in the Hudson`s Bay lowlands. This bird could have been born in northern Ontario, even! The prairie-breeding subspecies nelsoni is brighter still with more vivid colors, while the Atlantic coast-breeding subspecies subvirgatus is more muted in its colors, showing more gray tones.

Nelson's Sparrow - Oliphant flats, Bruce County (photo by Alfred Raab)

I received an email from Lynne Richardson, a member of the Grey-Bruce Bird Records Committee shortly after posting the sighting to Ontbirds. Lynne mentioned that the Nelson's Sparrow was a first record for the Grey-Bruce checklist area, bringing the cumulative total to 343 species. This follows several other first records in Bruce County this year including the Mississippi Kite that Alfred found in May and of course the Eurasian Dotterel found by Michael Butler. Unlike those two species which are rare vagrants to Ontario the Nelson's Sparrow was a long-awaited addition. Certainly Nelson's Sparrows pass through Bruce County every autumn, it is just that there is so much habitat to check and relatively few birders in the area.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Excellent find and writeup with outstanding photos by Alfred. What a terrific Thanksgiving bird! Alas, no leftovers to be found yesterday (Oct 12). Cheers. M & M.