Wednesday, 23 December 2015

An early Christmas present in Wallaceburg

Last Friday, December 18 I was at home in Niagara-on-the-Lake, tying up a few loose ends at work before the weekend hit. The following day Laura was arriving back in Toronto after a long three and a half months in Edinburgh, U.K. where she is in her final year of vet school. I had planned to spend Friday evening and Saturday morning at home, doing errands and cleaning the house before picking up Laura when her flight landed at 6:00. That was my plan, until my phone buzzed with a text from Barb Charlton with news of a rare bird.

The bird was a Vermilion Flycatcher, an extremely rare vagrant to Ontario from the southwest. Larry Cornelis found the bird as he was working at his home farm north of Wallaceburg, in northern Chatham-Kent Region. He noticed the bird in a walnut tree at the north end of the enclosed pasture, but was without binoculars at the time. However, he observed a flash of red as the bird dropped down to the ground and was sure it was a Vermilion Flycatcher. Larry called Steve Charbonneau, a local Chatham-Kent birder who promptly drove over to check it out. Steve was able to re-find the flycatcher in the same area, then contacted a few other birders before posting to Ontbirds to spread the word to a wider audience. Since it was already noon and the sun would be setting 4.5 hours, I hesitated in making the 3.5 hour drive to the site, electing to spend Friday afternoon and evening taking care of all the errands I had planned, while setting an early alarm for Saturday morning.

By 5:00 AM the next morning I was on the road, driving westwards in the dark and making good time on the quiet roads. My car's thermometer read -2 degrees, an unusual reading for this abnormally warm early winter that we are experiencing. I was hoping that the flycatcher was able to survive a chilly December night and would re-appear in the same field.

Brett Fried and Len Manning were also en route at the early hour, though we all took separate vehicles due to our individual obligations at various times later in the day. I made good time through Hamilton and then London, as the rising sun illuminated the thin clouds along the horizon. Brett Fried texted me as I was 10 minutes from the site, saying that he had located the bird right away!

I pulled up beside Brett and within seconds was on the bird, perched on a small cedar on the south edge of the property, occasionally dropping down to the edge of the tilled field to grab some hidden morsel.

We enjoyed the views of the Vermilion Flycatcher in the scope as Len Manning and Dan Greenham arrived in short order. Larry Cornelis' mother had graciously given permission to visiting birders to access her yard, allowing closer views of the flycatcher's favorite area. The four of us decided to venture back there, where we promptly found the flycatcher resting on a fence post. Over the next 20 minutes or so we enjoyed the bird as it foraged around the perimeter of the pasture and actively hunted. Due to the cloud cover the lighting was fairly dim, but with a boosted ISO I fired off a few usable photos of the flycatcher (image stabilization would be a nice addition to this lens...).

Vermilion Flycatcher - north of Wallaceburg (December 19, 2015)

Vermilion Flycatcher - north of Wallaceburg (December 19, 2015)

The breeding range of Vermilion Flycatcher is from Texas, Arizona and New Mexico south through parts of Central America to northern and central South America. It does occasionally wander north and east, particularly in the autumn, with records spread out across the upper Midwest and Eastern Seaboard. It is a fairly regular winter visitor to the Gulf Coast and occasionally to South Carolina but anywhere else to the north Vermilion Flycatcher is a very rare bird indeed.

Vermilion Flycatcher - north of Wallaceburg (December 19, 2015)

Eventually we lost track of the bird as it flew further out in the field. I met a few other birders while waiting for its reappearance, including Daryl and Sharon Nethercott, and Mark Field. Eventually I pulled myself away as I had places to be later that day.

While checking out the photos on my camera a few minutes later, the Vermilion Flycatcher re-appeared on the fence along the roadside. This provided one last photo opportunity and soon all the birders in the vicinity were here enjoying great looks as the bird foraged from the dead stalks of milkweed, teasel and various asters. It seemed to be fairly successful, diving down into the grasses on many occasions.

Vermilion Flycatcher - north of Wallaceburg (December 19, 2015)

Adult male Vermilion Flycatchers exhibit a showy red underside and head, contrasting strongly with the black back, wings and eye-line. Females are more subdued with brown, and gray tones, with a splash of pink across the lower belly and vent providing the only color. This bird was a young male - already it was beginning to show the first early signs of adult plumage with red and orange feathers in the crown and cheek.

Vermilion Flycatcher - north of Wallaceburg (December 19, 2015)

Prior to this bird Ontario had five accepted records of Vermilion Flycatcher to its credit. The first was from Toronto in 1949 - a young male (like this one) found in late October that was collected several days later. Three other records were "one-day-wonders": at Holiday Beach (October 31, 2000), Point Pelee (May 7, 2002) and Wolfe Island (October 13, 2010). The other accepted record was from nearby St. Clair National Wildlife Refuge, a distance of only around 30 km from Wallaceburg. That bird was found on November 3, 1994 and continued until December 9, allowing many Ontario birders to add Vermilion Flycatcher to their lists while also providing the first winter record.

Vermilion Flycatcher - north of Wallaceburg (December 19, 2015)

Vermilion Flycatcher - north of Wallaceburg (December 19, 2015)

The rare birds continue to show up during the first few weeks of December, as the warm weather refuses to end. What will be next?


Blake A. Mann said...

Glad you came down to pick up your early Christmas present.
Very nice photos. It never came too close for me!

Josh Vandermeulen said...

Thanks Blake! It will be interesting to see how long this bird can hang in there.