Saturday 31 December 2016

An Ontario big year in 2017

Starting tomorrow morning, my good friend Jeremy Bensette will begin his Ontario Big Year. Jeremy has been planning his attempt for some time and he is hoping to go all out, in an attempt to see as many bird species as possible in the province in 2017. This will likely be the first serious big year attempt since 2012 when I and several others attempted our own big years, so it will be quite exciting to follow along with Jeremy as he guns for the record!

While big years are certainly not for everyone, they cater to a certain personality type, one that Jeremy and I certainly share. Essentially, a big year is a 366-day long strategy game, a game which requires the right ratio of luck and skill. Nothing quite beats the thrill of a big year as far as I am concerned, and I look back fondly on 2012 as it was a memorable time for me. Sure there were some low points, but the highs greatly overshadowed these.

I will be helping Jeremy out as much as possible in the upcoming year; in a sense it will be like I am living vicariously through him! We will be doing our best in the first few days of the year to clean up as many rarities as possible that are lingering in southern Ontario.

Smith's Longspur - near Long Point, Ontario

Currently, the main bird we are keeping a close watch on is the long-staying Smith's Longspur near Long Point. After being impossible to miss during its appearance alongside Concession A north of Long Point for the first few days of its stay, it disappeared recently and many birders assumed it had vacated the area or died. However in recent days it has reappeared at its favorite location and is showing no indication that it will be leaving anytime soon! While Smith's Longspur does breed in Ontario in a narrow band along the Hudson Bay coast, it is exceptionally rare in southern Ontario. In fact it is a species I missed during my big year as I never ventured to the Hudson Bay coast, also missing Willow Ptarmigan because of this. Of course if Jeremy sees the Smith's Longspur at the beginning of next year, the question will be if he will still try to get up to the Hudson Bay coast for just one main species, the Willow Ptarmigan? It can be very difficult and expensive to travel on one's own to the Hudson Bay coast, but there are inexpensive ways of doing it (such as volunteering with the shorebird/goose banding crews that go up every summer).

Lark Sparrow from Erieau - April 27, 2013

Two other rarities are persisting in southern Ontario at the moment - namely the Lark Sparrow in Toronto and the Black-headed Gull along the Niagara River. Both of these are fairly regular in Ontario with 3-8 records a year typically, but they are species that can be easily missed during a Big Year! Black-headed Gull in particular has been somewhat scarce in Ontario in recent years. It is imperative that Jeremy has these birds as main targets early in the year.

Other than these three species, no other pressing rarities are in the province and Jeremy will likely spend the next week or two targeting some tougher winter species, including Northern Hawk Owl, Barrow's Goldeneye, Gray Partridge, etc.

Jeremy has re-enacted his blog and will be providing updates on his Big Year periodically. The URL is It should be a very exciting year, and I wish Jeremy the best!

Friday 30 December 2016

2016 (part 2)


July was a bit of a slower month from a natural history perspective. Often by this time of year I have a bit of a hangover from nature overload, and it can be tough to find the motivation to go out and search for things on my own time. The birds have all settled in, having their young, the herps are more difficult to find, and the weather can be at times oppressive. This year I focused more on exploring Niagara Region a bit more thoroughly, in particular looking for shorebirds at Mud Lake CA and the Avondale Ponds among other places. This digiscoped Stilt Sandpiper was one of several I crossed paths with this summer, along with other goodies including an adult Baird's Sandpiper. It was fun to slowly work on filling in the holes in my Niagara list as well!

The one bird twitch I experienced in July was to Bayfront Park in Hamilton to see the Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks found earlier by Eric Holden. An unusual sighting for the province, and a life bird for many who came to see them.

Ontario year list: 252
World year list: 830

Northern Pearly-eye - Cambridge, Ontario

Stilt Sandpiper - Mud Lake CA, Port Colborne, Ontario

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks - Hamilton, Ontario


The excitement of the month in the Ontario birding scene was, of course, the Common Ringed Plover discovered at Tommy Thompson Park by Paul Prior. This species is quite scarce in most of North America (apart from the Arctic where small numbers breed), and this bird represented a first record for Ontario, pending acceptance by the OBRC.

An August trip to Nova Scotia was also on the agenda this year to spend time with Laura's family. I made it out for a day of birding near Halifax and discovered this juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron at Hartlen Point near Dartmouth, a rarity for the area. It ended up being a good autumn for this species in Nova Scotia as numerous other individuals showed up, including a second bird that joined this one!

Living and birding frequently in Niagara Region payed off on August 15, as Laura and I discovered a Lark Sparrow on the end of the Port Weller east pier. This provided the third record for Niagara Region.

I visited Point Pelee for a weekend towards the end of August as well. Other than dropping my phone into the marsh, the weekend was a success. Highlights included photographing an American Bittern and studying a variety of shorebirds at close range in the Pelee marsh.

Ontario year list: 262
World year list: 837

Common Ringed Plover (right) - Tommy Thompson Park, Toronto, Ontario

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron - Hartlen Point, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

American Bittern - Point Pelee NP, Ontario

Black Tern - Point Pelee NP, Ontario

Sanderling - Leamington harbour, Ontario

Piping Plover - Burlington, Ontario


On September 3, Alan Wormington passed away while in hospice care in Leamington, Ontario. Alan was one of Canada’s and Ontario’s premier birders, and was widely considered by his peers as one of the most skilled and influential birders of his generation. Alan’s knowledge of Ontario’s birds was enormous, and he was always on the “cutting edge” of the birding scene in Ontario. In addition to birds, Alan was a keen naturalist that had a particular affinity for butterflies and moths - he found several new species for Ontario, and countless new ones for Point Pelee. Alan became a good friend of mine over the last five years or so and was a mentor to me in the birding community. I will always have fond memories of birding and hanging out together both at Point Pelee, as well as at James Bay during our expeditions together. He will be missed!

I only have one other photo to share from September since I rarely had my camera with me on outings this month for some reason. Laura and I found this Eastern Gartersnake at one of my favorite herping spots in Waterloo Region; as you can see it was in mid-struggle with a plump American Toad! We stayed until the end of the scene and yes the snake was able to eventually choke down the unfortunate anuran!

Most of the month I birded locally, focusing on the many excellent areas Niagara Region has to offer during the autumn. Highlights including finding a Prairie Warbler at Port Weller, Black Tern at Niagara Falls, and a wide variety of shorebirds and songbirds throughout the region.

Ontario year list: 267
World year list: 841

Alan Wormington at Moosonee, Ontario (September, 2012)

Eastern Gartersnake predating an American Toad - near Cambridge, Ontario


October was a month filled with a wide variety of bird and herp sightings, capped off with a trip to Netitishi Point on James Bay at the end of the month.

Early in the month, I visited Long Point with Todd Hagedorn for a day, a location that for some reason I had not visited in several years. It was a pretty active day for migration and among the day's highlights was a pair of Nelson's Sparrows that we discovered at Big Creek Wildlife Management Area. Most of the few records of Nelson's Sparrow for the Long Point area are of birds discovered at the remote banding stations, so this provided the first "chaseable" ones as far am I am aware.

Laura and I traveled to Point Pelee during the middle of the month to take part in a memorial "service" of sorts for Alan. It was great to see so many familiar faces and to spend the weekend birding and reminiscing about Alan. Some great birds were found during the weekend including a Cattle Egret, Fish Crow and Hudsonian Godwit at Hillman Marsh and a Pomarine Jaeger at the Tip. As well, we crossed paths with two Cloudless Sulphurs within the national park, a southern butterfly species that occasionally strays to southwest Ontario.

As is usually the case, October provided a smattering of rarities across the province. I was fortunate to cross paths with a few including the Le Conte's Sparrow that David Pryor found in Mississauga and the Western Sandpiper that Ken Burrell discovered at Port Maitland.

Ontario year list: 285
World year list: 854

Downy Woodpecker - Van Wagner's ponds, Hamilton, Ontario

Nelson's Sparrow - Big Creek WMA, Norfolk County, Ontario

Rock Point Provincial Park, Ontario

Black Vulture - Queenston, Ontario

female Cloudless Sulphur - Point Pelee NP, Ontario

Fish Crow - Hillman Marsh CA, Ontario

Le Conte's Sparrow - Mississauga, Ontario


Todd Hagedorn and I ventured north in late October to spend 16 full days birding the coast of James Bay, east of Moosonee at a location known as Netitishi Point. It was my fourth time visiting this remote part of the province and Todd's inaugural visit.

James Bay is a dynamic place, especially with regards to bird migration in the autumn, and Todd and I enjoyed this spectacle during the days with suitable weather conditions. But even on the slow days there were things to be seen, such as the always present boreal birds, or mammals such as the occasional Red Fox, Beluga and Bearded Seal.

Birders often venture to the James Bay coast to search for out-of-place birds, since the geography of the area acts to concentrate unusual species. This trip was above average in that regard, and while we could not find any rare seabirds (we'll get a Dovekie next time!), we did find a Western Sandpiper, Eurasian Wigeon, Western/Clark's Grebe, Sabine's Gull, Mountain Bluebird and a trio of Harlequin Ducks. Spending a few weeks away from the distractions of modern life for a few weeks was certainly welcome, and it is this just as much as the unusual birds that keeps drawing me back to James Bay.

In late November two incredible birds were found in the province that precipitated long-distance chases for me and many other birders in the province. The first was the Thick-billed Murre discovered by Burke Korol at Cobden (northwest of Ottawa), and the second was the Crested Caracara discovered by Chris Eagles in Michipicoten (about 2.5 hours north of Sault Ste. Marie). Fortunately I was successful on both chases! The caracara was particularly exciting since this species had never been photographed before in Ontario to my knowledge. An incredible bird to see so far north...

Ontario year list: 299
World year list: 866

the coast of James Bay at Netitishi Point, Ontario

Harlequin Ducks - Netitishi Point, Ontario

Red Fox - Netitishi Point, Ontario

American Three-toed Woodpecker - Netitishi Point, Ontario

Bohemian Waxwings - Netitishi Point, Ontario

Thick-billed Murre - Cobden, Ontario

Glossy Ibis - Port Hope, Ontario

Crested Caracara - Michipicoten, Ontario


One of the highlights of a quiet December for me was observing the female Smith's Longspur with Daniel Riley that had been found on the Long Point CBC by Ron Ridout and the Timpf brothers. The bird was very confiding, and we took advantage of the rare opportunity to study the bird up close. While Smith's Longspur breeds in Ontario along the Hudson Bay coast there are very few records of this often difficult to see species in southern Ontario.

Other than the longspur sighting, the month was relatively slow for me as far as birding was concerned. I did get out locally a few times throughout the month, in particular to look at gulls along the Niagara River. A Black-headed Gull at the Whirlpool was nice to see, especially since I can make it from my house to the Whirlpool in less than 5 minutes! Other highlights in December were good scope views of the 5 Harlequins Ducks at Niagara Falls, re-finding a male Pine Warbler at Dufferin Islands, and studying the wide variety of large gulls that spend much of the winter on the Niagara River.

Thank you for reading this, and I hope that 2017 is full of health, happiness and of course lots of
good birds and herps!

Ontario year list: 302
World year list: 868

Smith's Longspur - near Long Point, Ontario

Smith's Longspur - near Long Point, Ontario

Wednesday 28 December 2016

2016 (part 1)

Another year has come and gone! In this yearly tradition I will summarize what some of my highlights exploring the natural world have been over the past year. Without further ado...


While most of the year was spent exploring Ontario, I kicked off the year with an adventure to Chile and Argentina, along with David Bell and Adam Timpf. This part of the world always has held a certain allure for me, from the awesome endemic tapaculo species in Chile to the Diademed Sandpiper-Plover high in the Andes, to the wind-swept patagonian plains where rheas and guanacos dot the landscape, to the high number of albatrosses and other seabirds utilizing the productive ocean currents close to shore. And one cannot forget penguins!

Adam, Dave and I traversed a vast amount of land from Santiago, Chile south to Patagonia, and northeast along the coast to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Here I left the other guys after 3.5 weeks as they continued their adventure further into Argentina. The few mishaps that occurred along the way were just a small price to pay for the adventure, and we enjoyed every minute of the trip (well, except some of the overnight bus trips or nights spent on hard airport floors!). As well as buses we also utilized rental cars in certain areas as well as an internal flight to cover a large distance in southern Chile.

This was a hardcore birding trip, through and through, as we targeted as many of the "Southern Cone specialties" that our itinerary allowed. Nearly all of our main targets were acquired including each of the eight Chilean species of tapaculo, three species of penguins, iconic shorebirds including Diademed Sandpiper-Plover and Magellanic Plover, a whole whack of cinclodes, miners, canasteros and other furnarids, and many other endemic bird species on our route. Mammals were also well-represented - highlights for me included South American Sea Lion, Peale's Dolphin and Commerson's Dolphin.

Ontario year list: 37
World year list: 363

Andes - near embalse El Yeso, Chile

Many-coloured Rush Tyrant - Rio Maipo, Chile

Moustached Turca - near embalse El Yeso, Chile

Chaco Tortoise - Las Grutas, Argentina

King Penguin - Tierra del Fuego, Chile


After a quick turnaround in Ontario, I was back on a plane in early February. This time, I was returning to Cuba to lead a tour for Worldwide Quest. It was my first time as the solo guide from Worldwide Quest, but the trip was a resounding success. Exploring Cuba is an excellent opportunity for any naturalist, as the variety of endemic herps, insects and plants is very high. The birding is also fantastic, with species such as Blue-headed Quail-Dove, Bare-legged Owl and the tiny Bee Hummingbird just a few of the avian gems found on this island, the largest of the Greater Antilles.

After a successful tour I took an internal flight on my own to the other side of Cuba, where I managed to figure out a way to get into the habitat for a few other endemic species that the tour does not encounter. Despite being under the weather for most of this time I was able to find everything I was hoping to. Watching my first Giant Kingbird,one of the more difficult endemic birds, actively hunting in the dry forest just before sunset on my first evening was a definite highlight, as was observing these Cuban Parakeets. Less than 5000 individuals of this rapidly declining species survive in the wild, though these two were doing their best to stave off extinction!

Ontario year list: 60
World year list: 500

coast near Playa Larga, Cuba

baby Stygian Owl - Palpite, Cuba

Cuban Trogon - Topes de Collantes, Cuba

Bee Hummingbird - Palpite, Cuba

Cuban Parakeets - Rancho la Belen, Cuba

Cuban Pygmy Owl - Rancho la Belen, Cuba


The big highlight of the month of March was visiting Spain with Laura for a couple of weeks. It was Laura's fifth and final year of veterinary school in Edinburgh, Scotland, and in each of those years I have visited her for a few weeks in early spring. We made an effort to travel within Europe/northern Africa during each of these trips since flights are so reasonably priced within this part of the world. This year instead of joining up in Edinburgh, we met in Barcelona to start the trip. We stayed at my uncle's flat in Barcelona for a couple of days, and also spent some time at a chalet he had rented in a town high in the Spanish Pyrenees. Laura and I rented a car and explored the country at our own pace, finding most of my target birds and quite a few herps as well. It was great to see some of my family in the mountains as well - my uncle and his partner, my brother and his girlfriend, my mom's cousin, and my maternal grandparents also happened to be in Spain during this trip and we all met up at the chalet for a few days around Easter.

Some of the highlights of this trip from a natural history perspective included finding my most wanted bird for Europe - the Wallcreeper. Laura and I also enjoyed looking for snakes and lizards in the plains and woodlands, watching Lammergeiers flying directly over our heads high in the Pyrenees, finding the very localized Dupont's Lark (as well as all the other steppe specialties), and experiencing some absolutely stunning vistas on hikes through the Pyrenees. It is not hard to see why so many European birders and other lovers of natural history visit Spain. Apart from the abundant and unique flora and fauna, the country has amazing food, superb infrastructure, beautiful scenery and often ideal weather conditions.

Ontario year list: 90
World year list: 666

Exploring Mont Caro, Parc Natural Els Ports, Spain

Egyptian Vulture - Parque Faunistico Lacuniacha, Spain

Red Kites in the fog - near Formigal, Spain

Spanish Ibex - Mont Caro, Parc Natural Els Ports, Spain

Montpellier Snake - Belchite steppe, Spain

Wallcreeper - Alquezar, Spain


April began with a quick 20 hour layover in Istanbul, Turkey on my way back to Canada from Spain. I arranged with a local birder to be picked up at the airport in late afternoon, driven north of the city to target a few birds, spend the night and then return back to the airport the following day by noon. Despite the short time frame I was very happy with my visit to Turkey - tasting authentic kabobs and looking at Pygmy Cormorants, Garganeys, Yelkouan Shearwaters and Caspian Gulls was a lot of fun!  I would love to visit this country again, particularly some of the areas in the southeast, once the political situation stabilizes.

I was only home for two weeks before I left on my next trip, this time back to Spain for Worldwide Quest. Due to a health issue with the scheduled leader, they needed someone able to step in on short notice. Fortunately the birds and other flora and fauna of Spain were still fresh in my mind and I was able to arrange the time off with my job, so off I went.

It was a great experience to return again to this country, especially since this return trip visited some key areas of the country that I had not yet been to and it was during the peak of spring migration. It was great seeing species like Eurasian Golden Oriole, Western Olivaceous Warbler and Eurasian Roller - species that arrive on the Iberian Peninsula in April, and that I had just missed on my trip with Laura. The tour went really well - everything went off without a hitch, the food/wine and accommodations were excellent, and we explored some really neat parts of the country. Some of the highlights included watching the storied hawk migration across the straights of Gibraltar, observing Lammergeiers feast on bones on a nearby hillside in the Pyrenees, enjoying the diversity of lizards and other herps on our hikes, and encountering Spanish Eagles, European Rollers, bustards and sandgrouse in the Santa Marta steppe.

Ontario year list: 118
World year list: 749

birding near Ormanlı, Istanbul, Turkey

Eurasian Hoopoe - near Ormanlı, Istanbul, Turkey

Northern Bald Ibis - near Barbate, Spain

Iberian Magpie - Parc National Cota Doñana, Spain
birding the Santa Marta steppe, Spain

Parc National de Ordesa y Monte Perdido, Spain 

Lammergeier - Revilla, Spain


As usual, the month of May goes by much too quickly. This year I split time between Point Pelee and wherever my job dictated that I needed to be for fieldwork.

It was once again an excellent spring at Point Pelee, and I enjoyed birding with close friends and catching up with others that I rarely see outside of this time of year at Pelee. Of course, the birding was great too...Highlights this year for me included Black-necked Stilt, Neotropic Cormorant, several Summer Tanagers, a King Rail, two Mississippi Kites and great looks at Worm-eating and Cerulean Warblers.

Another highlight in May was zipping over to Brighton to twitch the Ruff that was found by Bill Gilmour and Mark Ansell, the second new addition to my Ontario list this year (after the Black-necked Stilt earlier). The Ruff was extremely cooperative and it was a great opportunity to photograph and study this species from close range.  A second worthwhile twitch was to Mud Lake Conservation Area near Port Colborne. A young Mississippi Kite was found here by Blayne and Jean Farnan, providing incredible looks during my visit.

Ontario year list: 239
World year list: 825

Black-necked Stilt - Hillman Marsh Conservation Area, Ontario

American Avocets - Hillman Marsh Conservation Area, Ontario

Black-and-white Warbler - Point Pelee NP, Ontario

Prothonotary Warbler - Point Pelee NP, Ontario

Ruff - Brighton Constructed Wetlands, Ontario

Summer Tanager twitch

Summer Tanager - Point Pelee NP, Ontario

Cliff Swallow - Point Pelee NP, Ontario

Black-throated Blue Warbler - Grimsby, Ontario

Mississippi Kite - Mud Lake CA, Port Colborne, Ontario


June was, as is typically the case, my busiest month of the year work-wise. Unlike previous years, all my field sites were located in southern Ontario. While I missed seeing boreal birds and butterflies, I have to say that I do not miss the large swarms of blackflies and mosquitoes found in the spruce bogs!

In mid-June, Todd Hagedorn and I set out by boat to Georgain Bay Islands National Park for a weekend of camping. It was a great weekend of camaraderie and herping, and we saw just about everything we hoped to see. After such a bird-focused spring and early summer it is always nice to put down the binoculars for a bit and spend time with my "first love", reptiles and amphibians.

Ontario year list: 247
World year list: 829

Red-spotted Newt - Georgian Bay Islands NP, Ontario

Blanding's Turtle - Georgian Bay Islands NP, Ontario

Easterm Massasauga - Georgian Bay Islands NP, Ontario

Eastern Hog-nosed Snake - Georgian Bay Islands NP, Ontario

Long Dash - Huntsville, Ontario