Friday 29 July 2016

Blast from the past - herping adventures during the summer of 2010

This post will go all the way back to the summer of 2010, back when I was working in Windsor, Ontario, tracking and studying Butler's Garternsakes and Eastern Foxsnakes on some lands adjacent to Ojibway Prairie.

I originally posted this to, a community for field herpers around the world that I was quite active on between 2007 and 2010. Unfortunately the site crashed in early June 2010, causing all of the previous posts to be deleted. I had posted dozens of herping trip reports over the years so it was a little disheartening to see them all disappear! At least I still had all my photos.


This summer has been a really busy one for me as I have been putting in 60-80 hours a week down near the Ontario/Michigan border studying Butler's Garter Snakes. However I do have my weekends off, and since Laura is in Nova Scotia for most of the summer I have been spending every weekend herping or birding.  The month of May was a write-off herp-wise as I was birding every spare moment, but once June hit I shifted my focus, dusted off the camera and macro lens, and went out in pursuit of some herps.

The weekend of June 5/6 was spent on Georgian Bay Islands National Park completing some herp surveying for the national park. It was a total blast, and we found most of the species known from the island.

herping - Georgian Bay Islands NP

I was pretty happy to find an Eastern Hognose 20 minutes after arriving on the island. They can be moderately common along the shoreline in rocky habitats.

Eastern Hog-nosed Snake - Georgian Bay Islands NP

Herping - Georgian Bay Islands NP

Dan looking for turtles - Georgian Bay Islands NP

Cool-looking millipede!

One of the guys turned up a Ring-necked Snake before long.

Northern Ring-necked Snake - Georgian Bay Islands NP

It did not take my good friend Dav very long to find the first 'sauga. If there is one in the area, he will ALWAYS find it. One of 9 Eastern Massasaugas seen on the weekend.

Eastern Massasauga - Georgian Bay Islands NP

Eastern Massasauga - Georgian Bay Islands NP

Dan still surveying for turtles...

Turtlin'  - Georgian Bay Islands NP

His persistence payed off and he found a Stinkpot (Common Musk Turtle)! I was not around for that one so I photographed one that Dav discovered the next day.

Common Musk Turtle - Georgian Bay Islands NP

This Northern Watersnake along the shoreline allowed my close approach. This is a photo of its good side - it was actually missing its left eye.

Northern Watersnake - Georgian Bay Islands NP

I kind of like Nerodia, despite their tempers and willingness to bite/defecate when captured!

Northern Watersnake - Georgian Bay Islands NP

Another Eastern Hog-nosed Snake. Dav got sick of saugas so he found some hoggies.

Eastern Hog-nosed Snake - Georgian Bay Islands NP

Eastern Hog-nosed Snake - Georgian Bay Islands NP

Eastern Hog-nosed Snake - Georgian Bay Islands NP

On this particular island, Hog-nosed Snakes and Massasaugas can be found in the same habitat. They seem to prefer stands of juniper bushes surrounding rock piles with lots of dead brush, surrounded by open rock and in close proximity to the shoreline.

Eastern Massasauga - Georgian Bay Islands NP

Eastern Massasauga - Georgian Bay Islands NP

I finally got around to photographing a Midland Painted Turtle - the most common turtle in Ontario, but one I have just never bothered to try to photograph.

Midland Painted Turtle - Georgian Bay Islands NP

We found a few amphibians too on the trip. Nothing noteworthy though.

Eastern Red-backed Salamander - Georgian Bay Islands NP

I flipped a few rocks the next morning, turning up a variety of herps including a nice Ring-necked Snake.

Northern Ring-necked Snake - Georgian Bay Islands NP

Northern Ring-necked Snake - Georgian Bay Islands NP

And a little Dekay's Brownsnake.

Dekay's Brownsnake - Georgian Bay Islands NP

Until next year.

The following weekend saw me up at my favorite Massasauga spot with a few herpers - Dav Nemeth-Fekete and Dan Riley.. The highlight for me was stumbling upon a Northern Ribbon Snake consuming a Green Frog, something I had certainly never seen before!

Northern Ribbonsnake consuming Green Frog - Muskoka District

We found a nice Eastern Milksnake in some open habitat - they seem to show up everywhere for me.

Eastern Milksnake - Muskoka District

Dav finally got his first good look at Mink Frog after we heard some clucking away. Managed to get somewhat close to this one for photos...

Mink Frog - Muskoka District

And of course, quite a few saugas were found. I never get tired of this species!

Eastern Massasauga - Muskoka District

Just last weekend, Nick Scobel came up from Michigan and we herped along the Bruce Peninsula, a location which I try to visit at least once a year to look for snakes. Unfortunately, there were hoards of sunburnt tourists present on the peninsula, but fortunately they congregated in the few beaches in the area, leaving the pristine alvar habitats to Nick and I.

We paused for a moment to photograph this Northern Leopard Frog along the shoreline.

Northern Leopard Frog - Bruce Peninsula

Northern Leopard Frog - Bruce Peninsula

It did not take long before I found the first of 3 Eastern Massasaugas on the day - this one coiled up in some brush along the edge of a fen.

Eastern Massasauga - Bruce Peninsula

Eastern Massasauga - Bruce Peninsula

We explored an old foundation later in the day, adding a few more species to the trip list.

Eastern Gartersnake - Bruce Peninsula

This Eastern Milksnake was very opaque as it would be shedding its skin in the near future...but the wonders of photoshop got rid of that nicely. Still, it was not the prettiest Eastern Milksnake I had seen.

Eastern Milksnake - Bruce Peninsula

Northern Ring-necked Snake - Bruce Peninsula

A hike into another alvar turned up nothing except a little American Toad.

American Toad - Bruce Peninsula

The rest of the afternoon, we went for a drive to search for places that looked like decent habitat. Exploring a few openings in the forest, we found two more Eastern Massasaugas as well as some Smooth Greensnakes. By late afternoon we were back in the first area from earlier that morning, and we had a bit of luck finding some cool animals.

Smooth Greensnake - Bruce Peninsula

Smooth Greensnake - Bruce Peninsula

Wood Lily - Bruce Peninsula

Northern Ribbon Snake

Northern Ribbonsnake - Bruce Peninsula

Nick with a Smooth Greensnake - Bruce Peninsula

Smooth Greensnake ended up being the most common snake species of the day. I was pretty stoked, as it had been over a year since I had last found one.

Smooth Greensnake - Bruce Peninsula

Smooth Greensnake - Bruce Peninsula

And finally, a Brown Snake to finish off the day. We ended up finding 9 out of the 10 snake species found on the peninsula, the only one we missed being Queen Snake (known from only a couple of specimens).

Dekay's Brownsnake - Bruce Peninsula

Thursday 21 July 2016

Summer odds and ends - butterflies, shorebirding in Niagara, etc

It has been another busy summer for me. Unlike recent years where my work has brought me to a variety of locations in northern Ontario, this spring and summer I have been restricted to job sites throughout southern Ontario. While racking up the mileage cheques has been nice, I certainly miss the vast expanses of forests and the accompanying birds, herps, mammals and insects found throughout the boreal forest, especially since most of my job sites this year have been in less than pristine locations, often within cities or agricultural areas.

While I have observed a good variety of wildlife including a few new ode and lep species for me, I have often left my camera at home. That being said, I have photographed the odd thing here and there. Below are a couple of my better photos from the summer, though most of these are very common species. Often my "best" sightings have occurred during the middle of the day when the harsh lighting does not lend itself well to photography, or they have happened when I was without my camera (far too common of an occurrence, unfortunately). There are still a bunch of photos I need to edit from the last month - these are just the ones I have looked at recently.

Northern Pearly-eye - Cambridge, Waterloo Region

Little Glassywing - Cambridge, Waterloo Region

Long Dash - Huntsville, Nipissing District

In October of last year I moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake from Aurora, a location which had been my home for over two years. Since arriving in Niagara I have been working on building my Niagara Region bird list, though that took a bit of a hiatus over the winter since I was rarely in the province. But I have tried to ramp it up in recent months. The month of May is always the busiest for a birder and like usual I devoted most of my time to birding in one of the province's hotspots - Point Pelee. However I still managed to check some local spots in St Catharines here and there and slowly added new Niagara "ticks", most of them being relatively common migrants such as Solitary Sandpiper, Rusty Blackbird, Common Nighthawk and a variety of warblers such as Northern Parula, Blackburnian, Pine and Cape May. I did not find any notable rarities in Niagara this spring, however I was content to bird some of the local hotspots and slowly come across some relatively common species that I was missing for the county. Finding a Fish Crow at Port Weller was certainly a highlight, and given other sightings from the usually inaccessible west pier, it is a species that just may be breeding here.

As spring morphed into summer I have been focused on finding breeding birds, hoping to fill in some of the gaping holes in my list. I have been somewhat successful in that regard, adding Hooded Warbler, Pileated Woodpecker, Common Gallinule, American Woodcock, Black-billed Cuckoo, Eastern Whip-poor-will and Marsh Wren.

Now that we are in mid-summer my focus has shifted to one of my favorite groups of birds - shorebirds. Here in Niagara we are not blessed with an abundance of good locations to find this group of highly migratory birds, and as I am located in Niagara-on-the-Lake it is nearly an hour drive to access the Lake Erie shoreline which is often the best location to find shorebirds. This year has also been a bit of a down year as the water levels of Lake Erie seem unusually high, hiding much of the available shoreline habitat.

However, the dry weather we are currently experiencing is beneficial in lowering water levels at a few select places, including the Avondale Ponds near Niagara-on-the-Lake and Mud Lake Conservation Area near Port Colborne. While action at Avondale has been pretty slow and the location does not provide a ton of habitat, I was pleased to encounter an adult Baird's Sandpiper there the other day - the first Baird's to be reported in Ontario so far this year. As I was without my camera these digiscoped photos will have to do.

Baird's Sandpiper - Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara Region

Baird's Sandpiper (left) - Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara Region

Baird's Sandpiper - Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara Region

Mud Lake CA has become a favorite of mine to check in the last week or so. It is only a half hour from my office, and on recent visits I have been surprised to encounter quite a few shorebirds here, a location  that is usually devoid of those species in typical years. Mudflats have appeared this year, and of course shorebirds and herons have dropped in to take advantage of the feeding opportunities. Along with over a dozen Great Blue Herons, up to 35 Great Egrets have been seen here in recent days, picking off the numerous frogs and small fish that have congregated in the shallows. I would not be surprised if a rare heron drops in eventually - the question is whether it will hang around long enough to be found! I would be happy with Tricolored Heron, Little Blue Heron, or White-faced Ibis, though I certainly wouldn't turn down a Glossy Ibis or Snowy Egret....heck even whistling-ducks should be looked for since Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks seem to be on the move during this dry summer.

Mud Lake CA, Niagara Region (photo taken in May when water levels were still high)

Several new additions to my Niagara list have occurred here recently including Sora, Virginia Rail and Least Bittern. Of course Mud Lake was also the location where Blayne and Jean Farnan discovered the Mississippi Kite back in May that hung around long enough to delight many birders.

Mississippi Kite - Mud Lake CA, Niagara Region

Two days ago I encountered an adult Stilt Sandpiper that was mostly in breeding plumage at the site - a big highlight for me since Stilt Sandpiper is one of my favorite shorebird species. I am not sure why it is a favorite - perhaps because it has a very distinctive posture and feeding technique visible from a great distance, or because it has a very distinctive breeding plumage that isn't seen in its entirety too often in Ontario, or because it is a somewhat rare migrant in the province that is often only seen during autumn migration. My apologies for the quality of the photo - it was taken with my phone through my scope zoomed in at 60x from a decent distance. It can be aged as an adult bird (as expected this time of year - juvenile Stilt Sandpipers usually appear in September) as it is retaining much of its breeding plumage, including barring on its underparts and an orange cheek patch. While some of our shorebird species begin molting once arriving on a majority staging area or their wintering grounds (i.e. Short-billed Dowitcher), others including Stilt Sandpiper actively molt during their migration through Ontario. Often, new individuals can be identified at a location by comparing their degree of molt.

Stilt Sandpiper - Mud Lake CA, Niagara Region

Other shorebirds at Mud Lake in recent days include Semipalmated Plover, Pectoral Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper (including a high count of 18 recently) and Greater Yellowlegs among the numerous Lesser Yellowlegs, Killdeer and Spotted Sandpipers. The diversity and numbers change frequently and this location should be checked daily. It is only a matter of time before a Ruff or something even rarer decides to drop in. The nice thing about Mud Lake is that it provides so much suitable habitat that a wayward shorebird may be enticed to hang around for a few days or weeks. If we continue to have a dry summer and the water levels at the lake remain low it will be an excellent birding location throughout the autumn - I know I will be checking it every couple of days from here on out.

Coming soon?