Sunday 21 August 2016

Common Ringed Plover in Toronto!

Yesterday morning I had just started work on my winter season report for the journal North American Birds, something that I had been putting off for a few months, when I checked my email and almost spit out my coffee. A possible Common Ringed Plover had been found by Paul Prior on the Leslie Street Spit in Toronto a few hours previously. The Ontbirds post had a link to a video that Paul took, showing a bird that clearly showed a suite of field marks strongly suggesting this species. And then the bird called in the video. Yes, the video did not lie - this could be nothing else than Ontario's first record of Common Ringed Plover.

My plans for the day quickly changed and within 5 minutes I had hit the road in search of this extremely rare bird to this part of North America. Dealing with traffic exiting Niagara-on-the-Lake is always an ordeal, but after an excruciating 20 minutes I was on the highway and making good time towards Toronto. The bird had been seen along the Leslie Street Spit (Tommy Thompson Park), a man-made peninsula that juts over 5 km into Lake Ontario, constructed in the late 1950s. As I was still without a mobile phone I would not be able to hear about any updates about the bird, so I was hoping that it would remain at its location for another hour and a half.

The traffic entering Toronto was surprisingly manageable. The traffic leaving the city however was a different story, and a necessary evil that I would have to deal with later. At this time my mind was just on getting to the park as soon as possible.

I arrived at the base of Tommy Thompson Park, and as it was my first visit I did not really have much to go on to get to Cell 2 where the bird was reported from (I had no additional info from the initial Ontbirds post, nor time to research it before leaving). Luckily an interpretive sign displayed a map of the park, and I hurried off on foot the 3 km or so out to the location where it had been reported this morning.

I did not see any other birders during the hot and humid walk to the location, but after half an hour as I stopped and scanned up ahead I noticed a small crowd of birders, intently peering into their spotting scopes. When arriving upon the scene of a rare bird twitch, this is good news - bad news is when everyone is milling around and chatting, with few people manning the scopes. I was hopeful that they were on the bird, and five minutes later I had my answer.

The Common Ringed Plover was right in the area where Paul had found it earlier in the morning and I basked in its glory, studying it among a few other shorebirds. This is a bird that I have studied photos of and scrutinized on trips to Europe, in hopes of encountering one day on this site of the Atlantic, and all the field marks looked excellent for a Common Ringed Plover (likely a male). My photos are quite distant since I was shooting with my 300 mm lens (views through the scope were much better!).

Common Ringed Plover (right) and Stilt Sandpiper - Tommy Thompson Park, Toronto

Compared to the very similar Semipalmated Plover, Common Ringed Plover shows a thick black breastband that is roughly even width across the front of the chest. It also shows a straight pale "eyebrow" (though female SEPLs also show a bit of an eyebrow) and has extensive black on the lores, which wraps around over the top of the bill. Other features shown by CRPL (but difficult to confirm without direction comparison with SEPL) include a paler back and slightly larger size, along with a slightly longer bill. CRPL lack the yellowish orbital ring that SEPL shows.

Common Ringed Plover - Tommy Thompson Park, Toronto

Common Ringed Plover breeds primarily in northern Eurasia, though there are also populations in Greenland and parts of Nunavut. Apart from the breeding ground in Nunavut and migrants found on islands in western Alaska, records in North America are few and far between. Common Ringed Plovers are nearly annual in Newfoundland in recent years (20-ish total records), while Nova Scotia has around a half dozen records. I am only aware of about 10 other records for southern Canada and the lower 48 States, though there are undoubtedly a few that haven't made it onto eBird yet. Most records pertain to birds found in the autumn, mostly from the middle of August to early September, so this bird is right on schedule. It is worth noting that a Common Ringed Plover was discovered west of Trois Rivieres, Quebec August 17-18, 2016. Photos of that bird can be found here.

Common Ringed Plover records on eBird

I was only able to study the bird for about 20 minutes before I was forced to vacate the area; after all, Laura and I had dinner reservations to catch that evening. It was a spectacular bird to see in the province, and kudos to Paul Prior for finding and identifying this species, a near look alike to Semipalmated Plover, as well as getting the news out early so many could add this species to their Ontario or Life Lists. As of this writing the bird is still present.

Thursday 18 August 2016

Shorebirding at Point Pelee

This past weekend I headed down to Point Pelee for a quick 24 hour trip. The main goal for me was to visit some good friends that I hadn't seen since my last visit during May, but of course I fit some birding in.

After attending Kory and Sarah Renaud's barbeque at their new house, I was eager to go for a paddle in the marsh the following morning. Kory and I took his canoe, while Steve Pike kayaked. Shorebirding in the marsh is one of my favorite birding activities in the Point Pelee area, as the birds often let you approach so close you can nearly touch them (providing great photo opportunities). The marsh is a beautiful place to explore, and you never know what you will encounter out there since few birders check it regularly.

Shorebird diversity was about average for the time of year, with no rarities mixed in, but it was great to observe at close range some of the more common species. Thirty-six Short-billed Dowitchers were a good count; every single one was a juvenile, as expected for mid-August. I did not take any photos of the dowitchers this time, but here are a couple of photos from years past.

Short-billed Dowitchers - Point Pelee National Park

Short-billed Dowitcher - Point Pelee National Park

Short-billed Dowitcher - Point Pelee National Park

Short-billed Dowitchers - Point Pelee National Park

Our "best" shorebird was probably this juvenile Stilt Sandpiper that was hanging out in West Cranberry Pond. It was interesting to hear it call repeatedly as it chased off a pesky Short-billed Dowitcher that was encroaching on presumably the finest feeding area. Not something I can recall hearing before!

Stilt Sandpiper - Point Pelee National Park

While we were paddling in Lake Pond, I noticed a distinctive shape of a heron standing on a small mudflat, with its head pointing skyward. The American Bittern certainly looked out of place out in the open; usually it inhabits stands of aquatic vegetation where it can blend in more easily. Thanks to Kory's paddling, we were able to get in close while I snapped a few photos, my first that I have ever taken of this species (and species #352 photographed for Ontario).

American Bittern - Point Pelee National Park

American Bittern - Point Pelee National Park

On our way back we noticed a few Black Terns, including one individual perching on American Lotus. A few weeks earlier, dozens were present in the marsh but they have cleared out since then, and only a few remained, along with dozens of Common Terns.

Black Tern - Point Pelee National Park

This individual was even banded!

Black Tern - Point Pelee National Park

Common Terns - Point Pelee National Park

After photographing the Black Tern, we stopped to take some photos of the American Lotus flowers that grow in a large patch in Lake Pond. I have some awesome photos of these on my iPhone, however somehow during the ordeal the phone ended up overboard, and now resides permanently in the Pelee Marsh. For a second I debated going in after it, but the phone would have been long fried at that point, plus I did not think that Kory would appreciate me trying to scramble back into the canoe afterwards, more than likely dumping him overboard in the process. Here are a few shots of the flowers with the real camera.

American Lotus - Point Pelee National Park

American Lotus - Point Pelee National Park

Afterwards we checked a few other shorebird locations before driving over to Alan's house for a visit. Our first stop was a stormwater management pond that is located within a future subdivision development just north of the Golf Course. The previous day, Jeremy Hatt had found a juvenile Red Knot at nearby Seacliff Beach, and when checking the stormwater pond soon after, was surprised to see that the knot had taken up temporary residence there! Jeremy met Steve, Kory and I at the ponds, and while the knot was a no-show it was nice to do some birding at a new location. The most interesting bird here was a hatch-year meadowlark that Kory spotted nearby, which we all viewed in the scope. Eastern? Western? Who knows....

A check of Seacliff Beach was our final stop of the morning. Some algae had collected on the beach adjacent to the ferry docks, and here we watched an interesting little group of shorebirds from only a few meters away. Six species were present - A Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Baird's Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, and several Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers.

Semipalmated Sandpiper - Seacliff Beach

Sanderling (right) and Baird's Sandpiper - Seacliff Beach

This was the same group accompanying the Red Knot yesterday, but unfortunately it was nowhere to be seen. I took advantage of the opportunity to take a few photos of the shorebirds from close range. The lighting was not ideal, but its rare that I get an opportunity like this to photograph a Baird's Sandpiper, for instance.

Baird's Sandpiper - Seacliff Beach

Baird's Sandpiper - Seacliff Beach

The Sanderling provided an interesting photo subject. After an extended foraging session, it decided to go wash off in the waves.

Sanderling - Seacliff Beach

Sanderling - Seacliff Beach

Sanderling - Seacliff Beach

Monday 15 August 2016

Lark Sparrow at Port Weller, Niagara Region

This afternoon Laura and I met up after work at the east pier of Port Weller to go for a nice walk. Laura has recently moved back to Ontario after finishing up her veterinarian degree in Edinburgh, and she was eager to check out a few of my local birding locations with me.

It was a muggy day but overcast with a surprisingly cool breeze - a nice change from the frequent 34 degree weather we had been experiencing lately. We both grabbed our binoculars and I debated bringing my camera on the walk - not expecting to see much, I decided to leave it behind this time, to save a few pounds of weight on the walk. We even joked about how our odds of finding something would be much better without a camera!

It was a nice walk out to the pier and a few migrants were scattered here and there, including 15-20 Yellow Warblers in a couple of loose flocks near the end of the pier. I was happy to see that the water had receded enough in the main pond to provide some shorebird habitat - several Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, two Lesser Yellowlegs and a Pectoral Sandpiper all made use of the habitat, while Laura picked out a migrant Green-winged Teal with the Mallards.

view from along Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

We walked to the east end of the pier, taking our time to watch the antics of a group of Spotted Sandpiper while also closely inspecting the occasional Yellow Warbler or skulking Song Sparrow to make sure nothing else was out there with them. We then walked west and headed towards the canal, making our way to the end of the pier adjacent to the entrance to the canal. Here, a small fence prevents access from the concrete end of the pier. On the diagram below, it is the red marker labeled "1".

A small songbird caught my eye as it stood on the concrete section beyond the fence. It was somewhat large and stood quite upright, and I was expecting a lark or pipit (both would be unusual out there this time of year) as I brought my bins up. I was surprised to see a Lark Sparow staring back at me! I quickly got Laura on the bird, and we watched it for a few minutes as it foraged on the concrete pier.

It appeared quite skittish and something caused it to flush and fly over our heads, landing in the grassy area behind us (red marker "2"). We went off in search of it, and after a minute it flushed again, flying away from us (and providing a great view of its unique white edges to its rounded tail). It appeared to land somewhere near where I have placed the red marker "3". I posted it to Ontbirds using Laura's phone, as mine currently resides in the bottom of Point Pelee's marsh and likely will continue to for quite some time.

We searched for the Lark Sparrow in the vicinity of "3" for another 15 minutes or so, but were unable to find it. It was getting late in the day and the wind was picking up so we gave up, electing to walk back to the cars as we were pretty hungry at this point!

As far as I can discern this is the third record for Niagara Region. According to "Niagara Birds" by John Black and Kayo Roy, the first record was of a bird found by Richard Drobits on 11 May 1956 at Morgan's Point. No other records are mentioned in the book through the year 2006. On 24 November 2013, Nathan Miller discovered a Lark Sparrow along the Niagara Parkway in Fort Erie, and that bird lingered until at least 6 December 2013.

The Port Weller east pier is an excellent rarity trap. It is vegetated, has a decent-sized pond, and juts out over 2 km into Lake Ontario. Over the years some of the more notable species found here include Tricolored Heron, Ancient Murrelet, Dovekie, 3! Ross's Gulls, Sage Thrasher, Rock Wren, Great Cormorant, Tufted Duck, Mew Gull, and Purple Gallinule. A whole host of "lesser rarities" have been found here as well, including Northern Gannet, Worm-eating Warbler, Western Kingbird, California Gull, Northern Hawk Owl, and Eared Grebe. Needless to say it is a location worth checking regularly!

Sunday 14 August 2016

The snakes of Ontario - Part 5

Part 1 - Eastern Gartersnake, Dekay's Brownsnake, Northern Redbelly Snake, Northern Ribbonsnake
Part 2 - Northern Watersnake, Lake Erie Watersnake, Queensnake
Part 3 - Eastern Milksnake, Eastern Foxsnake, Eastern Hog-nosed Snake
Part 4 - Northern Ring-necked Snake, Smooth Greensnake
Part 5 - Gray Ratsnake, Butler's Gartersnake
Part 6 - Blue Racer, Eastern Massasauga

Back when I started this blog in the middle of 2011 one of the first series of posts that I made was about the snakes native to Ontario. I covered nine of the fifteen species, plus one additional sub-species of snakes that can be found in this province. I posted the fourth installment (covering Northern Ring-necked Snake and Smooth Greensnake) in 2013. After a hiatus that was much longer than anticipated I thought that I would finish the series of the remaining four species. This post will cover two species that are range-restricted in Ontario - the Gray Ratsnake and Butler's Gartersnake, while the final installment will include Blue Racer and Eastern Massasauga.

Gray Ratsnake (Pantherophis spiloides)

The Gray Ratsnake is a well-known and widespread species found throughout the forests of central and eastern North America, though it reaches the northern edge of is range in southern Ontario. The taxonomy of this and the other ratsnakes in North America is in flux, and different taxonomists have opinions on how many species constitute the species throughout North America. Until recently the form found in Ontario had been known as Black Ratsnake (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta).

Gray Ratsnake - Leeds and Grenville United Counties

Gray Ratsnakes are an impressive snake and it is not unusual to find individuals close to 1.5 meters in length, though the record length is over 2.5 meters.Their closest relatives in Ontario are the Eastern Foxsnake and Eastern Milksnake, and like these two species they dine predominately on warm-blooded prey, such as birds and small mammals.

Gray Ratsnake - Leeds and Grenville United Counties

This individual was one of only two Gray Ratsnakes that I have encountered in Ontario. Unfortunately the lack of forest cover and abundance of roads transecting suitable habitat has reduced the numbers of Gray Ratsnakes throughout southern Ontario. A few small populations are hanging on in Elgin, Norfolk, Haldimand and Niagara in southwestern Ontario, but fortunately the species still has a relative stronghold in deciduous forests and pastures in several counties in eastern Ontario.

Gray Ratsnake - Leeds and Grenville United Counties

Education and increased awareness has no doubt had a positive impact on this federally and provincially Endangered species, though road mortality still remains a big issue over its range here in Ontario.

Gray Ratsnake - Leeds and Grenville United Counties

Gray Ratsnakes are well-known for their ability in scaling trees, a technique which allows them easy access to eggs and nestlings in bird nests, one of their main prey items. The second individual that I encountered in Ontario was scaling a tree beside a boardwalk passing through the edge of a marsh in eastern Ontario. Along with Laura and my brother Isaac, we had gone for a walk specifically to look for Gray Ratsnakes. I was mentioning to them how sometimes they can be seen climbing trees, and gestured towards one of the nearby maples as an example - a maple that happened to have a large black snake slowly ascending the trunk!

Gray Ratsnake - Leeds and Grenville United Counties

I have yet to cross paths with an individual from the southwestern Ontario population of Gray Ratsnake, but hopefully that will change eventually.

Butler's Gartersnake (Thamnophis butleri)

The Butler's Gartersnake is a diminutive species with a small global range. Preferred habitat includes wet prairies and other open grassy habitats in eastern Michigan, northern Indiana and Ohio, and southwestern Ontario, while a disjunct population also occurs in southeastern Wisconsin. In Ontario, the Butler's Gartersnake is associated with tallgrass prairie in Essex and Lambton counties, while a small population also can be found in the Luther Marsh area. This is the smallest of the three Thamnophis species found in Ontario, rarely growing larger than 50 cm in length.

Butler's Gartersnake - Essex County

One first glance, the Butler's Gartersnake can be mistaken for the widespread and abundant Eastern Gartersnake, a species that can be encountered in virtually every habitat type in the southern half of the province. Some of the key ID features for Butler's Gartersnake include a small, narrow head (often the same width as the neck),  chocolate brown coloration along the sides below the yellow lateral stripe, an olive head, and a pale yellow preocular scale (the scale in front of the eye), somewhat reminiscing of the white preocular scale seen in Northern Ribbonsnakes. On closer inspection, Butler's Gartersnakes often show an orange or reddish iris, though this is just something that I have noticed anecdotally. Additionally, the lateral stripe covers the third scale row, as well as half of the scales in the second row and fourth row. The location of this stripe differs from Eastern Gartersnake and Northern Ribbonsnake.

Butler's Gartersnake - Essex County

In 2010 and 2011 I was involved with a long-term study of Butler's Gartersnake near Ojibway Prairie in Windsor, Ontario as part of a massive project called the Windsor-Essex Parkway. Our research was critical to determine information on abundance, diet, habitat preferences, birthing areas and more, with the ultimate goal of influencing the highway footprint to minimize harm to this species and other species at risk found in the area.

Butler's Gartersnake - Essex County

I was involved with coverboard surveys and daily radio telemetry, apparently the first time that radio transmitters had been implanted in this species. We were able to find out some pretty interesting information about Butler's Gartersnakes, such as home range size, seasonal movements, and micro-habitat preferences for where they feed and give birth. This image below is of a healed scar resulting from the surgical procedure to implant a radio transmitter. After providing us with useful data, the snakes were recaptured and taken back to the veterinarian to have the radio transmitter removed.

Butler's Gartersnake - Essex County

Unlike Eastern Gartersnakes which dine on a wide variety of vertebrates and invertebrates, Butler's Gartersnakes are rather specialized in their habitat preferences. Part of our study was determining the stomach contents of the snakes, something that the snakes were more than willing to help us with. It turns out that Butler's Gartersnakes have a relatively short lifespan but grow quite quickly, especially when they live in wet fields with an abundance of earthworms to eat. It was astounding how quickly the babies would pack on weight throughout the summer, and it wasn't an uncommon occurrence for one to regurgitate upon capture. Often I was able to identify the earthworms down to species, if they had been recently consumed. Combined with an earthworm collection study I undertook on the study site, we were able to determine crucial parts of the site where those particular species of earthworms could be found. It turns out that the snakes were not picky as far as what species of earthworms they "hunted", and often the earthworms they regurgitated were the larger, more common species. 

Butler's Gartersnake - Essex County

This image below is of a gravid female, a week or two before she would likely give birth to ten or fifteen babies, each weighing under a gram. Often the babies would weigh over ten grams by early autumn.

Butler's Gartersnake - Essex County

The main threat to this species is habitat loss; particularly the tallgrass prairie where they are most common in southern Ontario, though also fallow fields and other grassy habitats which they may use as habitat. Butler's Gartersnakes can be someone tolerant of human disturbance, and we found quite a few individuals in patches of grass surrounded by development, or in ditches alongside the highway. Often they outnumber the Eastern Gartersnakes in certain habitats. Road mortality plays an impact as well, though Butler's Gartersnake is likely less affected than other species because they simply do not have large home ranges and are quite content staying put in a small patch of suitable habitat. That being said, we still found occasional road-killed individuals, including gravid females likely traveling a relatively large distance towards a suitable birthing area.

The Butler's Gartersnake is a unique little snake that holds a special place in my heart. Hopefully they will continued to survive in southern Ontario for many years to come.

Butler's Gartersnake - Essex County

Tuesday 2 August 2016

A Yellow-crowned Night-Heron in Halifax

I am back on the east coast of Canada for just under a week; my fifteenth trip over the last 7 years to visit Laura and her family. The Bond's are based out of Mt. Uniacke, about 30 minutes from the Halifax/Dartmouth area, and whenever I have the opportunity I like to travel down towards the coast for some birding. This morning I had a few hours free while Laura was busy packing up her life for the move to Ontario, so I took her car down the familiar highway to the Eastern Passage past Dartmouth. My destination was Hartlen Point, located at the northeast part of Halifax Harbour, and one of the more popular birding locations in the province. Partly due to its proximity to the metropolitan area of Halifax/Dartmouth, Hartlen Point is birded regularly and has a long list of rarities that have been discovered here. One of the rarest was a Eurasian Kestrel that spent several months along the golf course near the point during the winter of  2014-2015. I was fortunate enough to be in the province over Christmas when it was found and observed it along with Laura. Last August I also birded Hartlen Point for a few hours and turned up an American Oystercatcher, the first record for the Halifax Regional Municipality. Needless to say it is a place that I love going back to whenever I have the chance!

Osprey - Hartlen Point, HRM, Nova Scotia

I passed both pairs of nesting Ospreys (the above bird carrying some sort of tasty morsel) and walked through a grassy field towards the water's edge.

 Hartlen Point - HRM, Nova Scotia

While walking along the pebble-strewn shoreline towards the area known as "Back Cove", I kept an eye out for shorebirds as this stretch occasionally holds a small flock. A single Whimbrel called out and flew across the channel to the other side, but other than a few resident Spotted Sandpipers there was not much to be found. I glanced up towards the sedge meadow in Back Cove and was stopped dead in my tracks as I noticed the distinctive shape of a heron along the water's edge. A quick look with my binoculars confirmed my suspicions that it was an immature Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.

It flew back into the sedges, only its head visible whenever it crouched down.

immature Yellow-crowned Night-Heron - Hartlen Point, HRM, Nova Scotia

Fortunately the heron was more concerned with the minnows it was catching than my slow approach and I was able to stealthily walk up to within a reasonable distance for photos. The time was mid-day so the lighting was not ideal, but with a thin cloud layer at times the harsh shadows were somewhat reduced.

immature Yellow-crowned Night-Heron - Hartlen Point, HRM, Nova Scotia

While Black-crowned Night-Heron is a local breeding species in parts of Nova Scotia, Yellow-crowned is the more likely of the two species to show up in Halifax. Along with several other southern herons like Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron and Tricolored Heron, it is not unusual for a few individuals to appear north of their breeding range along the east coast of Canada. Usually a handful of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons appear in Nova Scotia each year during the late spring, summer and early autumn and in most cases the birds arriving in the summer are young birds such as this one.

immature Yellow-crowned Night-Heron - Hartlen Point, HRM, Nova Scotia
While Yellow-crowned and Black-crowned Night-Herons have very different adult plumages, the young birds can appear surprisingly similar. I find that their shape is very different however - Black-crowned has a more compact, dumpier shape with a thick neck, while Yellow-crowned is lankier and stands up "taller" with its thinner neck extended. Plumage features of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons (with that of Black-crowned in brackets) to separate the two species include:

-mostly dark bill (bicolored bill with extensive yellow on lower mandible);
-stout bill (thinner, sharper bill);
-darker, colder plumage tones (lighter, browner plumage);
-small white spots and thin, white edging to wing coverts (large white spots on wing coverts); and,
-narrow, distinct breast streaks (brown, blurry breast streaks).

immature Yellow-crowned Night-Heron - Hartlen Point, HRM, Nova Scotia

I soon continued on my way, checking the alders and other trees in the Back Cove for rare migrant songbirds without much success, then continuing back the way I came along the shoreline. The tide was going out and I encountered a few more shorebirds - Least Sandpipers, both Yellowlegs, and a Black-bellied Plover. At least 9 Whimbrels were along the rocky coastline and tolerated my presence long enough to take a few somewhat distant photos.

Whimbrels - Hartlen Point, HRM, Nova Scotia

It was another great visit to Harlen Point - what will show up on the next visit?