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.

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