Tuesday 25 October 2016

Back to Netitishi Point, James Bay

The motel in Smooth Rock Falls is booked, train tickets for the Polar Bear Express to Moosonee have been purchased, and the reservations has been made with the helicopter company. I am heading back up to southern James Bay on a three week birding trip, leaving on Thursday!

I have also decided to change the banner photo for the blog, as the Semipalmated Sandpiper photo was getting a little old...it has been replaced with a white morph Gyrfalcon from the 2013 expedition to Netitishi Point.

Netitishi Point camp - photo by Alan Wormington

This will be my fourth time visiting the southern James Bay coast in the autumn to look for migrating birds. Joining me for this adventure will be good friend Todd Hagedorn - a rookie to southern James Bay birding, though a budding naturalist with a thirst for adventure who is just as excited as I am.

Lapland Longspur - Netitishi Point (September 26, 2014)

Below is a map to Netitishi Point, located 35 km due east of Moosonee at the very bottom of James Bay. 

Netitishi is a small, raised point that is covered in tall spruces, a contrast to the surrounding coastline, which consists predominately of willows, alders and small tamaracks. Because of its location at the bottom of the bay, it is an ideal location to seawatch when the conditions are great as the coastline funnels the birds down to the bottom of the bay before they continue south at the mouth of the Harricana River, over the boreal forest towards their destination of the Great Lakes or Atlantic Coast. 

migrating Brant at Netitishi Point (October 29, 2012)

Netitishi Point is one of the few accessible locations in Ontario where it is possible to see ocean species since James Bay is connected to the Atlantic Ocean. That being said, the only "regular" ocean birds that are seen in southern James Bay include Black Guillemot (and even these are not guaranteed on a 2 week long trip), though there are a handful of other species that show up from time to time. Most of the Ontario records of Northern Fulmar, for instance have come from southern James Bay while Northern Gannet and Dovekie also appear to have an established pattern of occurrence. Other rare seabirds that have been seen at Netitishi Point include Sooty/Short-tailed Shearwater, large alcid sp. (likely a Thick-billed Murre) and Ivory Gull, all this in only about 10-12 trips that have taken place to Netitishi over the years. Of course, there is the chance of coming across something really wacky at Netitishi if the stars align. 

coastline east of Netitishi Point

The tall spruces also serve to shelter birds seeking refuge, as well as draw them in from a large radius since the forested point is noticeable from quite a distance. In the few visits birders have made to Netitishi, an excellent variety of rare songbirds have been found. 

Western Kingbird at Netitishi Point (November 1, 2012)

This year's trip will be later in the autumn than my previous trips - we are scheduled to be on the coast from October 28 to November 13, while on previous trips the latest that I have stayed was November 3. I am hoping that our odds of finding a "later season" bird like Dovekie, Thick-billed Murre, or Ivory Gull will be increased by going this late. 

The later date will, however, decrease our chances of finding interesting vagrant songbirds. By early November, even finding a Dark-eyed Junco or American Robin is somewhat notable! That being said, there are some later records of songbirds from Netitishi Point including:

-Field Sparrow - October 28 - November 2, 1996 (Roy Smith, Glenn Coady, Hugh Currie, David Tannahill
-Varied Thrush - November 10 -15, 2010 (Brandon Holden, Alan Wormington)
-Western Kingbird - November 1, 2012 (Josh Vandermeulen, Alan Wormington)
-Townsend's Solitaire - October 31, 2013 (Josh Vandermeulen, Alan Wormington)

Townsend's Solitaire - Netitishi Point (October 31, 2013)

This trip will be a little different than my three previous trips, as it will be the first time that I will not be accompanied by the late Alan Wormington. Alan was the person who opened my eyes to birding in northern Ontario. We went on three excellent expeditions to the coast, and I have many great memories from these trips. 

Alan Wormington at Netitishi Point (October 27, 2013)

Even without any rarities Netitishi Point is a spectacular place to visit. It is a ruggedly beautiful location for starters, and completely isolated from the outside world. On my first trip to Netitishi Point, I was there to look for rarities, first and foremost. In the years since, my priorities for visiting Netitishi have changed somewhat. While the rarities are still the main draw, experiencing the peace and solitude of Netitishi Point has increased in importance to me. There is something to be said about spending 2-3 weeks alone on the James Bay coast, with little to no communication to the outside world, and living in a cabin heated by a wood stove with no running water or electricity.

Many of the common bird species are ones that we don't see too often in southern Ontario, including Pine Grosbeak, Spruce Grouse, Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee, and American Three-toed Woodpecker. Gyralcons are often fairly regular in late October and November - I have seen a total of six on my previous trips.

Gyrfalcon at Netitishi Point (October 30, 2013)

The shorebird spectacle on James Bay is quite something, even in late October and November. In southern Ontario shorebird diversity dwindles by early November, yet it is still possible to get 8-10 shorebird species a day at Netitishi Point! Some of the species I have recorded on James Bay on October 30 or later include Baird's Sandpiper, American Golden-Plover, Semipalmated Sandpiper and Hudsonian Godwit, species that are all fairly rare in southern Ontario by that date. Sanderling, a species that is virtually absent in southern Ontario by late October, will linger in large flocks on James Bay until freeze up. For instance on October 28, 2012 we counted 350 Sanderling at Netitishi Point. It is not too unusually to see Red Phalarope or Purple Sandpiper in November as well.

Baird's Sandpiper at Netitishi Point (October 27, 2012)

The mammals up here are also quite intriguing - we have seen Ringed Seal, Beluga, Gray Wolf and River Otter on previous trips, as well as tracks and scat of Woodland Caribou and Black Bear. I have heard rumors of a few Polar Bear sightings on the southern James Bay coast over the past few months - a species I have never seen before, though one I have wanted to see for years. We are very cognizant of the very real danger of Polar Bears and will be taking every safety precaution.

Ringed Seal at Netitishi Point (October 23, 2012)

Red Fox at Netitishi Point (October 28, 2013)

Wish us luck, and hopefully we will have an interesting report upon our return in mid-November.  

Thursday 20 October 2016

Le Conte's Sparrow(s) in Mississauga

On Monday morning while dutifully birding Marie Curtis Park in Mississauga, Dave Pryor encountered a Le Conte's Sparrow skulking in the long grass. Dave had been checking this park daily as good numbers of sparrows and other songbirds often can be found there, and this was the second Ammodramus sparrow that Dave had found there in less than 10 days, after a Nelson's Sparrow that he found on October 8.

I am a huge Toronto Blue Jays fan and have been trying to attend as many postseason games as I can this year, so of course I had tickets to game 3 (Don't ask me how that game went). I had about half an hour of time to search for the Le Conte's prior to meeting up with Dan Riley for the game, but unfortunately it remained hidden during my brief vigil.

The following morning, it was reported that the sparrow was still present so I was determined to try again for it on my way home. Le Conte's Sparrow is a species that I have seen in each of the past five years, but normally my sightings are of birds on the breeding grounds in northern Ontario, as well as autumn migrants while on birding trips to the Thunder Bay area or to James Bay. My only previous sighting for southern Ontario was a bird that Dan Salisbury had discovered on I believe April 30, 2012 at Point Pelee.

Le Conte's Sparrow - Marie Curtis Park, Mississauga

Luckily the Le Conte's Sparrow was easily located as 20+ birders had it cornered in some long grass when I arrived at the stakeout. It was rather shy as they tend to be, but eventually provided excellent looks as it peered at all of us from within the grasses. Eventually I was able to photograph it, though not well as there were too many grasses in the way and the light wasn't ideal.

Le Conte's Sparrow - Marie Curtis Park, Mississauga (October 18, 2016)

The bird can be aged as an adult due to the brightness of its plumage; particularly, the bright orange supercilium and upper breast. Immature birds are much duller with muted colours and more extensive streaking on the underparts.

Le Conte's Sparrow - Marie Curtis Park, Mississauga (Ocotber 18, 2016)

It was brought to my attention in an email thread with Garth Riley, Reuven Martin and David Pryor that most of the photos of the bird from October 17 (the day that David Pryor found it) show an immature Le Conte's Sparrow, while most of the photos from October 18 show an adult bird (the one I photographed). 

Below are a few eBird checklists from October 17 with embedded photos of the immature bird. In particular, notice the extensive streaking on the upperparts (including the center of the upper breast), dull, pale yellow breast (compared to bright orange on the adult bird), and yellowish supercilium with some streaking through it (compared to solid orange supercilium on the adult) among other features. Due to the wet conditions, the bird appeared a lot darker than it would with dry feathers, but the differences are still quite noticeable.  

Below is a photo of an immature Le Conte's Sparrow that I snapped at the Abitibi Canyon, Cochrane District on September 25, 2014. Note how dull and plain this bird is, much like the immature Le Conte's Sparrow photographed in the eBird links above. Of course conditions were dry so it is not as dark as the immature Le Conte's Sparrow from Marie Curtis Park.

immature Le Conte's Sparrow  - Abitibi Canyon, Cochrane District (September 25, 2014)

Dave Pryor mentioned to me in an email that when he first saw the bird on October 17, he noticed how bright it was, but when he subsequently re-found it a short time later on October 17 it was duller, which he attributed to the rain and poor light. Dave speculated that perhaps both birds were present on October 17, but that it was impossible for him to say. 

At any rate, thanks Dave for finding such a great bird (or birds?) for southern Ontario that myself and many others were able to enjoy! Perhaps the most important takeaway is that Marie Curtis Park provides excellent meadow habitat that is utilized by a wide range of species, including Ammodramus sparrows. It is one of the few remaining places along this part of the north shore of Lake Ontario that provides good meadow habitat, an extremely important type that is frequently destroyed for more "aesthetically pleasing" land uses such as manicured grass. Hopefully this does not happen and Marie Curtis Park can continue to provide meadow to a wide range of migratory songbirds in the future. 

Tuesday 18 October 2016

Point Pelee weekend - Day 2

On Sunday morning, Laura and I were up fairly early and drove down to the tip. A strong southwest wind had continued overnight into the morning, and we were hoping that some interesting species would fly by. Southwest winds are often the most conducive for lake-watching at Point Pelee.

Autumn colours at Point Pelee

Several other birders had already assembled at the tip when we arrived, anticipating the good waterbird flight. Hundreds of Bonaparte's and Ring-billed Gulls were milling around offshore, flying in the strong winds, along with a few duck species including Red-breasted Merganser and Ruddy Duck. Occasional Common Loons and Horned Grebes were also noted. Eventually, Marianne Balkwill discovered a jaeger and called out its location until the rest of us could find the bird through our scopes. We watched it for a few minutes as it lazily flew about, and came to the conclusion that it was a subadult light morph Pomarine Jaeger. A good bird for Point Pelee, and only the second "pom" I've had there.

Feeling a little restless after a couple of hours, Laura and I decided to join Steve and Lindsey on a walk up the West Beach footpath (hopefully to be named the Wormington footpath), and over to Sparrow Field. Despite the wind, sheltered areas in the park held quite a few birds and we worked through several flocks of sparrows and kinglets.

While we were in Sparrow Field, a large greenish-yellow butterfly floated on by - another Cloudless Sulphur! Fortunately it was a little more cooperative than the individual on Saturday and we were able to approach it closely for photos - an unusual event with this restless species that never seems to land for very long.

Steve photographing the Cloudless Sulphur - Point Pelee NP

Cloudless Sulphur - Point Pelee NP

We took our share of photos of the cooperative butterfly - certainly a highlight of the weekend! 

Cloudless Sulphur - Point Pelee NP

Cloudless Sulphur - Point Pelee NP
Laura and I still had a four hour drive ahead of us and so by noon we began making our way back to Niagara. Of course, I made a few pit stops on the way home including Hillman Marsh, Wheatley Harbour and Erieau. 

Arriving at Hillman I ran out to the shorebird cell and began scanning. The Hudsonian Godwit was still present among a few other shorebird species, but there was no sign of the Cattle Egret. I began scrutinizing the goose flock and was surprised to see the orange bill and white "front" of a Greater White-fronted Goose. One turned into two and then three and then many more as I continued scanning. I approached a bit closer to get an accurate count of the birds - 51! This was a record high count for the Point Pelee birding area. 

Other birders reported Greater White-fronted Geese in a variety of locations in Essex County, including 140 that flew past Dave Martin's house near Amherstburg. Others were reported at Harrow lagoons and Jack Miner's near Kingsville as well as a few other locations in southern Ontario from the Bruce Peninsula south to the Rondeau area. The number at Hillman Marsh built up during the day and 78 were reported by Paul Pratt that evening. Likely thousands of Greater White-fronted Geese touched down in the province in the course of two days. A low pressure system carrying rain, and strong southwest winds likely played a role in the appearance of the geese. 

Greater White-fronted Geese - Hillman Marsh CA

It was a great weekend in the Point Pelee birding area! Hopefully I will be able to return one or two more times before the end of the year as autumn birding at Point Pelee is some of the best in the province.

Sunday 16 October 2016

An excellent weekend at Point Pelee - Day 1

Laura and I drove down to Point Pelee after finishing work on Friday, a location that I had not visited in far too long of a time. The main goal of the weekend for us was to meet up with many of Alan Wormington's closest friends and his family on the Saturday to share stories, reminisce, and celebrate his life.

Saturday morning dawned cool but sunny with a moderate southwest wind clipping along. A tip watch was in order given these conditions, and we assembled at the most southern point of mainland Canada along with a dozen or so others.

We had a nice walk through the woods from De Laurier to the cemetery, then afterwards gathered at Blue Heron picnic area to enjoy a feast that was generously prepared by Kory Renaud, Steve Pike, and Jeremy Bensette. While we were sitting there eating lunch, Steve yelled out "Cloudless Sulphur!" and we all turned to look as the large, greenish-yellow butterfly floated on by. It was a new Ontario butterfly for several of those present, including Bob Curry. Cloudless Sulphur does not show up every year in Ontario, but occasionally individuals do arrive in the southwest of the province, usually after and during strong southwest winds. Autumn is the best time to see this species and other southern immigrant butterfly species in the province.

In the afternoon, Laura and I headed to Hillman Marsh with several others including the 'Burg Birder in hopes of seeing a Cattle Egret and Hudsonian Godwit. The Cattle Egret had been found by Kit McCann on the Friday, while the godwit was discovered by Jeremy Hatt, Marianne Balkwill, Richard Carr and Rick Mayos earlier in the day.

Cattle Egret - Hillman Marsh CA

Luckily, both species were still present, and I was happy to add both to my Pelee list which now stands at 306. The last time that I added two new Pelee birds in one day was March 11, 2013 (Snow Goose, Iceland Gull).

Common Buckeye - Hillman Marsh CA

Eastern Gartersnake - Hillman Marsh CA

As we were leaving the shorebird cell, an interesting looking ratty crow flew over - unfortunately it didn't want to speak, but it looked small-ish with snappy wingbeats, and Laura and I joked that it was probably a Fish Crow. Besides, we hadn't seen an American Crow all day, so it must be a Fish Crow, right?

Laura and I next explored the Couture Dyke, not finding much other than hundreds of mosquitoes. We did located a few butterflies including some late Bronze Coppers.

Bronze Copper - Hillman Marsh CA

Bronze Copper - Hillman Marsh CA

We also spotted a shed skin from a watersnake that was close to four feet in length. The snake did not appear to have much of a pattern, leaving us to wonder if the owner of the shed showed characteristics of Lake Erie Watersnake, a subspecies mainly restricted to the islands in western Lake Erie. Occasionally individuals on the mainland, especially at Point Pelee, have resembled Lake Erie Watersnakes morphologically.

Kory Renaud texted me about half an hour later to let me know that he and Jeremy Hatt had located a crow at the parking lot for the shorebird cell, and it was indeed a Fish Crow. It was also missing some flight feathers so it must have been the bird that Laura and I watched. We returned to the cell to check it out and photograph it.

Fish Crow - Hillman Marsh CA

Unfortunately the Fish Crow did not seem to be doing too well. It was far too tame for its own good, letting us walk right up to it, and spent much of its time picking away at some sort of irritation (mites?) in its plumage and on its feet. Its somewhat wheezy breathing indicated that it may have a respiratory infection as well. This appears to be the same crow that was at the tip of Point Pelee about a week or two prior, as that bird was also missing several flight feathers and exhibited similar behaviour.

Fish Crow - Hillman Marsh CA

Fish Crow is a species generally found in coastal areas of the American southeast north to southern Maine, but their range does go up the Mississippi River to southern Illinois and Indiana, as well as cuts inland from the Atlantic coast to central Pennsylvania and New York. Formerly a very rare bird in Ontario, Fish Crow is now regular enough that it has since been removed from the Ontario Bird Records Committee list of species that require documentation for southern Ontario.

Fish Crow - Hillman Marsh CA

Fish Crow - Hillman Marsh CA

Part two will cover our finds from the Sunday.

Monday 3 October 2016

Mid autumn birding

The period of time beginning roughly in late September and continuing on through most of October is one of my favorite times of the year, especially when it comes to looking for birds. Songbird migration is in full swing even though most of the warblers and vireos have already vacated the province in anticipation of the inevitable cold winds of November. Mid-autumn is dominated by sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers and kinglets, but for those who look there are gems to be found with the songbird flocks including thrushes, some of the later warblers and occasional stragglers like Scarlet Tanager or various flycatchers. On top of that, this time of year is often peak jaeger migration time, and on bouts of suitable winds it is possible to see species like Red and Red-necked Phalarope, Sabine's Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake and other pelagic species along with all three species of jaegers. Shorebirds are still passing through in good numbers at this time of year, and the first gulls and ducks, harbingers of many more to come until early winter, have ascended upon southern Ontario. To top it all off, the weather can be absolutely gorgeous, providing strong motivation to get out the door and go birding.

This past weekend I was able to spend a substantial amount of time birding, starting with a lake watch in Hamilton on Friday. Along with many of southern Ontario's finest birders, I scoped the west end of Lake Ontario and was not disappointed as the winds picked up throughout the morning. Highlights included a trio of Brant with a single Canada Goose, many distant jaegers with a few coming close enough to identify as Parasitic, a juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger, and a juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull. No sign of the shearwater sp. which had been reported on the previous two days. There was some evidence of duck migration as well including numerous scoters, and a few Peregrine Falcons also passed by. I had to leave by late morning to finish a report for work unfortunately and so missed Pomarine Jaeger and Sabine's Gull which were seen later by others. I finished the day by stopping by Tollgate Ponds and seeing the long-staying Whimbrel. It was the first time that I have observed that species in October.

Dan Riley came over on Friday night and on Saturday morning we made our way back to Van Wagner's as east winds were predicted to pick up as the day went on. We quickly stopped at the Grimsby lagoons on our way (they have been closed during the week for construction).

Downy Woodpecker - Hamilton

This was an excellent decision as quite a few songbirds had dropped into the lagoons overnight, chipping and zeeping and seeting from the dense shrubbery and herbaceous vegetation along the edges of the lagoons. Among numerous Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers we also found a group of Magnolias, an Orange-crowned and some Common Yellowthroats. Sparrows included three Lincoln's, and a singing Warbling Vireo was getting somewhat late. Despite the somewhat decent water levels few shorebirds were in - we counted one Dunlin along with the Least Sandpipers, Killdeer and Semipalmated Sandpipers.

The moderately strong winds had not yet materialized so we scrapped our plans of Van Wagner's, instead going for a long walk at nearby Confederation Park. We were anticipating good numbers of songbirds and were not disappointed. The entire park was crawling with birds! One lawn had around 40 Northern Flickers, while a large flock of 20+ Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were also around. Hundreds of White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows were in the undergrowth and we tallied eleven species of warblers. Some of the highlights from the walk included Brown Thrashers, Field Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, Wood Thrush, Eastern Wood-Pewees, and Tennessee, Bay-breasted and Orange-crowned Warblers. All in all, a really nice selection of birds!

Eastern Wood-Pewee - Confederation Park, Hamilton

Next, we continued walking to the Van Wagner's Ponds and as we were birding I received a notification about a Sedge Wren that Dave Don had found at the ponds. Unfortunately it remained hidden for us! I did stop to photograph this obliging Black-crowned Night-Heron. As you can see, it is adorned with a metal band around its tarsus and presumably a radio transmitter as well, of which only the antenna is visible.

Black-crowned Night-Heron - Van Wagner's Ponds, Hamilton

Sunday was a full day of birding, this time with good friend Todd Hagedorn. Long Point was on the agenda and I was looking forward to my first visit to Norfolk County in over three years. The question was whether we would be able to weather the weather - bands of rain were supposed to pass through all day.

Luckily for us the birding and herping was quite good throughout the day, despite the occasional period of inclement weather. We randomly ran into members of the University of Guelph Wildlife Club and had a leisurely morning of birding with them that was highlighted by a few flocks of songbirds (including late-ish Chestnut-sided and Bay-breasted Warblers) and even some herps! We helped this neonate Blanding's Turtle and Eastern Foxsnake back to the proper side of the fence that was supposed to keep them away from the roadside.

Blanding's Turtle

Eastern Foxsnake

Todd and I stopped at the viewing tower at Big Creek Wildlife Management Area, located along the causeway. While standing on the tower I scanned a few of the sparrows that were alongside the dyke and was surprised to see a little orange sparrow! It was a Nelson's Sparrow, and a life bird for Todd. Failing in my digiscoping attempts, I ran back to the car for the real camera and was luckily able to relocated the sparrow along with a second Nelson's Sparrow. These are the first eBird records of Nelson's Sparrow from Norfolk County away from the tip of Long Point where occasional migrants have been seen in the past.

Nelson's Sparrow - Big Creek WMA

Nelson's Sparrow - Big Creek WMA

Todd and I stopped at the Port Rowan lagoons, which a week earlier had hosted a pair of Long-billed Dowitchers. No dowitchers were in this time (a pair of Greater Yellowlegs being the only shorebirds) but again, songbirds stole the show. In the smartweed and other weeds along the edges of the lagoons we turned up quite a few warblers and sparrows, including an Orange-crowned Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, and Wilson's Warbler. A late Green Heron was also working the pond edges while a Sora called, the first I've had in October.

We next stopped at the Jarvis lagoons before finishing at Townsend sewage lagoons. Jarvis was dead, though I did finally photograph my first Marsh Wren for Ontario - species photographed #353. They are pretty poor photos (tough to get a clean shot of Marsh Wrens this time of year!) so I will spare your eyes the sight.

Townsend was also slow, but we did add some new species for the day including American Wigeon, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, and Black-bellied Plover, finishing with around 90 species before we went our separate ways.

Rock Point Provincial Park

After saying good bye to Todd I drove over to Rock Point (it is kind of on my way back) to close out the day. More rain passed through during the drive, but as I pulled up with an hour of sunlight left, the sun actually broke through the clouds. I had an excellent hour and a half of birding as I followed a large mixed flock through the woods - awesome birding! The lighting conditions and frenetic foraging motions of the birds made it difficult to view and identify most individuals, but eventually I was able to pick out a few odds and ends including a late Blackburnian Warbler among 9 warblers species, and a late Spotted Sandpiper along the shoreline. As the sun set on another great weekend I took a few photos...it was a fantastic weekend during one of my favorite times of the year.

Rock Point Provincial Park