Wednesday 30 November 2016

Created Caracara in Michipicoten, Algoma District

(From my Ontbirds post)

An update on the bird:

After refinding the Caracara in Michipicoten, we watched the bird for about 15 minutes until David Pryor, Barb Charlton and Tyler Hoar arrived, at which point the bird was perched in a tree at the intersection of Whitney Street and Superior Street. After some time the bird flew to the northeast and we relocated it on a lawn located on the south side of Brock Avenue, just west of the intersection with Queen Street. There is a lighthouse shaped shed in the backyard here. It was still walking around on the lawn when we left at 9:40 AM.   

Michipicoten is located on the west side of Highway 17, just south of Wawa. 

Good birding,
Josh Vandermeulen
Jeremy Bensette
Steve Charbonneau
Henrique Pacheco

Sunday 27 November 2016

Thick-billed Murre chase - Cobden, Ontario

Just before noon on Friday, Burke Korol made an exciting discovery as he was birding Muskrat Lake near Cobden, Ontario (about an hour northwest of Ottawa). The bird he encountered was an alcid, which he subsequently identified as a Thick-billed Murre. Thick-billed Murre breeds in large colonies on rocky cliffs in coastal parts of the Arctic, northern Europe, the Maritimes, Alaska, etc. It is truly a rare bird in Ontario, one that had only 3 records since the 1950s prior to the Cobden bird. Thick-billed Murre would occasionally arrive in Ontario in big numbers every so often, and usually separated by decades. One hypothesis is that these birds were moving west from the Gulf of the St Lawrence because of a change in their distribution or abundance of winter food, though frequently these flights were associated with strong east winds as well. During one of these murre "wrecks", 140 were counted by George North and Bill Gunn on November 26, 1950, an event that Bob Curry summarized in his excellent Birds of Hamilton. The last Thick-billed Murre flight into Ontario was in 1953 - who knows if/when the next one will occur! Since 1953, there have only been three records of Thick-billed Murre in Ontario, each involving single birds.

One of those records pertains to a bird that was discovered in Kingston by Janis Grant on December 3, 2013. That individual stuck around for two days and allowing a large number of birders to add it to their lists. Unfortunately I was working at the time and unable to get away to chase the bird. When word came in that Burke had discovered this bird near Cobden, I quickly made plans to drive up and look for it the very next day - I would not let another one slip by me.

Laura and I had plans on Saturday evening to attend my work holiday party, meaning that I needed to be back by 5:00 PM at the latest. My plan was to leave Niagara Falls at 2:00 AM on Saturday, arrive in Cobden shortly after sunrise, hopefully see the bird, and then race back to southwestern Ontario. Fortunately the plan worked, and the bird co-operated.

Thick-billed Murre - Muskrat Lake, Renfrew County

Thick-billed Murre (foreground) and Common Loon (background) - Muskrat Lake, Renfrew County

The best viewing of the bird was from the end of Summerfield Drive at the south end of the lake, and along with a contingent of Ottawa-area birders I watched the murre as it alternated between resting and diving. Fortunately the bird was well seen from the moment that I arrived at Muskrat Lake, allowing me to spend several hours observing and photographing the individual before I had to depart. Lev Frid and Amanda Guercio soon showed up - it was great to catch up with them - and Jeremy Bensette/Henrique Pacheco also arrived just as I was about to head home. It was a new Ontario bird for them as well.

Thick-billed Murre - Muskrat Lake, Renfrew County

The bird appeared to be in pretty good shape - it was active and alert, frequently diving to presumably catch fish, followed by periods of preening and resting. It is hard to know if it was successful in its fishing and if it will be able to survive for very long here in Ontario, away from the saltwater that it is used to. It is rare for a vagrant Thick-billed Murre in the interior of the continent to last more than 2-3 days. Interestingly it did nothing but preen for the last half hour that I viewed the bird - perhaps this is an indication of its worsening condition? I can only speculate.

Thick-billed Murre - Muskrat Lake, Renfrew County

The Thick-billed Murre can be aged as an immature bird, born earlier this year, by a number of features. These include its relatively small bill and duskier face and throat. Unfortunately the bird was just too distant when I was photographing it, but others managed better photos, such as the ones attached to this checklist.

Thick-billed Murre - Muskrat Lake, Renfrew County
Eventually I had to pull myself away from the murre to embark on the long, 5 or 6 hour drive back. But the murre would not be the only good bird I saw on the day - an Ontbirds post came through about a Plegadis ibis species (either Glossy or White-faced), in a small marsh on the east side of Port Hope. Fortunately my very next exit on the 401 was the Port Hope exit! 10 minutes later I was looking at the ibis, as it tried to blend in with the local Mallard flock.

one of these things is not like the other....

The bird was quite approachable, allowing me to fire off a number of photos from close range. The light, however was somewhat lacking and it was all I could do to take the somewhat OK photos shown in this post. Gloomy weather such as this can be pretty difficult to shoot in, especially given my camera setup, as I really have to push the ISO to come up with a fast enough shutter speed. 

probable Glossy Ibis - Port Hope, Northumberland County

Immature Plegadis ibises can be quite difficult to identify, and some individuals may not be identifiable at all. However I think this bird shows some features that look ok for Glossy Ibis, as opposed to White-faced Ibis. I would appreciate if anyone more experienced in immature ibis identification can chime in!

probable Glossy Ibis - Port Hope, Northumberland County

This is one of the latest ibises to show up in Ontario, though there are a handful of previous November records. I remember Alan Wormington once telling me about a long-staying Glossy Ibis that he eventually saw in early December for his "Winter List", but I do not have details of that record handy.

probable Glossy Ibis - Port Hope, Northumberland County

Despite the late date, this individual looked quite at home with the Mallards at this small wetland, successfully grabbing small fish periodically while I watched. Fortunately the weather will remain above the freezing mark for the next little while, but eventually it will be forced to vacate the province if it wishes to survive until next year. 

probable Glossy Ibis - Port Hope, Northumberland County

At one point I noticed the ibis training a wary eye to the sky (a distant gull was flying over) - I guess even heron-type birds have to constantly be vigilant of predators, especially duck-sized ones like ibises. 

probable Glossy Ibis - Port Hope, Northumberland County

Unfortunately my time with the ibis was short due to my obligations that evening, but the 15 minutes with the bird was well worth it. It was a rare opportunity to study one at such close range in Ontario, and I was happy to take a few ok photos as well. Previously my only photos I had of Plegadis ibises in Ontario consisted of very poor digiscoped shots of the bird that Tyler Hoar found at Oshawa Second Marsh last autumn, so it was nice to improve on those. 

Monday 21 November 2016

2012 Big Year - list update

Back in 2012 I completed a Big Year in Ontario, finishing up with 344 species. It was an incredible year and I observed a lot of interesting species, however I have come to the understanding that I likely observed one fewer species than I claimed. Some of you may recall the California Gull that was present on the Niagara River from January 29 until February 20, 2012 which was found by Jim Pawlicki. I subsequently reported the bird on February 9 from the Adam Beck power plants, and thought I photographed the bird as well.

Looking back at my photos, it appears that the bird I had claimed as the California Gull was in fact not a California Gull - it was most likely a Herring Gull that appears to have a slightly darker mantle than the surrounding birds due to its angle, and several other features do not add up as well. Four and a half years later, I cannot remember if I simply photographed the wrong bird, or if I indeed misidentified the California Gull. Unfortunately I did not see any other California Gulls during 2012, so I have decided to remove it from my list. I guess we all make mistakes...

As such, my Ontario year list for 2012 now stands at 343. I guess it will make it incrementally easier when someone inevitably comes along and beats the record!

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Back from Netitishi Point

Todd and I have returned from the windswept shores of James Bay after an awesome three weeks of northern Ontario birding. As usual for this under-birded part of Ontario, we were fortunate in observing a variety of species considered unusual for the area, as well as most of the regular species which are rare in the "Banana Belt" of southwestern Ontario where I live.

We observed five species on the Ontario Bird Records Committee (OBRC) review list for the Lowlands region of Ontario, including:
- Eurasian Wigeon - 1 male on Nov 3
- Harlequin Duck - 3 female types on Oct 30
- Western Sandpiper - 1 on Oct 30
- Sabine's Gull - 1 adult on Nov 11
- Lesser Black-backed Gull - 1 adult on Oct 31

Harlequin Ducks - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District (October 28, 2016)

Additionally, a Western/Clark's Grebe was observed on Nov 11. If accepted by the OBRC this will be a new species pair for the Lowlands review list. In my original Ontbirds post I mentioned this bird was a Western Grebe; however I am not positive that I can eliminate Clark's Grebe, as unlikely as it is with no prior records for Ontario, based on the looks that I had of the bird.

The following observations are of species generally considered rare in this part of Ontario:
- 2 male Canvasbacks on Nov 2
- 1 Red-necked Grebe on Nov 5
- 1 Purple Sandpiper on Nov 5, 2 on Nov 8
- 1 Red Phalarope on Nov 9
- 5 sightings of Black Guillemot on 3 different days (Nov 6, Nov 8, Nov 9)

Birds that were fairly late included:
- 11 Snow Geese on Nov 9
- 1 male Gadwall on Nov 8
- 2 Surf Scoter on Nov 11
- 4 Hooded Mergansers on Oct 31
- 1 adult Double-created Cormorant on Nov 9
- 1 juvenile Northern Goshawk on Nov 14
- 1 adult American Golden-Plover continuing until Nov 7
- 1 Pectoral Sandpiper on Oct 30
- 1 Golden-crowned Kinglet continuing until Nov 7
- 1 Ruby-crowned Kinglet on Oct 29
- 2 American Pipit on Oct 31
- 9 American Tree Sparrows on Nov 1, and 1 staying until Nov 7

As expected given the time of year, Gyrfalcons were regular and we finished with sightings on five days, involving at least four different birds. All of the expected boreal birds were accounted for, including Spruce Grouse, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Black-backed Woodpecker, Bohemian Waxwing, Evening Grosbeak (not actually too common in southern James Bay), Pine Grosbeak and Hoary Redpoll. Snowy Owls were frequently seen during the second half of the trip and one highlight was watching one repeated dive-bombed by a Gyrfalcon.

American Three-toed Woodpecker - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District (November 6, 2016)

The dominant wind direction at southern James Bay in the autumn is southwest in my experience, and this trend continued throughout this trip as we experienced southwesterly winds on all but four days. Strong southwest winds and warm weather occurred during November 6 and 7, with the temperature reaching a balmy 16 degrees on November 7. This caused numerous insects to be seen including several Mourning Cloaks, though we were unable to find any birds with southern origins associated with this weather event.

Mourning Cloak - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District (November 6, 2016)

A moderate northwest wind on November 3 instigated a good waterbird flight that included 4681 Brant, 3755 Northern Pintail, 102 American Wigeon, 89 Green-winged Teal, 1710 Dunlin, etc. Strong northwest winds on November 11 also caused a good flight dominated by scoters and Long-tailed Ducks, though we also observed 25 King Eiders (35 total were seen on our trip) and the aforementioned Sabine's Gull and Western/Clark's Grebe.

Finally, while not bird related, we had a couple of interesting mammal sightings. These included a Bearded Seal on Nov 10 and a Beluga on November 14. Ringed Seals were not observed despite usually being somewhat common at this location.

Arriving back in Moosonee on November 14, Todd and I stashed our gear at the local restaurant in town and went for a walk to the sewage lagoons and dump to see what was happening. We discovered a Mountain Bluebird at a cemetery located only a few hundred meters from the sewage lagoons - a rarity in Ontario, and in particular the Lowlands, with only one prior record (also of a bird in Moosonee), from May 8-11, 2011. We watched the little beaut for about 10 minutes as it foraged and perched on the headstones, before it flew up over the poplars towards the lagoons. For some reason I had decided to do the walk sans camera - after all, it was going to be a long walk carrying the thing and we weren't really expecting anything rare, given the late date. While Todd walked to the lagoons to search for the bluebird I hopped in a taxi to take me back into town to fetch my camera, returning an hour or so later. Unfortunately we couldn't re-find it despite spending the rest of the afternoon looking.

It was an awesome trip and I will be posting daily summaries in the upcoming weeks - stay tuned.

Thursday 10 November 2016

Quest for 400 - part 2

This post likely holds interest to only a select few - other birders who keep track of their respective state/province lists and try to add to them.

On January 14, 2014 I wrote a post titled "Quest for 400" where I predicted what bird species I would observe in Ontario to reach my goal of 400 species.. It was an idea that I had stolen from Brandon's blog. For those interested, Brandon's original post can be found here, and his update is located here. Since I will be on James Bay for three weeks with no internet access, I thought I would make a few pre-written posts that will auto-post on the blog....and this is one of them!

At the time of my original post, my Ontario list was 364, and now 2.75 years later it has climbed to 379. So let's get right to it - how well have I predicted the new additions? Here are my 15 additions in the past couple of years:

1. Smith's Longspur
2. Lark Bunting
3. Eurasian Collared-Dove
4. White Ibis
5. Eurasian Tree Sparrow
6. Mottled Duck
7. Wilson's Plover
8. Little Egret
9. Say's Phoebe
10. Pink-footed Goose
11. Bullock's Oriole
12. Vermilion Flycatcher
13. Black-necked Stilt
14. Ruff
15. Common Ringed Plover

Vermilion Flycatcher - Wallaceburg, Ontario (December 19, 2015)

In my original post, I figured that there were 25 species I was most likely to add while on my way to 400 (we will call them "Code 1" birds), and then I guessed 11 more species to round out the list to 400 ("Code 2" birds). I also provided a list of 18 other potential species which I guess you could call the "Code 3" birds. Out of my 15 additions in the time since, only 7 were "Code 1" species: Ruff, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Lark Bunting, Say's Phoebe, Black-necked Stilt, Smith's Longspur and Vermilion Flycatcher. A single "Code 2" species was added - Pink-footed Goose. And 2 "Code 3" birds were added - Bullock's Oriole and White Ibis.  The remaining 5 species you could say were not on my radar at all - Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Mottled Duck, Wilson's Plover, Little Egret and Common Ringed Plover.

Wilson's Plover - Toronto Islands, Ontario  (May 28, 2015)

I am now 21 species away from 400. What are the remaining "Code 1" birds? Well, I am going to cheat and create a new list of "Code 1" birds, since I think some of my guesses from the original post aren't that great...Here is the revised list of the Code 1 species - 10 birds which I think that I will add to my Ontario list before reaching 400.

1. Swainson's Hawk
2. Tufted Duck
3. Rufous Hummingbird
4. Ivory Gull
5. Swallow-tailed Kite
6. Tricolored Heron
7. Northern Wheatear
8. Cinnamon Teal
9. Barnacle Goose
10. Ash-throated Flycatcher

Swallow-tailed Kite - Nusagandi, Panama (March 14, 2014)

To get to 400 I will need another 11 species in addition to the 10 listed above. Here are my guesses:

Ross's Gull
Sage Thrasher
Western Wood-Pewee
Swainson's Warbler
Willow Ptarmigan
Ancient Murrelet
Snowy Plover
Fork-tailed Flycatcher
Black-headed Grosbeak
Gray Kingbird

In my original post I predicted that I would be 32 when I saw my 400th species for the province. I have been averaging about 5 new additions a year for the past four years, though that rate will no doubt decrease as fewer and fewer possibilities remain out there. If I am able to maintain a pace of 4 new birds per year, than it will likely take 5 or 6 more years until I see species #400, or when I am 31 or 32.

Friday 4 November 2016

Five rarities that will show up at Netitishi (eventually!)

By the time this auto-posts, Todd and I will have been on the coast of James Bay for a week, if all had gone to plan.

I've touched on the potential for rare birds to show up in southern James Bay in the past (in nearly every post I write about Netitishi, probably). Every expedition to Netitishi Point has found several notable species, some of which had few or no records for Ontario. But potential remains for a wide variety of seabirds and other ocean-going species which would be considered mega-rares if and when they are found. While it is unlikely that any of these will be seen on this year's trip, I am sure that the following species do show up or fly by from time to time. The question of course is whether anyone will be stationed at Netitishi Point when they do make an appearance!

Great Skua
This big arctic bully breeds in Scandinavia, Iceland and the UK, wintering throughout the north Atlantic where they terrorize gulls for fish and other scraps. Great Skuas regularly make it all the way to North American waters where they are not too unusual of a sight on east coast pelagics during autumn and winter. Given their tendency to wander, they likely make it to Hudson's Bay from time to time.

Great Shearwater
Like most seabirds, Great Shearwaters are known to wander over great distances. They breed in Tristan da Cunha and surrounding islands, located halfway between Africa and South America in the south Atlantic, and are one of few bird species to migrate to the northern hemisphere after completing their southern hemisphere breeding. Great Shearwaters are one of the most frequently observed tubenoses in the north Atlantic and regularly wander into Baffin Bay and further into the arctic. There are several records from western Hudson Bay.

Leach's Storm-Petrel
This species has been observed once previously in southern James Bay - a bird that Alan Wormington found on October 8, 1981 at the Attawapiskat waterfront. This is another super-abundant Atlanic tubenose species that is prone to wander.

Yellow-billed Loon
Thousands of loons migrate past Netitishi Point every year, yet most are too distant to see much detail on. The interesting thing about Yellow-billed is that their Arctic breeding range comes close to the western shore of Hudson's Bay and individuals were detected in northern Manitoba during the recent breeding bird atlas. While Yellow-billed Loons winter off the coast of Alaska, this species is prone to vagrancy and there are records throughout much of the lower 48 and southern Canada. It wouldn't take much for one to fly southeast instead of west, and follow the coast of Hudson's Bay into James Bay.

Ross's Gull
This is one species that should fly past Netitishi relatively frequently, I would think. This Arctic breeder, one of the most sought after of North American birds, is known to occasionally wander south into southern Canada and the United States, as well as into western Europe. In fact Ontario has almost a dozen records already, including the first provincial record which was a bird that Ken Abraham found in Moosonee in May, 1983. These gulls are fairly distinctive and should be a relatively straightforward identification if they are within ~2 km of land. In later October and November any small gull species is rare at Netitishi Point and will be scrutinized.