Saturday 30 December 2017

2017 (Part 2)


As is usually the case, I spent the month of June crisscrossing the province completing bird surveys. While doing some work near Hearst on June 4 I popped into the nearby sewage lagoons, some of the best in Ontario, and found a Willet. While being a somewhat regular spring migrant in southern Ontario, Willet is a rarity in the north with only one previously accepted record for Cochrane District.

Several other unusual birds were discovered in the province during June, two of which I was able to chase in between work trips. The Violet-green Swallow that Chris Johnston found in Thunder Bay is on the short list for bird of the year in Ontario. While driving to Thunder Bay and back was out of the question for me due to my busy work schedule, I was able to arrange to fly there and back using points, taking Jeremy Bensette along for the trip as well. Not only did we have superb looks at the swallow, but it was relatively tolerant of us and we managed some good photos as well. The second "mega" that I chased was a Magnificent Frigatebird that hung out in Leamington for a few days after being discovered by Michael Malone and Joan Walker. This was a first sighting ever for the Point Pelee area.

One of the big storylines in the Ontario birding scene was the push of Dickcissels, a mid-western species, into southern Ontario. This species is well known for having a somewhat plastic breeding range with individuals regularly turning up at locations at the periphery of the species' typical distribution. With over 20 counties in Ontario reporting Dickcissels, and with hundreds found throughout the southern part of the province the summer of 2017 experienced one of the biggest Dickcissel invasions in modern times. It was fun seeing Dickcissels in at least 13 different counties, providing a great opportunity to study their breeding behaviour.

Willet - Hearst, Cochrane District, Ontario

Violet-green Swallow - Thunder Bay waterfront, Thunder Bay District, Ontario

Grasshopper Sparrow - Port Colborne, Niagara Region, Ontario

Dickcissel - Fenwick, Niagara Region, Ontario

Magnificent Frigatebird - Leamington, Essex County, Ontario


The month of July began in much the same way that June ended, with frequent traveling across southern Ontario to complete breeding bird surveys for work. For an avid naturalist this is a great situation as not only do I sometimes find interesting things on my job sites, but I am often in a part of the province that I do not visit on my own very often. Once the surveys wrap up in the late morning I sometimes have the rest of the afternoon to explore nearby areas.

Some highlights from July include finding a couple of Sedge Wrens in Simcoe County, a Boreal Owl near Chapleau, and successfully chasing the Tricolored Heron that Paul Prior found at Tommy Thompson Park in Toronto.

Sedge Wren - Carden Alvar, Kawartha Lakes, Ontario

Green Frog - Carden Alvar, Kawartha Lakes, Ontario

European Skippers - Carden Alvar, Kawartha Lakes, Ontario

Eastern Kingbird - Carden Alvar, Kawartha Lakes, Ontario 

Brant - Bowmanville, Durham Region, Ontario

Tricolored Heron - Tommy Thompson Park, Toronto, Ontario


In July I began noticing Fish Crows occasionally in my neighbourhood (northern section of Niagara Falls), and by August sightings had become a near daily occurrence. While I wasn't able to confirm successful breeding in Ontario for the first time, I did have a few interesting sightings, such as several recently fledged birds on the hydro wire across from my house. Clearly they are breeding somewhere locally! I also discovered a Fish Crow roost numbering at least 55 birds in one of the local cemeteries; easily the highest number of this species ever recorded in Canada. It will be interesting to follow this push of Fish Crows into the province via the Niagara Peninsula in upcoming years. 

I explored mainly in Niagara during August. Some other highlights from the month included chasing a Red Knot that Ryan Griffiths discovered near Port Colborne, and experiencing a great lakewatch at Port Weller that included three Sabine's Gulls and a Black Tern. As I've mentioned before Port Weller is my favorite birding location in the region and it is always fun to add new birds to the list. The lowlight of the month was having my camera, teleconverter and 300 mm lens stolen so photos in this post from August are a little sparse. "Dipping" on the Wood Stork at Point Pelee by less than 5 seconds was also a little soul-crushing - there will be another one eventually!

Fish Crows - Niagara Falls, Niagara Region, Ontario

Short-billed Dowitcher and Greater Yellowlegs - Port Colborne, Niagara Region, Ontario


It would be remiss of me to not mention the biggest highlight of my year, even though it may not be related directly to birds or herps. On September 9 Laura and I tied the knot, surrounded by family and friends at the University of Guelph arboretum. The day was perfect and Laura and I are grateful that we could celebrate with so many of our closest people. Thank you to everyone who helped make the day special for us!

Between the wedding in Guelph and a second celebration in Nova Scotia, the month was very busy with fewer natural history highlights than I usually have in September. For my bachelor party we headed up to cottage country to look for snakes; it sure beats going to Vegas as far as I am concerned. Along the way my brother and I stopped to see a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron in St. Jacob's, which represented the first record for Waterloo Region. 

Locally in Niagara I managed to occasionally to take in some songbird migration along both the Lake Ontario and Lake Erie shorelines. Marcie Jacklin made a great find with a Connecticut Warbler north of Fort Erie which I was fortunate to see, my first for Niagara. Thanks Marcie!

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron - St. Jacob's, Waterloo Region, Ontario

Muskoka District, Ontario

Northern Ring-necked Snake - Muskoka District, Ontario

Northern Watersnake - Muskoka District, Ontario

Five-lined Skink - Muskoka District, Ontario

Eastern Massassauga - Muskoka District, Ontario

Black-throated Blue Warbler - Morgan's Point CA, Niagara Region, Ontario


In October I visited Asia for my first time as Quest Nature Tours had offered a Borneo tour to me; needless to say it was an offer I could not refuse! For nine days I rented a car and explored the western part of Sabah Province, located in the Malaysian side of the island. From there I took an internal flight to the eastern part of Sabah province where I met up with my group. We traveled for about eight days in Borneo before flying to Bali for three days to finish the tour. Some of the highlights for me included marveling at the magnificent trees, finding several "flying" species including squirrels, frogs, a snake and a lizard, searching out many of the beautiful endemic bird species, locating four individual Bornean Orangutans, and finally encountering my first wild elephants. I am nearly finished editing all the photos so expect a series of blog posts in the near future about the Borneo trip. 

Crocker Range, Sabah Province, Malaysia

Blue Jay - Mount Kinabalu, Sabah Province, Borneo

Blue-banded Pitta - Langanan Waterfall trail, Sabah Province, Malaysia

Five-banded Gliding Lizard (Draco quinquefasciatus) - Klias Peatswamp Reserve, Sabah Province, Malaysia

Rhinoceros Hornbill - Sepilok, Sabah Province, Malaysia

Pig-tailed Macaque - Sepilok, Sabah Province, Malaysia

young Proboscis Monkey - Kinabatangan River, Sabah Province, Malaysia

Stork-billed Kingfisher - Sepilok, Sabah Province, Malaysia

Bornean Orangutan - Kinabatangan River, Sabah Province, Malaysia

Asian (Bornean Pygmy)  Elephant - Kinabatangan River, Sabah Province, Malaysia

Long-nosed Horned Frog - Danum Valley, Sabah Province, Malaysia

Slow Loris - Danum Valley, Sabah Province, Malaysia


November can be an exciting month and in 2017 it was incredible, in terms of rare birds found throughout Ontario. The highlight of the month for me was being at the right place at the right time (and with my camera ready) when a juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger flew past Van Wagner's Beach in Hamilton on November 4. This bird represented one of the latest records of Long-tailed Jaeger for the province. 

In mid-November an Anna's Hummingbird was reported to the birding community after it had been discovered frequenting a bird feeder in Carleton Place. I quickly made plans to chase the bird, a species with only a couple of prior records for Ontario. Fortunately the Anna's showed well, as did a Black-throated Gray Warbler in nearby Ottawa later that morning. Several other notable rarities that I observed in November included a Mountain Bluebird in Waterloo, a Townsend's Warbler in Rondeau, and a Northern Gannet in Hamilton. The gannet was a special bird as it was the record-breaking bird as part of Jeremy Bensette's Ontario Big Year, and it was memorable to share both the record-tying bird (Mountain Bluebird) and the record-breaking bird with him. 

I tried to explore Niagara Region as much as I could during the month. Gulling was excellent as is expected, while some of the fun birds I caught up with included a Brant at Crystal Beach and a Franklin's Gull in Fort Erie. 

Long-tailed Jaeger - Van Wagner's Beach, Hamilton, Ontario

Bonaparte's Gull - Fort Erie, Niagara Region, Ontario

Horned Grebe - Fort Erie, Niagara Region, Ontario

Anna's Hummingbird - Carleton Place, Lanark County, Ontario

Black-throated Gray Warbler - Britannia Ridge, Ottawa, Ontario

Mountain Bluebird - Snyder's Flats, Waterloo Region, Ontario

Brant - Crystal Beach, Niagara Region, Ontario

Black-legged Kittiwake - Niagara Falls, Niagara Region, Ontario


December was a bit of a quieter month for me. Work was extremely busy with a big push to get several big reports out the door, and the cold temperatures, frequent snowfalls and limited daylight were not conducive with frequent birding excursions...or maybe I am just getting soft. I did see a Long-eared Owl near Port Colborne, only my second ever in Niagara Region, and successfully chased a male Tufted Duck in Mississauga, which was a new bird for my Ontario list. This was my fifth new Ontario bird in 2017, after observing Brambling (March 18), Violet-green Swallow (June 14), Tricolored Heron (July 22) and Anna's Hummingbird (November 13). I also co-led the OFO Niagara Gull Trip with Marcie Jacklin and Jeremy Bensette which was certainly a highlight of the month for me. With around 150 people attending it was a bit difficult logistically, but the weather cooperated (10 degrees, calm and sunny!) and the birds did too. The long staying Black-legged Kittiwake below the Falls was a life bird for many who attended, and there were smiles all around. I was surprised to spot a few N. Rough-winged Swallows hawking insects over the river, a good record for December. 

2017 was a successful year in many ways and I am excited to see what 2018 has in store. Thanks for reading this and I wish you all the best in 2018!

Long-eared Owl - Wainfleet, Niagara Region, Ontario

Tufted Duck - Mississauga, Peel Region, Ontario

Thursday 28 December 2017

2017 (Part 1)

Another year has come and gone, and as is tradition, I will summarize some of the highlights of my year from a natural history perspective.


I began the year by spending all of January within the boundaries of Ontario. As is generally the case, my work responsibilities diminished during the first couple months of the year due to the somewhat seasonal nature of consulting, affording me many opportunities to bird locally as well as embark on a few rare bird chases elsewhere in southern Ontario. The Smith's Longspur in Norfolk County persisted into the new year, while a Slaty-backed Gull frequented the Niagara River and Welland Canal near Thorold. I was ecstatic to finally catch up with the beast in Thorold where it provided a nice study and great photo ops.

It had been five years since I had added a new species to my Ontario herp list, so it may seem unlikely that January was the month for the new addition. Perhaps this is less surprising when that species is Common Mudpuppy, an aquatic salamander that is active year round. Dan Riley discovered a semi-reliable location for this species near Thorold, and I rushed over to finally see my first Common Mudpuppy in the province! That leaves Wood Turtle, Northern Dusky Salamander and Allegheny Mountain Dusky Salamander as the remaining species to see. I've saved the hardest ones for last!

Smith's Longspur - Port Rowan, Norfolk County, Ontario

Tufted Titmouse - Dufferin Islands, Niagara Region, Ontario

Northern Cardinal - Dufferin Islands, Niagara Region, Ontario

Common Mudpuppy - Thorold, Niagara Region, Ontario

Slaty-backed Gull - Thorold, Niagara Region, Ontario


In February I headed south to Cuba for the third winter in a row with Quest Nature Tours. Cuba is a charming country with some excellent natural areas including the jewel of the Caribbean, the Zapata Swamp. An extra day in this part of the country gave my group and I a chance to access the heart of the swamp, where we traveled by boat to find the localized and secretive Zapata Wren as well as Zapata Sparrow. Of course the rest of the trip was great as well, with surprises around every bend. Face-melting views of Cuban Tody, Blue-headed Quail-Dove, Cuban Black Hawk and the world's smallest bird, the Bee Hummingbird were just some of the avian highlights from Cuba, while several Hutia sightings and a variety of reptile species were also popular with this group.

Back in Ontario the days were beginning to grow longer though the temperatures remained consistently low. A Black-headed Gull that had been on the Niagara River reappeared along the Welland Canal near Port Weller for a few days, while two Pine Warblers managed to eke out an existence at Dufferin Islands in Niagara Falls.

Ashy Gecko - ViƱales Valley, Cuba

Cuban Grassquit - La Guira, Cuba

Cuban Parrot - Playa Larga, Cuba

Blue-headed Quail-Dove - Bay of Pigs, Cuba

Northern Curly-tailed Lizard - Bay of Pigs, Cuba

Red-legged Thrush - Sierra del Rosario, Cuba

Desmarest's Hutia - Cayo Las Brujas, Cuba

Cuban Black Hawk - Cayo Las Brujas, Cuba

Black-headed Gull - Port Weller, Niagara Region, Ontario

Pine Warbler - Dufferin Islands, Niagara Region, Ontario


March is a month of transition in southern Ontario. The first migrant waterfowl, blackbirds and Song Sparrows arrive with the first warm winds from the south, but winter always pushes back with a vengeance and easily sinks its icy claws back into the landscape. The highlight of the month was a road-trip to northern Ontario, where winter still gained the upper hand. Jeremy Bensette, Mark Dorriesfiled, Todd Hagedorn and I traveled from Timiskaming District to Hearst and back, stopping frequently for Northern Hawk Owls as they adorned the tips of some of the spruces along the way. Despite the thermometer rarely cracking -20 degrees Celsius on this trip, the very light winds and sunny conditions made it quite enjoyable to explore the boreal forest. Luck was on our side this trip; among numerous highlights some that stand out for me include a Gray Wolf at dusk along the highway, a great study of Hoary Redpolls at Hilliardton Marsh, exploring the Hearst 4 Burn where we found a half dozen A. Three-toed Woodpeckers and fifteen Black-backed Woodpeckers, and an incredible encounter with a Short-tailed Weasel and its Meadow Vole prey on a sideroad north of Cochrane. The north never disappoints.

Back in the south I enjoyed birding in Niagara, trying to get out as much as possible to avoid catching a case of the March blues. One particular day stands out in which Laura and I were successful in tracking down both Short-eared and Long-eared Owls.

Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District, Ontario

"Hornemann's" Hoary Redpoll - Hilliardton Marsh, Timiskaming District, Ontario

Short-tailed Weasel and Meadow Vole - north of Cochrane, Cochrane District, Ontario

Northern Hawk Owl - Opasatika, Cochrane District, Ontario

American Three-toed Woodpecker - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District, Ontario

Northern Hawk Owl - Ameson, Cochrane District, Ontario

Long-eared Owl - Oakville, Halton Region, Ontario


April is one of my favorite times of the year in southern Ontario. The dynamic weather, emergence of flowers, snakes and frogs, and new migrant bird species arriving each day bring hope and optimism with each excursion into nature. Work was not quite in full swing yet, enabling many opportunities for me to explore natural areas close to home. One particular highlight of the month was an excellent long weekend in the Point Pelee area where I caught up with a variety of rare species, highlighted by finding a very photogenic Lark Sparrow near Sparrow Field at Point Pelee National Park.

Northern Ribbonsnake - Waterloo Region, Ontario

Forster's Tern - Port Dalhousie, Niagara Region, Ontario

Piping Plover - Port Dover, Norfolk County, Ontario

Black-necked Stilts - Windsor, Essex County, Ontario

American Avocets - Hillman Marsh CA, Essex County, Ontario

Lark Sparrow - Point Pelee National Park, Essex County, Ontario

Smooth Greensnake - Wainfleet Bog, Niagara Region, Ontario


May is always an insanely busy month but I would not have it any other way. Bird migration takes up most of my time and this year was no different. I made it down to Point Pelee for three long weekends in May. The birding in this part of the province can be spectacular, but even on the slow days it is fun to catch up with many of the fellow birders who have descended on the park. This year there was a notable emptiness in the park as it was the first spring at Point Pelee without Alan Wormington.

During one particular weekend Laura and my parents were able to make it down to the park for a few days of birding. This was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my year as I was able to share my passion with three of the most important people in my life. All three of them were successful in obtaining their hundred species pin, despite the less than ideal weather conditions.

I was asked by the Ontario Field Ornithologists to be their guest birder and take part in the Great Canadian Birdathon in 2017 to raise money for bird conservation. I roped Jeremy Bensette and Dan Riley in, and together we completed a Big Day within the Point Pelee Circle. While the birding that day was somewhat slow, we still managed a respectable 130 species, and more importantly helped raise several thousand dollars for conservation.

While Point Pelee is always a blast I had just as much fun birding some of the local hotspots in Niagara. There are only a handful of local birders meaning it is unusual to come across someone else on the trails or along the shorelines. This increases the sense that a rarity could be lurking around every bend since there is not the thought that all the other birders have picked an area clean. Port Weller is my favorite birding location within Niagara Region and I had some great days in May. The first day of the month in particular sticks out due to the fallout of songbirds I experienced. Hundreds of warblers and sparrows filled the trees and bushes along the pier, including a Louisiana Waterthrush, a species recorded less than annually in Niagara. While waiting out a massive storm at the end of the pier that day I also spotted a Purple Sandpiper. I don't know if I'll ever have a day at Port Weller to rival May 1, 2017, but it won't stop me from trying!

Alan's Bench - Point Pelee NP, Essex County, Ontario

Tufted Titmouse - Point Pelee NP, Essex County, Ontario

Mom and Dad with their 100 species pins - Point Pelee NP, Essex County, Ontario

Le Conte's Sparrow - Point Pelee NP, Essex County, Ontario

Prothonotary Warbler - Point Pelee NP, Essex County, Ontario

Kirtland's Warbler - Point Pelee NP, Essex County, Ontario

Orange-crowned Warbler - Point Pelee NP, Essex County, Ontario

Magnolia Warbler - Port Weller, Niagara Region, Ontario

Sandhill Cranes - north of Point Pelee NP, Essex County, Ontario

Clay-colored Sparrow - Niagara Falls, Niagara Region, Ontario

Part 2 will cover the months of June through December of 2017.