Sunday 28 May 2017

Clay-colored Sparrow in Niagara Falls

On May 21, Bob Highcock and Jean Hampson discovered a singing Clay-colored Sparrow in an old field along Dell Road in Niagara Falls. The other day I dropped by the spot and had already heard the bird singing its distinctive song (2-5 low, monotone buzzes) before I had stopped my car.

Clay-colored Sparrow - Niagara Falls

The bird was not too bothered by my presence and with a bit of patience I was able to take some reasonable photos from a close distance. While I was watching it, a second Clay-colored sounded off in the distance.

Clay-colored Sparrow - Niagara Falls

Clay-colored Sparrow is a common species throughout the prairies in the center of North America, but in southern Ontario it is a relatively rare species. Within Niagara Region Clay-colored Sparrow has always been considered an extremely rare breeding species, though in my experience they are increasing in number and I have observed birds on territory in a handful of different locations. In particular, a lot of the lands bordering the Welland Canal provide suitable habitat for Clay-colored Sparrow.  I wish I had more free time during June and July (my busiest season at work) to explore some of these areas!

Clay-colored Sparrow - Niagara Falls

Clay-colored Sparrow - Niagara Falls

Eventually I continued on my way after an enjoyable half an hour in the Clay-colored field. I did not find a female while I was there, but hopefully one shows up soon! The Clay-colored Sparrow was still buzzing away as I drove away from the field.

Clay-colored Sparrow - Niagara Falls

Tuesday 23 May 2017

Point Pelee weekend - Part 2 (Sunday and Monday)

A significant migration appeared to take place overnight so spirits were high as Dan Riley and I entered the park. We were not disappointed and had a great morning of birding.

Within minutes of our arrival at the Tip word got out about a singing Kirtland's Warbler located on the boardwalk directly south of the tram loop. Apparently it was loudly singing for quite some time before someone clued in that it was in fact a Kirtland's who was singing! Dan and I rushed over and were treated to good, though backlit, views of the warbler as it flitted among the red cedars, occasionally giving us all a rendition of his explosive song.

Kirtland's Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

I was thrilled with the sighting since Kirtland's Warbler is a species that I have not had much luck with over the years. I had only viewed two individuals previously: the first was a bird I discovered along the West Beach footpath at Point Pelee on May 22, 2010, and the second was a singing male on territory in Petawawa in 2012, though I only managed a few glimpses of that bird between singing bouts.

The Kirtland's disappeared after a few minutes so Dan and I made a hasty retreat from the area just as the next wave of birders and photographers arrived on the tram. A few minutes later and we had relocated the Kirtland's with some other birders on the western side of the Tip; the stampede of birders followed shortly thereafter!

Kirtland's Warbler mob - Point Pelee National Park

The rest of the morning was pretty productive as Dan and I birded with Steve Pike and later with Pauline Catling and her mom. We focused on the west side of the park and walked most of the trails from the Tip to Dunes. A distant Olive-sided Flycatcher in Sparrow Field was nice to see.

Olive-sided Flycatcher - Point Pelee National Park

I went out of my way to take this poor photo of a Gray-cheeked Thrush, a new one for my "Photographed in Ontario" list. The Gray-cheeked was one of the few low-hanging fruits left; now, the easiest remaining species are Connecticut Warbler, King Rail, Yellow Rail, Northern Gannet and California Gull. A tall order!

Gray-cheeked Thrush - Point Pelee National Park

As we passed the trail leading to the Pioneer parking lot we stopped abruptly as a White-eyed Vireo belted out its distinctive song from the trailside shrubbery. Awesome! White-eyed Vireo, while common in much of its range to the south, is quite scarce in Ontario with only a handful of breeding pairs. They are an uncommon species at Point Pelee, where most individuals sighted in the spring are likely overshoots.

White-eyed Vireo - Point Pelee National Park

After taking a break for a couple of hours in the afternoon I headed back into the park, specifically to see if the Kirtland's Warbler was still around. Prior to my encounter with the bird earlier in the day I had never photographed a Kirtland's Warbler, so I was hoping to improve on my poor record shots from earlier!

I had barely entered the park when three Cattle Egrets were reported from just outside the park along Concession E. Since I was only a few minutes away I drove by to check them out as they went about their business, searching for grasshoppers in the grass.

Cattle Egret - Leamington onion fields

Leaving Concession E I quickly checked my phone before returning into the park. There was a new message on WEPbirds, the local listserv, about a White-winged Dove that was visiting Tern Inn, a bed and breakfast operated by Kelly Moore and Heidi Staniforth, two local birders. What a great bird for their yard! I raced over to their place, seeing many familiar faces who had arrived in the minutes preceding me. Sure enough the White-winged Dove was perched in one of the backyard tree, and after a few minutes dropped onto the fence. I only stayed for a few minutes since I wanted to get back into the park before it was too late in the evening. White-winged Dove is a common species in much of North and Central America but is still a rare species in Ontario. This was my first for Point Pelee, as it was for many of the other birders there. Great find, Heidi and Kelly.

White-winged Dove - Leamington

It only took a few minutes of searching before I re-located the Kirtland's Warbler at the Tip. Along with two other photographers I enjoyed studying the bird at close range as it foraged for insects, lit up with the evening sunshine. Eventually it came close enough for a few photos as well. I must admit, having the bird to myself was a welcome contrast to the pandemonium of the morning. Don't get me wrong, the interest in birds and birding is fantastic to see and it is great that so many people want to observe a reported Kirtland's Warbler, but it can be a little difficult to enjoy the bird among the chaos!

Kirtland's Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Kirtland's Warbler was on the brink of extinction but due to the careful management of their breeding habitat, namely young Jack Pine stands, the population has increased to approximately 5,000 individuals, most confined to a small portion of Michigan. It is a rare but somewhat regular migrant through southwestern Ontario in the spring and most years 3-8 individuals are sighted, with the majority of individuals found at Point Pelee.

Kirtland's Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

This Orange-crowned Warbler was a little further up along the path from the Kirtland's. It was by far the most "cooperative" Orange-crowned I have ever encountered, allowing a prolonged photo shoot. They say that one of the field marks for Orange-crowned Warbler is that it exhibits a lack of field marks, but I think they have a subtle beauty. Of course it is easier to appreciate this when watching one flit about only a few feet away, in gorgeous evening light.
Orange-crowned Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Orange-crowned Warbler - Point Pelee National

The Monday was a protracted day of birding as I had a four hour drive ahead of me to get back home, and I was hoping to be back in a reasonable time. The birding was pretty steady all morning on Monday as well, though songbird numbers appeared to be a little lower than the previous day.

This Northern Mockingbird was a nice surprise along the east side of the tip. They are not too common of a sight in the Point Pelee circle.

Northern Mockingbird - Point Pelee National Park

After birding at the Tip for a couple of hours, I was walking back up the road with a few others when a singing Cerulean Warbler caught the attention of our ears. This was most likely the same bird that was seen right at the Tip earlier in the morning but which had disappeared before too many birders had seen it. Cerulean's are one of my favorites and not a species I see in migration every year. It stayed a little ways up in the canopy but occasionally ventured low enough where photos were possible. Cerulean Warbler is yet another species of bird that has declined substantially in recent years.

Cerulean Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

The most popular bird of the day was the female Blue Grosbeak that Pete Read discovered in Sparrow Field. A nice bird to be able to study in Ontario, and one that I don't see every year. Thanks, Pete!

Blue Grosbeak - Point Pelee National Park

And with that, another fantastic weekend had come and gone. It is amazing how quickly May seems to go by...

Friday 19 May 2017

Point Pelee: Thursday to Saturday results

Last weekend was another extended long weekend in the Point Pelee area for me, and like always at this time of year, it was an absolute blast. One of the nice things about visiting Point Pelee during the Festival of Birds is the amount socializing that can be done, as it is a good place to reconnect with many birders who I haven't seen in quite some time. It can be busy, sure, and the busyness can definitely turn away many birders, but it isn't too hard to find a trail with no one on it, you just need to know where to look! (Hint - its not Tilden's Woods).

But while the socializing was a lot of fun, I was visiting Point Pelee to see birds, first and foremost. All told, about 170 species crossed my path over the weekend. Instead of providing a detailed account of the whole weekend, I'll let some photos tell the story, mostly. And I will make a separate post at some point in the future detailing the results of our Birdathon, which was completed on the Saturday.

I finished my work commitments early enough on Thursday that I had about an hour of light remaining when I pulled into the Point Pelee area in the evening. A Le Conte's Sparrow had been found on the west beach near the Dunes parking lot so naturally I headed straight over there.

Le Conte's Sparrow - Point Pelee National Park

Despite breeding sporadically in central and northern Ontario, Le Conte's is a tricky migrant to see in the southern part of the province. This was only my second ever for Point Pelee. Several other species were along the west beach, including a few more first-of-years: Bay-breasted Warbler, Swainson's Thrush and Scarlet Tanager. The Bay-breasted was relatively cooperative.

Bay-breasted Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Scarlet Tanagers are always a big hit at Point Pelee. I soaked in the views of the first two we came across. Every spring I am surprised by how vibrant they are - they almost appear as if they could glow in the dark.

I was up early on Friday morning, driving into the park with Dan Riley to start our day. Unfortunately it turned out to be a pretty slow day, but like the old saying goes, a slow day in May is better than a good day in February. Or something?

White-crowned Sparrow - Point Pelee National Park

We birded with Josh Mandell and Dave Szmyr for much of the day as they were down for their annual Pelee weekend. It's always a good time birding with those guys.

from left to right - Josh Mandell, Dan Riley, Dave Szmyr - Point Pelee National Park

Highlights on Friday were few and far between, but because of the time of year we still managed about 85 species in the park, and over 100 for the day. A Black-billed Cuckoo that flew in front of Dan and I was nice to see, as were the two pairs of Prothonotary Warblers lurking around the Woodland Nature Trail, with sloughs filled to the brim with water after this wet spring we have had.

This Cedar Waxwing was extremely cooperative for Dan and I, allowing us some great photo ops.

Cedar Waxwing - Point Pelee National Park

Cedar Waxwing - Point Pelee National Park

This Blue-winged Warbler in Tilden's Woods was one of two for the day.

Blue-winged Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Saturday was the day of the Birdathon for Jeremy, Dan and I. Our original plan was to cover the Point Pelee circle only, and after some second-guessing we decided to stay with this plan, as opposed to expanding our circle a little wider to include the Rondeau area and the Lake St. Clair marshes. We almost cancelled the Birdathon a few hours after it began, as word of the Willow Ptarmigan in Toronto got out. After some deliberation we decided to keep pushing on with our Birdathon instead (how responsible of us!).

Jeremy, Dan and I will detail the results of our Birdathon at some later date in a publication for OFO, which I will also re-post here. In the meantime, here are a few photos from the day. For those interested, we finished with 130 species, with quite a few easy misses!

Tufted Titmouse - Point Pelee National Park

Swamp Candle (aka Prothonotary Warbler) - Point Pelee National Park

That's all for now - my next post will cover the Sunday and the Monday of the "weekend".

Thursday 11 May 2017

We're doing a Big Day on May 13!

This year I was asked by the Ontario Field Ornithologists if I would be their guest birder and take part in the Great Canadian Birdathon to raise money for bird conservation. I enlisted the help of two good friends of mine, Dan Riley and Jeremy Bensette, and together, we are excited to raise money for a good cause by spending an entire day birding!

From left to right - Dan Riley, Josh Vandermeulen, Jeremy Bensette

The Great Canadian Birdathon, (formerly, the Baillie Birdathon) is the oldest sponsored bird count in North America. Hundreds of teams of birders across Canada participate each year, with hundreds of thousands of dollars raised for bird conservation in the process. The proceeds support Bird Studies Canada, various bird observatories and monitoring programs. It also supports the James L. Baillie Memorial Fund which provides grants primarily to amateur field ornithology researchers. A portion of all donations pledged towards our team will be returned to OFO and will be specifically earmarked to the OFO Young Birders Program.

Dan, Jeremy and I are planning our Big Day within the Point Pelee circle, a standard Christmas Bird Count circle with a 25 km diameter that including not only Point Pelee National Park, but also Leamington, Hillman Marsh, the "onion fields' and Wheatley harbour.

Point Pelee Birding Area

Doing a Big Day at Point Pelee is a little different than a Big Day attempt that spans a larger area. The Point Pelee circle has relatively few breeding species compared to a larger area with a greater diversity of habitats, meaning that our final species total will be more dependent on the diversity of migrant species we can encounter. There is just more variability in the probability of outcomes - if we pick a poor day it may be a struggle to find 100 species, while if the birding is excellent, 150 species or higher may be possible. I am not sure what the record is for the Point Pelee circle, but I wouldn't be surprised if it is 170 or higher; clearly, exceptional conditions have to come together to enable a record-breaking attempt. Personally, I am hoping to reach 140 species for the day.

Pledges to our team can be made at this link on the Great Canadian Birdathon page. While our Big Day is scheduled for May 13, donations can be made until the end of July. Thanks to those of you who have already donated - it is greatly appreciated!

Hopefully the birding gods are smiling down on us on May 13. I will be providing periodic updates on my blog during the Big Day attempt - stay tuned.

Friday 5 May 2017

Storm birding at Port Weller

It is the most wonderful time of year! Every birder in this part of North America loves early May The days are longer, the temperatures are showing a warming trend, the flowers are blooming and nearly every species in on the move migrating, somewhere. The wood-warblers are some of the more coveted migrants by many birders and over the next two weeks it shouldn't be too difficult to come up with 20 or 25 species  in your local patch, wherever that may be. Down at Point Pelee likely 37 or 38 warbler species will be seen, with at least 20-25 species observed daily. And of course, crowd pleasers like Indigo Buntings, Scarlet Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are easily seen as they migrate through or arrive on breeding territories in the area. The chances of coming across a rarity are higher in the next few weeks than they are at any other time of the year.

But, blink and you miss it! Just when you start getting used to the phenomenon of seeing new species nearly every day as waves of migrants pass through, the migration begins to taper off. By the middle to the end of May, birding is a little more difficult as the mostly silent females make up the majority of the songbird migrants, the thick green foliage makes spotting them harder, and the species diversity begins to drop off. But that is still a few weeks off and we are currently in the peak of spring migration for many Neotropical species.

Cape May Warbler - Port Weller, Niagara Region

I was "stuck" in Niagara this week as I do occasionally have to work, but I made the most of my opportunities and birded the Port Weller area each of the last three days for some time in the afternoon. Despite the rain and wind, the birding was just spectacular! I tallied over 110 species in my three excursions; a pretty solid total given that I was birding a pier jutting out in Lake Ontario.

May 1 was just unbelievably amazing, and a great way to kick off the month. Immediately after beginning my walk at Port Weller, it was evident that a huge surge of new birds had arrived - flocks of warblers were everywhere! It took only 10 minutes before I was in the double digits with warbler species and at the end of my hike I had tallied 16 species - more than what was reported at Pelee that day. It was easily the best day of birding I had ever had at Port Weller and definitely the first "fallout" I had experienced in Niagara Region.

Yellow-rumped Warbler - Port Weller, Niagara Region

The new birds just kept coming as I slowly walked the pier in the light rain, keeping an eye on the radar which showed a huge foreboding colourful patch heading my way - the rain was coming. But the birding was just too good to turn around and head back to the safety of the car. Indigo Bunting. Baltimore Oriole. Veery. Least Flycatcher. Cape May Warbler. Great Crested Flycatcher. I soaked up the views of these brightly coloured, if not a little wet, songbirds that I hadn't witnessed all winter, while at the same time trying to move on quickly from each bird so that I could look at the next. There were just so many birds to see, and not enough time to to thoroughly view each one!

Pine Warbler - Port Weller, Niagara Region

Black-throated Blue Warbler - Port Weller, Niagara Region

As I approached the end of the pier, my phone (and the darkening sky behind me) indicated that a huge storm would be overhead in only a few minutes. I kept birding, and new species kept appearing - Blue-headed Vireo. Common Yellowthroat. American Redstart. Brown Thrasher. Eventually I decided I would attempt to take cover behind the lighthouse at the east end of the pier, knowing full well that I was likely going to get soaked. But I was ok with those prospects - there is something special about being able to watch a massive storm as it approaches and batters the landscape around you.

Cape May Warbler - Port Weller, Niagara Region

This turned out to be an awesome plan as I came across one of the rarer birds I have seen on Port Weller. As I was standing beside the lighthouse, rain streaming down while the wind whipped all around me, I noticed a few Dunlins flush from the rocks lining the edge of the pier. Cool - not a species I see out there too often. A few minutes later, another Dunlin-sized shorebird flushed from the rocks and flew out over the water before returning. It seemed a bit strange at first, but its identification did not click until the bird landed at my feet, about 10 feet away. It was a Purple Sandpiper!

While Purple Sandpipers pass through southern Ontario in very small numbers each autumn, and Port Weller is one of the better places in the region to seek this species out (though I had never seen one there), Ontario only has a handful of spring records. Since I have been birding, I can recall five or six records, though there have been a few more over the years. One of the strangest records was a bird that was found in Sudbury among the snow and ice; this bird was eventually predated.

Do you see it?

Since I had left my camera behind due to the rain, I was stuck with just my cell phone and binoculars to try to document the bird. The Purple Sandpiper was more than happy to sit on the rocks and wait out the rain, and after about 5 minutes of trying I was finally able to obtain some identifiable photos! Not my finest work, I know, but better than nothing...

Purple Sandpiper - Port Weller, Niagara Region

After 10 minutes of watching the sandpiper I decided to head back to civilization. The rain had slightly diminished, though I was still soaked through the bone! The walk back was awesome for birding and I continued adding species, including an early Magnolia Warbler. The highlight however was a vocal Louisiana Waterthrush chipping away near the base of the pier in a flooded section of woods. While Northern Waterthrush is a common migrant through the region, Louisiana is very scarce - in fact it was my first for Niagara.

I finished the walk with 74 species, an excellent total given the location! With a bit of free time remaining before I had to leave to complete an amphibian survey in Hamilton for work, I decided to walk around Malcomson Eco-Park for an hour. Malcomson is a decent sized park that was created at the base of the Port Weller west pier, and the tall trees and shrubby undergrowth attract migrant songbirds. Boots were an absolute must as the trails were flooded due to all of the recent rain.

Malcomson Eco-Park, Niagara Region

Among the highlights during my evening walk were Solitary Sandpiper, Lincoln's Sparrow, Peregrine Falcon, Wood Thrush and 9 species of warblers.

Solitary Sandpiper - Malcomson Eco-Park, Niagara Region

The following day I birded Port Weller for a couple hours in the afternoon. The songbird numbers had diminished slightly, but there was still a good variety of warblers to pick through!

Pine Warbler - Port Weller, Niagara Region

Palm Warbler - Port Weller, Niagara Region

A few mergansers were close to shore at one point, providing a neat opportunity to photograph the males in nearly the same pose.

male Common Merganser - Port Weller, Niagara Region

male Red-breasted Merganser - Port Weller, Niagara Region

In a span of five minutes I came across three good birds for Port Weller, with each of them being new species for my local patch. The first was a Wilson's Snipe that flushed from the grassy knoll, flew around for a minute and then dropped back down somewhere out of sight. The second was a whinnying Sora from the small pond at the north end of the pier, and the third was a pair of Marsh Wrens rattling away in the small pond!

Wilson's Snipe - Port Weller, Niagara Region

Big numbers of swallows had invaded the area over the last two days. I was pleased to pick out my first few Cliff Swallows of the year on May 2.

Cliff Swallow - Port Weller, Niagara Region

On May 3, Laura and I decided to go for a walk at Port Weller once she finished work for the day. It was late in the evening when we arrived, giving us only a couple of hours of light, but we made the most of it! Among seven warbler species was a gorgeous Cape May, while both Baltimore and Orchard Orioles made appearances. The Orchard (a nice male) was my first for Port Weller. On our return walk along the pier I was surprised to hear the distinctive calls of Rusty Blackbirds. This declining species isn't too common in Niagara Region during migration and I thought that I had likely missed it after not encountering any in April.

It's now May 5 and every day brings new surprises. Get out there and bird!