Sunday 25 June 2017

Bad photos of good Niagara birds

It was a productive spring of birding here in Niagara Region and I was lucky to connect with quite a few of the rarer species. Overall I added nine birds to my Niagara Region list, bringing me up to 266 all time - well behind John Black with his impressive 337 species! The new additions are as follows:

258. Forster's Tern
- Port Weller East (April 5) and Port Dalhousie (April 10)

Forster's Tern - Port Dalhousie, St. Catharines

Most spring records of Forster's Tern for Niagara are in mid-April as small numbers pass through the region, often before the Common Tern migration begins. The bird at Port Dalhousie was quite accommodating, allowing me to take several photos as it whirled around.

259. Wilson's Snipe
-Stevensville (April 8), Wainfleet Bog (April 23) and Port Weller East (May 2)

Wilson's Snipe - Port Weller East, St. Catharines

A long overdue species for me in Niagara! The bird at Port Weller east (photographed above) was a new one for my local patch.

260. American Bittern
-Mud Lake CA (April 8)

American Bittern - Mud Lake CA, Niagara Region

Formerly a more common breeding species in Niagara, American Bittern has declined substantially across its range and now is an extremely local breeding species in Niagara Region. In fact, some years this species is not recorded at all in Niagara. According to Birds of Niagara (authored by John Black and Kayo Roy), "there is little evidence to suggest that (American Bitterns) migrate through Niagara in the spring". The book further elaborates to say that the numbers of these birds breeding in Niagara have declined substantially over the years from 1966 to 2006. I discovered this individual at Mud Lake on April 8; fortunately it hung around long enough for Blayne and Jean Farnan to race over and observe it, though others searching later in the day were not as successful as the bittern had retreated to the less visible portions of the marsh.

261. Common Raven
-Wainfleet Bog (April 10)

This species has slowly expanded its range in Ontario to the south and there are now a few known breeding pairs in Niagara Region. I was fortunate to have a bird fly over me calling as I was herping in the Wainfleet Bog in early April. It turns out that Common Ravens are now nesting on the old Robin Hood factory along the Welland Canal at the north end of Port Colborne; no doubt the source for the Wainfleet individual.

262. Louisiana Waterthrush
-Port Weller East (May 1)

This bird was a nice surprise during a fallout on Port Weller East on the first day of the month. I discussed that day's birding in this blog post. 

263. Ruddy Turnstone
-Airport Road, Niagara-on-the-Lake (May 26)

Ruddy Turnstone - Airport Road, Niagara-on-the-Lake

Back on May 9 I discovered that a flooded cow paddock on Airport Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake was providing great shorebird habitat. This Ruddy Turnstone found by Marcie Jacklin on May 25 was my first for the region. Other highlights among the 15 species of shorebirds found here this spring included ~350 Lesser Yellowlegs on May 9, an adult Stilt Sandpiper on May 16, regular White-rumped Sandpipers including a high of 6 on May 26, Short-billed Dowitchers (griseus subspecies) on May 15 (2 birds) and May 18 (3 birds), and 3 Black-bellied Plovers on May 22 and 23. It is unusual to experience such great shore-birding in the spring in Niagara and the excessive rain throughout May allowed this cow paddock to remain productive throughout the month.

264. Olive-sided Flycatcher
-Moore Rd S, Port Colborne (May 28)

Olive-sided Flycatcher - Moore Road, Port Colborne

Blayne and Jean Farnan discovered this bird while birding along Moore Road on May 27 and called me the morning of May 28 to indicate that it was still present, so Laura and I drove down to check it out. Olive-sided Flycatcher is one of my favorite flycatcher species, in part because its can be difficult to turn up in migration despite its inclination to perch high at the top of a dead tree. Eastern Wood-Pewees are sometimes confused with Olive-sided Flycatcher because they also appear "vested", but one great field mark to help separate the two is the surprisingly short tail on an Olive-sided.

265. Brown Pelican
-Niagara River, north end of Fort Erie (May 29)

Brown Pelican - Niagara River in Fort Erie

The bird of the year so far in Niagara, this Brown Pelican was first discovered on May 27 by some Buffalo birders (I am not sure who the finder was) and remained on the river until at least June 6, which is the last report I can find on eBird. When I observed the pelican it chose to remain on a buoy on the far side of the river, making even digiscoped photos next to impossible! There are two previously accepted records of Brown Pelican for Niagara Region, and eleven in total for Ontario.

266. Yellow-breasted Chat
-intersection of Willson and Garringer Roads, Wainfleet Bog (May 31)

Yellow-breasted Chat - Wainfleet Bog

Another great bird found by the Farnans and Marcie Jacklin! The trio first heard a Yellow-breasted Chat singing from a traditional spot in the Wainfleet Bog and even had brief views of it on May 30. I was on site before dawn the next morning and after a short wait the chat joined in with the dawn chorus. Eventually I located it perched out in the open and I watched it sing for the next hour. Ontario is at the northern edge of the range for Yellow-breasted Chat. Chats were more common in the province several decades ago but it is another species that has undergone recent declines and is now listed as Endangered. Hopefully a female joins this Yellow-breasted Chat as it has been a number of years since this species has been detected breeding in Niagara.

Monday 19 June 2017

Violet-green Swallow twitch to Thunder Bay

On June 12 local Thunder Bay birder Chris Johnston observed an unusual looking swallow at the Thunder Bay marina. She deduced that the bird was a female Violet-green Swallow and posted her sighting to the NWObirds group, the message board for bird sightings in northwestern Ontario. The most unusual aspect of Chris' discovery was that the Violet-green Swallow appeared to be paired up with a male Tree Swallow. They were seen carrying nesting material into one of the nest boxes and the male would chase off other prospective suitors. While Violet-green Swallow and Tree Swallow look superficially similar, this hybrid combination is quite rare, and has only been documented a couple of times.

The Violet-green Swallow continued to be seen the following day and appeared to be getting comfortable so I decided to do something crazy - I would fly up to Thunder Bay to chase this bird. After all, Violet-green Swallow is a species that had only been observed four times previously in the province, with none of those birds particularly chase-able (though a lucky few were successful with the Ottawa bird in 2013). Opportunities to chase birds that would be new to my Ontario list are few and far between these days and Violet-green Swallow is definitely one worth trying for. I convinced Jeremy Bensette to come along with me and by 11:00 that evening we were on a flight to Thunder Bay, using some of my saved up aeroplan points. It just so happened that Glenn Stronks, a local Thunder Bay birder, was also on our flight as he was returning home after a few days of work in Toronto. Glenn kindly offered his place for us to stay for the night, and by 1:30 his wife, Joanne, had picked the three of us up and driven us back to their place.

The morning dawned windy and cold with a steel gray sky and the threat of rain. After an hour on site Glenn, Jeremy and I had not seen the Violet-green Swallow and an iota of worry began to creep into my brain. While we waited, this Beaver swam past us, not the least bit concerned with our presence. I guess this one is used to a lot of foot traffic.

Beaver - Thunder Bay marina

At approximately 9:20 AM an "interesting" looking swallow materialized then quickly vanished into the nest box that we had staked out, followed closely by what appeared to be a male Tree Swallow. After a tense few seconds a swallow appeared at the entrance of the nest box - it was the Violet-green! We all instantly felt a wave of relief; at least I did!

female Violet-green Swallow -Thunder Bay marina

The hour long wait was well worth it as the Violet-green Swallow continued to hang around the area for the next few hours. It would alternate between sitting in the nest box, perching on nearby poplars and a dead snag directly in front of the next box, and foraging over the nearby pool and surrounding fields.

female Violet-green Swallow - Thunder Bay marina

We quickly clued into its routine and over time she became very easy to pick out in flight among the other swallows due to her smaller size and unique impression she gave off due to her white face and collar and extensive white along the sides of her rump. This is one of few flight photos of mine that turned out; unfortunately not showing any of the above mentioned features!

female Violet-green Swallow -Thunder Bay marina

The male Tree Swallow kept a close eye on his exotic beauty, keeping watch especially when she was inside of the nest box, though they both took turns entering the nest box. We never did see either bird carry nesting material into the box but they certainly appeared to be paired up, with the male making several unsuccessful copulation attempts!

female Violet-green Swallow (left) and male Tree Swallow (in box) -Thunder Bay marina

male Tree Swallow (left) and female Violet-green Swallow -Thunder Bay marina

male Tree Swallow (in flight) and female Violet-green Swallow -Thunder Bay marina

female Violet-green Swallow -Thunder Bay marina

With nothing better to do (what could top a cooperative Violet-green Swallow?) Jeremy and I continued to bird around the pond, occasionally connecting with local birders who dropped in to take a look. It was great to run into Michael Butler who was in the area for field work, as well as Fred Jennings who I hadn't seen since January of 2012 back when he was hosting a Spotted Towhee at his house in Longlac. Chris Johnston, the finder of the Violet-green Swallow, soon arrived to check in on the rare visitor. Chris, along with her husband Jim, chauffeured Jeremy and I around for a few hours in the afternoon to visit a few local hospots. The generosity of people in northern Ontario always amazes me!

female Violet-green Swallow -Thunder Bay marina

While Violet-green Swallows appear somewhat similar to Tree Swallows there are some clear differences. Overall Tree Swallows are a bit larger, though this is difficult to see without direct comparison to other swallows. Violet-green Swallow also has much longer wings which extend well past the tail tip when at rest.

female Violet-green Swallow (left) and male Tree Swallow -Thunder Bay marina

female Violet-green Swallow -Thunder Bay marina

One of the more noticeable features, as I mentioned above, is the extensive white, which wraps around the sides of the rump so that the bird shows much more white from above. Violet-green Swallows also show much more white on the face including the area above the eye, while Tree Swallows have a striking blue head with while restricted to the lower half of the face. This feature is a little reduced on females but is a striking field mark on males.  Being a female, the Violet-green Swallow had a neat brown cap contrasting with the green of the upper back.

female Violet-green Swallow -Thunder Bay marina

Violet-green Swallow quite clearly gets its name from the brilliant green and violet feathers that adorn its mantle and rump feathers. Even the females, normally the duller sex in the bird world, are strikingly beautiful. Even apart from its rarity in this part of the world this makes it a bird worthy of study. 

female Violet-green Swallow -Thunder Bay marina

During our stay both the male Tree Swallow and female Violet-green Swallow frequently entered the nest box, though nesting material was never observed being brought in. During a lull in the action when both birds were foraging over the pond we took a quick look inside of the nest box. While the bottom was covered with feathers a defined nest was not present, nor were any eggs. Birders visiting a few days later noted a possible predation event by a Red Squirrel. The rodent visited the nest box for a few minutes to the agitation of the two swallows, though it was apparently unclear whether it actually consumed any eggs. It will be interesting to see in the coming days if the Violet-green Swallow continues to frequent the area and if she attempts to nest.

female Violet-green Swallow -Thunder Bay marina

Finally by early afternoon we tore ourselves away after a thoroughly enjoyable five hours with the bird. Chris Johnston and her husband Jim offered to drive us to Mission Island to see what birds and mammals we could scare up. Some of the deer on Mission Island are exceedingly tame, leading to easy photo ops.

After an enjoyable few hours birding with Jim and Chris we made our way back to the airport as our flight back home beckoned. The trip may have only been just 26 hours in length but it will certainly go down as one of the highlights of the year. Thanks to Glenn and Joanne for their hospitality and to Chris for discovering the bird!

Friday 9 June 2017

Early April herping

Early April in southern Ontario is the ideal time to do two of my absolute favorite activities. The first is searching for amphibians, in particular Ambystomatid salamanders, as they migrate to and breed in ephemeral wetlands. The second activity is returning to a favored location where it is easy to see dozens of Northern Ribbonsnakes, Eastern Gartersnakes and other species as they bask on wooded hillsides near where they spent the previous winter hibernating within. Back on April 8/9 I had the opportunity to do both activities!

Saturday was a glorious warm, sunny day, and though Laura and I had plans earlier in the day, we decided to head down to our favorite set of ponds near Cambridge that evening. The temperature would be dropping to the low single digits overnight and rain was not in the forecast so we were not expecting to see the mass rush of Blue-spotted and Spotted Salamanders heading to the ponds. That being said, it was a nice night to be out and we had a lot of fun turning up some herps. Stepping out of the car, the chorus created by the Spring Peepers and Western Chorus Frogs was deafening, while the low, quacking calls of the Wood Frogs could also be heard if one was listening closely.

We spent a little bit of time searching for Four-toed Salamanders and eventually turned up two individuals. This diminutive species is one of my favorites and always a treat to see. While somewhat common in suitable habitat in Ontario, Four-toed Salamanders are rarely observed except by those searching specifically for this species. Unlike the much more common Red-backed Salamander that any naturalist in Ontario would be familiar with, a species which can be found in a variety of woodland habitats, Four-toed Salamanders are quite specialized in their habitat choices and prefer treed swamps with an abundance of sphagnum moss. The salamanders spend much of the year living inside clumps of moss, with females laying their clutch of eggs in a section of sphagnum overhanging a pool so that the freshly-hatched larvae can drop down into the water. I have occasionally found this species under logs and rocks throughout the forest, but most of my sightings involve individuals hiding within the sphagnum. One has to take care so as to not rip or dislodge chunks of moss when looking for this salamander as it is very easy to damage this type of habitat. I did not have my camera with me this time so here is a photo of one from a few years ago.

Four-toed Salamander

After our success with the Four-toed Salamanders we met up with a friend of ours from university, Pauline, who had recently moved back to Guelph after a stint in Winnipeg. The three of us explored a large pond that has been productive in the past. Even though the wetland was beginning to fill in and a few small fish were seen along the edges, salamanders were still breeding in the pond as numerous egg masses were visible. Most were from Spotted Salamanders but there were also a few from the Blue-spotted/Jefferson Salamander complex as well. Eastern Newts were quite commonly seen here; no doubt they prey on the numerous salamander eggs. While the frenzied rush of breeding had likely already occurred there were still a few salamanders in the wetland and we were happy to see a couple of Spotted Salamanders. Below is a photo of one from a few years back.

Spotted Salamander

The following day I returned to the same area with Laura as well as my parents as it was forecast to be a warm, sunny afternoon; perfect for snaking!

Before beginning our hike we went for a drive to see if we could turn up any interesting birds in the nearby fields. Great looks were had of a pair of Eastern Bluebirds, a favorite of my mom's, but the highlight was this pair of Sandhill Cranes that were content to forage on a lawn not far from us.

Sandhill Cranes

Upon our arrival it was evident that it would be a perfect day to find snakes and it did not take long before we came across our first few rustlers, easily audible from several meters away. Finding snakes is as much about listening as it is seeing, especially in a forest carpeted with dead, crispy leaves this time of year!

Laura with a Northern Ribbonsnake

Eastern Gartersnake

Northern Ribbonsnake

This particular woodland is home to about equal numbers of Eastern Gartersnakes and Northern Ribbonsnakes. While most people in southern Ontario are quite familiar with Eastern Gartersnake, the latter is a species at risk that is more restricted in its habitat preferences.

The Northern Ribbonsnakes at this site prefer to spend their summers in several large wetlands, but they appear to hibernate in certain wooded hillsides surrounding the wetlands. In early spring it is easy to see a dozen or more in an hour, if you pick a suitable hillside with ample hibernacula opportunities and a southwest facing slope. This one we spotted before it spotted us, allowing a stealthy approach. It happened to be coiled in a very photogenic position and remained there for a few minutes while we photographed it.

Northern Ribbonsnake

Occasionally one can find Dekay's Brownsnake or Northern Redbelly Snake at this site, especially during early spring when they are more likely to be discovered out and about. Mom made a great spot with this tiny redbelly, moving through the leaf litter.

Northern Redbelly Snake

Many of the woodland wildflowers bloom in April and May, before the profusion of new green leaves in the canopy later in the spring limit the amount of sunlight that filters to the ground.

Round-lobed Hepatica

Several of the vernal ponds were alive with the odd quacking calls of Wood Frogs. Wood Frogs are one of the earliest amphibians to become active in the spring and they are likely the quickest to wrap up their breeding activities. While other early spring breeding species like Western Chorus Frog and Spring Peeper will call into late spring and even early summer, Wood Frogs usually go silent by the middle or end of April; their sprawling, globular egg masses the only remaining evidence of their presence.

Wood Frog

Wood Frog

Several butteflies were flitting around - about even numbers of Mourning Cloaks and Eastern Commas.

Eastern Comma

Birds were few and far between on this spring day as our attention was focused elsewhere, though occasional individuals were identified. Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Brown Creepers were in full song; nice to hear after a long winter!

It was an awesome spring weekend with some of my favorite people!

Tuesday 6 June 2017

Shorebirding at the Hearst lagoons

Since Thursday I have been crisscrossing  the northeast region of Ontario with a coworker on a work trip. Starting in Barrie, our route has taken us north to Sudbury, Matheson, Englehart, Temagami, Hearst, Chapleau and now Wawa. We still have dates in Chapleau, Sault Ste Marie and Sudbury before heading back this weekend, which will thus conclude a busy but productive week and a half in northern Ontario.

On Sunday I had a few hours free in the evening so I took a swing south of town towards the sewage lagoons. The Hearst lagoons are some of the most productive for birds that I have seen in Ontario. Four massive cells are arranged in a square while three smaller cells are arranged off to one side. On most visits it is not uncommon to see a thousand or more individual ducks and the rarity potential is always quite high. The surrounding forest contains a typical representation of boreal species, providing a nice soundtrack while one is scanning through the ducks.

Early June is peak migration season for several arctic breeding shorebirds. While the surrounding landscape doesn't provide much in way of habitat for migrating shorebirds, the Hearst sewage lagoons stand out like a shimmering oasis for those birds that are looking for somewhere to land that isn't at the top of a Black Spruce.

I was barely halfway through scanning across the northeast cell when two tiny shorebirds appeared on the water, dwarfed by the surrounding ducks. Of course a few seconds later my presence was detected by the wary waterfowl with most birds taking off in one raucous flock, splitting off into smaller factions before landing in more distant cells. A scope can look suspiciously like something more dangerous to these ducks! Fortunately, the two shorebirds had remained, perched in the water and spinning around, picking at morsels of food. They were two Red-necked Phalaropes molting into their breeding plumage, a species I don't see too often in the spring.

Red-necked Phalaropes - Hearst lagoons, Cochrane District

Red-necked Phalarope is one of three species of phalarope found in the world; the other two being Wilson's Phalarope and Red Phalarope. Wilson's Phalarope is considered more of a terrestrial species than the other two as it breeds across the prairies of North America. Both Red-necked and Red Phalaropes breed high in the Arctic, spending the majority of the rest of the year in flocks out in the open ocean. At least part of the population will migrate overland though few pit stops are needed on this journey. Luckily, I happened to be in Hearst around the time that these two dropped in. Red-necked Phalaropes in breeding plumage are pretty cool looking shorebirds; its too bad these ones were on the other side of the lagoon!

Another fun fact about phalaropes is that they exhibit a reverse sex-role. The females are larger with brighter colours and will display/fight over the males, while the smaller, more cryptic males will take care of all aspects of incubation and chick care. The females will even begin their southbound migration earlier in the summer, leaving the males to finish rearing the chicks.

Red-necked Phalaropes - Hearst lagoons, Cochrane District

The Red-necked Phalaropes were fun to see but soon I came across an even rarer shorebird in these parts. As I was scanning some Bonaparte's Gulls in the next cell I noticed a few shorebirds on the muddy edge of the lagoon. Among them was a Willet! I was without my camera but was able to take a few digiscoped photos of the bird as it foraged in the shallows.

Willet - Hearst lagoons, Cochrane District

Willet comprises two subspecies. The Atlantic form is seldom found far from the ocean, ranging from the Canadian Maritime provinces south to South America. The Western form breeds in the prairies in western North America, migrating to both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. In Ontario Western Willets are a rare but regular spring migrant in southwestern Ontario, particularly in Essex, Chatham-Kent and Norfolk counties. They are rare further east and north in the province but there are usually a handful seen each spring along Lake Ontario.

Willet - Hearst lagoons, Cochrane District

There are currently 20 accepted records of Willet for northern Ontario, though there are several more that have not been submitted to the OBRC. Of the 20, most sightings are of single birds in Thunder Bay District during the spring, though there have also been a flock of 9 and a flock of 12. A further four records are from the Rainy River area while two are from the Hudson Bay coast. New Liskeard, Marathon, and Neys Provincial Park all have one accepted record. This is the second record for Cochrane District I believe; the first was a bird found by Doug McRae and Liam Curson on August 22, 2016 at Longridge Point in southern James Bay.

Willet - Hearst lagoons, Cochrane District

So far we do not yet have our first accepted record of Eastern Willet for Ontario, though there have been a couple of birds that have shown traits of this subspecies including one from earlier this year in Toronto.

I think the Hearst bird is of the expected western subspecies. Eastern Willet is smaller and streakier with more brown tones in its plumage along with a shorter, stubbier bill, while Western has longer legs and a longer bill, as well as a paler gray plumage among a few other features. There can be a fair bit of variation among individual birds. I sent the photos to a few people and the consensus is that this is an adult Western Willet in high breeding plumage. The birds we see in southern Ontario in the spring are often much grayer; likely because they haven't finished their molt.
Willet size comparison with Lesser Yellowlegs - Hearst lagoons, Cochrane District

For comparison to the Hearst bird, here are some photos of Willets from southwestern Ontario in early May.

Willets - Point Pelee National Park (May 2, 2013)

Willet - Point Pelee National Park (May 2, 2013)

Willet - Point Pelee National Park (May 1, 2014)

One striking fieldmark among an otherwise relatively plain gray bird is the bold black and white wing pattern, visible when the bird is in flight. This photo below was taken at the Blenheim lagoons on September 4, 2015.

Willet - Blenheim lagoons (September 4, 2015)