Sunday, 16 July 2017

Dickcissel invasion!

The Dickcissel is a small songbird in the family Cardinalidae, a family which includes familiar species such as Northern Cardinal, Indigo Bunting and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Dickcissels superficially resemble sparrows due to their overall size and coloring as well as their penchant for grassy habitats, but the stout beak is one feature that gives it away as a member of Cardinalidae. Dickcissels breed in weedy fields and grasslands throughout the center of North America, ranging from Texas north to North Dakota, southern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio.

Dickcissel - Hillman Marsh Conservation Area, Essex County

Dickcissels are known for temporarily colonizing areas at the periphery of their range, usually during years when drought occurs in a portion of their core range. Here in Ontario we are right at the boundary of where Dickcissels can normally be found and in a typical year there are only a few breeding locations, usually located in the extreme southwest of the province such as Essex County, Lambton County and the Municipality of Chatham-Kent. Using eBird, below is a screenshot of a typical year for Dickcissel sightings in Ontario; in this case, I used 2014 as the example. I have limited sightings to the months of June and July when Dickcissels would be breeding, to eliminate sightings of migrants/vagrants from other times of the year.

Dickcissel sightings: June and July, 2014 (source: eBird)

A closer look at southwestern Ontario:

Dickcissel sightings: June and July, 2014 (source: eBird)

2017 is shaping up to be an extreme year for Dickcissel sightings further north and east of their usual range. Sightings have been popping up all over southwestern Ontario and there is an argument to be made that this is the biggest Dickcissel invasion year ever. While this post will discuss sightings in Ontario, there are clearly numerous sightings elsewhere at the periphery of their range. For instance, the northern halves of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota have also seen more sightings than normal, as have places further east such as eastern Ohio and western New York. Here is a screenshot of the eBird map for June-July 2017.

Dickcissel sightings: June and July, 2017 (source: eBird)

Zooming in on the map, the scope of the 2017 invasion in southern Ontario is quite apparent. Not pictured in the map below are some of the other extralimital sightings from the City of Kawartha Lakes, Durham Region, Rainy River District and Northumberland, Prince Edward and Bruce counties.

Dickcissel sightings: June and July, 2017 (source: eBird)

The first Dickcissels on territory this year were discovered at a typical location, the Campers Cove Road field near Wheatley, Chatham-Kent, where individuals have now been found for seven straight years. It appears to be the only location in the province that recently has hosted Dickcissels on an annual basis. On June 11 Jim Burk discovered a few Dickcissels near Rondeau Provincial Park and in the following days and weeks birds began to appear in suitable looking habitat all across southwestern Ontario. In Chatham-Kent alone, Allen Woodliffe estimated in a recent blog post that there are at least 30 known locations likely harboring over 100 birds.


Dickcissel - Fenwick, Niagara Region

Below, I've listed each of the counties that have known Dickcissels this year, along with the first date that the first bird was discovered as part of the invasion. Most of these birds likely showed up in mid-late June, though it is of course difficult to say with certainty. Note that these dates were gleaned from Ontbirds posts and publicly accessible eBird data. If there are any other counties not represented in this table, or if you know of an earlier date for one of the counties, please let me know!



While the greatest number of Dickcissels are in the extreme southwest of the province and along the Lake Huron shoreline to the Bruce Peninsula, sporadic individuals have been found as far afield as the City of Kawartha Lakes, Algoma District and Rainy River District. While most of the counties in the southwest have noted Dickcissels, some counties have yet to get on the board. The most obvious candidates include Oxford, Haldimand, Brant, Perth and Dufferin Counties - these also happen to be counties with relatively few birders. York Region, City of Toronto, Peel Region and Simcoe County could also be hosting individuals. If you are a birder in these areas, get out and look while there is still time! Fortunately Dickcissels will sing incessantly, even during the middle of the day, so slowly cruising roads passing suitable habitat with your vehicle's windows open is a good way to detect them.


Dickcissel - Hillman Marsh Conservation Area, Essex County

I have been trying to take advantage of this year's invasion and spending quality time with Dickcissels in numerous locations. So far I have encountered them in 13 counties this year. Most of the Dickcissels I have seen have been during the late morning or early afternoon after finishing that morning's bird surveys for work; as such, the lighting has rarely been suitable for good photography and very few of the birds I have photographed. Below are a couple of photos of this year's Dickcissels. Clearly I need to spend some more time photographing them as my collection from this year is rather sparse!


Dickcissel - Fowler's Corners, City of Kawartha Lakes

Within a matter of days, if it hasn't happened already, young Dickcissels will be appearing in many of these fields. Over the past two weeks most female Dickcissels I have seen were carrying food, confirming that they have young inside a hidden nest somewhere in the grasses.


Dickcissel - Fenwick, Niagara Region



Dickcissel - Fenwick, Niagara Region

Naturally, the first question most ecologically-minded people would have is, "Why?". Generally the prevailing thought has been that Dickcissel irruptions coincide with drought conditions in the core parts of its range. Is that the case this year? Below is a gif I created using screenshots taken from the U.S. Drought Monitor (http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/). The first frame is from May 30; each subsequent frame is from a week later. The final frame is from July 11.

US Drought Conditions: May 30 - July 11, 2017 (source: http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/)

Clearly drought conditions have developed in the far north of the range of Dickcissels, such as both of the Dakotas. Much of the Midwest has experienced low-moderate drought conditions as well, though the Dakotas and eastern Montana appear to have been hit the hardest.

To be honest I am not 100% convinced that "severe drought conditions" are the cause of this year's Dickcissel irruption. Looking at previous years, this year has relatively light drought conditions. For instance, here is a screenshot of the drought conditions from June 17, 2014 - a year with typical Dickcissel sightings in southern Ontario (the same year that I provided screenshots from the eBird map, above). Without any other knowledge of the situation, if I had to guess I would say that the 2014 conditions looked better for Dickcissel sightings far to the north and east, but that was clearly not the case. This is not just a one-year aberration either - the drought conditions were moderate/severe in much of the Midwest in 2013 as well, another year that was typical in the sense that very few Dickcissels appeared in southern Ontario.

US Drought Conditions: June 17, 2014 (source: http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/)

Perhaps the drougtht conditions in 2014 were located too far south for these birds to infiltrate Ontario? Maybe this year's Dickcissels all have their origins from the Dakotas? Anecdotally it seems strange that Dickcissels arriving on their breeding grounds in the Dakotas, noticing drought conditions, would decide to fly due east, eventually ending up in Ontario, New York, Pennsylvania, etc. I would not be surprised if this year's irruption was due to some other cause. What might that be? I have no idea! If anyone has any insight into the causes of Dickcissel irruptions, please let me know!

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Journey to the Southern Cone: Part 11 (Tierra del Fuego)

Introduction
January 8, 2016 - Santiago area, Chile
January 9 and 10, 2016 - Quintero pelagic, Parque Nacional La Campana, Chile
January 10, 2016 - Farellones, Chile
January 10-11, 2016 - Embalse El Yeso, Chile
January 12-13, 2016 - Nothofagus forests in Talca, Chile
January 14-15, 2016- Chiloe Island, Chile
January 16-17, 2016 - Chiloe Island penguins, Puerto Montt, Chile
January 18, 2016 - Patagonia: Puerto Montt to Sierra Baguales, Chile
January 19, 2016 - Patagonia: Sierra Baguales to Tierra del Fuego, Chile
January 20, 2016 - Patagonia: Tierra del Fuego, Chile
January 20-24, 2016 - Punta Arenas, Chile to Puerto Deseato, Argentina
January 25-26, 2016 - Valdez Peninsula and Las Grutas, Argentina
January 27-28, 2016 - San Antonio Oeste, Punta Tomba, and Bahia Blanca, Argentina
January 29-30, 2016 - Buenos Aires, Argentina


January 20, 2016

One of the defining characteristics of Patagonia is the constant, incessant wind that continuously sweeps across the landscape. The previous days had exhibited typical conditions and the following days would prove to be quite windy as well, but the stars aligned for us during our morning in Tierra del Fuego. The air was completely still at dawn and remained that way as the sun slowly rose in the sky. We made our way along the bumpy roads of Patagonia towards a specific pebble-lined lake about half an hour away; a lake that is home to a strange, dove-like shorebird called the Magellanic Plover.

countryside near Porvenir, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Along the way small birds flushed from the roadside and after a few minutes our first Short-billed Miner was tallied. A Least Seedsnipe and Buff-winged Cinclodes were also in the same area, while a wet field further along held four Two-banded Plovers. We didn't linger for very long with these birds however, as our main quarry awaited. 

Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

By 7:40 the smooth as glass waters of Laguna de los Cisnes (The Lake of the Swans) appeared around a bend. Due to the size of the lake, and our lack of knowledge as to what part of the shoreline the plovers frequently, we decided to split up. Dave headed off in a counter-clockwise direction while Adam and I walked the other way around. 

Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Adam and I had been walking for less than 20 minutes when a movement up ahead caught our attention. A quick look with binoculars confirmed our suspicions that it was a Magellanic Plover! 

Magellanic Plover - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

We watched as the bird slowly worked the shoreline, keeping an eye on us while also inspecting the substrate for any morsels. Fortunately with a bit of patience we were able to approach reasonably closely, allowing a prolongued study and great photo ops.

Magellanic Plover - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Magellanic Plover is a species that has been reclassified several times, although recent evidence suggests that it is indeed a shorebird, but sufficiently distinct from all the others that it isclassified as the sole member of its family - Pluvianellidae. With striking pink legs, a bright red eye and smooth gray plumage coupled with a dove-like gait, it really is an unusual species to watch!

Magellanic Plover - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

When the bird was walking away from us over a section of larger rocks it blended in quite well, though upon closer inspection the bright leg and eye color stands out. If the bird was standing perfectly still it was quite difficult to pick up on first glance.

Magellanic Plover - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

At this point Dave was way over on the other side of the lake. Despite the still air, the distance between us make it difficult to know if he could hear our shouts an see us waiving to get his attention. It did not matter in the end, as he came across six Magellanic Plovers on that side of the lake! Adam and I were content with our single bird - the views could not be beat.

Magellanic Plover - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Magellanic Plover - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Some call notes over the water alerted us to several shorebirds flying along - Baird's Sandpipers. 

Baird's Sandpipers - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Rufous-chested Dotterels and White-rumped Sandpipers appeared, as did some Two-banded Plovers. We enjoyed our first good looks at this species which also was quite "accommodating" as we inched closer for photos.

Two-banded Plover - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

The Rufous-chested Dotterels were slightly more wary but with some patience they too came close enough for great looks and good photo opportunities.

Rufous-chested Dotterel - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Rufous-chested Dotterel - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

We could have spent hours at this lake but unfortunately the clock was ticking. We were hoping to make the long drive south to a recently discovered King Penguin colony, drive back north to Porvenir, and then catch the 2 PM ferry back to the mainland. We were already running a little late so we hurried back to the car.

Several songbirds flitted in the scrubby vegetation lining the shoreline including Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetails, Gray-hooded Sierra-Finches, Rufous-collared Sparrows, Long-tailed Meadowlarks and Austral Negritos.

Austral Negrito - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Gray-hooded Sierra-Finch - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Gray-hooded Sierra-Finch - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Long-tailed Meadowlarks - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Unfortunately the predicted drive to the King Penguins was just over three hours long meaning we had a very small window before we would need to turn around and head north, in order to make the ferry crossing. I made very good time on the gravel roads, making up ground during the long straightaways and taking the turns as quickly as possible without sliding off the road. A chipped windshield, broken door latch and two hours later, we emerged from the vehicle at the penguin colony dusty but alive, and with an hour to spare before having to turn back around. 

Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

King Penguins - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Well over 100 King Penguins were currently at this colony - a nice mix of adult birds and mostly grown young birds. It was incredible to see this species up close and to watch their interactions...

King Penguins - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

King Penguins - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

King Penguins breed mostly on various sub-Antarctic islands but there are also a few colonies in southern Chile. This colony was established in 2009 or 2010 and has slowly grown in number with each passing year - we counted 144 birds during our visit. This is one of the easiest colonies to access for most birders not traveling to the Falklands, South Georgia, or Antarctica, and it is becoming a popular tourist attraction as well. During our visit there was a handful of other people there.

Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Adam watching the King Penguins - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Over the course of the hour we watched as some individuals slipped in the ocean to fish, while other returned from their forays in the ocean. Most of the birds were just milling about, though occasionally one would start calling and before long 10 or 20 others joined in.

King Penguins - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Penguins lend themselves well to photography due to their often comical expressions and behaviours. A barrier had been erected a sufficient distance from the colony so that people did not disturb the birds, but it was close enough that we were still able to obtain frame-filling images of the birds.

King Penguin - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Below are a sequence of photos of the penguins. The distant mountains provided a stunning backdrop to the south, across the blue waters of Bahia Inutil.

King Penguin - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

King Penguin - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

King Penguin - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

King Penguins - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

King Penguins - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

King Penguin - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

King Penguin - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

King Penguins - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

King Penguin selfie!

One large group of Sooty Shearwaters passed by far offshore. We picked out two Great Shearwaters travelling with them as well as a Southern Giant-Petrel and two Black-browed Albatrosses. We didn't really look at too many songbirds though a confiding Patagonian Yellow-Finch provided great views near the parking lot.

Patagonian Yellow-Finch - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Unfortunately our time with the penguins was soon up so we reluctantly pulled ourselves away to begin the long drive back. We made good time, racing through the straightaways once again, while keeping an eye out (though unsuccessfully) for Chocolate-vented Tyrants, one of our few remaining target species in this part of Patagonia. After an equally harrowing two hour drive we pulled into the ferry terminal, making our boat with seconds to spare, and with a leaking tire added to the list of ailments we had inflicted upon the poor rental car!

ferry from Porvenir to Punta Arenas, Chile

In hindsight it would have been great to spend an extra day on Tierra del Fuego as our time here was quite rushed. That being said, there is never enough time at any stop on a trip like this! We had a very ambitious itinerary that covered a lot of ground so that is one of the sacrifices one has to make.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Journey to the Southern Cone: Part 10 (Patagonia: Sierra Baguales to Tierra del Fuego)

Introduction
January 8, 2016 - Santiago area, Chile
January 9 and 10, 2016 - Quintero pelagic, Parque Nacional La Campana, Chile
January 10, 2016 - Farellones, Chile
January 10-11, 2016 - Embalse El Yeso, Chile
January 12-13, 2016 - Nothofagus forests in Talca, Chile
January 14-15, 2016- Chiloe Island, Chile
January 16-17, 2016 - Chiloe Island penguins, Puerto Montt, Chile
January 18, 2016 - Patagonia: Puerto Montt to Sierra Baguales, Chile
January 19, 2016 - Patagonia: Sierra Baguales to Tierra del Fuego, Chile
January 20, 2016 - Patagonia: Tierra del Fuego, Chile
January 20-24, 2016 - Punta Arenas, Chile to Puerto Deseato, Argentina
January 25-26, 2016 - Valdez Peninsula and Las Grutas, Argentina
January 27-28, 2016 - San Antonio Oeste, Punta Tomba, and Bahia Blanca, Argentina
January 29-30, 2016 - Buenos Aires, Argentina

January 19, 2016

The temperature during the night plummeted to only a couple of degrees above the freezing mark. It was not the most restful sleep I had ever had and after what seemed like an eternity the sky over the mountains to the east began to lighten.We quickly made camp and began birding, attempting to shake off any remaining cobwebs as the day began.

Andean Condor - Sierra Baguales, Chile

Guanaco - Sierra Baguales, Chile

It was a great morning of birding and slowly but surely the hillsides and stream edges came alive with song. The calls of Least Seedsnipes beckoned from the pebble-strewn hillsides and it wasn't long until we had picked out a few perching on rocks.

Least Seedsnipe - Sierra Baguales, Chile

Least Seedsnipe - Sierra Baguales, Chile

Least Seedsnipe - Sierra Baguales, Chile

This was our second species of seedsnipe on the trip after finding a handful of Gray-breasted Seedsnipe in the hills near El Yeso above Santiago earlier in the trip. There are only four species of seedsnipe in the world, all restricted to the Andes and Patagonia. The Least Seedsnipe is, of course, the smallest individual of this family, ranging from Patagonia north to northern Peru and southern Ecuador. 

In the first couple of hours after dawn the birding was excellent and we quickly added a number of species to our growing list, including most of our main targets in Dark-faced Ground-Tyrant, Band-tailed Earthcreeper and Yellow-bridled Finch, along with our first Common Miners. Unfortunately the Yellow-bridled Finches were quite distant and disappeared over a hillside before we could obtain better looks.

Common Miner - Sierra Baguales, Chile

Cinnamon-bellied Ground-Tyrant - Sierra Baguales, Chile

Around mid-morning I decided to take a quick break to have a nap in the car, as the cold temperatures the night before had prevented me from getting much sleep at all, and I was starting to come down with a nasty cold. It had been all I could do to bird up to that point in the morning so a few minutes in the car with my eyes closed was a welcome relief. Adam joined me in the car as he was pretty tired at this point as well, while tireless Dave ventured down the road to keep birding. Only a short amount of time had gone by when I was woken up due to distant shouting down the road. It was Dave, with word of a small group of White-throated Caracaras that he had just found about a kilometer down the road! The three of us quickly made our way to the spot and fortunately one of the caracaras was still visible, perched on a fence post. A pretty sweet bird to end our time in the Sierra Baguales!

White-throated Caracara - Sierra Baguales, Chile

Our adventures in this part of Patagonia was nearly complete, but not before we made a quick stop at the entrance to Torres del Paine National Park. There are a series of wetlands in the area that play host to Austral Rails, a poorly known species with a restricted range in the southern Andes. Prior to 1998 there had only been a couple of sight records over the past hundred years, but intensive surveys in the years since have proven this species to be a little more widespread.

view of Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

We pulled up to our desired wetland and quickly heard a few of the rails calling from within. We tried to to get a visual and were eventually successful when a single bird flushed and land back down into the marsh, but mostly we just enjoyed hearing the rails call from their wetland. Several Wren-like Rushbirds and Spectacled Tyrants were also seen in the wetland, while numerous Sedge Wrens sang from the rushes. It seemed pretty strange to be listening to Sedge Wrens singing here at the other end of the world, considering that these are the same species as the Sedge Wrens we see in wet prairies and sedge meadows back in Ontario.

Guanacos were unusually abundant along the access road to the national park!

Guanacos - Torres del Paine entrance road, Chile

Guanacos - Torres del Paine entrance road, Chile

Leaving Torres del Paine behind, we drove back south on the gravel roads through endless open plains on our way towards Tierra del Fuego. Our rental car had some issue in which clouds of dust came in through the vents and by the pedals, quickly filling the car with a thick coat. We drove with the windows down the whole way, and Dave and Adam made good use of their bandanas!

While any roadside wetlands held good concentrations of ducks, geese and shorebirds, the barren steppe in between was somewhat devoid of life.

roadside birding in the Patagonian steppe, Chile

It is difficult to eke out an existence in these conditions. This perished Guanaco was one of several that we encountered.

perished Guanaco - Patagonian steppe, Chile

We had some information where a pair of Ruddy-headed Geese had been observed near the town of San Gregorio. The most difficult of the five sheldgeese species, Ruddy-headed has been undergoing declines in mainland South America, though a large population can still be found on the Falkland Islands. We were pretty happy to see that this pair of geese were still in their roadside wetland! The distance combined with the heat haze did not lend itself to good photography conditions and even views in the scope were quite "shimmery".

Ruddy-headed Geese - San Gregorio, Chile

By late afternoon we found ourselves in the Pampa Larga area, a well-known spot where both Tawny-throated and Rufous-chested Dotterel can often be seen, as well as White-bridled Finch, which is in my opinion one of the more spectacular finch species. A series of watering holes alongside the road provide fresh water and help congregate the birds.

Of course, one cannot drive anywhere in Patagonia without stumbling across Guanacos, it seems!

Guanaco - Pampa Larga, Chile

We spent an enjoyable couple of hours slowly cruising the roads, staking out various watering holes, and chasing down shorebirds in the fields. At least 12 Tawny-throated Dotterels were found and they allowed a reasonably close approach. I am quite partial to shorebirds and relished the opportunity to study this interesting species from up close.

Tawny-throated Dotterel - Pampa Larga, Chile

Tawny-throated Dotterel - Pampa Larga, Chile

The watering holes produced the greatest variety of birds. Correndera Pipits were abundant!

Correndera Pipit - Pampa Larga, Chile

It took some searching but we eventually encountered a White-bridled Finch! It was a little skittish but I positioned myself in such a way that I would be ready with my camera as I peeked over the edge of the grass into the dirt track where it had been seen. Unfortunately I completely blew the opportunity and the bird flushed before I could crack off any photos. Dave however managed a couple of great shots which are included on our eBird checklist.

Our last new bird for this area was a family of Patagonian Mockingbirds adjacent to the roadside.

Patagonian Mockingbirds - Pampa Larga, Chile

Patagonian Mockingbirds - Pampa Larga, Chile

By 8:30 PM we had reached the ferry terminal in Punta Delgado. It was a short crossing, taking only 15 minutes or so, but of course we kept an eye out for birds the entire time! Not much was seen in the way of seabirds - though we enjoyed studying the South American Terns - but we did see several spectacular Commerson's Dolphins as they cruised beside the ferry. The combination of white body along with black fins and head is quite striking on this species!

Upon arriving at the ferry terminal on Tierra del Fuego we drove to the southwest along the main road towards the town of Porvenir where we would be spending the night. Days are long in Patagonia in January; this photo was taken around 10 PM.

sunset on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

It was a long uneventful drive, but the surrounding landscape was stunning as the sun slowly slipped over the horizon. We kept our eyes peeled for Short-billed Miner, a range-restricted species that is common on Tierra del Fuego, but none were conclusively identified during the drive. We did have a flyover Black-crowned Night-Heron and the boys spotted a Short-eared Owl which disappeared before I could get on it. It was late when we arrived at our hostel for the night but we enjoyed a celebratory beer after another successful day. In the morning we would search for Magellanic Plover, one of the most unique shorebird species in the world, followed by a visit to a King Penguin colony located several hours south of Porvenir. I could hardly wait!