Wednesday 1 May 2019

Hermit Warbler and other Ontario rarities

The past week and a half has been excellent for rare birds here in Ontario. I have been fortunate to have had the chance to see several of them in recent days. As we move from April into May there will only be more and more reports of rare species, as is typical for this time of year.

It started back on April 20, when Steve Pike found a very interesting teal just north of Hillman Marsh. It looked pretty good for a Cinnamon Teal, though once they were able to obtain better views and photos were taken, it was apparent that this bird was a hybrid. With what species though, who knows. The parsimonious answer is Cinnamon Teal x Blue-winged Teal, as this hybrid combination is well-documented and relatively frequently reported. Some others have suggested Cinnamon Teal x Garganey. While much less likely to occur, there are a few arguments in that favor. At any rate, its true identity will not be known in the absence of DNA. Despite it almost certainly being a hybrid, there were quite a few eBirders that were happy to eBird it as Cinnamon Teal. Gotta get it for your list! The best photos I have seen of this bird were taken by Mourad Jabra - here is a link to his eBird checklist.

Strangely enough, a Cinnamon Teal was found the very next day by Josh and Mike Bouman, at the Sombra Lagoons in Lambton. This one looked like a slam-dunk breeding plumaged male, meaning it was certainly a different bird than the presumed hybrid at Hillman. I decided to chase this bird the next morning, April 22. Fortunately it remained at Sombra for a second day, allowing many birders to see it (though it disappeared for the late morning/afternoon). When I arrived there was a maintenance worker in the process of kicking out all of the birders from the lagoons, but he granted me five minutes to quick scope the pond while he rounded everyone up. I was staring directly into the sun but managed to pick out the teal swimming with a few Blue-winged Teal. A minute later, the maintenance worker flushed all the ducks when he drove around the lagoons, and the Cinnamon Teal was not seen until around 4 PM that afternoon. It hung around for the evening, but disappeared before the next morning and has not been seen since. This is the best photo I could manage. Barely identifiable, but I blame digiscoping and the terrible, awful, no-good lighting! At least the looks were great, though brief...

Cinnamon Teal - Sombra, Lambton County

The next day, April 23, Dan MacNeal made a great find when he discovered Dufferin County's first ever Ruff near Luther Marsh. This Eurasian shorebird species regularly appears in North America and Ontario usually sees a couple records each year. As I was finishing up on a job site only an hour away, I swung by to check out the Ruff. David Pryor was there when I arrived, though there wasn't a Ruff in sight! We did not wait long, however, as it soon flew in with some yellowlegs. I had stupidly neglected to put a memory card in my camera so I was forced to digiscope again!

Ruff - Luther Marsh, Dufferin County

And finally, the headliner: Hermit Warbler. On Saturday April 27, a birder named Jax Nasimok discovered an adult male Hermit Warbler at Thickson's Woods in Whitby. At the time, Jax was not certain of the ID, and posted to a local nature forum asking if it was indeed a Hermit Warbler. The rest, as they say, is history!

As I was at Point Pelee at the time and it was already nearing mid-afternoon I decided to refrain from chasing the bird. It also had not been seen since Jax had originally discovered it in the morning. That proved to be a big mistake as the bird was refound later in the afternoon and dozens of birders managed to see it (though views were fleeting at best for many searchers). The following morning, I waited for a report before leaving Point Pelee. Shortly before 10 AM the Hermit was seen again, so off we went. It ended up being one of the easieset twitches ever - the Hermit Warbler was in view feeding in a cedar right beside Glenn Coady's house when we arrived!

Hermit Warbler - Thickson's Woods, Durham Region

Apparently at times there were well over 100 birders and photographers present, though during my stay only around 20 birders were on the scene. It was great to run into Jeremy Hatt again (I did not think I would see him again this weekend), while other friends and familiar faces were present including Dave Szmyr, Tim Arthur, Jeremy Bensette, Kate Derbyshire, Mark Field and many more. This was apparently the 38th warbler species for Glenn Coady's backyard (!!!), and his 299th yard bird! I'm not jealous at all. :)

Hermit Warbler - Thickson's Woods, Durham Region

Hermit Warbler is closely related to Black-throated Green Warbler, a common species in the east, and Townsend's Warbler which is a common species in the west. Hermit Warblers breed in conifer forests primarily in California, as well as Oregon and Washington, and there are a handful of records from southern British Colombia. Hermit Warbler is very close to Townsend's Warbler and the two species interbreed commonly where their ranges overlap, especially in Washington. This bird looks phenotypically like a |good" Hermit Warbler, though there is the possibility that there are some Townsend's Warbler genes somewhere down the line. Interestingly, the crown and nape were not as black as seen on an adult male Hermit Warbler (could this mean it is a second year male?), while the bird exhibited a hint of streaking on its flanks. In some lighting and in some photos there appears to be a hint of green/yellow on the back, though in other photos, and in the field, it looked grey. Could these features hint at Townsend's Warbler ancestry? Much like how many Golden-winged Warblers have Blue-winged Warbler genes, even if they look just like a Golden-winged. That is the beauty of evolution; not everything fits into tidy, neat boxes, though it is human nature to try to shoehorn everything into a box. While Hermit Warbler and Townsend's Warbler are considered different species, they are very closely related, and only recently (relatively speaking) have begun this speciation process.

Hermit Warbler - Thickson's Woods, Durham Region

We watched the Hermit Warbler on and off over the 45 minutes that I was present; it mostly stuck to the cedars around Glenn's house and his neighbour's house. This is a species that has been identified in Ontario about eight times previously (at least, that is how many have been accepted by the OBRC). Below are a summary of the records. This individual, if accepted, would represent the first record for Durham Region, and the second record for the Greater Toronto Area. Six of the previous eight records occurred during the spring, with the dates ranging from April 30 to May 23. With the exception of the first Point Pelee bird, every other Hermit Warbler in Ontario has been a one-day-wonder.

  • 1 immature at Bath, Lennox and Addington 10 September 1978 (found by Ronald D. Weir)
  • 1 male at Point Pelee National Park, Essex 2 - 7 May 1981 (found by G. Thomas Hince, G.A. Cooney, Luc S. Fazio, Ron Ridout,Clive E. Goodwin)
  • 1 male at Etobicoke, Toronto 30 April 1984 (found by Trevor Johns, Robert K. Yukich, Hugh G. Currie, William J. Crins, Luc S. Fazio)
  • 1 male at Burpee, Manitoulin 23 May 1989 (found by Ronald R. Tasker)
  • 1 male at Point Pelee National Park, Essex 30 April 2002 (found by Peter A. Read)
  • 1 female at Point Pelee National Park, Essex 7 May 2003 (found by Karl R. Konze, Marianne B. Reid-Balkwill, Linda Bright, Camille Tremblay, Marcelle Lagace)
  • 1 first basic female at Cabot Head, Bruce 13 May 2003 (found by A. David Brewer, St├ęphane Menu, Valerie Larochelle, Kevin Dance)
  • 1 first basic female at Huntsville, Muskoka 14 November 2018 (found by Brenda J. Laking)

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