Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Northern Getaway

After all these years I decided to splurge a bit and do a northern Ontario winter birding trip, one that I had never done, but had always wanted to do.

Friday morning (February 7th) saw me get on the road dark and early (4:45am), supposedly beating Toronto traffic (didn't happen), and getting north of the City with sunrise. My first stop was a 'might as well stop', stopping in Bala to stretch my legs and look for the long-staying female Barrow's Goldeneye. I managed to find her within minutes of checking the ducks below the falls. I didn't take any pics, but there are some good one's here.

After a much needed bathroom break (#2) I kept on, with the Gogama burn from last year or 2018 (I can't remember) as the next stop. Tyler Hoar had tipped me off and this proved to be a great stop. Around lunch time I pulled into the happenin' metropolis of Gogama; the burn is easily accessible off Hwy. 144 and I was even able to drive in about 500m before stopping and getting my snowshoes on. I didn't really have a great plan of where to go and was just winging it. I managed some good luck though and within 200-300m of the car got my first Black-backed Woodpecker! I ended up only checking out a very small area of the burn (~3ha or so) and scored 13 Black-backed and a single American Three-toed Woodpecker!! Pretty damn sweet. Here's my eBird checklist.

From here, I managed to make it to Cochrane just as the sun was setting. I stationed myself here for the next 3 nights, staying at the very nice and comfortable Westway Motel. This was actually a bit of a hidden jem (not sure how many things you can say this about in Cochrane!) and was reasonably priced and I'd recommend for anyone venturing up there.

Saturday I woke up and the temperature was a legitimate -35 degrees Celsius!

I think this is the coldest temperature that I've ever experienced, and I was actually concerned that it would limit my birding (in terms of birds being out), though this was short-lived.

After running my car for a few minutes I headed west, towards Smooth Rock Falls (SRF). About 20 minutes in, I spied a dark blob at the top of some trees in a small farm field. Getting a better look, revealed it to be my first Northern Hawk-Owl of the trip!

Hunting in -35 degrees! That is one tough bird!
Reaching SRF I headed north, towards Fraserdale and the Wetum Road. It didn't take long to start getting huge flocks of finches along the road. It was a little staggering at how many Redpolls were present, along with lesser numbers of Pine Siskins, White-winged Crossbills and the odd Pine Grosbeaks. Finches were fairly skittish, but I managed to pick out several Hoary Redpolls too, including some Hornemann's!

Overall, I had the following numbers of finches: 26 Pine Grosbeak, 1,115 flammea C. Redpolls, 1 for sure rostrata C. Redpoll, 6 exilpes Hoary Redpolls, 4 hornemann's Hoary Redpolls, 79 White-winged Crossbill's, and 128 Pine Siskin's! Below are my checklists:

I had initially planned to drive up to the start of the Wetum Road to check it out (I'll drive up to Attawapiskat some other year), but because of the numbers of finches, only decided to check the first 40 km, before turning around, having wanted to check areas to the west of SRF.

I didn't end up finding anything else of real note between SRF and Hearst, despite targeting essentially all of the open areas, where I thought I'd run into a Northern Hawk or Great Gray. I did come across lots of more finches, a Northern Goshawk (great views!), and several Northern Shrike's (they appear to all be up north...). That was it for Saturday, and I made my way back to Cochrane.

Sunday I got up and headed straight for Hwy. 652, that runs from Cochrane to the Detour Lake Gold Mine - a total of 182 kilometres! It's surprising, but the road is open year-round and it's sole purpose is to service the mine. I think this hwy. gets Willow Ptarmigan (take a look at eBird and see the sightings in Quebec) and this was my target.

Right off the bat the day started well, and I found the 2nd Northern Hawk Owl of the trip perched in an open area along Hwy. 652.
Again, finches stole the show and in epic fashion. While there are too many checklists to provide (I ran checklists over 20km for the 165km that I drove), the total number of finches was incredible:

Pine Grosbeak - 79
flammea Common Redpoll - 5,245
rostrata Common Redpoll - 40
exilpes Hoary Redpoll - 16
hornemann's Hoary Redpoll - 6
White-winged Crossbill - 899
Pine Siskin - 206

In addition to the finch fest (I think it's safe to say that I now know where all the redpolls in Ontario are...), I had several Canada Jay's, 2 Northern Shrike's and best of all, a group of 4 Sharp-tailed Grouse.

After getting back into Cochrane around 2pm, I decided to check the agricultural areas around town and lucked into a single Evening Grosbeak and 2 Purple Finches. Needing some gas I stopped by the Canadian Tire in town only to have a Northern Hawk Owl perched along the Trans-Canada in front of the gas station (talk about efficiency)!

This NHOW really started to make me wonder how many are up there, since I had driven by this spot several times and this was the first time seeing it!
I ended up checking some more agricultural areas to the south of town and came across another(!) Northern Hawk Owl (#4 for the trip)! With the 4th Hawk Owl in the bag and sunlight fading fast, I called it and headed back into Cochrane for the night.

Monday I was up nice and early, eager to get back to Kitchener-Waterloo and to see Lill. I had another(!) Northern Hawk Owl just north of Englerhart, making it a 5 Northern Hawk Owl tour. I stopped in Earlton to look for the colony of Eurasian Collared-Dove's (no dice) and left after about 45 minutes.

All in all a nice little tour; luckily the weather (generally) cooperated, as did the birds!

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Peterborough Adventure

This past weekend Lill and I visited with Mike and his family, just outside of Peterborough. While we weren't planning any major birding we were able to snag an hour or two on both Saturday and Sunday mornings.

Saturday Mike and I went to grab some groceries in town and stopped at Little Lake to check the gulls out. We were in luck, as a decent sized flock of gulls was present, with both Iceland (Kumlien's and Thayer's) and Glaucous present. Check our eBird checklist, here.

From here we checked out Millenium Park and almost immediately found the female Barrow's Goldeneye that has been present for about 10 days.

Later in the afternoon on Saturday, Lill, Erica and I did some skiing at the Kawartha Nordic Ski trails. It's a great spot and I'd highly recommend it. We didn't have too much since we were busy skiing, but did come across 3 Red Crossbills in the white pines. On the way home we came across a Barred Owl sitting on hydro lines besides the road!

Sunday morning saw Mike and I get up before the others and make a quick trip up to Bark Lake for the long-staying Varied Thrush. We pulled into the parking lot and after about 10 minutes had it coming in to feed.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Some thoughts on the OBRC (while serving on it)

I'm currently serving on the first year of a 3 year term on the OBRC; this is my 3rd term since 2011! I've always enjoyed serving on the Committee. I view it as a privilege and honour and don't take it for granted being nominated and serving.

One of the reason's I like serving on the Committee is you get a back stage pass to see what's happening behind the scene's in Ontario's rare bird community (so to speak). Having traveled here and there throughout Canada and the US, I can say that Ontario is 100% in the top 3-5 of states and provinces in terms of how active our birding population is and how good it is. Ontario is likely the top state/province that is land-locked (not counting Ontario as coastal, largely b/c I don't think there is a single hard-core birder who lives in the Hudson Bay Lowlands!).

Since the late 1990's, when I started birding I've seen some pretty huge changes in Ontario in our bird-life: I've literally seen some of the last wild Northern Bobwhite in Ontario, as well as some of the first breeding Kirtland's Warblers in Ontario, to name a few.

This gal was on her way to her breeding grounds in Ontario???
One of the best examples in changes to the status of a species which was a MEGA back in the day is Fish Crow.

I saw my first Fish Crow at Point Pelee in May 2008. At that time there were only 7 previous records in the province. Fast forward to today and they breed at several locations throughout the GTHA-Niagara corridor and are even assigned a sub-national rank of S2 by the MNRF!

Fish Crow on their breeding grounds....Port Dalhousie.
Over the last few years I've helped Mike in preparing packages as his duties as Secretary on the OBRC. Packages are essentially the files for all the records supporting a rare bird record. This requires a fair bit of information to be incorporated, such as finders, people submitting record details, dates, locations, not to mention filing photos and the reports, etc. Generally each record takes about 30-60 min. to prepare. The last few years have seen close to 200 records reviewed by the OBRC -- up to 200 hours of volunteer time by the Secretary, just in preparing records for the Committee to vote on.

Mike served as Secretary for 5 years and has now been replaced by the able hands of Dan Riley. With this being Dan's first year, I've been helping him out a little bit and have helped him with preparing a few packages, essentially the same as what I had done for Mike. The Secretary has a huge amount of work, that is not matched by anyone else on the Committee (or even close for that matter).

One of the things that I've been noticing over the last 5-10 years is that the number of rarities being reviewed by the OBRC has been steadily increasing, specifically in regards to the southern review list. Taking a larger look and going back to 1982, when the OBRC was formed, one can see that the number of records and information reviewed has increased by several factors (e.g., in 1982 there were something like 92 records reviewed, most of these records were of a single paper copy vs. today we get close to 200 records, most of which have several records, as well as dozens of eBird records to catalogue, along with numerous photos).

Guidelines set out by the OBRC in the early 1980s state that species "should be on the review list if they average 20 or less records over a 5 year period". Typically these are pretty rare species; species like Blue Grosbeak, Henslow's Sparrow's, and Little Blue Heron would make the cut.

Henslow's Sparrow on its breeding ground...
Don't get me wrong -- I would be ecstatic if I found one of these species, BUT I think there needs to be a change in the OBRCs mandate and policies regarding rare birds that we keep track of. Specifically, with the advent of cell phones, eBird, OntBirds, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and now Discord, there has been a monumental increase in the number of rare birds that we are finding out about (and therefore documenting).

I think we need to restructure some key points in the OBRC going forward to ensure it is relevant today and in the next 20-30 years. I think we need to look at species, like Blue Grosbeak, Little Blue Heron, and Henslow's Sparrow, where we have close to, or more than 100 accepted records of these species and ask ourselves: "what are we going to learn by reviewing another Blue Grosbeak record?".

With eBird, and our team of regional reviewers in Ontario, there really isn't the same need to review every rarity as in 1982. I think revising the threshold for reviewing species in southern Ontario is warranted (and has been for some time). I think we should drastically revise the review list, making the criteria much lower, such as:
- species that are observed on average more than 10 times in a 5 year period would NOT require documentation
- where a species has a defined pattern of vagrancy in the province and there are more than 35 previously accepted records, that species would NOT be reviewed going forward.

Revising the review list would enable the OBRC to review the really rare species in the province. Think Swainson's Warbler. Rock Wren. Burrowing Owl. Feel me?

May 9th: in addition to catching this SWWA, we also caught GWWA and a SUTA!
You know how you know you've got a great wife? When she points out a weird bird on a boulder beach and its ROCK WREN!!
Ahhh, the BUOW Mikey and I found on PI. Dayum.
Species removed from the southern review list would still be reviewed by our stellar group of provincial eBird reviewers and would be documented via eBird and OntBirds.

This would essentially remove the following species: Mississippi Kite, Henslow's, Blue Grosbeak, Neotropic Corm, Western Grebe, Arctic Tern, Scissor-tail, YC Night-Heron, and a few more.

What do you think? Do you care?? Too much change? Too little change?

Thursday, January 9, 2020

New year birding

While January is not necessarily the best month for birding, in terms of displacing large numbers of birds in addition to exciting species, the start to 2020 has been pretty good for anyone interested in doing a big year, with several continuing rarities.

I started the year at the cottage, just outside of Tobermory with Lill and her family. We had been at the cottage for a few days and were driving home on the 1st, with a few stops along the way.

First up was Lion's Head to look for the somewhat continuing Harlequin Duck, which unfortunately was a no-show on the 1st, as well as the previous 2 days I had checked. However, things were about to pick-up; on our way out of Lion's Head, heading towards Ferndale, I spotted a large bird at the top of some trees. Pulling over revealed it to be the gray Gyrfalcon found just before Christmas!!

I had in fact been searching for this bird, and managed to luck into it this time, after looking for close to 5 hours over the previous 2 mornings -- I guess that's why they call it three times a charm.

Needless to say I was pretty pumped. This was also a lifer for Lill, so that was pretty neat too.

Heading south from here, we drove through the flats and came across a lone male Common Grackle, seeming out of place.

From here we made a bee-line for the Owen Sound harbour, where we hoped to luck into the annually returning (2 years?) male Barrow's Goldeneye.

Sure enough, after getting to Kelso Beach Park, in Owen Sound, I managed to pick out the Goldeneye, as well as some other decent first of the year birds in the harbour, including Canvasback and Redhead.

All in all a good start to the year -- let's hope the rest of the year will continue to bring more goodies like on the 1st!

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Dorian!! Day 1 (of 3)

Back as Hurricane Dorian was wreaking havoc in the Bahamas and starting to make its way north towards the US, the track of Dorian started to come into focus a little better, revealing that it would potentially make landfall, somewhere in the Atlantic Maritimes.

On Wednesday (Sept. 4) and into Thursday, it looked increasingly like it would be eastern Nova Scotia that would see Dorian make landfall. On Thursday, I asked around and got bites from Barb Charlton and Ethan Gosnell to accompany me out east into the storm for a few days. We took the Friday evening flight from Hamilton to Halifax on WestJets discount airline - Swoop.

Friday evening saw us arrive in Halifax, where we picked up our rental car and get into our hotel in Dartmouth, while Dorian continued its determined track towards Atlantic Canada.

Saturday we were up dark and early, driving southwest of Halifax, where we checked out a number of interesting sites near Lunenburg. The weather became increasingly inhospitable to bird, with the wind and rain picking up throughout the day. We didn't see too much of interest, except for finding an imm. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.

Around lunch-time we were back in Halifax trying to figure out where to go ahead of Dorian (as well as to get something to eat before the McDonald's and Tim Horton's closed!). At this point Dorian's landfall was becoming locked in, with a hit, just on the east side of Halifax/Dartmouth. We started birding and scouting to the east of the city for birding on Sunday and Monday.

With Dorian's arrival nearing we had to call it early (~3pm), as the wind and rain was just too much, not too mention for our own safety, with sustained winds hitting close to 100km/hr.  We managed to snag a room at the hotel we stayed at the night previous night (in Dartmouth) and luckily didn't lose any power!!

Around 7pm, as the eye was nearing land, I got a text that someone had seen several Bridled/Sooty Terns south of the city. With this in mind, I gathered Barb and Ethan up and quickly booked it to an area we had scouted earlier - Lawrencetown West beach. With sunset nearing, we got here at 19:25, with about 20 minutes of light.

Getting out of the car, we could see that there were hundreds (thousands?) of darners and other dragonflies around, as well as shorebirds flying by. Almost immediately we had Purple Martin (rare), Barn, Bank (rare), and Tree Swallows flying in off the ocean, with several hundred over our 30 minutes here. The real craziness started when I spotted an odd tern/gull-like bird land about 100m away on a rock almost immediately after getting out of the car. Thinking it was a Skimmer or something good, we quick ran over, watched a wave smash the bird and drag it into the surf. Ethan managed to get some pics, while we watched the bird drown! Looking at Ethan's pics on his camera revealed the bird to be a Sooty/Bridled Tern!!! [edit: after getting Ethan's pics on a computer, the bird was identifiable to Bridled Tern]

Photo by Ethan Gosnell.
After we lost the Bridled Tern, we watched as several gulls and terns flew in off the ocean, but we weren't able to ID them, as the lighting and light rain/mist was challenging for birding. After a few moments, more birds came into view, coming in from the ocean. Getting closer to us, we could see that all of the gulls were Laughing(!), as well as several Royal Terns(!), and a Black Skimmer!!! Shit was really hitting the fan!

Photo by Ethan Gosnell.

Photo by Ethan Gosnell.

 With sunset fast approaching, Ethan and I watched an interesting bird a few hundred metres away do a weird 'moth-like' flight, before landing on the ground. We both raced up the hill and encountered a wreaked Black Skimmer!!

Ethan Gosnell
With light totally failing we new the next day (Sunday) would be fantastic!!

Our interesting eBird checklists, here:

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron: https://ebird.org/canada/view/checklist/S59572426
Lawrencetown West: https://ebird.org/canada/view/checklist/S59593329

Monday, December 17, 2018

Blenheim CBC -- Dec. 17

We are now in the midst of the Christmas Bird Count season.  This year I decided to switch the count that I do on the Sunday, dropping Cambridge, moving in favour of the more exotic Blenheim CBC, which covers all of Rondeau Provincial Park.   I was lucky in getting a great area, with Mark Jennings retiring his area, I was tasked with covering the Shrewsbury/Erieau/McGeachy Pond area.

Looking ahead to Sunday late last week, the weather was still in flux, however, things turned out amazing, with strong NE winds occurring Saturday (theoretically pushing waterbirds closer to shore), before becoming calm and warm (8 degrees), and even lots of sunshine on Sunday!

Dark and early on Sunday, Rob ''the real deal'' Palin and I met along the 401 in Kitchener, before making our way to the Erieau pier for sunrise.  We decided to do a lakewatch, taking advantage of the day's previous weather and the fact that waterbirds "move" during the first hour or two.  Turned out to be a good call, with both loons (1 Common, 2 Red-throated), 6 Horned Grebe's, 7 Long-tailed Ducks, and all 3 scoters making appearances, making it seem more like Lake Ontario than Erie.

After an hour and a half we moved west to McGeachy Pond, where walked the dyke and back. Things were slightly quiet, but we had excellent quality, with our highlights being: 1 Marsh Wren, 3(!) Common Yellowthroats, 2 Hermit Thrushes, a flyover Common Redpoll, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and absolutely best of all, a Northern Waterthrush! The N. Waterthrush is almost certainly the same bird that had been seen off/on throughout late October and November, and most recently on December 5th. We had the bird at the extreme west end, deep in the scrub.

Phone shot of the Common Yellowthroat at McGeachy Pond.
From McGeachy we went across the road and walked the rail trail down and back. Another Ruby-crowned Kinglet, some Carolina's and a single Winter Wren, as well as the resident pair of Great Horned Owls made appearances.

From here we drove around to Shrewsbury, scoring some Snowy Owls along the way, before walking portions of the townsite.  In town we had another Ruby-crowned Kinglet and best of all a Red-shouldered Hawk that we watched catch a snake!  Shrewsbury seems pretty neat, with lots of interesting areas to check; I'll definitely want to revise my strategy for next year birding here on count day.

By this time it was 2pm; we decided to head back to Erieau to check the townsite proper for landbirds and to properly scan the bay, with the lighting proving excellent. In town we scored some random landbirds, incluing a pair of Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Red-breasted Nuthatch, and a Field Sparrow. Scanning the bay was productive too, with distant views of several new ducks for the day (Redhead, A. Wigeon, etc.).

By this time, daylight was fast closing (~4pm), we decided to drive all the roads in our area. We found another Snowy Owl by McGeachy Pond, and our 2nd American Kestrel of the day.

We ended up finishing with 70 species; my personal high on a CBC -- the total species count ended up being 114 species! A great day!

Monday, November 26, 2018

Bluff action - November 22nd

With the deep breeze rolling through southern Ontario on the night of the 21st/22nd (temps ranged as low as minus 18!) and the prospect of east winds, I thought I'd give the Bluff one last go and decided to take the day off.

As soon as I showed up (around 10am), I had an adult Northern Shrike flying south along the bluff edge.  It ended up sticking around for the better part of an hour, allowing me to get some nice looks at it.

Shortly after the shrike I had a first-year Bald Eagle and an adult Red-shouldered Hawk migrating inland. With these two (moving south), I thought there was going to be a push of raptors moving; however, unfortunately this didn't really materialize.  I say 'didn't really' because I did end up having two pretty good raptors after lunch, with a late Turkey Vulture and a classic first-year Golden Eagle, which was pretty nice!

As everyone has witnessed this fall there's been a pretty good finch irruption which has been occurring more or less since late August.  I ended up with some decent numbers considering the late date, with close to 160 Common Redpolls, a single Evening Grosbeak (one of my favourites), a single Pine Siskin, and a few A. Goldfinches.

The highlight (for me), however, was a flock of 19 Bohemian Waxwings that flew south, just before 11am.  I had another flock of waxwings (too far to ID to species) later that I think was a mixed species flock.

All in all I was pretty happy with my decision to play hookey.