It has been six years. Six long years since Jean and I travelled south of the continental United States to find birds. We were due. So to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary last year, we decided to look into possible destinations and organized trips.
One stood out. Cuba in February 2019. Travelling through the western provinces with just the right mixture of endemics and species found in the West Indies. The last check in the pro column was the guide. Fellow Niagara birder Josh Vandermeulen would be leading the trip. That's all that we needed to reach a final decision.
So it was just a matter of waiting for 2018 to end and counting down the days until we left the cold and snow of southern Ontario bound for Havana. The fact that we would arrive just before midnight did not deter us. Jean had prepared a list of 81 species that we could possibly see that would be lifers and we would start working on scratching birds off that long list the very next morning.
On Monday August 15, Jean and I received some e-mail notifications of a rare sighting in Niagara. Josh Vandermeulen and his fiancée Laura had found a Lark Sparrow at the end of the east pier in Port Weller. They observed the bird for a few minutes and had great views until it disappeared and was not seen again. That was sufficient for Jean and I to visit the East Spit the following day after I finished work.
We observed our lifer Lark Sparrow in Fort Erie on December 1, 2013. Our only Lark Sparrow observation and as Josh indicated in his posting, it was the second record for the Niagara Region. That was a great day for lifers and should be left for another tale.
Arriving in Port Weller, we parked near the yellow gate on the Seaway Haulage Road and began the 2.5 kilometer walk to the end of the East Pier. The winds were strong and bird sightings were limited during the hike. At the end of the pier, we ran into Josh and Laura trying for a second viewing of the Lark Sparrow. The bird had not been seen by them nor were there any other reports throughout the day. We talked about birds and life in Niagara for a bit and then continued our hikes separately.
Jean and I stayed near the end of the pier and checked out the rocky shoreline for shorebirds. It was pretty quiet. Visits this fall will most likely produce some good birds. Before we started walking back along the trail on the lake side of the spit, I spotted a low flying butterfly. When it rested on the ground, we identified it as a Common Buckeye. Our first sighting of this species for 2016!
A fresh, crisp and clean specimen. No damage to the wings of this Junonia coenia. Common Buckeyes can be found in southern Ontario, mostly as a migrant, during the summer months.
Returning south along the east side of the spit, we checked out the larger pond for waterfowl. Water levels in this pond have dropped due to the lack of rainfall but some dabbling ducks were found. Josh had mentioned he had seen Green-winged Teal and I was hoping they were still there. Jean and I needed this species for our Niagara year list . We found three Anas creca with a handful of Mallards and had great views of the teal's green speculum through our spotting scope.
In the brush by the pond, Jean spotted two juvenile Eastern Kingbirds and a concerned parent arrived so we moved on.
No Lark Sparrow for the 2016 list but I was quite happy getting Green-winged Teal out of the way. Next species on the target list is Pied-billed Grebe. This is the latest we have gone without seeing this species in Niagara. The ponds behind the Niagara College campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake were a reliable spot in the past but changes to the habitat there have made it unfavourable to the grebe. I'll keep my eye on the eBird alerts and will double check other small bodies of water when Jean and I are out birding. There are some species you just don't want to miss when trying to stay near the top of the table.
In my last post, I had mentioned that the Blue-Crowned Lesson's Motmot was lifer #435 for Jean and I. I soon became dismayed upon the realization that we had observed only 20 lifers since then. 20 lifers in 3 years and 3 months. Half of which occurred in the remaining months of 2013.
I really shouldn't be lamenting.The twenty lifer ticks have been impressive and unique. But like most birders, I'm always looking for the next addition. A recent attempt at adding Barred Owl to our life list was unsuccessful. Our friend Marcie had made arrangements with a property owner in southern Niagara for a small group of birders to view a family of Barred Owls after she had viewed them a few days earlier. It was the evening of July 3 and also our wedding anniversary but Jean and I brought our hiking/birding clothes with us to change into after our dinner. We did not rush through our excellent meal and made it to the location well before sunset. Shortly after dusk, there were fireworks heard in the distance but no "who cooks for you?" call on the forested property.
Hamilton is a short drive from St. Catharines. In under an hour we reached the park located on Burlington Bay and as Jean and I walked along the paved path towards the beach, there were a few Pokémon Go searchers with their iPhones in hand but no one sporting binoculars. Kenn Kaufmann wrote an interesting article on this newest craze.
We were given some reassurance when Jean and I ran into a birder on his way out and he told us that the ducks were still there. Upon arriving at the reported location, we could see them amongst the small crowd of Ring-billed Gulls on the sandy beach.
Along with a few other birders, we had great views of a species (commonly found on the gulf coast of the United States) that had not been observed in the Hamilton Study Area prior to July 13, 2016. A first! And a lifer added to our ABA, Ontario and Hamilton lists.
The ducks were disturbed by two guys walking on the beach from the opposite direction. They flew west and landed in the bay approximately one kilometre from our location. Luckily for birders still en route, the ducks returned to the beach after being disturbed by pleasure craft on the water.
The Black-bellied Whistling Ducks were resting on the beach when Jean and I left and shortly after, the ducks vacated Bayfront Park and have not been reported since then. We're glad we chose to go the same day of the report and I can return to working on the Niagara year list feeling more than content with a rare lifer tick.
The original plan was to post tales from my 2013 Belize Trip in some reasonable order. First to last would have worked very well but with the recent publication of the American Ornithologists' Union 2016 supplement it seemed appropriate to discuss the last lifer observed by Jean and I during our first birding trip outside of the ABA area.
Revisions to the North American Classification Committee (NACC) Check List for Birds of North and Middle America can be reviewed at the ABA blog. In addition to sequence changes within orders and families, there were a few splits including two that will have an affect on our eBird lists.
It was the last day in Belize for our group and I woke up very early that Sunday morning (A number of times actually.). It was not from the excitement of acquiring a few last minute lifer ticks but the result of eating something rather dodgy in Guatemala a day or two earlier. I did not feel well at all and Jean and I were standing on the deck at duPlooy's Jungle Lodge mulling over our options. A few of our fellow Niagara birders were already out searching for a Blue-crowned Motmot that was heard by the organizer of the trip. Though I was still resting in bed due to my illness, it was assumed that Jean and I were already out searching for the motmot as well.
Standing on the deck with us was Albert, an employee at the lodge. Albert was leaning on the railing of the deck listening to Jean and I decide if we should join the search for the motmot. "Motmot?", asked Albert. Pointing to the forest floor below the deck, he added, "There's one right here."
Not as easy as an arm chair tick but it was one that required little effort. I don't know if I could have walked down the 150 steps to the river below but a few quick steps to the railing was not a problem. Looking down from the deck, we had great views of our lifer Blue-crowned Motmot. The bird that the rest of the group was chasing elsewhere on the property and did not find during their search. Jean and I were more than happy to let them know we found the motmot and luckily for them, it was still hanging around and we helped all of them get on the bird.
Jumping forward to the present, the first of two splits that will cause a name change on our eBird list is that of the Blue-crowned Motmot. The split is based on morphology and vocalization and for those lucky enough to have observed all of the subspecies found between Veracruz, Mexico and the northwestern region of South America, well they picked up some arm chair ticks.
The bird we observed in Cayo, Belize had a black crown bordered with turquoise blue and is now known as Lesson's Motmot (Momotus lessoni). In northeastern Mexico, the bird has a solid turquoise crown and is now known as Blue-capped Motmot (Momotus coeruliceps). The third species of Momotus ranges from central Panama to the northwestern region of South America. Known as the Whopping Motmot (Momotus subrufescens), this species' song is a single whoop while the song of the Blue-capped and Lesson's are a similar whoop whoop.
At the moment, lifer #435 on our eBird list is still noted as Blue-crowned Motmot. When the name changes to Lesson's Motmot, I'll have two questions. Will Jean and I return to the tropics to observe the other Momotus species? And the second, who the heck is Lesson?
It was the Peninsula Field Naturalists nature club annual picnic on Saturday June 25 and I was not expecting any first of the year birds as I led the group for a hike along the river side trail at Merritt Island in Welland. I was thinking that the club members would take in whatever we came across in the municipal park situated between the Welland River and an old shipping canal.
There were the usual breeding species of bird. Red-winged Blackbird, Mallard, Northern Cardinal, Gray Catbird and Downy Woodpecker to name a few.
Eastern Grey Squirrels, Eastern Chipmunks and a Red Squirrel were observed but the best mammal, scratch that, the best sighting during the walk was a family of Short-Tailed Weasels.
Our group was split into smaller groups along the trail and two members at the front were the first to spot the four weasels in the middle of the path. I was not that far behind when the weasels were brought to my attention and I quickly called out to Jean so she could capture some images.
The adult female managed to move her three young along the tree-lined slope above the trail without issue. If one of the young began to lag behind, the female would pick up the slow moving kit by the scruff of the neck and throw them forward.
Though Mustela erminea are found throughout the province of Ontario, I did not expect to see a family of four within a kilometre of the downtown core of Welland. I thought I was more likely to encounter this species while hiking a trail in a provincial park. Just goes to show that you should always be prepared to observe an unexpected lifer whenever and wherever you choose to spend your day.
We all have our own rules when keeping lists of the birds we see and for our life list, both Jean and I have to see the bird to add the tick. Our rules are not set in stone and some even have an elastic attached. But simply hearing a bird sing or call did not suffice for the 454 species we have encountered over the years. Once we have seen the bird and it's on the life list, then every subsequent observation will count when the bird is heard and not seen.
When thinking of troublesome additions to the life list, Yellow Rail comes to mind. Though they are easily heard when standing in the right environment, seeing them is another matter. A very difficult one at that. So when we do hear the "tic-tic, tic-tic-tic" of the Yellow Rail, which resembles two stones tapping together, it will be a lifer.
On June 15, another trying species appeared on our eBird Year Needs Alert. Along with Merlin, Eastern Whip-poor-will was observed the day before by our friend Marcie. The small falcon in Port Colborne could wait. Chasing after an Eastern Whip-poor-will was the better of the two ticks for a couple of reasons. An addition to the life list and an assist at keeping Jean and I near the top of the table on the 2016 Niagara eBirders list. More on that chase in a later post.
With Eastern Whip-poor-will being a nocturnal species, a heard only observation was most likely to occur if we encountered the bird. We started our search at the south end of Willson Road in Wainfleet.
The gravel road is the western border for the Wainfleet Bog and it is perhaps the closest I'm willing to venture into the bog that is home to Deer Ticks carrying the bacteria that cause Lyme Disease. It was raining so I would drive a 100 metres or so and stop and lower the windows and listen to the birds that did not seem bothered by the evening precipitation. Birds already on the year list that were heard included, Yellow Warbler, Wood Thrush, Veery, Gray Catbird and Song Sparrow. Robins darted across the road and blackbirds flew overhead. Jean caught a glimpse of a Swamp Sparrow but it was not at the right angle for me to see the bird and it quickly disappeared deeper into the bog without singing. The light was dwindling when we heard the trill of another Swamp Sparrow coming from the west side of the road. It was loud enough for both Jean and I to hear so it was added to the year list.
North of Garringer Road, fireflies emerged and began their luminescent display. Hundreds and hundreds of Lampyridae marked the edges of the road. I have never observed so many in one evening. And the rain brought out the amphibians. Why did the toad cross the road? And they did make it all the way across, sometimes with Jean's assistance. With it being a quiet, rural road and only a few scattered here and there, the toads and frogs were easily avoided.
The rain had stopped when Jean heard the song of a not too distant whip-poor-will. As we followed the song down the road, it would get louder. There was light but no where near enough for a human to spot an Eastern Whip-poor-will perched in a tree. The bird moved occasionally. We could hear it singing from the west side of the road, then the east side. At one time, it sounded as if it was directly above the car.
Listening to the nightjar sing while standing in the middle of the road was quite the experience. There was no way I was passing on this lifer observation so Eastern Whip-poor-will was noted as lifer number 455. No asterisk required.
There are a few spots in Niagara where you can find grassland species. Usually, Jean and I head over to Port Robinson, east of the Welland Canal, to tick our FOY Grasshopper Sparrow but this year we checked out another location after receiving an eBird Year Needs for Niagara report. Included in the report was Clay-colored Sparrow so all the more reason to head to the northern edge of Port Colborne this year. Another added benefit, the report was from a checklist submitted by our friend John Black. I contacted John to obtain additional information and he graciously provided a map complete with arrows and circles to indicate the location of the singing Clay-colored Sparrows.
Ticking these two species of sparrows would be a nice way to start my week's vacation. We parked on the shoulder of the 140 and walked along a fence line towards a plateau. Vehicle traffic on the road that links Welland to Highway 3 east of the Welland Canal made it difficult to hear birds but we quickly observed our first grassland species perched on one of the wooden fence posts.
An Upland Sandpiper! Jean and I observed this grassland shorebird in western Niagara in late April but they were distant looks through our spotting scope. This was a much better observation that included flight displays, singing and a second Upland Sandpiper. The pair took turns perching on the fence posts and continued to fly around the area as we climbed the tractor trail to the top of the plateau.
Reaching the top, we heard Savannah Sparrow, Field Sparrow and Eastern Meadowlark singing and then turned west towards the Welland Canal and the stands of Phragmites where John had observed the Clay-coloured Sparrow. The Upland Sandpipers continued their aerial show and used a cedar for a perch this time. Soon after, a third joined the performance.
Further along the plateau, we could hear the insect-like buzz song of a Grasshopper Sparrow. It took some time but we eventually spotted one atop a small cedar. During the hike we saw three Grasshopper Sparrows.