Thursday, December 31, 2009

Boxing Day Barnacle

Back to work on Tuesday this week after an enjoyable Christmas break. With only a few days left before the start of the 2010 year list, we managed to get some birding done.

Saint Nick visited our Christmas Eve party before continuing his deliveries around the globe. NORAD had him at the Azores shortly after the surprise visit in St. Catharines.

Returning home after a Christmas breakfast with Jean's brother's family, we searched for the Northern Shrike that was observed during the St. Catharines CBC.

Along the way we spotted 3 Wild Turkeys at a feeder. In all, there were a total of 24 turkeys on the property. Little did they know what was being prepared inside. Tufted Titmouse and Black-capped Chickadee were seen as well.

We found the stand of Hawthorns where the shrike was seen but the bird itself was elsewhere on Christmas Day.

Below the escarpment at Rockway, another flock of Wild Turkeys! More than 100 were tallied during the St. Catharines CBC. It's great to see their numbers back on the rise.

Christmas dinner at my parents' was very fulfilling and provided the energy required to search for the reported Barnacle Goose on Boxing Day.

The Barnacle Goose was first observed with a small flock of Canada Geese on Sunday December 20. I would have to wait until the weekend to attempt ticking the bird (a continuing trend it seems) that may end up being an escapee. Part of the world population of Barnacle Geese breeds in northeastern Greenland with accidentals occurring in the Maritime Provinces. The further away from the Atlantic seaboard, the greater the uncertainty of the goose's origin.

We first checked out the cornfields on top of the Niagara Escarpment (the Barnacle Goose's last reported location). No geese in sight. The other known location was at the mouth of Forty Mile Creek in Grimsby.

Only Ring-billed Gulls, Mallards and a few Canada Geese were found on the creek. Out on Lake Ontario, we spotted a few White-winged Scoter.

With no Barnacle Goose in sight we continued on to our next destination.

We still needed Trumpeter Swan for the year list. A reliable spot for them is La Salle Marina in Burlington.

Reliable indeed! There were over 30 adult and juvenile Trumpter Swans (#197) at the marina on the north shore of Burlington Bay. In the image below you can see the Burlington Skyway in the background. It crosses over the Burlington Ship Canal, another great location for viewing waterfowl. South of the skyway is Van Wagner's Beach where we ticked our lifer Parasitic Jaeger back in October.

While Jean and I observed the Trumpeter Swans, a couple began to throw corn on the ground near the marina's boat ramp. Mallards, geese and swans soon exited the water to feed on the kernels scattered on the concrete.

We walked along the Shoreline Trail adding a few species, including Canvasback, to the winter list. Out in the harbour, hundreds of Lesser Scaup formed large floats.

After spending an hour and a half at the marina, it was time to return home but not before a second attempt at finding the Barnacle Goose.

This time, there were many Canada Geese on Lake Ontario. The geese had come in from the fields for the evening. Jean and I started to scan the flock of 150-200 geese and a domestic goose stood out like a white flag. The Barnacle Goose was not as easy but its smaller size and distinctive field markings allowed us to find it with little trouble.

Here are the original images of the Barnacle Goose Jean captured through the scope.

For now, I will count the Barnacle Goose as lifer #291. If the Ontario Bird Records Committee (OBRC) concludes the bird as an escapee, then I'll remove it from my lists. It is quite an impressive addition to the Ontario list. Another Boxing Day lifer.

**Update** Things may change sooner than you think. I received the weekly Hamilton Naturalists Club Birding Report not too long ago. In the report, it is stated that there is no way of telling the origin of the bird and that a DNA analysis of the feathers would be the only reliable gauge. Looks like I may be removing it from the list.

On Boxing Day in 2007, we ticked a Northern Shrike at Fifty Point Conservation area in Grimsby and a Northern Hawk Owl on the Niagara Escarpment in Stoney Creek. Pretty close to the Grimsby border I might add. Do I see a trend?

The New Year is fast approaching so this will be my last post for 2009. I wish everyone the best for 2010. The Niagara Falls CBC post will appear soon.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

2009 St. Catharines CBC

December 20

On the last Sunday before Christmas, Jean and I participated in the St. Catharines Christmas Bird Count.

Jean baked cookies for the round-up. Can you i.d. the birds?

It was our second year of attending the count and once again, Jean, Denys and I assisted John Black with his assigned area.

Not a Swamp Sparrow in sight.

We travelled the rural roads of West Lincoln, counting any species we could find in the south-western section of the St. Catharines birding circle. No roadside woodlots, hedgerows or feeders were left unchecked.

Some of the roads were very familiar to me. I have ridden along Twenty Mile Rd. (northern boundary of the area), Silverdale Rd. and Sixteen Rd. on my bike with the St. Catharines Cycling Club (sometimes by myself after getting dropped like a rock).

Over a total time of 6.5 hours we covered 105 kilometres of road and found 29 species.

Unfortunately, there was no repeat of the White-winged Crossbill or Turkey Vulture (both firsts for the St. Catharines CBC last year).

I was surprised to see a Great Blue Heron fly across the road in front of us as we were completing our count. All the ponds were frozen over and Twenty Mile Creek had hardly any sections with flowing water. Only in St. Anns did we find an open spot, which allowed for the addition of Canada Goose to our list.

Twenty Mile Creek at Snyder Rd. The call of a Red-bellied Woodpecker was heard here.

The St. Catharines CBC was not the only event in Niagara on Sunday. The Olympic Torch Relay passed through the region with a stop in downtown St. Catharines. The route was less than 200 metres from my house! And where was I? Counting birds?

A cycling friend managed to capture some images in Niagara Falls and he has graciously given me permission to post them here.

The torch bearer in these images is Niagara Olympian and SCCC member Gord Singleton.

Olympic Torch Relay images courtesy of Dave Van de Laar

He is a brief summary of the count. We all received the link from the compiler earlier this evening.

An exciting weekend in St. Catharines. Next week is the Niagara Falls CBC. Will we get stuck in the ice and snow again?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Top Ten Birds of the Decade

I discovered a blog or two and a third, listing their top 10 birds of the decade.

Though I have been only listing since 2006, here are my Top Ten Birds of the Decade. With only 290 birds to chose from, it shouldn't have been that difficult. Actually it was. I made a few changes before setting this post to stone.

1. Harlequin Duck - Observed in my first year of birding, in a nature area near the Horseshoe Falls. An adult male with its plumage in full colour. Found without any assistance from Ontbirds or helpful tips from fellow birders. Sweet!

2. Phainopepla - Only the second record in Ontario and Jean and I were lucky enough to observe the south-western bird that entertained a Brampton neighbourhood for a few weeks , not too long ago.

3. Northern Hawk Owl - Ticked the same bird twice. As a lifer on Boxing Day in '07 and again for the 2008 list in late January. It was in the Hamilton area for quite some time and a few photographers caused a stir when they tempted it with some white mice.

4. Bicknell's Thrush - Influenced by an article in the August 2006 issue of Birder's World, my wife and I travelled to the Adirondacks in August of 2006. Hiking down from the summit of Azure Mountain (in a light rain) we observed the thrush. Though the bird was silent, the geography sealed the tick for Jean and I.

5. Western Grebe - While birding a sewage lagoon on the south side of Lake Ontario a fellow birder informed my wife and I that he had observed a Western Grebe on the north side of the lake. After a 30 minute drive on the QEW and patiently waiting a few minutes for it to surface, we ticked our lifer Western Grebe.

6. Prothonotary Warbler - Jean and I were hiking the Hematite Trail in the Land Between the Lakes NRA (Kentucky) when we came across 2 pairs of Prothonotary Warblers in their textbook environment. Another road trip influenced by the issue mentioned above. David Sibley's Birding Hotspot article on St. Marks NWR (25 miles south of Tallahassee). If we had ticked a Red-cockaded Woodpecker during a search in the Panacea Unit of the refuge it would have made the top 10.

7. Northern Wheatear - It was the 2007 OFO convention and Jean and I were finishing a day of birding at the Blenheim Sewage Lagoons. Not long after arriving at the lagoons, an excited woman ran through the entrance gate announcing the observation of the Northern Wheatear. You can guess what happened next. All birders vacated the lagoons and headed for the boat dock on Lake Erie.

8. Western Tanager - I could not complete this list without including a species from our trip to British Columbia earlier this year. It was a tough decision but by the slimmest of margins, the Western Tanager (pair) earns the honour. If not for the beautiful colours of the male tanager, the Mountain Bluebird would most likely be found on this list.

9. Curlew Sandpiper - After one unsuccessful attempt to tick the Eurasian sandpiper, Jean and I were able to spot the bird less than a week later (with the assistance of a another birding couple) on the shores of Lake Erie.

10. Ruff - In May of this year, after receiving an e-mail from the Ontbirds report, Jean and I travelled on the 407 to the Milton/Oakville area to tick our second Eurasian species observed in Ontario. From the side of a road (as vehicles zipped by at 80 km/hr) we observed the male Ruff through our scope. If the shorebird had been closer, it would have been further up the list.

Honourable mentions to the Liver Bird.

As asked at the Hawk Owl's Nest, What are your top 10?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

"Urned" Ticks

My apologies to Peter Cashwell, author of The Verb "To Bird", for using the noun urn as a verb in the title of this tale of winter listing. I simply could not resist using the Haigism.

Though I had Friday off, -15 temperatures (with the wind chill) kept me from venturing outside for any extended period of time. Saturday was more bearable and we continued the winter listing/Christmas preparation theme in west St. Catharines.

Jean was in search of a variety of conifer branches to make a decorative urn for the front porch so a visit to our friends' rural property was needed to complete the task successfully. My hopes of ticking a Northern Harrier en route were dashed when we came upon city barricades that prevented us from travelling along a favourite stretch of road. The reliable harrier tick will have to wait. At the other end of the road, more barricades as well as a few vehicles and guys with radios. Could this be the city and the NHS collecting data for their request to silence train whistles?

Our friends' property, complete with a creek, provides many hiding spots for a variety of birds amongst the deciduous and coniferous trees. With pruners in hand and bins at the ready, Jean and I began our search.

The first three species encountered were already on the list but some pishing brought out an inquisitive Carolina Wren. Northern Cardinal and White-breasted Nuthatch would also be found while exploring the west side of the meandering creek. Over on the east side, a male Downy and an American Tree Sparrow were spotted.

With the branch collection completed we talked with our friends and observed three Red-tail Hawks and a Great Blue Heron, all flying high above the Northern Harrier's favourite hunting grounds.

Two planes flying very low (as if they had just taken off) flew towards our location. Was this why the road was closed? A temporary landing strip in west St. Kitts? The reason for the road closure was answered later in the evening. A message from our friend on our answering machine revealed that the road was closed to shoot scenes for a short film.

The urn looks mighty festive on our front porch and the winter list is starting to look better. Next week is the St. Catharines CBC and though I do not expect a repeat observation of last year's White-winged Crossbill ( a lifer for Jean and I and a free coffee for John and Denys), we should be able to tick a few interesting species for the winter list. Stay tuned for the results of our first of two Christmas Bird Counts.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Getting Started

Our week's vacation was coming to an end. On Saturday we drove to Fenwick, in the Township of Pelham, to find a Christmas Tree. Choosing a tree at a local cut-your-own farm not only supports the local economy but also helps reduce carbon emissions.

While walking through the farm in search of the perfect tree, Jean and I also looked for birds to add to our winter list.

Inspecting the perfect tree.

This one will do nicely.

Snow was not the only thing lacking. Bird observations were at a minimum with only 4 common species added to the winter list. It's a start.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Early Birder Observes the Gull

Susan of The Life of a Bird Tour Leader hosts I and the Bird #114 . Many blogs from around the world, so sit back with your favourite organic shade-grown coffee and enjoy.

November 29

On the last Sunday of November, Jean and I attended the OFO Niagara River Gull Watch. I checked the Weather Network early that morning and the rain previously forecasted for the day would not occur until late in the afternoon. That was promising. This was a gull watch and standing in one spot for an hour or more while it rained on a cold November day would not be fun.

This was our third year of attending the OFO organized trip and we arrived early to obtain an advantageous spot for the scope and ensure we did not miss any exciting gulls. Though we arrived early last year, the trip leaders and a small number of birders spotted a Thayer's Gull before our arrival and it was not to be observed again during the time we spent at the Adam Beck overlook.

This year we had a different result. We set up our scope before the arrival of trip leaders Jean Iron and Ron Tozer and began to scan the white dots on the river below.

The overlook at the Sir Adam Beck Generating Station provides an excellent view of gulls that congregate to capture fish from the outflows of both the Sir Adam Beck and Robert Moses Generating (U.S. side) stations. The imaginary line you can see running down the centre of the river separates Canada from the United States.

Ron set up his scope to my immediate left and soon found a Thayer's Gull standing on a rock at the bottom of the Niagara Gorge. At first, there was some confusion in observing the Thayer's Gull. As Ron described, it was standing at the end of a pipe. Unbeknownst to me, there were two pipes in this location. Luckily I picked the right one (the vertical pipe running down the slope of the gorge). To the right of the Thayer's Gull was a horizontal pipe with a few Herring Gulls standing on it. Though it was in the field of view I did not see the horizontal pipe. When Jean looked through the scope she only observed the horizontal pipe. There was no gull at the end of the pipe! Jean would eventually view the Thayer's Gull (lifer #289) and soon after that I would see the horizontal pipe.

Without the experience of the trip leaders I believe there was no way I would have identified this gull as a Thayer's. The mantle is only slightly darker than that of a Herring Gull. The dark eyes of a Thayer's Gull help confirm the identification. Mental note, check eye colour next time I am birding on the Niagara River.

Before the gull disappeared our birding friend Anne arrived and she too was able to observe her lifer Thayer's Gull. We car pooled with Anne and her sister on the OFO Long Point trip earlier this year and it was our turn to play hosts.

Other gulls observed at Adam Beck included, 1 adult and 1 juvenile Iceland (#193 for the year), Bonaparte's, 1 Great Black-backed, 2 Lesser Black-backed (# 194) and Glaucous (1).

The California Gull, observed by Jean Iron on November 21, was not seen. It was last reported above the Falls, upstream from the Three Sisters Islands (11/28).

The next stop for the trip was the Whirlpool.

Here amongst the many, many Bonaparte's Gulls we looked for Little Gulls.

Jean looking for a Little Gull near the Spanish Aerocar platform.

It took a while and despite the distraction of 2 morons* on the U.S. side of the river (Jean and I spent a few agonizing minutes watching 2 guys descend into the gorge along a most treacherous path) the group observed a lone Little Gull flying above the Whirlpool. To observe a Little Gull requires patience. The underside of a Little Gull's wings are black and are visible when the gull is in flight. All it takes is one birder to find the gull and then they have to call out the Little Gull's position as it circles above the Whirlpool.

The fishermen in the gorge below provided a great reference point for pointing out the Little Gull (#195 for the year). A lifer for Anne!

Next stop, the Niagara River above the Falls. We walked upriver from the hydro intake pond to the control gates.

In the pond we found many Hooded Mergansers and a few Gadwall.

The California Gull was not found during our time spent at this section of the river. At the control gates, Bufflehead, Redhead (1), Lesser Scaup were seen.

After lunch the group visited some feeders in the village of Chippawa. Tufted Titmouse and Red-bellied Woodpecker can be found here. While visiting the residential feeders we did not see the Tufted Titmouse but a small group that hung around the feeders eventually observed the Tufted Titmouse as well as a Red-bellied Woodpecker. No worries on either species for me. Though it would have been nice to see them, both were ticked early in 2009, the Tufted Titmouse during a visit to these very feeders in mid-January.

We returned to the Niagara River to scan the rapids near the engineerium. The barge I always admired when I was a kid still remains (though it's only an empty shell now).

While looking upriver towards the control gates the trip leaders found a second year Iceland Gull. Tough to follow when it is in flight.

We turned our attention to the mass of gulls above the Horseshoe Falls. Once again, the group was able to observe a lone Little Gull flying with hundreds of Bonaparte's Gulls.

We returned to the Adam Beck overlook for another attempt to observe the California Gull. Thanks to her amazing gull identifying skills, Jean Iron spotted the state bird of Utah flying above the river. As Jean Iron described its flight path both Jean and I were able to get on the California Gull (third basic winter) and follow it as it would fly towards the red sign on the wall of the Robert Moses Generating Station and back out to the centre of the river. Lifer #290 for Jean and I but unfortunately our friend Anne had to leave for a long drive home. It would have been great to share a second lifer with her.

We could not have asked for a better day of birding on the Niagara River. The temperature reached 10 degrees Celsius and the rain held off until later that evening. The year list now stands at 196. Will we reach 200 before the end of the year?

As stated on Jean Iron's field trip report, shiners (minnows) are plentiful so my wife and I will have a great chance to add the gulls to our winter list before the deep freeze, perhaps we'll take her dad so he can get a chance of viewing a Little Gull.

*Moronic behaviour knows no boundaries. Every year, Canadian and U.S. emergency services are called to rescue people that get stuck or injured while descending into the gorge at extremely dangerous spots along the Niagara River.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Winter Listing

Ontbird subscribers received an e-mail from Todd Pepper announcing that the Ontario winter birding season starts today and runs until February 28. Todd has volunteered to coordinate this year's Ontario winter bird list and Blake Maybank will be hosting the results on his website.

During the 2008/2009 winter birding season a total of 197 species were observed by Ontario birders. Will we reach 200 this year? It just might be possible to reach 200 species this season with the likes of the Phainopepla still hanging around. Yes fellow birders south of the Canadian border, the Phainopepla is still being observed in a residential neighbourhood north of Toronto (3 weeks now). We have yet to see snow in southern Ontario.

A quick tabulation of my observations (December 1, 2008 to February 28, 2009) on eBird Canada revealed Jean and I observed 71 species last winter. This may be tough to beat. Species seen on last season's list that will prove difficult to observe this season include, King Eider, Eastern Screech Owl, Long-eared Owl, Short-eared Owl, Snowy Owl, Common Redpoll and White-winged Crossbill.

Wish us luck and I'll keep you posted on our progress.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Wall of Fame

Being birders, Jean and I have a small number of bird prints (though growing) adorning the walls of our home (either received as gifts or purchased by ourselves). Even before we started to obsessively keep a life list we had three prints lining the wall along the stairs to the second floor, a fourth we purchased at the Magnolia Plantation in South Carolina now keeps them company.

For my birthday last year, Jean gave me a most excellent gift, the complete set (24 prints) of Fenwick Lansdowne's Birds of Canada (1959), presented by the Star Weekly. A coworker of Jean's brought the set in for Jean to look over before taking them to her church's rummage sale.

The 14 x 10.5" prints were still in the original envelope, postmarked with a prodigious postage of 7 cents! Without hesitation Jean purchased them on the spot.

We purchased two frames and the first print selected for a wall in the spare room was the Hermit Thrush. The second frame remained empty until the return from our vacation in British Columbia in June of this year. In honour of the lifer observed at Lake Louise, the Clark's Nutcracker print hangs at the top of the stairs. Every morning, I am greeted by Lansdowne's rendition of the gray and black bird as I walk down the hallway.

Accompanying each print in this series is text written by Hugh M Halliday. He has written a few books on the Canadian wildlife he encountered while travelling this vast country.

Clark's Nutcracker was named after Capt. William Clark of the famed Lewis and Clark exploratory expedition which crossed the continent in 1884-86. He was first to report the species. In Canada it inhabits the mountainous regions of British Columbia and Alberta. It is also called Clark's crow and has much in common with that other member of the crow family, the Canada jay, known also as whiskey jack, camp robber and other names. It comes into camp, is noisy and "talkative" and entertains with its antics. Nutcrackers often perform gymnastics. They "discuss" neighborhood topics. Favorite habitat of this distinguished bird is high on evergreen slopes of the western mountains. If protection is afforded, the nutcracker, white except for wings and tail, is likely to become so tame it will eat from a person's hand. It is fond of meat and can be found on hand for scraps from the picnic tables in western national parks. In winter its food is the seeds of conifers. It alights on a branch bearing a cluster of cones, jerks one loose with a foot and, swooping to the ground, picks up the cone in its bill and carries it away to tear it apart and get at the seeds. But being a crow it will eat almost anything.

Hugh M Halliday
Star Weekly, 1959

I don't expect to mount all the prints. Even I find it a bit excessive but I'm sure there is room for a couple more. Which ones will be selected is yet to be determined. It is quite the decision to make.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Weekend Birders

Days grow shorter and the nights are getting long

Rik Emmett, Mike Levine, Gil Moore

Fight The Good Fight

The nights, they are getting longer, limiting birding to the weekends. So, Jean and I fill the void with other activities. Last week was the Heart of Niagara Fall Reading Series (at the Pelham Library) with Nino Ricci. He read from his latest novel "the Origin of Species" and answered questions from the audience. Afterwards, we had him sign copies of "the Origin of Species" and "In a Glass House" (the second novel of the "Lives of the Saints" trilogy). He seems to be a very down-to-earth individual. We briefly discussed biology and birding in Leamington as well as dog/human behaviour when he discovered Jean is a SPCA agent.

Wednesday evening we attended the Ron Sexsmith concert at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre on the campus of Brock University. We always make an effort to see his performances when his tour brings him to Niagara. Included among his many fans are Elton John, Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello.

The opening act was the folk duo Dala and as the so called hunter out west proclaimed at a Tom Cochrane concert, Amanda and Sheila "Rock!". Dala will be appearing at the Mountain Stage, Cultural Center Theatre in Charleston, WV on November 22 and at the Kentucky Theatre in Lexington, Kentucky on the 23rd. I highly recommend you check their show out if you live by either of these venues.

On previous occasions Ron has been backed by four musicians but this evening there was just a trio. Ron on his acoustic, Don Kerr on drums and Jason Mercer on bass.

Ron Sexsmith has so many brilliantly written songs its hard to choose just one. The selection on YouTube was limited but I thought you all might enjoy this one.

Until the arrival of spring it looks like we will be weekend birders (the name of my fantasy football team) for now. Where we will bird this weekend has yet to be decided but I'm sure we can find a location with some avian activity.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Hey Rocky! Watch Me Pull a Pintail Out of My Hat!

Now that the excitement and controversy of viewing the Phainopepla has subsided (whom am I trying to kid), I finished up the following post of our hike to Woodend Conservation Area.

November 8

Sunday's weather was even more wonderful than that encountered during my Saturday hike. The thermometer reached 20 degrees Celsius while Jean and I were hiking at Woodend Conservation Area Sunday afternoon. The seasonal high in southern Ontario at this time of year is 7 degrees! No wonder there were many cars parked along the roadway of the conservation area. Everyone was out for hike, not just birders looking to add to their year list.

We started walking east on the Bruce Trail, near the entrance to Woodend, and found dozens of American Robins flying from tree to tree. The trail descends the Niagara Escarpment at the west end of the conservation area, meeting with the Wetland Ridge Side Trail. Our plan was to take the side trail to view the lagoons of the Wetland Ridge Trail. Walking further east along this section of the Bruce Trail will be left for another day.

South of the side trail is the Niagara Escarpment.

To the north, (hidden behind the tall grass) a vineyard and the campus of Niagara College.

As we hiked to the lagoons of Wetland Ridge (I was a few paces ahead of Jean) a flash of brown glided between Jean and I. As I do not have eyes in the back of my head I did not see what passed between the two of us. What Jean saw was no bird. When the animal grabbed onto the tree trunk, Jean immediately exclaimed, "Bob, it's a flying squirrel!". It was 3:00 PM and very sunny. What was this nocturnal creature doing outside of its home?

Jean was able to capture some great images of the rarely observed Southern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys volans).

I never grow tired of looking at the exposed layers of rock on the Niagara Escarpment.

Arriving at the Wetland Ridge we walked along the south end of the lagoons. No waterfowl in the south lagoon.

Walking on the path between the two lagoons revealed that all the waterfowl were in the north lagoon. Over 30 Bufflehead and a pair of Northern Pintail were found.

The college has placed a different style of Wood Duck nesting boxes in the lagoons. A hollowed out roll of hay supported by a triangular frame.

Though the colours have fallen from the majority of the trees on the escarpment it was a great day for a November hike.