Saturday, January 31, 2009

January Finale

Today birding was limited to a short period of time in the afternoon, after picking Jean up from work. With that in mind, I thought the best option was to look for Northern Harrier in the area we usually find the raptor.

We simply travel a section of rural road in west St. Catharines, scanning the fields on either side for Northern Harrier, usually observed in flight. Today I was pessimistic. The weather was cold, it was snowing and with a strong south-west wind blowing snow horizontally across the path of our car, the odds were not looking good.

I really like this area for birding. We have observed 8 lifers along this road, including the Northern Harrier (#149). The Snowy Owl (#252) we observed in December of last year was observed from this road.

Savannah Sparrow, Bobolink and Upland Sandpiper were all ticked on the same day in May of 2007. I initially saw the Bobolink only as a flash of black and white when returning home from a cycling club ride. I believe my quads were killing me that day. Wanting to identify the bird, Jean and I returned later in the day to observe a few Bobolink (#167) popping out of the green, knee-high hay on the south side of the road. On the north side of the road, Savannah Sparrow (#168) were observed flying between the rows of a vineyard. The third lifer of the day, Upland Sandpiper (#166) was observed in a grassy ditch further along the road. No vineyards here, just an open fallow field.

The remaining lifers observed include, Eastern Meadowlark (#122), and Rough-legged Hawk (#231) on March 10, 2008 and Snow Bunting (#232) on March 11, 2008.

Unfortunately, with recent changes to the grape juice market, some of the vineyards have been removed in order to receive government compensation. A small vineyard remains but the "for sale" sign next to it discourages me. St. Catharines urban expansion is limited so any vacant land available will be seen as an opportunity for development. With the new regional hospital planned less than one kilometre north of the area, development is inevitable. Observing Bobolink may have to be done elsewhere.

Although the future of birding this road does not look good, today we were successful in observing the bird I sought. Not one but two Northern Harriers were observed, a female and possibly a juvenile, flying back and forth over the snow covered fields. The weather did not seem to affect them.

The month of January has come to an end and the year list now stands at 49. Three species behind the 2008 list.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Spot the Towhee

A Spotted Towhee visiting a feeder was last reported on January 22 and though it was not seen on the Friday, Jean and I drove to Port Colborne on Saturday to attempt observing the Niagara Region rarity.

Upon arriving at the lake shore home we could see a small group of birders at the end of a sloping driveway. Some faces were familiar and none had observed the towhee, one birder having watched the feeder for 1 & 1/2 hours. One by one the birders left, all heading for the west side of the city to view an annual visitor to the residential area by Lake Erie.

The temperature was -10 degrees Celsius so we limited our time to 30 minutes, knowing we had another bird moments away. As with the Varied Thrush earlier this month, Jean and I would not see the Spotted Towhee.

We arrived at our second stop of the day and the birders we met at the previous spot pointed out our first lifer of 2009. Despite the pointing and verbal description of its location I initially could not spot it. As a fellow birder continued to aid me in observing the bird I heard Jean say "I see it!". "What?" "Where?" Though it seemed like an eternity, I finally clued in to where the bird was located. The bird was an Eastern Screech Owl (#253). It was resting snugly in the hole of a large Maple tree.

With only Jean and I remaining on the quiet street, I captured some images of the owl. Photos will be posted at a later date as I am still using 35 mm film. Yes, film!

During our return home, we stopped at a Hydro water channel that remains ice free during the winter months. I scanned the hundreds of Canada Geese in hopes of adding a Cackling Goose to the year list. Though none were found, Mute Swan and Belted Kingfisher were added to the year list.

Although 0 for 2 on reported birds this month a lifer Eastern Screech Owl certainly makes it less disappointing.

The Spotted Towhee appeared twice on Sunday, once in the morning, then again in the afternoon. On Monday the bird was not seen. I will continue to monitor the Ontbirds reports to determine if a weekend visit is in order. Hopefully it will make as many appearances as the Point Pelee Spotted Towhee.

Monday, January 26, 2009

New Addition to the Yard List

Returning home from work today I decided to use the front steps to check for mail rather than the usual steps to the side entrance. Walking up the front walk I paused as I heard a bird's call. I looked around and found the cause, not the source, of the call, sitting in a tree.

A raptor was sitting in a neighbouring tree and I initially thought Cooper's as a pair do frequent the area. This bird was different though, darker back and a black cap. I went inside to obtain my binoculars for a better view and was glad to see it had not left when I returned. The bird was indeed different, it was a Peregrine Falcon! Jean and I were able to view it for a minute or two before it flew away towards the east, flying over our barn/garage before it disappeared from our view.

We live within walking distance of the downtown core so it is possible the falcon is a resident. There are plenty of pigeons in the area to prey upon and a nesting pair has attempted to raise young in the past.

In additon to being the 41st bird on the yard list this was our first Peregrine Falcon of the year. A welcome sight as they do not occur that often.

Stay tuned for Saturday's attempt to tick a reported Spotted Towhee.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

I Missed One!

I cannot believe it! I omitted a bird from the '100 Birds to See Before You Die' list. I have actually observed four birds on the list since we started birding and recording our sightings. Any birds seen prior to 2006 will not be added to the list. There are a couple of them. They may come into play years from now when all hope of observing them is lost but at this time the birds will remain off the list.

In June of 2007, Jean and I took a road trip to the Florida panhandle with a planned visit to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. Within a few days of leaving Ontario and 6 lifers added to the list, we arrived in Crawfordville, Florida. After finding suitable lodging, we visited the wildlife refuge for the first time. We would go to St. Marks each day during our 4 day stay in the area but it was during our first visit to the wildlife refuge when we would observe #91 on the list.

From Lighthouse Road we observed a single Roseate Spoonbill (LIFER #187) amongst a large number of egrets at Headquarters Pond. That would be the only observation of the Spoonbill while visiting St. Marks.

Friday, January 23, 2009

New Bird Book

I recently received a new bird book from a friend who is aware of my passion for chasing down birds. The book '100 Birds to See Before You Die' by David Chandler and Dominic Couzens is a welcome addition to our ever expanding birding library.

Counting down from 100 to 1, the birds listed in '100 Birds to See Before You Die' are from all parts of the globe, living in a variety of habitats. The book has surely increased my desire to travel, as forewarned by Kenn Kaufman in the book's foreword.

The book has a species checklist listed in the back. Oh, no! I now have another list in which to add observed birds. Well the list is immediately decreased by 3. Only 97 to go!

The three birds ticked are all North American species, the most recent being the Snowy Owl (#47 on the book's list) on December 15 of last year. Jean and I assisted with the St. Catharines CBC and at the round up we were informed of the observation of the owl. So the following day we travelled a rural road in west St. Catharines to successfully witness LIFER #252 sitting at the edge of a ploughed field.

We have to go back to 2007 for the second bird, #99 on the book's list. On April 6 of that year, Jean and I visited the Grimsby Sewage Lagoons for the first time.

We had some good birds that day and we met a fellow birder who gave us a great tip. He had observed a Western Grebe on the other side of Lake Ontario earlier that morning. Not wanting to miss the chance of viewing a rare visitor to southern Ontario, we drove to the Burlington/Oakville lakeshore and within minutes of arriving the culmination to a 4 grebe day was observed. A wonderful view of an Eared Grebe (LIFER # 158) and Pied-billed Grebe were seen through the spotting scope of the fellow birder at the sewage lagoons and dozens of Red-necked Grebe and the solitary Western Grebe (LIFER #159) seen from the north shore of Lake Ontario.

The third bird, #75 on the list, is the Harlequin Duck, LIFER #50. This is my favourite of the three. No tips or reports were used in observing the duck. We found the male Harlequin ourselves while scanning the large pond at Dufferin Islands on March 19, 2006.

What will be the next bird ticked on the list. With the aid of a sound financial plan, time will tell. If I was to make an educated guess, most likely a North American species, possibly a Bohemian Waxwing or Red Crossbill. I'll keep you posted.

To the friend who generously gave me the book, I simply say, "Thanks Tim!".

Sunday, January 18, 2009

January Above the Falls

With the extremely cold weather finally leaving our area this past weekend, an afternoon of birding the Niagara River above the Falls was planned. Having been born and raised in the Niagara Region, the Falls has always been easily reached. It also aided in answering the Jeopardy Round clues in the category 'Niagara Falls' last Thursday. I have viewed the Falls many times and since Jean and I started birding, the number of visits per year have increased. To attempt observing a lifer Purple Sandpiper, we would go to a viewing area near an old hydro building known as the Engineerium. In the photo below, the Engineerium can be seen in the background, on the river's edge.

Image courtesy of Ian Gollert

I do miss the days when the public was allowed access to the 2 to 3 parking spots on the west side of the old hydro building. So on Sunday, we parked in Dufferin Islands and hiked through the nature area to reach the Niagara River.

We brought seed with us and Jean was surrounded by Black-capped Chickadees within seconds of opening her hand. After crossing the first pedestrian bridge a number of birds were observed. Added to the year list was an American Robin seen perched atop a deciduous tree. A bird amongst some House Sparrows caught my attention. "Hey, it has a white eye stripe". A Carolina Wren was ticked for the year list.

Upon crossing the second pedestrian bridge, a small group of Mallards, from the stream below, ploughed through the snow up an embankment in hopes of some human kindness. Leaving the ducks to feed on the corn scattered on the ground we continued along the trail. No nuthatches were to be found in the usual spot. As we approached the large pond in the nature area, 4 male Northern Cardinals were observed in a snow covered coniferous tree. 10 cardinals, male and female would be seen before leaving the area. Streams that normally flow under the trail into the pond were now flowing over the trail. The insulated rubber boots we were wearing kept us from backtracking to the other trails leading to the Niagara Parkway. We continued on the trail along the frozen pond and observed some Ring-billed Gulls (another tick for the year) bickering with a crow over a piece of bread. We reached the viewing area near the Engineerium and set up the scope in hopes of spotting a Purple Sandpiper. It was snowing so visibility was not great when looking further out on the river.

We had last visited the Upper Falls during the Ontario Field Ornithologists 'Niagara River Gull Watch' on November 30 last year.

Jean and I observed our lifer Cackling Goose that day.

From the viewing area we observed the regular waterfowl, adding Hooded Merganser to the year list. For gulls, Herring and Great Black-backed were added. We continued up river along the walking trail or at least what I thought was the walking trail. The trail is not maintained in the winter and was deeply covered in snow. More of the same were observed as we walked towards the frozen hydro intake pond.

We returned to our car and drove to another river overlook, an excellent spot to view gulls. No new species were observed here and with it still snowing, spotting the Slaty-backed Gull where it was last reported would have been difficult.

Our last stop was some feeders in the village of Chippawa. The usual suspects were observed and the following added to the year list, White-breasted Nuthatch, Tufted Titmouse, and House Finch.

Jean and I will return to Niagara Falls soon. We still have a Bonaparte's Gull to see this year and they can be usually observed flying above the rapids near the Horseshoe Falls. Hopefully a Purple Sandpiper will make an appearance.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Duck. Duck. Coot!

On Sunday January 11, Jean and I provided our counting abilities in an annual duck count. John had asked for assistance in the count as well as two December Christmas Bird Counts (CBC). Since meeting John in May of last year our birding activities have increased greatly, both CBCs and the duck count firsts for us.

The duck count covered four areas in the Niagara Region, Fifty Point to Vineland, Vineland to Port Weller (St. Catharines), Port Weller to Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) and NOTL to Niagara Falls. We would cover counting ducks from Fifty Point to Vineland with John and Katherine.

Due to road conditions Sunday morning, we started in Vineland rather than starting at Fifty Point in Grimsby. We travelled along lane ways running parallel with Lake Ontario, scanning for any signs of waterfowl. If numbers looked good, we would exit the car and start counting, using our scopes for ducks further out on the lake. It had snowed overnight and we encountered deep snow on some lanes in Beamsville which eventually loosened and almost completely removed the muffler from John's car. Jean and I, sitting in the back seat of the car, were thankful for the return to Vineland to make the switch to Katherine's car.

With an improvement of road conditions, as well as hearing, we drove to Grimsby to continue the count, heading in an easterly direction towards Vineland. The marina at Fifty Point Conservation Area was mostly iced over with a small amount of open water in the north end. Amongst the Canada Geese and Mallards a lone American Coot was seen trying to decide between swimming in the water or walking on the ice.

The amount of waterfowl encountered at the point in the conservation area was massive. John had large numbers of Long-tailed Duck and White-winged Scoter to count. Canada Geese and other waterfowl requiring a scope were left to me while Jean and Katherine tallied the ducks closer to shore. Though the sun was shining, standing at the point was cold! Luckily the count was before the deep freeze we are currently feeling.

Two more spots were visited in Grimsby, concluding the count at the city's marina. Many Mallards and Canada Geese were observed and Jean did an excellent job of spotting the only Northern Pintail (male) seen on our count.

With our first duck count concluded, the snow and cold experienced while counting has not deterred my participation in next year's count. I have yet to receive final tallies but birds added to the year list included, Canada Goose, American Black Duck, Mallard, Northern Pintail (1), Redhead (2), Lesser Scaup, White-winged Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Common Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser and American Coot (1). The Ontario year list now stands at 32 and still behind the 2008 list.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Odds Were in Our Favour

Saturday morning, Jean and I drove to Fenwick to view the Varied Thrush that had been coming to a feeder since January 6. The previous day had the bird visit the feeder 13 times and no birder left without a viewing. The odds were in our favour.

We arrived after 11:00 am, observing a few cars in the driveway but no birders in the yard. As per the instructions that accompanied the report, we approached the house, following two more birders that rang the back door bell. To our amazement we were greeted by the owner and graciously allowed into her home. After removing our boots and coats, the owner, Carole Chapman, informed us we could view the feeder from either the kitchen or living room windows. Could birding get any easier? There were about a dozen birders throughout the home, all hoping to catch a glimpse of the western bird. It had yet to make an appearance. A total of 29 birders would visit the feeder Saturday without observing the bird. Had the Varied Thrush moved on? Weather conditions were the same as the previous day. It was suggested the appearance of a Cooper's Hawk that morning scared the thrush away. Or has it simply moved to another feeder.

The feeder was not as active as it was on Friday but Jean and I added a few birds to the year list during the two hours we visited the home. Species included, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Blue Jay, Black-capped Chickadee, Song Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Common Redpoll, Pine Siskin and American Goldfinch.

Before leaving, Jean and I thanked owners Bill and Carole Chapman for their hospitality and soon discovered it is indeed a small world. Not only are the Chapmans friends with the previous owners of our house but also with the owner before them. A pine table in the home of a relative of the Chapman's was made from pieces of the barn sitting on our property. A yard in north St. Catharines we visited last year to observe a reported White-winged Dove, another unsuccessful tick, is a relative of the Chapmans!

Additions to the year list did not end at the feeder. En route home, an American Kestrel and Rough-legged Hawk were observed in North Pelham. Approaching Effingham, a flock of 50 Snow Buntings were seen flying and landing but not sitting long, in a field south of Sixteen Road.

The year list now sits at 19 and the Varied Thrush to be ticked another day.

Friday, January 9, 2009

A Slow Start to the Year

A little over a week has passed in a new year of birding and the year list is off to a slow start in comparison to 2008. A severe cold sidelined me and birds observed were limited to those seen from the dining room window and while standing in the backyard.

On New Year's Day, six species were easily ticked, the most interesting being a single Cooper's Hawk and a low flying Red-tailed Hawk. Not until January 8 did a seventh species appear, a small flock of European Starlings flying over the yard.

The observations of the Copper's Hawk have been interesting. Not one but two Cooper's were seen, one following the other, on two occasions. Once by myself and once by my wife. My wife Jean shares a similar passion for chasing down LIFER birds.

I find it odd that we have yet to see a Northern Cardinal visit our backyard feeder. The last observation occurred on December 21. Could it be the fact that a large section of the fence near the feeder is now missing? The missing fence, spooking the cardinal pair that frequent our feeder. Thanks to the high winds on December 28, 2/3 of the fence now lays on the ground. This is why I find myself standing out in the backyard to monitor the dogs as they go about their business. With the ground frozen, a new fence will have to wait until spring.

Tomorrow is the start of the weekend and both days will involve some birding. Saturday involves a short trip to Fenwick to attempt ticking a LIFER Varied Thrush. Fingers are crossed. The bird appears on the cover of the February 2009 issue of 'Birder's World' and viewing the recently reported Varied Thrush would be a great addition to the life and Ontario lists.

On Sunday, Jean and I will be assisting John Black with a duck count. That should help add a good number of birds to the year list.

Stay tuned to find the results of Saturday's hunt and Sunday's count.