Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Day Off Calls for an Afternoon of Birding

A recent article in the St. Catharines Standard not only prompted a May 28 posting but also reminded me that I had yet to visit Niagara Shores this year. The last time we were there was during the Niagara Falls Christmas Bird Count and we did not get far. Travelling in John Black's car we would get stuck in the snow and ice that covered the gravel road. Our time was spent freeing the car with the help of additional birders following in a second vehicle . Once we freed the automobile we would continue our count elsewhere.

With the snow long gone and a temperature well above freezing, we picked up some meatloaf sandwiches from a local take-out restaurant and headed for the conservation area to sit under the shade of the trees and look out onto Lake Ontario, observing a large number of the latest species to be added to the year list, the main purpose for this visit.

300+ Bank Swallows (#150 for the year) were flying above the lake and the conservation area while we ate our lunch.

Before we would finish and start exploring the park, an Osprey (#151) was observed flying along the shoreline, in an easterly direction, towards the old town.

We descended a path in the 200-300 metre wide bluff to reach lake level. As you can see, the Bank Swallows are living up to their name.

It was tedious and down right impossible to capture an image of the swallows as they entered an exited their nest burrows. We'll let John Madden take over on the play by play of the next image.

"Thanks Bob. Another beautiful day in the Niagara Region and today we are looking at some bluffs along the Lake Ontario shoreline, close to the historic town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. What we got here Bob, is 2 Riparia riparia in a pattern to enter their nests. They are totally oblivious to the humans on the beach. A third Bank Swallow, from what I can determine, has exited its nest to join the hundreds of other swallows flying above. I don't like the looks of this bank over here. What's it like to be a Bank Swallow flying through the air, capturing insects on the fly and returning to the nest, I don't even want to think about! It freaks me out! Back to you Bob."

"Thanks John." Jean and I returned to the open field above the beach and headed for the fence line dividing the conservation area from the Parks Canada land. I believe the proposed amphitheatre will be further east, on the former rifle range of the Department of the Defence.

Yellow Warbler were observed while walking the foot path along the fence. The many trees to the right and large amount of brush on the left provide an excellent environment for birds. Some staying well hidden. The territorial call of a male Ring-necked Pheasant was heard as we walked further along the path but the brushy area was too thick for any chance of viewing it.

A Magnolia Warbler popped out of this tree on the other side of the fence.

No other warblers this day.

Returning to the parking lot, we walked along the edge of the open field bordering the forested section of the conservation area. A Warbling Vireo and Indigo Bunting would finish off our day of birding here.

A quick stop at some settling ponds on the way home produced no new shorebirds for the year. 3 Semipalmated Sandpiper, 4 Spotted Sandpiper, and 1 Lesser Yellowlegs were spotted along the edges of one pond. The other pond's water level was rather high and only contained families of Canada Geese.

To my surprise, I had picked up a hitchhiker, most likely during the visit to the conservation area. The grass was quite long along the fence line. While entering the day's observations on eBird Canada, I felt something crawling under my shirt sleeve. Yep, a Brown Dog Tick. Damn, I hate those things. Once you find one tick, you think every little itch felt is another. Ah, the perils of birding.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Addition to the Yard List

A bird's song emitting from the trees in a neighbouring yard caught my attention Friday morning. I spotted the warbler-like bird in the branches of a tall Walnut tree but required a pair of binoculars to identify the species. A yellow crown and chestnut brown sides. A male Chestnut-sided Warbler. Only the third species of warbler observed from my yard. Living within walking distance of the downtown, warblers are hard to come by. Thankfully, the handful of trees in the neighbourhood attract the occasional migrant. The yard list now stands at 44.

For me, the bird does not have to be within the boundaries of my property. If I see a bird flying in the distance while I am in the confines of the yard then it counts. That's how Double-crested Cormorant ended up on the list. Migrating Broad-winged Hawks soared directly over the yard last year while Jean and I were gardening.

Birds visiting the feeder in the back yard usually include, Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, House Sparrow and Dark-eyed Junco (October-April). Unique visitors found at the feeder include 4 species of sparrow, Song, Chipping, White-crowned, and White-throated and 2 species of finch, House and Purple. Though they are on the list, we'll have to set up a Niger seed feeder to attract American Goldfinch to the yard.

What bird will be next, I cannot say for sure. Possibly another warbler, thankful for the stand of trees that allow for a refueling and rest period. Another migrating raptor? Time will tell.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

An Ecopark in NOTL?

With the return of the former Department of Defence site to Parks Canada, there have been proposals brought forward on how the land should be used.

One group, Project Niagara, would like to build a 2000 seat outdoor amphitheatre for music festivals to be held from June until September. Upon hearing this proposal last year, I thought a conservation area would be better suited for the site. Niagara Shores Conservation Area is west of the Parks Canada owned land and I believe it to be beneficial to all if the boundaries of the conservation area were extended to include the 100 hectare site as there is not much land left on Lake Ontario's shoreline that is accessible to the public.

An article in the May 27 St. Catharines Standard suggested just the very thing we birders would like to see become a reality. Randy Busbridge, a spokesman for the Harmony Residents Group, proposed the idea of an ecopark to Niagara-on-the-Lake town council Monday night.,-79.245178&sspn=0.007013,0.013733&ie=UTF8&t=h&ll=43.256549,-79.106369&spn=0.015002,0.027466&z=15

It would appear that Parks Canada is open to the idea if they asked Randy Busbridge to develop more concrete plans. Though I do appreciate the arts, I would rather support an ecopark at this location. Urban sprawl is occurring at an alarming rate and we in the Niagara Region need more areas devoted to conservation.

A visit to the Niagara Shores Conservation Area this weekend may be in order. I was planning on a visit soon as I can count on observing Bank Swallow on the bluffs overlooking Lake Ontario.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Shorebirds of 5th Avenue

Despite its name this rural St. Catharines road does not have the trendy shops found in New York City but birding is a different matter.

I picked up Jean from work on Sunday afternoon and headed to west St. Catharines, once again in search of Bobolink. This time we would travel its entire length of 2.5 kilometres. From 7th Street Louth to 5th Street Louth we did not find anything too outstanding. Red-winged Blackbirds, House Sparrow, European Starling, and American Robin, the usual fare. The most exciting was an American Kestrel on a utility line and a Great Blue Heron in flight. The next block, 5th Street Louth to 3rd Street Louth, more of the usual fare. The best avian sightings have occurred in the last block, 3rd Street to 1st Street Louth and today was another exciting one.

This is my first attempt at pasting a map on a post. I hope it works. If not, I guess you can click on the link.,-73.965454&sspn=0.116455,0.219727&g=fifth+avenue+new+york&ie=UTF8&t=h&ll=43.14662,-79.285841&spn=0.015029,0.027466&z=15

In the field where we recently spotted the Least Sandpiper, more shorebirds were found. Close to the road we saw 2 Killdeer and 1 Spotted Sandpiper. It appeared that more Spotted Sandpiper were further away in a flooded section of the field but smaller birds were there as well. I set up the spotting scope and of course the peeps flew away before we could identify them all. Something had spooked them. All the shorebirds in the field took to the air as a Red-tailed Hawk, with a Red-winged Blackbird on its tail, flew over.

Savannah Sparrow and Horned Lark played in the ploughed field as another species caught our attention. It was in the brush lined ditch that separates the two fields. The bird was brownish on the back, with 2 wing bars, and a whitish throat and belly. It was an Empidonax flycatcher for sure but which one? The eye-ring was lacking so that eliminated the Least Flycatcher. We listened to its short call, "wheet", as that is the only way to distinguish some of the Empids. After noting its field markings and voice we reset the scope on the shorebirds that had returned to the flooded field. An uninterrupted look this time, we determined that the peeps were 2 Semipalmated Sandpiper, #149 for the year list, and 1 Least Sandpiper.

While we were observing the shorebirds a pick up truck pulled up beside our vehicle. Another curious passerby? Cyclists had stopped to inquire what we were looking at through our scope. The gentleman in the pickup truck however was curious for another reason. The farmer had seen us from the other side of his field and noticed that I had left the tail gate of the Subaru open. There is evidence on this road of illegal dumping and he suspected we were up to the same terrible act. Rather than properly dispose of their trash, there are still some losers out there that choose to dump their garbage on a country side road. Once he saw our spotting scope he knew we were OK. He informed us of a family of coyotes that appear near the brush every evening at 8:00 PM. While we were talking another car pulled up behind our vehicles and the owner immediately honked the horn. The farmer would say goodbye and drive away to allow the car through. As it pulled up beside me it appeared the driver and passenger would have similar questions. Not this time. "Do you know it's illegal to block a road?" the driver yelled out at me as he slowly passed. "Ah, yeah.", I replied. I really don't believe my vehicle by itself was blocking the road. It could have been closer to the shoulder but there was plenty of room for vehicles to pass safely, even with the slight narrowing of the road to cross over a culvert. 5th Avenue is not even a major city or regional road. Would a parked farm vehicle evoke the same reaction? Lighten up buddy! I noticed how the driver did not make the same remark to the farmer who was twice his size. Sure, pick on the harmless birder. I have had many encounters like this while cycling on a club ride, "Get off the road!!", with an expletive or two for added effect, but never when I was birding. This was a first.

Continuing on with our birding we would not observe any Bobolink in the field of grass so we returned home to verify our observation of the Empid flycatcher. Listening to the Genus' songs and calls on the All About Birds site and reviewing our field guides (Yes, I did not have one with me in the field). Hey, I was looking for Bobolink and didn't think a guide was required for 15-30 minutes of birding. The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America describes the call of the Willow Flycatcher as a liquid wit. An Alder Flycatcher's call as a loud pip.

We concluded that the Empid was an Empidonax traillii, the Willow Flycatcher, LIFER # 260!

Not too bad for 45 minutes of birding along a country road. Two species for the year list and a lifer too. Only 40 more and we'll be at 300. Oh, and 1 irate driver. Hey, it is like NYC, well maybe more like Toronto.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

NOTL Birding

On Thursday evening Jean and I would spend some time birding two sewage lagoons that have been converted into a nature area. The Wetland Ridge Trail is located in Niagara-on-the-Lake and is maintained by the staff and students of Niagara College.

A grassy trail runs around the perimeter of the lagoons and had been recently cut. Good! Less chance of a Brown Dog Tick hitching a free ride. During previous visits we have found these ticks crawling on us.

A young rabbit sought protection in a rock wall as we walked down the gravel road to reach the lagoons.

This Eastern Black Swallowtail was feeding from the nearby flowers.

A pair of Eastern Kingbirds were seen on the branches of a small tree as we looked east towards the sewage lagoons.

In the north lagoon, 2 Pied-billed Grebes and a few Canada Geese were spotted as well as a pair of Wood Duck, as we approached the east end of the lagoon. In this east end we can usually find a shorebird or two. This evening, on the mat of debris, mud and algae, we found 3 Spotted Sandpiper (#145) and 1 Least Sandpiper. The Wood Ducks would fly away to the safety of the south lagoon. There are nesting boxes set out for Wood Duck and we have observed a pair with young in previous years.

We continued our walk along the eastern edge of the lagoons and observed additional waterfowl species in the south lagoon. 2 adult female Mallards were tending to their many young as Bufflehead repeatedly dove under the water in the background.

We walked along the south side of the southern lagoon finding American Robin, Gray Catbird (big surprises!) and a Hairy Woodpecker in the woods on the escarpment slope. Birds observed in the college's vineyard, using our spotting scope, were identified as American Goldfinch.

Back on the gravel road, we found a male Orchard Oriole (#146) as we were leaving the lagoon area.

Additional birds ticked during the short walk included, Killdeer, Barn Swallow, Tree Swallow, Northern Flicker, Northern Mockingbird, Northern Cardinal, Yellow Warbler, Baltimore Oriole, Red-winged Blackbird, Song Sparrow and House Sparrow.

As with the pond on the recently birded Merritt Trail, we would find no herons in either lagoon. We are sure to come across both Black-crowned Night-heron and Green Heron during future walks, if not here then some where else in the region. I would love to see the Common Moorhen again. Our only Ontario observations (3) have occurred at the Wetland Ridge Trail, the last being in 2007.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Victoria Day Birding

On the holiday Monday Jean and I returned to the section of the Merritt Trail we birded on May 14. That day we did not reach the pond. So on Victoria Day we would start at the south end of the trail to look for any herons hunting along the edges of the small pond, its water levels controlled by the adjacent Twelve Mile Creek. If we had arrived sooner, we most likely would have ticked a Black-crowned Night-heron. Before we reached the pond, a photographer showed us a photo of the heron he took earlier that morning. Unfortunately it was no longer there.

All that we found near the pond were two families of Canada Geese, one family resting on the path that separates the creek from the pond.

While we surveyed the pond, Jean's Dad and his partner Ruth were slowly approaching us. They were on their daily hike and clean up along the trail. Frank and Ruth should be commended for the work they do in keeping the trail clean. Every day is Earth Day to them.

They would leave us to continue picking up any trash while we searched for any new birds for the year list. As you travel north along the trail, the pond on the left narrows and fills in with brush and fallen trees, becoming quite boggy. From this environment we would hear a short, one note call. Our best vantage point was off the trail in an open area of the woods where the bog-like habitat ends. We would eventually spot the bird, as it moved under and between the decaying logs, slowly noting each distinguishing field mark. The light yellow eyebrow, dull pink legs and constant bobbing of its tail clinched the i.d. of this thrush-like bird. We have observed Swainson's Thrush and the warbler Louisiana Waterthrush on this trail in the past but this time we had a another species of warbler, the Northern Waterthrush (#143).

We continued our walk north along the Merritt Trail and found a pair of Wood Duck on the opposite side of the creek near an outtake pipe below the General Motors plant. Jean and I would eventually catch up to her Dad and Ruth and accompany them to the spot where we had observed a woodpecker pair a few days ago. Once again, we would see the Red-headed Woodpeckers flying from tree to tree. Other than the two Cedar Waxwings (#144) in a flowering Hawthorn, no other new birds were seen this day. I did not realize that these waxwings were our first sighting for 2009 until entering the day's observations on eBird Canada. We have yet to see our lifer Bohemian Waxwing but we'll have to wait until the winter months in this part of the country. Comparing sightings from last year, we are ahead by 12 species. Here's to maintaining that gap.

On the way back we would stop and find the Northern Waterthrush for Frank and Ruth to observe. In return, they would show us a ditch that a beaver had created south of the pond. The gnawed trees along the trail also provide evidence of a beaver's presence on the creek.

A day of birding done, we would join Frank and Ruth for lunch discussing the birds and other wildlife we have encountered so far this year. I'm not sure if we'll return to this trail soon. To get more warblers there are some better spots in the region. Please be patient, our warbler encounters will soon be posted.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Birding with the Next Generation

No, Jean and I were not birding with Captain Jean-Luc Picard and Counselor Deanna Troi (ah man that's terribly corny and/or geeky), we took our nephew and niece birding on the Sunday morning of the holiday weekend.

We received letters from them both a few weeks ago, thanking us for the last adventure, feeding calves and horseback riding at a friend's farm. In their letters they expressed an interest in a day of birding with their Aunt and Uncle. After looking at the event filled calendar, (theirs, not ours) a morning of birding at a local provincial park was planned.

Our nephew birded with us twice last year, including the guided walk in Algonquin Provincial Park. That time he had overheard Jean and I discussing the walk and he asked to come along without any influence from us or his parents. He immediately made a friend of the park naturalist and was a dutiful assistant, opening and closing the spotting scope's protective bag. What amazed me on this trip was our nephew's observations when viewing Cedar Waxwings through the spotting scope. The park naturalist asked if he could see the red on the wings, our nephew replied yes and indicated he could also see yellow on the tail. It looks like we may have a future birder in the family.

On the way to Short Hills Provincial Park, we asked what they would like to see. Turkey Vulture, Crow and Chick-a-dee-dee-dee were called out from the back seat. OK, we'll see what we can do.

Before we even left the parking lot, the young birders would observe their first Eastern Kingbird, #139 for our year list. En route to Swayze Falls, we would observe, American Goldfinch, Northern Cardinal, Indigo Bunting, Song Sparrow, Field Sparrow (#140), Yellow Warbler and Black-capped Chickadee, the only species called out from the back seat we would see. Hard to believe no Turkey Vultures flew over while we were there or American Crows for that matter.

We looked at Swayze Falls from the park's viewing platform and continued our search for birds along a narrow foot path where we encountered a small toad.

The kids told me to add it to my list of birds we had observed. In addition, the following was added to the list, butterfly, sparkly rock and snail's shell. It would be hard for any additional bird observations to compete with the likes of a sparkly rock. While the kids were building a dam in the gravel path, Jean and I heard the song of a Blue-winged Warbler. It would continue to sing, remaining unseen, as we walked back to the parking area. Other birds observed during our next generation hike, Northern Flicker, Eastern Phoebe (#141), House Wren, Gray Catbird, Brown-headed Cowbird and Chipping Sparrow.

Our nephew and niece know us too well. "When are we going to Tim Hortons?" was asked before we were half way through the hike and shortly after an inquiry on the presence of snacks. No snacks but a stop for a doughnut or muffin with chocolate milk was in order.

It seems Auntie Jean and Uncle Bob did a good job. The kids still want to go birding, well as long as a stop at a large Canadian doughnut chain immediately follows the outing.

On our way home, Jean and I stopped to look for Bobolink in a grass field where we have observed them in the past. In a small ditch of a farmed field, immediately west of the grass field, we observed a Least Sandpiper (#142) in beautiful breeding plumage. That's a first. We usually see our first in the late summer.

Many Red-winged Blackbirds would pop out of the grass and a few Savannah Sparrows were flying across the road to get to the other side but there was no sign of Boblinks on this day. We will return to this spot in the rural west end of St. Catharines to tick Bobolink but for now we will concentrate on the warblers passing through the Niagara Peninsula. Results will be posted soon. I'm starting to sound like a broken record. Is that saying still allowed in the 21st century?

Monday, May 18, 2009

An Evening Stroll Along the Twelve

Last thursday evening Jean and I walked on the Merritt Trail along Twelve Mile Creek. Red-headed Woodpecker and warblers (any warbler would do) were the target birds.

Overlooking the creek's flood plain we would spot our first warbler, a female Black-throated Blue Warbler (#129 for the year list), with a bit of persuasive pishing. We also viewed Yellow and Yellow-rumped Warblers on the brush and tree lined slope.

No other species of warbler would be seen but it was still a productive hour and 15 minutes of birding. We reached the point of the trail where it changes direction, running parallel with the creek. More importantly, this is the spot we have observed Red-headed Woodpecker in the past. The feeders in the backyards of the townhouses behind us were empty and not attracting many birds but our eyes were focused on the trees. The leaves have yet to obscure a birder's eye view, perfect for spotting our quarry in the dead trees some distance away.

With some patience and Jean's keen eyes, we would add the Red-headed Woodpecker to our year list, #130 . It appeared in the trees a lot closer than I thought it would. Continuing down the trail we would tick our first flycatcher species of 2009, a Least Flycatcher (#131). The song of hidden Yellow Warblers in the greenery below the trail would continue to tease us as we searched in vain for additional species of warbler. Once again, Jean's reliable spotting abilities would find a Scarlet Tanager (#132), though not so close, in full view.

We reached the old trestle for the Niagara, St. Catharines Toronto Railway, where only the supports are a reminder of an interurban system once used to carry passengers to Port Dalhousie. A Canada Goose was making use of the middle support Thursday evening.

Returning along the trail we stopped at the spot where we had viewed the Scarlet Tanager. In its place, considerably closer, was an Eastern Wood-Pewee (#133). Moving on, an Indigo Bunting (#134) appeared on the trail, the easiest tick of the year so far. We located the Red-headed Woodpecker again and observed its mate join it on a branch in front of us. What an amazing view! In the past, the woodpecker has been closer to the creek, 100+ metres from the trail.

At home, waiting for our return and to be opened for the first time was a Birds and Beans bag of Guatemala Huehuetenango coffee. I hope the warblers show their appreciation over the next couple of weeks.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

I and the Bird, 100th Edition

The event y'all have been waiting for is here!

The 100th edition of I and the Bird, hosted by Nate, can be found at the Nature Blog Network.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Louth Conservation Area: Revisit III

On Sunday May 3, Jean and I returned to Louth Conservation Area after missing a visit the previous weekend. We were busy adding some Boreal species to our life list.

The Trout Lily blooms were non-existent. All that remains are their brown speckled leaves. We had missed their yellow flowers deeper in the woods. It was now the Trilliums' turn to flower, their white blooms swaying in the light breeze atop the escarpment. One has to pay attention to avoid stepping on flora as they walk along the Bruce Trail.

Common Blue Violet and Downy Yellow Violet sharing the spotlight.

Though not as prevalent, Jack-in-the-Pulpit were living up to their name, standing tall over the flowering congregation.

False Solomon's Seal has started to flower (May-July) but no flowering Smooth Solomon's Seal (May-June) were found to compare the two plants from the Lily Family.

Birds were limited once again but we managed to add 2 species to the year list. A male Black-throated Green Warbler (#117) and a pair of Rose-breasted Grosbeak (#118) were seen while surveying the tree tops for activity. A Hermit Thrush was observed on the forest floor while we walked along Staff Avenue.

Returning home we would spot a lone Purple Martin (#119) flying overhead. A quick check of a nearby martin house produced no additional sightings of this species.
More warblers were encountered the day before our visit to Louth and the following weekend. Results to be posted soon.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Revisiting Algonquin

It was Sunday April 26, the day after the Algonquin OFO Field Trip. Jean and I had ticked 3/4 Boreal species, 2 were lifers, during the trip. A great day of birding.

Before returning home, we had planned to visit Arrowhead Provincial Park that Sunday but a quick phone call to the park revealed that it was closed and not due to open until May. What were we to do? A decision was made to return to Algonquin. There were some ice formations along Highway 60 that Jean wanted to photograph and there was the Gray Jay that eluded the OFO group the day before.

As was done on Saturday, Jean and I would first stop at kilometre 8. A Hairy Woodpecker was drumming on the utility pole at the entrance of Tea Lake Dam road while we stood below. In the woods, I would get a brief view of a Brown Creeper. We returned to our car and travelled the rest of the road to the picnic area to turn around. We found a conifer tree with huge holes freshly bored in the trunk. Most likely a Pileated Woodpecker but the only other bird we observed was a female Common Merganser downstream from the dam.

Our next stop was the ice formation on a rock wall beside the highway. We parked at the Tea Lake Campground entrance and climbed a slope to capture an image of the wall of ice from the roadside.

In the small amount of brush on the slope we observed 5 Chipping Sparrows, #104 for the year list.

We then stopped at the Mizzy Lake Trail parking lot with no plans to hike the trail. It's an 11 kilometre long trail and the information guide suggests 6 hours is required to complete the loop. We have hiked Mizzy Lake in the past but this day we would simply survey the trees surrounding the parking lot and end up seeing 3 Northern Flicker, Chipping Sparrow, Black-capped Chickadee and Yellow-rumped Warbler.

A quick visit to the Visitor Centre produced no new birds, in fact there was little activity at the feeders. After lunch at Costello Creek, we travelled further east to look for the woodpecker observed the day before. We would find the Black-backed Woodpecker but he was excavating on a utility pole 2 kilometres west of the pole he was at on Saturday.

We would turn around stopping at the Spruce Bog Boardwalk. We hiked in a light rain, observing only 1 Red-breasted Nuthatch before crossing Sunday Creek Bog.

Looking west from the Spruce Bog Boardwalk.

In the background is the Black Spruce forest where we observed our lifer Spruce Grouse.

On Sunday Creek we viewed a lone male Common Merganser before entering the Black Spruce forest east of the bog in search of the elusive Gray Jay. As previously mentioned, they are difficult to spot at this time of year. We walked along the boardwalk surrounded by Black Spruce and nearing the end of the bog where the trail becomes a dirt path, I spotted some movement. It was a bird and I thought it was possibly a Blue Jay. Jean and I remained still but I could not find the bird again. Shortly after that brief glimpse, a dark gray bird with a white collar and forehead flew towards Jean and I. This was the species we missed on Saturday. A Gray Jay, lifer #257. It was looking for some handouts but unfortunately we had none. We were able to get some great views of the Gray Jay as it moved from spruce to spruce.

Gray Jays are an interesting bird. Using their memory, they visit food caches during the winter months. On the field trip Ron Tozer informed us that a park naturalist discovered why Gray Jays prefer Black Spruce. The tree has antimicrobial properties. When mealworms were placed on the bark of various species of tree they were found to be free of bacteria when placed on bark of the Black Spruce. Consistent below freezing temperatures are also required in order to keep their stash of food from perishing. Algonquin Provincial Park is on the southern edge of the Gray Jay's range and climate change (winter thaws) has pushed the species further north.

Even if I was not dressed appropriately for the weather, I would have ignored the light rain that was falling. This was one cool bird! I found another use for my cycling rain coat. It's handy and can be easily rolled up when not needed. The only difference, it's considerably easier to put on and take off while birding than it is while cycling. After a few minutes the Gray Jay would disappear to tend to it's young, not to be seen again.

We returned to the Visitor Centre to enter our observation on the wildlife board in the lobby. A quick scan of the feeders again did not produce anything new. It was time to leave the park and head back to St. Catharines. Outside of the centre we had a short chat with the park naturalist Justin, who led last year's guided walk at the Old Airfield. Before exiting the park Jean and I would add one more species to the year list. 2 Broad-winged Hawks (#106) were soaring above Highway 60. The last animal we would see however was the moose seen the day before. Same spot, same time of day.

Spending the last weekend of April in Algonquin was very productive. A total of 4 lifers were observed, Boreal Chickadee was added to the provincial list, and a total of 16 species were added to the year list. 2009 is looking to be a good year. Observing all 4 Boreal species should assist in the quest to surpass the 187 species observed in Ontario last year. Warblers are next or should I say now.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Ruff Images on Photography Site

Check out Ken Newcombe's photography site. He captured some beautiful distant images of the stunning male Ruff on Wednesday.

With a Eurasian bird ticked this week, that will be hard to top. Warblers tomorrow. Hopefully a lifer in the bunch.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ruffing it in Oakville

I awoke Tuesday morning with plans on finally getting out on the road bike that evening but a report on the Ontbirds listserve early in the morning had changed my mind.

A male Ruff, in breeding plumage, was reported in a flooded field between Milton and Oakville. I entered the location using a well known search engine and found it was just under an hour's drive from my home. This was doable, especially for a very rare spring transient.

Upon reaching the field on Brittania Road we parked on the opposite shoulder, waiting patiently, as traffic raced by, to join 2 birders present on the north shoulder of the regional road. They did not have a scope but they were sure that the large shorebird 200 metres away was indeed the Ruff. As soon as I had the bird in view it flew eastward and I was able to follow it with the scope until it dropped out of sight behind a line of grass separating two fields. We stayed a short time in hopes of the Ruff rejoining the mixture of Lesser (#120 for the year list) and Greater Yellowlegs (#121). Seeing these two very similar species together was worthwhile. Alone they can sometimes be difficult to identify. A pair of Wood Duck (#122) were also found in the flooded field.

The shoulders of the road, as posted on the listserve, were very narrow and vehicles passing at 80 km/hr+ intimidating. Another birder with a scope had joined our small group but all would soon leave, including Jean and I , leaving one birder by the road side. We thought we should try further east, possibly walking down a railway line. This would not be possible. We returned to the field, this time within the safety of our car on the north shoulder, approximately 150 metres east of the lone birder. We still could not spot the Ruff. I drove towards the patient birder and he waved slightly. Did he have it? Yes, it had returned to the open, flooded field! We obtained some great views of an amazing male Ruff with a black crown, rufous ruff, orange bill and black breast. We stayed for some time taking in this rare visitor to the Great Lakes region and I noticed more birders, 100 metres east of our location, enjoying the view as well. Traffic would slow down and curious commuters would stop and ask what we were looking at and appeared excited as we described the bird and showed them images from our shorebird guide.

Content with our time spent on a narrow gravel shoulder, as cars sped by, we bid our fellow birder a good day and headed home with another lifer ticked (#258). One hell of a lifer I might add.

Sorry there are no images to accompany this posting. The Ruff was too far away and in the excitement we did not capture any images of the flooded field. You've seen one, you've seen them all. For those non-birders reading this post, including mother-in-laws, click here for some information on the Eurasian species and here for an image of a male in breeding plumage.

That guilty feeling of choosing to chase a reported bird rather than ride my bike, which grew stronger with every cyclist we passed en route to the location, was nonexistent during the drive home. The bike is still hanging in the garage and will be there tomorrow. The Ruff on the other hand may not. I think the right choice was made.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Louth Conservation Area: Revisit II

On the afternoon of Sunday April 19, Jean and I returned to Louth Conservation Area in search of the elusive flowering Trilliums.

We were greeted by flowering Trout Lily upon entering the conservation area. Trout Lily in other parts of the woodland, with less exposure to direct sunlight, had yet to flower.

We descended the escarpment this time and continued along the Bruce Trail until we reached Louth Falls.

Looking upstream from the top of Louth Falls.

Looking downstream from the top of Louth Falls.

As you can see, the Trilliums had yet to flower on this day.

But the Hepatica were well represented.

Bird activity was low. We only found, Black-capped Chickadee (2), Downy Woodpecker (1), American Robin (6) and a flock of 50 European Starling in a nearby farmer's field.

A May visit to the conservation area is planned.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Algonquin Park OFO Trip

With hopes of ticking Spruce Grouse, Gray Jay and Black-backed Woodpecker on our life list, Jean and I attended the OFO field trip in Algonquin Provincial Park on Saturday April 25.

I booked a vacation day on the Friday for a more relaxed drive to Huntsville, our home base for the weekend. Driving along Hwy. 11 we viewed a Common Raven (#90 for the year list), soaring above, as we passed through the Bracebridge area. Earlier sightings of large black birds sitting in trees could not be confirmed as American Crow or Common Raven. You gotta love birding at 100 km/hr. We arrived mid-afternoon and were soon walking the main street of the downtown. We stopped at a statue honouring Tom Thomson and the Tragically Hip song "Three Pistols" began playing in my head. His amazing artwork has the same effect.

For dinner we sat on the patio of The Cottage Water Front Grill under the watchful eye of some Ring-billed Gulls. One would soon bless me (as well as our table and Jean's purse) with some luck for the day of birding in Algonquin.

Saturday morning we arrived at the West Gate of the provincial park and birded from the parking lot while waiting for the arrival of our field trip leader. In a tall pine, we all observed a nesting pair of Merlin (#91), periodically leaving and returning to the nest, each announcing their arrival with a quick series of calls. Other birds observed at the West Gate, all in flight, included, Barn Swallow (#92), Northern Flicker and Killdeer.

After a review of our planned itinerary and the birds we may encounter, approximately 75 birders in 31 cars (that's one huge carbon footprint) formed a long line (another song stuck in my head-Cake's "Long Line of Cars") en route to our first stop at kilometre 8.

We were looking for Black-backed Woodpecker by the roadside, one of our target birds. We would find 4 species of woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Hairy, Downy and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker but no Black-backed while walking along the north shoulder of Highway 60. Common Raven and Herring Gull were seen in flight. Here's a tip. A gull sighted in Algonquin Provincial Park will almost always be a Herring Gull. No fast food joints = No Ring-billed Gulls we were informed by Ron Tozer, our field trip leader, during the introduction at the West Gate. Yes, the Ring-bills are all at the waterfront eateries evacuating on patrons and birders!

We walked along Tea Lake Dam road for a brief period of time and with it being such a large group, arrived too late to hear the song of an Eastern Towhee, though both Jean and I did hear a White-throated Sparrow (#93). For my lists, if the bird has previously been ticked as a lifer, hearing its song without visual spotting it, counts. From the road, Jean and I would observe a Yellow-rumped Warbler (#94), our first warbler of the year and 2 Common Grackle before leaving for the next stop, kilometre 23. While travelling between kilometre 8 and 23, we spotted a Great Blue Heron (flying overhead), a Red-tailed Hawk (roosting in a tree) and a Mourning Dove on a power line.
We would stand on the south shoulder, overlooking Cache Lake, at kilometre 23 with many Common Grackle and Red-winged Blackbird flying between the trees and bullrushes.

We would get some great views of 2 Wilson's Snipe (#95) in this area. Other birds observed included, American Crow, Tree Swallow, Song Sparrow, and Belted Kingfisher.

Ron Tozer: Field Trip Leader, 2009 Distinguished Ornithologist Award,
and author of "The Birds of Algonquin" (2011)

It was now close to 11:00 AM and the next stop was the Spruce Bog Boardwalk, in search of Spruce Grouse. We walked along the trail into the Black Spruce forest a short distance where Ron informed us of the plan to observe the bird we sought. Using a tape recorder he played the call of a female "Franklin's" Grouse, a western subspecies, to attract the attention of any eastern Spruce Grouse in the area. From the trail's register box, the group spread out, leaving the trail, soon to find one of the birds on the trip target list, a male Spruce Grouse, lifer #254 for Jean and I. We would study the bird for some time, with a show soon to come.

Ron's assistant on the trip, Kevin Clute, returned with a cardboard box. What was in the box you ask?

Ron revealed a mounted female of the "Franklin's" subspecies. The male almost immediately began its courtship display! We all had an excellent view and Jean captured some great images of the male spreading his tail, erecting his red eye combs and rapidly beating his wings.

Note the orange fringe on the tail.

The males of the western subspecies have a tail that is all black.

Hey baby! You come to this bog often?

Note the close proximity of Ron's boot.

Cameras flashed from all angles as if the bird was strutting on the red carpet like a Hollywood star, yet it was not stressed at all. It was totally captivated by the mounted specimen. Ron would eventually remove the specimen and Jean and I would spend some more time observing the lifer before heading to a female Spruce Grouse, found only 5-10 metres from the male. Had she rejected the male earlier? Though not as colourful as the male, the female was still an awesome sight. It walked in the undergrowth, where the forest meets the bog, oblivious to the humans observing it.

Surveying Sunday Creek Bog, Jean and I observed a pair of Ring-necked Duck (we missed the pair of Green-winged Teal).

We returned to the trail to cross the bog, in hopes of finding the next target species, a Gray Jay.

Unfortunately, we would not observe any Gray Jay while walking along the boardwalk through the forest of Black Spruce. A first in the 20 years of this trip. Due to climate change, their numbers in the park are 1/3 of what they were 25 years ago. At this time of year the birds are quite busy feeding their young.

Returning to the parking area, Maris Apse, a trip leader for the OFO, picked out 2 Boreal Chickadee in the trees bordering the road side. Jean and I would spot 1 Boreal Chickadee (#223 for the provincial list) with 3 Black-capped Chickadee in a Tamarack tree while sitting on a slope of a large ditch.

Our birding at the Spruce Bog Boardwalk concluded, we would stop for lunch at the nearby visitor centre. At the back of the visitor centre is a platform for the park visitors to view a wide expanse of the park, including the meandering Sunday Creek, to the south. There are some feeders below the platform and Jean and I observed the following species, Red-breasted Nuthatch (#98), Purple Finch (#99), Pine Siskin, American Goldfinch, and Black-capped Chickadee. Near the feeders, at the south-west corner of the centre, we would spot our second lifer of the day and second species of grouse, the Ruffed Grouse (#255). Other species observed during the hour break include, Blue Jay, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, Red-tailed Hawk, and Canada Goose. We missed the Evening Grosbeaks that a few of the group saw near the centre's parking lot entrance.

We were finished our lunch and had a quick look over the OFO gear for sale. A fellow birder, Cheryl, who actually sat at our table during the 2008 convention banquet, purchased a denim OFO baseball cap to match her denim shirt. She began to work it in to look like that. Yes, another Hip song played in my head, "Fifty Mission Cap".

The next stop was Opeongo Road. The road winds north of the highway for 6.2 kilometres through bog, sedge marsh, and Black Spruce forest and ends at Lake Opeongo, a starting point for reaching interior camp sites by canoe. The weather was warm (21 degrees C) and sunny while travelling along Opeongo road. A pair of Blue-winged Teal were viewed on Costello Creek from the roadside. An uncommon species for Algonquin Provincial Park. As we approached the end of the road in our car, Jean spotted 2 Common Loon (#101) on Lake Opeongo. 1 American Crow and 1 Herring Gull were observed in flight while heading back to Highway 60.

We would continue east along the park corridor and stop between kilometres 53 & 54, slightly west of the Leaf Lake Ski Trail. The temperature was now at 23 degrees Celsius (I'm going somewhere with this). Along the north side of the highway is a utility line. Jean and I would soon see why Ron had stopped here. On a utility pole was a male Black-backed Woodpecker (lifer #256) excavating a nest cavity. Their backs are definitely black and the yellow head on this bird looked like it had been pollinating flowers. What a beauty! When a large group of vehicles has stopped by the roadside in Algonquin, it won't take long for another car to soon stop. A family stepped out of their car to investigate what the OFO group was viewing. The mom of the family asked Jean, "What are you looking at?". Jean replied, "A woodpecker". "Oh, we thought it was something good", stated the mom. Jean then informed the mom that it was a Black-backed Woodpecker and why we were so interested in it. She then thanked Jean and quickly left. I guess some park visitors are there only for the large mammals.

After turning around at the Logging Museum, we were now heading west on Highway 60. The next stop was West Lake Smith Pond. We had to walk through some fallen trees and avoid some moose dung along the way. On the pond we would observe Bufflehead and Ring-necked Duck, while Turkey Vultures soared overhead and Purple Finches played in the nearby tree tops. The temperature had now reached 24 degrees Celsius (I'm getting there).

The group's next stop was the Old Airfield, a spot Jean and I visited in June of last year. Along the way a heavy rain would fall, dropping the temperature to 14 degrees Celsius (my reasoning behind the earlier weather reports). Before reaching the Old Airfield Jean and I would stop for the very thing the mom and her family were most likely wishing to see. A large mammal in the form of a moose.

Last year we hiked along the dirt road during a guided walk with a park naturalist. But I guess being a retired naturalist Ron has connections and his assistant opened the gate to allow our cars through. We would drive the cars until we reached a spot overlooking Lake of Two Rivers. Spotting scopes were brought out, including ours, and some fine looking birds were spotted on the lake. Bufflehead, American Wigeon, American Black Duck, Common Merganser, Common Loon, and a Red-necked Grebe (#103 for the year list) were observed. I never thought my first observation of Red-necked Grebe this year would have been in Algonquin. They are quite easy to tick in the Burlington/Oakville area (40 minutes from St. Catharines). Song Sparrow and Tree Swallow complete the list for birds seen at the Old Airfield. While we were there, a light rain fell, creating a thick mist that would slowly swallow the Common Loon.

Heavy rains occurred again and one more stop was planned if it settled. But unfortunately the rain continued as we reached kilometre 8, bringing an end to the 2009 OFO Algonquin Field Trip.

For Jean and I, the trip was very productive. 13 birds were added to the year list, 4 of which were added to the provincial list and 3 to the life list. We would celebrate the additions with dinner, still in our hiking gear, at "3 Guys and a Stove". As you're leaving Huntsville for Algonquin Park you pass the excellent restaurant. The food was amazing! The owner/chef made Jean a killer gin martini. Is there any other way to end a day of birding? The current rate for an accompanying photographer, 2 gin martinis. The addition of 3 lifers on an OFO trip, priceless. Many thanks to my wife Jean for the excellent images of our day in the field. Without them, the posting would have been meager indeed.

Sunday we would return to the provincial park for another day of birding. Anymore Boreal species found? Results to be posted soon.