Monday, August 30, 2010

The Best Tick of the Year.

The evening of Friday August 13 was the start of my week's vacation and before leaving for Inverhuron, Jean and I participated in the Ontario-wide Chimney Swift blitz. Bird Studies Canada encouraged residents to look for roosting Chimney Swifts on the weekend of August 13-15 to raise awareness of the plight of this species.

Starting at 8:00 PM, we monitored 3 chimneys at the Lake Street Armoury in St. Catharines. In June of last year, we observed 8 swifts enter the chimneys. During this year's blitz we counted a total of 16 Chimney Swifts as they entered the armoury's chimneys over a 45 minute period.

Twice the amount we observed last year. Though this year's count was held 2 months later, let's hope that the increase Jean and I observed is an indication that the local population is increasing.
OK, on to the best tick of the year. This bird has appeared on Ontbirds for the last few weeks and I sighed as each birder added it as their most recent addition to the Top 100 eBirders in Ontario list. I was unsure I would get a chance to observe it but upon consulting the Ontario road map, travelling to the Luther Marsh for a possible lifer tick was worth the detour. Well worth it!

Jean and I were travelling to Inverhuron for a few relaxing days at a cottage on the shores of Lake Huron. To get to Bruce County from St. Catharines, we planned to travel north along Hwy. 6 until reaching Hwy. 9/County Road 109 in Arthur. If we were to continue our route to the cottage, we would head west along Hwy. 9 to Kincardine. The Luther Marsh Wildlife Management Area is only 20 kilometres north-east of Arthur. We could easily take an hour or two to search for the reported bird before continuing on to Inverhuron.

Ontario birders reading this post will be fully aware of the bird I was chasing. For those of you outside the province, the bird that continues to attract twitchers from many parts of Ontario is a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Though far from its breeding range of Texas, Oklahoma and the western edges of Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana, this is not the first appearance in Ontario. The bird is a very rare to casual wander in much of North America (National Geographic Field Guide to Birds, 5th Ed) and the Ontario Bird Records Committee has accepted 45 records in the province (Bob Curry, Birds of Hamilton and Surrounding Areas).

To increase our chances of observing the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, I took notes while reviewing previous Ontbirds posts. I chose to approach the area the bird was frequenting from the west and travelled along County Road 15. The gravel road cuts through the northern section of the wildlife management area and shortly after the road turned to pavement we came across another birding couple (Brian and Lynne) in search of their lifer Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Brian commented on the Ontario Field Ornithologists (OFO) decal affixed to the window of our car and introduced himself as the treasurer of the OFO. Brian and Lynne had been looking for the flycatcher for approximately 1.5 hours and informed Jean and I the bird was seen earlier by the birding blind, south-east of our position. On August 3, the bird was observed and photographed perched on a wire above the county road. Jean and I proceeded to Sideroad 21 & 22 to search the area surrounding the blind. Looking west from the sideroad, we observed a Northern Harrier and Green Heron.

Brian and Lynne pulled up behind us but we did not have any good news to share with them. After a few more minutes of scanning the field and viewing 3 Sandhill Cranes flying over the marsh, Brian questioned a bird perched on a branch in the distance. Our suspicions had Brian and I rushing for our spotting scopes and as we were doing so, Jean and Lynne confirmed that this was indeed the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. As the bird jumped up from its perch, its long scissor-like tail was revealed. Both Jean and Lynne shouted out, "That's him!". Yes! Here we were, thousands of kilometres from Texas and we ticked a lifer Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.

The four of us observed the bird for an hour as it hunted from the bare branch some 150-200 metres away.

During the 60 minutes of birding bliss, an Ontario Provincial Police officer stopped his cruiser and asked if we had seen the bird. It appears that this local detachment of the OPP are aware of the bird's presence and the number of birders it has attracted to the gravel roads of Dufferin Region. A local resident stopped to see what we were looking at through our scopes and was treated to a great view of the flycatcher through Brian and Lynne's spotting scope.
After sharing the observation of the lifer Scissor-tailed Flycatcher with Brian and Lynne, we went our separate ways. Ticking lifers is always exciting and it will be great to reminisce with Brian and Lynne the next time we meet at an OFO event.
Jean and I remained in the Wildlife Management Area (WMA) for another two hours. We ticked a few additional county birds during lunch at the main entrance and then returned to the area where we had observed our 299th lifer. We parked at a small WMA parking area off of the road and walked the grassy trail towards the marsh/lake.
The Sandhill Cranes observed earlier could be seen in a distant field, but their calls made it seem like they were much closer. While looking at the cranes through the scope, 2 Wild Turkeys were observed running behind the tall birds. Many Bobolink were roosting in the grasses not too far away and we observed 5 Great Egrets while at the marsh. A post received on Ontbirds recently, indicated that 209 Great Egrets were counted here during the CWS Great Egret roost survey.
At first it appeared the only waterfowl on the lake were mallards. Two white swans were seen on the far side of the lake but they were too far away to identify. Two young male birders arrived shortly after us to scan the lake and noted the species Jean and I observed. They soon left, even after I informed them we had seen the flycatcher in the area 1.5 hours earlier. Unfortunately for them, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher reappeared as we were walking towards the duck blind. This time it was perched on a branch near the edge of the marsh.

Jean and I observed many Pied-billed Grebe (adults and their young) on the lake as we walked along the dike.

The white swans were closer to our position, close enough to identify them as Trumpeter Swans. I thought I was going to have to wait until December to tick this species. We viewed the pair of Trumpeters and 6 cygnets from the blind.

A Rana pipiens relaxing in the grass on the dike.

Our time at the Luther Marsh came to a successful conclusion and after finding the reported bird, I could truly relax at the cottage for a few days. Jean and I have observed some exciting lifers this year, but I think I can safely proclaim that the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is the best tick of the year. Now it's back to adding species to the year list. Hopefully we can add a few while birding along the shores of Lake Huron.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Rock Point

On Sunday August 8, Jean and I attended the OFO Rock Point Provincial Park and Lake Erie Shore trip in search of migratory shorebirds. We met John Black at the entrance to the provincial park and shortly after 8:00 AM, a group of 31 birders headed for Lake Erie shoreline. Assisting John on the trip were Jim Heslop and Kevin McLaughlin (the shorebird expert).

Stepping down the stairs to the limestone shelf on the south-eastern edge of the park, we spotted a male Red-breasted Merganser in the water. One can usually find a few shorebirds in the pools as you walk towards the south shoreline but on this day, the birds were absent. Strong south-west winds created high waves on Lake Erie, reducing the beach as well as the number of shorebirds we encountered.

The high winds also made birding difficult when looking through the scope. Tilley hats not fastened down were soon flying off with birders in chase. I mimicked Jim Heslop and turned my OFO cap backwards to ensure it remained on my head.

Shorebirds added to the year list included, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Sanderling, Semipalmated Plover and Ruddy Turnstone. No dowitchers this time. No yellowlegs either. I spotted a peep with yellow legs before it disappeared behind some tall grass and informed Kevin that we may have a Least Sandpiper with the Semipalmated Sandpipers and Sanderlings. Though a Sanderling was determined to keep the smaller shorebirds away from the small area of mud, the bird returned and was identified as an adult Least Sandpiper. This was the only Least we found at Rock Point. Adult migration through southern Ontario started in late June and will soon end.

Since the beach was reduced, the group did not continue walking westward along the shoreline as we did on previous trips. We retraced our steps back to the parking area to leave the park and found this moth on the door of a restroom facility. Any educated guesses on what species this may be?

The Mozaic Evaporation Ponds north of Rock Point were the next planned stop. Normally the gates to the ponds are locked and views of the large pond are limited through a fence from the north side of Rymer Road. But being a member of the OFO has its privileges and during field trips birders are granted access to some of the finest evaporation ponds and sewage lagoons in Ontario. South of Rymer Road, the group walked along the dike that separates two ponds. Jean and I added Greater Yellowlegs to the year list at these ponds.

Reflecting on previous visits, the large pond north of the road is better for shorebirds. Lifers seen here include Stilt Sandpiper (#207) and Marsh Wren (#241). A raised laneway separates the pond into smaller pools and on a hot sunny day it can be quite grueling when walking from one end of the pond to the other. This day was pleasingly comfortable.

At the entrance, a Marsh Wren was singing in the reeds. Great Blue Heron were numerous and a very rough looking juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron was seen flying over the pond. Shorebirds found here that were seen earlier, included Killdeer, Semipalmated Plover, Least Sandpiper, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs and Semipalmated Sandpipers.

Jean and I added 2 more shorebirds to the year list while at this pond. 5 Short-billed Dowitchers were using their identifiable sewing-machine motion while foraging in the mud. There were 2 Pectoral Sandpipers present but only a select few (may be even less than that) were lucky enough to observe them before they disappeared. Though I needed Pectoral Sandpiper for the year list, the sting of the miss was soothed by the observation of another shorebird. A species that Jean and I observed for the first and only time in the fall of 2007 under the most unfavourable conditions of a thunderstorm. This day, the observation of a Red-necked Phalarope was a lot sweeter. All in the group had great views of the juvenile bird for at least 30 minutes. We left the phalarope still swimming in the shallows of the evaporation pond.

Our next stop was the local sod farms to observe plovers and hopefully, a Buff-breasted Sandpiper. At the first farm, no plovers. But the second was more fruitful. Among a large number of Killdeer, we observed 11 Black-bellied Plovers. Scanning the green of another farm produced an additional 6 Black-bellied. No Buff-breasted Sandpiper this trip. Even a distant Mourning Dove could not be transformed into the sought after shorebird.

After lunch, only 4 birders remained. Jean and I along with John Black and a birder from the Toronto area continued along the Erie shore into the western edge of the Niagara Region.

Morgan's Point was washed out and the quarry in Wainfleet produced Short-billed Dowitcher (5) and a Lesser Yellowlegs but no new shorebirds were added to the day's list.

During the Rock Point trip, 8 species were added to the year list. Only 23 ticks are now needed to reach 200. The week after the OFO trip, we had vacation plans in Bruce County. Not only was I looking forward to spending some time on the beach of Inverhuron with my brother-in-law's family, I was preparing to add ticks to the counties Jean and I travelled through. Yes, eBird Canada can now break down your provincial list into counties. So on August 15, Jean and I set out for the shores of Lake Huron. But before we could relax at the cottage, there was a bird we had to chase. A bird that has appeared on Ontbirds for the last few weeks and was conveniently located along our route to Inverhuron. There was no way I was letting this one slip by.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

In Search of an Orchard Oriole

August 1

Once again, birds listed on the Hamilton Naturalists Club birding report caught my attention. A female Orchard Oriole with young was seen on the Dofasco Trail. The report also stated this species will soon disappear from the area. What? I can't let another species slip through my fingers. But is it justified to travel to the area atop the Niagara Escarpment to add only one species to the year list? There was no guarantee it would be there when Jean and I hiked the trail. The week before, a Common Moorhen was spotted at the sewage lagoons in Grimsby. That's better. So a plan was set into place. Travel west to Grimsby, stop at the sewage lagoons to search for the Common Moorhen then climb the escarpment for a return visit to the Dofasco Trail. The fact that we did not tick any first of the years our last visit did not even enter my mind.

Water levels in the north lagoon were high for shorebirds. At first, all we found were Killdeer (2) and Spotted Sandpiper (2) on the edges of the small rocky islands in the lagoon but a relentless Eastern Kingbird chasing a larger shorebird had me hoping we had a first of the year. Though the kingbird chased the bird from one end of the lagoon to the other, Jean and I were able to view long yellow legs and a white rump as it flew in a panic-like motion. So we did not find a Common Moorhen but we left the lagoons with a Lesser Yellowlegs added to the year list. On to the Dofasco Trail to look for an Orchard Oriole.

Well, once again we could not find the reported bird. But east of 10th Road, we added two more species to the year list. In a bush at the side of the trail, we found 2 Field Sparrows, a species that Jean and I attempted to view on July 1. The forest edge was full of activity. Indigo Bunting, Yellow Warbler, House Wren, Northern Cardinal and Gray Catbird jumped from branch to branch right in front of us. Then finally, a species I was afraid I might miss this year. 2 Blue-gray Gnatcatchers joined the mix.

From the shoulder of 10th Road, we scanned the shorebirds found in the shallow pool south of the trail. No new ticks amongst the 45 Killdeer and 1 Lesser Yellowlegs.

Some time was left before heading home so we checked out the boardwalk section of the trail. A few birds but again nothing special or new. Possibly a spring visit to the Vinemount Swamp will yield some good results.

August 2

On the holiday Monday, Jean and I continued our search for an Orchard Oriole at the Glenridge Quarry Naturalization Site. Based on a previous observation of a pair of Orchard Orioles (the female was seen weaving a nest) in 2007, we thought it was worth a try. It was very hot the Civic holiday so we did not hike the former quarry/landfill until late in the afternoon. The Niagara Region has done an excellent job restoring the property into a naturalization site and the success of the transformation was discussed in a recent article in the St. Catharines Standard.

We walked the Loop and Meadow Trails searching the different environments of the site for the bird that will soon leave for its winter home.

27 species were ticked and the only oriole found was a male Baltimore Oriole on the eastern edge of the site that borders with farmland and remnants of an orchard. Has it really been 25 years since I conducted quadrats and transects for a first year biology lab in the nearby field?

So the long weekend ended without an observation of an Icterus spurius. It's looking like I will miss this species of blackbird. The Field Sparrow and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher ticks were a relief though. There are only so many species that I can afford to not encounter. Shorebirds are next on the agenda. Let's hope species seen last year are repeated during the OFO trip to Rock Point. Is it too much to ask for a lifer Buff-breasted Sandpiper?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Niagara Digiscoping

On a warm July evening, herons and more herons were observed while strolling along the Green Ribbon Trail.

In all, 4 Black-crowned Night-Herons and 3 Great Blue Herons were found along the edges of Richardson's Creek.