Sunday, November 14, 2010

Not to be Outfoxed This Year

October 24

As some of you may know, Jean and I are attempting to tick 200 species in Ontario this year. Though not a Big Year (300+), 200 seemed a reasonable challenge for us to attempt. Currently, of the Top 100 eBirders in Ontario, only 25 have 200 or more species on their list. In 2009, we reached 197, a number we recently beat while on the Buffalo Ornithological Society Fall Count.

So the question in late October was, where to bird? During the 2008 OFO annual convention, Jean and I observed our lifer Pileated Woodpecker while walking through the Hendrie Valley in Burlington. It is a woodpecker species we have observed only once. With two full months of birding left, there was time for some long shots.

The Hendrie Valley Sanctuary covers 100 hectares and the property was transferred to the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) in 1941 for ecological protection.

It was a warm day in St. Catharines with the thermometer reaching a high of 18 degrees Celsius but as you travel through the Golden Horseshoe, the weather can change quickly. 30 minutes later, we arrived in Hamilton and the temperature dropped to 10 degrees. In addition to the cooler temperature, we were greeted by a thick mist as we crossed the Burlington Skyway.

At the Cherry Hill Gate (one of three entrances to the valley) we found a flock of Cedar Waxwings containing an anomalous individual. Its tail tip was red and not the standard yellow. The undertail coverts of this odd Bombycilla were white so it was not a Bohemian Waxwing. No other member of the flock had this unique field marking.

Descending the Grindstone Marshes Trail into the valley, we soon spotted our 199th species of the year with a few White-throated Sparrows.

Despite observing it three years in a row on the Green Ribbon Trail by Martindale Pond in Port Dalhousie, Jean and I missed the species this April. The eastern form of the species breeds in the Boreal Forest and winters in the southeastern United States so in southern Ontario it can only be observed during migration. Having missed it in the spring there was still a small window of opportunity to view it in the fall.

Fox Sparrow, Passerella iliaca #199 for the Ontario 2010 year list

In total, we observed 7 Fox Sparrows, all kicking backward with both feet in the leaf litter and gravel in search of food.

Before reaching Grindstone Creek, we spotted an immature male Common Yellowthroat and a Red-tailed Hawk standing watch over the south side of the valley.

We started our hike on the raised boardwalk and stopped to scan the valley for our red crested quarry.

In October of 2008, Lifer #243 was seen while looking east from the arched bridge.

No Pileated Woodpecker on this misty Fall day.

The Black-capped Chickadees were certainly not shy though.

As we walked downstream....

....we observed a muskrat and some Chinook Salmon in Grindstone Creek.

More chickadees willing to pose.

I will definitely not wait another two years before returning to the Hendrie Valley trail system. There are still a few trails to explore on the RBG property, one of which may just lead us to a Pileated Woodpecker observation.

The addition of Fox Sparrow to my lists did not end with the Hendrie Valley. Just over a week later, a bird with what appeared to be a streaked or spotted breast flew low across the yard. Though late, I was thinking, perhaps wishfully, that it was a Wood Thrush. Of course it was a Fox Sparrow, the 47th addition to the yard list. A bird that was truly in our yard. Jean and I watched the fall migrant for 15 minutes as it jumped around the gravel driveway. There had been no need to drive to Burlington the previous weekend. Will I be able to sit out back with a beer in hand waiting for #200 to show itself? I somehow doubt that a Surf Scoter or a Lesser Black-backed Gull will end up near downtown St. Catharines over the next few weeks or ever for that matter. Looks like a short drive to the Lake Ontario shoreline and the Niagara River are needed and the beer will have to stay in the fridge.

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