Monday, February 28, 2011

Bird-A-Day Challenge:Time Management

A birding friend recently posted the comment, "wow-what did we all do with our time before we discovered birds?" An interesting look at life without birding can be found at a well known Carolinian birding blog. As for myself, even though I kept myself busy with cycling and hiking, I must have had a large amount of free time on my hands.

Now that I'm a twitcher, my time spent birding has increased with each passing year. No matter how filled my calendar is, it seems that I can find spare time when required for a birding related activity. This year, I took on the challenge of observing an avian species each day and I still managed to find time or more accurately, I arranged my time to allow for a daily tick.

After ticking a surprise Carolina Wren on Super Bowl Sunday, I started the sixth week of my challenge using whatever spare time I had available. On the first day of the work week, I surveyed the large drainage ditch adjacent to the parking lot at work. Tranquil calls of American Tree Sparrows were coming from the ditch and it was a possibility that another species could be there. A bit of pishing produced a Song Sparrow.

On Tuesday morning, I heard the calls of Black-capped Chickadees while I stood in my back yard. The next day, I went to Port Dalhousie after work. Once again I avoided ticking Mallard and Canada Goose. This was the 40th day of my challenge and I finally added Mute Swan to the list. My selections at the marina are dwindling. It's looking like a ubiquitous species will be ticked during the next visit.

Prior to starting work on February 10, I planned on searching the fields approximately one block west of where I spend 8 to 9 hours of my day. Perhaps the Northern Harrier would be out and about while I drove along 5th Avenue but before I could descend the slope to the area that was once the ancient Iroquois Sea, I spotted a species that totally caught me by surprise. Roosting in a tree, caught in the spotlight of the morning sun, was a male Ring-necked Pheasant. I don't observe this species often. Urban sprawl (box stores) has pushed Ring-necked Pheasant out of west St. Catharines. Jean and I have only had three observations of pheasants and all have been in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Jean grew up approximately two kilometres north of the spot where I viewed the pheasant. She lived in a farm house with vineyards in the back yard, when the 406 extension to the QEW was still an idea and Ring-necked Pheasants were plentiful. Houses have replaced the vineyard and Jean's dad no longer owns the house. As the farmland disappeared, so did the Ring-necked Pheasant observations. This observation will only be on my Bird-A-Day list. Jean was not with me the morning of the 10th and since it is a species we rarely see, it will remain off the year list until we both see one.

Thankfully, the next bird for the Bird-A-Day challenge was observed by both Jean and I. While I stood in the parking lot at work waiting for Jean to pick me up, I watched a male Northern Harrier fly eastward until it disappeared from sight. That was an easy tick but let's see what else can be found once Jean and I start scanning the fields around 5th Avenue, followed by a quick search at the marina in Port Dalhousie. Turning on to First St, we spotted a large flock of birds in the field between Regional Rd 81 and 5th Avenue. There were at least 200 birds in this flock and we watched them move from one side of the road to the other. Some were feeding from the tall grasses sticking out of the snow while others preferred to feed from the ground. The flock contained more than one species! We were looking at Snow Buntings, American Tree Sparrows and Horned Larks. We did our best to spot a Lapland Longspur in the flock but none were found. The harrier seen earlier returned to its favourite hunting ground and buzzed the flock but did not take any prey. This was the first observation of Horned Larks this year so it seemed worthy for the Bird-A-Day list. Besides, Snow Buntings and American Tree Sparrows were already on the list. The Northern Harrier? Save it for tomorrow.

On the Saturday, Jean and I hiked on the Merritt Trail. The weekend before produced a Carolina Wren for the challenge and this day was just as fruitful. There were a few species to choose from, including Red-bellied Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch and House Finch but Jean's sharp eyes assisted me yet again. She spotted a Merlin perched at the top of a dead tree in the valley of 12 Mile Creek. Another addition for the year list and great bird for the Bird-A-Day challenge.

Sunday involved searching for a reported bird. Usually it's the ontbirds report that has us chasing the reportable bird but this time we received information via the family tree.

Jean's uncle had seen a bird we have only observed once and it was in a park we visit often during the month of May. Uncle Gordie had seen the bird while jogging along the wooded trails in the park. Though Jean's mum was not informed of the exact location, she knew this would be a big deal to Jean and I and passed on the luke warm tip over the telephone. So the next day, we went searching for a Pileated Woodpecker in Malcomson Park.

There are many trees in the eco-park that have been poked and prodded by woodpeckers and we monitored every excavation hole we found while hiking the trails.

Jean and I searched from one end of the park to the other but all we could find were Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers. The red-crested member of the family Picidae seen by Gord was not cooperating.

Leaving the park, I turned my attention to the gulls and waterfowl in the Welland Canal. There were a few Glaucous Gulls but that species was already on the list. Long-tailed Duck, Common Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser and White-winged Scoter were also on the list. The selection is starting to get difficult but a couple of Great Black-backed Gulls floating in the canal allowed me to set aside Herring Gull, House Finch and White-breasted Nuthatch for another day.

The seventh week, I would not be as lucky.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Less Than Perfect Storm

For the start of the fifth week of my Bird-A-Day challenge I returned to the marina in Port Dalhousie. So far, six species on the list, including Trumpeter Swan C14, have been observed from the sidewalk in Lakeside Park. To end the month of January, I ticked the Red-breasted Merganser seen in the channel that empties into Lake Ontario. My choices were limited the next day but the ubiquitous Mallards and Canada Geese continued to avoid the list. I settled for Ring-billed Gull.

I was not looking forward to Wednesday. A huge snow storm was on its way and it was predicted that St. Catharines would receive 30-45 cm by the afternoon of February 2. Wednesday morning was a disappointment. St. Catharines was spared from the heavy snowfall. After work, I was planning to search for a bird and then pick up some groceries for supper but after being dropped off by a coworker, I could see I was going nowhere. The driveway entrance was packed with snow from the wake of a city plow. I had to use one of the species that I've been holding in my pocket for such an occasion. I did not expect to see much standing in my backyard and it held true. The best I could do was European Starling and beans on toast for supper.

On Thursday I was back at the marina. Scanning a flock of Common Merganser as they flew up the creek, I spotted 2 Long-tailed Ducks within the group. The end of another work week and another day of working until 7:00 PM. I settled for Blue Jay after a quick search while on my way to work.

Found a little time to bird Saturday afternoon after picking up ingredients for Sunday's chili. At the feeders in St. Johns, I ticked the second woodpecker species for my Bird-A-Day list, a Hairy Woodpecker.
While the chili was slowly cooking, Jean and I birded along our favourite section of the Merritt Trail on the afternoon of Super Sunday. Not many feeders filled with seed and before I could set my binoculars on an American Goldfinch Jean called, a male Cooper's Hawk flew in and the scattering began. The hawk patrolled the area while a White-breasted Nuthatch continued to call from a hidden spot in the valley. With no birds to observe at the townhouse feeders,we continued our stroll on the trail.

At this time of year, viewing the creek from above is possible. We could see a couple of Mute Swans on 12 Mile Creek but I still wanted to hold off ticking this species for the challenge. The call of a Belted Kingfisher was heard, most likely the same bird I selected for my January 26 tick.

Further down the trail, a rustling in a squirrel nest caught our attention and I shrugged it off as being one of the tree dwelling rodents. Jean persisted and out popped a Carolina Wren. A much better bird than the American Robins I was observing feeding on the fruit of the nearby Sumac Trees. I turned my attention to the small bird as it weaved in and out of the cluster of leaves. Not an easy bird to find when they are not vocal. This was surely to be the pick of the day.

We walked as far as the remains of the Niagara, St. Catharines and Toronto Railway bridge but could not find a species more worthy than the Carolina Wren. In the Spring, we'll return to this area to look for the nesting pair of Cooper's Hawks that were successful in raising one nestling last year.

Returning along the trail, we stopped at the townhouse feeders and they were still empty. The fear of falling prey to the male Cooper's Hawk had not past. Over a bowl of chili, home-made guacamole and American football, I decided on the surprise Carolina Wren for Super Sunday.

Now if only the work week would produce a couple of surprises.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Bird-A-Day Challenge: River Birding

It was the last full week of January and I found myself still chasing after a bird for the Bird-A-Day challenge. I started the week searching the rural roads of west St. Catharines after work and ticked American Kestrel. After spotting three of the small falcons in my travels, I took it as a sign that this was the bird for Monday January 24. The next day, my search stretched even further and included areas of North Pelham. It was looking hopeless but I finally settled on a Northern Cardinal observed at a feeder.

On Wednesday, I used a different mode of transportation, one that was beneficial to my health and in finding a bird, I walked home. I was confident that I would spot an "OK" bird while walking through the residential neighbourhood east of Twelve Mile Creek. Before crossing the creek I thought I may find something better than "OK", walking along a short section of the Merritt Trail. An earlier tick on the list (Pine Siskin) was observed further down stream while on the trail.

As the sunlight faded, I observed Mallards, American Black Duck and a Mute Swan. It was looking like this day would be the swan but as I started heading back to the less travelled bridge on Welland Vale Road, I heard the cry of a Belted Kingfisher. Though I could not see the bird, I clearly heard it's loud rattling call. It's still an allowable tick if a bird is heard but not seen. Crossing the Welland Vale Road bridge flushed the kingfisher and I was able to observe the bird with my binoculars as it sat on a branch on the west side of the creek. I was glad I opted to cross Twelve Mile Creek using the Welland Vale bridge rather than the very busy Fourth Avenue bridge.

The next morning, I spotted a flock of American Robins flying over our yard. Although they can be found in rural areas at this time of year, robins are rarely seen in the neighbourhood until the spring.

After a frustrating change to our schedule on Thursday, Jean and I visited Short Hills Provincial Park on the Friday.

Golden-crowned Kinglet and Red-bellied Woodpecker were soon found near the Roland Road entrance to the provincial park and a Hairy Woodpecker was spotted near Swayze Falls but I decided to use a member of the Emberizid family for the challenge. A White-throated Sparrow.

Another weekend allowed for a diligent effort for the next two ticks. Both were found on the Niagara River.

On Saturday January 29, Jean and I explored the lower Niagara. Our first stop was at Queens Royal Park in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

A few waterfowl to choose from but the best find in NOTL was a mammal.

I was hoping to find the Glaucous Gull we observed during the Duck Count but Jean spotted a beaver feeding on branches underneath a walkway of the NOTL Yacht Club.

A few more Common Goldeneye, Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead and Red-breasted Merganser at a spot with access to the river.

Travelling further up river, we ended our day at Adam Beck and the Whirlpool. Jean spotted the bird I was looking for earlier in the day. It was a first-winter Glaucous Gull flying over the fast flowing water at Adam Beck. Though it was all buffy-white, the lack of other gulls made it easier for me to pick out the large Glaucous after Jean called it.

On Sunday, we birded the upper Niagara from Fort Erie to Chippawa. Hundreds and hundreds of Greater Scaup and Bufflehead were observed south of the Peace Bridge. Dozens of Redhead and Common Goldeneye were also seen.

Near the International Railway Bridge, we had our first observation of what I thought would be the bird of the day, Tundra Swan (30+). We had some excitement as we were about to leave for our next stop along the Niagara. As we approached our car, Jean observed a Mallard land in a yard on the other side of the Niagara Parkway. This was odd. Not too long after that, the female Mallard was flying back, calling loudly with a Red-tailed Hawk in hot pursuit of its prey. The two birds were oblivious to our presence and flew directly behind our car as we stood and watched the spectacle. Luckily for the Mallard, it reached the river and the Red-tailed Hawk abruptly ended its chase only to be mobbed by 3 American Crows as the frightened Mallard continued its flight across the river.

Continuing our Sunday drive along the Niagara Parkway, we observed a variety of waterfowl and a sight that sent shivers down my spine.

The large number of Tundra Swans, usually found at Miller's Marina, were absent. The winter ice extended further out into the river, preventing the swans from feeding in the sheltered shallows of the river bend. On the north side of the marina, once again Jean spotted my bird of the day. Three Ring-necked Ducks were huddled amongst the many Canada Geese and Common Mergansers.

A couple more stops before we reached Chippawa but there was nothing as good as the Ring-necked Ducks. The Tundra Swan can wait for a future weekend tick as long as I survive another work week.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Return to Dufferin Islands

On Sunday January 23, I was back at Dufferin Islands Nature Area looking to add Northern Pintail to the Bird-A-Day list. Arriving at the frozen pond, we observed a photographer capturing images of the ducks on the ice. It was my cycling friend Dave. Was he getting some good images of the Northern Pintail? On the previous day, I selected Brown Creeper, a choice that appeared to be the wrong one, the Northern Pintail could not be found on the cold but sunny afternoon.

After the harassment we endured from the nuthatches and chickadees for having empty pockets on the Saturday, Jean brought seed with us to ensure we left Dufferin Islands in one piece. She scattered the corn mixture for the ducks and the bird I sought soon arrived from its seclusion on the other side of the pond to get his share. Jean, Dave and I started taking photos. You'll have to wait for mine, I'm still using film. Save your comments for a club ride Dave. Like the Nishiki, my Nikon FG still has some life left in it.

Though there was a good selection of species for my Bird-A-Day list, I was certainly relieved that the male Northern Pintail was still hanging out with the many Mallards.

No Red-breasted Nuthatch were seen but the White-breasted Nuthatch (3) were busy distributing sunflower seeds to their many caches in the trees.

The sunflower seeds Jean placed on a rock also attracted a bird not seen the day before.

Tufted Titmouse, Baeolophus bicolor

I left Dufferin Islands with the tick I planned on. The start of a new work week meant I may have to take what I could get.