Thursday, March 31, 2011

Chasing the Blues

March 24

The weekend was practically over when I became aware of the latest vagrant observed in the Hamilton Study Area (HSA). On Saturday March 19, a female Mountain Bluebird was seen in the company of a male Eastern Bluebird by some birders tasting wine on top of the Niagara Escarpment.

There are no records of Mountain Bluebird in the Niagara Region and this is only the second for the HSA. A male was observed for 3 days in Flamborough in April of 1989 (Bob Curry, Birds of Hamilton and Surrounding Areas).

As for our observations of Mountain Bluebird, only one for Jean and I. We viewed a pair during our vacation out west in 2009. The last lifer of our BC/Alberta trip was viewed while travelling along the Bow Valley Parkway in Banff National Park. This western species of thrush would be a welcome addition to the Ontario list. It would be a few days later, the day after a Spring snow storm, when we attempted an observation of the Mountain Bluebird. The bird was observed only once this day, but I was coaxed into trying for the tick by the afternoon sunshine.

Jean and I are familiar with this area of Stoney Creek. We searched for Orchard Oriole along a trail, south of the winery, last summer but our best ticks occurred in 2007. A lifer Eurasian Collared-Dove in July and on Boxing Day, a Northern Hawk Owl was added to the life list.

The birder that observed the Mountain Bluebird on Thursday afternoon was still at the winery when Jean and I arrived. He had not seen the female since mid-afternoon and he believed it did not stay long after discovering the male Eastern Bluebird was absent. Insect larvae easily found earlier in the week had disappeared after Wednesday's snowfall. Jean and I viewed the vineyard at the back of the winery with the birder/photographer for approximately 45 minutes as migrating Turkey Vultures flew overhead. On March 20, he captured this image which can be found on the OFO photo page.

No addition of Mountain Bluebird to the Ontario life list for Jean and I but the trip was not all wasted. Before we left, all three of us observed an Eastern Meadowlark at the front of the property. Our first for 2011. I'll keep watch over the reports more closely. I would definitely like another shot at adding this species to my Ontario list. Hopefully, the Mountain Bluebird has sought shelter in the brush and woods neighbouring the winery and once the snow has melted, she will return to sitting on the posts long enough for two St. Catharines birders to see it.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Today's Forecast, Snow and 10,000 Tundra Swans

March 12

Long Point during the month of March is an exciting place if you're a birder. Migrating waterfowl, swans and cranes pass through the area each year en route to their breeding grounds. Though Jean and I ticked Tundra Swan earlier this year while birding along the Niagara Parkway, I was looking forward to viewing the massive numbers of Tundra Swans in the fields and air during the OFO trip. E-mail reports informed ONTBIRDS subscribers that there were a staggering 10,000 Tundra Swans at Long Point. You could not see the water for the swans.

This was our third year of attending the Long Point OFO trip and instead of waking up early and driving for two hours to reach the St. Williams Forestry Station, we booked a bed & breakfast in Port Rowan. The same B&B we used for accommodation during the 2010 OFO Annual Convention. I took a vacation day on Friday and Jean and I planned to leave St. Catharines in the afternoon. Early Friday morning, our host at the B&B contacted us to ask if we still coming to Port Rowan. "It's snowing like crazy here!", the host informed Jean. That was a surprise to us, St. Catharines had no snow at all. The heavy snowfall raised concerns. Not for travelling but how the snow may hinder our chances of observing Sandhill Cranes. My concerns grew exponentially upon arriving in the small Norfolk County town. Along the way, we observed Tundra Swans in flight, 3 in Jarvis and 4 as we turned south towards Port Rowan on Regional Road 42. Would the morning snow storm have an affect on our swan viewing the next day?

Yikes! The harbour in Port Rowan was still frozen and covered with snow.

Unlike the 2009 trip, there was no way the small bay, west of the marina, would produce either phase of Snow Goose this year.

Looking towards the causeway we could see small pockets of open water containing small numbers of Tundra Swans.

More ice and snow when viewing the harbour from the bed and breakfast.

After an evening meal at a restaurant near the causeway, Jean and I drove along Long Point Road. We heard and observed Tundra Swans in the area surrounding Big Creek.

On Saturday morning, we woke to the calls of the nearby swans with no need to rush. The meeting place for the OFO trip was only a 10 minute drive. Add French toast with syrup from Oxford County and you could not ask for a better start to a day of birding.

Saturday's first sighting occurred during breakfast. Jean spotted a large bird flying over the harbour. It came to a rest on the ice and views through the scope supported our call of immature Bald Eagle.

Less than an hour later, we met our fellow OFO members and trip leaders (Jim Heslop, Bob Stamp & John Olmsted). No stops at Booth Harbour or Port Rowan this year. 18 cars started the search for a reported Greater White-fronted Goose.

The group stopped at Dedrick Creek. We found over 40 Canada Geese, including 2 in a tree, but no lifer Greater White-fronted Goose this day.

For Jean and I, we added two species to this year's Ontario list. A pair of Northern Shovelers were spotted in the background of the flooded field and Killdeers (3) announced their return to the Long Point area.

We moved on to Lakeshore Road, checking the fields west of Hwy. 59 until we reached Lee Brown Waterfowl Management Area. The fields on either side of the road are an excellent spot to find swans and migrating ducks. Horned Larks greeted us as we started our drive towards Port Royal. A Merlin was perched at the top of a tree along the side of the road and all had extended views of the small falcon. Small flocks of Tundra Swans flew overhead while hundreds and hundreds more were resting and feeding in the fields to the north.

In the flooded sections, Jean and I scoped a number of Redhead, Northern Pintail, and American Wigeon. To the south, our group's first observation of Sandhill Cranes. The cranes (3) were in flight and calling.

Blackbirds were out in force as we passed through Port Royal and Common Grackle was added to our year list.

At Lee Brown Waterfowl Management Area the small man-made pond was frozen so the ducks made use of the nearby flooded field. More Northern Pintail, Redhead and Tundra Swans. Jean and I also spotted American Black Duck, Canvasback and a Northern Shoveler mixed in this group and for the third year in a row, Sandhill Cranes in the neighbouring field.

We moved north to where Concession Road 1 crosses Big Creek. No waterfowl in the swollen creek on the north side of the road. Looking south we found 1 American Wigeon and 1 Gadwall amongst the Canada Geese.

We moved on to Long Point and thanks to Bird Studies Canada, the group had access to the Old Cut Field Station during lunch. Luckily, I had the correct amount of cash on hand to place in the honour box to obtain a copy of Ron Ridout's, A Birding Guide to the Long Point Area. The guide has me planning to return and explore the Long Point area by ourselves to tick a lifer Northern Goshawk.
Birding around the Old Cut simply added birds to the 2011 Norfolk County list. It was less than a year ago that Jean and I ticked our lifer Gray-cheeked Thrush here after it was subjected to some measuring, weighing and banding.

Another drive along Lakeshore Road added Northern Harrier and Great Blue Heron to the day's list. Our final stop was in Walsingham to visit the feeders owned by a member of our group. A variety of birds were on the property, including Pine Siskin, House Finch, American Goldfinch and White-throated Sparrow. In the creek, another county addition for 2011, a pair of Ring-necked Ducks. Though it took all day to see one, the group had a close look at a Bald Eagle (an immature with a transmitter attached to its back) as it flew overhead.

And with that, another Long Point trip came to a close. One last 2011 Norfolk addition for Jean and I as we headed back to the Niagara Region though. Not too far from the forestry station, we spotted over a dozen Wild Turkeys. Despite the ice along the Lake Erie shoreline and the snow cover, we had a great day of observing early migrants. Thankfully, the snow storm occurred on the Friday and not the day of the trip. With our target species ticked, Jean and I can turn to the next batch of migrants, including our annual yard visitor, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. He's due to arrive in a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

There's Aways the Niagara River

March 5

The day my Bird-A-Day challenge came to an end, a Great Horned Owl sighting was posted on the ONTBIRDS ListServ and I did not see the e-mail until later in the week. A few days had past since the sighting but I was anticipating that the owl may have a mate and was set to raise young in the Town of Fort Erie. If Jean and I could not find the Great Horned Owl, we could always take a side trip home along the Niagara River. That way, the day would not be totally wasted.

Saturday was a mild and damp day. The rain did not make it easy to scope a tree 100-150 metres away from where I stood. The nest appeared to be mostly leaves and as far as I could tell, it did not contain an owl. On a sunny day, I would have stayed a bit longer. It appeared to Jean and I that the owl was elsewhere. So we headed east to the Niagara River for a leisurely drive towards Chippawa.

The usual variety of ducks were encountered, each species preferring their own section of river when gathering in large numbers.

A small quantity of of Tundra Swans were observed this time. They will soon leave the region, possibly joining the thousands of swans at Long Point before heading to their breeding grounds in the Arctic.

Further down river, we paused to view an adult Bald Eagle perched in a tall deciduous tree. There are quite a few trees at this location, a preferred spot for resting Bald Eagles and we have found them here on two previous occasions this year.

A large float of Greater Scaup near Baker's Creek concluded our trip of searching for waterfowl along the upper Niagara. Nothing new was found between Fort Erie and Chippawa. Looks like a change of scenery is required. With early spring migrants on the move, it was time for the annual OFO trip to the Long Point area. 10, 000 Tundra Swans awaited our arrival the afternoon of Friday March 11. I was hoping there would still be room left for one or two Sandhill Cranes. A target species I could not afford to miss.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bird-A-Day Challenge: It Was Fun While It Lasted

Yes, as you could guess from this post's title, my Bird-A-Day challenge is over. It actually lasted longer than I thought it would, coming to an end after two full months of ticking a different species each day.

To start the last full week of the challenge, I headed out on the afternoon of Family Day and checked out some areas in Thorold that could have open water. Although we had a couple of days with temperatures in the double digits, there was still plenty of ice covering Lake Moodie. In the open water on the far side of the lake, all I could see were Canada Geese and a pair of Common Mergansers.

I moved on to Lake Gibson. There are a few open sections and my favourite spot did not disappoint. As I scanned the waterfowl, dozens upon dozens of American Robins flew overhead.

In addition to the usual species, there were a number of Redhead and a couple of Ring-necked Ducks. Both species were ticked along the Niagara River on previous occasions. In fact, the Redhead was chosen the day before after a failed attempt to find wintering Tundra Swans. A recent WNY Buffalo bird report on ontbirds indicated that the Tundras are still on the river. I simply picked the wrong spot to look for them. But apparently, luck was on my side the holiday Monday. To the naked eye, it appeared there were more Mute Swans than the usual pair. A closer look through the scope revealed that the six additional swans (adults and 1 juvenile) were another Cygnus species, Tundra Swans.

I worked the rest of the week and searched for a bird at the end of each day. I attempted to find the Northern Harrier last seen on February 11 but the field and skies of west St. Catharines were empty and I continued my search on the Merritt Trail. From the trail, I spotted a Hooded Merganser on 12 Mile Creek and decided to save the House Finch viewed near the feeders with a Common Redpoll for a day later in the week. The next day, the redpoll was still hanging around the feeders but there was no sign of the species I was hoping to find. This day it was OK to miss the White-breasted Nuthatch and the House Finch. Before reaching the feeders I found 3 Red-winged Blackbirds perched in a tree. On February 24, I switched it up and increased my search area to find the Northern Harrier. I spotted 1 Rough-legged Hawk and 8 Red-tailed Hawks travelling along rural roads but no harrier. I made my way to Short Hills Provincial Park thinking I may get the kinglet Jean and I had viewed in a conifer earlier in the month. There were many White-tailed Deer in the corn fields but the birds were most likely deeper in the park. Further down the road was a private yard where Jean and I have observed Wild Turkey and I thought it was worth a try. I'm glad I did. In the back yard of the property, I saw 6 Wild Turkeys. I was given another day to search for the harrier. Try, try, and try again paid off. I've lost count how many times I drove along Fifth Avenue looking for the harrier but I survived another day when a male Northern Harrier flew across the road in front of me as I tried to identify another possible harrier in the distance. Whew! I survived another work week.

The weekend allowed for some short excursions. On Saturday February 26, Jean and I returned to Dufferin Islands. I was hoping for a Tufted Titmouse appearance or a backup nuthatch species. No titmouse in the nature area or at the Chippawa feeders.

At the west end of Dufferin Islands, the birds were overjoyed that we had seed.

Both the White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatch were readily taking seed from our hands. As were the Black-capped Chickadees and a very apprehensive Downy Woodpecker. The bird stood on the concrete barrier, surveying Jean until it gained enough trust to hang from the side of her hand. The bird for this day, Red-breasted Nuthatch.

An odd looking hybrid took the place of the Northern Pintail seen amongst the Mallards on an earlier visit.

On Sunday, I thought a new spot that was not too far from St. Kitts might produce a waterfowl species I had yet to tick for the challenge.

Jean and I went to Vineland to look at the ducks on Lake Ontario, a stop for the MNR Duck Count. Waterfowl observed included White-winged Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser and the species I was looking for, Greater Scaup.

A male Long-tailed Duck diving while a female Greater Scaup is content with taking it easy.

For the moment, the scaup was the bird of the day. Travelling home, I drove along the rural roads in the Town of Lincoln, up and then down the Niagara Escarpment, in search of Eastern Bluebirds. Jean and I have not observed this species of thrush since the Port Colborne CBC on January 2. That day, a Rough-legged Hawk made the list.

No bluebirds on the Sunday afternoon drive but at the edge of a field, a member of the family Mimidae stood at the top of a small tree. Northern Mockingbird replaced the Greater Scaup for the bird of the day.

On Monday February 28, I returned to Vineland after work. The Greater Scaups were still there. Aythya marila was the last species for the Bird-A-Day challenge. The next day I had an appointment in the early evening and I decided the best chance of continuing the challenge in March was to look for a Herring Gull below Lock One on the Welland Canal. I had cast the dice. On previous visits, I observed Herring, Glaucous and Great Black-backed Gulls but this day, all I could find were Ring-billed Gulls standing on the ice. East of the canal, Jones Beach was no different. The distant gulls appeared to be Ring-billed as well. After one last futile attempt, driving home along the empty Welland Canal (water and gulls), my Bird-A-Day challenge came to an end. Even if I had observed a Herring Gull, I could not see it lasting much longer. One or two more ticks but I'm certain I could not have taken the challenge into an eighth week.

With the Bird-A-Day challenge set aside until next year, I can now work on adding species to the 2011 Ontario list. Thankfully, there are some OFO trips and BOS counts coming up. February was slow for additions but that was due to a well birded January. Jean and I currently stand at 75 species, a number we did not reach until March 21 last year. In addition to the trips, the ontbirds report will be helpful, especially if the reported bird, one such as a Great Horned Owl, is in the Niagara Region.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Fleeting Ticks

During the seventh week of my Bird-A-Day challenge there was little time for birding. I had more important things to attend to and species set aside for such a day went quickly. From Monday to Thursday, I ticked Mallard, Rock Pigeon, House Sparrow and Canada Goose. On Friday, I was awarded a gift for my patience earlier in the week. While sitting at a traffic light on my way home, a Sharp-shinned Hawk flew over the front of my vehicle and by the look it gave me, it appeared the small accipiter knew I needed this tick. Thanks Sharpie.

Another weekend but this time, I had an extra day. The provincial holiday, known as 'Family Day' would give some additional spare time to actively search for a species that I do not come across every day.

On the 19th, I visited the feeders on the Merritt Trail and observed a Red-bellied Woodpecker in the trees beside the gravel path. The next day, I travelled to the Upper Niagara River. I had still not ticked Tundra Swan and I was certain this would be a no hassle tick. With the recent thaw, I thought the section of river near Miller's Creek would be free of ice. Well, it was definitely clear of ice. But to my surprise, there were only two swans present.

Mute Swans.

Was I too late? Had the Tundras left Niagara? From the roadside, I looked at the waterfowl on the river and found two species that I could use for my challenge. After choosing Redhead over Greater Scaup, I attempted a bit of digiscoping.

Heading back to St. Catharines, I thought of places that I could visit on the holiday Monday. Not only would it have to produce a species that was not already on the Bird-A-Day list, it would have to be a spot that involved a minimum amount of travel. With no spares left, my days just might be numbered.