Saturday, October 29, 2011

Online Images of Extinct Woodpecker

When you're a birder, friends and family will routinely ask you to identify a bird they observed in their yard or at times, and thankfully I might add, inform you of the latest news in the birding world. Not sure how I missed the exciting news that was released by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology earlier this week, but I certainly appreciate my cousin for passing along this story he read on the CBC News site.

On Wednesday, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology posted the only known film footage of the extinct Imperial Woodpecker on its blog, Round Robin. In 1956, an amateur ornithologist filmed a female Imperial Woodpecker during an expedition in Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental. This species has not been seen alive since the 1950's and the film provides valuable information on this exquisite woodpecker.

Sadly, most of the old-growth pine forest where the bird was observed has been cut down so any dreams of a sighting by researchers is long gone.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Penny Farthing Races

Birding has certainly taken control of my spare time (and I have no regrets). After seeing this clip, I suddenly miss riding and realize that the Nishiki is really not that old.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Marsh Monitoring Program: Survey Says!

Earlier this year, Jean and I volunteered to assist with the Great Lakes Marsh Monitoring Program. The MMP is a cooperative program of Bird Studies Canada, Environment Canada and the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. We had selected a marsh in St. Catharines to survey for the program and our first of three visits to the spot, marked as Barnesdale Marsh 2, was on June 4.

It was a cool and cloudy morning but there was no threat of rain and it was warm enough (at least 16 degrees Celsius) to conduct the 15 minute survey. The 15 minutes consists of two 5 minute passive (silent) observation periods separated by one 5 minute call playback period. We were provided with a MMP Broadcast CD that has a 15 minute running time with prompts to indicate different components of the survey.

I estimated the overall size of the marsh as tiny (between 1.5 and 2.5 hectares), so we only had one station to survey along the route. If we had additional stations, they would have to be separated by at least 250 metres for the marsh bird survey and at least 500 metres if we were doing an amphibian survey.

The survey was conducted from a central point located on a 100 metre semi-circular sample area. Looking to the southwest, the sample area covered the entire width of Richardson's Creek as well as the tree-covered bank on the opposite side of the creek.

So, what were we looking for? Individual birds were marked in one of four categories: focal species, secondary species, aerial foragers or outside/fly-throughs. Focal species were the priority which included American Bittern, American Coot, Black Rail, Common Moorhen, King Rail, Least Bittern, Pied-billed Grebe, Sora, Virginia Rail, and Yellow Rail. Focal species are surveyed at an unlimited distance.

Secondary species, basically species not listed as a focal species, are only counted, recorded and mapped if observed within the 100-m station area.

Birds seen actively foraging in the air within the survey station area are recorded as aerial foragers. Tree Swallows picking insects out of the air and a Belted Kingfisher diving to the water's surface are examples of aerial forgers.

Outside/Fly-throughs include additional secondary species observed outside the station area and birds (focal or secondary) that fly through the survey station without landing or foraging during the 15 minute survey.

For the survey, only one person can find, identify, and count the birds. That was Jean's job. I was the assistant, the lucky one to carry the broadcast unit down the slope to the creek's edge and document information. More than one observer would bias the results.

What did we find during our first visit? No focal species were seen or heard. Secondary species mapped included Red-winged Blackbirds, Baltimore Oriole, Great Blue Heron, a pair of Wood Ducks (FOY) and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. At first it appeared the hummingbird would be recorded as a fly-through but it came to a rest near the focal point. It seemed it was conducting it's own survey as it sat perched on a small branch above the creek. A Mourning Dove was recorded on the Outside/Fly-throughs list.

The weather was warmer and there was no cloud cover during the second visit.

Red-winged Blackbirds, Great Blue Herons (3) and a perched Belted Kingfisher were observed within the survey area. Barn Swallow, Tree Swallow and American Goldfinch were fly-throughs.

No ticks on the focal species chart. Would a third time be a charm?

Though it was not essential, we conducted a third survey of the Barnesdale Marsh on Canada Day (July 1). One last attempt to record a rail or bittern but the calls broadcasting from our boom box were unanswered.

Since 2006, Jean and I have birded this little area adjacent to a residential neighbourhood in Port Dalhousie a number of times between the months of March and October. Despite not finding any focal species during the MMP or on my eBird lists for this spot, we will return to Richardson's Creek for the program in 2012. As stated in the participant's handbook, surveys of small marshes are needed to help determine the effects of marsh size on species diversity and abundance. If we can observe this many turtles in such a tiny marsh, perhaps there's still hope for a bittern sighting.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Bird to be Thankful For

Though I prefer (or is it that I feel compelled) to post my birding adventures in order, this one was too exciting to hold off for a few weeks. Tales of firsts of the year and lifers found between June and October will appear in future posts.  

Jean and I had the Thanksgiving Day weekend pretty well set before it started. On the Saturday we would attend the OFO Hamilton/Burlington trip, assist John Black with the Fall Buffalo Ornithological Society (BOS) count on Sunday and relax and possibly do some yard work before going to my brother-in-law's for dinner on the holiday Monday. All it took was one e-mail and plans for Monday were suddenly changed.

It was Sunday evening when I became aware that there was a possible juvenile Purple Gallinule in St. Catharines. Not only was the marshbird within minutes of my home, it was near the area Jean and I had birded with our fellow Niagara birders earlier in the day. For part of the morning, we counted birds on the west pier and in Malcomson Eco Park in Port Weller for the BOS Fall count. At 10:00 AM,  Jean and I left the group so we could start on our assigned area within John's section. The lucky few that stayed as a group would find a juvenile Purple Gallinule at a pond on the east pier in Port Weller while Jean and I were walking the trails in Firemen's Park.

An additional posting Monday morning had Jean and I heading for Port Weller for an early afternoon tick for our Ontario list. Our lifer Purple Gallinule was observed in the East River Pool at St. Marks NWR while on vacation in the panhandle of Florida in June of 2007. Though the breeding range of the Purple Gallinule reaches the gulf coast of the United States from the tropics, they do stray northward quite regularly.

Walking along the seaway road towards the pond, we met inquisitive dog walkers and birders that were successful in their hunt. We took the advice of the reports and headed for the east side of the pond, meeting additional birders, including Paula, a member of the group that observed the bird on Sunday morning. The bird was still there and had been seen standing on and near an object sticking out of the water. The juvenile gallinule was hidden when we arrived but it eventually made a short appearance before disappearing in the reeds.

A few more birders arrived, some choosing to pass on turkey dinner with their family so they could observe a tropical mashbird in southern Ontario. The bird was partially seen as it moved through the reeds. A few chose to try and observe it from the west side of the pond and were rewarded with great views. At first, I stood my ground on the east side with hopes that the gallinule would walk back to the object sticking out of the water. A birder from Oakville indicated he was seeing the gallinule quite easily, so Jean,myself and Hamilton birder, Cheryl Edgecombe, quickly walked over to the west side.

The wait was not long. The Purple Gallinule soon emerged from the Phragmites and cattails, allowing Jean and I excellent views of the reported bird. The lighting was significantly better on the west side and Jean took out her Nikon Coolpix and started snapping digiscoped images.

The gallinule repeatedly flashed its all-white undertail coverts. This was an important observation. If there was a sign of a black line in the undertail coverts, then we were looking at a Common Gallinule (formerly know as a Common Moorhen). Neither Jean or I could see any black in the undertail coverts.

The body of the bird was buffy-brown and there was hints of green on its back and wings. This was definitely a juvenile Purple Gallinule.

Number 257 for the Ontario list and number 204 for the year.

This will be the fourteenth observation of the species in Ontario and only the fourth in Niagara. The last record of Porphyrio martinica in Niagara was in October of 1962 (Black and Roy 2010).

As people left, more arrived. My cycling friend Dave (an occasional contributor of images to my blog) began snapping photos with his digital SLR as we helped him, Mike, and our fellow OFO members, Norm and Marilyn get on the bird. I wonder if we'll run into the same group of friends when we go see The Big Year?

During the 1.5 hours Jean and I were at the pond, we had some great unobstructed views of the Purple Gallinule. It certainly removed the sting of missing the observation during the BOS count. Filled with gallinule, we still had plenty of time to arrive at my brother-in-law's for Thanskgiving dinner and fill ourselves with turkey.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Alvar Birding

May 29

Alvars are a unique habitat found over a base of limestone or dolostone and are limited to areas in northern Europe and the Great Lakes Region of North America. Luckily for me, I live between two Great Lakes, which allows me easy access to an alvar that is designated an Important Birding Area by Birdlife International.

The Carden Alvar is located northeast of Toronto and can be easily reached in 2.5-3 hours from the Niagara Region. Last year's trip was the first visit for Jean and I and we added 5 lifers, including the endangered Loggerhead Shrike, to our life list. This year I was looking to add a number of species to the year list and if a couple of lifers were collected in the hunt, all the better.

We stayed overnight in Orillia and Saturday evening was spent birding along a paved trail that took us to the Narrows and a municipal park by Portage Bay. We added 16 species, ranging from the ubiquitous Rock Pigeon to a colourful male American Redstart, to the Simcoe County list. After ticking an Eastern Meadowlark on our way to Kirkfield the next morning, the county list stands at 31 species.

We met trip leaders Jean Iron and Ron Tozer in a Kirkfield school-yard and scanned for birds while waiting for the rest of the group to arrive.Though species were limited, Jean and I added Cedar Waxwing to the year list. You never know how many members will attend a field trip. The OFO Carden Alvar trip is a popular one but it appeared the forecasted rain discouraged quite a few from joining us for a great day of birding. There was certainly going to be a lot more elbow room along Wylie Road this year, our small party of birders was less than half the size of last year's trip.

A light rain was falling as we strolled north along the gravel road. If I didn't get my target species the first attempt, I could try again after birding the Sedge Wren Marsh.  Jean and I have found Grasshopper Sparrow and a surprise lifer Clay-colored Sparrow in the Niagara Region but these Emberizid ticks are more easily found in the grassland and scrubland of the Carden Alvar. Four species of Emberizid were singing as we walked along Wylie road and we had some good views of Grasshopper and Clay-colored Sparrows through the scope at Windmill Ranch.

An Upland Sandpiper stood atop a lichen encrusted rock.

Before reaching the marsh, we ticked two more firsts of the year, Brown Thrasher and Golden-winged Warbler. Like last year, the male Vermivora chrysoptera was seen singing from an open perch.

Once in the Sedge Wren Marsh we listened for the calls of wrens, bitterns, sora, rails and flycatchers. Last year, we observed a lifer Alder Flycatcher and Sedge Wren and ticked American Bittern and Marsh Wren for the 2010 provincial list. This year, these species were repeated. American Bittern were calling and we had a quick view of one flying low before it dropped out of sight. Sedge Wren and Marsh Wren were heard singing but stayed hidden and Jean Iron picked out the call of an Alder Flycatcher which we spotted perched on a branch. Without its call, it would just be an Empidonax sp. The wichity wichity wichity song of the Common Yellowthroat and the descending whinny of a Sora were also heard. As we left the marsh, one last FOY for Jean and I, a Black-billed Cuckoo. This species avoided my checklists last year and it just might help me get 208+ this year.

Returning along Wylie Road, we spotted additional Brown Thrasher and a Wilson's Snipe (FOY), a species missed in April during the OFO trip in Algonquin Provincial Park.

A few more Upland Sandpiper were found.

Including this one that Jean photographed from the car as we drove by the fence post.

No Loggerhead Shrikes were observed while hiking along Wylie Road but there was still the possibility of observing the masked endangered species during our visit to the Carden Alvar. At the Great Blue Heron rookery (seen from Shrike Road), we observed a rare Blanding's Turtle sunning itself on a log.

Travelling north towards McNamee Road, we stopped to scan the scrubland for shrike. Though it was distant, we got on a Loggerhead Shrike using the scope. We found a second Loggerhead Shrike and an Upland Sandpiper while scanning more scrubland on McNamee Road.

At the Cameron Ranch on Kirkfield Road 6, a third shrike for the day, Wilson's Snipe and Brown Thrasher.

In 2003, the Nature Conservancy of Canada acquired the Cameron Ranch and the 1161 hectare ( 2869 acres) property will become part of a new Carden Alvar Provincial Park.

We then crossed the causeway at Canal Lake and observed an Osprey in its nest on one of the platforms. No Common Loon in the small body of water near the causeway this year but a little further down Centennial Parkway, we stopped near the small marsh to look for bitterns and rails.

Jean Iron played the song of a Least Bittern and the coo coo coo brought out the inquisitive lifer (#307) for my wife and I. We studied the Least Bittern through our scope as it stood grasping a reed in each claw in order to support itself above the water. Once we had taken in all of the bittern's field markings, it was time to capture a digiscoped image of the very photogenic pose.

Yes, it bolted! The only photographic evidence we have is a small brown blob flying above the marsh.

We continued the trip south of Kawartha Road 48 to look for Sora, rails, bitterns, wrens and waterfowl in the Prospect Marsh.

In one section of the marsh, Jean and I ticked Blue-winged Teal and Pied-billed Grebe for the year list.

At our second stop, the spot where we observed our lifer Virginia Rail on our first visit to the Carden Alvar, we observed a Virginia Rail (FOY) and a Common Gallinule (FOY). The last time we observed a Gallinula sp in Ontario (April 2007), it was known as a Common Moorhen. This was a welcomed tick. It had been absent for 3 long years. Now, if I ever find myself in Europe, thanks to a split into Old World and New World species, I can once again add Common Moorhen to my life list.

Further down Prospect Road, the group found Clay-colored Sparrow sitting low in the scrubby brush and we had some great views of a second Virginia Rail.

The trip was nearing completion when Jean and I ticked one more first of the year. This time, the call of a Empidonax species belonged to a Willow Flycatcher.

After a day of birding in the Carden Alvar, 20 species were added to the Ontario year list and another month of birding came to a close. Ticking a lifer Least Bittern, Common Moor, errr I mean, Common Gallinule, both the Alder and Willow Flycatcher as well as the target species will certainly help to obtain a second 200+ year. The next few weeks would be considerably slower and that was OK with me. Before heading up to Sudbury in July for a chance to tick warblers missed during their migration through Niagara, Jean and I would do some Marsh Monitoring in St. Catharines.