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.

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