Tuesday, November 29, 2011

It's Not Always Going to Be Black and White

Another weekend of exciting birds in Niagara. Many birders were out and about at several spots along the Niagara River. At Queens Royal Park in the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL), the Razorbill continued to be observed, jaegers were spotted, Black Vultures were soaring above the Niagara Gorge and an excellent variety of gulls were observed at Adam Beck and the Whirlpool. With the Razorbill and Franklin's Gull safely ticked, it was time for Jean and I to observe a Black Vulture. But first, we had to make a stop at small pond in rural NOTL. 

On Friday, my friend Dave posted on ontbirds that there was an American White Pelican at Jack Custers Bird Sanctuary. Up until Dave's post, I had no idea there was such a place.  

Jean and I arrived late Saturday morning and we discovered fellow Niagara birders, Paula and Kathy had the same idea (this appears to happen quite frequently whether we are in Niagara or beyond). The pond is on the small side, but the juvenile American White Pelican did not seem to mind.  I set up our scope and Jean started capturing images with her Nikon Coolpix.

Jean contacted her dad and we continued to view the pelican until my father-in-law and his partner Ruth returned to St. Kitts to continue their weekend chores. I having set my chores aside (yet again), moved on to Queenston with hopes of ticking #210 for the year. I thought our best chances would be to look from atop the gorge at the Locust Grove picnic area in Queenston. Each vulture we examined, as they soared over the Niagara River and the town of Lewiston, N.Y., had a red head. They were all Turkey Vultures. Dip #1 for the day.

The next stop for Jean and I was at the Adam Beck overlook where we found  "Burg Birder" Blake scanning the gulls on the river. He had seen Franklin's , Lesser Black-backed and Thayer's Gull but during our time there all we found was one adult Iceland, a species already on the year list.

Blake informed us that he had observed a juvenile Black-legged Kittiwake at the Whirlpool earlier in the day. Well, since it was worth a shot, we travelled up river for the possibility of observing a lifer bird. We've stood at the look out of the Spanish Aero Car many times in search of a Little Gull. Spotting a kittiwake amongst the hundreds of Bonaparte's Gulls would not be easy. Juvenile Bonaparte's and Black-legged Kittiwakes are similar in appearance. What we needed to note was a bolder "M" across the back and a black line across the nape of the neck. We spotted a juvenile gull flying but it was a quick look and neither of us viewed the black collar. Another attempt was offered once we were informed the kittiwake had landed on the waters of the Whirlpool. Unfortunately, it was in the midst of a few hundred Bonaparte's. I used the scope to look for the cliff-nesting gull, but could not find it. Dip #2 for the day.

Sitting one species better than last year's Ontario list, I spent Sunday running errands. The constant light rain was also a deterrent, but I was content with just the American White Pelican tick. As of Monday, the extremely rare visitor to Niagara was still on the small pond in NOTL and it was the subject in the local news section of today's St. Catharines Standard. I'm hoping it sticks around for another few days, then it can be ticked again for another list, the 2011/2012 Winter List.

If only Black Vultures and Black-legged Kittiwakes were as cooperative as White Pelicans.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Big Nickel Birding: Birding in Manitoulin and Greater Sudbury Counties

July 19

The main reason Jean and I were in Sudbury this past summer was to visit family. We returned to French River with my brother, sister-in-law, and nephew for a bit of sight-seeing at the provincial park's visitor centre. The binoculars were at the ready in case the Pileated Woodpecker, heard earlier in the week, decided to make a public appearance.

During our last visit to the Sudbury region, there was no centre at the park nor was there a pedestrian bridge spanning the French River gorge. At first, I thought the bridge was installed by the provincial government, but once we reached the 512 ft span, we discovered that it was built by the French River Snow Voyageurs snowmobile club in 2005. It is Canada's largest cable supported snowmobile bridge.  While birding from the bridge, Jean and I added Caspian Tern, Ring-billed Gull and Red-breasted Nuthatch to the Manitoulin County list.

The visitor centre has an assortment of displays to educate the public of the rich history of First Nations and European cultures that lived, worked and travelled along the 105 kilometres of interconnecting lakes, gorges and rapids between Lake Nipissing and Georgian Bay.

Once outside the centre, we ticked Ruby-throated Hummingbird, but the large woodpecker with the red crest on its head was neither seen or heard.

July 20

The next day, Jean and I returned to Kelly Lake for a hike along the Trans Canada Trail. We entered the trail from Southview Drive (approximately 3 km east of our intro-birding walk with my brother). Before reaching the section of trail that runs along the shoreline of the lake, we walked through a forested section and found a spot rich with birds and Red Squirrels. Redstart, Yellow-rumped, and Black and White Warblers darted about the conifer branches, but to my disappointment there were no Blackburnians.

Other than the recently added branches to the dam, there was no sign of the large rodent that I believe should remain as Canada's national animal. Surfing the web for stories on this somewhat hot topic revealed a quiz on the BBC News site and based on my test score, I'm just beavering away.

Along the open areas of the trail, we found some very cooperative Savannah Sparrows as well as Chipping, Song and White-throated species of the Emberizidae family.

Pileated Woodpecker continues to boldly challenge Jean and I. Once again, we observed evidence of Dryocopus pileatus, but since 2008 the woodpecker itself, carries on evading our lists.

Not to worry this day. Out on Kelly Lake, we found, not one, but two willing subjects for a bit of Big Nickel digiscoping.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

One Down, Two to Go.

November 20

After ticking a Red-throated Loon and a lifer Razorbill (an extremely rare visitor to Niagara) recently, reaching a new personal best for the Ontario year list appeared to be within reach. This late in the year though, the list for possible additions is a short one. Gulls and waterfowl, specifically Black Scoter, Lesser Black-backed Gull and Thayer's Gull are the most likely to be observed before the end of the year (both species of gulls were reported on the 20th). There are other possibilities. California Gull, Cackling Goose, Brant, and even Black Vulture (the species has been observed at the Niagara Gorge over the last two weeks) could be added before the list resets itself on New Year's Day.

Scrutinizing the head, wings and tail of vultures soaring above the lower Niagara River can wait. Hopefully this was the right choice.

It has been almost a year since Jean and I attended our first Peninsula Field Naturalists (PFN) meeting and on Sunday we attended the Niagara Falls Nature Club 'Lake Ontario Ducks' trip with our fellow members of the PFN. There had to be one Black Scoter somewhere along the shoreline of Lake Ontario between Vineland and Hamilton.

At the first stop in Vineland, ducks were sparse, but as we moved west towards Hamilton, the numbers increased greatly. There were hundreds upon hundreds of Common Goldeneye and Long-tailed Ducks and somewhere in these large rafts were scoters.

A few White-winged Scoters were spotted while standing at the end of Fruitland Road. Public access to the Lake Ontario shoreline is in short supply and to view ducks on the lake, dead-ends are a required substitute. Fifty Point Conservation Area in Grimsby is one of the few public spaces for viewing waterfowl and for those lucky enough, our nemesis bird, but for this trip, our stay would be short and would not justify the entrance fee.

From the roadside where we observed our lifer King Eider (female) in December 2008, we spotted the patches of white on the forehead and nape of a male Surf Scoter. Scoping the other dark waterfowl before they disappeared between waves revealed some scoters with a large orange knob at the base of the bill and no white patches in their wings. In total, 2 male Black Scoters were observed. We had some great views of 2 female Black Scoters at Sayer's Park (a tiny patch of green in a residential neighbourhood) before continuing on to spots along Hamilton Harbour.

Due to dredging at the Windermere Basin, the open waters no longer exist. The small channel that remains holds only a small sample of the migrating waterfowl that could be observed in the past.

At the Burlington lift bridge and ship canal, a large number of Long-tailed Ducks were at the east end of the canal.

The resident Peregrine Falcon was spotted when we heard its alarm call and it quickly disappeared from my view after flying through the arch of the skyway. It returned and came to a rest at the top of a hydro tower, south of the lift bridge.

The group's last stop was LaSalle Marina on the north side of the harbour. A great spot for waterfowl, but unfortunately the Ross' Geese observed a week earlier were no longer present and there was nothing new for Jean and I. The highlight for a few of us was spotting a Little Brown Bat as it skimmed the water and then flew above us with the sunlight emphasizing the reddish-brown colour of its fur.

With the trip concluded Jean and I headed back to St. Kitts with one more stop planned. During the week of November 7, a Cackling Goose was observed on the lawn of the Canada Centre for Inland Waters. Though a number of days had past since the sighting, it would be unwise not to stop at the centre. The lawns had a few small flocks of geese, but none contained the much smaller Cackling Goose.

With Black Scoter (#208) safely ticked, my attention can now focus on the Niagara River. A gull or possibly even a vulture may be the next species to appear on the 2011 Ontario list. Which ever one it is, a new bench mark will be set.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Avoiding a Dip in the Lake

In less than a week, there was another rarity reported in the Niagara Region. On Tuesday November 8, a Razorbill, an alcid that nests on rocky cliffs of the north Atlantic, was spotted at the mouth of the Niagara River. This was a special one. Even more enthralling than the Franklin's Gull Jean and I observed the previous weekend. There are only three records of Razorbill in the Niagara Region.

We have never travelled to eastern Canada since taking up the rush of adding bird species to a list. If we were lucky enough to observe the Razorbill, it would be a lifer. Like most birders my age, chasing a bird during the work week can be rather difficult. On Thursday November 10, I attended the STAO conference. The last time I was representing my company at the annual conference in Toronto, a rarity was entertaining Ontario birders in a subdivision in Brampton. Do I sense another trend? The Razorbill would have to wait until the weekend. 

Jean and I arrived in Niagara-on-the-Lake around noon on Saturday and set up our scope in Queens Royal Park, an excellent spot for viewing waterfowl and loons during the winter months. We scanned the waters of Lake Ontario ( I was asked by a tourist what the large lake in front of us was called) between Fort Niagara and the green buoy, a distance of approximately 1 kilometre.

New York state birders were positioned at the west wall of the fort. Well worth the $10.00 U.S. entry fee if they spot the Razorbill.

There were many Horned Grebes, 3 Red-throated Loons (FOY #206) and 1 Common Loon spotted while we scanned the lake for the Razorbill, but the reported bird did not make an appearance during the 90 minutes we stood in the public park. A couple we talked to had seen it west of the NOTL golf course earlier in the day so we would try two more public accesses along the Lake Ontario shoreline. Gulls and waterfowl were observed, but no lifer on Saturday. We left with an addition to year list and a plan to return Sunday morning.

The lack of reported sightings in the inbox of our e-mail Sunday morning did not discourage Jean and I from loading the car for another attempt to tick the Razorbill. After crossing the Garden City Skyway and exiting the QEW, any thoughts of a positive outcome suddenly vanished when our car stalled and failed to restart. Was this how it would end? Do not pass Go. Do not tick that Razorbill.

I called CAA and Jean contacted her mum. I doubted there would be room in the cab of the tow truck for two disenchanted birders and their spotting scope (and there certainly was not). Jean's mum arrived first and took Jean and the scope back to St Kitts while I waited for the arrival of a tow truck to transport our disabled vehicle to a garage for repairs. The delay was not long and with a simple reorganization of our schedule, we were once again heading to the mouth of the Niagara River. My mother-in-law offered the use of her car until our vehicle was repaired. I checked the reports. The Razorbill was present and seen by many in the morning (with the exception of Bob & Jean). I really did not need to see that, but it was reassuring.

Upon joining a small group of birders in Queens Royal Park, we were informed the Razorbill was still in the area and was observed fairly recently. Despite the morning hindrance, Jean and I still had a chance.

Using the scope, I scanned the lake for the Razorbill and spotted the black underwings of a Little Gull as it flew amongst a small flock of Bonaparte's. A Common Loon was floating near the fort on the U.S. side of the river, but the Red-throated Loons seen the previous day were absent Sunday afternoon.

Barry Cherriere called out that the bird was up and flying eastward, but it quickly landed and dove before we could get on it.

The Razorbill continued to tease those that had not seen it yet. It was up one moment, then gone the next and when a birder announced it had resurfaced, I did my best to locate the patch of water described by the spotter.

After a brief period of anxious waiting and searching, we were finally able to observe the stout, black and white bird with a distinctive large bill. When diving, the large auk would spread its wings and the tail would point skyward before it disappeared beneath the surface for moments at a time. Jean and I continued to observe the Razorbill each time it resurfaced. This was one awe-inspiring birding moment for Jean and I. Sharing the view with other birders and assisting those in their search after being helped ourselves made the tick all the better. Though the last Razorbill to visit Niagara remained for 50 consecutive days (Black and Roy, 2010) there was no guarantee that this one would stay for an extended length of time. I am forever grateful that my mother-in-law permitted us to borrow her car the same day. If not for the substitute vehicle, we just might have had our biggest dip ever. Our car now has a new fuel pump and is eager to transport us to tick #208 and beyond.

Image Courtesy of Dave Van de Laar

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Franklin's My Dear

November 6

It was a beautiful day in the Niagara Region on Sunday. The sun was shining and the temperature reached a day time high of 15 degrees Celsius. The weather could not have been better to go searching for the 205th tick of the year. On Saturday, Willie D'Anna posted that a first winter Franklin's Gull was seen from Artpark in Lewiston, New York. It was observed for 30 minutes and if still in the area, could easily be observed from the Canadian side of the Niagara River.

Franklin's Gull breeds in western Canada and winters in the Pacific from Guatemala to Chile so this would be an invaluable addition to the year list as well as the Ontario list. Our lifer was observed in Calgary, Alberta during a trip to British Columbia in June of 2009.

This western species is a rare fall and winter visitor to Niagara and prior to 1990, it was found annually. For the next 16 years, there were only 15 observations recorded (Black and Roy, 2010).

So on Sunday afternoon, Jean and I headed for the lower Niagara River, our first planned stop was in Queenston. If not found, we would try the Adam Beck Overlook, followed by the Whirlpool. As we left St. Catharines, I noted that we would arrive in Queenston around the same time the gull was observed the day before. With a bit of luck, the gull was a creature of habit.

We parked in the parking area above the boat ramp and started our hike upriver. Hopefully the annoying noise created by the jetskis had not sent the gulls packing.

We scanned the river through the trees as we walked along the unmarked trail. The sounds of the jetskis were abated and gulls were seen moving up and down the river, but none of them had the dark half-hood of a first winter Franklin's. They were all Bonaparte's.

We reached an open spot where we observed a dozen gulls milling around and occasionally diving into the fast flowing water of the Niagara River. More Bonaparte's. I could see a slightly larger gathering of gulls 100-150 metres further up the river.

At this location, the Niagara Gorge begins. The escarpment wall is very steep and the many sedimentary layers are quite apparent. Four Turkey Vultures soared overhead on the Canadian side of the gorge.

Jean was first to spot a gull, circling above the river that had a dark head and she noted the body shape was slightly different than that of the Bonaparte's. Jean described the gull's flight path and I got on it and observed the same distinguishing field markings. The gull had a dark half-hood, an incomplete tail-band, and was slightly larger than the accompanying Bonaparte's Gulls. Wow! I wish they were all that easy. In less than an hour we had ticked the reported Franklin's Gull. This was very lucky, but checking the location at the same time it was observed the day before may have contributed to the successful tick.

Only three shy of last year's personal best. Missing three Boreal species earlier this year does burn but hopefully we can add Red-throated Loon, Black Scoter and Lesser Black-backed Gull to assure a tie with last year's provincial list. Throw in a Cackling Goose, Thayer's Gull, and a California Gull and we have a new personal best. The only trouble with that is we'll have to tick more in 2012.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Big Nickel Birding: A Lifer in Sudbury

July 18

Jean and I were in Sudbury for a few days to visit my brother, his wife, and the newest addition to our family and on our first full day in the Nickel City, we stopped at Dynamic Earth for a photo-opportunity. We did some birding in the shadow of the Big Nickel and though the sightings found along a short, gravel path were not worth the $5.00 parking fee, we had great views of an American Crow and 2 Common Ravens in the yard of a business below Dynamic Earth. It is not often that I get a chance to compare these two corvid species side by side. 

Later in the day, it was time to start searching for warbler species missed during their migration through the Niagara Region.  My brother Bruce suggested the trail along the southern edge of Kelley Lake and we started our walk from Fielding Memorial Park.

View Larger Map

Bruce tagged along with us this time and he was introduced to Birding 101. OK, Canada Geese he has seen on a number of occasions but we did get him some scope views of his lifer Cedar Waxwings. Warblers observed included, Yellow, Nashville and American Redstart, but the desired Blackburnian tick did not occur.

We came across some Mallards and spotted a smaller, non-breeding male American Wigeon hidden in their ranks, a great find for the region at this time of year. The county list continues to grow, but still no firsts of the year or lifers. 

The day was not over yet. We had picked up a trail guide while at Dynamic Earth earlier in the day. There were a number of non-motorized trails listed and Jean and I decided to walk along the Bell Grove Trail on the south side of Ramsey Lake. The plan was to access the trail from the parking area of a boat launch, but construction in the area prevented us from hiking this section of the trail. An evening of birding would have to be done elsewhere. We travelled further east to the Bethel Lake Trail.

View Larger Map

The trail starts on the north side of the small lake and crosses a marsh before ascending to an overlook on the south side. Little did I know we were about to find lifer # 308.

It was almost 8:30 PM and the sun had started to set. The trail is only 1 kilometre so we had a comfortable amount of time to reach the overlook and return to our car before it was dark. We spotted a pair of Ring-necked Ducks on the lake and while crossing the boardwalk, we found Song Sparrow and Common Yellowthroat.

As we walked up the zig-zag trail to the overlook, a loud song emitted from the birch trees. I had not heard the song in the field before nor had I heard it while studying songs and calls on various bird identification sites. There was some movement low to the ground and we were soon determined to get on this bird. The mosquitoes appreciated our sedentary stance and I had some glimpses of a brownish bird that looked like a thrush at first. The problem was, the loud song was not flutelike at all. Then again, the thrush may not be the bird singing. The song was a series of two syllable phrases.

The bird jumped up onto a log to face me and though I had not seen this species before, this was one of those moments in birding when you realize what you're looking at without referencing a field guide. The brownish bird had spots on its white breast but it was the two dark stripes on either side of an orange crown that had me excitedly but quietly exclaiming, "Ovenbird!" "Ovenbird!" "Ovenbird!". Well maybe not that many times. It seems a befitting recollection since the song of the Ovenbird is described as teacher, teacher, teacher. Though it breeds in southern Ontario, this bird has proven difficult to find while birding in the Niagara Region.

In addition to seeing the crown, Jean observed the bold white eye ring from her vantage point as the warbler continued to skulk along the forest floor. And with that, even before listening to the song back at my brother's house, we knew we had ticked our lifer Ovenbird.  

Though we were delayed by the lifer and it was getting dark under the forest canopy, we still had time to take in the view of Sudbury from the summit of the trail before calling it a day.  

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Save the Chimney

A recent Doug Herod column in the St. Catharines Standard caught my attention. A former downtown industrial building will undergo construction to house the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts.  Cool! The campus of  Brock University is ever-expanding and it will now have an educational facility in the downtown core. Though no conclusive answer was given at the time of the presentation, there is a possibility that the school might have to retain the building's chimney.

Why? Recent monitoring suggests there may be about 10 Chimney Swifts using the brick stack as habitat. Though we missed it this year, Jean and I have participated in the Chimney Swift blitz by monitoring the chimneys at the Lake Street Armoury. From 2009 to 2010, we observed an increase in the amount of swifts using the armoury's chimneys. A good sign that the population in St. Catharines is increasing. With a shortage of open chimneys in the downtown area, it would be sensible to include the chimney in the reconstruction of the Canada Hair Cloth building.  The Chimney Swifts are considered a species-at-risk and need all the help they can get. If the goal is to preserve the building, then the chimney, shown in this TVCogecoOntario video a few times, should be included in the preservation. Eliminating the brick chimney will just make it more difficult for this species to continue a healthy population in the city of St. Catharines.

This in one Brock graduate that hopes his Alma mater, with the guidance of the Ministry of Natural Resources, makes the right choice and will allow the chimney to continue being a home for Chimney Swifts for many years to come.