Thursday, January 26, 2012

Bird-A-Day Challenge 2012

I know I did not make an announcement at the beginning of the year that I planned on challenging myself again , but birders are a trustworthy lot. I truly did see the species listed below on the days indicated. The month of January will be over early next week and so far so good.

The object of the Bird-A-Day Challenge is to see how many days in row you can see or hear a different species. Last year, I carried the challenge as far as February 28. Two whole months.

How far I can stretch the elastic this year? There are some nice ticks listed below and on January 8, I had too many birds to choose from. Unfortunately, only one species is permissible and the remainder could not be pocketed and used over the next few days. So the day of the mid-winter waterfowl count, I went with the obvious choice, the lifer Northern Saw-whet Owl. Luckily, the King Eider was still around and I was able to observe it again the following weekend.

The work week will not be easy. Quick trips to spots (before the last of the daylight fades away) that are close by and known to harbour sought after species was used last year and worked surprising well. It helps when a desirable species crosses your path on the way to work. A Sharp-shinned Hawk did just that on Wednesday January 4. The weekends, well that's when I have to produce something not seen in everyday travels.

Hopefully, the likes of House Sparrow or Rock Pigeon will remain off the list for as long as possible and as for the Snowy Owls and Fish Crows out there, it would be greatly appreciated if you roosted on a utility pole along Fourth Avenue during my daily commute to work.

February 20:
February 19:
February 18:
February 17: American Goldfinch
February 16: American Crow
February 15: Gadwall
February 14: Rock Pigeon
February 13: Bonaparte's Gull
February 12: Peregrine Falcon
February 11: Blue Jay
February 10: Hairy Woodpecker
February 9: Hooded Merganser
February 8: Mallard
February 7: Mourning Dove
February 6: Horned Lark
February 5: Fish Crow
February 4: Snowy Owl
February 3: Carolina Wren
February 2: American Robin
February 1: American Coot

January 31: Pied-billed Grebe
January 30: Common Goldeneye
January 29: Dark-eyed Junco
January 28: Redhead
January 27: Mute Swan
January 26: American Black Duck
January 25: Red-tailed Hawk
January 24: American Tree Sparrow
January 23: Northern Cardinal
January 22: Ruddy Duck
January 21: Red-Bellied Woodpecker
January 20: Common Merganser
January 19: Ring-billed Gull
January 18: Cooper's Hawk
January 17: Northern Mockingbird
January 16: White-throated Sparrow
January 15: King Eider
January 14: Eastern Bluebird
January 13: Bufflehead
January 12: Canada Goose
January 11: Northern Harrier
January 10: Double-crested Cormorant
January 9:  Belted Kingfisher
January 8:  Northern Saw-whet Owl
January 7:  Lesser Black-backed Gull
January 6:  American Kestrel
January 5:  Great Black-backed Gull
January 4:  Sharp-shinned Hawk
January 3:  Red-breasted Merganser
January 2:  Black-crowned Night-Heron
January 1:  Northern Shrike

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Three Owl Day

January 7

A little bit of gull watching the day before the MNR  mid-winter waterfowl count. It's nice to tick gull species this early in the year, especially when it's 7 degrees Celsius in January.

At Adam Beck, in the swirl of Herring Gulls, we spotted a second winter Lesser Black-backed Gull and an adult Iceland Gull. We found a second Iceland (juvenile) standing on the rocks near the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant.  As expected, the smaller Bonaparte's were moving up and down the river and we found fewer than usual at the Whirlpool. No kittiwake as I had hoped and no Little Gull either. I think I'll attempt to spot the black underside of a Little Gull's wings in April. Standing at the side of the Niagara River in NOTL as thousands of Bonaparte's Gulls bound for Lake Ontario fly by is sure to produce one or two Little Gulls. Last time we did that, it took less than 60 minutes.

Other gulls still needed for the 2012 list (and ticked last year), Glaucous, Thayer's, and Franklin's. I expect the Franklin's Gull to be a difficult tick.

January 8

Since 2009, Jean and I have assisted with the duck count. This year, the weather was cooperative. Sunny skies and bearable temperatures made for a pleasant day. We were covering the southern shoreline of Lake Ontario from Fifty Point in Grimsby to Vineland.

Our first stop was at the end of Fifty Road. A fitting place to tick our 50th species of the year. Approximately 10 White-winged Scoter were found with the 100 or so Long-tailed Ducks. Numbers of both species would increase greatly as we moved eastward.

At Fifty Point Conservation Area, Greater Scaup (300), Long-tailed Duck (300), Common Goldeneye (100), some White-winged Scoters and one Black Scoter (that's all you need for a FOY tick) were seen on the lake.

After counting waterfowl in the marina, we turned our attention to non-waterfowl species, specifically owls. We were looking for Northern Saw-whet Owl. In winter, the small owl can be found roosting in small evergreens. We spread out and began our search for evidence of white "wash" on the trunks of the pine trees. A Long-eared Owl was flushed and I had a quick glimpse of it as it flew away and disappeared behind a tree. Jean and few others in our group were elsewhere and did not get a chance to see the slender owl with long wings. We started to regroup for a chance at a better look at the Long-eared when a member of the group called out that they had found our target species. If not for the telltale white "wash" on the trunk of a pine, we would not have seen the well hidden Northern Saw-whet Owl sitting on a branch close to the trunk, approximately 4 metres above the ground. In order to see our first lifer of 2012, Jean and I had to step back from the tree until we could view it through a mess of branches. Continuing our walk through this area, the Long-eared Owl was flushed again and we all had views of it in flight. Now that both Jean and I had seen the owl, it could be added to our year list.

Returning to the primary reason for being outside on this day, we moved on and observed over 500 Long-tailed Ducks east of Fifty Point. We also found an immature Surf Scoter at this location. No worries in December for Jean and I. All three species of scoter were safely ticked in early January.

In a Grimsby subdivision, we stood at the dead-end of a road and viewed thousands of Long-tailed Ducks and White-winged Scoters. The spot was new and I'll have to remember it for future use when a scoter species tick is still required for the year list.

At Grimsby Harbour, we were counting the Mallards and Canada Geese when a white blob on the east side of Forty Mile Creek caught the attention of a member of our group.

It's shape was similar to a stone marker, but this one moved.

It was a Snowy Owl. Unbelievable! Jean and I did not see any owl species in 2011 and now, in less than an hour, we had three species on the 2012 list.

A quick stop at a nearby marina confirmed our group's suspicions that it was a Cackling Goose they had seen with some Canada Geese on Forty Mile Creek.

Once considered the same species, Cackling Geese are nearly identical but are considerably smaller than Canada Geese. We were very close to this one and its small, stubby bill was viewed without any difficulty.

Belted Kingfisher was another FOY tick during the short time spent at the marina. Moving on to Beamsville, we found 3 Horned Grebes (FOY) and a rapid decline in the number of waterfowl. This is most likely due to the distribution of zebra mussels. The mollusk is an invasive species in the Great Lakes and despite the large number of scoters and other diving ducks feeding on them, the mussel from the Caspian Sea is a major problem in North American freshwater lakes.

Our count concluded after checking a few more locations between Beamsville and Vineland that had public access to the lake. We were in contact with Kayo during the morning count (he always covers the shoreline from Port Weller East to NOTL) and he had observed the reported King Eider in the Welland Canal. A quick call confirmed that the diving sea duck was still present in the canal and Kayo was willing to wait for our arrival to lead us to the spot it was last seen. With our car leading the way, we zipped down the QEW and within 15-20 minutes I was walking down the gravel path, with a scope on my shoulder, all set to view the eider missed on January 1

We only had to walk 100 metres down the path to start scanning the hundreds of Common Mergansers and it was not long before Jean and I were studying the eider through our scope. We have seen a female King Eider (our only observation) and after 6 years of birding, we were finally looking at a male King Eider

It was quite the regal bird. The bluish-grey cap and nape, greenish cheek, bright orange-red knob and brilliant beak were all vibrant.

Excellent views of the rare winter visitor to Niagara.

Pocketing all three species of scoter, finding three species of owl (including a lifer Northern Saw-whet) in less than 60 minutes, ticking Cackling Goose (not seen in 2011) and a royal viewing of a male King Eider made for one excellent day of birding.

Though there are still more than 340 days left in 2012, it's going to be tough to top this one.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

On CBC's and the New Year

December 27

The day after Boxing Day, we found ourselves in the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) assisting John with his section of the Niagara Falls birding circle. Our group searched an array of habitats. 

The residential yards south-west of the tourist-laden drag of the old town were quiet in the early morning as were the feeders. Due to the holiday, waterfowl were viewed and counted through a locked gate at the local sewage lagoons. Along with the usual ducks we spotted 2 Green-winged Teal.

At a local vineyard, we searched the property along 4 Mile Creek. A Belted Kingfisher boisterously announced its displeasure each time we disturbed it from its perch and we found 3 species of woodpecker (Downy, Hairy, and Northern Flicker). The only thing louder than the kingfisher at this location were the bird-bangers. Yup, they were still in operation. The weather had not been cold enough to harvest the grapes for ice wine so walking by the scare-away cannons was a chance we had to take. The things we do to get a good bird.

A quick look at another section of the creek that was frozen during last year's count....

....before moving on to Four Mile Pond. We were looking for Swamp Sparrow and this year, a little pishing resulted in a quick look at 1 Melospiza georgiana.

Niagara Shores is one of my favourite spots in NOTL and we had a great find in this lakeside conservation area. A male Eastern Towhee was observed with 10 White-throated Sparrows. We watched this bird for a few minutes before moving on. The resident Belted Kingfisher was heard and a Northern Flicker was observed while walking along the fence-line on the east side of the park (a great spot for spotting migrants in the Spring).

More Northern Flickers at the historic Butler's Burial Grounds.  A total of 5 and all observed in the same tree, raising the total in our section to an amazing 7.

We viewed Lake Ontario from the gazebo (a fixture in Queens Royal Park since the making of the film The Dead Zone) and kept species counted separate from our section. The Lake Ontario shoreline from Port Weller to the Niagara River would be covered by John and Denys (covering an absence) after lunch and Jean and I with Roy searched areas east of the old town. Not much activity in the afternoon. It was not until it was just Jean and I when we came across a species we were hoping to find. At a spot on the Niagara Parkway, across from Fort George and near a bench with a picturesque view of the Niagara River, someone had thrown seed on the ground. It was attracting a number of birds from the brush across the road. Perched on a tree branch above the seed was a Tufted Titmouse. I soon spotted a second, then we found a third Titmouse. I'll have to remember this spot for next year. The seed had also attracted a number of juncos, and chickadees. Scanning the brush to our right, we found Northern Cardinal (2), a White-breasted Nuthatch and 2 Golden-crowned Kinglets. A species we could not find in the conifers at Niagara Shores.

The small pocket of birds on the parkway was a nice way to end our count.

January 1

A new year and our third and final CBC for the season. Traditionally, volunteers arrive at an assigned meeting place to pick up maps and checklists for the Port Colborne CBC. Veterans have the prime sections and the compiler asked me if we would like to do the same area we did for last year's count. Covering a section of Christmas Bird Count on your own feels pretty good (sections are hard to come by in many CBC's across North America) and with the previous experience of birding rural roads in the Township of Wainfleet, we knew exactly where we could pick up some decent ticks for the count.

Upon seeing a Wild Turkey, I began to think it could turn out to be a good day. The sun was shining and it was a balmy 6 degrees Celsius. The first residential feeder was nearby and I was expecting results similar to last year. Quite the opposite once we arrived and scanned the feeders. Even if the orange tabby was not sitting close by, I still think the spot would have been devoid of avian activity. Though they are filled with seed, feeders this CBC season lack any regular visitors. At least the ones we have monitored.

As we approached the northern boundary of our section, we could see several large white birds in flight. Trees obscured our view of the small flock and it soon disappeared of off our birding radar. We reached an intersection and luckily the turn, the only turn we could do to stay within Section 9, lead us to a rather large flock of Tundra Swans in a field.

If the swans (120 in total) were on the north side of the road, we would not have been able to count them for our section.

We moved on and found some good birds, Tufted Titmouse in a woodlot, Eastern Bluebirds by the roadside at two spots, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, a striking Northern Shrike and a male Red-winged Blackbird

In a field slightly north of the southern edge of our section, we found a group of gulls. We stopped and I obtained the scope to start counting the Ring-billed Gulls. 

As I panned to the right, hey there's a Great Black-backed! Moving further to the right. Hey! One, two, three. Three more Great Black-backed Gulls. In total, we found 6 Great Black-backed in the open field.

After completing our section and a short chat with our fellow Niagara birders, Jean and I headed back to St. Kitts with two more ticks on our mind. Snowy Owl and King Eider.

Both these species were seen in Port Weller (St. Kitts) on the east pier. Walking the 2.5 kilometres to the far beacon would be worth it if we found the eider. We hiked along the Seaway Haulage Road and stopped to view the private marina through the trees and chain-link fence. This was the spot where the Snowy Owl was last seen. Nothing. Two women (one wearing binoculars) were heading towards us and indicated they had viewed the male King Eider at the far end of the spit. Yes, we would have to walk all the way in order to get the FOY tick. They had not seen the owl though.

Jean and I continued on and left the gravel road in favour of the footpath on the bay side of the pier. We went past the pond that contained the Purple Gallinule in October and we were greeted by a full rainbow when we reached the lake view. Was the eider at the other end of the rainbow? If it had been a double-rainbow, well I just might not have continued our search for the large duck with the strikingly coloured head. The spit continues eastward for another 200 metres. At the end is the red and white striped beacon. Beyond that, there should be a King Eider. While standing beside the beacon, strong winds blew from the south-west which would have tipped the scope over if I did not hold it steady. We stood on the narrow peninsula and looked in every direction for the eider. There were many Red-breasted Mergansers and a few Bufflehead and Common Goldeneye. Though it had been viewed less than an hour ago, we failed to spot the King Eider.

We walked back towards the Welland Canal with hopes that the eider had decided to seek shelter within the calmer waters of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Again, no eider. All was not wasted. It was only the first day of 2012 and we added two species of loon to the year list. Views of Common and Red-throated Loon were a satisfactory consolation.

January 2

The hunt for unusual ticks continued the next day. A few species of warbler (including a western one that should be wintering in southern Mexico and northern Central America at this time of year) were causing a stir at a lakeside park in Hamilton. A Black-throated Gray was being seen and reported along the Waterfront Trail near Bayfront Park. Though some have been successful in their quest, we and other birders met this day went home without the tick. The blowing snow certainly put an end to continuing the search.

Another miss with another consolation. Jean was first to spot a juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron standing on some rocks by the viewing platform. Prior to this observation, the earliest we had observed Black-crowned Night-Heron was in late March.

Our next full day of birding would take us along the Lake Ontario shoreline from Grimsby to Vineland for the MNR waterfowl count. Were we in for a surprise. We were barely over a week into the new year and January 8 just might have been the best day of birding in 2012.