Saturday, February 25, 2012

Bird-a-Day: The Seventh Week

Monday February 13

The plan was to drive to the Adam Beck overlook after work to look for a gull species not on the Bird-a-Day list. Though it would be a quick inspection, there could be a few gulls to chose from.

Once on the Niagara Parkway, Jean spotted a raptor perched on a tree branch, north of the Queenston-Lewiston bridge. We were thinking the bird was a vulture and quite possibly, a Black Vulture. They were still being observed in the area so it was worthy of investigation. I turned the car around without reaching Adam Beck and pulled over onto the shoulder to study the bird. It was a Red-tailed Hawk.

Rather than turn around again to stop at the planned spot, I decided we should go to the nearby Locust Grove picnic area. With its open view of the river and Lewiston, New York, we still might have a chance to find one or two vulture species.

Neither species of vulture were seen but there were plenty of gulls flying at the the bottom of the Niagara Gorge. Bonaparte's Gull to start the work week.

Tuesday February 14

Unfortunately, the kingfisher displayed on my bottle of beer at dinner Tuesday evening could not be used for the Bird-a-Day. I had to settle for a pocket bird when the hunt around North Pelham came up empty. Rock Pigeons seen on a power line near the downtown would have to do. I still have European Starling and House Sparrow squirreled away and I'm hoping to hold onto them as long as possible.

Wednesday February 15

Looking for a reliable tick, Jean and I went to the forebay on the upper Niagara River. Pied-billed Grebe and Hooded Merganser were already on the list so I went with another species that can be commonly found above the Falls at this time of year. After ticking Gadwall, my options for waterfowl in this area of the region were fleeting.

Thursday February 16

I thought best to take this one while I could. Spotted an American Crow perched in a tree while I was heading to Thorold for a morning dental appointment. When I made an effort to look for this species, they were never around.

Friday February 17

Another closing shift for me at work so I headed to the Merritt Trail in the morning for a stroll along 12 Mile Creek. As usual, Mallards dotted the bank and cardinals were calling from both sides of the creek. I could have used the male Downy observed when returning to my car but I went with a species that was heard only. Though I did try to spot the American Goldfinch flying somewhere overhead, it never did come into view.

With the work week done, I could relax and breathe again. Another weekend to find that special species and thanks to Family Day, the search would extend into the holiday Monday.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Guides for the Day

In a recent post, I indicated that Jean and I have visited the Falls more often to observe birds than the natural wonder of the Horseshoe and American Falls.

Courtesy of Bruce and Genalyn Highcock
On Sunday February 12, the tables were turned and we became tourists for part of the day. The other part was spent being bird guides for my parents, brother and sister-in-law. My brother and his family were visiting for a long weekend and a few months had past since visiting our newest nephew in Sudbury. It's still too early to teach him the differences between Herring and Ring-billed Gulls but accompanying our nephew for his as well as his mom's first winter visit was enjoyable. We could not have asked for a better day.

If visiting the Falls in the winter, I recommend parking at the Niagara Parks Greenhouse. Parking is free at this time of year and the walk to Table Rock is a short and picturesque 10 to 15 minutes. If you're a birder, without relatives in tow, it may take longer.

Directly across from the greenhouse is the Engineerium. Gulls, waterfowl and.....uhmmm....the species that shall not be named until we actually see one can be observed here.

More ducks and gulls en route to Table Rock.

Though playing the part of tourists we could not resist checking out the gulls below the Falls.

Courtesy of Bruce and Genalyn Highcock
While I was studying the wing pattern of a Bonaparte's Gull, Jean spotted a Peregrine Falcon (FOY) moving fast down river.

Courtesy of Bruce and Genalyn Highcock

Without the aid of binoculars, my brother got on it before I could. I finally spotted it once it came to rest, atop a shed, on the roof of an old hydro building. As we continued our walk, the falcon disappeared from view and then returned to its preferred post. We found the Peregrine here during last year's waterfowl count.

I continued to scan the Herring, Great Black-backed and Bonaparte's Gulls below the Horseshoe Falls and spotted a large gull that was not like the others. Its wings stretched the width of the river as it circled amongst the other gulls. The gull was mostly buffy-coloured with touches of grey. It was definitely a Glaucous Gull (FOY) and the colouration suggested it was second winter bird.

It has been many years since I've been in the building at Table Rock. Memories are vague and I seem to recall a large moose head on the wall in the cafeteria. After some major renovations, there is now a pedestrian bridge crossing the Parkway and an escalator to an observation deck.

During inclement weather this may come in handy for spotting gulls at the brink of the Falls. Does that still count as winter birding? Jackets unzipped and bones are not chilled?

OK. Spending time with my brother and his family and spotting some good birds turned out to be a great day.

Now there was a decision to be made. What species for my Bird-a-Day? Herring Gull could be used, as well as Bonaparte's, but these two species are probably best saved for another day. It was down to the falcon and Glaucous. Not an easy decision. There is no guarantee that the peregrine would be present if I was to return later in the week. The large, immature Glaucous could be elsewhere as well. I weighed my options to the best of my ability and came to the conclusion (using the most scientific decision making equipment available) that Falco peregrinus would be the bird of the day for Sunday February 12.

Later in the evening, I sent out a report to ontbirds and a representative from the Canadian Peregrine Foundation contacted Jean and I the next day. He noticed the posting on ontbirds and was interested in posting the information on their website along with any additional details we could provide. Frank Butson, indicated that with their volunteer base in Toronto, it is difficult to get regular information on the Niagara Falls birds. How could we refuse? We even provided a couple of images to post with the notes of our observation on the Sightings Menu.

With another weekend gone, it was back to looking for a quick fix during the work week.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Bird-a-Day:Another Work Week

After the Super Sunday Fish Crow tick it was another week of spotting a species after a full day of work. The days are getting slightly longer which allows me to extend my search for a bird that is not one of the 36 species already on my Bird-a-Day list.

Monday February 6

The building where I work is fairly close to 5th Avenue. It's a  stretch of road in west St. Catharines that I frequently check for a few FOY ticks. I can actually watch Canada Geese preparing to land in the fields surrounding the rural road. How long it will remain rural is not known but, for now, I'll look to this small patch of open land to observe Savannah Sparrow, Bobolink, Northern Harrier, Upland Sandpiper, and Horned Lark.

It's still too early for Bobolink and Savannah Sparrow so, after finishing work, Jean and I headed to 5th Avenue to look for larks. Two Northern Harriers were playing above the field south of the road but this raptor was ticked on January 11. North of the road is where I expected to find larks. The remains of last year's corn crop filled the field and we sat in the car listening for the flute-like song of the Horned Lark.

We soon heard their song and after a little searching and discounting of corn stalks blowing in the wind, Jean and I found 2 Horned Larks darting between clumps of soil.

Tuesday February 7

Another late afternoon search after work. This time I thought I would try a few feeders in the North Pelham area. The properties I check back onto Short Hills Provincial Park so there always the chance of something good showing up. You just have to be there at the right time and this day was not it. Bird activity at the 3 feeders was non-existent. I included the Roland Road entrance to Short Hills P.P. in my hunt but that was quiet as well. No chickadees, woodpeckers or nuthatches. A Mourning Dove spotted on a utility line as I left work would have to do.

Wednesday February 8

A different environment this time and the unlucky streak continued. I had to reluctantly use another ubiquitous species. The Mallards at the marina in Lakeside Park had no unusual associates. Sure there were American Black Ducks and Bufflehead but they were already ticked.

Thursday February 9

After two days in a row of using my safety net, I drove to the Falls after work to ensure the trend would not continue. I had visited there the previous week to find Hooded Merganser but the appearance of a surprise Pied-billed Grebe deferred the waterfowl tick.

Hooded Mergansers and Gadwalls were observed again in the hydro forebay.

I continued my stroll along the path looking for something out of the ordinary.

Not many gulls this late in the afternoon. While walking back along the pedestrian bridge, I spotted the Pied-billed Grebe I observed the previous week. The small grebe was not too keen on being looked at and dove every time I tried to view it through my bins.

Walking to the parking area in Dufferin Islands, I decided to go with Hooded Merganser. Hopefully the Gadwall stay and I'm able to find them during the next work week.

Friday February 10

Searching the Welland Canal below Lock 1 was not helpful at all. I really did not have time to walk along the trail on the east pier Friday evening so I continued my search at Jones Beach in Port Weller. Nothing on Lake Ontario. I slowly drove back up the road to leave the east-side of Port Weller when I heard the call of a woodpecker. From the road, I walked across the grass of Port Weller East Park and found the Picoides responsible. There, hammering away at a tree branch, was a Hairy Woodpecker. A nice save to end the work week.

Another weekend was here and a chance to find a species while acting as a tour guide in the Falls. When you're a birder, the binoculars are always at the ready.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Fishing for a Bird-a-Day

After a good day of birding along the Niagara River on the the last Saturday of January, my excursion the next day was limited to the late afternoon. A fine blowing snow made it difficult to observe the progress of the new regional hospital and interfered with the spotting of a possible Cackling Goose mixed in with the hundreds of Canada Geese.

Each goose scanned as they took flight was your standard Canada. The several Dark-eyed Juncos observed at the backyard feeder during my weekend Project Feeder Watch would have to do. I was hoping there would be some improvement during the work week.

On Monday January 30, Jean picked me up after work and we went for a stroll along 12 Mile Creek. A few ducks on the creek which included American Black Duck (ticked 4 days earlier) Bufflehead (already picked) and Mallard (too soon). But there were some male and female Common Goldeneyes. The species I sought. Nothing else materialized that would would have kept Bucephala clangula off the list so Goldeneye was penciled in at the start of another work week.

The next day was unbelievably warm (10 degrees Celsius) and it influenced me to try something new. I decided to try for Hooded Merganser in the forebay above the Falls. Though they were not found at this location during a recent nature outing it was worth a shot. If not there, I could always use Gadwall as a backup. After finishing work, I was at the Falls in less than 20 minutes. Over the last few years, I think I've visited this site more often to spot gulls and waterfowl than to see the thundering waters of the American and Horseshoe Falls. Hoodies and Gadwalls there be in the forebay but a smaller bird caught my attention. It was a species that you don't normally see at this time of year and it required confirmation when entering my checklist to eBird Canada. For the last day of January, a FOY Pied-billed Grebe.

On the first day of February, I headed west along the QEW after work. This year, I was extending my reach a little further and I was at Jordan Harbour in no time and I began my search for a reported Snowy Owl. No owl but there was one female Hoodie and even better, an American Coot in the marina. So the coot was the bird-of-the-day and Mallard remains off the list.

A flock of American Robins made for a quick and easy pick the next day and on the Friday a different approach was set. I was scheduled to close at the end of the week and it allowed me to take some time in the morning to find something out of the ordinary. Down at Martindale Pond while walking along the path in Rennie Park, I heard the song of Carolina Wren (FOY). I could not see the bird but its quick three-part song was coming from the far side of the pond near the Henley Grandstand. Good enough for a Bird-a-Day tick.

Image Courtesy of Dave Van de Laar
Jean and I did not bird for an extended period of time on the Saturday but we took our bins and scope with us when visiting friends in Beamsville. We planned to stop in Jordan on the way home to St. Kitts. A Snowy Owl was reported the day before and it would have been unwise to pass by the marina without a look. Jean's mum was with us and all three of us had a good view of a heavily barred Snowy Owl through the scope. We watched the female owl for a few minutes as it stood on the marina's breakwall and a woman asked if she could pay me for a look at the owl. No payment was necessary for a view of her very first owl. There were now two owls on my 2012 Bird-a-Day Challenge. Priceless.

On Sunday February 5, Jean and I went to the southern edge of the Niagara Peninsula to chase another reported species. For the last few weeks, a member of the Corvidae family was attracting Ontario and New York birders to a short stretch of residential road in the town of Fort Erie. Fish Crows (3-5 at a time) were being observed with many American Crows. I had been looking for a chance to take a crack at spotting one of these Fish Crows and Super Sunday seemed like an ideal day for it. Ingredients for the game-day chili were purchased in the morning and by early afternoon Jean and I did not need to look far when approaching  the road from the south. To our left was the golf course and straight ahead, a couple of parked cars. There were three birders looking north towards a clump of trees containing crows. The crows were calling and mixed in with the caws we could hear the distinctive nasal call of a Fish Crow. If we did not get a visual on the calling bird it would be okay. Jean and I observed our lifer while vacationing in the Panhandle of the Sunshine State. All five of us were concentrating on one particular crow and when we set up our scopes for a closer look it soon flew from its roost.

The crows changed there position and were collecting on the ground and in the trees approximately 150 metres away from where we all stood (two more birders had joined our little group).

There was a house immediately to the right of the spot we were studying and it most have been an interesting view for the homeowner. She did come out but that was only to retrieve her concerned dog that had approached our group. Once the dog was sure we were no threat and retrieved by the owner, we continued our search for a Fish Crow. The nasal calls could still be heard and one crow sitting in a tree attracted my attention. It was slightly smaller than the other crows in the neighbouring trees. Our scopes were fixed on the bird and I informed three birders about to leave that it may be worth staying a bit longer. Turns out it was a Fish Crow. Watching the crow through the scope until it called sealed the i.d.

The large flock of crows continued to move but we got on the Fish Crows again and both Jean and I captured some digiscoped images. We observed two Fish Crows in one tree and a third was heard calling.

So, Fish Crow was added to the Ontario list, the 2012 list, the Winter Bird list, and of course, the Bird-a-Day list.

A couple more images before heading to the river for a picnic lunch while observing waterfowl drift by and a drive along the Parkway. The rafts of Redhead and Canvasback were back.

After some good finds on the weekend it was time to enjoy some chili and American football before setting a plan of attack for another work week.


Sunday, February 5, 2012

Niagara Waterfowl

January 22

Jean and I joined our fellow Peninsula Field Naturalists and the Niagara Falls Nature Club for a day of looking for waterfowl along the upper Niagara. We met at Dufferin Islands near the Falls and drove along the Niagara Parkway towards Fort Erie to start the trip south of the Peace Bridge.

During the cold winter months, many rafts of ducks and flocks of Tundra Swans can be found between Chippawa and Fort Erie. On this mild and sunny Sunday, it soon became apparent while driving to the border town that there were not many ducks on the river. The 100-200 Tundra Swans normally seen on a cold January day simply were not there. There were a few swans and I do mean a few, but as we approached that bend in the river at Miller's marina (a preferred spot if you're a Tundra Swan), the large white blobs that dot the river were absent. Are they still in the fields? Were they on the other side of Grand Island?

At our first stop, Fort George at our backs, we looked out on to the spot where the waters of Lake Erie start their trip north to fill Lake Ontario. An adult Bald Eagle (FOY) roosting in a tree on the Canadian side of the river caught the attention of all and if there were any Tufted Ducks swimming by at that moment, they were most likely missed. Ducks on the river included, Bufflehead, Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser and Common Goldeneye. There were not many, but I added 2 American Black Ducks to my list before a few of us pointed our scopes at the large structure sitting in the lake. A Snowy Owl had been seen in the area and it was thought that it might be sitting at the top of the Buffalo Intake Crib lighthouse. Someone mentioned they saw movement, but each time Jean or I looked through our scope, no matter what power of imagination, we could not see any living thing at the top of the structure that has interested me ever since I was a kid. After the group determined there really was nothing sitting on the lighthouse, we started our journey back to the Falls. 

At the marina in Fort Erie, waterfowl were sparse and the reported Black-headed Gull was not spotted flying with the hundred or so Bonaparte's Gulls above the river. Less than a kilometre away is a spot I always like to stop at when birding along the Niagara River. A parking area south of the International Railway Bridge has an excellent view of the river and the remains of concrete structure that juts out into the river. Waterfowl tend to congregate here and there are usually many gulls, including Great Black-backed standing on the structure. The best bird at this spot, a female Ruddy Duck (FOY). A species I highly favoured as the pick of the day for my Bird-a-Day Challenge.

I'm glad someone had the foresight to create a parkway along the entire length of the river. Unlike the shoreline of Lake Erie or Ontario, there are many public accesses on the river and if one spot is not productive, the next one just might have something of interest.  We viewed an area that included the southern tip of Grand Island and the much smaller Strawberry Island at the next pull-off. Common Mergansers, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye were plentiful and I spotted a few Greater Scaup. On the shoreline of Strawberry Island, Paula spotted  2 Great Blue Herons. This would be a FOY for Jean and I so I took a look through our scope and found the herons in the area Paula described. Using a higher magnification revealed a staggering 50 Great Blue Herons! I did mention it was January right?

Our last stop before returning to the Falls was near a small wooded area. When here, I always check the tree tops for Bald Eagle. None on this day. On the far side of the river, near the dock of a Grand Island residence, we spotted one lone Canvasback (FOY). I was still thinking Ruddy Duck for the Bird-a-Day challenge. Though this was the only Canvasback to be observed during the trip, I thought the odds of seeing Canvasback again were quite high. Ruddy Duck, slim to none.

In the afternoon, we checked the river above the Falls from the forebay to the Engineerium. Within the calm waters of the forebay we found Common Goldeneye, Gadwall (FOY) and another surprise for the day, no Hooded Mergansers. If the water is open, a Hoodie tick is pretty well guaranteed at this time of year.

More Gadwall near the Old Gatehouse and at the Engineerium, a male Lesser Scaup (FOY). 

The exposed rocks in the rapids have yet to produce a lifer Purple Sandpiper (aka nemesis) for Jean and I.

The trip concluded with a walk through Dufferin Islands. In the pond, we found an American Coot with the dabbling Mallards. Our friend Carol mentioned that she had never seen a coot in this nature area. I thought about it myself and could not recall a time when Jean and I observed an American Coot in this pond either. Reviewing my lists of this Niagara Hot Spot showed that this was the first time we had observed this species here.

The day ended with 6 species added to the year list and Ruddy Duck used for the Bird-a-Day challenge.

January 28

Jean and I returned to the Niagara River the following weekend. I was looking for a worthwhile tick for my Bird-a-Day challenge. With a wet snow falling, it was finally beginning to look like an actual winter. There was nothing of note to prompt a quick look through the scope while wind-blown snow pelted my face. The water levels were higher than usual and the rocks that every other birder seems to find Purple Sandpiper upon,were concealed.

Walking up river, we found Hooded Merganser in the forebay. Perhaps things were back as they should be and the rafts of Canvasback would be spotted between Chippawa and Fort Erie. As we were leaving Dufferin Islands, we observed not 1, but 2, American Coots at the pond. It has been a mild winter. Last year there was no open water so the mallards, as well as one lonely Northern Pintail, had to plow through the snow for food.

American Coot and Hooded Merganser could possibly be held off from being used for the Bird-a-Day challenge if we found something of interest further up river. At Miller's Marina, Jean and I did just that. Amongst the Common Mergansers in the boat ramp channel, we found 3 Redhead (FOY).

If we had continued further rather than head back to St. Kitts, Jean and I just might have added Fish Crow to the provincial list. This member of the Corvidae family is very similar to the American Crow. Without listening to their calls, distinguishing the two is difficult to unreliable. Fish Crows have been reported regularly in the Fort Erie and Buffalo area (including the day we ticked the Redhead) and this species just might end up being on a number of lists that I currently have on the go, including the Bird-a-Day challenge. I just needed to get through another work week.