Saturday, March 31, 2012

Bird-a-Day During A Holiday Weekend

 When the provincial government first announced the idea of a long weekend in February, it was not appealing. I would not be gaining an additional paid holiday. The floater day used on Christmas Eve day would now have to be used on the statutory holiday "Family Day". A few years have past since then and a long weekend in February has grown on me. It helps when the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is on the same weekend.

Saturday February 18

Twitching was set aside until mid-afternoon. Jean and I visited feeders at a residential property near St. John Conservation Area. An early Eastern Towhee tick last year, has us returning to this spot from time to time and this day produced a few species worthy of my Bird-a-Day list. Both nuthatch species, Tufted Titmouse and Black-capped Chickadee were expeditious when picking seed from the feeder and though the views were short, we had no problem observing the birds from our car.

Before reaching a decision, we headed over to the Roland Road entrance to Short Hills Provincial Park. A short walk along the Palaeozoic Path and viewing of Swayze Falls did not add anything new.


So for the Saturday of the long weekend, I went with Red-breasted Nuthatch. It's a species that has proven to be elusive at times and considering I may not observe one again for a few weeks, I thought best to tick it while I could.  

Sunday February 19

The weekly Hamilton Naturalists Club (HNC) report on ontbirds had Jean and I heading to a spot just outside of the Niagara Region. Short-eared Owls were observed the previous weekend during a HNC field trip on top of the Niagara Escarpment and I relished the thought of adding a fourth owl species to the year list after last year's bleak results.  Before the prowl on 10th Road East, we stopped at a few spots along the Lake Ontario shoreline in Grimsby. White-winged and Surf Scoters as well as Long-tailed Duck were on the bench for the Bird-a-Day list if needed.

We arrived at Ridge Road shortly after 4:00 pm and walked along the trail west of Ridge Road with hopes of flushing a hidden Short-eared. We were not the only birders anxious for the tick. Some walked the trail as well while those with cameras ready were patiently waiting by the roadside.

As dusk approached, we chose our spot and began scanning the open field east of 10th Road. The small group of birders that dotted the roadside reminded me of the UFO watchers in Close Encounters of a Third Kind.

My toes were starting to feel the cold (should have worn thicker socks) when the first Short-eared Owl flew in from the south. As it soared in, I tapped (more like a loud knocking) on the car window to alert Jean that the owl had arrived. We had some great views of the bird through our scope when it landed in a tree but it took off before Jean could capture some digiscoped images. 
Then, it was like someone flipped a switch. Above the field behind us, two more Short-eared Owls circled around until they perched themselves on a branch better suited for a Northern Shrike.

Two more owls joined in and we had owls to the right and owls to the left. This was one middle I did not mind being stuck in. A total of 7 Short-eared Owls, plus 2 Northern Harriers, put on one impressive evening air show. The 10th Road observations just keep getting better and better.

Monday February 20

The holiday Monday, Jean and I viewed waterfowl from Queens Royal Park and Nelson Park in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

No Little Gull spotted with the few Bonaparte's by Fort Niagara so I settled for White-winged Scoter for my Bird-a-Day challenge.

It was back to work the next day and if I got through the shortened work week and survived the weekend, all I needed was another three days to beat last year's stretch. That's only 9 species. How hard can that be in a milder than usual, southern Ontario February?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Golden Day on Big Creek

For the last three years Jean and I have attended the OFO trip at Long Point to observe migrating waterfowl and cranes. This year, we joined our fellow Peninsula Field Naturalists and the Niagara Falls Nature Club for a Sunday drive to Norfolk County in search of our main target species the Sandhill Crane. If an adult male Smew just happened to get in the field of view of our spotting scope, well I guess that would make the list too.

The previous day was the OFO trip and a total of 62 species were observed. Highlights included, Little Gull, Great Horned Owl, Eastern Meadowlark, and White-winged Crossbill. A lucky few spotted a Golden Eagle. The Smew (first observed by Ron Ridout on March 8) was not seen.

The next morning, a parking lot in Fonthill was abuzz with talk of the most recent Smew sighting. The adult male was seen in flight with mergansers, scaup and buffleheads by Josh Vandermeulen shortly after 8:00 am.

We left Fonthill behind and had Carol and Arlene along for the ride. All the better to spot firsts of the year during the 2 hour drive to the Long Point area. Just south of Simcoe, on Regional Road 24, we ticked a FOY Turkey Vulture. Approaching Port Rowan, the skies were empty. The large white blobs with wings seen in a clear blue sky during our first trip were absent.

After a pick-me-up coffee and toast with marmalade, I stood in the parking lot of the restaurant and looked south towards the Causeway and the point. Somewhere out there, either in the inner bay to the east or Big Creek National Wildlife Area to the west, was a male Smew.

From the Causeway we observed a small flock of Tundra Swans in the creek. Surprisingly, this was the only observation of Cygnus columbianus while birding the Long Point area.

Standing on the viewing platform, we had a broad view of Big Creek National Wildlife Area.

View Larger Map

There were a few Mute Swans spotted in the channels but if there were any large flocks of waterfowl they were well hidden by the cattails and Phragmites.  In the distance, we spotted an immature Bald Eagle following the route of County Road 42. Another large raptor appeared and circled high above the wildlife area.

We studied the bird as it continued to soar. This one was different. A birder sharing the platform indicated this one was a Golden Eagle. There was white patch at the base of the tail. Our lifer Golden Eagle (#314) was a juvenile. It suddenly dived and spiraled as it plummeted towards the ground. As it disappeared behind the golden-coloured grasses, a large mass of ducks flew up in every direction. It was like the eagle had dived into a pool of waterfowl. The juvenile raptor reappeared and flew low towards a mound of earth. There it sat to dine on an undetermined species of duck. This attracted the attention of a juvenile Bald Eagle and we watched the standoff through the scope. The Bald Eagle was unsuccessful in its attempts to steal some brunch.

While on the platform I heard the calls of Sandhill Cranes (FOY) and though some were able to view them (including Jean) I never did see the long, grayish-red bodies flying across the horizon. No worries. I would see them when we stopped at Lee Brown. Right?

A bit further down the road, our group stopped at the viewing platform that looks out onto Long Point Inner Bay. This time, I was able to watch a Sandhill Crane in flight. It was flying in a northwesterly direction, perhaps heading to the fields near the Lee Brown WMA. I would meet up with this bird later. Based on the last three visits, the cranes would be there.

We then birded the forested area surrounding the Old Cut Field Station. Ticked a first of the year Golden Crowned Kinglet, followed by finding a lifer Black-legged Tick (seen at the right on the Lyme Disease widget) on my sock while having lunch in the parking area of the Old Cut. Not sure where I picked up the sesame seed-sized arachnid but its appearance suddenly increased the numbers of times I scratched an imaginary itch.

We moved back to the mainland and stopped at Lee Brown WMA.

Scoping the small, artificial pond, we found geese, Gadwall, Ring-necked Duck and American Wigeon (FOY). Despite the fact that cranes breed in the marshes to the south, none were found in the surrounding corn fields. If not for the brief observations while out on the point, we just might have gone home without a crane tick.

We moved further inland and stopped at two locations in the Big Creek valley.

Our stroll along the 'A Road' was pretty quiet. The Wood Duck boxes did not produce an Eastern Screech Owl tick.

North of the A Concession Road, we stopped at another popular birding spot on Big Creek. The field south of the First Concession Road floods in the spring and with the recent creation of a wetland habitat, migrating waterfowl can be easily observed from the roadside.

Waterfowl found this sunny afternoon included, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Redhead, Ring-necked DuckLesser Scaup (pair) and Hooded Merganser (pair). Hidden in the grasses and dabbling frequently, were a few male Northern Shovelers (another target species ticked for the day).

The trip concluded when the sewage lagoons came up empty but there was one last stop for Jean, Carol, Arlene and I. The marina at Port Rowan. Unlike previous years, there was no ice in the harbour or any snow on the ground. There were quite a few waterfowl in the inlet west of the park but back lighting from the sun made identification difficult. An exceptionally close, immature Bald Eagle fly-by was well worth the stop. Sightings of an American Coot and a couple of Bonaparte's Gulls concluded the day's observations.

Overall, Jean and I observed 32 species and ticked 6 firsts of the year while in Norfolk County. The Smew refused to cooperate for our group but the lifer Golden Eagle tick, well, that was somewhat inspirational. Considering the juvenile eagle was too far away to capture a reasonable digiscoped image, Jean did the next best thing to mark the ticking of lifer #314.

Can't wait to see how she recreates a day at the Niagara Peninsula Hawkwatch.