Monday, August 27, 2012

June Birding

After ticking as many Spring migrants as possible during their stopover in the peninsula, I usually spend part of the month of June hitting specific spots for species that have chosen the Niagara Region to raise young. From the southern shoreline of Lake Ontario to the northern edge of Lake Erie, I have a few locations I return to annually. 

On June 2, Jean and I searched for two target species. The Carolinian Forest of St. John's Conservation Area was our first stop and we were looking for a FOY Scarlet Tanager. A great view of a male Indigo Bunting but the species list after walking the trails for almost 1.5 hours was limited and without a Scarlet Tanager tick. Dragonflies and damselflies were plentiful especially the Common Whitetails at the south end of the trout pond.

On to the spot where Jean and I observed our lifer Hooded Warbler last year. The Lake Erie shoreline is teeming with summer cottages owned by U.S. citizens from western New York and in order to reach the cottages, roads are required. One private road, west of Crystal Beach, allows access to a marshy woodlot filled with Skunk Cabbage. It appears we can count on this gravel road for an annual Hooded Warbler tick. Within no time, we observed a male Hooded Warbler pop out from the undergrowth to make its way to a nearby perch and sing its ta-wit ta-wit ta-wit tee-yo song loudly.

Before returning to St. Catharines, we stopped at another gem managed by the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA). Mud Lake Conservation Area offers a variety of habitat for birding. We walked through wetland, field and woodland during our hike. Best ticks were a FOY Field Sparrow, Marsh Wren (#230 for the county list) and a Sora. Worst ticks were literally, ticks!

After completing our first survey for the Marsh Monitoring Program on June 16, we stopped at Niagara Shores in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Parks Canada owns this small parcel of land with views of Lake Ontario and a woodlot that yielded a lifer Yellow-bellied Flycatcher in August of 2009. Jean and I visit this park a few times a year and in late May or early June, we add Bank Swallow to the year list. The swallows were not the only nesting species we found on this warm day. In one of the two conifers by the parking area, we found a pair of Pine Warblers raising 2 young. Well, the female was busy feeding her brood. The male seemed content to sing the whole time we were there.

During the week of the 18th we were on vacation and another attempt at ticking Scarlet Tanager in St. John's was planned. Three species of woodpecker, two species of vireo, a singing redstart and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird for the list but the secretive behaviour of the tanager continued so we moved on to Short Hills Provincial Park. I was hoping to find a Yellow-bellied Cuckoo in the willows near the Roland Road entrance. Based on previous visits, the further you walk into the park, the less species you find so we simply explore a small area using the Palaezioc Path, a gravel trail that allows people with disabilities to enjoy the park. The trees were without cuckoos but we did find a FOY Blue-winged Warbler. A welcomed addition since we missed this species last year. The possibility of beating our 2011 total was getting better.

Heading back to the parking area, I noticed an odd twig at the top of a post. I thought it very strange that a twig would be attached to a wooden post so I brushed it with my finger. It had some give to it but it did not move. This twig-like thing was a caterpillar and based on our best educated guess, a member of the Genus Plagodis.

We had some great news later in the week. Our scope had been repaired and was ready for pick up. We headed up to Guelph with a plan to stop in Flamborough (Hamilton County) on the way home. A number of of Prairie Warbler sightings had been reported recently and the location labelled "Flamborough--Westover Tract" on eBird Canada was too close to Highway 6 to pass on the chance of a lifer tick.

Most of the land is privately owned and the local farm animals offered no assistance so we looked for the warbler from the concession road. I studied the song (a rapid series of ascending buzzes) of the Prairie Warbler but hearing it from 500 metres away seemed highly unlikely. We would also need to view the bird to count the lifer tick. Looking at the observations on eBird recently, it appeared some walked along the gas company's roadway to get the tick but at the time I chose not to venture onto private property. No worries. The opportunity may arise again, perhaps in another location. We had one more spot to visit before returning to St. Catharines.

A bunch of rednecks had decided to join a yacht club on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. Rednecks? Yacht club? This we gotta see. We had our scope back so it was the perfect opportunity for some digiscoping.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Scopeless in the Carden Alvar

Yes, it was after leaving our spotting scope for repairs to the mounting foot that Jean and I realized we would be scopeless during the OFO Carden Alvar trip. Viewing an endangered shrike hundreds of metres away could be difficult. No digiscoping either. 

There were a few birders in the group that had scopes including trip leader Jean Iron. An excellent trip leader, Jean Iron always ensures that everyone in the group has observed the target bird before moving on. If a Loggerhead Shrike or Upland Sandpiper were too far for our bins, a view through Jean Iron's scope would be available. 

After participating in and winning the Carden Challenge over a 24 hour period from 6:00 p.m. on Friday May 25 to 6:00 p.m. on Saturday May 26, Jean Iron did not look tired at all. Perhaps, it was the Carden Cup on display atop her vehicle. Her team was named the Yellow Rails and the four birders ticked 132 species during the competition. As Celebrity Birder, Jean raised over $11,000 for stewardship and bird habitat conservation by The Couchiching Conservancy on the Carden Alvar. 

The first stop for the OFO group was Wylie Road. We walked along the narrow gravel road looking for grassland species and the Prairie Smoke was in full bloom.

Grasshopper Sparrow and Wilson's Snipe were added to the year list and we had the best look at a Loggerhead Shrike, ever! Jean and I have visited the Carden Alvar twice and all our views of shrikes have required a scope. This trip, a lone shrike was resting on a pole, a mere distance from the road.  It would have been nice to capture a digiscoped image though.

Continuing north on Wylie Road, we reached the Sedge Wren Marsh. We ticked our lifer Alder Flycatcher and Sedge Wren in May of 2010 at this spot and repeated the observation in 2011. This year, an Alder Flycatcher was heard singing but the rapid chatter of the small wren was absent. Marsh Wrens (FOY) were heard and spotted but due to beaver activity in the area and rising water levels, Sedge Wren was missed for the first time in many years.

While scanning the marsh west of the road, I heard the whinnying call of a Sora. Though we had our backs to the marsh east of the road and the call was short, a few of us were still able to identify it. I asked the fellow standing next to me if he heard the same call. He did. So did his wife and Jean as well. That was the important part. Jean confirming that she heard the Sora added the small rail to our year list.

At the Kirkfield Liftlock, a FOY Cedar Waxwing tick during our lunch. Once again, we have to travel north of Lake Ontario to obtain this species for the year list despite covering a number of spots in the Niagara Peninsula prior to this trip.

At the heron rookery on Shrike Road, we had an added bonus to the annual Blanding's Turtle observation. Great Horned Owl (FOY) had no objection to using a former home of a Great Blue Heron family to raise its own young. Jean expanded her digiscoping skills by using a scope she was unfamiliar with and managed to capture a decent image.

We moved further up Shrike Road and added Upland Sandpiper to the year list as a small flock flew past our group.

Approaching Canal Lake on Centennial Park Road, we added Green Heron and Great Crested Flycatcher to our year list and despite it being virtually identical to our first observation earlier in the day, we ticked our second Empidonax of the trip, a Willow Flycatcher.

As we crossed the causeway, I was looking for our streak of repeat species to continue. In 2011, the small pond on the island produced a lifer Least Bittern. An unobstructed view of this bird occurred after playback but this year, an inquisitive bittern did not emerge from behind the reeds.

The group ended the trip searching a few spots along Prospect Road. In the marsh, we observed a Virginia Rail in flight as it popped up from the reeds  There was a second rail close to the road but it remained well hidden.

There is a variety of habitat along this road including scrub. So after ticking waterfowl, flycatchers and rails you move a bit further south along Prospect Road to look for Emberizid species hiding in the brush. We stood at the edge of the road scanning the scrubby landscape for singing sparrows. OK, there's the Song Sparrow and a Chipping Sparrow but what Jean and I really needed was the appearance of a Clay-colored Sparrow. It did not take long for the group to pick out the insect-like buzz of a Clay-colored Sparrow. No visual observation this year but it still counts.

At the end of the trip, the year list stood at 183 species. Not bad if I want to succeed in beating last year's total of 216. There are some species that I cannot afford to miss and then there are few (not too many mind you) that I'm willing to let slip by. Missing Sedge Wren and Least Bittern would be be tolerated as long as the dependable ticks keep me ahead of the game. The month of June would be spent hitting spots in the Niagara Region for the reliable species until the migrating shorebirds arrived.