Tuesday, June 28, 2016

A Lifer Mammal

It was the Peninsula Field Naturalists nature club annual picnic on Saturday June 25 and I was not expecting any first of the year birds as I led the group for a hike along the river side trail at Merritt Island in Welland. I was thinking that the club members would take in whatever we came across in the municipal park situated between the Welland River and an old shipping canal.

There were the usual breeding species of bird. Red-winged Blackbird, Mallard, Northern Cardinal, Gray Catbird and Downy Woodpecker to name a few.

Flowering plants included, Daisy Fleabane on the native side and Moth Mullein on the non-native side. Northern Catalpa trees were in full bloom.

Eastern Grey Squirrels, Eastern Chipmunks and a Red Squirrel were observed but the best mammal, scratch that, the best sighting during the walk was a family of Short-Tailed Weasels.

Our group was split into smaller groups along the trail and two members at the front were the first to spot the four weasels in the middle of the path. I was not that far behind when the weasels were brought to my attention and I quickly called out to Jean so she could capture some images.

The adult female managed to move her three young along the tree-lined slope above the trail without issue. If one of the young began to lag behind, the female would pick up the slow moving kit by the scruff of the neck and throw them forward.

Though Mustela erminea are found throughout the province of Ontario, I did not expect to see a family of four within a kilometre of the downtown core of Welland. I thought I was more likely to encounter this species while hiking a trail in a provincial park. Just goes to show that you should always be prepared to observe an unexpected lifer whenever and wherever you choose to spend your day.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016


We all have our own rules when keeping lists of the birds we see and for our life list, both Jean and I have to see the bird to add the tick. Our rules are not set in stone and some even have an elastic attached. But simply hearing a bird sing or call did not suffice for the 454 species we have encountered over the years. Once we have seen the bird and it's on the life list, then every subsequent observation will count when the bird is heard and not seen.

When thinking of troublesome additions to the life list, Yellow Rail comes to mind. Though they are easily heard when standing in the right environment, seeing them is another matter. A very difficult one at that. So when we do hear the "tic-tic, tic-tic-tic" of the Yellow Rail, which resembles two stones tapping together, it will be a lifer.

On June 15, another trying species appeared on our eBird Year Needs Alert. Along with Merlin, Eastern Whip-poor-will was observed the day before by our friend Marcie. The small falcon in Port Colborne could wait. Chasing after an Eastern Whip-poor-will was the better of the two ticks for a couple of reasons. An addition to the life list and an assist at keeping Jean and I near the top of the table on the 2016 Niagara eBirders list. More on that chase in a later post.

With Eastern Whip-poor-will being a nocturnal species, a heard only observation was most likely to occur if we encountered the bird. We started our search at the south end of Willson Road in Wainfleet.

The gravel road is the western border for the Wainfleet Bog and it is perhaps the closest I'm willing to venture into the bog that is home to Deer Ticks carrying the bacteria that cause Lyme Disease. It was raining so I would drive a 100 metres or so and stop and lower the windows and listen to the birds that did not seem bothered by the evening precipitation. Birds already on the year list that were heard included, Yellow Warbler, Wood Thrush, Veery, Gray Catbird and Song Sparrow. Robins darted across the road and blackbirds flew overhead. Jean caught a glimpse of a Swamp Sparrow but it was not at the right angle for me to see the bird and it quickly disappeared deeper into the bog without singing. The light was dwindling when we heard the trill of another Swamp Sparrow coming from the west side of the road. It was loud enough for both Jean and I to hear so it was added to the year list.

North of Garringer Road, fireflies emerged and began their luminescent display. Hundreds and hundreds of Lampyridae marked the edges of the road. I have never observed so many in one evening. And the rain brought out the amphibians. Why did the toad cross the road? And they did make it all the way across, sometimes with Jean's assistance. With it being a quiet, rural road and only a few scattered here and there, the toads and frogs were easily avoided.

The rain had stopped when Jean heard the song of a not too distant whip-poor-will. As we followed the song down the road, it would get louder. There was light but no where near enough for a human to spot an Eastern Whip-poor-will perched in a tree. The bird moved occasionally. We could hear it singing from the west side of the road, then the east side. At one time, it sounded as if it was directly above the car.

Listening to the nightjar sing while standing in the middle of the road was quite the experience. There was no way I was passing on this lifer observation so Eastern Whip-poor-will was noted as lifer number 455. No asterisk required.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Grassland Birding in Port Colborne

There are a few spots in Niagara where you can find grassland species. Usually, Jean and I head over to Port Robinson, east of the Welland Canal, to tick our FOY Grasshopper Sparrow but this year we checked out another location after receiving an eBird Year Needs for Niagara report. Included in the report was Clay-colored Sparrow so all the more reason to head to the northern edge of Port Colborne this year. Another added benefit, the report was from a checklist submitted by our friend John Black. I contacted John to obtain additional information and he graciously provided a map complete with arrows and circles to indicate the location of the singing Clay-colored Sparrows.
Ticking these two species of sparrows would be a nice way to start my week's vacation. We parked on the shoulder of the 140 and walked along a fence line towards a plateau. Vehicle traffic on the road that links Welland to Highway 3 east of the Welland Canal made it difficult to hear birds but we quickly observed our first grassland species perched on one of the wooden fence posts.

An Upland Sandpiper! Jean and I observed this grassland shorebird in western Niagara in late April but they were distant looks through our spotting scope. This was a much better observation that included flight displays, singing and a second Upland Sandpiper. The pair took turns perching on the fence posts and continued to fly around the area as we climbed the tractor trail to the top of the plateau. 
Reaching the top, we heard Savannah Sparrow, Field Sparrow and Eastern Meadowlark singing and then turned west towards the Welland Canal and the stands of Phragmites where John had observed the Clay-coloured Sparrow. The Upland Sandpipers continued their aerial show and used a cedar for a perch this time. Soon after, a third joined the performance. 

 Further along the plateau, we could hear the insect-like buzz song of a Grasshopper Sparrow. It took some time but we eventually spotted one atop a small cedar. During the hike we saw three Grasshopper Sparrows.
Unfortunately, no singing Clay-colored Sparrow were heard as we stood near the Phragmites. 
Every Savannah Sparrow was inspected. Grasshopper Sparrows were double-checked. But no Clay-colored Sparrow could be found.
Wild strawberries were found and left for the critters that need them.

Returing to the area we climbed the plateau, we noticed a pair of Virginia Ctenucha (Ctenucha virginica).  A species of Wasp Moth that can be found in southern Ontario through May to July.

As a naturalist, there are many things that capture my attention. Insects maybe more than others. After identifying a Common Ringlet, a Silvery Blue recently and now the Virginia Ctenucha,
I just may have started another life list. No need to worry birds, you'll always be first.