Monday, 20 June 2022

A Wood Stork in Nova Scotia??!!!??

 Heck, we’ve had a Stellar’s Sea Eagle out that way, so why not a wayward Wood Stork?  Obviously, overshot the migratory route up to Georgia and South Carolina.  But we’re glad to have this youngster in Canada.  Another Canadian Lifer for me, thanks to the friends I made in Edmonton last week, Sean and Marnie Evans.  They had told me they were going to Nova Scotia but I never expected news of a Wood Stork.  I really hadn’t thought I could get there and back, since I was leaving Monday for Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories.  But, to be honest, I have done crazier things.

So, on Thursday evening I booked a Porter Airlines flight to Halifax.  Reserved a hotel room and even had no trouble getting a rental car.  I drove to Toronto on Friday afternoon and had a direct flight to Halifax, but more than a three hour drive down to New Harbour, from where the bird had been reported.  It was overcast and raining and though I got there just after sunset, it was too dark to see anything, plus the moment I got out of the car, the rain started coming down in sheets and I jumped back in and headed for my hotel.

Trouble was, it was pitch black, raining, I had over an hour drive ahead of me and it was past 10pm. I should have just gone straight to the hotel and skipped the moonlight birding.  But, to be honest, I have done crazier things.  I also had to go slow and watch for moose.  In the rain.  In the dark.  What was I thinking?

However, I made it to Guysborough intact and picked up my room key and went straight to bed, without dinner.  My punishment for not planning ahead.  I set the alarm for 5am and was on the road soon after, stopping only to pick up breakfast at Tim Hortons, which thankfully was open for early birders.  My other issue, aside from hunger, was I needed to get there, get the bird and head back to Halifax for my 1:45 flight to Toronto.  It was the only flight out that afternoon, though I was willing to miss it and take a later Air Canada flight if necessary.  It was just over an hour to where the bird was hanging out, but over 3 hours back to Halifax.

I picked one of the GPS coordinates from eBird and pulled up to the side of the road, where I could view a small grassy island, through the fog.  To my utter surprise, the Wood Stork was sitting right there, preening.  Just as I slowly got out of the car, with my camera, the stork flew off into the fog, necessitating a chase for a photo op.  

It was a foggy day…

I drove around the estuary a few times, stopped and got out of the car again to search.  To my continued astonishment, there was a tern, bigger than an arctic tern, and with a long, mostly black beak.  I checked my iphone field guide, iBird Pro, and looked on eBird as to what this tern would likely be.  Turned out, the tern was a Roseate Tern.  Another Canada Lifer,(440)!

I continued my drive back and forth around the estuary, and found a pullout.  About 100 yards away, in the fog, the Wood Stork was foregoing in the grass.  I could barely pick it out with my binoculars and hardly photograph it at that distance in the fog, and figured that was going to be the best I could get, once it flew off.  As usual, I figured wrong.  I drove back to the causeway bridge, hoping to maybe get a photo of the Roseate Tern, but it had flown off.  Much to my continued amusement, the Wood Stork flew in and landed less than 50 feet from me, and started fishing.  I was literally jumping for joy and there was no one there to celebrate with.  I kind of felt like the time in Arizona black in 2012 when I found a Nutting’s Flycatcher and had no one to High Five that day, either.

My first photo, from a few hundred metres away, 

shot with my 400mm zoom and heavily cropped:

I got my photos, mapped my trip back to Halifax, thinking I had another hour too bird, and realized I had miscalculated the time needed to get back.  I should be heading to the airport at 8:30, not 9:30.  Now I had to boot it back to Halifax, over three hours away, so as not to miss my flight. Once again, what was I thinking?  Luckily it was only a few minutes past 8:30 and I did get back to Halifax and the airport in the nick of time and made my flight back to Toronto.  For a day, anyway.  That was Saturday. I spent Sunday at home, but am now on my flight to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, as i try to fill in my Canada territories and provinces Bingo Card.

Friday, 17 June 2022

On the Trail of the Kirtland’s Warbler

 During Spring Migration in Point Pelee National Park, one of the most sought after birds is the Kirtland’s Warbler.  They are only migrating through, usually to Michigan, where the majority of them breed in the Jack Pines of Grayling.  There were several reports of them during our time in Pelee, some of which turned out to be overeager misidentifications of similar looking warblers.  There were a few good sightings, but I kept on missing them, and eventually stopped chasing.  I figured I had lost my chance at seeing one this year.

Or had I?  An announcement on June 13, from the Ontario Field Ornithologists, OFO, about the opening of a tract of land in Simcoe County that had been under development since 2019 to remove invasive species, plant native ground cover, do controlled burns and plant more Red Pine.  The goal, attract the once endangered, and still threatened, Kirtland’s Warbler, with the hope they will increase their breeding range beyond the Jack Pines of Michigan and use the very similar Red Pines of the Packard Track in Simcoe County.  

You can read all about the conservation project here: 

The Kirtland’s Warbler makes appearance during Simcoe County’s 100th Anniversary

The OFO has, this year, introduced an ambassador program to enlist the help of local birders in helping coordinate viewing of rare birds in particular locations so all birders can safely view species that might otherwise be difficult or impossible to see.  For the Kirtland’s Warbler, it is on a public piece of land called the Packard Tract.  Due to the sensitive habitat the birds are using, it does require monitoring so all that come obey certain rules and stay on the path. 

I headed out early the next morning for the 2-1/2 hour drive from Brantford to Simcoe County.  I arrived to find a representative from the OFO giving new arrivals directions to the best viewing spot.  He was also collecting donations for the Kirtland’s Warbler conservation efforts, which I was happy to contribute to.  I walked along the path and it wasn’t long before I was hearing the distinctive song of the male Kirtland’s Warbler.  Seeing it was another matter.  But with the help of other birders, including my friend, MC,(who I seem to run into at almost every rare bird sighting in Ontario), and the forestry people, who were there to monitor the site, we soon spotted one, then another, deep into the pines. 

Photo opportunities were good, not great, but it was exciting to finally see a bird I had longed to see in Ontario.  It was a Lifer for many and for me a Canada and Ontario Lifer.  It was also species 377 for the year.  Oh, and as a bonus, there was a Lark Sparrow hanging out along the fence where all the cars were parked.

Now, as I type, I am awaiting a flight to Halifax, Nova Scotia.  My new friends from Edmonton are there and they messaged me yesterday that they were going to see a Wood Stork.  What?  Yes, a rare for Canada Wood Stork was being seen near Guysborough.  I quickly booked a flight on Porter Airlines and searched for a hotel.  That was harder as there was nothing in the area.  I did find a room at the Hearthstone Inn, about an hour away in Port Hawkesbury, so I had a place to stay.  Now, for the rental car.  After my misadventures in Edmonton I was worried.  But Enterprise had lots of cars available to rent in Halifax, so I was all set. Now, all I need is yet another rare bird I am chasing to stick around for a few more hours.

Thursday, 16 June 2022

Detour to Alberta

 And a good thing I did.  Before I was to leave Whitehorse for my flight to Toronto, I heard there was a Garganey, a rare species of duck, outside of Edmonton.  It was easy enough to adjust my flights to get there within 24 hours, but that was still not fast enough.  The Garganey was gone by the time I arrived.  And what an adventure it was, just getting there.

First I had to rebook flights through Air Canada, which was easy enough for a small change fee.  Next, book a hotel room near the airport.  Check.  And finally, book a rental car through Enterprise. Nothing available at the airport, but off-site locations seemed to have cars..  It looked like I had a reservation; it was confirmed and I even completed  the on-line check-in.  The next day, I received a call that the location was out of cars.  I tried again.  Again I got a reservation, conformation and online check-in.  While at the airport in Vancouver awaiting my flight to Edmonton, I get an email saying that the new location had no cars.  

Birders Nearby

Now, I was in trouble.  I was arriving for a three day trip to Alberta with no way to get around.  I began contacting Edmonton and Alberta birding groups on Facebook,(yes Facebook has some good points, along with all the crap, too).  I was fortunate enough to hear from Marnie and Sean Evans, who were happy to pick me up at my hotel that evening and take me to the Garganey spot.  Meanwhile, I arrived in Edmonton and went to the all the other rental car places, to find that there was a huge shortage of vehicles do to some kind of pandemic thing that had been going around.  I returned Enterprise counter, and begged for a car, but no dice.  Then, in a moment of inspiration, I decided to check on-line to see if there was a car available the next day.  Sure enough, Enterprise had one compact vehicle coming in the next morning.  I scooped it up and could drive myself the next two days.

Owls Well that Ends Well…

Back with Marnie and Sean, we ventured out to the wetlands where the Garganey had been seen. On the way, just around the corner from my hotel, Sean stopped the car.  A California Gull, which I couldn’t find in British Columbia, was just hanging out at the side of the road.  I jumped out of the car and snapped a quick photo.  

Alas, when we arrived at the wetlands, the Garganey had left for parts unknown, but the fields were filthy with American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts and Wilson’s Phalarope.  We had a nice time birding there, and I thanked Sean and Marnie for their efforts and they drove me back to my hotel.  On the way back Sean shared some locations with me that would help me add several more species to my year list over the next day and a half.

Not unlike Sheldon Cooper, the Black-necked Stilt did not want the American Avocets in its’ spot:

I went back early the next morning looking for the long-gone Garganey, and instead found a Marbled Godwit and Long-billed Dowitcher,(370).  After an hour or so of searching with a couple of other birders, I headed to the grasslands where Sean had told me about Sedge Wrens and Yellow Rails.  Often better for hearing in the evening, he did tell me that the rails do call during the day and there were sparrows and even a Sprague’s Pipit possible too.  When I arrived at Range Rd 183 I was already hearing Sedge Wrens,(371), as I walked the stretch of road where the Yellow Rails nest.  It took a while, but eventually I was hearing the distinctive tic-tic-tic of this elusive bird,(372).  If you ever pecked slowly on an old school Underwood typewriter, it kind of sounds like that.  No photo, as it often takes a rice harvester to flush them, as I saw at the Yellow Rails and Rice Festival in Louisiana.

Yellow-railed fleeing from a rice harvester circa 2012:

Singing Sedge Wren:

No more new birds that day, but the next morning, which was my last in Alberta this time around, I headed to Hastings Lake and was greeted by at least 50 American White Pelicans,(373), and a kindly old gentleman walking his dog.  We had a nice conversation and I got to watch the pelicans take off and soar overhead before heading out to look for sparrows and pipits along another grassy farm road.

I had a few more targets left before heading to the airport for a flight home: Sprague’s Pipit, LeConte’s Sparrow and Nelson’s Sparrow.  I drove to the recommended HotSpot on Township Rd 490 and stood at the side of the road listening for the distinctive calls of all three birds.  The LeConte’s Sparrows were calling from both sides of the road and making brief appearances on the tops of the grass.  The Sprague’s Pipit took a little longer to identify.  At one point, I just closed my eyes and listened for about 5 minutes until, finally heard it calling from out in the fields.  The Nelson’s was a no-show, but I still had two more species for the trip.

Sprague’s Pipit:

LeConte’s Sparrow:

At that point I was getting close to having to rush to the airport, get gas, and return my cherished rental car.  But I was forced to make one more stop.  A dangerous one at that.  As I was driving up yet another farm road, somewhere south of Edmonton, I spotted two big black birds chasing some kind of falcon or raptor.  I pulled to the side of the road and got my binoculars on a Prairie Falcon being harassed by a pair of Common Raven.  I had not expected to see one until I got to Saskatchewan in July.  As I tried to get out of the car to attempt a photo, huge tractor trailers were zipping by, very close, not even trying to pass me safely.  Suffice it to say, I didn’t overstay my welcome.  But the Prairie Falcon was #376 for the year and the 8th new species in less than 48 hours in Alberta, on a trip I hadn’t even planned when I left for the Yukon.  And, once again, thanks so much to Marnie and Sean, who helped me out in my hour of need and pointed me in the right direction for all these extra birds.

Sunday, 12 June 2022

Big Year Birding Along the Dempster Highway

 Okay, I admit it, the main reason for my trip all the way up to Dawson City, besides looking for ptarmigan, longspurs and gyrfalcon, was to bird the sites that stood in for Attu Island in the movie The Big Year.  I had been to Tofino, where many scenes in the movie had been filmed for the pelagics and seaside settings, and it is likely I may never get to Attu, so driving the Dempster Highway for birds and the scenery and locations of The Big Year was motivation enough to make the trip. Of course, doing a Big Year and visiting the territories and provinces of Canada was an important motivation too, I suppose.

I arrived in Dawson City after a 6 hour drive from Whitehorse, to discover a dusty, quaint frontier town that had all the trappings of the old west, the gold rush era, gambling establishments, saloons, and dancing girls, if you knew where to look.  I was there for the birds, so spent more time on the dusty gravel roads leading up to the Arctic Circle and beyond to the Arctic Ocean.  Alas, I did not have the time to make the long drive, but I did make it as far as kilometer 158, where I found a Lifer Gyrfalcon in a nest built high on a sheer rock wall.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  I arrived in Dawson City late in the afternoon, but too early for dinner or darkness.  Well, it’s almost always too early for darkness at that latitude.  It doesn’t get anywhere close to real night and only in the wee hours.  So I had time to scout out the first bit of the Dempster Highway and I made it as far as the sign for Tombstone Territorial Park. The road is all gravel and dust, all the time and the back of the car takes a beating.  I can see why they sell windshield crack insurance.  I was lucky to have been given a nice Ford Edge with a pre-cracked windshield, saving me the insurance or expensive repair bill.

The Westmark Hotel, where I stayed in Dawson City:

A small section of The Dempster Highway:

That evening, after checking into my hotel, I had dinner in the dining room of the Westmark Hotel, a lovely bison and pasta dish, and got to sleep early. The next day morning I retraced my drive to  Tombstone, and before I even got to the sign, I saw the first of many Willow Ptarmigan, flush up from the side of the road.  Not the best sighting, so I was glad to know I would see more.

  Soon after, I arrived at the main park building and met Miriam, one of the park rangers, who was about to join a morning bird walk.  I had walked, serendipitously, into their annual birding event, and joined their morning walk.  Along the way, she introduced me to Sebastian, who was leading another walk, later that morning, up to Surf Bird Mountain, which I also joined. Mostly.

Surfbird Mountain:

Walking on the “frozen tundra” is not as easy as it seems.  The ground cover is very spongy and sits about a foot above the permafrost.  With every step I would sink in and because of my leg disability I was exhausted about two-thirds the way up.  I also have stents in my heart and was getting close to the point where I thought my health was at risk, so I let everyone else journey up to the ridge and made my way down.  On the advice of another birder on the hike, I made my way to where he said Smith’s Longspurs were likely nesting and when I finally arrived, I was actually hearing them sing.  It took a few minutes, but a pair popped out of the bushes and flew directly past my binocular view.  I may not have made it to the top to see the Rock Ptarmigans, but I got Smith’s Longspurs and that was reward enough for my tired body.

Then came my big break.  I had been given a pamphlet of all the sights to see along the Dempster Highway, at the Visitor Centre.  I read that if you drive to Kilometer 158 and look up at the sheer cliff face, you may see a Gyrfalcon nest and may be lucky enough to see the Gyrfalcon.  That would be a Lifer and I was excited to get driving the 80 or so kilometers to the location.  Armed with snacks and still hot coffee in my Thermos,(purchased almost 20 hours earlier at a Whitehorse Tim Horton), and not much else, as I had forgotten to pack a lunch, I headed up late that afternoon.  It didn’t take me long, after finding the KM 158 sign and the rock wall, to discover the nest.  And sitting in it, a Gyrfalcon.  It was species 367 for the year, and 699 for my ABA List.  I was one away from joining the 700 Club!

It was getting late in the day, though far from dark, and I hadn’t eaten much else than trail mix all day, so I drove straight back to Dawson and enjoyed a steak dinner at one of the local dining establishments and got myself to bed early, so as to get back on the Dempster Highway in my quest for ABA 700, a Rock Ptarmigan.  I was also further north than I expect I will ever be, just about 300 km from the Arctic Circle.  Had I a few extra days, I could have made all the way to the Arctic Ocean.

The next morning, if it can be called that, since it never seems to become night, it was cool and raining, turning the ever present dust to mud.  I had the hotel’s buffet breakfast and was driving north by 7am.  It wasn’t long before I was seeing Willow Ptarmigans everywhere.  They were mostly at the sides of the roads, either singles or in pairs and were even “posing” for photographs, thank you very much.  But it was the Rock Ptarmigans that I was really seeking.  

I knew they were more likely at the higher altitudes, and I also knew I was unlikely able to climb to said higher altitudes, so I stopped frequently along the highway and scoped the tops of the mountains for white blobs,  Most were unmelted snow, but somewhere about 1000 feet up the side of one slope, there was a moving white blob on a huge bolder.  It took a bit of focus and patients, but finally it resolved into a Rock Ptarmigan.  I finally had number 700.  Due to the distance up the mountain, I just couldn’t get good photos or videos, but below is the best I could get, and had to be happy with the results.

I began this birding journey in 2012, doing a North American Big Year, with almost no experience as a birder, having only bought my first cheap binoculars a week before, at a Boxing Day sale.  I spent the year traveling for my job, with the Toronto Blue Jays, and saw 600 species.  596 of them were on the ABA List at the time. It took 9 years, 5 months and 5 days to add an additional 104.  And it brought me to the Dawson Highway, a place I’ve wanted to visit for over 10 years, since it was here that the movie, The Big Year, my inspiration for becoming a birder, filmed the scenes that took place on Attu Island.  It was the scenes and scenery depicted on Attu, but actually Canada’s own Yukon Territory, that made me become a birder.  I had finally made it to two of my most desired goals, 700 species and the feeling of being close to the Birders of The Big Year.

As far north as I ever expect to be:

I had wanted to stay here, in one of the rooms the main cast of The Big Year stayed in, but it was sold out when I tried to make my reservations:

Sunday, 5 June 2022

North By Northwest

 The title of a classic Alfred Hitchcock movie and a good description of the next eight days.  Leaving Toronto for Vancouver on Monday, was only the beginning of my adventure…

Day One, Vancouver and Chilliwack:

Thanks to an upgrade to business class on my flight from Toronto, due to all the flights I have already taken this year, I arrived on the west coast in relative comfort, well fed, having watched most of three movies and well rested, thanks to comfortable reclining seats.  No need to pity me.  I picked up my rental car and drove straight to Iona Island, hoping to maybe see American White Pelicans migrating past.  I didn’t see those, but did get to see both Vaux’s and Black Swifts.  Seeing them is easy, photographing them swiftly flying overhead is hard.

Next on the list was to drive up to Chilliwack, where i was spending the night, in search of a Swainson’s Hawk.  I saw quite a few hawks on the drive up, but most were either unidentifiable, far out in the farm fields, or  Red-tailed Hawks.  My destination was Gibson Rd, where there had been reports of up to 8 of them at a time.  I arrived to find a single red-morph.  It flew across the road, and disappeared for a while, but on my return from a drive around the block, I found it, or one of its friends, perched on a post not too far from the road.  It was species 358 for the Big Year, but also number 431 for my Canadian Life List.

From there I took a short drive to the Jesperson Dyke, another good hotspot in the Fraser Valley district.  There I hit the jackpot, starting with one of my favorite birds, the Lazuli Bunting, another Canadian Lifer.  It is a small, cute, red, white and blue songbird, with a voice as beautiful as its plumage.  Turns out, males over two years old all have a slightly different song based on the same notes, just combined in their own unique order.  Along the walk, I also added Black-headed Grosbeak and a Western Wood-Pewee.

I had a couple of hours before my flight to bird before heading to Whitehorse in the Yukon, so spent it at the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary.  I didn’t add any new year birds, but it is a great place to go birding when in Vancouver.  However, do to limited parking space and narrow trials, they limit the number of visitors each day and you need to reserve a spot in advance.

It was now time for the main event of this trip.  My flight to Whitehorse.  It was a short, calm flight and I arrived in Whitehorse with plenty of daylight left to bird, even if I wanted to stay up until 3am.  It doesn’t get dark for more than a couple of hours a night in the Yukon, this time of year.  It’s a small town, but with lots of great bird habitats and many breeding birds, especially the White-crowned Sparrows, who sing on territory, almost nonstop.  Enough to drive someone like me, with Misophonia, to wear my noice cancelling headphones at times.

I quickly added my first Yukon Big Year species on the Yukon River, a pair of nesting Arctic Tern.

I spent the rest of my day and a half there, wandering around, looking for a Wandering Tattler, which seemed to have wandered away from the area before I arrived, but I did add a high-flying Golden Eagle and on the way up to Dawson City, and a Townsend’s Warbler.  

Come back soon for my continuing adventures in the Yukon and see if I can finally get to the ABA 700 Club along the famous Dempster Highway from Dawson City to the Arctic Ocean.