Thursday, 29 September 2022

Big Year Birds in Ontario

 Having had to return home with a kidney stone was not my idea of fun and though I may have missed some birds on the east coast, my body needed time to recover.  After a few days of rest, I was back to birding and chasing down year birds here in Ontario.  I started with a trip up to the Lambton Shores, on the shores of Lake Huron, looking for Sabine’s Gulls and Long-tailed Jaegers.  I did see a distant jaeger, but couldn’t be sure of the species, but I did have good views through my scope of a juvenile Sabine’s Gull.  No photo, but I did take a nice one once, down in California on a pelagic:

Two of the birds I had missed in Ontario, early in the year were a Ruff and Glossy Ibis.  I had been in other parts of the country when they had shown up and I was not expecting to have a second chance at a Ruff, but hoped for a fall migrating Glossy Ibis.  Amazingly, I got both on consecutive days, in the same park in Durham, Ontario.

The first one was a Ruff.  It was being seen in Rotary Park in Ajax.  Not in the actual kitchen cleaner, but on some mudflats as viewed from a bridge not far from the parking lot.  It was a rainy day, but not nearly as rough as they had it on the east coast, so I wasn’t complaining about birding in the rain.  As it turned out, I didn’t have to spend that much time outdoors, as the juvenile Ruff made an appearance less than 10 minutes after I arrived.  Another birder, who was already there, spotted it first, then a few others arrived and we all had super close looks at this rare shorebird.  It was only the second time in nearly 11 years I’ve seen one here in Ontario.  I got the share the sighting with some birders I met earlier in the year at the White-winged Dove sighting.

No sooner than I got home, after a two hour plus drive back to Brantford in heavy Sunday afternoon traffic, than reports came in that a pair of Glossy Ibis were being seen within the same park.  I was too tired to drive back after a long day of travel and birding in the rain, so put it off until the next morning, hoping these wayward ibis would stick around for 24 more hours.  Just as I was heading out the door the next morning, I received a reminder that I had an inspection for my car at my local Ford dealership and had to head there first.  Luckily it didn’t take too much time out of my morning and I was on the road and back in Ajax before noon.

I wasn’t familiar enough with the park to know where the “corner marsh” was, but fortuitously I ran in to Jean Iron on the very same bridge from the previous day, and she did know where the marsh with the ibis was and gave me very good directions to get there.  Another birder joined me for the walk and we made it there in short order.  A few other birders were already staked out and searching, but not seeing much other than Great Blue Herons and lots and lots of Wood Ducks.  

I had the only scope at that time, so while the others scanned midrange with binoculars and telephoto lenses, I concentrated on the distant cattails.  Ten minutes into scanning I thought I had a pair of Glossy Ibis in the scope.  I wanted everyone to see, but just in case I was mistaken, I said, “I need y’all to check my scope, just in case I am imagining this.”  In turns, everyone got to the scope and yes, lo and behold, the sought after ibis were seen by all.  They quickly vanished into the cattails again, but a little while later, re-emerged and everyone was able to get even better looks.  I was able to get a cool digiscope video with my iPhone and PhoneSkope adaptor.

So, today is Tuesday September 27 and I have counted 436 species in Canada this year.  Based on eBird Totals over the past 10 years, only a pair of birders, having counted 451 species, have ever seen more birds in a single year in Canada.  I won’t break the record, though that was never my goal, but second all time is not bad.  There are more birds to see and trips to make before the end of the year, but there is more time than money left in my budget.  More rarities showing up in Ontario would be nice!

Wednesday, 14 September 2022

From Nova Scotia to Calgary and back to Nova Scotia… with a Kidney Stone…

My adventures south of Calgary to Wild Horse, where I saw my first Thick-billed Longspur, was spectacular and the following journey to Nova Scotia and a pelagic that had me see my first South Polar Skua in Canada was amazing too.  But ever since Sue and I were on our vacation in Nova Scotia in August, I have been in moderate to severe pain.  I suffer from chronic kidney stones and these past few weeks have not made birding fun, all the time.  Medication helps and I managed to avoid the hospital because of the special meds I have on hand, but I ended up leaving the Atlantic provinces a week early to come home and take care of myself.  I listened to my body, and my body said, “Go home, dummy!”

I am beginning to feel better and enjoying the fact that I returned having added 11 species on the trip, including Lark Bunting and Thick-billed Longspur in Wild Horse, on the Alberta-Montana border; a Rock Wren in Drumheller; a Gray Heron,(Lifer), in Prince Edward Island National Park; South Polar Skua and  Leach’s Storm-Petrel,(Lifer) on the Bay of Fundy pelagic and a Tricolored Heron at Saint’s John Rest in Newbrunswick.  I have reached 433 species and am pretty happy with that number.  Originally I was thrilled to have hit 400 and had a stretch goal of 430.  Maybe I’ll get to 440 before the end of the year.  I also passed 700 species on the ABA List. And, yes, there are a few things I may have changed along the way, but overall I can say I am quite happy with the results.

 The pelagic, lead by my friend Jason, and Amy from Bay of Fundy Whale Watch, was the highlight of the trip.  We saw tons of seabirds, even a few songbirds and all 40 plus of us had the excitement of the South Polar Skua.  The boat was headed to see a huge raft of phalaropes, both Red and Red-necked, when Jason spotted the skua and told Amy to direct the boat over there.  She then shouted to the pilot, “Abort the phalaropes!  Abort the phalaropes!  Head to the skua!” We all had a good laugh and were rewarded by the skua putting on a show close to the boat.  It reminded me of when I saw my first ever South Polar Skua, on a Debbie Shearwater pelagic in California.  She saw it off the front of the boat and shouted, so all could hear,(even those on the mainland, I think), “Skua!  South Polar Skua!” It wasn’t until this trip that I finally got a photo.

Since I am still in recovery mode and focusing on thinking and typing is a little difficult right now, I am going to let pictures from the trip tell the rest of the words. 

Abort the phalaropes!

Skua!  South Polar Skua!

Saturday, 20 August 2022

Down East with Sue, August 20 to 28

I know that those in the Atlantic provinces refer to the Maritimes as “down east,” but for us in Southern Ontario we are going northeast.  No matter how you get there, I once again returned to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland on a trip with Sue, for her summer vacation.  She chose the spot, flying in to Sydney, NS and touring around Cape Breton, followed by an all night ferry over to Port Au Basque in Newfoundland, and touring around there for a day and spending the night before taking the daytime ferry back to Sydney.

Though I have been to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland multiple times this year, I have not spent that much time in Cape Breton or the southern part of Newfoundland.  Sue also came up with the itinerary and made most of the reservations.  So it was a vacation for me from planning.  I did have some target birds while there, namely Thick-billed Murre, Great Shearwater and Red Knot. I had hoped something unexpected or rare would show up, but that was not to be.  But, as I have said, it was Sue’s trip and she was excited to see Atlantic Puffins and Northern Gannets, along with the many other birds we found throughout the week.  Not to mention the seals and whales!

We took a few boat trips, and had a couple cancelled as well, including Sue’s Zodiac whale trip.  I did book a last minute whale trip and we did see Pilot Whales, which was a first first for Sue as well.  We actually took two puffin trips, because, well, you can’t get enough puffins.  We also got amazing looks at Great Cormorants nesting on the Bird Islands in out of Englishtown.  I also got much closer looks at the Northern Gannets than I did earlier in the summer.  I am only a little disappointed I didn’t get to Cape St. Mary’s and the gannet breeding colony.  I also got to see my first Great Shearwater of the year, as well.  And we took a drive up to a place called Meat Cove.  All the roads were twisty and winding and either went up or down, almost never flat.  I was thankful for the rental car with automatic steering, that gave the feeling of a self-driving car at times.

The all night ferry over to Port Aux Basque, Newfoundland was like a mini cruise.  We checked in at 9:30 in the evening and were in bed on the boat in our tiny cabin before the boat,(ship?) even left port.  No time for dinner or breakfast, and I slept in and missed the sunrise and seabirds as we made our way into the ferry docks the next morning. 

 After getting off the boat we found a nice place for breakfast and  birded around southern Newfoundland until midafternoon, heading up to Stephensville Crossing Estuary, where we saw a bevy of shorebirds, including three Red Knots, my second year bird of the trip.

 That night we stayed at the Hotel Port Aux Basque, which sounds fancier than it really is.  Nice hotel, and we had a good breakfast in the morning, including the Newfoundland specialty, fried bologna.  It was a nostalgic thing for me as well.  I loved fried bologna sandwiches as a kid and never imagined it would be a staple on almost every breakfast menu when I visited Newfoundland.  They do things right out east, ahm, Down East!

The ferry right back to Sydney, NS was during the day, and it was like a six hour pelagic, but without the seasickness.  Lots of seabirds, including a Parasitic Jaeger.  But the real excitement was seeing warblers following the boat on their migration and in the case of Magnolia and Yellow-rumped Warblers, landing on the boat to feed on crumbs and rainwater.  Actually, when we left port it was still raining, and I was worried the whole crossing would be spent trying to spot birds from the windows from our seats in the front row of the ferry.

Overall it was a fantastic, and slightly more relaxing trip than all those preceding it.  We visited Baddeck, where we toured the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site and had an amazing dinner for Sue’s birthday at the Cable Room restaurant in the aptly named Telegraph Inn.  Alexander Graham Bell, who also invented the telegraph, prior to the telephone, hoped that one day telegraph wires would “laid on to houses” as was the case at the time of water and gas pipes, and that friends could “converse with each other without leaving the home.”  Sounds like he was way ahead of his time and actually predicted the infrastructure of fiber optic cables being “laid onto houses” and our ability to message friends from our cell phones, again, without leaving the house.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

We spent the last night Membertou, just outside Sydney, at the Hampton Inn, and dined at the lovely Kiju’s Restuaurant, where the only disappointment was that the pork belly appetizer was sold out.  The locally made hard cider was great. And the blueberry cake for dessert was one of the best desserts I’ve ever eaten. In fact, the food throughout he trip was very good and I became a fan of the fish cakes, though do prefer crab cakes when available.

We returned home Sunday and the next morning I was off and running to Norfolk County to find an American Golden Plover, but that’s another blog.

Wednesday, 10 August 2022

Late Summer Birding and the Return of the Migrants

The Neotropic Cormorant might not fit directly into the category of returning migrants, but it does only seem to show up in during the two migration seasons.  I had hoped for one to land locally, near Burlington in the Niagara region, where I had seen them before, but not this time.  This one showed up in Cataraqui Bay, in Kingston, Ontario and had me spending most of the day in the car and less than an hour enjoying the bird.  The 8 hours round trip was worth it, especially because I was able to visit with my daughter, Helen, who moved to Kingston many years ago, to work with Autistic children.

Neotropic Cormorant on the right, defending its rock against the Double-crested Cormorant:

Meanwhile, I should have just kept driving, as my nemesis bird, the Stellar’s Sea Eagle was once again found off the coast of Newfoundland.  I have a couple more trips to the east coast, so I will bide my time and take advantage of some time at home to relax, recharge my batteries, and not spend too much money for a few weeks before Sue and I head to Sydney, Nova Scotia for our, well her, summer vacation.  Maybe the birds will be with us and the sea eagle will come close enough for us to get to.  I have accepted that I can’t see every bird and that some are going to slip away.  But that’s birding.  If it was easy, what fun would that be. 

Just a little closer to home, in Chatham County, near Rondeau PP I was able to view a Buff-breasted Sandpiper, a common fall visitor to southern Ontario.  Often seen on sod farms or in freshly ploughed fields in the fall, this one turned up at the Blenheim Sewage Lagoons.  Fellow birder Kelly Sue had recently moved out there, so I messaged her that I was coming for the bird and arranged to meet her there. Two hours later, I arrived and was able to get the bird in my scope for a few minutes until a flock of Killdeer took flight and flew right over the buff-breasted and flushed it, not to be seen again that afternoon.  Kelly Sue arrived five minutes later and for the second time that day missed the bird.  I know her pain.  I have missed that darn sea eagle three times this year.  Of course, I had to travel a lot further.

Bad photo of a Buff-breasted Sandpiper from a few years ago…  I don’t have any good ones…

Those two species were 417 and 418 for my Canada Big Year, and I’ve been out birding most days since I returned, but other than those two, nothing I haven’t seen already this year, somewhere in Canada, has shown up.  Maybe that Swallow-tailed Kite, we had come visit last year will drop by before we head to Nova Scotia, or a rarity I can’t even imagine, like when we had the Groove-billed Ani show up.  Either way, the anticipation of something rare or just getting on a plane again and heading out on another adventure, keeps me going.

Monday, 1 August 2022

BC Puffins and Such

Well, the winds and birds took me straight back to British Columbia… 

My mission, which I obviously chose to accept, was to fly to Vancouver, British Columbia, take a ferry over to Victoria, drive to Tofino, and take a boat to the North Pacific Ocean to see a Tufted Puffin.  But like all Mission:Impossible plots, it didn’t go exactly to plan, even though, through luck and planning and the need to succeed, the IMF team, or in this case the Whale Centre team, eventually finds a solution.

Let’s back it up to the beginning.  Or even further back.  I was just in BC.  But I was doing the interior for owls and such, and the mission plan did not yet include puffins. It had been a successful mission, and I came home not expecting to go back until September.  Back home in Ontario, I saw that a juvenile Little Blue Heron was being seen at Valens Conservation area in Hamilton, so once again I was home just on time for another rarity.  I headed over, and found it had flown from the little pond it was last seen in, but after about an hour of searching other ponds, I returned to the original spot and the young heron had returned to the scene of the crime, so to speak.  After getting some photos, I raced up the road to get a few other birders to come down and see it too.

Later that day I called The Whale Centre in Tofino to see when the best month was to come to see the Tufted Puffin.  Jen, one of the leaders out there, told me that my best shot at the Tufted Puffin was between now and the end of August.  Since Sue and I would be on the east coast until the end of August, now was the only option.  So, as Ethen Hunt, often does, I changed the mission plan and booked a flight, ferry, rental car an accommodations and planned my trip back to the west coast.

This was a lot of mission planning, as this was a last minute trip at the peak of summer travel season.  And failure was not an option.  Neither was sleeping in my car, but I was prepared for that.  Getting the rental car was the hardest part.  I tried to book for the actual days I’d be there and nothing was available.  Then with less than 48 hours before my trip, I checked to see what days they would let me have a car.  It turned out that if I reserved until August 1, instead of my return date of July 29, a car was available.  Go figure.  I just had to pay a higher day rate when I returned it early.  Happy to do so.

After a ferry ride and a long drive to Tofino, I turned in early for the night so as to be well rested for my morning boat trip with the John and the folks from the Whale Centre.  The pelagic I went on in May didn’t go well, so I was hoping summer weather, calm seas and plenty of anti-nausea meds would keep my insides in this time around.  And it all went well, except for the target bird, which was the Tufted Puffin.  We saw lots of great birds, including beautiful Heerman’s Gulls and  close looks at a Wandering Tattler, both Canadian Lifers and species 410 and 411 for the year, but try as he might, John couldn’t locate a Tufted Puffin.

I wasn’t in trouble yet, as I had scheduled two boat trips,( every IMF operative has a backup plan), knowing that sometimes birds work on their own schedule and have wings and can easily fly away from boats or hide in the waves.  The next morning, I allowed myself to sleep in a bit, and enjoyed a great breakfast at the Common Loaf in Tofino, but after that, things didn’t go exactly to plan as I was soon to learn. 

Here is the timeline of the events as they unfolded:

11:30: Fabulous breakfast at the Common Loaf Bake Shop. Your mission, and I implore you to accept it, is to go there if you’re ever in Tofino.

12:00: Jen from The Whale Centre informs me that the boat won’t be going close enough to the puffin colony because this was primarily a whale watching trip and the whales were in a different location.

12:30: We decided to wait and see if the 1:30 trip would get me to the puffins.

1:00: Jen informs me that the next whale watch trip will also not be pursuing puffins.

1:01: I tried to hide my disappointment.  I came a long way for just one bird, though I did get the Wandering Tattler, so can’t really complain.

1:10: Jen offers me a full refund and an invitation to come back at the end of August and try again.  I don’t think I can make it, as I will be on the east coast until the end of August.

1:15: I ask if a water taxi could get me near the colony island.  Jen tells me to hang on and makes a phone call or two and a call on the radio.

1:30: Jen announces that, though it is his day off, John will take me out on his boat.  Jen has received news from a competing whale watch that a Tufted Puffin was seen amongst the Rhinoceros Auklets and given the coordinates. I get suited up and wait.

2:00: John and I head out on his boat in search of a puffin.

2:40: We spot a single Tufted Puffin, and I celebrate and thank John profusely and we head back.

3:00: Jen meets me at the Whale Centre and is relieved to know I’ve seen the puffin.  She tells me to contact her in August to get details of the fall pelagic.  I can’t thank her enough for the efforts everyone put in to help me see my first Tufted Puffin in Canada.

Mission Accomplished!

Thanks to John and Jen and everyone at The Whale Centre.  I can’t wait to go back in September for their fall pelagic.

Oh and if you ever want to feel like a king on a throne while sitting on the toilet, check out the bathroom seating at The Whale Centre.  Unique, to say the least.

The next three days proved to be productive too.  I added a Cassin’s Vireo in Squamish, finally.  The next day I made my third trip up to Lillooet and this time saw a Chukar, as it ran down a hill, across the road in front of my car and vanished over another hill.  Later that same day I saw a pair of Spruce Grouse along the side of the road as I drove along the Cariboo Highway.  And lastly, I finished the day up at Tranquille Criss Creek where I counted species 416 for the year, a Dusky Flycatcher.  

The next day I was flying to Toronto and driving home to Brantford.  Time for some well deserved rest and down time.  In three weeks Sue and I fly to Sydney, Nova Scotia for her summer vacation.  I hope to add a few new birds between now and then and some good sea birds on the east coast.  In August I will be taking it a bit slower and gearing up for my next mission.  September’s missions may not be impossible, but they will be taking me from coast to coast and on boat trips in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  These missions, I will always choose to accept.  I just hope I am not caught or killed, as Sue will not disavow any of my actions.