Sunday, 1 January 2023

All Good Things…

Sunday, January 1, 2023:

It was, as in 2012 and 2016, when I had previously done Big Years, another very good year.  But it had come to an end.  On December 29 I took one last trip up north, trying to pick up at least one more bird, a Sharp-tailed Grouse that I didn’t see in the previous 11 months and 28 days.  I spent the day driving to Sault Ste. Marie and the penultimate day of 2022 driving the agricultural roads, and checking eBird Hotspots, looking for the grouse.  I had found many other grouse this year, so no reason, with 8 hours of daylight, I couldn’t locate just one.  And I was successful, first thing in the morning, which gave me a pleasing 456 species for the year and left me only one short of the all time record.  Alas, I was unable to get a photo, as grouse tend shoot into the woods as soon as you see them,

My astonishment at seeing the giant loonie

I then had a big choice to make.  It was the morning of December 30 and there was a Hermit Warbler, not in British Columbia, but in Newfoundland.  I didn’t get one out west,(they rarely cross over into Canada), so maybe I could fly east and see it.  St. John’s is no stranger to western species, having hosted a Western Tanager last winter.  That one I did see.  I checked flights and prices and weighed the pros and cons and just couldn’t bring myself to take one more trip that, yes, could have tied the record, but would have had me spend money that was no longer part of the original budget and the warbler might not even be there when I arrived. Besides, travel post Christmas and New Year’s might not be so advisable.  Maybe something else would show up in Ontario before sunset on New Years Eve, and I did want to stick around and try get a photo of the Sharp-tailed Grouse.

It was not to be.  I tried for a photo when I saw a second one later in the afternoon, but all I got was a blob through my front windshield of the car.  By the time I got out of the car it had, as with many other grouse I have seen, it scurried off into the woods, then flew into a tree, about a hundred yards deep in the shadows, with, I presume, some of its mates.

And so began my drive back to Brantford and a saner and more restful life to look forward to in 2023.  I made it as far as Sudbury by sunset on December 30 and kept checking Ontario rare bird alerts every time I stopped on my way back home the morning of New Year’s Eve.  There was an unconfirmed sighting of an Ivory Gull near Ottawa, but that never panned out.  I arrived home with a few hours left before the sun would set on my 2022 Canada Big Year, did one more eBird list and went home to spend the last evening of the year in my living room with Sue, rather than alone in another hotel room.  I still ordered dinner delivery.  Hard habit to break.  

As is the habit of submitting eBird lists every day.  I began a streak of eBirding every day on January 1, 2018.  Previously I had a streak approaching 900 consecutive days that ended on Halloween eve in 2017, when I checked into the hospital for spinal surgery.  I spent a day in ICU and had no windows to see through, thus ending that streak.  

I began a new one in 2018 and haven’t stopped until, well, today.  1826 consecutive days, that included hospital stays for another spinal surgery, a heart attack and kidney stones.  I had windows for all those stays and almost always brought my binoculars.  I decided that I’d do it for one more year, as part of this Big Year.  Time to give it a bit of a rest.  I actually enjoyed birding in Hamilton with Sue this afternoon, with just binoculars and found it very soothing after the intensity of the previous 365 days.

So, yes, I fell one short of the Canadian eBird record of 457 species seen or heard in one year in Canada, but I never expected to even reach 450.   Birders all across the country and a few locals here in Ontario, some of them doing their own Ontario Big Years, kept me going.  Oh and there was that other fellow doing his own Canada Big Year.  He kept me on my toes too.  I’ll take second place all time.  I’ve never been one to chase records.  Just to do the best I was capable of.  Not to mention I finished on top of the eBird list for Canada in 2022.

Not bad for a skinny 62 year old with stents in his heart, chronic kidney stones, Post Concussion Syndrome, and an alphabet soup of cognitive and mental disorders.  For starters. I could go on, but this is about my birding journey, and I will leave discussions of my health issues for another time.

Some of my favourite birds of 2022:

So, I will leave it at that tonight.  In the coming days I will gather my thoughts and share some favourite photos and memories, and look back at the places I traveled to and the people I encountered along the way.  And update you on what’s next for this obsessive birder and former videographer, that may not always involve getting out in the field.  

Stay tuned…

Saturday, 24 December 2022

Go for the Black-tailed Godwit, Stay for the Green-tailed Towhee

 Where to go?  That was the question.  Where would the potential last chase of the year take me?  There was an Ivory Gull in Saskatchewan.  But that was out on the ice almost three hours north of Saskatoon and it was -30c.  Once it hits minus forty, it doesn’t matter which scale you use, -40C and -40F are equally unpleasant.  As I was booking that flight, a Black-tailed Godwit had its own flight go off course and landed about half an hour from Halifax.  There was also the fact that there was a Snowy Egret and Thick-billed Murre in Nova Scotia and I had missed both of them earlier in the year.  Also it was only -3C in Halifax.

Where to go?  The answer was not Saskatoon.  Sorry Ivory Gull, but the final chase of the year took me to Nova Scotia.  Not to mention a return trip to New Brunswick, hot on the heals of the Steller’s Sea-Eagle, for another lost bird.  But we’ll get to that.

The Black-tailed Godwit was pretty rare too.  So rare by the time I arrived in Halifax and drove down to the Salt Marsh Trail near Rainbow Haven, it was lost again and not even the most seasoned Nova Scotia birders were able to re-find it.  Would have been a Lifer and the final godwit species on my list.  I had seen Marbled and Hudsonian and even a Bar-tailed Godwit lost in Florida back in February of 2014.  It was not to be.  But I had a backup plan or two.

My next stop was near three hour drive to Cape Sable Island.  I had been there earlier in the year, though I didn’t realize it until I crossed the causeway and began to recognize my surroundings.  All these small Canadian coastal towns I have been to in the last year begin to blend together, even if they are sometimes on opposite coasts.

I arrived with plenty of daylight to search for my two targets. Birds I shoulda-woulda-coulda seen in the spring and summer.  I missed out on a Snowy Egret in Ontario when I was in BC and not a single boat trip I took on either coast had a Thick-billed Murre.  Well, I lucked out, because both of them were being reported at Cape Sable.  I pulled up to the parking area at the North East Point and scanned the water next to the causeway and eventually picked up the murre, but wasn’t able to get a good photo at the time, as it was sleeping and bobbing up and down on the water.  However, I felt it important to try for the Snowy Egret just in case it was difficult to find, as it could be anywhere in the fields behind the homes on Stoney Island Rd. in Barrington.

I took a drive out to where the egret had been reported and drove back and forth along the road, stopping here and there and checking the fields beyond the houses.  Less than half an hour later, I spotted a white blob.  I checked with my binoculars from the car and sure enough, there was the Snowy Egret, in all its white egret-y splendour, hanging out in the grass.  I found safe spot to pull the car off the road, grabbed my scope and digiscoping adaptor, and set up to get some photos and videos.  The gale force winds ended up being too much for videos that didn’t look like I was on a horse, but I did get a couple of good photos.

When I was done, I realized I had plenty of light and time left to go try for photos of the Thick-billed Murre.  By the time I returned, the sun was perfectly low in the sky, providing nice light, and I discovered a dock I could walk down and get very close to the murre.  This time I was sheltered from the wind and got a good video using my PhoneSkope adaptor with my iPhone and Vortex spotting scope.  I now had 453 species for the year.  Suddenly the Canada record of 457 was in sight.  Not that I really expected to reach it, but at the end of November I hadn’t expected to even get to 450.

I thought I’d only get a photo of it sleeping, but as the sun was setting…

… the Thick-billed Murre awoke and I was able to get photos and videos:

As it turned out, the Black-tailed Godwit was likely gone and now I had a chance to try for a bird almost as, if not as rare in Canada, a Green-tailed Towhee.  Interestingly, the first Green-tailed Towhee I ever saw was off course too, in Florida back during the early months of my 2012 Big Year. This one was in Sackville, New Brunswick, just 2 hours away from where I was staying in Halifax.  So, off I drove to Sackville and what a great trip it was.

I was in contact with some of the folks I knew in knew in New Brunswick from the summer boat trip and the Steller’s Sea-Eagle adventure, Mitch Doucet and Diane LeBlack, and they were very helpful with directions and Mitch even had a local birder walk up the path to guide me to the spot along the Tantramar Wetlands Centre Trail.  The weather was nice and though it was a couple of hours from sunset, the bird was being seen off and on and it was just a matter of waiting for it to pop up.  I also ran into Alain Clavette, who has a birding radio show on the CBC and he had wanted to interview me after the Sea-Eagle sighting.  Well, what fun it was to begin the interview as we walked up to the location where the towhee was being seen, and then end it after the thrill of discovery.

It took only about 15 minutes or so for the bird to make an appearance.  I missed it the first time, but a keen eyed young birder named Alex spotted it as it flew across the trail and pointed me to the correct bush, so I could get a good look at this little lost sparrow.  I had seen this species in Arizona as well, a couple of times, in addition to Florida, so I recognized its gray body, green wings and rufous head immediately.  I only had a 5 second look before it vanished again and it didn’t make another appearance for a photograph, but I didn’t care.  I had species 454 in the books and was able to enjoy a lovely evening in Sackville, which has its own interesting story to tell.

On the recommendation of a fellow birder on the trail I booked a night at the aptly named Marshlands Inn.  Upon arriving I discovered an old Victorian home decorated in full Christmas Cheer, complete with lights and music and once I entered felt like I had stepped back in time. So far back that the Queen used to come along when traveling in Canada and use the inn as a rest stop for a nap in her own room, complete with queenly refreshments. I enquired as to what kind of tea service she expected and was informed that she liked something a bit stronger and enjoyed a Gin and Tonic beverage known as a Dubonnet Cocktail.  In addition to the less expensive Gordon’s Gin, which she preferred over the top shelf stuff, the dry Vermouth was replaced with an inexpensive fortified wine called Dubonnet Rouge, resulting an a sharp and slightly sweet martini. Who knew?

I did not sleep in the Queen’s room nor indulge in her favorite drink, but I did have a fabulous dinner in the dining room, followed by a restful sleep in one of their suites, which included a claw foot tub that I took advantage of.  In the morning I was served a lovely French Toast breakfast before trying for another photo of the towhee. 

 It was not to be.  It was as elusive as ever, but I did run into Mark,(who did photograph the towhee), and Karen from Grand Manan.  They had so kindly taken me out on their boat to see the American Oystercatchers this summer.  New Brunswick was very good to me this year.  I also saw a Tri-colored Heron, Steller’s Sea-Eagle, Wilson’s Storm Petrel, Razorbill, Atlantic Puffin and Laughing Gull there.

So I didn’t get my photo of the towhee, didn’t see the godwit, but worse, I was not to be home on Christmas Eve.  I had promised to be home for Christmas, and I may just be there on time.  Just not tonight.  I am coming to you directly from Air Canada’s Maple Leaf Lounge, where I have been all day, awaiting flights home.  A far cry from the opulence of the Marshlands Inn dining room, above.

My flight connecting through Montreal was delayed past when I would have been able to make my connection, so would have spent the night there.  I was rebooked on a direct flight to Toronto, which was also delayed until about an hour ago, when it was cancelled, due to weather in, of all places, Vancouver.

The incoming flight to Halifax would have come from Toronto but the plane from Vancouver wasn’t going to make it on time to leave tonight.  Such is the lot of a Big Year Birder, but I expect no sympathy; I was eating and drinking free food in the lounge and booked a hotel attached to the airport for the night, so I didn’t even have to go outside.  Anyhoo, his was the first cancelled flight of the year, so I consider myself reasonably lucky.

 Either way, I added three species on this trip and perhaps there will be one more waiting for me in Ontario.  At this point, I have accomplished more than I ever hoped to.  So Merry Christmas to all and to all a Big Year, in 2023.  Just not me.  Oh, wait, this is Christmas Eve, not New Years Eve.  There are still seven full days left. Hmmmmmm…

…To Be Continued…

Saturday, 17 December 2022

A Barn Burner of a Wild Goose Chase


The Tale of the Graylag Goose:

Friday December 9, 2022;12:38AM Local Time, St. John’s, Newfoundland.  I was at the rental car counter at the airport, trying one more time to locate the drivers license I knew I was not going to find.  I had begun the day in Vancouver, British Columbia.  I had taken my photo ID out of my wallet and gone through security.  I had put all my belongings in the trays and onto the conveyor belts.  I walked through the scanner without setting off any alarms.  I gathered what I could on the other side and had to wait for a secondary check of my iPad and camera gear.  Somewhere along the line I left my license behind.  

As I was getting ready to board the plane, preparing for a cross country wild goose chase, I realized I didn’t have that vital piece of identification with me.  Sure, I had other forms of ID to get me on the plane, but if I didn’t find the drivers license, I wouldn’t be able to pick up my rental car that night.  I sprinted back to the security area, as fast as my slow-poke legs would carry me, and desperately asked around if it had been turned in. No such luck.  And I really didn’t have time to make a thorough search, as my flight was boarding soon.  So, I got out my Health Card, which also had my photo on it, and got on the plane.

At the stopover in Montreal I searched again, but found only pockets full of disappointment.  What I was really searching for was a Graylag Goose.  It had been reported two days earlier, while I was in Vancouver searching for a Barn Owl.  I quickly booked a flight for the following morning and that is how I found myself in Montreal despairing about my cognitive issues. It was at that point I started to make enquiries with people I knew on the east coast,(my so-called Jedi Council), through FaceBook and Instagram, to see if maybe someone could help me out, perhaps drive me to the location where this Code 5 rarity had shown up.  

My buddy, Jared, would have loved to take me, but he was going to be out of town on Friday.  However, his friend Sheldon Anthony had yet to go see the goose and was happy to take me, since he was likely going to go down anyway. 

So, how did this literal wild goose chase all get started?  Well, with just 25 days remaining in the Big Year, I was at home in Brantford and knew I had some final travel plans to make.  I had 447 species on the list, plus the Limpkin, which, to be fair, I did see while standing in Canada.  So we’ll assign it an asterisk. I had planned, prior to going for the Steller’s Sea-Eagle, to go British Columbia, so not knowing what lay in store this time around, I booked a flight to the west coast.  I hoped a couple of rare birds had hung around, but instead I contented myself to a couple of birds I missed seeing on any given trip I made out west this year.  Chief among them, a Barn Owl.  But we’ll get to that.

First, upon arriving in British Columbia, I headed to Osoyoos, a small town I had wanted to visit earlier in the year, but time and bird chases didn’t allow for.  Osoyoos was a stand-in location for Arizona, Texas and California in The Big Year movie and I thought it would be fun to drive about and see if I could spot filming locations, including the park that stood in for Patagonia Lake State Park.  However, there was lots of snow on the ground and it wasn’t really possible to match locations as I had done in the Yukon.  I did pass the Husky station that doubled as Phoebes Diner early in the movie, as seen below.

My real mission was to find a Canyon Wren and the environs around Osoyoos was the most likely place in British Columbia to find one, according to Rich, my Vancouver connection.  I had three possible locations to check and got lucky on my first stop.  I drove up to the Haynes Lease Ecological area and hiked through the snow for half an hour, listening to the call of the Canyon Wren, but they are elusive birds and I couldn’t get a photo. 

In fact, in 12 years of birding I have only ever recorded a Canyon Wren in pixels just once, in Arizona, as seen below:

Still, it was species 448 and I was feeling that 450 was finally within my grasp. The west coast member of my Jedi Council, Rich, who is doing his own Metro Vancouver Big Year, alerted me to the presence of a Barn Owl at a local park, and that was my next destination.  It was on my way back to Vancouver that I found out about the Graylag Goose in Newfoundland. I had a decision to make.  I really wanted to see the Barn Owl, as one had been eluding me all year, and wanted enough time to find it.  So I booked my flight to St. John’s for the next morning, giving me a full day in Vancouver to find the owl.  

As it turned out, it only took me 90 minutes that morning, tromping through the snow, to locate the Barn Owl.  It was high in a Pine Tree and cloaked in shadows, but I managed to find an angle to get a few photos.  Another Canadian Lifer, and just one species away from 450, a number I honestly never expected to reach.  I can’t thank Rich enough for so much intel on west coast birds this year.  We only got to go birding once this year but he put me on to at least half a dozen birds that I could easily have spent full days searching for. In some ways, I am very much like Wednesday Addams from the Netflix show, “Wednesday,” only wanting to do things on my own, but as she found out, and I have discovered, sometimes you need a little help from your friends, to paraphrase The Beatles.

Because it was too late to change my flight, I had the whole day to wander and wonder if I made the right decision to wait until the next day to fly.  I did enjoy my final day of the year in Vancouver and even took a nice photo of a Bald Eagle that afternoon.

Now that we are caught up, let’s get back to that once in a lifetime Graylag Goose chase.  After taking an overpriced taxi to the hotel, which turned out to only be 2 minutes away and had a free shuttle, I went right to bed.  I slept well, after a long day of travel and first thing in the morning Jared contacted me and let me know his friend, Sheldon, would be happy to drive me to Herricott to look for the goose.  Finally things were going my way.  

I texted Sheldon and offered to buy him gas and coffee and he gladly picked me up later that morning at the front of the hotel.  Sheldon turned out to be a great guide and an enjoyable birding companion.  We chatted and got to know each other and even stopped at a house along the way to see if we could spot a wintering Blue Grosbeak.  Unfortunately it was no longer there and getting on the road for the goose was a higher priority.

We made it down to Harricott early in the afternoon and by then the skies had brightened, the snow had stopped and it was actually comfortable out.  We scanned the fields and surrounding areas for the goose, but couldn’t find it.  Luckily, Sheldon was familiar with the area and some of the places the goose had been reported from, so decided to drive up to a farm and see if the owner knew anything.  Sheldon located the farmer and asked him about it, and we couldn’t have been in a more perfect spot.  The farmer had seen the goose in the morning and walked us through his sheep pen to the edge of his property on Harricott Bay. 

We looked down the slope and, gosh darn, if that wasn’t the Graylag Goose just sitting there.  Almost as soon as we got our binoculars on it, the goose took off, possibly spooked by the sheep or by a gull that chased across the bay. I grabbed my camera up and quickly tried to get photos of it in flight, as seen below.

We watched it disappear over the bay, thanked the farmer for his kindness and I told him how much it meant to me to see this wayward European goose. As it turned out, if I had a car and had gone to Harricott  myself, I likely wouldn’t have thought to drive up to the farm and ask for help.

Sheldon, the farmer and me, celebrating the Graylag Goose:

This was the milestone I had been waiting for since I saw the Flammulated Owl for species 400 in British Columbia.  Fitting that I had just come from there to get 450 in Newfoundland.  Satisfied that we had got pretty good looks and could count the bird, it was a Lifer for Sheldon as well, we got back in his truck and headed back to St. John’s.  Well, almost.

As we were heading out of Harricott we saw a lone goose in the middle of the field.  From a distance it could just have been a Canada Goose, but I figured otherwise and Sheldon stopped so I could get a look at it.  It was our goose, bright orange beak and all.  We pulled over, got out and started taking photos.  We’d have been happy with the first look, but this was even better.  Before I could get my scope out for a photo with my iPhone, the goose flew and I got a few flight shots.  This was the first land record of a Graylag Goose in Newfoundland, though I am not sure how many accepted records there are in the rest of Canada.  The ABA only recently added this vagrant species to the list and this one was confirmed as a truly wild and lost bird.  Very few confirmed Graylag Goose vagrants have ever been recorded in the continental US or Canada, so this was indeed a special bird, right up there with the Steller’s Sea-Eagle.  At least this one only took me one trip to see.

 Owls well that ends well, I guess.  In the space of 48 hours I added four new species on opposite sides of the country.  I had the Barn Owl and Canyon Wren in BC and the Graylag Goose and a Cory’s Shearwater in Newfoundland.  The following day both Jared and Sheldon took me back out, looking for more birds.  In St. John’s Jared took me to Cape Spear, one of Canada’s Four Corners, which is the eastern most point in Canada.  I had also been to the most western part of Canada in the Yukon and the most southern point at Point Pelee National Park.  I didn’t get close the the furthers north point in Canada, but I did get within a couple hundred kilometres of the Arctic Circle when I was in the Yukon.

Cape Spear: As far east as you can go in Canada

After lunch Sheldon picked me up and took me up to the Cape Race Lighthouse.  Scanning the water and horizon for seabirds, I scoped a shearwater from the cliff overlooking the North Atlantic Ocean.  After a few minutes of studying the bird in flight, including a dive into the water, and checking field guides and photos, I was sure it was a Cory’s Shearwater.  Rare, but not unheard of from the lighthouse. That gave me 451 species for the year and was species 481 for my overall Canada Life List. 

The View From Cape Race:

I can’t thank the folks who helped me on this and previous trips enough!  The birding comunity, from sea to shining sea, and all points in between, have been some of the kindest and most helpful people I have ever met.  Thank you all.

Saturday December 17, 2022, 2:33PM Local Time, Brantford, Ontario. I am at home, relaxing, birding locally with friends and Sue, with 14 days left in the Big Year.  I am content now that I have passed 450 species, one of only 4 birders in Canada to have officially reached that number in a single calendar year.  But, with two weeks left, I would like to have at least one more chase for one last rare bird.  There are still a few species I haven’t seen that could show up.  You never know.

Tuesday, 29 November 2022

The Steller’s Sea-Eagle Saga

 Rogue Bird: A Sea Eagle’s Story

The Seven Foot Swing Span

Episode I: The Phantom Eagle

This battle of a man vs. a colossal, Siberian bird of prey began back in July of 2021 in Ontario. For me.  For the Steller’s Sea-Eagle, the journey to celebrity status in Eastern Canada and the United States, began much earlier in, perhaps, Russia. They are normally found in Russia, Korea, China and Japan.  It was a bird that was rare even in the Aleutian Islands, which are not that far from Russia, but spending time on the North American mainland was not expected.  

This particular Steller’s Sea-Eagle, one of just about 4000 remaining birds, has been on North American soil since at least August of 2020, nearly a year before I drove to Quebec to try and see it for the first time.  In August of 2020, it was first reported along the Denali Highway in Alaska.  Certainly far from home,(about 4700 miles), but not so far from the Aleutians as to be a total surprise.  But that was only the beginning of this incredible, giant eagle’s story.

I have pinned every state and province where ”Stella” was reported. 
The highlighted pin is where I finally saw it in New Brunswick 

Episode II: Attack of the Rare Bird Alerts

The biggest surprise was still to come.  In March of 2021, after a winter storm blew through Texas, the Sea-Eagle had found its way to the Barnhart Nature Retreat outside San Antonio, Texas. Birders there were stunned. They had never seen anything like it.  They assumed that it was likely the same bird that had been seen in Alaska.  It had made its way, unseen for months, to the far south.

And then, it vanished and was all but forgotten.  It was probably stealthily making its way north, again, somehow evading binoculars and birders all the way to Quebec, Canada.  On June 28, 2021 it was reported from the Gaspe Peninsula.  It was shortly after that when I came into the picture.  I heard about it at the beginning of July and so began my odyssey to see the Steller’s Sea-Eagle.  I was unable to go in July and then it went unreported for a while.  In August I heard that it had been re-found, not so far from the original location and I drove the nearly 15 hours to Quebec, only to get there a day late, and a few dollars short, as the saying goes.  I headed back to Ontario, disappointed, and figured that I had lost my one and only chance to see this once in a lifetime bird.  It also showed up in New Brunswick for a bit,(though I was unaware of that sighting, but it would one day return there,(just for me?).

In November of 2021 it was spotted in Falmouth, Nova Scotia and in December, as I was planning my Canada Big Year and thinking I had another shot at getting this bird for the 2022 year list, it suddenly turned up in Massachusetts.  Oh, no, I thought.  It’s migrated back to the US. Would it fly south for the winter? Of course, this was during the pandemic and US birders weren’t able to cross into Canada, so they were rushing to the scene to see it for themselves.  For myself, any other time, I would have driven directly there, as I had once done for many a rare bird, including a Black-backed Oriole.  

Episode III: Revenge of the Steller’s

With just weeks before the official start of my Big Year, I had to accept that the bird was gone, at least for now, and concentrate on where to go for January 1, 2022.  Would the Steller’s have plans to return to Canada, or was he just continuing south for warmer temperatures?  These questions would be frustratingly answered over the next 10 months.

While I was spending the first week of 2022 in Nova Scotia, adding a Lifer Dovekie, one of the smallest sea birds, one of the largest, the Steller’s Sea-Eagle was tantalizingly close in Sheepscot River, Maine.  Question: Would the winds change and send this sightseeing sea bird back to Canada before I headed back to Ontario?  Answer: A Big Fat NO!

And so, I continued on with my travels, adding new birds and Lifers to the year list, occasionally checking e-Bird to see if my nemesis ignored Covid travel restrictions and returned to the country that had so generously hosted it in 2021.

Episode IV: A New Hope

And so, I continued with my Big Year, traversing the country from St. John’s Newfoundland to Victoria, British Columbia, just waiting for a report that would send me back to the east coast for another once in a lifetime shot at this Dark Lord of the avian world.  I was Luke Skywalker up against Darth Vader.  I did have my own personal Jedi Council, so to speak, an Obi Wan and Yoda in the Maritimes, Jason in Nova Scotia and Jared in Newfoundland.  Both have been instrumental in helping me get rare birds this year.

Jason let me know that the wandering eagle was seen in Nova Scotia, at the Wallace Bay National Wildlife Area.  I booked a flight and was there at dawn on April 6, hope in hand, and searched, in vain for two days.  Once again, this flighty bird got the best of me.  I did add one species to the year list, a Swamp Sparrow.  Nothing against sparrows, but seriously…  I was losing the battles but hoped I still had a chance to win the war.  At least Luke got to blow up the Death Star at the end of his New Hope, while I had the fate of Porkins,(deep cut for all but the most die hard SW fans), and crashed and burned.

Episode V: The Kidney Stones Strike Back

Spring turned to Summer and though I was criss-crossing the country, the Steller’s Sea Eagle had gone into hiding.  Early in August, my Birding Master, Jared in Newfoundland, informed me that this frustratingly flighty bird was seen in his province in the northern peninsula.  I was on vacation with Sue, birding in Nova Scotia and the southern tip of Newfoundland and it was not possible for us to get up there. 

In September I was back in Nova Scotia for a pelagic with Jason, and had the gnawing suspicion that the kidney stone pains I had been going through as far back as August, were coming back to haunt me once again.  I was okay on the pelagic out of Briar Island, and had another one scheduled in New Brunswick.  That one was cancelled due to weather, but the Sea-Eagle was still in Newfoundland.  I found the person who had been taking people out on his zodiac tour to see it, and booked a trip with him.  

I had also booked the 18 hour ferry crossing from Sydney, Nova Scotia to Newfoundland and was on my way there when I realized that even having the chance of seeing the bird was overpowered by the pain of passing kidney stones.  I am no stranger to the ailment.  I am a kidney stone manufacturing machine and have passed at least a couple of dozen and undergone mutliple surgeries, so I knew what I was up against.  So, I arranged to drop my rental car off in Halifax, put the dream on hold, and flew home.  I was right to listen to my body and not my Big Year brain.  A few days later I was rushed into emergency surgery in Brantford to have the menacing stones removed.

Episode VI: Return of the Sea Eagle

Late in November I was trying figure out my next destination.  There was a Whooper Swan in British Columbia I wanted to chase, but there was also a Fieldfare in Quebec.  Five hour flight to the west coast, with a ferry ride to Nanaimo, or a seven hour drive to Quebec?  I opted for the Fieldfare and it turned out to be the right decision, though I didn’t know it at the time.  I drove until after dark and stayed in Trois Rivières for the night and was at the spot where the Fieldfare had been seen early the next morning.  There were lots of birders searching, including Martin, who had driven up from New Jersey.  We searched all day, but the bird was already long gone. 

However, I received an e-mail from Edna, another New Jersey friend, who had been following my adventures since discovering my 2012 Big Year blog. We got to meet at the Meadowlands in New Jersey that summer and birded around Cape May together, along with her family and Sue.  Well, she was excited to report that the missing Steller’s had turned up in New Brunswick.  I was worried about getting my hopes up too soon, but since the Fieldfare was a no-show and Bouctouche was “only” about seven hours away, the decision to go was this time made by my Birder Brain and off I went.

I spent the night outside of Miramichi, where I had seen the Mistle Thrush, another rarity, years before, and was in Bouctouche first thing in the morning.  Shortly after I arrived I was told the bird just flown off a few minutes earlier.  Of course it did.  Thanks to Facebook friends,(more of my Jedi Council), Angela MacDonald and Mitch Doucet, I was put on the NB Birding Live Chat on Messenger and had access to all the updates. It was a chilly morning and quite foggy and it was easy to miss the bird as it flew along the water and dunes.  In fact, a few minutes later, just after 10am, someone saw it fly, got a record photo and then it was gone.  I had missed it again.

As the day wore on, the fog lifted, the temperatures rose a bit, and the 20 or so birders kept traversing the area searching, and searching and searching.  But the bird was in hiding, perhaps having found a tasty morsel of mouse, and had gone off somewhere to eat in private.  By midafternoon I was despairing of ever seeing this bird and messaged Sue that I might have to cry.

Then, around 3pm word got out that the bird was seen across the water from Rotary Park.  I was unsure of where it was and accidentally headed in the wrong direction at first.  However there were two birders, whom I had met on two previous boat trips this year, scoping the water and I jumped out of the car and told them the Sea-Eagle had been found.  They both piled into their car and followed me, now that I had directions punched into my GPS.  

Many people were already there and others were arriving right behind me.  Our cars were haphazardly strewn all over the parking lot and people were lined up with cameras, scopes and binoculars excitedly trying to get eyes on the bird, like paparazzi trying for an intimate photo of a movie star.  Finally, using a borrowed scope, I saw, over 16 months from its initial appearance in Quebec, the object of my burning, Big Year desire.  The Steller’s Sea Eagle was finally, finally in my sight.  A beautiful, larger than life eagle, dark brown with white on its wings and an unmistakable, large yellow beak, almost as big as the head of a Bald Eagle.  I ran back to my car, got my scope and took some videos of the bird.  After about 10 minutes of sitting, the bird flew off and I got some nice photos of it in flight.

We all milled about excitingly sharing the excitement of seeing, what for nearly all of us, was a Lifer.  We all agreed this was the best day of birding ever.  But we were not done yet.  Even though we all saw it and got distant photos and videos, we weren’t exactly seeing the bird up close.  Then someone said that the bird had landed a short drive away on top of a tree in a nearby neighborhood.  We all raced over, and found the bird less than 50 yards away posing atop a tree,  Just when we thought the day couldn’t get better, it did.  For me, it was species 447 for the year, and 707 for my ABA Life List.  If I don’t see another new bird all year, I can’t complain.  Still, with 32 days left, perhaps I can finish with 450.  We’ll see.

I stayed the night in Bouctouche at the lovely Le Gite de la Sagouine boutique hotel and had a celebratory and traditional Lifer Steak Dinner at the Restaurant La Sagouine next door.  I was asleep early and well rested the next morning for the long drive back to Brantford.  I spent the night in Cornwall, Ontario and awoke to news of a Tundra Bean Goose just outside Montreal.  I drove 2 hours back the way I had come to the Bassin sud Pont Marchand and was greeted by 10,000 Snow Geese when I arrived, but after an hour of searching, no Bean Goose.  I missed two birds on this trip, but got the ultimate prize in the charming maritime town of Bouctouche in New Brunswick.  

I am resting back in Brantford now, and will take a few days to plan my next adventure.  Three more species in 32 days,  It could happen.

Tuesday, 8 November 2022

Cave Swallows Purple Gallinule: Story at 11

…and the Rarities, they keep a comin’

Cave Swallowers

Above, in the Purple Jacket, Marcie recorded her 400th species for Ontario!

So, the past 30 days or so since I returned from British Columbia, have been pretty good for birding here in Ontario, making me hesitant to leave for parts unknown chasing birds that may have flown the proverbial coop by the time I arrived, possibly at great expense.  Here in Ontario I had already taken day trips for a Magnificent Frigatebird, who was not in magnificent condition, a Tropical Kingbird that was far from The Tropics and a Cattle Egret who was hanging out with, well, cattle.

This weekend it was time for Cave Swallow migration.  These birds are late migrators and have an odd migratory route, passing over the Great Lakes from on their way from their breeding grounds in Texas and then back down to Mexico.  It’s a long way north just to go south of where you were born.  But it also might be that their love of nesting under bridges has helped expand their range north of Texas and the ones that do show up in Ontario could be from that population, riding the warm north winds up before turning south again.

For whatever reason, these birds have a habit of turning up this time of year and 50 Point Conservation area in Grimsby, Ontario is one of their known flyways.  I got a message the night before from fellow birder Ezra that the winds were favourable for these birds and though I arrived after two big flocks had already gone by, I was on time for a smaller flock of about 6-8 birds.  However I was concentrating too much on seeing them that I was too late for photos that day.  The Cave Swallows were not just species 445 for the year but another Canadian Lifer, bringing that list up to 476. I had begun the year with 390 species on my Canada Life List and have added 86 Lifers.

The next day I returned early and was able to get photos of these lovely swallows.  Not good ones, but I am happy enough to get any record shots.

Later that morning we were all treated to another rarity, a Northern Gannett on its migration.  They spend their winters at sea off the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts but occasionally a few wayward birds pass through the Great Lakes regions too. For Ontario Big Year Birders this was a big deal.  For me, though I had seen many this year, it was still a treat to see this juvenile gannet entertain the birders on the shores of Lake Ontario.

That made for a pretty good weekend, but Monday had another surprise in store for us chasers of wayward birds.  A juvenile Purple Gallinule was seen Sunday in Oshawa, Ontario at the Oshawa Second Marsh.  I’m not sure if there is a First Marsh, but if there is, I have never heard of it.  The Durham region has been good to me this fall, with birds such as the Ruff and Glossy Ibis, along with the Cattle Egret sightings.

I rushed out there first thing in the morning with just a coffee and nutrition bar and arrived to see a nice gaggle of birders looking, though by the time I had arrived it had not been seen for a couple of hours.  But people were staked out along the creek where it had been seen and we hoped it was just a matter of time before it showed itself.  Late in the morning I was feeling hungry and needed a comfort break, so I figured a 15 minute round trip for something to eat and another coffee from the Tim Hortons Drive-thru might help get me through the rest of the morning.  

Upon my return, just moments before I arrived, the group I left behind to watch, had spotted it again.  However it had once again vanished and I could only hope my full bladder and empty stomach hadn’t cost me seeing this bird.  I needn’t have worried.  Less than five minutes later it was seen again, walking in the cattails and reeds and finally emerged for some photos and made everyone present smile with the pleasure of a successful rare bird chase.  For me, this one was a biggie. Species 446 for the year and just a step closer to my stretch goal of 450 species for 2022.  It was also nice to just take a breath and enjoy the company of all the birders that showed up, many of whom I have known for years and see at many a rare bird stakeout.  Good times had by all.

53 days remain in 2022.  Plenty of time to add 4 more species to the list.  But either way, 450 or 446, I have succeeded beyond my expectations.  I have seen some of the most amazing parts of this country, seen birds that were both Lifers and new for Canada, chased rarities both near and far, with mixed success along the way, and have enjoyed nearly every minute of it.  

Now, where to next?