Wednesday, 30 March 2022

Birding On the Home Front

So, yeah, I chased a lot, flew alot and spent a lot with only mild success the last couple of weeks.  I did get the Redwing, but lost out on the Whooper Swan and Northern Lapwing on opposite coasts of the country. There had been a Northern Lapwing south of the border in New Hampshire and the same one might have been seen near Lunenburg, NS on March 20 and 21.  I dashed to the Toronto Island Airport,  hopped a Porter flight to Halifax on the morning of March 22 and drove straight to the Croft Farm where I found a small flock of birders looking at a bird. Was I on time?  Was that the lapwing?  It was a Killdeer.  Just my luck.  No lapwing that afternoon or the next day.  I once again went home empty handed. Well, not exactly, I didn’t leave my binoculars on the roof of the car and drive off.  Though, had I, the Apple AirTag I had attached to the strap would have given me the ability to locate it had the binoculars flown off into a

The irony is both the Whooper Swan and Northern Lapwing stayed for days, even weeks, in their original US locations, and on both occasions when they did cross the border, it was for just a brief enough stay that by the time I got there they were gone.  I really can’t keep saying, “just my luck” when I consider all the birds I have seen.  But darn it, just my luck! I did, however get 15 species on my travels and a few more at home and sit at 199 species for the year.  My next scheduled trip is to British Columbia for a pelagic, but in the meantime I am going to stay local and just do day trips for early migrating songbirds and the occasional duck or raptor.

On the binoculars front, I went to Wild Birds Unlimited in Guelph, Ontario to pick out a new pair for binoculars.  I had a fine set from Tract Optics, that I lost, but I decided that when it came to customer service, having a local vendor to to go to was the better choice.  With all other brands of binoculars, no matter how good, if they are in need of service you will have to send them in and maybe be without them for couple of weeks.  With Vortex Canada being an hour from home, in Guelph Ontario, I can literally drop by and have have my optics serviced while I wait.  I have brought my spotting scope in several times, due to my own misfortune of having them tip over and land in sand.  They never seem to land on soft grass.  Just my luck!  

It took a few days to add a new species after returning from my east-west-east coast travels, but the first one was the expected arrival of American Woodcocks at my local patch, the D’Aubigny Creek Wetlands, just a short walk from my front door.  If you walk the trial at dusk you can hear them call and occasionally see the males fancy courtship flights.  Seeing them in light well enough to photograph them is rare.  Later in the summer, though, once the babies are fledged, they can be seen taking the young ones out for early morning walks on the trail.  The photos below are from last summer.

Species 198 was a Blue-winged Teal down in Long-point Provincial Park.  It is only an hour south and the birding there is almost always grand.  It was a rainy, windy and chilly day.  I drove through several weather fronts, including a snow storm with white out conditions, but by the time I arrived, the snow had turned to rain, the clouds parted and I was soon birding in bright sunshine.  Such is the weather in Ontario in the spring.  I found a pair of Blue-winged Teal in a little pond along with a large variety of duck species.  At one point, I a flock of over one hundred Northern Pintail and Green-winged Teal took to spectacular flight.

Species 199 was a Great Egret in Hamilton on tiny Lake Jojo.  

My goal was to hit 200 species before April 1 and with the egret, I am now one away.  As I type, I am waiting for my car at the Ford dealership while they change out my winter tires,(I hope not too soon, as there was freezing rain this morning), and get a much needed oil change, considering all the mileage,(kilometerage?), I have put on the my Ecosport this year.  I can see through the windows of the waiting room, where they have a lovely and free coffee machine, that the weather is breaking and the temperature is rising, so perhaps #200 is just around the corner.

Tuesday, 22 March 2022

The Big Chase!

I started the week at home hoping a rare bird might show up somewhere I could drive to in an hour or so, and ended it losing my binoculars.  After getting the Redwing and 
6 additional species in St. John’s, was suddenly chasing a long sought after Whooper Swan, another Eurasian species, all the way across the country to Vancouver, British Columbia. 

The Redwing was a surprise, but the Whooper Swan has been on my radar all year.  One had first appeared in Washington State and was enticingly close to the border crossing.  I kept checking NARBA, the North American Rare Bird Alert, to see if it maybe started to move north.  On Thursday night in St. John’s my Big Year dream came true.

However, how to get from St. John’s, on one coast, to Vancouver on the other coast and not spend a small fortune?  Also, my return flight to Toronto was not until 7:30pm.  I tried Air Canada’s website, I checked Expedia.  But all flights were from Toronto and I was already set to go there.  So, I called Air Canada customer service.  They answered on the first ring.  Small miracles. Sometimes technology at our fingertips is just that; at the edge of our ability to get the job done ourselves with a few  taps on the keyboard and the click of a mouse.  

I don’t remember her name, but the agent at the other end of the phone did everything she could to make it work for me and my budget, after telling her I had to fly across the country at a moments notice just to see a bird.

Alas, by 5:30 the previous evening, after a 10 hour day of traveling, the Whooper Swan had flown off.  I, along with a bunch of frustrated BC birders, spent the next two days searching Trout Pond and nearby farm fields in vain.  Lots of Trumpeter Swans, but no Whooper Swan.

I did not, however go home empty handed.  Well, not exactly true.   I added 9 additional species in one hand, and lost my binoculars with the other.  While scoping a field for the whooper, I placed the binoculars on the roof of my car.  I never saw them again.  Due to my PCS and MCI,(Post concussion syndrome and Mild cognitive impairment), I have very poor short term memory and things like this happen from time to time. 

I am starting the first week of spring the proud owner of a new set of Vortex Binoculars, purchased for my next chase.  As I type, I am on my way to Halifax on my next Big Chase, hoping that a Northern Lapwing hangs around for just a few more hours. 

Photos from the week that was:

Yellow-breasted Chat, St. John’s,(183):

Pink-footed Goose, Newfoundland:

Green-winged Teal, Eurasian, Newfoundland:

Barrow’s Goldeneye, British Columbia:

Tufted Duck, British Columbia:

Band-tailed Pigeon,(189), British Columbia:

Bushtit (192), British Columbia:

Juvenile Bald Eagle, British Columbia:

Sleeping Marbled Godwit,(194), British Columbia:

Thursday, 17 March 2022

Thrushing to Newfoundland

Sitting at home, not seeing any new birds makes me restless.  I did get out on a beautiful near-perfect spring day and added a Virginia Rail and Great Horned Owl in London, Ontario, but wanted, really needed, something more.  The “more” came in the form of an Bird a report of a Redwing, a native Eurasian thrush, that was being seen in St. John’s Newfoundland.  I inquired from some locals I found via Instagram, to make sure it was a good sighting and as soon as it was confirmed I booked a flight that very night to St. John’s, arriving bleary-eyed and tired at 1:30 in the morning.  Now I know why they call them “red-eye” flights. This was the second hour I had lost in three days, due to Daylight Savings Time and losing an hour flying to the furthest eastern coast of Canada, and I only got three hours sleep before starting the hunt for this Code 4 rarity.

I met with Jared Clarke, who is a local bird guide, and also wanted to see this rare bird better than the previous day’s look, high in a tree.  We started at the Elks Club Trail, which is a park that is connected at one end to, well, an Elks Club parking lot.  I had trouble finding the lot, as neither my Apple Maps or Google Maps was getting me there.  I parked in a lot above the trails and walked down.  Jared arrived a little alter and we searched in vain, hunting for American Robins, a thrush cousin of the Redwing, as it seems to have been traveling with them.  Probably thinks it’s a robin, even though robins are thrushes.  Quite a misstep in name in the American Robin when it’s not related to the European Robin, which is not a thrush.  Now I am confused.

Back to the Redwing.  Jared, knowing the lay of the land, thought the cemetery nearby might have the required berries for the robins and Redwing to munch on, so he headed there.  Others were thinking of a place called the Fluvarium.  Sounds like a place you catch a new variant of the flu.  We didn’t get there.  As soon as I put the Fluvarium in my GPS, Jared reported lots of American Robins at the nearby Belvedere Cemetery.  I briskly walked over, as did another half dozen or so birders and we set upon searching.  After about 20 minutes we heard what could only have been a birder trying to call loud enough for everyone to hear, but not so loud that the bird would spook and fly off.  Jared ran.  I ran, perhaps for the first time in years, slightly behind him.

We arrived to find seven other birders were looking into a tree.  Finder, Kyle d’Entremont, was pointing.  At first I saw a robin, but then, close by, a little smaller, with a speckled breast and a prominent eyebrow, there was the Redwing.  Even in bad morning light, I could see the red underwings, which is where this little thrush, no relation to the Red-winged Blackbird, got its name.  We all tried to get photos, and good looks and count, what was for most, a Lifer, and then celebrated with virtual High Fives, gentle fist bumps and a commemorative photo.

 My photos are not the best, but they do show key field marks for the Redwing, including the red underwing if you look close enough:

Monday, 14 March 2022

Owl I Need is Good Luck and Helpful Strangers

Those darn owls.  It feels like it should be easy to find them and even easier to hear them in the evenings, after dark.  I’ve been out with many guides over the years in Texas, Arizona, Central and South America and they always seem to have a trick to finding them.  Out on my own, none of those tricks seem to work.  Sometimes it takes a little luck and a bit of help.  Yes, I have found. Long-eared Owl or two on my own, and the Black-capped Chickadees have guided me to a few owls here and there, but it’s usually the keen eye of another birder who finds one first, as with the Boreal or Northern Hawk Owl.

When it came to the Barred Owl, I was searching everywhere and was successful in only finding bare tree limbs.  But I knew others were looking. A few nights ago I was with a two couples here in Brant County listening and looking for a Barred Owl after Dusk, where one was known to have been seen.  It was mostly a social gathering as nothing hooted and no wings flapped in the dark.  On Saturday, while I was out with my buddy, Andy, looking to find him a Greater White-fronted Goose, I got a text telling me that the Barred Owl was being observed in the McKendrick Tract, close to where we had searched on previous days.

Andy and I were 40 minutes away at LaSalle Marina, and he wanted to keep looking for geese, but I was the driver and had the final say, so we drove straight back to Brant.  Another birder was just coming out and guided us to the correct viewing area, where we quickly found it and I was able to get some lovely photos using my iPhone and spotting scope.

It’s easy to identify a Barred Owl by its call, asking “Who Cooks for You?”  Not to be mistaken for a Bard Owl who quotes Shakespeare and questions, “Hoot Be or Not Hoot Be?”   Sorry…

Barred Owl:

It finally felt like a real spring day today, as I I drove to London, Ontario for a Virginia Rail, but also had some help with another owl.  After easily finding the rail at Glen Cairn Park, with the help of a posting on Birders Nearby, that guided me to the exact viewing spot for the rail, I went to Gibbon’s Park in search of a Great Horned Owl, a bird I have struck out on several times this year.  I walked around for a bit, without much luck and was about to give up when, as I was getting into my car, I saw another birder nearby, and he gave me some advice as to where to find the owl.  

I walked back into the park, following as much as his directions as I could remember and found what I thought might be the correct stand of trees.  As I was scanning the area a woman walking her dog asked if I was looking for birds.  I said “yes, in fact I am looking for a Great Horned Owl.”  She responded that she saw a few birders at one specific tree she was pointing to.  I made my way over and started glassing the trees with my binoculars.  I didn’t find the owl, but a local gentleman walked, up camera slung over his arm, and inquired as to my owl spotting success.  

I hadn’t seen it, I said, but before I could even ask if he knew where to look, he was pointing midway up a tree, and there, low and behold, was the Great Horned Owl, on an open branch, looking across to another tree, where I assume he was keeping watch on a nest.  I thanked the stranger, as I had with the two other folks who helped me in my quest and began snapping some photos.  Having bagged birds 179 and 180 for Canada this year, I headed back to Brantford for a well earned lunch.

Great Horned Owl:

Virginia Rail:


Saturday, 12 March 2022

Another Eider Down, AnotherTrip to Algonquin and yet Another Wild Goose Chase

Having failed to find King Eiders, in two locations in Nova Scotia, including an adult male, and after getting stuck in a ditch and locking my keys in the car, I returned to Toronto and the very next day saw a young male King Eider. Birding is like that sometimes.  You lose some and you win some.  Finally, the birds were with me. I flew into Toronto and arrived after dark, so drove home, got some sleep and drove right back to Toronto to search for the King Eider in Humber Bay East Park, where I had spent a lot of time during the first 10 years of my birding life.  

The city is in the midst of a huge waterfront restoration project, which made it a bit tricky to get to the east side of Humber Bay, where the eider has been hanging out.  I also picked a tough day for spotting ducks on the water.  I had just missed, by mere minutes, seeing the King Eider in the pond, not 50 metres from the edge, and it flew out to the lake.  Bruce, a birder I have known for nearly 10 years and usually only see at Colonel Sam Smith Park, was there and got a great look at it.  Just my luck, I thought.  I trudged, dejectedly, out through the mud and ice and construction fences to the east side beach and scanned the lake.  I found the Kind Eider a couple of hundred metres on the lake.  It was distant, the wind was blowing like a preverbal hurricane, and the water had more chop than a Japanese teppanyaki chef, causing the ducks to keep bobbing below the waves.  The eider kept appearing and vanishing as though David Copperfield was performing magic on the lake, but I did eventually relocate it and got a couple of record photos. I called it a “success” and I decided to leave, before I got blown out to sea myself.

Here area some King Eider photos I’ve taken over the years, starting with the lousy ones from this year, and finishing with the adult male I saw back in 2013 at Port Weller, Ontairo.

Young Male King Eider, Toronto 2022:

(Species 174 for the Big Year)

Young Male, LaSalle Park Marina:

Adult male King Eider, Port Weller, 2013:

Female King Eider, Burlington Ship Yards, 2020:

After securing the King Eider I decided to spend another day at Algonquin Park, and was rewarded with nice weather, good birding and a male and female pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers.  They are very similar to the American Three-toed Woodpecker I saw in Alberta, also having three toes, but an all black back, in contrast to the black and white barred back of the aptly named American three-toed Woodpecker.

Black-backed Woodpecker, Algonquin Park, 2022:

Returning home, it was time for another try for a Ross’s Goose.  I had missed one at Professor’s Lake in Brampton, and another one right here in Brant County.  I saw one was reported at the Port Stanley Sewage Lagoons, so headed down there Thursday morning in hopes of finding it.  Seeing one now in Ontario would mean I don’t have to try and get one during migration in Saskatchewan.  Unfortunately the goose wasn’t present when I arrived,(yes, another wild goose chased and not seen), but not long after arriving in Port Stanley, down by Lake Erie, another one was reported up in Sarnia, at a race track.  I had already driven an hour and a half, so what was another 80 minuets to race up to Lake Huron?

This time I found my goose, hanging out with a bunch of Canada Geese, a few Cackling Geese and a Snow Goose, inside the race track at Hiawatha Horse Park.  The crazy places you sometimes find birds. Local birder, Allanah Vokes found it, and another birder hung around until I arrived to help with spotting it. I also ran into a young fellow by the name of Ezra, who is trying an Ontario Big year.  We both got our bird and went home happy.  It was a good and ultimately satisfying chase!

Ross’s Goose:

Tuesday, 8 March 2022

Bad Luck and Trouble

Bad Luck and Trouble is the title of a Jack Reacher novel, but it could easily apply to my recent east coast trip. With the calendar flipping over to March, I was now looking fondly back on the first two months of The Big Year and looking happily ahead with the rapt anticipation and obsessiveness of a birder looking forward to spring migration two months away.  

But I figured I’d take a trip out to the east coast and try for a few late winter or early spring birds in the Atlantic Provinces, so I wouldn’t have to chase them during migration or in December.  I struck out on adding any new birds and I caused my own misfortunes along the way.  Part of it is I am a bit scatterbrained at times, but unfortunately, some of it is due to Post Concussion Syndrome and Mild Cognitive Impairment, or MCI. It’s just something I have to live with and mostly cope with.  But it does often lead to unintentional adventures.

The day started nice, but as I was driving the snow moved in and conditions on the highways leading to the Fundy Bay coast of Nova Scotia were brutal. No plows or salters and I had to get off the highway twice to hope the snow plows would go by and clear a path for me.  On one of my stops I found a mall I could walk around in a stretch my sore legs and even found a nice Chinese restaurant for lunch.  The server recommended the almond chicken and that I take the back roads to Digby, instead of the highway and that advice paid off in both a lovely lunch and an easier drive.

While looking for a male King Eider I went past the prime viewing spot behind the volunteer fire department in Brighton, along the 101 Highway, and had to make a U-Turn to get back.  It didn’t go well. The road was clear but all the snow had been pushed off to the sided and I drove right into it and part way down the hidden slope. I was very lucky not to smash the front end of my rental car into the telephone pole.  In fact, I probably got myself in deeper trying to avoid it, believing that my four wheel drive SUV would get me out.  

Noooop!  I was stuck and had to call CAA.  A nice local gentleman stopped to ask if I needed help and told me he had a friend who could come get me out and made the call.  I hung out at a nearby Quilting store while I waited and they were very welcoming me.  The owner’s husband even offered to pull me out with his giant Tonka Truck, if only I attached the chains to the car.  I was not so brave to risk me wrecking my rental.  The friend of the friend of the Good Samaritan arrived with his flatbed before CAA and got me out in a matter of minutes. I was saved.  I didn’t get the King Eider.

My Stuck Car:

This may not of been Heavy Rescue 401, but my version, Light Rescue 101:

I really have to thank all those who helped and especially all the tow truck drivers that risk their own safety in the worst weather to rescue poor saps like me. I made it to my Bed and Breakfast in Digby and spend a lovely night with an amazing view of The Bay of Fundy out my window.

I visited Cape Sable the next day and found a location to return to in the spring, for the migration of the Atlantic Brant.  These geese return to Hawk Flats every March in the thousands and I look for ward to seeing that later in March.

Back in Halifax with no bird in the hand or on my List, I went in search of a Yellow-headed Blackbird, only to discover the road I was driving on to find it, was someone’s long driveway and I had to beat a hasty retreat. I went to Point Pleasant Park and spent an hour looking for a Barred Owl,(nope), and then on the way back to the car thought I saw a juvenile male King Eider.  I was excited, I ran down to the water, I stomped through the deep snow, I took photos, studied the bird.  It was a young Common Eider.  Drat.  There are a bazillion of them on the east coast. 

By that time I had to head back to the car and get to the airport for my flight back to Toronto, but near the parking lot, I spied a Great Cormorant.  Not to be confused with a really good cormorant, though the Great Corrmorant is my second favorite of the North American cormorants.  I rarely see them perched on a rock close to shore.  This one was one was enjoying drying its wings in the bright, nearly warm, sun at Point Pleasant Park in Halifax.  I drove to the airport hoping the bad luck and trouble wouldn’t follow me back to Ontario.

Great Cormorant: