Friday, 29 April 2022

Warblers Are in Season

 With May just around the corner and the “official” start of migration season, some warblers have been true early birds.  Case in Point was the Prothonotary Warbler that showed up in Brantford last week and the pair I saw in Point Pelee.  Certainly amongst the most beautiful of the “yellow” warblers of spring, these are often the most coveted of warblers on a birder’s spring “must see” list.

It wasn’t my first warbler of the year, as I had already seen a Yellow-throated Warbler in Nova Scotia in January and more recently the Louisiana Waterthrush, who is not a thrush, but a warbler that likes the water, in Point Pelee National Park, which is where I photographed the above Prothonotary Warbler last weekend.

A couple of days later I was in Toronto, so had a chance to visit Colonel Samuel Smith Park, where it was a reunion, of sorts, with all the birders I had spent much of the past ten years birding with there.  It was also a reunion with the usual first two warblers we see of the season, the Palm and Yellow-rumped.  We also had a Pine Warbler, which is also one of the first to arrive prior to May 1.

Palm Warbler:

Yellow-dumped Warbler,(Myrtle):

Pine Warbler:

Next up on the Warbler Express were one of the most common here in Ontario and one of the rarest.  The Yellow Warbler breeds all through Ontario, Canada and most of the United States, making it a ubiquitous sighting all spring and summer. The Kentucky on the other hand, does not typically nest anywhere in Canada, but rather in the eastern half of the US.  We are lucky, here in Southern Ontario to be on their northward migration route that takes them from their wintering grounds from Mexico to the Yucat√°n Peninsula, up the east coast, and around Lakes Ontario and Erie, before finally arriving in their breeding territories.  A small handful are seen each year and after failing to find one in Point Pelee on Sunday, I did see one in Long Point Provincial Park on Monday.

Kentucky Warbler:

Yellow Warbler:

Some of the other non warbler highlights of the week have been a Loggerhead Shrike, Piping Plover, Sanderling, American Avocet and Eastern Whip-poor-will and Marsh Wren.

Eastern Whip-poor-will:


Distant Loggerhead Shrike:

Piping Plover:

Marsh Wren:

Next stop, British Columbia and my first pelagic of the year!

Saturday, 23 April 2022

Back to The Rock

The clock was running out.  I needed to be at the airport by five o’clock to drop off my rental car and get to my flight.  From where I had been birding in Portugal Cove South, it would be a two hour drive.  I had to leave by 3pm.  However, I had been birding up the coast and was actually an hour north of Portugal cove when Jared, my birding friend from St. John’s, alerted me that the Eurasian Golden-Plovers had been relocated…

The Rock, not the former wrestler turned not half-bad actor, nor the prison on an island in San Francisco, but the island of Newfoundland, has been a pretty good spot for Big Year birds and it did not disappoint on my most resent trip.  A number of Eurasian rarities had blown in and I was off to see how many I could count this past week.  The first place I went, and would keep returning to, was Portugal Cove South, right on the shores of the North Atlantic Ocean.  I was looking for Barnacle Geese.  I had seen a grand total of three individuals on three occasions during my first 10 years of birding. I would see as many, plus one, in my eleventh year.

The drive down to Portugal Cove, along the Avalon Peninsula, is one of the nicest and most scenic in all of Canada.  With stops at places such as Bernard Kavanagh’s Million Dollar view, to the Cape Race Lighthouse, it can’t be beat.  However, the roads are full of twists and turns and potholes and the occasional moose, when driving after dark.  I experienced it all.

When I did finally arrive, the wind was blowing so hard, I couldn’t open my car door, and had to turn the car away from the wind just to get out.  It did not take me long, though, to find a Barnacle Goose.  And then two, three and finally four.  I saw, in one sweep of my binoculars one more than my lifetime total, close as you please, thank you very much.

I birded in and around Newfoundland for a couple of days after that, looking for a few more rarities, but not finding them.  I did see Northern Fulmar and Northern Goshawk on my travels.  On the last morning I decided to try again for the Western Tanager I missed on my first trip.  Though not rare in the west, it was a novelty to have one overwinter in St. John’s.  It turned out to be along a trail off of Portugal Cove Rd, not to be confused with Portugal Cove South, which my GPS was just as confused about as I was.  I was early enough to catch the tanager foraging for breakfast and it put on a nice show for me.

Which brings us up to date with my last afternoon on The Rock.  I drove back to Portugal Cove South, on another windy day, and spent the rest of the morning scanning for the plovers.  I found the Barnacle Geese again, this time on a distant island, but no European vagrants.  A couple of other birders were also driving the roads looking into people’s yards and they, too, were not having much success.  It was getting toward lunch and I thought I might head up to The Million Dollar View restaurant.  But when I arrived I discovered it had not yet opened for the season, but The Captain’s Table, further up the road was.  

So I drove on, further and further from where I should have been, when Jared informed me that a friend of his, John Praddy had found them.  I turned around and raced back down the twisty-turny road, noticing that in the proceeding day they had filled many of the potholes, allowing me to drive at a constant pace back toward my destination.  

When I arrived, John was sitting at the corner in his car, and motioned for me to follow him in my rental.  A short drive up the road, and we pulled into a driveway and walked around back of a barn, steps from the ocean and in high, buffeting winds.  And there, before us was not one, but four of the European Golden-Plovers.  Lifers! And a great bird for my Big Year.  I fist bumped John and thanked him for his help and texted Jared that I owed him a steak dinner when I returned to once again Bird the Rock. 

I was then the magic hour, 3pm and I had to drive the two hours straight back to St. John’s to catch my return flight to Ontario.  I thought it rather cool that on the same day, I saw rare birds from Western Canada and Europe, on opposite ends of the province, yet both had Portugal Cove in their names.  How’s that for rare bird chasing symmetry?

Sunday, 17 April 2022

This Week in Big Year Birding, April 11 to 17

Monday, April 11:

I finally shook off the slump and started adding new birds, with two yesterday, a Lapland Longspur and Eastern Towhee here in Brant County and then another four today in Toronto.  I had an appointment in the city, so took advantage of the drive and spent the morning in Colonel Sam Smith Park and saw Black-crowned Night Herons, Northern Rough-winged and Barn Swallows, and a Hermit Thrush.  I was finally starting to shake off the funk and get excited about spring migration, even if the weather didn’t feel like it. At one point I had to go back to the car and get my mittens, the wind chill was so bad.  For some reason global warming is making it colder here in April.

Birders Nearby iOS App

Tuesday, April 12:

To keep going with the baseball analogies, I finally was having fun again out in the field, including a rare for Ontario Black-necked Stilt, .  Yesterday I hit for the cycle, so to speak, going 5 for 5 in the field.  

Two Singles: Eastern Meadowlark and Savannah Sparrow

One Double: Wilson’s Snipe

One Triple: Sora

And a Home Run: Black-necked Stilt.  All in all, a great day of birding. I had started the day in Waterloo, at a local bog, following up on a Sora report.  It was just a beautiful spring day, sun bright in the sky, warm breezes and few clouds.  The kind of spring day birders dream of all winter.  The Sora was calling soon after I arrived and it did me the nicety of coming out into full view to feed.

Just up the road I was hearing both Savannah Sparrows and Eastern Meadowlands calling.  The Savannah Sparrows were close enough to almost touch, and the meadowlarks provided great, but slightly more distant views.  

Just as I was getting in the car, I received an email about a Black-necked Stilt in London, Ontario and I had to go check it out.  I had previously only seen them in California and Florida, so it would be a Canadian and Ontario Lifer.  And Kokoma Provincial Park was only an hour away.  I raced over there and met a few birders who had arrived just before me and informed me that they hadn’t seen the bird, as it had flown away just before they were on the scene.  

However, with some time and a keen eyed birder, it was found again, at quite a distance, but with our spotting scopes we were able to get good looks.  It was 216 for the year, but species 409 for my Canada Life List.    Sue came out with me after she finished work for the Sora and as a bonus we got to see a Wilson’s Snipe, my fifth new bird of the day.

Wilson’s Snipe:

Wednesday, April 13:

Another chilly spring day, but I did see my first Caspian Tern of the year.  We have many trails along the 252 mile Grand River that pass through Brantford and down to Lake Erie.  One trail has been good for birding since I arrived in late 2020. The SC Johnson Trial runs along the river and is full of ducks, egrets, herons, gulls and terns.  Today I found a pair of Caspian Terns hanging out with the mergansers and cormorants.

Thursday, April 14:

One bird, one day at a time, it sometimes seems. Today’s bird was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at the Gilkison Flats, another fine birding location along the ubiquitous Grand River.

Friday, April 15:

It really was a Good Friday.  Sue had the day off and we ventured down to Point Pelee National Park, and added a nice handful of birds for the year, including a long sought after Louisiana Waterthrush, a bird I have tried for on numerous occasions here in Ontario without finding,  This one has been hanging out on the Woodland trail for the past week, and on my second trip there in the past 7 days, I finally spotted it.  It was a Canadian Lifer too, number 410 and more importantly, a new bird for the Big Year I don’t have to chase again.  Not to mention Sue doesn’t have to hear me going on and on about it the rest of the year too.

Saturday, April 16:

Now this was an exciting day of birding.  I had decided early to go to Longpoint Provincial Park, to see if the Lark Sparrow was still around and also see what new migrants might have shown up.  What I wasn’t expecting, was an even more rare sparrow than the Lark Sparrow to show up right before my very eyes.  

My first stop was a house on Bluebill Avenue where a number of birders were already present and looking at the Lark Sparrow.  I saw it pretty quickly, but while trying to get a better view and a photo, something different dropped in my view.  Brown head, black spot on cheek.  I was searching my memory for what this unusual sparrow was, when Brett Fried, standing behind me, shouted, “Eurasian Tree Sparrow!”  I turned my head and confirmed that I had seen it too!  What a great and unexpected find. Suddenly, the Lark sparrow was forgotten as if it were just any other Little Brown Job..

I could barely believe it.  I had seen them only three times in the past ten years.  Once in St. Lous, in 2012, in Whitefish Bay in Michigan and one other in Ontario, at a feeder along the Niagara Parkway.  We were lucky enough to have the bird perch on a feeder for us a few times to grab some, at least for me, not so good photos.  I never did get a good photo of the Lark Sparrow.  I did digiscope the Eurasian Tree Sparrow with my PhoneSkope adaptor and iphone.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow photobombed by a House Sparrow:

Bad Photo of the Lark Sparrow, April 2022:

Good Photo of a Lark Sparrow from 2016 in Toronto:

The day wasn’t done yet.  On the way home I heard about a Prothonotary Warbler back in Brant County.  Though it is a bird I will see during warbler migration in May, I hadn’t seen one in Brant County last year and this one was pretty early too.  I found the spot, only 15 minutes from home, where a couple of birders were staking it out.  It came out into the sunlight a few times and I was able to get some very good looks at this starkly bight lemon yellow burst of springtime sunshine.

Sunday, April 17:

It’s a bright sunny Sunday morning, but the temperature is still below freezing.  I’m going to enjoy a coffee by the back window and watch my backyard birds while contemplating where the day will bring me.

Sunday, 10 April 2022

Is a Birding Slump a Thing?

I spent over 40 years with the Toronto Blue Jays, as their Video Coordinator.  Using video I helped players from the days of Bob Bailor to Joe Cater, Vernon Wells and Carlos Delgado get out of hitting slumps.  I watched video with Roy Halliday and J.A. Happ when they were struggling.  And eventually, they turned their slumps around.  Here I am in the first week of April, in a bit of a slump myself.  After the success of the Redwing, and though I have added species in Newfoundland, Ontario and British Columbia, I have been pitched three rarities, and a few other tougher birds, and swung and missed at most of them.

It can get you down, when doing a Big Year, knowing that every missed bird is a bird that must be chased later in the year or will possibly be missed altogether; but I remind myself of the great birds I have seen, the amazing adventures I have already had and the ones yet to come.  April is a tough month here in Southern Ontario.  Most of the winter birds have headed north, and few of the migrants have yet made it north.  The migrants are here in ones and twos and I have seen Eastern Phoebe, Osprey, Winter Wren and Willet, and just recently added Cliff Swallow, Swamp Sparrow and a lone Lapland Longspur here in Brant County.  But it is the ones that got away that sit with me.

That’s not to say that things are  not looking up.  Though the weather has stubbornly stayed closer to early March temperatures than those we long for once the calendar has flipped over to April, there are signs that better things and birds are coming.  Some warblers are already being reported and there are Eastern Towhee and Meadowlarks around.  I just haven’t seen them yet.  And I always seem to miss Spruce Grouse in Algonquin Park, even though it seems everyone else sees them when I am not there.  

The thing is, and I have to continually remind myself of this, if I just relax and let the birds come on their own schedule, and I am patient, the slump will end and I will start having a string of successful hits and will be swinging for the fences once again.  There will be more rarities to chase and I will catch up to one or two of them.  For it is only early spring, and as Alexander Pope once wrote, “Hope springs eternal.”  And Spring Migration is always full of hope.  As the likes of Joe Carter and Carlos Delgado have taught me over the years, working with them through their slumps, just let the birds, ahm pitches, come to you.  Swing and don’t worry about the results.  Once the ball leaves the bat, it’s out of your control.  

For over 40 years now, the Blue Jays and now birds in particular, have been an big part of my life.  In baseball you need to brush off one week where you lose a lot of tough games, and in birding, one week in early April where it seems you’re always in the wrong place at the wrong time to see new species, is no more than a statistical anomaly.  

Now, stop hanging your head in frustration and get out there and go birding. 

(PS: Feel free to share your “birding slumps” in the comments).

Here are some photos of birds I have seen in April…

Sandhill Crane

Ring-necked Pheasant

Northern Shoveler

Brown-headed Cowbird and Red-wing Blackbird

Song Sparrow

Carolina Wrens

Cooper’s Hawk

Semi-leucistic American Robin

Horned Grebe

#slump #birding

Monday, 4 April 2022

The first 90 Days: 200 Species and Counting

March came in with a Brown Creeper and went out with a Winter Wren, with the help of Steph, one of Colonel Sam Smith Park’s most prolific birders, in Toronto.  He birds there nearly every day, as I once did, and called to let me know a Winter Wren was there.  It was March 31 and I had set a goal of 200 species for the first three months of 2022. We found it flitting around on the banks of the creek and without much light I didn’t get a good photo, but it was a good milestone to reach in the first three months of 2022.

We also had a new Yard Bird for our Brantford home, a Vesper Sparrow. Not a new year bird, but a nice addition to the Yard List we had to start from scratch after moving to Brantford, from Toronto in December of 2020.

April First was not going to fool me, but I was almost taken in by a couple of Instagram posts, including one of a Smew that was captioned, “Strange looking Bufflehead.”  There was also a spurious and cruel eBird posting of a Stellar’s Sea Eagle in Quebec, that was clearly an April Fools prank, however there was another eBird report of a Stellar’s Sea Eagle in Nova Scotia and that one had me thinking bad joke again. But from my conversations with Jason in Halifax, it did seem legit.  I had to wait and see if it’s found again the next day before jumping on another wild bird chase.  Unfortunately it was not seen after April 1, so I did not end up being a fool and flying back to the east coast again.

I did add two species on April 1, here in Ontario; an Osprey in Waterloo and a Vesper Sparrow on some mudflats in London.  I was helped with this one by Andy, who often comes into Brantford from London to bird with me. That bird prompted me to write a little poem based on a childhood poem we all grew up with.

Birder Guy, Birder Guy, where did you go?”
“I went to London to see a Sparrow.”
“Birder Guy, Birder Guy, where was this bird?
“It was sitting on a mud flat, where it would’t be disturbed”

Vesper Sparrow: 202 for 2022:

Things slowed down the next two days, with cold windy weather and a another late blast of winter, but Sunday was full of the kind of excitement a Big Year birder and chaser loves.  The first was not a huge rarity, except for being early to southern Ontario.  A Willet had shown up at Burlington Beach in the Hamilton area and since nothing was going on here in Brantford, I decided to get it as an early addition to my year list, number 203 for 2022.

Then the excitement really ramped up.  I had gone to LaSalle Park Marina to see some ducks and walk the “songbird” trail, where I added my first Eastern Phoebe of the year, when another birder, looking for an Eared Grebe, told me that there was a possible Cave Swallow in Toronto at Colonel Samuel Smith Park.  That is a rare bird indeed for Spring Migration in Ontario.  I hadn’t expected to be seeing one, if at all, until Fall.  This was great news and it would be a new bird for my Col. Sam List!

After filling up with gas, so I didn’t run out on the highway to Toronto and potentially miss the bird, I raced off to the park.  I needn’t have hurried, as the the bird was still there, along with a nice flock of local chasers and birders, much more knowledgeable than me, checking out the swallow.  It turned out that, though on first look it had features of a Cave Swallow, it was not a perfect match.  Other birders, with the help of David Sibley’s guides, determined that it was a potentially rarer bird, a southwestern subspecies of Cliff Swallow that would have had to make its way here from Mexico.  Now that is a long flight!  I was able to get some photos and if it does turn out to be the Mexican strain, then perhaps one day it will be split and I can get a bonus bird on the Life List.  Additionally, it was species 205 for the year.

Well, that does it for this addition of Crazy Chasing Birders.  Join me again soon, for the continuing adventures of my quest to see the Birds of Canada.