Monday, 30 April 2012

From Budgerigars to a Brant: One Memorable Month

30 days and 103 new birds.  I'm no expert, but for me that was a good month.  January was the last month I had over a hundred birds, with 121, but that was including a trip to California, when every bird was a new bird.  April started in Florida and saw travels to Arizona, Nevada, Michigan, New Hampshire, Algonquin Park in northern Ontario and a return to Florida.  It was a great adventure.  Lots of travel, long drives, gallons of coffee, perhaps a little too much fast food, sleeping in the car, trying to concentrate on work at the ball park or at our Minor League teams, at times terrible back pain, and a very bad case of binocular tendinitis in my right elbow.

I have had bouts of tendinitis twice previously in the past and the last time was so bad I could hardly lift anything heavier than a book.  Thankfully this case has not put me out of action.  I have to take plenty of Advil, and am glad I bought lightweight binoculars.  I wonder if there are other birders out there that have suffered the same injury.

Today I arrived at the Oshawa Second Marsh too late in the morning to catch the Little Gulls before they headed out to the lake to fish for the day, but was lucky enough to have other birders around and one of them spotted a Brant way out in the marsh, amongst a few Canada Geese.  I brought my scope along and was able to spy the smaller goose right next to the Canada Geese.  Distinct difference as the Brant, besides being smaller, has a solid midnight blue neck, and it turned just enough so I could a bit of the white neck ring.

The Brant was bird 340 for my 2012 Big Year.  When I began there was no talk of trips to Arizona, Alaska, or South Texas, and I was shooting for 300 as a novice birder.  My trip to California was scheduled before I even knew about Big Years, but once I did decide to do one, Sue and I did talk of going to Point Pelee for warblers and Newfoundland for seabirds, but now I have booked a week in Alaska in early June, Vancouver for work in mid June and south Texas later in June after another brief work trip to West Virginia.

I don't know if I ever expected this to become such a full out quest.  It's not quite spiralling out of control,(Sue would kill me if it did), as I don't have the time or money to do a full out Big Year.  The first 4 months of 2012 have been nearly exhausting, and I now have a much greater appreciation for what men and women like Sandy Komito, Lynn Barber and John Vanderpoel must have gone through in their full out Big Years, each seeing over 720 birds in a single year.

I am not sure if I am crazy or obsessed.  Sue would say I am both and more.  Perhaps I am.  But I have had more fun and more adventures in 4 months than I could have imagined.

8 more months?  Bring it on!

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Toronto The Cold

After the warmth and comfort of south Florida, it was a bit of a shock to the system to come home to Toronto in late April and find the morning temperatures hovering around the freezing mark.  On Saturday morning I had a few hours before heading off to work to go on the CCFEW birding trip, led by Bob Yurich, to Colonel Sam Smith Park on Lakeshore Road in Toronto.  The group works hard to keep the Etobicoke waterfront natural, and reduce the density of condos and motels in the area.

Sue and I went to this one, rather than Leslie Street Spit, as I would be able to spend more time, it was on the way to work and there is another bird walk to the Spit in May.  So, with the temperature at a chilly 2C on a sunny morning, we put on our "winter" birding gear and headed out to the park.

I was hoping for a good bird or two, including the Winter Wren I have been searching for in Col. Sam for the last few days.  What I got was a couple of fly-overs by a Common Tern and struck out, once again on the Wren.  There were lots of good birds, including Spotted Sandpiper, Red-necked Grebes, Barn, Northern Rough-wing and Tree Swallows, Brown Creeper,(which I once again failed to photograph), Hermit Thrush, all of which Sue could count, but I had already seen this year.

I did get to meet and talk to Andrew Keaveney, who's precise OntBirds reports kept me running all winter, including the recent Winter Wren sighting, so that was fun.  I like his reports because they are short, informative and stick to the point.

Later in the day, thanks once again to Andrew Keaveney, I saw a report of a Cerulean Warbler, in Mount Pleasant Cemetery and knew I had to go check it out.  So, this morning, once again dressed for the cold while on my way to work, I stopped in Mount Pleasant Cemetery - I had always wanted to take a walk there - and sought out the Cerulean Warbler.  I had to look up the word cerulean, and it turns out it means a sky blue tint.

When I arrived at the cemetery I found a few birders had already arrived, including the same gentleman with whom I had searched the side streets of Cobourg for a Townsend's Solitaire, back in February.  I forgot to ask him if his name was Craig or Greg.  Perhaps I was not meant to know.

As I approached the group I was able to hear the call, as I had studied it on the way there, along with it's pictures.  Greg or Craig was helpful at pointing the bird out in the tree and, once found, it did live up to its cerulean tint.  Sky blue wings with a white belly.  It was a very nice bird and when it dropped down a bit I was able to get a few nice photos.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Of Fallouts, Spring Migration and Chasing Flycatchers

If I have been quiet on the blog, its only because for the last 3 days I have been either driving, sleeping or  Birding, with very little time in between to catch my breath.  Of course, there was the first day of the Fallout in Fort DeSoto, which I have previously documented, but that was only the beginning of a great few days in Florida.

I had a few hours on Tuesday morning before I had to go to work, so I headed back to St. Pete and the old fort to see if any of the birds were still there.  In fact, they were all there, not to mention a huge migration of Birders from all around Florida and the US and Canada,(me, of course).  I wasn't sure if there were more folks with Cameras and binoculars than there were little flying creatures with wings and beaks.  In fact, it was even more fun than the previous night and it was all I could do not to play hooky from work and stay there all day.

My main goal was to see either of the Cuckoos, Black or Yellow-billed, and though one had been spotted briefly, I'd have to wait for South Florida to get my Cuckoo on, so to speak.  Everywhere I looked there were birds, in trees, on the ground, flying to and fro.  And everywhere I looked there were Birders looking for the birds.  Somehow there were more people than the evening before.

The great thing about Birding with so many people around, is that no matter what bird is being sighted there are plenty of people around to help with the positive identification.  Some were easy, like Magnolia Warbler, Orchard Oriole,(I saw two males, but only got to photograph the female) and American Redstart.  Others were a little tougher like Wood Thrush and Veery.

My favourite bird of the day, though I wasn't able to get a good photo, was the Worm Eating Warbler.  I had missed it the previous day and had made sure I knew it's field marks so I wouldn't miss it again.  The fun of this group birding is that every few minutes you here a call,(not a bird call, a Birder Call), in this case, "Worm Eating!"  I rushed over and was able to get my binoculars on the bird near the ground but partially obscured by a bush.  Their bright yellow face, split by a black eye ring is unmistakable.  I wish more birds were that easy to identify.

By the time I had to head to work around mid morning, I had added 7 birds to the 12 I had seen the previous day, giving me 19 new species in about 7 hours of Birding at Fort DeSoto.

That evening I was off to South Florida, and my quest for the LaSagra's Flycatcher and Great Cormorant.  But along the way, I made a pitstop at Circle B Bar Reserve just to see what was there.  It was worth the stop, as I was able to see how much the Sandhill Crane babies had grown since my first visit early in March.  The bonus was hearing, finding and identifying a Marsh Wren, along the Rabbit Run Trail, with the help of another Birder, Carol from Lakeland, who had also heard the call.

I drove all night to get down to Miami Beach, so I'd be rested and ready for Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park and my search for the La Sagra's Flycarcher.  There I ran into another experienced bird guy, Jeff from Indiana, and together we walked the hot, arid nature trail hoping to hear the call of the Flycatcher, but instead were treated to dozens and dozens of Blackpoll Warblers.  The park was ripe with Blackpolls.  Along the way, though, we did find a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and had a quick, but good look at a Bobolink down by the lighthouse as we waited for the Great Cormorant to return to it's favourite rock at the end of the Light House Jetty.  It didn't come back, at least not then.

My new friend headed south to Key West while I headed north to a couple of Wetland Parks, hoping to find a Least Bittern.  The first park, Wakodahatchee Wetlands, only gave me a brief glimpse of the Bittern as it "crow hopped" from one marshy grass area to another, but there was also a Rookery with plenty of baby birds to enjoy.  On the way out I spotted some parakeets flying around the exit road and followed them out to the road, where there was a post with nesting Monk Parakeets.

It wasn't until I got to Green CayWetlands Park where I did get really nice look at the Least Bittern.  I had to scan a lot of tall reeds and grass in the marsh just to find the bird.  Bitterns are amongst the toughest birds to see as they are very secretive and hide in the grass.  They are the birds that, if asked, the neighbouring birds, the Coots and Common Gallinule's would say, "Yeah, I new him.  Kind of a loner, kept to himself, nice guy, but didn't see him much."  I watched the bird in the tall grass for about 15 minutes, so I could study it until I could make a positive ID.

I went back to Bill Baggs for one more try at the La Sagra's and Great Cormorant but by late evening neither had showed up.  I did, however, find a Northern Waterthrush along the grass near the parking lot, so it was worth the extra trip.

The next morning neither the La Sagra's or the Great Cormorant were there.  I ran into a nice lady that does bird counts for the park biologist and was told that it was likely the La Sagra's was gone, as the previous two years it had headed back to the Bahamas between late March and early May.  She had not seen it since the 22nd of April.  Still, when you're out looking for one bird, there's always a chance for another, and in this case it was a Black-throated Blue Warbler.

But more than the birds, I met so many nice people from all over the United States that make this south Florida pilgrimage, nearly every year, usually on their way down to Key West, and perhaps, on to The Dry Tortugas.  I had a grand time and though I didn't get the La Sarga's I wasn't going to leave without a Great Cormorant.

Finally, just after 10 in the morning, out at the old light house jetty, the big juvenile Great Cormorant, a northern bird who just loves basking in the laid back Miami lifestyle, was sunning itself on a rock at the end of the Jetty.  Yippee!  I watched it and photographed it form a couple of angles for about 10 minutes and by then had to head to the airport.  But not before one last walk down the nature trail.  No La Sagra's, no other birds, but lots of other birders who had also made the trip for the flycatcher.  Perhaps it is still there, but it was not to be for me.  Still, I added 7 more birds to the list and left Florida with a count of 337.  The Great Cormorant was also my 100th bird of April, making it just a little more special.

Monday, 23 April 2012


Had I put two and two together, when I landed in Tampa on Sunday afternoon, I'd have come up with Fallout.  There had been a big storm in Florida on Saturday, right during spring migration, and it triggered a medium sized Fallout in Florida, especially Fort De Soto, in St. Petersburg.  I had been thinking of driving out there prior to heading to my hotel in Dunedin, and had I done so, Oh the birds, I'd have seen.  I was told that it was one of the best days in years to be a Birder in Florida.

Instead, I settled in, walked around Dunedin Hammock Park, saw relatively few birds, and planned my trip to Fort DeSoto for the next afternoon.  It wasn't exactly too little, too late, but I did miss the sight of birds perched and flying everywhere and all at once.  The folks I talked to on Monday evening, the park was still crowded with Birders a day later, said it was magnificent.

Not that the 4 hours I birded the park was any let down.  I had read reports of a Black-billed Cuckoo in the park and that had set me on my way.  I didn't see the bird, but the Birders were Cuckoo for every flying thing in sight.  I probably ran into more than a dozen groups and befriended several along the way. Their knowledge and keen eyes, made it for an amazing afternoon.  I, along with a few others, stayed until sunset to get the last birds of the day, including a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

Highlights were a Least Tern, Rose-breasted and Blue Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers, an Eastern Wood-Pewee,  Flocks of Indigo Buntings, and Barn Swallows flying so low that one almost knocked me down.

It's late and I need to get some sleep, as I plan on getting up at 5AM and being at the park when it opens, to catch 2-3 hours of what Fallout remains, before I have to go into work.  When I get all the photos sorted out, I shall post a few more, though that may not be until I get back to Toronto on Friday.  I still have a La Sagra's Flycatcher to hunt down in Bill Bagg's State Park, down in Miami and there are many miles to go before I rest.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Algonquin Bound Part 2: Quest for the Missing Boreals

As I write this blog on April 22, it's my sister Sonya's birthday,(insert reminder to say happy birthday to sister), Spring is here, migration is gearing up and I am back from the first of perhaps half a dozen organized Birding trips for me and Sue this spring.  This one was up to Algonquin Park for the Ontario Field Ornithologists outing, led by Ron Tozer, who's OntBirds updates brought me up to Algonquin earlier in the year.  My goals for the day were simple: Spruce Grouse, Ruff Grouse, Purple Finch, Pine Grosbeak and Boreal Chickadee, all of which I missed the fist time.  Anything else would be a bonus.

It was also the first real organized group birding trip I had had ever gone on, and I didn't really know what to expect in a large group of birders, all congregating around one bird.  I had previously been with a group of birders, but that was by accident years ago when I was walking on a nature trail in Florida and, when it started to rain, was all but kidnapped by the group and shuttled me from place to place on their "party bus."  Say what you want about conservative, fussy, boring birders, but this bus had a stripper pole, though it was not being used for anything more than support when the bus went over a bump or rut in the road.

What we encountered in Algonquin, on this blustery, snowy, chilly, grey day, was a group of about 55 exuberant men and women, of every conceivable age and description.  No way to pinpoint the typical birder.  Some wore floppy hats, some wore what looked more like fishing gear, some were bundled against the cold, with warm hats and gloves or mittens.  I had on several layers, including pyjama bottoms as a substitute for long-johns.  Along with my LL Bean Snow Sneakers I was quite comfortable most of the day.

Ron Tozer is a funny, smart, guide who knows that a leader leads, and lays down the ground rules before we even started.  One such rule had to do with playing tapes,(he still does use a tape player), or iPhone bird calls.  He started by telling us this wasn't up for debate, he's not asking for feedback, in fact look at his as more of a sermon: "I am gong to be playing calls occasionally to bring the birds in.  I know there are some out there that are against it," he said, but went on to say that there is no evidence to show playing calls in controlled settings has any negative affect on the birds whatsoever.  So take that, anti-pishers!  He did say that there are places so crowded that if 20 people are playing bird calls it does become a distraction,  probably more for the other birders than the birds, I suppose.

After the "sermon" Ron got us going and kept us in order and focused on the birds we were after.  Mostly boreal species, plus anything else that might have turned up.  He, along with his helper Justin, kept us moving and amused, and after a slow start at Spruce Bog, had us finding birds everywhere.  Of course, Spruce Grouse was on the menu at Spruce Bog, but after half an hour of searching, we were off in our cars and heading for a second location.  Second time I've been to Spruce Bog without finding a Spruce Grouse.

But sometimes you find one of the things you've looking for after you've started looking for something else.  In this case, we had headed out to find a Black-backed Woodpecker and perhaps a Boreal Chickadee.  We stopped along the Opeongo Road I had been to earlier in the year,(when I vowed to get these very same warmer shoes I was now wearing).  It's a good place for Boreal Chickadees and Grey Jays.  There was a lot of searching and it took a while, but we finally found one Grey Jay.  I was up the road when the call came.  Suddenly 55 grown men and women turned into kids in a candy store, racing to see the bird.  This would happen over and over again during they day.  It was fun.  It was right out of the movie The Big Year.  For all you Birders out there that were offended by the portrayal of Birders in the movie, it's mostly true.  I may only have been at this a little over 3 months, but I've seen everything,(and more), that they showed in the movie, while out in the real life Birding World.  And I am not ashamed to admit I am one of them.

Sue's biggest gripe about group bird outings is when someone sees a bird and says, "It's in the tree," as they look toward a forest full of them.  I didn't rush to the front of the group, as I  had seen the Grey Jays on my previous trip to Algonquin, but was still interested in looking again, only I couldn't find it.  I slid up next to Sue, who pointed to a narrow tree where everyone was looking.  Still no bird.  Was I a victim of "it's in the tree?" Nope.  I was a victim of looking in the wrong tree.  I do need to work on my finger following skills.

We did not get the Boreal Chickadee or the Black-backed Woodpecker, so we were back in the cars and searching again.  It was like a caravan or a not so somber funeral procession.  As long as you kept an eye on the car in front,(the car in front of us had a bumber sticker that read "Magic Happens."  I agree), it was hard to get lost.  There is a scene in The Big Year when on Attu, in Alaska, a call goes out for a particularly rare bird.  And they are all running back and forth, changing directions as the bird keeps shifting locations.  It's funny.  It's true.  Calls would go out for one bird and then another would be sited and everyone would run.  We were not having much luck with the Black-backed and were heading to our cars when someone spotted the Spruce Grouse.  We all ran.  We jockeyed for position.  It was in the woods. It was on the ground.  No, it's on a a tree.  It's dropped down.  Ron tromped in to try and get the bird to move closer to the crazed Birders by the road.  One guy had been searching 25 years for his Life Spruce Grouse.

Finally it did come out close enough to see.  Up and down it went.  It was here, it was there.  It seemed to be everywhere.  Except in the lens of my camera.  I did finally get a good look at it on a branch, but by the time I had my look through the binoculars it was gone again.  Justin even used his laser pointer to guide people to the exact spot.  The older gentleman finally had his bird.  Was that a tear in his eye?  I let him in front to get a photo.  All we got is a shot of it's wing Sue managed to snap as it flew into the woods and was gone for good this time.

We weren't done yet.  As we were heading back to the cars to drive to the Visitor's Centre for lunch, I thought I heard a Boreal Chickadee.  But I figured it was just someone playing a call to get it out in the open.  However, just as I had started the engine, the call came that the Boreal Chickadee had not only been heard, but spotted.  We all ran.  It was great.  It was also getting quite cold and windy.  And snow was blowing too.

And there it was.  The little guy was flying across the road, back and forth between two trees.  I got another good look through my binoculars, but he was too flitty and too high in the tree for a good photo.  But I got an adequate shot, before we finally headed to the Visitors Centre for lunch and a nice selection of birds at the feeders.  Just no Purple Finches, and the Pine Grosbeaks head left for the season.

The next stop after lunch was for a Pine Warbler and perhaps some ducks and other assorted waterfowl, in Mew Lake campground, where I had once before searched, in the dead of winter, for the Spruce Grouse.  We walked to the water and did not see much in the way of waterfowl, but as we were heading back into the woods, Justin heard the Pine Warbler and it wasn't long before 55 sets of eyes had found it in one tree, before it flew into another tree and held still long enough for me to get at least one photo of a Year Bird on this trip.  Not the best, but what can you do?

Next it was off to the old air field, a one time emergency landing strip in the middle of the park, where we intended to flush some sparrows.  Now flushing sparrows is something I have had experience with back in Florida when I got the LeConte's to come out for a photo.  I got my best flushing mojo going as the group trudged through the short grass, and did succeed in flushing a Song Sparrow and an Eastern Meadowlark, but no LeConte's.

It was getting near the end of the day and Ron decided to give the Black-backed Woodpecker one more chance to make an appearance for the group.  Last year his big miss was the Spruce Grouse, and I am sure he didn't want to let anyone leave without the boreal woodpecker they had come for.  I, myself, had seen it my first time in the park, and actually did see it in a dead tree today, as did a few other lucky folks on this trip, as we drove down to look for Grey Jays.  I slowed and tried to have Sue get a look at it, but she was too close on the passenger side window and couldn't get her head at the correct and possibly whiplash inducing angle it would have taken to see it.

We all walked the length of the road down the river and back and though the sun made an appearance, finally, the Black-backed Woodpecker did not.  When we returned to the cars, one of the women, who had also seen the woodpecker earlier, was just coming out of the woods, reporting that she had seen an American Woodcock.  Had flushed it out.  I, for one, was excited about the news, as I love flushing.

Before I could head into the bush one last time, Ron gathered us in a group and thanked everyone for coming out to Algonquin and made us all feel like we contributed to all the birds seen that day.  We clapped, thanked Ron and everyone went on their merry way.  Except for me and Sue.  I convinced her to stay 5 or 10 more minutes to see if we could flush the Woodcock too.  We tramped around in the underbrush for  a while, Sue hanging back while I did the dirty work, and low and behold, I flushed another bird.  The Woodcock must have been almost under my feet when it when it flew up in front of my face and into a tree about 10 feet away, where it vanished once again, blending in with the forest until the next intrepid birder comes along.  Sue got a good look at it too, so I didn't feel bad about dragging her into the woods.

Before heading home, we tried for some Rusty Blackbirds that had been seen roadside, as we were flushing the Woodcock, but they had left by the time we returned from a washroom break at the West Entrance.  Still and all, it was an altogether  great day.  We met lots of nice people, I got to put a face to Ron Tozer, and Sue reunited with nice woman she had met on previous bird trips.  Sue added about 10 new birds to her Year list and I added 4: Spruce Grouse, Boreal Chickadee, Pine Warbler and American Woodcock, giving me 72 birds for March and pushing my Big Year Total to 310.

I enjoyed the group birding, more than I though I would, as I do love just going out on my own, or sometimes having a guide with me, or even running into a fellow birder and working the birds together.

There are lots more of these outings coming up and I am sure there will be more bird flushing in my near future.  And frankly, I can hardly wait.

The Grackles are getting quite iridescent compared to their winter coat:

As close as I could get to photographing the Spruce Grouse.  At least I saw it quite nicely through my binoculars:

A much closer look at a Northern Flicker than I had in Florida:

And finally, the Pine Warbler from his underbelly:

Monday, 16 April 2012

Bushwhack Birding

I spent the better part of the day in my old birding grounds,(relatively speaking), driving around the Niagara Area, where I spent a lot of time in January and February.  Many of my trips have been spurred on after reading the Hamilton Naturalists Club Birding Reports, that Cheryl Edgecombe does such a great job of putting together.

Today was no different.  I decided to try a few locations. I started in LaSalle Marina in Burlington, one of my favourite birding spots this winter, hoping to hear and maybe see a Pine Warbler.  I found nothing but House Sparrows, ducks and swans, although there was a nice flock of Tree Swallows flying about.   I next returned to the Saltfleet area, where I had seen Short-eared Owls one evening with a gaggle of other birders, and searched for Pectoral Sandpipers along 5th Road East.  The most likely place for them turned up, not Sandpipers, but nesting Killdeers.  Nice but not what I was looking for.  Perhaps the Sandpipers had just been migrating through that day.  No worries.  I've been shut out before on these bird chases and I try not to let discourage me.  I did see more Tree Swallows and Brown-headed Cowbirds, along the way, as I headed over to Fifty Point Conservation Area.

There seems to be no real paths or trails in Fifty Point, just some wooded areas and I had to bushwhack my way through the spiked branches and the thorns of wild rose bushes to find the birds I was looking for.  It started off very slowly and even though I heard a few birds, I saw nothing.  Sometimes I feel like a very bad birder.  People report birds in locations, I go to said locations and see no sign of any birds.  But I always keep in mind, "Your patience will be rewarded," and besides I paid $9.00 to get into the park and was going to get my money's worth, even if the high winds were making me sway back and forth and nearly topple over as I peered through my binoculars on uneven ground.

I played the call of the Fox Sparrow in hopes of getting it to show, but instead I called in Yellow-rumped Warblers, American Goldfinches, Song Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos.  I eventually found my way out of the bush and searched in a clearing by the lake and was rewarded, without the use of bird calls, a nice look at the Fox Sparrow.  At least I'd have one bird for my $9.00, windburn and thorny scrapes.

I continued on back into the bush again and along the way got a nice look at an Eastern Phoebe before finally finding another of the birds I had set my sights on, a Brown Creeper.  I had a nice look at it as I knelt on the ground with my binoculars, trying not to fall over, but it continued on with it's creepy business and I didn't see it again for a photo.  By this time it started to feel like rain was coming on, so I headed back to the car just as the sky started to spit.

One more stop before I had to head home, and that was to Edgelake Park in Stoney Creek, for one last shot at a Hermit Thrush.  I found the park easily enough and walked the paths, but it seemed like there were no birds around.  I moved over to the other side of the park and this time had to make my way through a wooded area to find the source of the bird calls.  I did see two turtles and a Belted Kingfisher, along with a male Cardinal, but not much else, until I moved further into the woods.  There, under a long was a likely candidate for my thrush.  I waited at a safe distance and yes, it jumped up on a log and revealed itself as the Hermit Thrush.  Alas I didn't get to hear it sing, as I hear it could give candidates on American Idol a run for their money in the beautiful voice department.  It's also the state bird of Vermont, if you need the answer to a trivia question next time you're in New England.

I ended where I began in LaSalle Marina thinking maybe the Pine Warbler would be out for an afternoon Warbler, but again, it left me wanting.  I did see a lovely Blue-grey Gnatcatcher along with a Downy Woodpecker, giving me 27 species for the day,(after a very slow start), and 3 more Big Year Birds, bringing me to 306.

Birds seen in Niagara on April 16, 2012:

Brown-headed Cowbird
Tree Swallow
White-breasted Nuthatch
Downy Woodpecker
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Belted Kingfisher
Song Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Brown Creeper
Hermit Thrush
Dark-eyed Junco
Blue-grey Gnatcatcher
American Goldfinch
Eastern Pheobe
Canada Goose
Trumpeter Swan
Mute Swan
Ring-billed Gull
American Robin 
Double-crested Cormorant
European Starlings
Black-capped Chickadees
Wild Turkey
Red-winged Blackbird
Northern Cardinal

Birding on Home Turf

Not much time for birding trips this weekend.  I just had a couple of hours after work, before making dinner, and decided to enjoy my own backyard and local parks.  James Gardens is a beautiful park to walk, bike and bird in.  I've been going there to bike since I moved into the Lawrence/Royal York Neighbourhood.  I saw and heard all the regular birds, Red-winged Blackbird, Black-capped Chickadee, Starlings and a pair of frolicking Downy Woodpeckers.

But it was the last bird I saw as the sun was setting that made my heart beat a little faster, as I had not seen owls in James Gardens before.  Sue says she's never seen a Great-horned Owl in James Gardens and was jealous.  So if you like owls, take a walk along the forest path in Lambton Woods and keep a keen eye out for the Great-horned Owl.  I am not sure if it is nesting now, or just passing through, but perhaps it will spend the summer here, for everyone's enjoyment.

 Sorry about the focus, but it was getting dark and the shutter speed was slow.

Some other photos from the walk:

And a Robbin is nesting in my front Yard

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Travels and Tribulations

Today's entry is not about birds. Not that I didn't hear a lot of birds calling in New Hampshire this morning,(I had a few hours free to explore some not so hot birding spots), and I did see a few commoners, such as Robins and Black-capped Chickadees.  But, no, this is story is about the journey.

The day began very nicely in the Porter Airlines lounge, which I would recommend to any traveler.   Free coffee and soft drinks, comfy chairs and Internet.  And a nice, quick flight to Boston, where it should have been a milk run to Manchester after I picked up my rental car.

Okay, it did start well, as the good folks at Enterprise, North America's friendliest car rental company, picked me up at Logan airport in Boston and whisked me to the pick-up office in a timely manor.  While on the airport bus I used my GPS app on my iPhone to find my hotel in Manchester.  Address entered, I put the phone on my belt, and went inside to get the car.  No worries, they were fast and efficient and I was ready to go in minutes.  I tossed my stuff into the car, plugged in my phone charger and reached for my phone.  And then I looked for my phone.  And then I panicked, a little.  No phone.  Not again.  I have left my share of phones on airplanes, and in cabs and now, it seemed, on a bus.  I looked again.  On and under the seats.  Went back into the rental car office.  No phone.  Looked on the ground where I got off the bus.  Nothing.

I asked them to check with the drivers.  Perhaps one of them found my phone.  No one reported a lost phone on a bus.  When the busses arrived, one by one I entered and searched them with no success.  This was like looking for and not finding a bird reported on E-birds Rare Bird Alert.  It was the Roadrunner all over again!

It could have been maddening if not for the sheer lunacy of it.  It always happens to me and not at the best of times.  It was after 11pm.  By the time all six airport pickup busses had come and gone it was closer to midnight and I had to admit defeat and go on with my life.  I still had my Blackberry from work, and I had already lost one of those.  Better my personal phone than my work phone again.  I gave the Enterprise manager my number and asked them to call me if the phone showed up.  The woman behind the counter suggested I use Apple's Find My iPhone feature.  Ah ha!  Except that I am in the states with a Canadian phone and had data roaming turned off.  Find my iPhone didn't find my iPhone.  It didn't "just work."  As a last resort, I tried to call my phone I but couldn't hear it ring in the office or in or around my car and if someone had found it, they weren't answering.

With no GPS, I needed directions to Manchester, so I asked if they could print me up MapQuest directions.  No worries there, the good folks at Enterprise were quick to help with that too.  And off I went.  There was no clearly marked exit sign for the rental car lot and I almost drove over the tire exploding spikes as I tried to exit the wrong way.  This was getting better and better.

With a little manoeuvring and backing up and a lot of luck I found the exit.  Turn right and right again and go toward I93 N and you will be well on your way, only an hour late and really, what is an hour in the grand scheme of things?  Except, when I finally emerged from one of the Boston tunnels made famous in The Big Dig,(you should check it out sometime), I found that the entrance to I93 N, the only way to Manchester that I knew of without a functioning GPS, was closed.  Now I was lost in downtown Boston and it was close to midnight.  Great.  Now what?

The Blackberry has a GPS.  Perhaps the worst GPS on any Smart Phone ever built, so I gave up on that idea rather quickly.  I drove in circles around the closed highway exit, opening my window and asking other lost drivers if they knew another way to I93.  The first one did not.  But the second one, who was also heading toward I93 said to just follow them.  Whew.   Except, I was thinking, what if they were having me follow them into some dead end ally way to kill me, or even worse, rob me of my last remaining cell phone?  Never mind, it would make a good story if I survived.  On I went.  But real life is never as exciting as imagination and after a long series of right and left turns into what seemed like the middle of nowhere, they pointed out the window to my right and low and behold, there was an entrance to I93 N.

Except it was nothing but construction cones and darkness.  I slowly climbed the ramp, so slowly that it was not nearly fast enough for the tractor trailer behind me and as I slowed to figure out what lane to merge into, the truck nearly rammed me from behind and the driver blared on his horn to let me know how dissatisfied he was with my lack of Bostonian Driving Skills.  I had forgotten to close my window and as I finally picked up speed onto the highway, a gust of wind blew my rental car agreement out the window, with quite a flourish.  Well, at this point, why not?

The rest of the drive was mostly uneventful, except for the taxi driver who refused to let me change lanes when more cones loomed up ahead and I had to get over before I crashed into them like a crazed crash test dummy.

It was not over yet.  I still had to find my way to the hotel, and even with Mapquest directions still made a wrong turn or two that I had to recover from.  Eventually I pulled into the hotel parking lot, and went in to register for my room.  Room?  What room?  We don't have a reservation for you, I was told.  Huh?  I was sent a confirmation number from the hotel.  I have it on my Blackberry.  In the car.  I had to go back out to the car to retrieve it.  I come in and they tell me, oh, this reservation is for tomorrow and, at 2am, it was far too early to check in.  I almost lost it.  Trying to remain calm, I said, "You mean, you won't let me stay here tonight?"

No, no I was told, they just have to change the reservation to have me check in "yesterday."

Fine.  Today, tomorrow, yesterday, I just wanted to sleep.

It all did work out, I am glad to say.  In the end, I did arrive safely at my destination, was given a room with a view of the New Hampshire Fisher Cat's ball field, with a very comfy bed and two complimentary bottles of water.

Oh, and that elusive bird, ahm, lost cell phone that got this all started?  When I went out to the car to get my luggage, and opened the driver side door, the glow of the overhead lamps from the parking lot revealed a glint of metal.  It was the clip from my leather phone case, wedged between the seat and the seatbelt strap, where it anchors to the floor.  It was there all along, just like so many birds I have chased this year.  I checked the phone.  4 missed calls by me and the ringer was off, or I'd have heard it ring 3 hours earlier and, perhaps, none of the above would have ever happened.

But what fun would that have been?

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Starting on the Second 300

Okay, maybe that's a stretch to think I can see 300 more birds in the next nine months, but it's really not out of the question.  I admit now, that I really want 500 by years end.  But, if I stopped right now I would have already surpassed the number of species that would I would have considered a successful Big Year for a a total beginner like myself.

301 was a Field Sparrow,(thanks to Sue's help identifying it), I found in a park as I drove from Lansing to the Detroit airport on my last day of 39 straight days on the road, giving me at least one bird in every state I have visited since February 29.

I am back in Toronto now, and back to working full time and long hours with the Jays, but still have time to sneak away and find a bird or two.  Take yesterday for example.  Sue had spent the weekend Birding at Colonel Sam and Humber Bay East and had seen a couple of birds that I have yet to record this year.  Yesterday afternoon, I had to run out to get a large screen computer monitor for my video room, and since both locations were easy stops on my return downtown, I decided to try for both birds.

I hadn't birded in cold, wet and windy weather for some time so it was a bit of an adjustment after 39 day in Florida, Arizona and Nevada.  But I layered up, grabbled my binoculars and headed into Colonel Sam park in search of a Red-necked Grebe.  Sue had given me a couple of likely locations,(she's better than an E-bird report), and as I approached the first spot I did get a good look at a grebe before it drifted off behind some floating docks.  However I did hear and recognize the call of the Red-necked Grebe.  The best way to describe it, and it's very unique call, is to bring to mind the sounds of a barn yard.  Seriously.  It sounds like chickens and lambs, with maybe a little donkey mixed in.  It was unmistakable and I could have just listed the bird right then and there, but I wanted to get a better look at it first.

I headed over to the second location and, though I heard no barnyard calls, I was able to spot a few of the Red-necks in the cove and get some good looks.  Red neck, obviously, with a white head topped with what looks like a bad toupee.  With bird number 301 recorded I was well on my way to my second goal.

My next stop was Humber Bay East for a Golden-crowned Kinglet.  Sue had seen it in some bushes, but wasn't really specific as to which ones.  There were lots of Robins and Grackles, and even my first Canadian Song Sparrow,(they look and sound a lot like the Florida ones, but there is a subtle "eh" at the end of their song).   I really only had about 15 minutes to find this little guy and hate to be rushed, so I prepared myself to leave without finding it.  However, I played it's tsp-y tsp-y sound on my iPhone and was able to catch subtle return calls.  I thought I saw it on one side of a bush, and headed over to get a look.  The bird hopped across to the other side.  We played this game for about 10 minutes and I decided that I could only stay 5 more minutes before I headed back.

Then, finally a bird settled on a twig inside the bush, on the grassy side.  I made my way over.  It was near the top middle and dropped down.  I stayed put, about 6 feet from the bush, training my binoculars on the bird.  I saw one with a orange cap, that could have been the male and I could hear the call, but it quickly vanished.  And in it's place the unmistakable yellow-gold crown of the Golden-crowned Kinglet took the vanished bird's place.  Ta Da!  With moments to spare before I was going to give up for the day, the bird appeared.  They don't often do that for me.  It was a special moment.  I took that special moment to enjoy the bird and then get photos before it vanished.  And it did vanish, but I was smiling and had my second new Year bird of the day and now only need 297 more birds for my second 300.  Here's hoping to a great spring migration.

Off on another quick road trip tonight, not for birding, but hoping to catch a few migrants in New Hampshire tomorrow morning.  

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Birding By Numbers and 300 is a Big Number

I am returning to Canada tomorrow after I left Canada on February 29 having seen 210 species of birds in the first 60 days of 2012.

I saw 32 birds in 33 days in Florida.  Not bad considering I had to go to work full time, all but two of those days.

I saw 21 species in Ash Canyon, including 10 new Year Birds on April 4

April 5 I Birded around Tucson and Patagonia Lake State Park with Melody Kehl and saw 98 species in 12 hours, including adding another 42 species bringing my big year to 294.

Which brings us to Las Vegas and 3 wildlife refuges within a 15 minute drive of the Las Vegas Strip.  I only had a few hours to bird on Thursday morning and another couple of hours on Friday morning, fitting the birding in before and after work.  I visited the City of Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve where I didn't even bother keeping track of all the species I saw, there were so many, as well as Duck Creek and the Clark CountyWetlands, just down the road.

I lost count of the total species seen, though it was probably close to 50, but I did 6 new species including two more Hummingbirds, two new Swallows,(there were hundreds flying around the ponds), yet another gull and another gnatcatcher, this time a Black-tailed, that I would never have found if I hadn't been chasing down a Marsh Wren.  I heard the Wren calling and was chasing it off the trail into the scrub and bushes, but never got a great look at it.  However, when I turned to leave I spotted the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher and got a nice photo.  They are, along with the even more rare Black-capped gnatcatcher, only seen in southern Arizona, but the black-tailed also finds it's way into some parts of Nevada.

I missed getting any good photos of the Swallows, as they just flew and flew and circled and made sure to never be anywhere near my camera when I wanted to photograph them.  I could look with my eyes, even get good looks through my binoculars at times, but, please, no photos of the Diva Swallows.

My big miss was the Greater Roadrunner.  Yes, that one, the nemesis of Wile E Coyote from the Bugs Bunny Cartoons, but with out the "Beep Beep" sound effects.

The Roadrunner, it turned out has become my southern Arizona nemesis too.  I kept being told how people had just seen one, and even had a lady tell me she photographed lots of them.  She showed me the photos on her camera and they turned out to be Gambles Quail, which run pretty fast, rarely fly and at a distance could be mistaken for Roadrunners.  I know on several occasions I was even fooled, briefly by them.  I kept thinking, there's one.  Nope.  Oh, there's one.  Nope.  Quite frustrating.  I can seen why the Coyote became that crazy clown who could never, ever run that Roadrunner down.

That was me.  At one point a park official sent me to the top of an embankment, on the far side of the preserve, and said if I scanned the desert below, I might just see a Roadrunner.  I hiked to the spot,(it was also said a White-faced Ibis might be there too-nope), and  stood on the embankment overlooking the dessert floor.  I scanned the barren desert floor.  Nothing.  Now, I was the crazy clown, with my Acme Binoculars, hoping for one, brief glimpse of a Greater Roadrunner.  Melody couldn't get me one in Arizona and I failed to spot one of the easier birds to see in the desert.  Seemed everyone I talked to had seen it.  But not me.  So now I had something in common with a cartoon character too.  Except, Wile E. actually saw the Roadrunner.  I never did.

Getting back to the numbers, though I did see a lot of different species in the Nevada Desert, I was able to add 4 more birds to my total, giving me a nice round number:

300 birds in 96 days in 2012

I did see lots of Gamble's Quail:

This was as close as I got to seeing a Greater Roadrunner:

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Photos From the Big Day

Amongst the 98 Species we saw and the 42 new birds I added to my Big Year List, were a few nice photos, including the rarely seen Black-capped Gnatcatcher, Gila Woodpecker, Gray Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, a nice selection of Flycatchers and Hummingbirds and my two favourites of the day, the Cinnamon Teal, one of the loveliest and delicious sounding Ducks and the Verdin, who is both beautiful and has a lovely singing voice.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

The Big Day

The plan was to start early, bird hard for 12 hours, try for 100 species and get my year list close to or over 300 by the end of the day.
Melody Kehl, my exuberant Arizona birding guide, was at the hotel at 5:58 on Wednesday morning. I was in a bit of a tizzy, as I couldn't find my camera memory card. Jeez! Not again. I had a faulty card in The Dry Tortugas and now my new, not inexpensive, memory card was missing. I had taken it out to upload the Ash Canyon Photos and had tucked it away in an easy to find, safe location I would be sure to easily locate the next morning. I searched everywhere. Patted down and reached into every pocket,(well almost), and came up empty handed. I made excuses, ran back inside, search the hotel, my rental car and was about to give up when I patted the right breast pocket of my "adventure birding shirt), and low and behold it was in the last place I expected to find it. I had my card, grabbed my equipment and we were off and birding.

We started on the empty, dusty roads near Tucson and Medera Canyon and Melody's amazing ears went to work. Melody, like Greg Miller, can bird by ear. She knows every call, chitter and whistle of the south Arizona bird population. With her help, we were able to add 16 new Year birds, amongst the numerous birds we encountered that morning, and it wasn't even 10am. Highlights included Curve-billed Thrasher, Phainopepla, Cactus and Bewick's Wren, and one of my nemesis birds from Florida, the Ash-throated Flycatcher. Also got good looks at Gray Hawks and Chihuahuan Ravens,(I pronounce it: "Chi-hua-huan"). I also got several good looks at Vesper Sparrows. I had briefly seen and identified on early in the year and was pleased to see them up close to confirm my earlier sighting on my own.

After a snack and coffee break at a gas station right out of the Old West, we paid a visit to The Patten House. These folks open up their yard to any and all Birders willing to make the pilgrimage for the great selection of Hummingbirds, Woodpeckers, and other delicious desert birds. I had thought I had seen a lot of feeders at the home in Florida where I found the White-winged Dove. And I was sure no one could have more feeders than the folks at Ash Canyon B&B, but nothing prepared me for the sheer number of feeders at the Patton House. The hummingbird feeders were numbered, 1 through 7, like pumps at a gas station. The owner would call out, "Black-chinned at number one. Violet-crowned at number seven.". I added those two hummers, along with a White-throated Sparrow and the very elegant Gamble's Quail. But the birds were coming in faster than you could count. There were up to a dozen birders there at any given time and our heads were whipping around so much trying to see everything that I am surprised no one suffered a serious case of whiplash. This place should come with complimentary neck massages. And I finally got a good and close look, along with photos, of a male Vermillion Flycatcher, after not getting any good photos out at the Orlando Wetlands in March.

But we couldn't stay all day, there were birds to see and time was marching ever forward toward the early Arizona sunset. We set off for Patagonia for more birds and a picnic lunch, where in addition to the delicious sandwiches Melody had prepared, we were treated to a dessert of a Plumbeous Vireo and a Canyon Wren, which was appropriate as we lunched in a Canyon. With lunch done and a Zone-tailed Hawk and White-throated Swift in the bag we headed off to an afternoon of birding Patagonia Lake State Park, where Sandy Komito's 1998 Big Year began with a Nutting's Flycatcher. We would not be seeing the Nutting's, but we were hoping to find a rare, recently reported Black-capped Gnatcatcher.

We hiked the Bird Trail and saw and heard and chased birds into trees and bushes and up and down hills, into Abd out of the woods. Stumbled over cow poop, and indeed, thanks to Melody's golden ear, heard and the found the Black-capped Gnatcatcher. But one of my favorites was the Cinnamon Teal. Last week in Florida I was barred from looking at the lovely duck, as it lived In an exclusive gated community. Well who needs one snobby duck when the pond at Patagonia was chock full of regular everyday, working-man Cinnamon Teals. I even found a Verdin on my own after missing seeing earlier when Melody first heard it in the woods. We ended out Bird Trail with 13 new species for my year including the bird with the best and longest name of the day, a Northern Beardless-Tyrannidae, though I really had my heart set on a bearded Tyrannidae, but there was no such bird listed in my Nat Geo Bird guide.

The amazing day was quickly coming to an end, but on the drive back to Tucson and my hotel, we made three stops and picked up a Long-billed Curlew, Rufous-winged Sparrow and our final bird of the day, a Barn Swallow on an electric wire.

And I managed to get photos of all but a handful of the birds we saw an amazing 98 birds and heard an additional 2 for a Big Day total of 100 species and I was able to add 42 new species to my Big Year, giving me a total of 294, with a few days left before I return to Canada and Spring Migration. With a couple of good days in Nevada and a bird or two in Michigan I could reach 300 by the end of the weekend. On January 1 I really believed 300 species in one year would be a good total for a novice Birder. But I will have 300 with nearly 9 months left and I intend to go full tilt to the end now. What started as a bit of a lark has turned into a bit of an obsession and I intend to make the most of the remaining trips this year, including a return to the Southwest and Newfoundland in July.

I can't thank Melody enough for the good birding, the good company, her sense of fun and adventure as we trekked into dusty scrub and biting bushes, and one of my favorite days of birding so far. It was like the Dry Tortugas and the Snake Bight Trail, but without the vomiting and mosquito bites.

I shall post some of the better photos from The Big Day, tomorrow. For now, here are a few to get started: