Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Common Ringed Plover: Big Addition to a Big Year!

On Saturday morning I read an e-mail and watched a video of what was called a "possible Common Ringed Plover."  Similar to a Semipalmated Plover but with a larger and darker ring around the neck and if you look close enough, no webbing between the toes.  Also has a different call, as was evident on Paul Prior's video.  This is a bird who seems to have got lost after summering in Baffin Island.  First Ontario record as well.

The kind of Big Year I'm doing does not, at least during the baseball season, involve chasing rarities around the country or going to Baffin Island to see Common Ringed Plovers. I have to see birds pretty much where I see baseball games.  There have been a few rare birds that have shown up in the greater Toronto area over the summer but I have been on road trips each and every time.  Now a hugely rare bird had shown up in Toronto.  Would it be a one day wonder, while I was in Cleveland this weekend?  Well it was there Sunday as well and I had a fight home that should have had me in Toronto by 7:00pm and at Tommy Thompson park by 7:30 with just enough light to get the bird.

Well as often happens to me, a flight delay, this time because of high winds, resulted in arrival after dark on Sunday eve.  During the week the park is not open until 4:00pm and Sue and I were going horseback riding Monday during they day, for her birthday, so the timing worked out and we could only hope the plover was still there on Monday afternoon.

After a nice 90 minute ride on Thor, where I also e-Birded 10 species from horseback, we headed to Windermere Basin, where a Red Knot and Marbled Godwit had been seen on the weekend.  With the help of a couple of birders who were already looking, we were able to see the godwit, which was species number 301 for my Ontario Life List.  Luc Fazio was just arriving as we were leaving and he gave us the location of the Red-necked Phalaropes that had also been reported on the weekend, so we headed over to the Tollgate Ponds, along Eastport Drive.  Luc decided to drive over and help us find them and yes, we were able to count the the phalaropes, which was also a new year bird.

Finally it was time to return to Toronto and add a huge lifer for both of us.  Yes, one day I plan to be in the Aleutian Islands in the spring or take a trip to Baffin Island in the summer, but for the time being this was my best shot at a Common Ringed Plover.  And although it is a Code 5 in Ontario, it is only a ABA Code 2 bird, so doesn't even show up on the e-Bird's ABA rarities report.

We took our bikes, as it's a 20-25 minute walk in.  We passed other birders walking out who had seen it and when we arrived at Cell 2 there were lots of birders to help point it out to us, including Paul Prior, who discovered the bird, and narrated a video that seemed straight out of National Geographic.

We got the rare plover but also got to see an American Golden Plover, not a Lifer,  but 376 for the ABA Year List.  Great day for shorebirds, including three new Year Bids, that was for sure.

Long View of the Red-Necked Phalarope:

Close views of the Common Ringed Plover, Toronto's Celebrity bird:

ABA: 650  World Life List: 930:

A  Fine Looking American Golden Plover:

Species 377 for 2016,(ABA 376):

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Fall Migration Part 1: New York and Ohio

And so the baseball season moves into the final six weeks, as baseball portion of my MLB Big Year heads into fall migration.  Not much was going on migration wise in Ontario, though we did get out to Stradford and the West Perth Wetlands, which is a fancy name for a converted Sewage Lagoon.  Lots of sandpipers but nothing to add to the year list.

I thought Central Park in New York would be pretty good as migration begins.  First, there were almost no birds and the only warbler was a Black-and-white.  Second and even worse, it was not just hot but the humidity outdid Texas.  Word of advice.  Do not go birding in Manhattan in August.  Unless a Code 5 is present, you're only going to, to paraphrase David Letterman, "make your own gravy," you'll be sweating so much.  I'll be back in September and perhaps it will be cooler and less humid with more birds to see.

Next stop, Cleveland and an off day to get a Zip Car and head north to Ottawa NWR and retrace my spring migration route from May of 2015.  First stop was McGee Marsh.  Let me tell you, what a difference a few months makes.  In May the boardwalk is crowded with birders and birds.  In August, if not for the crew repairing the boardwalk, I'd have been the only human on the sight. The lack of humidity was also quite welcome.  Of course, the warbler activity was also lower than the humidity, but I only had one bird in mind, a Prothonotory Warbler.  I had missed them in the spring for the first time in 5 years, and e-Bird reports from McGee Marsh indicated that they were there.  Of course, they were there, as Sue reminded me that they nest in McGee Marsh.  In 2015 we had even seen one building a nest.  I found a handful of them, including a cute pair showing off on the railing of the boardwalk.

I spent the rest of the day just cruising around the McGee Marsh Migratory Bird Center, the Ottawa NWR Walking Trail Woodland and had intended to take a drive on the Wildlife Drive, but it's closed weekdays in the summer and only opens the 3rd weekend of each month.  I walked the parts of the trail that are open to hikers and was rewarded with a Western Kingbird.  I finished off at one of the many "Metroparks" in Ohio, this one the East Sandusky Bay Metropark, looking for a Red-headed Woodpecker.  I didn't specifically find one with a red head, but did find a black and gray juvenile.  I'd have to wait for the next day for a full fledged red-headed adult.

That I found in Forest Hills Park, in east Cleveland, which is not a Metro Park, but a small park with ball fields and a small lake.  As often happens when following GPS directions from e-Bird, I was directed to the wrong side of the park and an entrance that seems like it had been unused for years, if not decades.   I drove up the drive and discovered crumbling asphalt that threatened to flatten all four of my ZipCar tires.  I quickly made hasty retreat and drove around trying to decide if I was just in a bad part of town or completely lost.  As it turned out I had tried to enter on the wrong side of the park and when I did find the proper entrance, it turned out to be a lovely park full of nice people either walking themselves or their dogs.  And it didn't take me long to start hearing the Red-headed Woodpeckers calling and then to find one in a tree not too far from the parking lot.

My final morning in the Cleveland area saw me heading to Edison Woods MetroPark, about an hour north of Cleveland, hoping to find a Ring-necked Pheasant.  No luck with that, and in fact I saw very few birds indeed.  Nice walk, but a bit of a dissapointment.  Spring in Edison Woods, according to the notice boards is the time to be there.

Back home tonight and, has been the case all baseball season long, another rare bird has been reported in Toronto, while I am out of town.  In this case, a Common Ringed Plover at Tommy Thompson Park, a bird that in North America is usually found in Greenland, Baffin Island and as a spring migrant in the Aleutian Islands.  Hopefully it will hang around long enough for me to get back and see it!

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Birding In and Around Houston in the Heat of August

I'd love to say that birding the neighborhood parks around Houston was a bonanza of new bird sightings for the year, but alas that was not the case.  In four mornings of profuse sweating I was only able to add five species to the year list.  To be fair, birding in August is pretty slow anyway, and there were not even 20 species seen within an hour's drive of Houston in the past week that I had not yet counted this year.

All that being said, and despite the heat and the oppressive humidity each morning I birded from abut 7:30am to noon-ish, I did see a lot of nice birds and and even added an unexpected Lifer,(though not ABA, yet), a Red-vented Bulbul.

The first morning in, though, I was after a Least Grebe.  I headed to El Franco Lee Park, about a half hour Uber ride from my hotel in Houston,(there were no Zip Cars available nearby that morning).  As soon as I stepped out into the humid morning air, I was dripping with sweat and both my binocular and camera lenses were completely fogged up.  I walked out to the boardwalk and gazebo, where the e-bird reports said the grebes had been seen, and I thought I had seen the grebes but lost them in the fog of my lenses.  I always have my microfiber lens cloth with me, as it is litterally built into my SCOTTeVEST birding vest I wear whenever I'm out in the field.  By the time I got my lenses cleared I had forgotten where I had thought I had seen the Least Grebes and it wasn't until another birder dropped by, on her way to work, to look at the grebes herself, that I was pointed in the right direction, which is exactly where I had been looking when I first arrived.  Great looks at the adults and one of the juveniles with its cute striped head.

The next morning I was able to get a Zip Car, but had to take an Uber to get to it, as the closest one was nearly three miles away.  I headed to Tanner Marsh hoping to find Cave Swallows, but once again found no swallows, but a large contingent of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks instead.  Couldn't even get Fulvous Whistling Ducks.

I next headed over to both Woodland Park and White Oak Park, again a location where perhaps Cave Swallows might be, and made an unusual discovery, certainly one I never expected.  In both parks I found a black bird with a little red under the tail feathers.  The first one I didn't get a good look at and the photo wasn't much to look at so I figured I'd look it up later.  I thought it was likely just a grackle in odd morning light.  WhenI got to White Oak Park, I birded near the bridge looking for Cave but only found, again, Barn Swallows.  I did, however, add Neotropic Cormorant to the year list.

As time was running out and I had to head to the ball park, I was looking at a couple of Kingbirds, listening to their call, hoping to hear Tropical Kingbird, but it was a Western.  However, on the tree right to it, was this big black bird with the red under the tail.  There were no birds in my iBird App that matched in a a Texas search.  Sue suggested that it looked like a vented-"something" so I looked up "vented" birds, and it was a perfect match for a Red-vented Bulbul.  A Hawaiian bird.

However after doing some research and sharing the photo with Susan Billetdeaux from TX RBA, she confirmed that Red-vented Bulbuls are countable in the Houston area as an Established Exotic, just as the Red-whiskered Bulbul is countable in south Florida, say.  But whereas the Red-whiskered Bulbul is on the ABA List, the Red-vented Bulbul has yet to be added.  So a Life bird,(929) and Year bird, but not an addition to my ABA List.

Day three in the Houston area saw me head to David Estates Road Estuary.  A lovely body of water directly across from a garbage dump.  Somewhere near by there were, you guessed it, Cave Swallows reported on e-Bird.  But first, the estuary.  When I got out of the car and saw the water and all the wading birds stretched out before me, on a perfect morning, it made me remember why I love birding.  The view is why I bird.  The places I end up, after driving into the middle of nowhere, trusting e-Bird and GPS directions. It was as close to a Zen moment as I ever get to.  Just me and the birds and, well the cows and cow pies.  And a cat.  Oddly, no bunnies.

I did avoid walking in enough cow pies to spot some Fulvous Whistling Ducks to add to the year list, and then headed back to the bridge where, once again, it was all Cliff Swallows.  I was bound and determined to get Cave Swallows this trip, the final day in the Houston area saw me head out of town to Galveston, in search of both Cave Swallows and a Gull-billed Tern.

This time I got my zip car closer to the ballpark so I could just walk to work after dropping it off.  The drive to Galveston was pretty nice and  on the road to Galveston there is a series of parallel bridges along Red Bluff Rd in Pasadena, and there, at Big Island Slough, I finally found my Cave Swallows.  About a dozen of them flying back and forth across the 2 lane divided highway and under the bridges.  Took a while to confirm they actually were Cave Swallows for a change and even longer to actually get photos.

From there I headed into Galveston and to  8 Mile Rad, which I didn't measure to confirm the distance, in search of a Gull-billed Tern.  Lots of shore birds, herons, one flying and diving tern I had to get a photograph of to identify.  I had hoped I had my Gull-billed Tern, but it turned out to be a Least Tern.  I was running out of time so drove round the different waterways hoping to find my target tern.  No luck but I did find Common Nighthawks lined up on the wires like so many pigeons.  But no Gull-billed Tern.

After that it was off to Kansas City with very limited time to go birding.  I did bird around the river along Ward Parkway downtown, and the Gorman Discovery Center where they have lots of natural gardens and feeders to attract a nice variety of birds.  The only park I had time to get to on Saturday morning was Legacy park about half an hour from downtown Kansas City, but alas I was unable to add any new year birds.

So I head home to Toronto for the next 7 days, with 371 for the year and a trip to the West Perth Wetlands,(really a sewage lagoon), planned for next Thursday, which is my only day off this coming homestead.  West Perth Wetlands is where I saw my first Hudsonian Godwit during my 2012 Big Year.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Dog Days of Birding in Toronto

This week in Big Year Birding:

In August of 2012, in the heat of summer and with nowhere enough water, in Orlando, I set out on a 4 miles hike to find a Fork-tailed Flycatcher.  Not only was I limited to very small sips of water, but my old hiking shoes were giving me severe blisters.  I barely made it out of there on two feet.  You can read about it here:


Back to the present:

Late summer birding in Toronto is, well, not that exciting.  There are, to be fair, lots of cute baby birds around, including young Black-crowned Night Heron at James Gardens and the cutest little baby Cedar Waxing I found at Col. Sam Smith Park.

This time of year in Toronto your best bet is to check out areas where migrating shore birds tend to show up.  One of those spots is Ratray Marsh in Mississauga.  I had, for some reason, not seen a Lesser Yellowlegs this year, so off I went and it was the first bird I saw there.

There we're a few other shorebirds present...

Sue came along on my second visit and found this Semipalmated Plover:

and as fall migration heats up, even more shorebirds will follow, such as Buff-breasted  Sandpipers, Red-necked Phalaropes, Pectoral Sandpipers and maybe even a Hudsonian Godwit.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Mountain Birding Part II: The Sierras

Starting in California with the High Sierras and moving on to Sierra Vista in Arizona this has been one of the trips I've been looking forward to all year.  And with Thursday in California and Monday in Arizona official Off Days I was able to rent cars and explore further afield.

So, starting on Monday morning I headed out from San Francisco up highway 80 toward Bassett and Bassetts Station, a combination hotel, restaurant, gernaral store and Hummingbird Feeding Station.  Why not?  I was after a Calliope Hummingbirds, and, naturally, the first bird I saw was an American Robin.  I found the feeders and about a dozen Rufous and Anna's Hummingbirds were coming to the feeders but no Calliope.  Since it sometimes takes about 20 minutes between feedings, I decided to hike up the hillside extending from the station and, more robins.  But then on my way down to the feeders, something scuttled in the brush.  Then it called, then I saw a flash and it flew into a tree.  I didn't see it again until it flew back across the river, but about 5 minutes later I found a Mountain Quail.

I headed back down to the feeders and within a few minutes a Calliope showed up, particularity easy to pick out next to the "regular" sized hummingbirds.  3 new species for the year and I was off to the SFSU Sierra Nevada Field Campus, in hopes of finding an American Dipper and Cassin's Finch,(a lifer).  There is a little bridge at the campus and there I should have found the dipper.  However, though it had been seen in the morning, I was not to find it.  However, over the 90 plus minutes I was there I did find the Cassin's Finch, ABA 648 for me.  I talked to some interesting people there who are spending the summer studying butterflies and insects, but, interestingly, not birds.  Though I missed the dipper I did add a Golden Eagle, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Hermit Warbler, and Evening Grosbeak to the year list.

I had a lot of places I could have stopped at along the loop up 80 to 49 and across to to 89 and back down to 80, and had I spent limited time at each stop, I might have had a chance to visit all of them.   Trouble was, I was enjoying each spot so much I lost track of time, and by the time I got to the Yuba Pass it was getting late in the day.  The drive was spectacular too, with stunning views that threatened to have me drive off the road.  Luckily, unlike some of California's mountain roads, there were not shear drop offs to scare the wits out of me as I drove.

Up at the campgrounds of the Yuba Pass I added a Dusky Flycatcher to the year list, but nothing more as I made my way back down the mountains to San Francisco.  The next morning I was up bright and early to go for a half day of birding with Eddie and Noreen of NatureTrip.  We started at Fort Mason and found several female and young Hooded Warblers and a visiting Summer Tanager, who was hanging out near a Western Tanager, likely the same one we saw earlier in the year.  Our next stop took us to Cliff House where I added a Western Grebe.  I wanted to find a Tricolored Blackbird, so Eddie drove us to Lake Merced, where we found one amongst the dozens of Red-winged Blackbirds, and I was able to get a nice photo.  We finished at Edgewood Park with an lots of Oak Titmouse.  Titmice?  Titmouses?

The next evening I went to the Hayward Regional Shoreline, where in the fall thousands of shorebirds show up and this past week a Red-necked Stint was on show.  I went on the off chance it would still be there, as it hadn't been reported in a couple of days, and I found even more birders looking for it than the 20 or so American Avocets that were also there.  Along the way I counted a Black-necked Stilt and Long-billed Curlew for the year list, but when I left just before dusk, no stint had been seen.

The next day I flew to Phoenix, Arizona and drove down to Sierra Vista, where the next morning I met Matt Brown for a full day of birding around Cochise County.  We started at Pinery Canyon, which  is up a winding canyon road with not so many severe dropoffs, where there were I was able to add 11 Year birds, including Red-faced and Grace's Warbler, a Dusky-capped Flycatcher and a Magnificent Hummingbird that litterally looked me in the eye.  If you've seen the movie The Big Year, there is a scene that looks too good to be true when a Xantu's Hummingbird hovers about 2 feet in front of Steve Martin's nose.  I can tell you now that I have now had a hummingbird hover 2 feet in front of my nose.  So there!

We next took a drive out to Ramsey Canyon where the hope was to see one or both of a Flame-colored Tanager and Tufted Flycatcher.  But to get to them, a two mile hike was required.  Sounds easy enough, and the first quarter mile seems easy enough.  It's the next half mile that really does you in.  It's not that far in terms of linear distance but it rises 1000 feet above sea level over that half mile and you're already at altitude.  And it was hot, and forget about what they say about dry heat, it was humid too.  I had to stop every couple of hundred yards to catch my breath.  Still we made it to the peak in just over an hour and when I got to the top and saw the few I was embarrassed about how much I complained that I wasn't going to make it and was on the verge of death.

We spent an hour or so in vain down in the valley looking for the flycatcher but did hear Spotted Owl, saw and heard lots of Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers and were heading back down by 4:15 to try to get to the parking lot before 5pm so that we didn't get locked in when they closed the gate, as we wanted to get to Ash Canyon Bed and Breakfast by dusk for the Lucifer Hummingbird.  Just be we headed down from the peak, Matt's phone rang and he took the call.  Since it was gettting late I continued on down, so I could at least get to the car on time.  But as I went, it seemed Matt was taking a long time on that call.  I began to wonder so, I turned back, but Matt was right behind me saying, breathklessly, "I just got the best view of the Flame-colored Tanager.  I thought he was joking,  but no, he really had.  So he took the car keys and headed down the mountain as I turned back.  It was just as hard going back up as the first time, except I was already exhausted.  But I wasn't going to let the fear of a heart attack in the mountains stop me from getting that bird.

As I closed in on the overlook, I heard a bird.  I listed to the Flame-colored Tanager call on phone and knew I was hearing it.  I found it atop a tree just as it flew off.  I found it again and got my photos.  New year bird and ABA Lifer 649!

We finished the day at Mary-joe's Ash Canyon Bed and Breakfast where we pulled up chairs with about 20 other birders and within 10 minutes got great looks at the Lucifer Hummingbird, along with 3 other year birds for my list.  On my way back to Phoenix I was able to add 3 more including a Swanson's Hawk.  As Matt was driving us to Ramsey Canyon I was taking a nap and missed a couple the previous day.

And no trip to Phoenix is complete without a visit to Encanto Park, where the Rosy-faced Lovebirds hang out.  On my last morning in Arizona I took an Uber to the park and it didn't take long to spot these cute little love birds.  I spent a hate Yearlf hour enjoying them along with adding a Gila Woodpecker to the Year List to give me 365 species in the first six and a half months of the year, only birding where I travel with the Blue Jays.

Next stop: Houston, Texas!

Calliope Hummingbird, the little one in front:

Golden Eagle:

Cassie's Finch:

Tricolored Blackbird:

Long-billed Curlew:

Flame-colored Tanager:

Lucifer Hummingbird:

Swansen's Hawk:

Cassin's Sparrow:

Rosy-faced Lovebirds:

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Bakus Woods, Downsview Park and Fledgling Blackbirds

I'm right now in the midst of one of my longest stretches in the Toronto area.  I have been birding every day and have e-Birded every day, but trying to add new species this time of year in southern Ontario is tough, unless you've missed a couple of spring warblers that breed here.  For me, that would be the Hooded and Cerulean Warblers.  But there is a place to go for them about 2 hours east of Toronto, called Bakus Woods.  South of Woodstock and north of Long Point Provincial Park, this mosquito infested woodland is one of the few breeding grounds of the Cerulean Warbler, which is listed as a vulnerable species, with population declines as much as 26% every 10 years since 1980.  I've been lucky to see these birds in Toronto during migration, in Michigan at the Cerulean Warbler Weekend and 2 years ago in Bakus Woods.

I also missed seeing Hooded Warblers this year.  Usually in March at Fort DeSoto Park in St Petersburg, Florida I will see dozens of them carpeting the lawns, along with Black-and-white Warblers.  This year, though I was there for Avocet Day, I missed Hooded Warbler Day.  So, off to Bakus Woods I drove early one morning last week.  I forgot bug spray.  I started at the south end of the woods, where once Wild Turkeys had been released, and started walking north, listening for Hooded Warblers.  The bugs and Mosquitos were attacking me from all angles.  It was horrid.  I made it up to the 4th connsession road but did not want to go further without bug spray so turned and high tailed it back to the car.  No Hooded Warblers, but an Indigo Bunting and Rose-breasted Grosbeak were nice to see.

I drove around to the north entrance to the woods and parked and started to walk.  Thought I heard a Hooded Warbler but the bugs were killing me again so I jumped back in the car, searched the GPS for a gas station, found the Busy Bee 3 minutes away and drove right over hoping they had bug spray, and I needed gas anyway to get back to the city.  It was like going back in time.  The gas pumps were from the 1970's along with an old fashioned General Store.  I got gas and bug spray and returned to Bakus Woods.

With all this running around I only had an hour left to listen for and maybe find the warblers in the parts of the trail I discovered them a couple of years ago.  So, I sprayed copious amounts of Deep Woods OFF and re-entered the woods.  The OFF worked!  It was as though the woods were devoid of bugs.  I'm sure they were there, they were just leaving me alone.  I walked and listened but aside from a drumming Piliated Woodpecker, the woods were quiet.  I was out of time and headed back to the car, but as I was about to exit the woods, I heard and saw flitting around, high in the canopy a single Hooded Warbler, species 324 for the year.

My other discovery for the week was Downsview Park.  In the heart of Suburban Toronto, it was at one time supposed to be an urban forest.  That never panned out and up until recently, other than a paved trail there wasn't much in the way of nature paths.  That has changed.  I hadn't been there in a couple of years, but now there are plenty of trail leading off into the woods and tall grass and plenty of birds to be seen.

Two of the interesting sightings were a baby Spotted Sandpiper and lots of fledgling Red-winged Blackbirds.  In over 4 years of birding I had not knowingly seen one.  They look similar to the females but are very yellow under the chin and about half the size of the adults.

Fledgling Red-winged Blackbirds:

Fledgling Spotted Sandpiper:

Some of the new trails at Downsview Park:

Punk Belted Kingfisher at Col. Sam: