Sunday, November 24, 2013

Another Fort Erie mega-rarity

On November 23rd, the University of Guelph Wildlife Club headed down to the Niagara River for some end of fall bird action. The Niagara River is an incredible magnet for waterbirds in fall. In just the past few years, a very impressive list of rarities of shown up, including Razorbill, American White Pelican, Slaty-backed among a host of other gulls, Black Vulture, Fish Crow, Brown Booby and most recently the rarest of all - an Elegant Tern.

Elegant Tern is a species of the Pacific Coast from California to South America, and is an even more unlikely bird than the Brown Booby that appeared just a couple of kilometres away in October. Our first stop of the day was not a hard decision, and within five minutes of arriving, the Elegant Tern was visible sitting on its typical pier across the river in Buffalo.

The tern really isn't identifiable in this photo, but you can barely see the black nape, long orange bill and slightly larger size compared to the Bonaparte's Gull on the left. 

Looks were really very poor as it sat on the pier, but it flew around in the mass of Bonaparte's Gulls just off the tip of the pier for a bit, and allowed very satisfying looks. It never crossed into Canadian waters while we were there, but has been seen to enter Canada on several occasions by other observers.

None of our group spotted the Franklin's Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake or Red-throated Loon seen nearby over the course of the day, but several late Common Terns were nearby allowing comparisons with the Elegant, and a trip a bit upriver resulted in an impressive spectacle of ducks - mainly Red-breasted Mergansers and more Buffleheads than I've ever seen in one spot before, with small numbers of Long-tailed Duck and Common Goldeneye.

 A tiny fraction of the duck flocks

From Fort Erie we headed downriver to Niagara Falls - the gull capital of Ontario! Large numbers of Bonaparte's Gulls were present along the way, but no matter how many we looked at we could not pick out any of the other species of small gull sometimes present - primarily Little, Franklin's, Black-headed or Sabine's Gull or Black-legged Kittiwake.

At the control gates above the falls, large numbers of large gulls (Larus sp.) gather on the exposed rocks and concrete. Among the huge numbers of Herring and moderate numbers of Ring-billed Gulls we were able to pick out a number of interesting finds - about 20 Great Black-backed, 4 Lesser Black-backed, 2 Glaucous, 1 Thayer's, 2 Kumlien's Iceland, and 1 probable Lesser Black-backed x Herring hybrid.

 Kumlien's Iceland Gull with Herring Gull. Note the smaller bill, rounder head and very limited grey on the wingtips of the Kumlien's. It seems likely that Kumlien's is a stable hybrid population between the Iceland Gull proper of Greenland and Thayer's Gull of the western arctic, with all three species possibly best treated as conspecific. That decision is for better birders and scientists than I, but I can still enjoy the variety of gulls as they come south in winter.

There was some excitement here among some more experienced "gullers" with a bird showing many features of Yellow-legged Gull - resident in Southern Europe and the Canaries and Azores islands of the North Atlantic. It is a regular occurance in Newfoundland, but has never been seen in Ontario. The identification is still extremely unclear, although it doesn't seem quite right for a Yellow-legged. Josh Vandermeulen has a write-up on the bird here.

The rest of the afternoon was slow to say the least. Adam Beck, normally a mecca for Herring Gulls, was dominated by Bonaparte's Gulls, and the only other species present were Ring-billed, Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls and a single immature Lesser Black-backed.

Similarly, the flypast at Niagara-on-the-lake, where large number of Bonaparte's Gulls with other species mixed in typically leave the river to roost on the lake overnight, was a complete bust due to the strong northerly winds. Ring-billed Gulls were being blown backwards as they attempted to enter the lake!

In the end, no day with a bird as rare as Elegant Tern is bad, and I was very happy to get great close looks at adult Kumlien's and Thayer's Gulls and to see the always impressive gatherings of ducks and gulls.

I'm very busy with school right now, which explain the sparse posts, but hopefully I'll be able to get out a bit more next week and especially in mid-December onwards. To finish off, here's a shot of what will likely be my last herp of the year (unless I spend time flipping logs for Red-backed Salamanders), an Eastern Garter Snake in the University of Guelph Arboretum on the rather late date of November 15.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A few local waterfowl

There's not much birding you can do in November in Guelph in an hour or two, so I've had to take what I can get. There's still always something to see, and I've been making the most of the opportunities I have.

Whenever the weather's been right I've been taking a bit of time to hawkwatch from campus. There is no lakeshore or ridge to concentrate birds here, so it's usually a bust, but every once in a while conditions are right and raptors will stream by for a few hours. This fall I've seen every local raptor except Peregrine Falcon and Golden Eagle here, with some very good days (e.g. 700+ Broad-winged Hawks on September 16, 1 Northern Goshawk, 5 Red-shouldered Hawk, 2 Rough-legged Hawk and 3 Sandhill Crane on October 28). Still, most days this isn't even worth trying, so if I want to spend a hour or two looking at birds, I can either go wander through the woods and fields in search of late migrants or interesting over-wintering birds, or I can head to the local fishing ponds and baseball diamonds.

This spot in Guelph (called the "correctional ponds" by birders due to the former prison here) is rather unassuming but is actually a great spot to spend a little time seeing what waterbirds have dropped in. This year, the first sight I see when I arrive is this:

Due to high water levels this year, the baseball diamonds have been largely under shallow water and unmaintained. I've seen some interesting birds in this rather surprising location this year including Caspian Tern, Wilson's Snipe and Greater Yellowlegs in April, Savannah Sparrow in June and Dunlin in November, and the latest addition came today in the form of these lovely visitors from the arctic:

A Snow Goose was seen at Riverside Park in the north end of Guelph at the end of the October, and then on November 11th what seems to be the same bird was refound at these ponds. Despite visits on the 9th, 11th and 13th I never managed to be here at the same time as the bird, but finally today I made the short bus trip again to see not one but two Snow Geese in the flooded field among over 400 Canada Goose. Hopefully these geese stick the winter in the city somewhere, like Greater White-fronted and Cackling Goose have recently.

Also present recently was this goose: 

"Y3J1" has been visiting Guelph each winter since at least 2011. A local birder sent in his information and came back with some somewhat surprising information - he was banded in August 2002 on Akimiski Island, Nunavut. At the time he was already an adult, so is at least 12 years old. That neck band sure looks uncomfortable, but the fact that this goose has survived so long, presumably shuttling back and forth from James Bay to Guelph twice a year, shows that it probably has minimal effect.

A few other waterfowl are also present at the Correctional Ponds. This male Wood Duck has been swimming with the local mallards since at least October 27.

 The permanent ponds here are stocked with fish, and so are very attractive to loons, grebes, terns, Osprey, and in particular mergansers. Common Mergansers are usually present, sometimes as many as 80, and smaller numbers of Hooded Mergansers often join them.

These males were getting an early start on their bizarre courtship rituals. 

They aren't anything rare, and it's nothing compared to what I'd be seeing along Lake Ontario right now, but there's always something to see, and I'm certainly not disappointed.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

My Patch: Erindale/Riverwood/UTM

It's been pretty slow going for a while. I was sick for about a week, haven't had much time to go outside otherwise, and have seen very little when I have. In the interest of keeping some content on this blog, I thought I'd post something I've been wanting to for a while.

Where can you see Boreal Chickadee AND Prothonotary Warbler in the Greater Toronto Area? The best answer is probably nowhere, but there is only one spot where both species have been reported to eBird, and that spot is what I'd like to write a bit about today.

For birders, a patch is a small area you bird frequently and regularly, and is often your go-to location for a few hours of birding. My patch is a block of natural habitat in Mississauga consisting of Riverwood Park, Erindale Park and the University of Toronto's Mississauga Campus. This area along the Credit River forms the largest and most biodiverse natural area in Mississauga.

This map shows the approximate boundaries of my patch. The three markers represent particularly attractive features - a storm-water pond (blue) which provides some of the only (limited) water habitat in the area, a toboggan hill (yellow) that provides a near-panoramic view of the surroundings, perfect for hawk-watching, and bird feeders (red) that entice a variety of birds to stay the winter.

I lived adjacent to this area for all of high school and still visit regularly when I am in Mississauga. I've submitted 439 eBird checklists between the components of this area, and have probably birded it close to 600 times in total. It's safe to say that I have a fairly good handle on how birds use the area.

Several large bridges pass over the valley. This is Burnhamthorpe Rd, and this bridge does not support any nesting birds, but other bridges have nesting Cliff, Bank and Northern Rough-winged Swallows, Eastern Phoebes, Rock Pigeons, European Starlings and House Sparrows.

I've found exactly 170 species of birds here, which is very good for an area with no significant habitat for waterbirds (I've had only 9 species of waterfowl and 6 species of shorebird). The only locations around Toronto on eBird with a comparable diversity that aren't directly on Lake Ontario or have other major wetland habitats are Bronte Creek Provincial Park in Oakville and Kortright Conservation Area in Vaughan. Still, there is probably more to be found, as this area is rarely birded by anybody besides myself.

I have little doubt that there are more species of birds breeding here than anywhere else in Mississauga. Particularly notable species I've found here on territory include Mourning Warbler, Pine Warbler, Yellow-throated Vireo, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Orchard Oriole, Cliff Swallow, Bank Swallow and Wood Thrush.

Winter is great too, especially due to bird feeders enticing birds to stay and the river valley providing shelter for some of our less hardy birds. Hoary Redpoll, Swamp Sparrow, Common Yellowthroat, Long-eared Owl, Barred Owl, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Bluebird, Bald Eagle and White-winged Crossbill are some of the more interesting birds I've had in midwinter. Song Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows and Winter Wrens, all of which have the bulk of their wintering grounds to the south of here can be reasonably common in winter. I've had as many as 5, 17 and 9 respectively spending the winter (and that's only the ones I actually found).

Long-eared Owl in Erindale Park

Migration is still the time to visit, as with most birding spots. Some of my most notable sightings:

Prothonotary Warbler - male singing on June 6, 2013. There are less than 10 records of this species on eBird from the GTA, and none from the summer. I thought this bird might be on territory, but it was not seen again by anybody, and may have been a very late migrant.

Boreal Chickadee - in the fall of 2010 this species, not normally found any closer than Algonquin Park, made  a major incursion into Southern Ontario. My sighting on October 21 was one of the southern-most individuals.

American Bittern - not an incredibly rare bird, but the fact that it was perched in a bush in the middle of a dry field is notable! They are normally denizens of dense marshes.

Golden Eagle - I've had Golden Eagle here twice. On 28 November 2010 I had one fly over. More notably, in mid-May of either 2008 or 2009 (I unfortunately never wrote down the date) I had a juvenile Golden Eagle fly over in Erindale Park. This is not unheard of, but still rather late for this species.

Short-eared Owl - October 7, 2009

Golden-winged Warbler - twice in May

Brewster's Warbler - twice in May

There are still some holes in my patch list that should be fillable, including species like Snow Bunting, Hooded Warbler, Northern Goshawk, Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, Lesser Yellowlegs and Cackling Goose. There is nothing really expected I haven't seen though.

This list may make it seem like an extremely good birding spot, but really it's just the result of birding a moderately good area so frequently. I would highly recommend getting very familiar with one area, it makes for really satisfying birding.