Saturday, May 30, 2015

April Waterbirds

I'm continuing to try and catch up various sightings and photos from the last month and a half, so expect more short themed posts in the near future.

Although most of our migratory birds come through in May, waterfowl are earlier migrants, generally reaching peak numbers in mid to late March. Things were a bit later this year with the very cold spring, and so I have a a few photos from April to share.

Harlequin Ducks show up on Lake Ontario each winter in very small numbers. Unlike most diving ducks, they are often seen standing on shore, allowing excellent views. Harlequins prefer very turbulent water - mountain streams in summer and rocky coastlines in winter.

The strangest sighting on a trip to Long Point was this dead Common Loon wedged in the middle of a big tree. You can see it towards the top in the picture below. I don't have any good explanation for this!

On the way back from that trip to Long Point we stopped at the Townsend Sewage Lagoons where Todd spotted this male Eurasian Wigeon (the bird with a grey body and reddish head in the middle). Not a common bird in our area so the fact that I saw three different birds this spring is fantastic.

Although immature birds can be quite tame, it's rare that I can get close to an adult Great Blue Heron. This bird however was quite cooperative. The black plumes and white crown indicate an adult bird.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Beach Plovers

The last few days have seen a number of reports of rare plovers from Hanlan's Point Beach on the Toronto Islands, including up to 4 Piping Plovers, a very rare Wilson's Plover and a Snowy Plover that was only present very briefly. This morning was my first chance to head down.

The Wilson's Plover was extremely cooperative as it rested and fed well back from the water on the beach. The long heavy bill on a small plover is the most distinctive feature of this species. Wilson's Plover was a lifer for me, and is only about the 7th record for Ontario.

Three to four Piping Plovers have been present here for almost a week, and at least one pair is attempting to nest, an excellent sign for this endangered species. There are no more than about 100 nesting pairs in the Great Lakes population of Piping Plover.

A variety of more common shorebirds were present, both migrant species (Whimbrel, Dunlin, Semipalmated Plover and Semipalmated Sandpiper) and our two common nesters (Killdeer and Spotted Sandpiper).

One Spotted Sandpiper flushed out of a dense grassy area, and as I expected I easily found a nest with eggs. Sex roles are reversed in this species, meaning that the bird incubating was likely a male.

One bird was loudly proclaiming its displeasure at our presence from the airport fence. Many shorebirds will use high perches in the breeding season, very different from their behaviour in migration and winter.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Downy Woodpecker feeding on Cecropia Moth pupae

On April 28 I was walking in Mississauga when I noticed a female Downy Woodpecker pecking away at a Cecropia Moth cocoon. Cecropias are these giant moths that emerge as adults in early summer.

I watched her for a while as she finished up with that cocoon and then moved onto another. I was never able to see what she was actually getting, but I assume she was getting pieces of the moth pupae, or possibly other insect larvae that had parasitised them. Anyways, a quick video is below.

Even after the woodpecker had shown me where the cocoons were, I had an extremely hard time spotting them. Presumably a combination of evolution and experience has allowed this woodpecker to be incredibly good at spotting this sort of thing, in much the same way that we are incredibly good at recognizing faces.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Rodents in Spring

Rodents often seem to be a neglected group of wildlife, which is too bad as they are very fascinating creatures with a wide diversity of life styles. Many of the species are unfortunately small and nocturnal and thus hard to observe, but occasionally you will get good looks, and a few popular species are larger and may be active in the day.

Groundhogs have done well with human habitation. I could have obtained a "natural" shot here but I like to show context, in this case a groundhog living metres away from a busy road. Groundhogs are a kind of marmot, but are not restricted to mountainous areas like most of their relatives.

I rarely get good views of Porcupines as they are rare in Algonquin Park, likely due to prevalence of Fishers for which they are a favoured food. This may have been the normal state of affairs before Fishers were eliminated from much of their range.

Deer Mice are likely our most abundant mammal but out rarely seen except when they enter houses. They will go through large boom-and-bust cycles based on the availability of food, and a high point in Algonquin Park last year resulted in an amazing diversity and frequency of owl sightings. This baby Deer Mouse was on of several found nesting under a board on the dunes of Rondeau.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Rare Birds

During my time at Rondeau I took very few bird photos, and most of them were of rare, or at least uncommon, birds. What follows is some of those rarer birds, and the accompanying stories.

Yellow-headed Blackbirds are very rare in Southern Ontario, but small colonies occur on and off around Lake St. Clair. This year I finally decided to take the drive to see them, and while I missed the reported American White Pelicans, I was happy to see (and poorly photograph) several male blackbirds singing their bizarre song from the reeds.

Grasshopper Sparrow is a common breeding bird in parts of Ontario, but is generally quite hard to find in migration. As a result, I was quite pleased to find this individual feeding on the edge of a trail. Normally they stay low in dense grass and are nearly impossible to see.

Rondeau is probably the best place in Canada to see Prothonotary Warblers, and this was an excellent year for them. I saw at least six, including a female and the two males fighting over her that were incredibly reliable every day on Tulip Tree Trail. By the time I left, one male may have moved on but the remaining pair was regularly seen mating and nest building.

Females are much duller than the males (above)

The bird of the spring for Rondeau was this Kirtland's Warbler discovered on May 11. I was birding with Mike Irwin near the group campground when we found about it, and we raced over and saw it with five minutes to spare before it disappeared for good! Well, not quite for good, as it was seen by a few people at the same location on the evening of May 15th, somehow having eluded detection for the intervening time. I'm very lucky that I made it in time for the first sighting, as many local birders missed it entirely. Although Kirtland's is an annual sight at Point Pelee, it goes unrecorded most years at Rondeau, likely an artifact of the much lower birding effort.

Kirtland's Warbler is an incredibly rare bird on a global level, with only 2000 known singing males in 2012, and nesting restricted almost entirely to a small area of Michigan. Kirtland's require forest fires to create their nesting habitat and as a result have seriously declined.

American Avocet is a large and gorgeous shorebird from the prairies and southern United States. This bird showed up in the bizarre habitat of a flooded construction site on the outskirts of Leamington, Ontario, and was a lifer for me.

On the same day I had my lifer Avocet above at Pelee, I also saw my lifer Glossy Ibis there. As it turns out, I needn't have looked for it, as I found some myself just two days later!

I was leading a tour group around the Blenheim Sewage Lagoons, and we were just checking the final pond. I did a thorough scan, not noticing anything too unexpected, and then started putting the scope on each species to point them out.

An extremely late Tundra Swan has been spending its spring here, and as I got it in the scope I noticed an odd dark reddish bird sitting next to it on the bank. It was clearly an ibis! We watched it for 10 or 15 minutes, before suddenly somebody pointed out there were actually two birds present, both moving in and out of the vegetation.

It took a while but we eventually got good enough looks at the face to confirm Glossy Ibis rather than the almost identical White-faced. Not long after, the two birds flew off.

Glossy Ibis is a very rare bird in Ontario, but this spring has seen a large number of sightings, with at least five different sightings of one or two birds around Southern Ontario. You can see one ibis on top of the bank in the first shot below and two in the second. Also note the confused Tundra Swan.

More to come!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Hybrid Warblers - Chestnut-sided x Magnolia and others

I just got back from an amazing 19 days spent in and around Rondeau Provincial Park leading guided hikes and generally birding like crazy. Expect a number of posts in the near future as I try to catch up.

My most interesting bird of the trip was in late morning on May 13, when I was birding a strip of road that was quite busy with migrant warblers. I spotted one bird that on first glance made me think Chestnut-sided, but it quickly became clear that it wasn't one.

I followed this individual for quite some time, and managed to get quite a few photos. You'll notice that it seem to be looking at me in many photos, as I had to pish it in to get clear views in the dense bushes. Here are all the photos I got that I think show some useful angle different than the rest:

This bird, although looking quite like a Chesnut-sided in some ways (and behaving, in that it kept its tail cocked up most of the time), is clearly not right for even an aberrant individual of that or any other warbler species.

Obviously a hybrid, but what is the other parent? My best guess is Magnolia - the tail pattern, yellow wash on underside, green and black back and white wing panel seem consistent with that species.

This bird is extremely similar to a bird banded at Long Point last year, although with a few fairly minor differences. This bird was confirmed to have a Chestnut-sided Warbler as a mother, and the father was thought to be almost certainly a Magnolia Warbler. A very odd combination that doesn't seem to have been previously recorded. I suspect that mine and the Long Point birds were born in the same nest.

While doing some research I realised that there are a lot more photos of bizarre warbler hybrids out there than I'd expected. I ended up spending a couple of hours compiling every photo I could find, as many of the photos were quite isolated and I thought others might appreciate seeing them.

Below is a list of every photo I could find of North American warbler hybrids. I didn't include a few combinations that are very well stuidied (Audubon's x Myrtle, Blue-winged x Golden-winged, Townsend's x Hermit, and MacGillivray's  x Mourning), but otherwise I think it is reasonably comprehensive in terms of online photos. No doubt there are more I missed though so please let me know if you find any. This is by no no means comprehensive overall given how many hybrids have been recorded that exist only as specimens or descriptions.

Note that most of the combinations are only presumed, as only a few have been either been tested genetically or have known parentage.

Without further ado, and in no particular order, here's the list:

Townsend's x Audubon's Yellow-rumped

Townsend's x Myrtle Yellow-rumped Warbler, Another

Townsend's x Black-throated Green

Townsend's x Black-throated Gray (from Toronto!)

Myrtle Yellow-rumped x Black-and-white (in captivity)

Yellow-rumped? x ?

Black-and-White x ? (tons of pictures and sound recordings)

Magnolia x Black-throated Blue (sound recording only, pictures apparently exist but don't seem to be online)

Yellow-rumped x Northern Parula (PDF warning; black-and-white photos of a specimen but I'm including it for completion's sake)

Cerulean x Black-and-white (ditto the above link on both PDF and poor photos)

Northern Parula x Cerulean, photo 2, a different bird

Northern Parula x American Redstart, photo 2, photo 3 (I couldn't find any commentary on this bird; it doesn't seem to show many Redstart features)

Northern Parula x Yellow-throated Warbler

Bay-breasted x Blackpoll, photo 2 (looks weird but I don't have a better suggestion)

Bay-breasted x Blackpoll (spring female)

Connecticut x Mourning (Unfortunately, although this bird seems to have been well studied, all this information is locked behind a paywall on ABA's website. If any ABA members read this, the information is in the November/December 2013 issue, and I will edit this post if you let me know what it says)

MacGillivray's x Common Yellowthroat, another bird (very different and both really cool looking!)

Yellow x Common Yellowthroat

Prairie x Blue-winged (another really cool one)

Mourning x Kentucky, more info

Canada? x ?

Cape May x Townsends (Apparently there is a photo on page 192 of this issue of North American Birds. Unfortunately it is behind a paywall and I can't see it. There seem to be a few hybrids hidden in these publications over the years)

edit: I've recieved a few more photos and am adding them here:

Mystery Bird

Kentucky x Blue-winged (specimen)