Thursday, December 26, 2013

Early Winter Mammals (and Ice)

It is certainly proving to be an interesting winter weatherwise. A huge ice storm passed through Ontario on December 21-22, with most trees losing at least some branches in many areas.

 Before the ice hit, the Credit River was full of floating chunks of ice, clogging the river in places.

Late Sunday morning we heard a crash outside, and looked to find that a huge branch had fallen on my parents' driveway, damaging the roof and taking out the power lines. The power still hasn't been restored five days later.

This is probably the branch whose loss I'll feel most keenly: I've seen over a dozen species of warbler in it over the years.

Despite the damage, the ice is really a beautiful sight, especially when the sun shines through it.

Over the past month I've had a few really nice close encounters with mammals. Last week I followed the sound of some agitated chickadees to find this Eastern Coyote. It was on a steep snowy slope above me, not in a tree as it appears from the photo.

I don't see coyotes very often (this is my fourth or fifth decent look), so it definitely provided some excitement.

At the very end of November I came across a muskrat acting very strangely along the Credit River in Mississauga. It was staying very close to me, and was making circuits where it would go a bit downriver and then come back upriver, never going right past me. I'm not really sure what was going on, but here's a couple clips of what it was doing.

To round up this post, here's one of three raccoons I found curled up near each other on a very cold day.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Snow and SNOW

The last few days have seen continuing cold temperatures and a sizable dump of snow. The snow fell largely during the South Peel Christmas Bird Count, seriously impacting the number of birds seen. Most birds were at feeders or huddling in dense bushes like this robin.

The local Mallard flock has swollen to nearly 100 birds in the past few days as ice covers parts of the river, including this male American Black Duck x Mallard hybrid.

My group walked for about 7 hours on the bird count. Normally I'd go for longer, but the heavy snow made driving undesirable. Still, we found some nice birds in the snow, including 2 Pileated Woodpecker, 1 Belted Kingfisher and Swamp, Song and White-throated Sparrows.

A few days later, I took much of the day to stop at a variety of locations along Lake Ontario in Mississauga and eastern Oakville.

The first birds I saw on my first stop of the day were a small flock of Common Goldeneye close to shore. It was immediately apparent that one of the birds was a bit different, with an almost entirely orange-yellow bill.

This bill colour is an indication of Barrow's Goldeneye, a rare bird here, but head and bill shape show that this is a Common Goldeneye with a yellow bill - a rare variant that I've seen a couple of times before.

My main goal for the day was Snowy Owls, and I stopped at a number of parks to scan piers, marinas and floating ice for owl-shaped lumps. My first success was of a very heavily marked Snowy Owl sitting on some piled up ice way out in Lake Ontario.

I could tell (barely) that it was a Snowy Owl, but needless to say I wasn't quite satisfied yet.

At my very next stop as I scanned the ice I noticed another Snowy Owl flying around out over the lake. I watched it for about two minutes as it moved eastward, circled a few times and was harassed by gulls before disappearing into the shimmer on the horizon.

My Snowy Owl adventures for the day weren't over yet though - I scanned a large pier in the early afternoon to see not one but two Snowy Owls sitting in plain view!

Again, looks were far from ideal but by this point I didn't care. Four Snowy Owls in a day is incredible, considering some winters go by without any being seen in Mississauga. Before this day I'd seen 5 Snowy Owls, and only 3 before this December!

For those who aren't familiar with it, SNOW is the bander's code (shorthand for quickly recording bird species) for Snowy Owl, hence the title.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Quick Birding Break

I've been very busy in the past week with 4 exams, but I still managed to get down to Hamilton for an afternoon last weekend with a few other birders from the university.

Our first goal was to find one of the Snowy Owls that have been seen around Hamilton Harbor recently. Sure enough, a heavily marked owl (so presumably a young female) was apparent at the back of the Tollgate Ponds off Eastport Drive.

The many Northern Shoveler seemed very unconcerned about the owl. They may not have been able to even see it with how close to shore they were, but it's hard to tell. This is my second Snowy Owl of this year's irruption, with hopefully more to come!

We continued on to Fifty Point Conservation Area, where we quickly got reasonable views of my lifer Common Eider. It wasn't nearly as close as some others have seen it, so I didn't bother with pictures, but a number of photographers have obtained excellent photos of this female (e.g Josh Vandermeulen).

Our final stop was the continuing female King Eider a few kilometres down the shoreline. King Eider is far more common on Lake Ontario than Common Eider (probably one of the few places that's true), and this was my 5th. It offered great looks, giving a nice comparison with the Common.

This sort of hasty, twitch-focused birding (for those not familiar with all the birding lingo, a twitch is the act of chasing a reported rare bird) with more time in the car than the field isn't really my ideal thing, but it was great to get out for an afternoon and see some awesome birds.

On Saturday I'm covering in my normal route in the Oakville-Mississauga Christmas Bird Count. I'm looking forward to it despite the very cold temperatures in the forecast. In the past few years I've had some great birds, including Barred Owl and Common Yellowthroat. A full day in the field is bound to turn up some interesting finds, especially as the snow and cold pushes birds to feeders.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Mallard pair scavenging dead salmon

I walked around Erindale and Riverwood parks in Mississauga for a few hours today, finding a few notable birds for winter (Swamp and White-throated Sparrow, 5 Winter Wren, 2 Great Blue Heron). At one point as I walked along the riverside, I noticed a pair of Mallards showing some serious interest in a salmon carcass (I believe it's a Chinook Salmon, but a number of other salmon and trout are present in the river). Check out the video I took of this bizarre behavior:

Scavenging dead salmon seems to be pretty regular on the Pacific Coast of North America (e.g. here, which is the classic location for major salmon runs, but I haven't found any references to this behavior elsewhere.

For another fun story about mallards, check out this article.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Awesome day at Long Point

I headed down to Long Point today, and it was a really great day. The main reason I went down was to help out with the Long Point Christmas Bird Count For Kids. We spent a few hours birding around the base of Long Point, and had a great time, seeing, among other things, a pair of Peregrine Falcons among various other raptors, hundreds of Sandhill Cranes and Tundra Swans and good numbers of blackbirds (Rusty, Red-winged, Grackle and Cowbird were all present). The best bird was a Cackling Goose. I'm pretty proud of this one - we were driving slowly along Lakeshore Rd. scanning a goose flock with the naked eye, when I was able to instantly pick out this bird.

A tiny, stubby-billed, cold grayish Canada Goose is actually a Cackling Goose

I normally think of Tundra Swans as a harbringer of spring, but in the Long Point area, where temperatures are warmer and snow rarely lasts long, they'll stick around through the winter.

I had never seen more than 30 or so Sandhill Cranes in a day before, so seeing about 1000 today was a real treat.

For the rest of the afternoon, I did some more birding around the area. The first highlight came while scanning the ice of the inner bay near the Old Cut banding station.

You can totally tell what that is, right? Neither could I at first, but I had strong suspicions, and sure enough after about 15 minutes it took off, revealing the rounded white wings of a Snowy Owl! I came back about an hour and a half after my first sighting in hopes it would be closer, but as you can see from the picture (actually taken on my second visit), it was still offering rather unsatisfying looks. Still, no day with a Snowy Owl is a bad day!

Also on the ice here was this raccoon acting very oddly as it picked lethargically around the edge of the open water. When I returned later in the afternoon, it was laying, apparently dead, on the ice. Not really sure what the story is here.

Luckily, I had several sightings of much healthier mammals, including great looks at Short-tailed Shrew, Mink and White-tailed Deer.

Shortly after, I headed to Old Cut, where the Vesper Sparrow first seen and banded a few days ago was hopping around under the feeder with Juncos, American Tree and White-throated Sparrows.

I found it very odd to see this open-country species in the brushy woods. Vesper Sparrows are not common at feeders at any time of year, and are very uncommonly found anywhere in Ontario in winter.

 The rest of the day was uneventful in anything of note from a rarity perspective, but I was never bored. Snow Bunting, Cooper's Hawk, Carolina Wren, Eastern Bluebird and several Northern Harrier all provided great looks in the provincial park.

As dusk fell, I headed down the causeway to the lookout over Big Creek Marsh, for what would be one of my favorite experiences this year. Huge numbers of Sandhill Cranes, Tundra Swans, Canada Geese and ducks (likely almost entirely Mallard and American Black Duck) were flying around to roost in the marsh. I estimated about 1000 Sandhill Cranes, 1000 Tundra Swan, 500 Canada Goose and 2000 ducks, although I really wasn't focused on the counting. As the flocks flew back and forth across the setting sun and directly overhead, the voices of the cranes and swans mingled to make one of the most incredible sounds I've ever heard. One of those moments that makes me feel incredibly lucky, and happy to be alive. The title of the post is literally true - I was in awe this evening.

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.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Late fall

The temperatures are rapidly dropping, the frost is encroaching and much of the natural world is dying back, finding crevices and tunnels for hibernation or rapidly vacating the province. There's still some time to go before winter has truly arrived, but it is becoming more and more apparent every day that we're almost there.

I've had much less time than I'd like to enjoy the latter part of the fall with school commitments, and I've not been finding too much when I do get out, so have not been able to post much recently. I'm planning to spend some time enjoying birds I won't see again until March or April as well as some recent winter arrivals this weekend though.

Regardless, here's some interesting wildlife I've come across in the past month or so.

White-tailed Deer have been incredibly successful at colonizing urban areas. I was happy to see this buck two minutes from my front door in Guelph.

Only a few species of odonates persist in any numbers into October. Spotted Spreadwings like this one are one of the characteristic late fall species, along with Familiar Bluet, Common Green Darner, Shadow Darner and Autumn Meadowhawk.

American Crows, despite their abundance in many areas, are surprisingly difficult to get close to. I'm not sure why this one was so tame.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Endangered reptiles and a very very rare bird

Last weekend the University of Guelph Wildlife Club headed down to Long Point for some end-of-season herping and fall birding. When we first arrived at Old Cut on Saturday morning it didn't look like it was going to be a great weekend for seeing much - there weren't a lot of birds around the woodlot and the rain looked imminent. The rain held off though, and we soon started picking up some cool sightings.

A few of us spend a few minutes watching birds moving around over the marshes, and quickly picked up Peregrine Falcon, Merlin, Sharp-shinned Hawk and Northern Harrier. It ended up being a great weekend for raptors despite the poor conditions for migration, with the following seen:

Numerous Turkey Vultures
1 Osprey
2 Bald Eagle
4 Red-tailed Hawk
5 Northern Harrier
9 Sharp-shinned Hawk
1 Cooper's Hawk
5 Peregrine Falcon
3 Merlin

Seeing a Peregrine is always a highlight, so 5 in one weekend was certainly a treat.

This very tame Mourning Dove was hanging around the banding lab at Old Cut. Hopefully it is a little more fearful of the numerous raptors than it was of us!

We were camping in the Provincial Park nearby, and as we were getting our permits I spotted a huge insect flying weakly across the lawn. When I went over, it was exactly what I expected - my first Chinese Mantis!

While the smaller European Mantis is a common sight across Southern Ontario throughout the fall, the Chinese Mantis is restricted to the extreme south of the province and is not as common even there. We ended up seeing three of these beasts (known to eat hummingbirds) over a day and a half. Both of these species have been introduced in probably misguided attempts to control garden pests.

On the subject of enormous insects, this huge Pandora Sphinx Moth caterpillar was feeding on grapevine directly over our heads.

As we entered the campground, it became immediately clear that our initial assessment of there not being many birds around was flawed. Huge numbers of Yellow-rumped Warblers were filtering east through the large Eastern Cottonwoods on the south side of the peninsula. I estimate that we saw 1500 individuals that day, but there were likely hundreds of thousands of birds along the entire peninsula. 

The rain, despite forecasts, held off for the entire weekend, and as a result we had much better luck than expected with herps.

First off was this hatchling Blanding's Turtle - egg tooth still attached! I've seen lots of adult Blanding's but this is only my second small one.

Not long after we came across two very small Eastern Fox Snakes. I've seen a number of large fox snakes but never one this small.

for comparison, adult Eastern Fox Snake from Pelee Island in May.

We hit the jackpot the next day though, with this Hatchling Spotted Turtle! This is my first ever Spotted Turtle, something I've wanted to see for a long time!

Other herps seen included Green, Leopard and Bullfrog, American Toad, Snapping and Painted Turtle and Garter (both normal and melanistic) and Brown Snake.

On Monday, a Brown Booby, normally found no closer than Florida, was discovered at the beginning of the Niagara River, at Fort Erie, Ontario and Buffalo, New York. This is one of the most unlikely birds to ever occur in Ontario. Needless to say, I wanted to see it! Unfortunately, I had school commitments on Tuesday and Wednesday, but on Thursday 5 of us drove down to Fort Erie, arriving at 9 am.

We waited with a number of other birders, scanning constantly for the bird to show up. After four and a half hours we hadn't seen the bird or much else, but at about 1:45 pm Rohan van Twest motioned me over to his scope and there it was, sitting on the pier 2 km away on the New York side of the river. Although we got adequate looks through scopes, the distance made photography impossible. Here's my best effort:

It isn't really identifiable from this shot, although you can see that it is a somewhat smaller bird with a horizontal posture and brown plumage compared to the black plumage and upright posture of the nearby cormorants.

Jim Pawlicki got some much (much) better pictures from a boat on the New York side.

For a better idea of what it actually looked like while we were watching it, check out Mark Dorriesfield's video.

After watching it for a while, it suddenly took off and flew incredibly quickly out to the lake. From the distance it covered I'd estimate it was going well over 100 km/h!

What an incredible bird!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Swallows having trouble in the cold

Back in May, we had a cold snap mid-month with strong winds and temperatures barely above zero for several days in a row. I discussed the effect this had on the warblers in a post earlier this year, but one group of birds was hit even harder by the cold snap: swallows.

Swallows are extremely good at what they do - hoovering up flying insects. Unfortunately, this comes at a price, and that price is that they are utterly incompetent at virtually everything else. So when unseasonably cold temperatures and strong winds ground most of their prey, swallows have little choice but to eke out enough to survive from whatever is left. This often means travelling to warm sheltered water bodies - a perfect description of your typical sewage lagoon.

When I first arrived at the Blenheim Sewage Lagoons during the cold snap, it was immediately obvious that the swallows were having trouble. A number of individuals were dead on the road from cars, and several more were sitting on the road exhausted. Once I climbed the dike to get a look into the lagoons themselves, I saw an impressive spectacle:

Huge numbers of swallows (mostly Trees) were feeding just over the surface on the leeward sides of the larger ponds, with lots more resting exhausted on vegetation and the ground around the ponds.

Interestingly, all the Purple Martins were perched. I assume that, being much larger than the other swallows, they weren't able to get enough energy from feeding to even replace that used by flying.

Two larger birds were mixed in with the swallows: Black Terns! One can be seen in the video below, apparently foraging for flying insects just like the swallows. Apologies for the poor video quality - the wind was so strong that it was impossible to hold the camera steady, even laying down.

I estimated about 1500 swallows the first time I visited, and 2000 on my second trip the next day. You can see exact numbers and the other birds I saw at the eBird checklists below:

Luckily, the cold eventually left and most of the birds seemed to survive. I'd hate to have seen what would happened to the swallows and all the other insectivores with another couple of cold days. Given that this didn't happen, this experience was one of the highlights of my spring.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Bruce Peninsula Weekend

This weeked I took a trip to the Bruce Peninsula with the University of Guelph Wildilfe Club. Although rain and cool temperatures certainly hampered seeing wildlife, we still came up with some exciting sightings.

These Black Saddlebags remains were in a spider web along the shore. This seems pretty far north for this species to me.

We spent quite a lot of time flipping over rocks looking for snakes. Although we had little luck in that department, some other interesting creatures could be found, like this huge millipede:

Or this pair of camel crickets:

There were still a few snakes around. This tiny Brown Snake was one of four under a single rock.

A number of Garter Snakes were moving around on Saturday afternoon, and this individual was particularly nice looking. 

Although shorebird season is winding down, we still had a few species. Can you find the Semipalmated Plover in this picture?

Only two species of herps were found in any numbers: Red-backed Salamanders and Leopard Frogs. This is one of the brownest and most densely marked Leopard Frogs I've ever seen.

This huge sphinx moth caterpillar was traversing a patch of bare rock. I believe it may be Clemen's Sphinx (Sphinx luscitiosa)

The herp highlight of the trip, this Spotted Salamander, was found under a rotting log along with four Red-backed Salamanders by Emma Cushnie.

After the trip, a few of us continued birding on the way back to Guelph, and had by far the best birding of the trip (as usual, you see more when it means some people are missing out!). This Baird's Sandpiper allowed close approach at Singing Sands.

Other species on the huge expanse of sand here included a number of American Pipits and Horned Larks.

 Horned Larks

The best bird of the trip came at Isaac Lake, where a Snow Goose stood out immediately in a flock of Canadas. This is only my second for Ontario, Mark Dorriesfield's first and Christmas Ho and Emma Cushnie's lifer. Not bad!

To top things off, on the way out of this area, Mark spotted this Merlin perched at the tip of a dead branch. Before we could even get out of the car, a Northern Harrier and Osprey flew right over the same spot! Once we actually managed to step outside, a Red-tailed Hawk flew over and a quick scan of the horizon revealed an adult Bald Eagle and a number of Turkey Vultures. Six species of raptors in two or three minutes - awesome!

Finally on the way out, we came across a flock of about 150 Rusty Blackbirds - a good-sized flock for this declining species.

Despite the weather and distinct lack of herps, it was an awesome trip with some great people!