Category Archives: Birds

Ten Great Birding Moments of 2019

E-Bird tells me I saw 665 bird species last year, a new personal best. Many excellent birds went into this list: gaudy tropical beasts like Motmots, skulking antbirds, and glorious migrant warblers. But what stands out most in my memory are the bird experiences – those special birding moments where everything comes together to make a truly memorable sighting. Herewith are my top ten birding moments in chronological order.

January 26, Amherst Island, Ontario

I was out looking for winter birds with Bruce Kirkland and Rachel Sa. We were stopped by the side of the road to look at a flock of Redpolls when Rachel saw something that looked like an owl fly into a tree. We got the scope out and sure enough we could see a small owl head peering out of the bush. High fives were in order – Short-eared Owls are not an easy bird to see in Ontario. Then a Bald Eagle passed over and all hell broke loose. Nineteen(!) Short-eared Owls exploded out of the tree and swirled madly around for a couple of minutes before settling down, each one to its own fencepost. It turns out there were over 50 Short-ears on the island, feasting on the plentiful voles, but to see nineteen at once was a special birding moment.

20 March, Ecolodge la Minga, Valle de Cauca, Colombia

The first stop on our Colombian expedition was this homey lodge in the foothills of the Western Andes. We spent the morning walking the entrance road and saw plenty of great birds, but then we arrived at the lodge. All thoughts of lunch were quickly pushed to the side as we drank in the hordes of avian jewels feasting on the flowering plants and fruit that the owners had provided. Within minutes I had seen my target bird for the whole trip – Multicolored Tanager, so everything after that was gravy. And very tasty gravy at that!

21 March, Bosque de San Antonio/Km 18, Valle de Cauca, Colombia

Sometimes great birding moments come in retrospect. We had heard Nariño Tapaculos calling at Ecolodge La Minga, but Tapaculos are small, dark, mouse-like skulking birds of the undergrowth so one rarely gets the chance to actually see them. But at this legendary birding site I managed to catch a quick glimpse of a calling bird. Not a big deal in itself, but the great birding moment came at my desk at home, when I worked out that this was life bird #1500 for me.

22 March, RN Laguna de Sonso, Valle de Cauca, Colombia

A great day at this very birdy marsh was capped off by a brief but clear look at a Sungrebe as it snuck across a short channel and disappeared into the reedbed. Sungrebes are uncommon and extraordinarily shy. Ken Edwards is a much more experienced tropical birder than I, and Daniel Uribe Restrepo is an ornithologist and full-time guide who has spent his entire life in Colombia, and yet this was a life bird for all three of us. Happiness abounded.

Oh yes old chap. We are a bit chuffed.

28 March, PNN Los Nevados, Caldas, Colombia

When I was studying field guides for my first trip to Colombia the Black-chested Buzzard Eagle caught my eye, and I added it to my mental most-desired list. In 2017 we spent some time in the right habitat, but no Buzzard Eagles were forthcoming. Cut to this year and we are 14,000 feet up in the Central Andes, waiting for a Buffy Helmetcrest to show up. In the far distance we spot two large raptors soaring. Scope views allow us to ID them as Black-chested Buzzard Eagles, but after a while it becomes clear that they have no intention of moving any closer.

So it’s a solid “tick” but a better view is needed to quench my Buzzard Eagle longings. Maybe next year. Or maybe later that day! Just before quitting time we were scanning the paramo looking for small seedeaters and looked up in time to see two majestic buzzard eagles silently cruising by about 20 feet above our heads. Gob-smacked we were. A great finish to that day’s excursion.

Paramo.

1 April, road from Riosucio to Jardin, Antioquia, Colombia

This was not a fun day as Montezuma was busy having his revenge on me. I tried to keep my whimpering to a minimum as we clambered up a steep mountain trail in the company of Doña Lucía, a local farmer. Years of patient work had allowed her to convince some Antpittas that she was a reliable and non-threatening source of their favourite delicacy: earthworms. So we got to the right spot, she called, and after a bit a couple of Chestnut-naped Antpittas emerged. Antpittas are proper unicorn birds, and any sighting is great, but to see them hopping onto peoples’ hands to nab worms was epic. Sadly I could not participate in the actual feeding as I needed to be able to dash into the bushes at a moment’s notice, but I got some really great still and video images, and even better memories.

1 April, Jardin

Later that day we made our way into the city of Jardin to visit a Cock of the Rock lek. This did not exactly test our birding skills – we went to the house, paid our entrance fee, and wandered down to the lekking trees. But the sight of those bizarrely gorgeous birds hopping, bowing, squawking and shrieking, all in hopes of impressing the ladies, was truly fine.

9 May, Point Pelee National Park, Ontario

The great Reverse Migration. A truly epic experience as thousands of birds, fleeing an incoming storm, streamed by on their way back to the US. Photos and the full story are here. I can envision a day twenty years from now where a group of birders encounter a gruff, grizzled bloke with weather-faded gear and a thousand-yard stare. They will say in hushed voices – “he was at the reverse migration of 2019”. 😊

4 July, Cape St Mary’s, Newfoundland

For my first trip to Newfoundland I was strongly advised to visit the Northern Gannet colony at Cape St Mary’s. It was a bit of a hike, but I am quite partial to Gannets so it seemed worth checking out. So after doing a bit of whale and Puffin watching in Witless Bay we headed south to the end of the road. Cape St Mary’s lived up to its billing as the best site anywhere for viewing Gannets at close range. Over 20,000 pairs nest on the sea stack and surrounding cliffs, and they are supremely not bothered by people staring at them from 30m away. Also crammed onto every available ledge were thousands of Guillemots and many hundreds of Razorbills and Black-legged Kittiwakes.

And as it turns out, also one lone Thick-billed Murre, at the far southernmost end of its breeding range. I saw a slightly odd-looking Guillemot and suspected that it might be a ringer Knowing that Thick-billed Murre was possible, I decided to wait until the sleeping bird raised its head from under its wing so I could see the diagnostic mark on the bill. For a full 45 minutes the pesky creature didn’t budge, but finally it took a look around and revealed its thick-billedness. So a day that started with Humpback Whales and Puffins and ended with epic views of Gannets and their pelagic friends was capped off by a new life bird. Not to mention a tasty lunch at St Bride’s.

Thick-billed Murre (l)

31 December, Presqu’ile Provincial Park, Ontario

For reasons that are not entirely clear I have an inordinate fondness for Purple Sandpipers. Perhaps it’s because they are scarce and a bit elusive; perhaps because my first sighting was special. We were on a very pleasant driving tour through Scotland and I stepped out of the B&B on Islay to see two of the blighters playing in the kelp on the other side of the road. In any case I like them and was keen to add them to my Ontario (and Canada) list.

Typically that means wading out to Gull Island in late November in the hopes that this is the one day when a small southbound flock will stop for a snack. This year there were tantalizing reports of a trio hanging out at Owen Point. Family and social responsibilities kept me away, but finally on the last day of the year I decided to give it a shot. I arrived to a bleak and windswept scene populated by five long-tailed ducks and a Herring Gull. I scanned the area thoroughly with no luck. Then a snow squall kicked in. With melting snow starting to infiltrate my pricey camera equipment, and no reasonable prospect of success I considered packing it in.

Then fate intervened in the guise of one Kyle Horner, who had seen the birds earlier in the morning and posted a report on the OntBirds bird alert site. Knowing that they were likely still around, I redoubled my efforts and soon spotted small bird-like heads popping up and down behind an algae berm. Shortly thereafter the birds emerged and good views were had. After snapping off a number of shots I took a deep breath, remembered my own advice, and set a shutter speed fast enough to capture them as they frenetically dashed about. The results are below in all their rain-spattered glory. And just to cap off this tale, the Purple Sandpipers were the 300th bird species I have seen in Ontario.


So for all the great birds I was privileged to see last year, it is these birding moments that will remain clearest in my memory. Thanks to the birds, and thanks to the companions who shared the moments with me.

And a few more photos of great 2019 birds…

Shutter Speed – Wildlife Photography Tips #2

Originally published in The Blue Bill, the journal of the Kingston Field Naturalists, Volume 66, No. 4, December 2019

Freezing the Action – Shutter Speed and Shutter Priority Mode

One of the major challenges of wildlife photography (and sports photography for that matter) is the need to choose a sufficiently fast shutter speed. Like all photographers we need to balance available light, depth of field, metering modes and focus points. But unlike, say, landscape or portrait photographers our subject matter tends to move quickly in unpredictable ways.

If our camera’s shutter speed is fast enough we will be able to “freeze” the action of fast-moving subjects and get a crisp image. So in principle the solution is to always use a fast shutter speed. And there are some circumstances where this approach will work. But much more often we will be engaged in a balancing act, adjusting variables such as shutter speed, aperture, and film speed (ISO) to get a correct exposure.

The Basics of Exposure

In very simple terms the image your camera produces is governed by the amount of light that falls on the sensor. A correctly exposed wildlife image will show the creature or plant in natural light with no areas that are too dark (underexposed) or too bright (overexposed), and will be crisp with no motion-induced blurring. Photo 1 shows an American Pipit, and to my eye the exposure is good – all detail is visible and the bird’s foot is frozen in mid-stride.

Photo 1 – American Pipit

Exposure is controlled by three settings: aperture (the amount of light that the lens allows to reach the sensor); shutter speed (the length of time that the sensor is exposed to the light); and film speed or ISO (the sensitivity of the sensor).[1]

Each of these variables has implications that the photographer needs to understand:

Shutter speed

As noted above, the primary way to get a crisp exposure of a moving animal (or a plant blowing in the wind) is to use a fast shutter speed. The downside of fast shutter speeds is that less light reaches your camera’s sensor. Shutter speed is expressed in fractions of a second. Each step up in shutter speed (e.g. from 1/250 to 1/500) halves the amount of light available. So except in very bright, sunny conditions faster shutter speeds can lead to underexposed images. To an extent you may be able to fix underexposure in post-processing, but artificially adjusting the exposure by more than a small amount adversely affects the quality of the image.

For stationary subjects you can use a slower than normal shutter speed and hope for the best, but typically the creature will move just as you snap the shutter. Photo 2 is a Coatimundi seen just after dawn. I had to use a slow shutter speed and a high film speed to get the shot. If you look closely you will see that the face is slightly blurry as it moves its head to the side.

Shutter speed 1/80
Photo 2 – Coatimundi

So if shutter speed isn’t the whole solution, what else can you do to increase your chances of getting a crisp image?

Aperture

Wide apertures allow more light in, so in the low-light conditions we are often dealing with a wide aperture seems like a good choice. The more light that passes through the lens, the faster your shutter speed can be. But as you might guess there are no easy solutions here. First, telephoto lenses capable of wide apertures are ruinously expensive. For example the Nikon NIKKOR 300MM ƒ2.8G ED lens, a favourite of professional wildlife photographers, will set you back a cool $6899.99 plus HST. So most of us will be using lenses with narrower apertures, and thus will have less light to play with.

Moreover, the wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field. For the wildlife photographer, this creates a problem: the image may be correctly exposed but parts of the creature are not in focus. Photo 3, a Pearl Crescent, is correctly exposed. But even at ƒ7.1, a middle of the range aperture, the depth of field is shallow enough that the wing closest to the viewer is not in focus. The tails of birds can also fall prey to depth of field issues. In photo 4 the tail of the Canada Jay is a bit soft-edged, as it was beyond the optimal depth of field.

Film Speed (ISO)

Before the advent of digital cameras, photographers adjusted for low-light or fast-moving subjects by using faster film. So instead of ISO 64 or 100 film they might switch in a roll of ISO 200. This involved a big trade-off in image quality, as faster films producing grainer images. ISO 400 was about the maximum usable speed.

Now we have digital cameras capable of ISO equivalents of up to 51,000 so is the problem solved? Yes and no. Good quality digital cameras can produce very good images at higher ISO ratings, but only to a point. Just as fast film was prone to graininess, digital camera sensors can generate “noise” at higher speeds.

If you are interested in learning more about digital noise I recommend this post on the Photography Life site: https://photographylife.com/what-is-noise-in-photography

With my camera I can get excellent images at ISO 800, and very good ones up to ISO 1000. Speeds faster than that can work reasonably well depending on what you want the image for. Photo 2, for example, was shot at ISO 2000. The image is reasonably crisp and good enough for a record shot, but if you look above and to the right of the creature’s haunches you will see that the image becomes fuzzy (“noisy”) with some random colour blobs.

So what does it all mean? Simply that there is no single recipe for achieving crisp, properly exposed images of wildlife. While we are in the field we have to make continuous judgments about shutter speed, aperture and film speed to enable us to get the images we want.

Shutter Priority Mode

If you spend too much time thinking about these variables you may end up missing some of the action you went out to photograph. So most wildlife photographers use their camera’s mode system to automate part of this work.

All DSLRs and most bridge cameras have four basic operating modes: Manual, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Program. I want to explain Shutter Priority mode here because I think it is the most useful option for wildlife photographers.

Your camera will have an easily accessible way of selecting this mode – most often by a rotating dial on the upper right side (Photo 5). For most DSLRs rotating the dial to S puts you in shutter priority mode. Eccentrically, Canon and Pentax call it “Tv” for time value, but the effect is the same.

Photo 5 – Nikon D5300

When you are operating in this mode, you can select the film speed and shutter speed you desire and the camera will automatically adjust the aperture within its limits to ensure a correct exposure. If there is not enough light to get a correct exposure at maximum aperture the camera will warn you somehow, often by inactivating the shutter release. Check your manual to see how your own camera works and what adjustments you can make.

You can actually go a step further and automate your choice of film speed as well. Somewhere in the menu system of your camera there will be an option to select “auto ISO”. This is a tempting option for wildlife photography, as it minimizes the chance of a missed shot. However beware of the fact that cameras left to their own devices tend to bump up the film speed to fairly high levels, so if you use this function check your manual to see if you can set an upper limit on auto ISO.

Recommended Shutter Speeds

So the final piece of the shutter speed puzzle is: how fast is fast enough?

In principle, unless forced to by low light I would recommend a minimum shutter speed of 1/500 for wildlife. Birds and mammals, even if they appear stationary, are often flicking their ears or looking around, so it’s best to err on the safe side. I did a quick check of the wildlife photos I am most proud of and almost all were shot at 1/500 or 1/640. There are exceptions, such as the Chestnut-naped Antpitta at photo 6 (1/00 at ƒ5.6) but I was fortunate that the bird held still for a moment.

Shutter speed 1/100
Photo 6 – Cjestnut-naped Antpitta

For frogs, turtles, and perched butterflies and odonates you can often get by with a slower speed, as they can sit still for lengthy periods. But the Snapping Turtle at photo 7 was being aggressive so I needed 1/500 to freeze her.

Shutter speed 1/500
Photo 7 – Snapping Turtle

Special Cases

Birds in Flight

There is a simple rule of thumb here: the fastest shutter speed you can manage is the one to choose. But you can cheat to some extent based on the type of bird and its activity. The Trumpeter Swan has fairly slow wingbeats, so in photo 8 even 1/250 was enough to get a crisp image. The gliding Red-tailed Hawk in photo 9 was shot in bright daylight so I was able to go to 1/3200 and ensure that the image was crisp.

The Greater Prairie Chickens at a lek in photo 10 were tricky. We were shooting at dawn so there was very little light available, and the birds were actively jousting. I found through trial and error that a shutter speed of 1/2000 was enough to freeze the action. To make that work I had to bump the ISO up to 8000. The resulting image is reasonably good.

By the way, don’t even think about trying to photograph butterflies in flight. That way lies madness.

Hummingbirds

Hummingbird wingbeats are so fast that it is difficult to get a crisp image even in optimal light. Shutter speeds of at least 1/3200 will be needed. And because their wings move in strange ways to allow them to hover, even if you do get a crisp image it will often look rather odd. So unless you can find a perched bird, I find the best approach is to intentionally allow a bit of blur in the wings, which gives the impression of movement. The Western Emerald in photo 11 was shot at 1/320 while hovering. This is about right for the wings, but as you can see the tail is a bit blurred, so a slightly faster speed would have resulted in a better image.

Shutter speed 1/320
Photo 11 – Western Emerald

So that’s the bluffers’ guide to shutter speed. if you have mastered the basic operation of your camera and want to dip your toe into more advanced options why not try experimenting with shutter priority?

Previous posts in this series

[1] Almost all cameras now are digital and do not use film, but the term film speed is still widely used to describe this function.

Niagara Gull-Fest – The OFO Gull Weekend 2019

Stalking Rare Gulls at Niagara

A large population of Emerald Shiner minnows migrates through the Niagara Gorge in December, seeking the warmer waters of Lake Erie. This concentration of tasty treats attracts an influx of predators, including Steelhead, Brown and Lake Trout, Pickerel and Muskellunge. It also forms a buffet for vast swarms of gulls, and when stormy weather drives birds in off the lake it is often possible to pick out rare and exotic gulls lurking amongst the hordes. And swarms of birds attract swarms of birders.

The Approach March

The first weekend in December 2019 was cool, with high winds and freezing rain in the forecast. Sensible people were staying indoors, but fifty or sixty hardy birders descended on Niagara Falls to take part in the Ontario Field Ornithologists’ (OFO) annual Gull Weekend. There were gull lectures, gull quizzes, an advanced gull identification workshop, and of course, lots and lots of gulls.

For the second year running (which qualifies it as an annual tradition) I linked up with Bruce Kirkland to make the trek to Niagara. We made a brief stop in Burlington to seek out a lone King Eider that had been hanging around with Long-tailed Ducks at the lift bridge. The eider was eventually spotted, though I was insufficiently organized to get a photo before it blended in with the 2,000 other ducks loafing in the ship canal. However I did get some smashing photos of Long-tailed Ducks and a decent shot of a Surf Scoter so all was well. Or so we thought…

Long-tailed Duck
Long-tailed Duck
Surf Scoter
A slightly out-of-focus Surf Scoter

Our next stop was Niagara-on-the-Lake. It’s a small tourist town with more tweeness per capita than anywhere else in Canada, thus normally to be avoided, but it sits at the mouth of the Niagara River so it’s an ideal spot to watch gulls as they stream out at the end of the day to roost on the lake. A rare vagrant Black-headed Gull was known to be in the area so it seemed a likely spot to try our luck. And sure enough when we arrived there were ten or so birders peering intently over the water.

Early Setbacks

Traditionally there is no more dreaded phrase in the birders’ lexicon than “you should have been here ten minutes ago”. This signals that the bird you were after has decamped, probably never to be seen again. However with the advent of modern technology, including time/date stamps on camera images, we can now state with some bitterness that “you should have been here four minutes ago” is infinitely more painful.

We dutifully set up our scopes and peered into the gloom for 45 minutes. Thousands of Bonaparte’s Gulls streamed by, which would normally be a wonderful spectacle but we were not to be mollified. There were even a few Little Gulls among them, which we could pick out by their very dark underwings. Little Gull sightings are not easy to come by in Ontario – these were my first ones in 2019 – but still we remained dejected. One fewer red light on the way and we would have had our quarry.

When it was finally too dark to see we repaired to the Sandtrap Pub and Grill for dinner. After a couple of pints of very pleasant Niagara College Butler’s Bitter I adopted a more philosophical attitude. The bird was still extant; we just had to find it in the next 36 hours.

The Hunt

The plan for Saturday had been to join the Peninsula Field Naturalists for a birding walk in the Welland area. But Bruce and I were now seized with the desire to “get” the Black-headed Gull so we set off to do the Niagara stations of the cross – a series of viewpoints where you can stand in the cold wind and stare down into the Gorge, searching among the Larid[1] multitudes for the one slightly different bird.

Niagara Gull Fest
One of these things is not like the others…

The weather was decent – sunny, but with the usual cold wind ripping down the gorge. We visited such delights as the whirlpool, the Adam Beck power plant, the Queenston Heights lookout, the Queenston boat dock and the upper control gates, and carefully scanned thousands of gulls for the slight variation in field marks that sets apart a Black-headed Gull from its Bonaparte cousins.

Gull ID 101

In winter plumage the differences between these beasties are:

  • The Black-headed Gull is slightly bigger: its wingspan averages 100cm vs 84cm for a Bonaparte’s. This sounds like a lot, but when viewing moving gulls at a slant range of 300+ metres the difference does not exactly jump out at you;
  • The bill of the Black-headed is red in the summer and reddish-black in the winter whereas the Bonaparte’s bill is black year-round; and
  • The Black-headed has a greyish smudge on the underside of the primary flight feathers. This is absent on the Bonaparte’s. The field guides show this diagnostic mark as a black wedge, but as the picture below depicts on a winter-plumage gull it can be a lot less evident.

Wikimedia Commons: by Coolboycoolboy63 – own work (image cropped)

A whole day devoted to gull voyeurism netted us lots of good looks at gulls and a few other avian creatures, but our target remained elusive. Sunday would have to be the day, but the weather reports were ominous. A heavy lashing of freezing rain was not going to make life easier.

Carolina Wren
A rather late Carolina Wren came out to see what we were up to.

Closing In

First light on Sunday saw us back on the trail. Scattered reports from the day before led us to conclude that the whirlpool might be our best bet, so we started the morning vigil as the first wave of freezing rain descended. We gutted it out for a couple of hours before retreating to the hotel for an IHOP breakfast. It was only when we started the move that we realized how thickly the roads and sidewalks, not to mention our gear and clothing, were coated in sheet ice.

Niagara Gull Fest

This made things slightly awkward, and after sliding safely into the hotel parking lot we learned that the QEW was closed and we weren’t going to make it back to Toronto and Kingston that day. So we reasoned that there was nowt else to do but go back out for another dose of eyestrain.

Niagara Gull Fest
View of the whirlpool. Click to full size and you may be able to pick out the white dots of gulls n the water.

Targets Up!

And so it came to pass that on Sunday afternoon about 1320 we closed with our prey. I was scanning gulls on the water, hoping for one of them to lift its wings and show the dark primaries. The mighty Vortex Razor HD telescope should have been annoyed at me for letting it slam against the ground an hour or so earlier, but instead it allowed me to detect what I thought was just a hint of red on the bill of one specimen.

Vortex Razor HD
Vortex gear – built tough!

It was hardly a slam-dunk view but it was suspicious enough that as it lifted off I tracked it while shouting directions so that others could get onto it. The gull wheeled to dive on a minnow and as it did I did not see the hoped-for black wedge, just a slight darkening. It really didn’t look like the guidebook image at all, and I hesitated about whether I had seen enough to make the call. Fortunately, the third person out braving the whirlpool gale was one Jeremy Bensette, a crack birder who among other things set the new record for bird species seen in Ontario in a year. He had gotten onto the bird and confirmed its Black-headedness. So we spent the next ten minutes enjoying the view of this rare visitor, whilst dutifully getting the word out on e-Bird and the OFO listserv.

At this point, having seen all the possible target species, and with our way home blocked by weather, we concluded that the best course of action was a wee nap, a glass of wine, an excellent dinner, and then a leisurely gull-sated departure on the morrow.

Niagara Gull Fest
Victory is sweet!

Niagara Gull Weekend – Bag List

Gulls seen on this trip:

Little Gull (3)

Black-headed Gull (1)

Bonaparte’s Gull (~6,000)

Ring-billed Gull (~100)

American Herring Gull (~600)

Iceland Gull (2)

Glaucous Gull (1)

Lesser Black-backed Gull (6)

Great Black-backed Gull (9)


[1] Most of the world’s 55 gull species are members of the genus Larus.

Spotted Towhee – A Proper November Twitch

Flushed with success at our capture (metaphorically speaking) of the Harris’s Sparrow, when a vagrant Spotted Towhee showed up at Prince Edward Point this week it seemed clear that we ought to go and pay this rare visitor to Southern Ontario a visit.

The bird met two of my three criteria for an off-year twitch: it was local (about an hour and a bit away). And it seemed likely to stick around. The finder – Paul Jones – had been observing it for a couple of days and it was making regular appearances to feed on some seed that Paul had thoughtfully provided.

The third criterion – that the bird be a lifer – was… problematic. I have seen the bird in its natural stomping grounds near Tucson, AZ. However, since this species had never been seen before in the Kingston 50km Circle, on mature reflection and in the interests of ornithology, and with no hint of self-interest, I waived the final requirement. And we were off.

The Chase

The search party – Jim Thompson, John Licharson and me – made good time and arrived at the designated spot at about 08:30. Two birders were already in position and another showed up at the same time we did. There was still seed on the road, the winds were light and variable, the temperature was somewhat clement at +30 C, and though cloudy there was no indication of rain. Now all we needed was for the bird to show up and all would be well.

So we waited.

And we waited.

The road, the seeds, but no Towhee.

Heat, and optimism, seeped gradually out of our bodies.

After about 90 minutes the aforementioned Paul Jones showed up. He showed us some photos he had taken of the bird at 06:45 that morning, and then noted ominously that up until now the bird had been showing up every 45 minutes or so.

So we waited some more.

A Great Blue Heron observes the odd behaviour of humans.

The Reward?

Finally we heard, off in the distance, a Spotted Towhee’s distinct call (which of course we had dutifully boned up on the night before).

Spotted Towhee Call. Thomas Magarian at https://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Pipilo-maculatus

The calls started getting closer and we moved out on an intercept course. The beast was spotted in a tree. We had time for quick looks and poor photographs as it carried on towards its target. We scampered back to the road just in time to see a pair of Merlins swoop low over the road.

Classic example of a “record photo”. With a bit of good will you could claim this as a Spotted Towhee.

Merlins, as you may know, are small falcons who primarily prey on small birds. So suddenly our heretofore highly vocal Towhee was silent, and we all envisioned it skulking off ne’er to be seen again.

Merlin, looking for lunch.

So we waited some more. To keep up morale I recounted the time I stood for five hours in a freezing wind waiting fruitlessly for a Ruff. Judging from the reaction this story was not as uplifting as I had hoped.

Finally, at about 10:56, the Towhee made its entrance. We had a few minutes to admire it before it retired into the scrub to digest its meal.

Spotted Towhee. Distinguished from Eastern Towhee by… C’mon now, you can get it!

So all in all this turned out to be a proper twitch. We had a longish and fairly uncomfortable wait, events seemed to conspire against us, but then through a combination of perseverance and luck we got the sighting and went home happy.

Two epic birds in two weeks. What’s next, you ask. Stay tuned!

Gratuitous extra image of this nifty bird.

Harris’s Sparrow

After making a maximum effort in 2018 on the birding front, this year I have ratcheted back a bit. The main difference is the amount of effort I devoted to twitching rare birds. Last year I chased or went out of my way to find at least 14 birds, whereas in 2019, until last week anyway, I had only twitched one bird in Ontario.

That bird was a Hermit Warbler, which I thought worth going after because (a) it was a life bird for me, (b) it was less than two hours away, and (c) there was a reasonable probability that it would stay put.

So assuming that those are my 2019 criteria, when I got wind of a Harris’s Sparrow visiting a feeder in The County[1], I was tempted. The day was wintry with snow flurries forecasted so I might have prevaricated a bit, but Jim Thompson was up for a try so off we went.

Harris’s Sparrow

Harris's Sparrow

Harris’s Sparrow is a prairie bird that breeds in northern Manitoba, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. This makes it Canada’s only endemic breeder – i.e. a bird that only breeds in Canada. So I had to see one. For national pride, y’know. 😊

The beastie winters from South Dakota down to Texas. It is normally seen on migration, sometimes in large numbers, in the Rainy River district but it is a distinctly uncommon visitor to southern Ontario. Perhaps this one took a wrong turn near Albuquerque?

The Chase

On the way down we suffered the usual nameless dread of twitchers, namely that the bird would not be there, or worse, was seen flying off south ten minutes before we arrived. But this time at least it all turned out rather nicely. Fifteen minutes after we arrived we had clocked the blighter, and it then proceeded to hop around obligingly giving what my British friends would call “crippling views”.

Harris's Sparrow

And a smart looking bird it was, in full adult non-breeding plumage. Allowing for the fact that I am particularly partial to sparrows, this was a really nice bird to see.

Harris's Sparrow

And the point is… ?

Nothing really. Just a nice bird so I wanted to put the photos up so my legion of followers could have a chance to appreciate the creature. 😊

Harris's Sparrow
In a more natural setting

[1] Prince Edward County, to the uninitiated.

Birding the Central and Western Andes – Trip Report

BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
(l-r) Daniel, Anthony, Ken

In April 2019 Ken Edwards and I headed to Colombia for a tour focused on the endemic species of the Central and Western Andes. After a few adventures we arrived in Cali to be met by Daniel Uribe Restrepo, Executive Director of Birding Tours Colombia. We piled into his new 4X4 and headed into town for a late dinner and an early morning start.

La Minga

Our first port of call was La Minga Ecolodge, in the foothills of the Western Andes. Walking the mountain roads around the lodge produced some excellent finds including Golden-headed Quetzal, Andean Solitaire, a handful of foliage-gleaners, woodcreepers and treehunters, and the rather scarce Spotted Barbtail. At the lodge the feeders and gardens were buzzing with bird life. Hummingbirds included the charismatic Booted Racket-tail, Long-tailed Sylph and Andean Emerald, and there was a fine selection of tanagers. Multicoloured Tanager, my most-wanted bird of the trip, was in the bag by noon.

BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Multicoloured Tanager
BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Booted Racket-tail

We continued our explorations in the afternoon, then went out in the evening for a spot of owling. The gardens at the lodge were quite accommodating – while sneaking up on a roosting Common Potoo we flushed a Common Pauraque, and later we listened in on a territorial discussion between Mottled Owls.

After a quick morning stroll along the roads (Chestnut Wood-Quail, White-throated Quail-Dove), we headed off for Buga. Along the way we visited Finca Alejandria, where pouring rain did not dissuade a range of birds from showing off. Key birds included Red-headed Barbet and our first-of-many Andean Motmots, but the star was the hard-to-find Blue-headed Sapphire. Further down the road we visited Bosque de San Antonio, where we had great views of an unusually confiding Colombian Chachalaca, the scarce Rufous-tailed Tyrant, as well as a handful of tanagers and flycatchers and a nice White-naped Brushfinch.

BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Blue-headed Sapphire

Sonso Marsh

After a good breakfast accompanied by Buff-necked Ibises and Blue-headed Parrots at the hotel in Buga, we moved to the conservation area at Sonso Marsh. This is a great area of ponds, wetlands and dry forest, and we spent a pleasant three hours ticking off 65 species therein. The bird of the day was definitely the shy and skulking Sungrebe, which gave us a full five seconds of view as it scuttled across an opening and disappeared into the reeds. It was a life bird for all of us, and a round of high-fives ensued.

BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Ken and Daniel post-Sungrebe, looking rather pleased.

Other great birds included Anhingas, two of which we spotted soaring in a kettle of Black Vultures; seven species of herons; a smattering of warblers; showy Jet Antbirds; Snail Kites and about one zillion (or 60+ anyway) Spectacled Parrotlets who were nesting in the bamboo roofs of the buildings. Our next site was the Montezuma Rainforest Lodge on the Pacific slope of the Western Andes, so a long road move was in the cards. We stopped for breaks at a couple of small but bird-full wetlands along the way, passed through Pueblo Rico (which is not really a village and certainly not rich), and finally rolled into the lodge at dinnertime.

BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Snail Kite. If I were a snail I would be keeping a low profile.

PNN Tatamá / Cerro Montezuma

The Lodge is in the heart of the Tatamá National Park, about 52,000 hectares of almost undisturbed rainforest. Birding is done along a rough track that leads up towards the summit of Cerro Montezuma (Montezuma Peak). On our first day at the lodge we girded our loins and departed in the wee hours for the long bumpy ride to the top.

The early start was necessary to have a shot at the skulking Munchique Wood-Wren. The birding gods were in good mood that day and we soon heard the beasts, and shortly after had decent views of a pair. Thus fortified we carried on to the top, where the lodge staff keep a set of well-attended hummingbird feeders. We gorged (metaphorically) on Empress Brilliants, Violet-tailed Sylphs and Rufous-gaped Hillstars, as well as our first sightings of the stunning Velvet-purple Coronet. However, the stars were a pair of rare endemic species: the endangered Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer and the critically endangered Dusky Starfrontlet. The latter hummingbird was thought to be extinct until a small population was discovered in 2004. These birds continue to cling onto life as their favoured habitat disappears, so it was both exciting and sad to see this brilliant bird at close range.

BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Munchique Wood-Wren
BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Rusty Flowerpiercer
BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Dusky Starfrontlet, also (and more aptly) called Glittering Starfrontlet

Cerro Montezuma – Day 2

The next day we worked the middle portion of the road, feasting (again, metaphorically – no birds were hurt in the making of this report) on such beauties as Buffy Tuftedcheek, Rufous Spinetail, Tricolored Brushfinch, and the epic Crested Ant-Tanager (sort of like a Northern Cardinal on meth). During one of the periodic downpours (there’s a reason they call it rainforest) we took shelter in the vehicle. Only to protect the camera equipment you understand. An extended nap ensued.

Lunch back at the lodge meant more hummingbird watching, with Tawny-bellied Hermits, Green Thorntails, Crowned Woodnymphs, White-necked Jacobins and Purple-bibbed Whitetips buzzing past our ears. Then back up the mountain road for Lanceolated Monklet, Zeledon’s Antbird, Ornate Flycatcher, White-throated Spadebill, Choco Warbler and other treats.

BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Crowned Woodnymph
BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Lanceolated Monklet

On Day Six we had another walk up the road, adding a number of goodies to our list including Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Slaty Spinetail, Parker’s Antbird, Black-headed Brushfinch and Greyish Piculet. Then it was back on the road, heading east to the Central Andes, enlivened by a stop where we bagged Torrent Duck and White-capped Dipper.

BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Torrent Ducks in their habitat

Otún-Quimbaya

Our next stay was at the lodge at the Otún-Quimbaya Fauna and Flora Sanctuary. An old stand of beech woods, it hosts several much-in-demand bird species including the rare Red-ruffed Fruitcrow and endemic Cauca Guan. Until recently, the Guan was thought to be extinct, but there is a healthy population in the small reserve. We rolled up and saw both species before dinner, doubtless due to our superior bird-finding skills, though a cynic might have noted that both species roost in trees and bushes on the grounds of the lodge. After a good meal we off in search of owls, and were rewarded by a good look at a Colombian Screech-Owl (recently lumped with Rufescent Screech-Owl).

BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Colombian Screech-Owl
BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Cauca Guan
BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Red-ruffed Fruitcrow

In the wee hours of the next day we headed down the forest road on a mission to find antpittas. Three species of these furtive, skulking forest birds are known to haunt the reserve, and we hoped to catch a glimpse or two. What we did not expect was to see a Moustached Antpitta, the most skulking of the bunch, standing idly by the side of the road. We all goggled at it for a few seconds until, tiring of the glow of our headlights, it vanished into the undergrowth. Shortly thereafter, in a deep and very dark glade, we spotted a Hooded Antpitta. In the days of film a photograph would have been impossible, but I cranked the Nikon up to ISO 12,800 and got what we can charitably call a record shot.

BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Hooded Antpitta

Cameguadua Marsh

We spent a bit more time patrolling the sanctuary, and added a number of good birds to the trip list including Wattled Guan, White-naped Brushfinch and Variegated Bristle-tyrant. Then it was time to head off to the next port of call, Manizales. Our route included a stop at the Cameguadua Marsh, which is actually a sewage lagoon and a rather good one at that. In just under two hours we spotted 66 species, including some highly desirable ones: Blackish Rail, Great Antshrike and Pale-breasted Spinetail. Herons and waders were well-represented, and Vermillion Flycatchers abundant. In the afternoon we visited Rio Claro near the town of Chinchiná, where we saw a male & female endemic Turquoise Dacnis.

BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Vermilion Flycatcher (female)

Los Nevados

In the wee hours we headed up into the Central Andes aiming for Los Nevados national park, home of several high-altitude bird species. On the way up we saw Paramo Seedeater, Grey-browed Brushfinch, a showy Paramo Tapaculo,[1] and on the hummingbird side added the highly colourful Purple-backed Thornbill, Rainbow-bearded Thornbill and Shining Sunbeam. Probably the best find was a flock of the endemic & endangered Rufous-fronted Parakeet, seen by scope on a distant cliff face.

BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Paramo Tapaculo

We stopped for a snack and some coca tea at Laguna Negra, while a very friendly Stout-billed Cinclodes showed off for us. Coca tea, by the way, is used by the locals to combat altitude sickness. Tasty stuff, but I decided that if I brought some back with me there would likely be a scene with the customs officials so I reluctantly let it go.

The Visitor Centre at Los Nevados sits at 4,200m, which is 13,800 feet in old money and the highest I have been without being surrounded by an airplane. The target bird was an endemic hummingbird known as the Buffy Helmetcrest, a beast that apparently does not need oxygen to survive. We lowlanders do need oxygen, and there was precious little in evidence. Nonetheless, while moving about very slowly we managed to spot the beast. Slow high-fives were exchanged, then we fled back down to the air zone.

BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Looking a bit strained.

On our way back we stopped in at the Hotel Termales del Ruiz, a nice hotel with thermal baths. And hummingbirds. Stacks of them. There are bird feeders throughout the grounds and they attract a stunning array of hummingbirds and tanagers. Of the 12 species of hummingbirds, four were lifers for me: Mountain Velvetbreast, Buff-winged Starfrontlet, near-endemic Black-thighed Puffleg and near-endemic Golden-breasted Puffleg. We also saw four species of mountain tanagers, of which Lachrymose and Scarlet-bellied were new to me. So all in all, not bad for 90 minutes work that also included lunch!

BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Shining Sunbeam

Rio Blanco

Our next stop was the lodge at Reserva Ecológica Río Blanco. Just a short hop from Manizales, this reserve in the cloud forest is particularly noted as a hotspot for antpittas. We arrived at the crack of dawn to ensure we were in place when the rangers feed the shy Bicoloured Antpitta.

BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Most of a Bicoloured Antpitta

The Bicoloured is a small antpitta and can be bullied by the others, so they have their own feeding “theatre.” Just after dawn our ranger-guide led us to the spot and in the gloom a small bird appeared to get its meal. We then went to another spot where the procedure was repeated and both endemic Brown-banded and Chestnut-crowned Antpittas came to feast. It was a fascinating experience and also a great test of camera-handling: fast-moving birds in low light are tricky enough, and one has to bear in mind that antpittas have very long legs and toes. Some of my otherwise best images are marred by missing toes!

After the antpitta-fest we had a good breakfast and started exploring the rest of the reserve. Over a long day and a half of hill-walking we found really good numbers of birds, with flycatchers, guans, wrens and furnarids particularly well represented. A nighttime excursion netted White-throated Screech-Owl, Rufous-banded Owl, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush and the charismatic Lyre-tailed Nightjar. And needless to say, hordes of hummingbirds buzzed around the feeders at the lodge.

The lodge itself was very comfortable, with good food and friendly staff. This seems to be a theme – we ate well and slept well at all the birding lodges we visited.

BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Andean Guan
BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Long-tailed Sylph

Hotel Tinamú

After a final bit of cloud forest birding we set off for the short trip to Hotel Tinamú, a private reserve and lodge where we hoped to find a few key birds. Tinamous, of course, would top the list, but these skulkers are very rarely seen. True to form we didn’t see any – though I strongly suspect that the vaguely chicken-shaped bird that scooted across the trail in front of me was a Little Tinamou. But we were consoled by a lot of other good sightings: Green Hermits at a lek, Golden-collared Manakin, Blue-lored Antbird and our target bird the Grey-headed Dove.

BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Golden-collared Manakin @ISO 10,000

My compañeros were too fatigued to go owling in the evening but I went out with the head guide and we spent an hour or so patrolling the reserve. We were rewarded with good looks at Tropical Screech-Owls – a bird I had previously seen but had not been able to photograph. So all was well.

In the morning after a fine breakfast we had another good look around, enabling me to renew acquaintances with Clay-coloured Thrush, a species that I first saw in Costa Rica. Then it was “on-on”, with a long drive ahead before we would come to rest in Jardin.

On the way through Manizales we picked up Daniel’s daughter Laura, who is learning the ropes of the birding business. This clever and charming young lady was a welcome addition, as her presence immediately raised the standard of conversation above the usual masculine grunting noises.

Western Andes – Riosucio and Jardin

The mountain road that winds between Riosucio and Jardin is home to some special birds, most notably the endemic & endangered Yellow-eared Parrot. Once on the verge of extinction, with a total wild population of 81 birds, this parrot has benefited from an intensive conservation effort and is now on the rebound. There are over 1400 of these colourful, large and noisy parrots screeching around the area, and we had no problem spotting groups of up to 30 birds. While poking around we also discovered the endemic Yellow-headed Brushfinch and beautiful Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant, the latter being one of Ken’s key targets.

BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
The Riosucio-Jardin Express

After a night in Jardin we headed back up the mountain road to link up with Doña Lucía, a local antpitta-whisperer, and we spent an enjoyable hour or so observing and feeding Chestnut-naped Antpittas. A lone Slate-crowned Antpitta observed the proceedings from a safe spot but was disinclined to join in the festivities.

BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Chestnut-naped Antpitta

There were doubtless many more birds that could have been found, but we had to head back to Jardin in time to see the Cock-of-the-Rock spectacle. On a riverside lot in downtown Jardin there is a copse of trees that Andean Cock-of-the-Rocks have deemed to be appropriate for their mating displays.

BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Andean Cock-of-the-Rock

These are striking birds to look at, with their neon-red plumage and bizarre shape, but their idea of how to win a lady’s heart is truly spectacular. The birds bob, shake their wings, perform deep bows and push-ups and hop around, all the while emitting a cacophony of squawks, croaks and beak-clapping. It’s equally astonishing and amusing. Visiting a Cock-of-the-Rock lek was one of my key wishes for this trip and I was not disappointed.

The next morning we made a final foray up the mountain road, adding Scarlet-rumped Cacique to our list but dipping on Red-bellied Grackle, another bird on Ken’s wish list. We still hoped to find one, and the omens were good, as we were now headed to the legendary Las Tangaras lodge, the final stop on our tour.

Las Tangaras

Las Tangaras is a flagship reserve of ProAves, the most important NGO working to preserve the birdlife of Colombia. The reserve is located within the Choco region of the Western Andes, and consists of tropical forest with an elevation ranging from 1250 to 3400m. E-bird lists 454 bird species that have been seen at the reserve.

BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Velvet-purple Coronet

The lodge was quite comfortable and offered excellent food. Most of the key species are not found on the grounds of the lodge, but on a high mountain road that winds southwards. We arrived at lunchtime and immediately made our first foray up the road. For about four hours of effort we ended up with 42 species, highlighted by Toucan Barbet, endemic Tatama Tapaculo, Uniform Antshrike, eight flycatcher species and the endemic Black-and-gold Tanager, as well as a good assortment of hummingbirds.

The next morning we headed back up, and though low cloud and intermittent rain made viewing conditions less than optimal, we still managed a good haul. Both Rufous-rumped and Yellow-breasted Antwrens were seen, along with Choco Vireo, Crested Ant-Tanager and a few new-for-the-trip furnarids. Several Yellow-breasted Antpittas were heard at close range but they refused to show themselves. A lone Olivaceous Piha was spotted lurking in the forest at close range, and despite the cloud and dense undergrowth I managed to get a decent image.

Fortunately we had better weather the next day, as it would be our last shot at a few target birds. Much searching was needed but we did eventually find two Beautiful Jays and a couple of Red-bellied Grackles, as well as a pair of White-headed Wrens. A good assortment of tanagers and furnarids rounded out the list, with a surprise addition of Long-billed Starthroat at lunch – our 51st hummingbird species of the trip. Then we were back on the road, heading for Medellin, with a couple of new species added during short stops along the way.

BIRDING THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN ANDES - TRIP REPORT
Andean Motmot at the Lodge

Homeward Bound

Goodbyes were said, vast plates of grilled chicken were dispatched, and finally we were at an airport hotel awaiting an early flight through Panama City bound for Kingston. Given that we were primarily looking for scarce endemics, a final trip list of 481 species (456 seen, 25 heard-only) was quite respectable. When we add in the birds I saw in the Eastern Andes with Daniel my Colombia life list sits at 651. Plans are already being hatched for the next excursion to Colombia, the Mecca of Birding.


[1] Showy for a tapaculo, that is. Still a fairly skulking bird.

Birding Point Pelee And Southwestern Ontario

Trip Report: KFN Field Trip to Southwestern Ontario – 6-11 May 2019

In days of yore the Kingston Field Naturalists (KFN) used to conduct field trips to Point Pelee, the birding mecca of southwestern Ontario. Eventually interest waned and these trips were discontinued, but with a new generation of keen birders entering our ranks the time seemed right to renew this tradition. And so it was that on the 6th of May eight members headed down the long road to Leamington in search of spring migrants.

By the time we arrived it was late afternoon, so there were only a couple of hours of birding time available before we had to check into hotels and find dinner. We decided to patrol the Woodland Trail and amid the usual suspects we managed to find five warbler species, including good views of Blue-winged Warbler. Just a taste of things to come! We also saw the first of approximately one zillion Red-breasted Nuthatches we were to find during the week – these normally northern forest specialists were everywhere.

Continue reading Birding Point Pelee And Southwestern Ontario

Hermit Warbler in Oshawa

“Anthony Kaduck, you stand accused of twitching in the first degree, in that on the 28th of April in this year of our Lord 2019, you did willfully and with prior intent travel to Oshawa for the sole purpose of viewing a bird, to wit a Hermit Warbler. How do you plead?”

“Guilty, m’Lud.”

Hermit Warbler (Dendroica occidentalis)

(Nice Hermit Warbler image by Patko erika courtesy of Wikipedia)

Well, so much for dialing back my birding travels after last year’s efforts…

I completely missed the first clue. While scrolling through the hourly rare bird update for Ontario I glanced at a posting about a Hermit something in Thickson’s Woods. I deleted the post, wondering to myself why a Hermit Thrush would trigger a rare bird alert.

Later on that evening I received a message from Paul Mackenzie, asking if I wanted to chase the Hermit WARBLER at Thickson’s Woods. A quick check of Sibley’s revealed that there was indeed such a bird, and it was way out of its normal range. Despite the late hour, and having different plans for Sunday, and having consumed a large meal and several beverages, I agreed. (On second thought, the beverages may have played a role). And so the game was afoot.

And what is a Hermit Warbler…

…you ask? A very shy and retiring wood warbler that normally breeds on the West coast of the US, winters in Mexico, and occasionally wanders as far afield as Colorado. So this particular beastie evidently took a seriously wrong turn at Albuquerque. Worth chasing in the first instance, and the fact that it was a very fresh-looking adult male – and thus a stunning bird – added further impetus.

As I sped West after a delayed start I went through the usual nameless dread that accompanies twitchers – that I would arrive to the soul-destroying phrase “you should have been here ten minutes ago”, followed by several dreary and ultimately futile hours searching for a bird that has well and truly departed never to be seen again.

I arrived to at the crowded parking area and the first two birders I met were packing up to go, having been treated to a fine exhibition by the bird in question. One fellow mentioned how unusual it was for a rare bird to be so confiding, and that I was sure to get some great close-up photos. Foolishly letting down my guard, I wandered over to the last known location to find that the bird had vanished some minutes before. The Cassandras in the group opined that it had fed well all morning and was likely gone for good, headed North.

The Agony and the Ecstasy

The assembled multitudes milled around aimlessly for a while, but gradually the crowd started to thin out until only three or four of us were left at the scene of the crime. Had the warbler waited another ten minutes he might have been able to frolic unobserved, but as it was he poked his bright yellow head out of the foliage right in my line of sight. A quick look confirmed that this was a Hermit Warbler, and I announced it just as he disappeared again.

No one else saw it, and after another ten warbler-free minutes I detected a certain veiled skepticism among the cognoscenti. But with nothing else in sight a number of birders drifted back, so when the beast reappeared he was spotted. In typical warbler fashion he was flitting constantly in and out of the foliage so a photograph was not possible, but the Hermit is a very distinctive warbler and he was well seen by all.[1]

Large crowd of birders looking at a very small bird
Paying obeisance to a rare bird.

So there is no particular moral to this story but at least it had a happy ending for me, with life bird #1680 in the bag. Sadly, my travelling companion and instigator of the twitch had to leave for home and missed the bird by ten minutes.

BTW, Luc Fazio managed to get some good video footage of the warbler when it was showing off – viewable at this link.


[1] Less, of course, those misguided souls who think that a camera is a good alternative to binoculars – they were mostly unable to find the bird.

Jon Bubb Beer Challenge – The Results Please

Beer. It’s the best damn drink in the world. — Jack Nicholson

 2018 was the year of the challenge: the Biggish Bird Year, where I challenged myself to see 250 bird species in Ontario, and the Jon Bubb Birding Beer Challenge, where a mate challenged me to sample one beer for every species seen. As you have read in these pages in excruciating detail, I did manage to clock 278 bird species. So how did I fare on the beer challenge?

Beer Challenge: Fuller's London Pride. The best of the best.
Fuller’s London Pride. The best of the best.

Well as the Duke of Wellington said about the battle of Waterloo, it was a near-run thing. Throughout the year I was perennially in catch-up mode, as each time I started to make up some ground I ended up seeing new birds, necessitating even more beer species.  At the end of November I was 40 beers in arrears, but with the aid of some boon companions a late push got me just over the line. I spotted the 278th bird on December 29th, and downed the 278th beer on the 31st.

Beer Challenge: Beer #278
Mackinnon Brothers Eight Man English Pale Ale – beer #278.

It didn’t actually require a massive effort, just a certain amount of diligence. Even operating under self-imposed political constraints (no beers from fascist countries, from countries sliding towards fascism, or from countries run by populist demagogues) and even after losing the month of November to an unnamed plague virus, I still managed to get the job done. I even ended up with a few extras in the fridge to kick off the 2019 year list.

So we now have established that there are upwards of 300 beers available in Ontario, a happy and healthy increase from the days of my youth when there were about ten and they all tasted the same.

And by the way, the level of effort required to sit in comfy pubs or at home in my armchair sipping a cool one compares very favourably to the many hundreds of hours I spent out in the wind, rain, perishing cold and blazing heat searching for birds.

Carrying on the Quest

Beer Challenge: A trio of excellent beers.

A trio of excellent brews, from Kingston, Peterborough and the Laurentides.

So should anyone be inspired to replicate this noble challenge, I think that it should be quite possible to shoot for 300 in a year. The real limiting factor is finding sufficient stocks of new beers to try, but with diligence (that word again) and the help of friends it should be do-able. So I now throw down the gauntlet: a decent bottle of whisky to the first one of my readers to hit 300.

The Rules of the Game

Here are the rules, as codified by a panel of expert:

  • Sample Size. Ideally each beer should be imbibed in its natural form. For draft beers this means a pint glass; bottles or cans should be decanted into an appropriate-sized glass. Half pints are acceptable, as are flights of beers provided that the serving size is adequate to assess the quality of a beer.
  • Radlers may be included.
  • Neer beers (i.e. alcohol-free beers) may not be counted.

How to Approach the Challenge

As long as you stick to the rules the path to success is fairly simple (and should only cause mild annoyance among your friends):

  • When out on the town, try to steer your friends towards brew pubs or places with large beer menus.
  • Don’t just order the beer you like. Nerdishly search the list of available beers for new targets.
  • If in doubt, consult your year list, which should be on your phone.
  • Order a different beer with each round.
  • When out of town, never pass an LCBO without checking to see if they have any regional brews.
  • Drink beer when you might otherwise prefer wine or a cocktail.
Beer Challenge: Glassware is important.
Proper glassware is also important.

Remerciements

Along the way there were a number of people who helped (or in AA terms facilitated) this quest.

  • My brothers, who eagerly leapt into the spirit (so to speak).
  • Andrew and Mike, who supported the guiding philosophy of birds+beers during our road trip.
  • Brother-in-law Rob, who always had interesting bottles in stock when we came to visit.
  • Larry and Janice, my sister’s neighbours, who heard about the challenge and brought me back several Newfoundland specialties.
  • Bruce, who designatedly drove while I sampled the wares of Niagara-on-the-Lake.         
  • Christie and Zarko, who on their travels thoughtfully picked up a six-pack from an obscure craft brewery.
  • Brother-in-law James, who bravely took time off from Christmas Eve preparations to sink a few with me.

A shout out is also due to those virtuous bars that offer flights of beer: the Craft Beer Market in Ottawa, Mississauga’s Bier Markt, the Exchange Brew Pub in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Kingston’s own Stone City Ales.

The Ratings

Of 278 beers tasted, 97 received a star, signifying an interesting brew of high quality and drinkability – “more-ish” as the Brits would say. Stone City Ales had the highest score with five starred brews, followed by Collective Arts and Muskoka Brewery with four each.

Those that didn’t make the grade generally fell into two categories: boring (yet another Labatt’s Blue clone or over-hopped IPA) or weird. In the weird category I would count most of the sours.

Sours are the latest craze among brewers. They have a long history and, in the right circumstances (which normally include being in Belgium), they are an interesting diversion. But they generally fail on the quaffability and I-think-I’ll-have-another criteria.

In the Hall of Shame were eight brews rated as dreadful/never try again: Barley Days Wind and Sail Dark, Bennett’s Dominion Ale, Budweiser Light, Coors Banquet, Coors Light, Henderson’s Food Truck Blonde Ale, Puppers Letterkenny Lager, and Wolfe Island Brewery Out for a Sip. You have been warned.

Recommended Beers

Beer Challenge: MacKinnon Brothers Crosscut
This is the house ale chez nous.

My first post on this topic included a list of recommended beers. Here are a few more good ones for your delectation:

  • Amsterdam Brewery Space Invader IPA
  • Blyth Brewing Company Doc Perdue’s Bobcat
  • Benediktiner Hell
  • Beyond the Pale Pink Fuzz Pale Wheat Ale
  • Bicycle Craft Brewery Velocipede IPA
  • Braufactum Pale Ale
  • Brooklyn Lager
  • Collective Arts Jam up the Mash Dry-hopped Sour
  • Collective Arts Surround Sound Double Dry-hopped IPA
  • Hop City Brewing Co 8th Sin Black Lager
  • Kingston Brew Pub Dragon’s Breath
  • La Trou du Diable Saison du Tracteur
  • MacKinnon Brothers Eight Man English Pale Ale
  • Mill Street Tankhouse
  • Northwinds Rooster Tail American Pale Wheat
  • Robinsons Iron Maiden Trooper beer
  • Sons of Kent Brewing Co 8 Track IPA
  • St Mary Axe India Pagan Ale
  • Stone City 12 Star Session Ale
  • Stone City Shallow Grave American Stout
  • The Publican House Brewery Square Nail Pale Ale
  • Traquair Jacobite Ale
  • Whitewater Brewing Co Astrolabe Session IPA

And remember, as Benjamin Franklin didn’t say (but should have):

“Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy”

Biggish Bird Year – Mission complete

Bird: White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow. 3 May 18. Bird #147

So for 2018, my first year as a full-time birder, I set out to see 250 bird species in Ontario. By mid-October my year list was at 270, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to find new targets. I opined that there were maybe five more birds that I could reasonably hope to find by year-end. So how did that bold prediction pan out?

October continued to be good to me, and I was able to add a Hudsonian Godwit on Ault Island (near Morrisburg), a Lesser Black-backed Gull at the Lafleche landfill site, and a Eurasian Wigeon (the foreign cousin of our American Wigeon) along the St Lawrence Causeway.

Bird: Hudsonian Godwit
Grainy long-distance shot of a Hudsonian Godwit. 17 Oct 18. Bird #271

November

Then, depression set in. I contracted some sort of perfidious virus and was essentially out of commission for the month of November. My November list was the nine birds I could see out the back window. Sadly, this meant that I missed out on a mega-rarity: the first Ontario record and third Canada record of a Calliope Hummingbird, which hung around Goderich until it was seen by every birder in Ontario except me. J’étais triste en maudit.

Bird: Northern Cardinal
Northern Cardinal. First sighting of the year on 11 Jan 18. Bird #50

December

Fortunately, the worm started to turn in December. I headed off to Niagara Falls with my new birding pal Bruce to take in the
the Ontario Field Ornithologists’ Gull ID weekend. The event consisted of an ID lecture on Saturday afternoon and a field trip to the Niagara Gorge on Sunday. The gorge regularly produces rare gulls in the winter when conditions are right, so hopes were high.

Bird: Ring-billed Gull
Ring-billed Gull. First sighting of the year on 1 Jan 18. Bird #26

Most participants arrived at the Falls on Friday evening, so Bob Highcock and the Peninsula Field Naturalists kindly organized a field trip on Saturday morning to the piers at Port Weller. It was an excellent day out and we had great views of, inter alia, Red-throated Loon. I had seen the species in May at extreme telescope range, so it was nice to see one cavorting in the water 100 metres offshore.

I also was fortunate to add a new bird to the year list – a small flock of Common Redpolls made a brief appearance. Redpolls are normally a bird of the boreal forest, but 2018 was an irruption year, where a shortage of food drives finch species farther south than they normally roam. This turned out to be the first of several sightings of Common Redpoll, including a lone individual that visited our backyard feeder a couple of times.

Gulls

The Gull Weekend itself was a slight disappointment. The ID workshop, run by Justin Peter, was excellent, but sadly we were blessed with unseasonably warm and sunny weather on Sunday. On the plus side it was much more comfortable as we spent motionless hours telescoping gulls in the windswept Niagara Gorge. On the minus side there was no reason for deep water gulls to come in off the lake and seek shelter in the gorge. As a result, no real rarities were seen, though we had good views of Iceland, Lessser Black-backed and Little Gulls among the hordes of Herring Gulls. And on the way home Bruce introduced me to Earl the Eastern Screech Owl, who was roosting happily in a spruce tree.

Bird: Iceland Gull with American Herring Gulls
Distant gulls, 2 Dec 18. The left-hand bird is an Iceland Gull. First sighting o the year on 10 Jan 18. Bird #44
Bird: Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl. 2 Dec 18. (Heard 10 Feb 18) Bird #74

Finding the Last Bird

Pine Grosbeak is another bird that irrupted south in late 2018, so when a flock was reported to have visited a crab apple tree in nearby Amherstview I went on the prowl. Two hours of watching the tree in question produced but a chickadee or two. With a heavy heart I turned for home, only to note a commotion in a mountain ash bush in the parking lot of an apartment block one street over from the Tree of No Birds. And there they were, happily feeding. Bird #275.

Bird: Pine Grosbeak
Pine Grosbeak. 8 Dec 18.

On Dec 16th I participated in the Kingston Christmas Bird Count, which was remarkable only for the extreme paucity of birds in the area covered by me and Chris Heffernan. However on the ferry ride back from Wolfe Island someone mentioned that a Greater White-fronted Goose had been spotted on the grounds of the Royal Military College. Needless to say we sped there with all dispatch and spotted the blighter almost immediately. So a bird that I had chased unsuccessfully four times in the bleak fields outside of Ottawa turned up fat and happy about 900m from my front door. I admired the beast at close range, suppressed the urge to throttle it for its perfidy[1], and made off.

One Last Twitch

It had been agreed that we would spend Christmas with my brother-in-law’s family in Mississauga. This was not a hardship because (a) we all get on well, (b) our niece’s firstborn would be there, and (c) several juicy rare birds had been seen recently in the Golden Triangle. For boxing day my bride kindly agreed to accompany me on a birding foray, and though we dipped on the Eurasian Collared-doves in Hamilton, we managed to spot and photograph a flock of 58 Bohemian Waxwings near Caledon. Bohemian Waxwing is a holarctic species, meaning it breeds in the boreal forest in North America and Eurasia. They regularly irrupt from Scandinavia to England and Scotland in winter, but in seven years of living in the UK I had managed to see exactly 1/58th of the number we saw in Caledon. And since I had also managed up to then so see exactly zero in Canada, it was a great find.

Bird: Bohemian Waxwings
Bohemian Waxwing. 26 Dec 18. Bird #277

So the year was just about up, but there was one potential target left. Short-eared Owls are annual, though scarce visitors to Wolfe and Amherst Islands. Most owls are nocturnal hunters and thus hard to see, but Short-ears are crepuscular – they tend to hunt at dawn and dusk as well. (They are known to hunt during the day when vole populations are high, including on 19 January 2019… but that’s another story). So in principle it’s a simple task. All one has to do is go to Amherst Island, find a vantage point that looks over short grassy fields, and wait, with one eye on the landscape and the other watching the clock. And in the fifteen minute window between sunset and the last safe moment to catch the five o’clock ferry, owls might appear. And since I have gone through this long-winded exposition, you have doubtless already guessed that this is exactly what happened.

Bird: Cooper's Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk at dawn. Bird #1

So there we were – year bird #278. Being a good citizen I drove home and parked before breaking out the single malt.

Good Company

As I noted in an earlier post, one of the essential elements of birding success is good company. I was privileged to share the long miles, long hours, hits and misses with a fine group of birders. I will no doubt forget a few names, but key birding pals in this endeavour have included:

  • My bride Lynn (“Sure, let’s go to Rainy River”)
  • Andy and Mike from the AOS (3663km, 198 species, 10 Tim Hortons, 12 beer species)
  • My birding mentor Dr Paul (“Let’s go get that Kiskadee!”)
  • The North Leeds Birders, especially Jim, Ken, Janis, and Kathy (“What time is coffee break?”)
  • Erwin and Sandra (“I know a few good spots for….. “)
  • Richard and Dianne (“We’re in!”)
  • OFO trip leaders Justin, Pete, Tyler, Josh and Jeremy (“Gulls are cool”)
  • KFN trip leaders including Peter, Kurt and Gaye (“You never know what we’ll see”)
  • Jon Ruddy and his gang of Eastern Ontario Birders (“I will find you a Ross’s Goose!”)
  • Pauliina and Meg (“Sure, let’s go there. It’s kinda on the way”)
  • Bruce (“It’s always the right time to chase a rarity”)

The final statistics are:

  • 278 bird species in Ontario, of which I saw 277 and heard but didn’t see one (Eastern Whip-poor-will – an invisible bird with a very distinctive call)
  • 1 additional species seen from Ontario but sitting in Lewiston N.Y. (Which I refused to include in my Ontario list. Unlike, harrumph, at least 30 eBird listers who apparently take a more expansive view of what goes on their ONTARIO lists).
  • 17 new life birds
  • 24 species seen previously but not in Ontario

(For comparison purposes we saw 266 species in Costa Rica in ten days).

Sites Visited

  • National Parks and National Wildlife Areas – 6
  • Provincial Parks – 6
  • Other parks – 11
  • Conservation Areas – 17
  • Bird Observatories – 2
  • Sewage Treatment Facilities and Landfill Sites – 11

Distance Travelled – approximately 19,000 km

Circumference of the Earth – 40,075km


[1] To be precise for the perfidy of its species. It seemed unfair to make this one individual a scapegoose.