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.

Effort

Effort = Results

In principle the goal of seeing 250 birds in Ontario in a year should be achievable. You just need to expend a lot of effort looking, and make sure you go to the right places at the right times.

I did spend a lot of time looking, and largely in the right places, and lo and behold, hit the magic 250 mark on June 26th with a Least Bittern in the Moscow Marsh.

Having thus set a low standard and achieved it, I could have justifiably hung up my metaphorical skates for the year. But, you will be shocked to hear, I didn’t. The new goal became “how high can I go?”

There are a number of reasons for pushing on. In no particular order:

  • The forward-thinking reason. Someday I will do an official Big Year (300 birds) so all the effort put into finding birds this year and the lessons learned will pay dividends in the future.
  • The practical reason. I will be out birding anyway so why not focus on birds I can add to the list?
  • The nefarious reason. Once I stop birding three or more days a week I might have to do more of the useful but tedious things on my task list.

So, bird on it is!

However, the salient point about passing the 250 mark is that by then I had seen all the readily-seeable birds. Further progress would require not only continued effort, but also greater focus on planning where and when to see the missing birds. So the new equation is:

Effort + Homework + Good Company + Luck = Results

Homework is a key aspect that separates serious birders from people who like to look at birds. The ability to recognize the 291 species that (allegedly)[1] breed in Ontario, in all their various plumages (juvenile, breeding, non-breeding) comes from many hours of studying field guides and websites. Having started later in life and spent most of my birding time in the UK, I had a lot of catching up to do, but I have managed to get a reasonable grip on most species. Let’s say B+ in the more common birds, C+ in scarcities, and C with a Most Improved Student award in non-breeding warblers.

Knowing when and where to look for specific tricky species used to be in the realm of ancient lore, knowledge built up over a lifetime of birding and shared sparingly. The digital world has changed that, and we now have resources like E-bird that can help us narrow down the dates and sites where birds are likely to be seen.

But it also really helps to have additional sets of eyes at that time and place, especially if those eyes belong to better birders. Good company can skew the odds in your favour.

Still, for all the homework and effort you and your companions put in, the bird has to decide to (a) go to the anointed place at the anointed time, (b) be in a part of that place that is accessible to birders, and (c) make itself visible. This is where the perfidiousness of certain species comes into play. Nelson’s Sparrows, for example, typically pass through Southern Ontario in the first week of October. They favour wet, weedy reedbeds, where they skulk like mice and mostly refuse to show themselves. So luck is a key factor in the later parts of the year.

New Additions

How lucky have I been? Herewith an annotated list of birds seen and not seen since bird #250:

251 – Northern Bobwhite. 27 June near the Moscow Dump. Very scarce bird. Sheer luck.

252 – Eastern Whip-poor-will. 3 July, Prince Edward County. The birds had been calling for a few weeks along a remote country road. Homework + effort.

X – Chuck-will’s-widow. Prince Edward County. Calling near the Whip-poor-wills for a few weeks. Last heard the night before I went looking for it. Lack of effort.

253 – Little Blue Heron. The bird had been present for a few days. I was visiting family in the Toronto area so it was only a two-hour drive, and the bird made itself visible. Effort and Luck.

Effort - Little Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron

X – Yellow-crowned Night Heron. Cambridge. Had been seen well in the river for a week or more. The first day that it didn’t show up was the day I visited. Bad luck, but a consolation prize for effort in recognition of the THREE AND A HALF HOURS I spent standing on that bridge. At least I got to practise some birds-in-flight photography.

Effort - Caspian Tern
Caspian Tern

254-255 – Red Knot, Baird’s Sandpiper. 26 August, Presqu’ile. Good shorebird habitat during peak migration. Homework + effort.

Effort - Baird's Sandpiper
Baird’s Sandpiper

256 – Western Sandpiper. 26 August, Presqu’ile. Rare migrant. Luck (the bird was there) and good management (birding with a guy – Jon Ruddy – that could actually recognize a Western Sandpiper).

Effort - Western Sandpiper
Western Sandpiper

257 – Pectoral Sandpiper. 3 September, Morven. Good shorebird habitat during peak migration. Effort and homework. And a bit of luck as Pectoral is not a typical bird for this site.

Effort - Pectoral Sandpiper
Pectoral Sandpiper – Blenheim Sewage Lagoons

258 – Short-billed Dowitcher. 5 September, Brighton. Effort (it was at the end of a long, hot day) and good company. Bill Gilmour mentioned that the sewage lagoon was worth a look as they had cut back some of the reeds; Jim Thompson identified the bird while my dehydrated brain was still trying to process it.

Effort - Short-billed Dowitcher
Short-billed Dowitcher in the weeds

259 – Great Kiskadee. 15 September, Rondeau Provincial Park. Good company (my friend and birding mentor Paul Mackenzie), gold star for effort (we left Kingston at 0100 hours for the six-hour drive), major luck, as a few minutes after we left the bird disappeared, never to be seen again.

Effort - Great Kiskadee
Great Kiskadee (at long distance)

260 – Snowy Egret. 15 September, Roberta Stewart Wetland. Easiest bird of this list. Seen as we drove into the parking lot. A few marks for effort – after seeing the Kiskadee we took the time to check Ontbirds for any other rare birds in the area.

Effort - Snowy Egret
Snowy Egret

261 – American Pipit. 19 September, Wolfe Island. Out on our weekly trip with the North Leeds Birders. Jim Thompson spotted the well-camouflaged bird. Good company.

Effort - American Pipit
American Pipit

262, 263 – American Golden Plover, Buff-breasted Sandpiper. 23 September, Presqu’ile. I knew that American Golden Plover and (occasionally) Buff-breasted Sandpiper are seen on Gull Island at this time of the year. I picked a non duck-hunting day[2] when the weather looked promising and waded across to the island. Both birds were present – the Buff-breasted Sandpiper being one of only five sightings in the province this year. So gold star to me for homework, effort and luck!

Effort - Buff-breasted Sandpiper
Buff-breasted Sandpiper

264 – Purple Gallinule. 27 September, near Harrow. A long-staying rarity, but very hard to find as it skulked in the reeds. Effort (two and a half hours staring into the reeds) and good company (Paul, plus the young fellow who eventually tracked it down and immediately alerted the other birders on the site).

Effort - Purple Gallinule
Purple Gallinule

265 – Great Horned Owl. 27 September near Kingsville. We stopped to plot a course on the GPS and there it was, sitting on a wire. Sheer luck.

266 – Tufted Titmouse. 29 September, Ojibway Prairie Complex. Seen on a field trip during the Ontario Field Ornithologists Convention. The bird was known to be in the area. The trip leader, Peter Read, managed to point them out and we had decent looks as they flitted by. So effort, for driving to Leamington for the second time in a month, and good company. But also low cunning. They needed to split the group into two but we resolutely stayed with the best birder and it paid off. Pauvre Pauliina and Margaret did the “right” thing, went with the less-skilled guide, and didn’t see the bird.

267 – Red-necked Grebe. 12 October, Barrie. I had already made a plan to travel to Etobicoke in late October, when these birds are known to gather before migrating further south. But we saw several whilst looking for the target bird – Pacific Loon. Luck.

Effort - Red-necked Grebe
Red-necked Grebe

268 – Pacific Loon. 13 October, Barrie. A bird of the West Coast, but for reasons known only to themselves two or three birds show up in Barrie in mid-October every year to join the thousands (!) of Common Loons feasting on Emerald Shiners. So homework and effort, but especially good company – Jon Ruddy and the rest of the Eastern Ontario Birding collective.

269 – Yellow-billed Cuckoo. 13 October, Colonel Sam Smith Park. The bird had been seen by several other birders but managed to elude us for a while. When we noted a suspicious flitting of wings we got all field-crafty and snuck forward. Bruce spotted the bird skulking in a tree, and while we were spying on it it suddenly leapt out, nabbed a Wolly Bear caterpillar on the path and sped off. Luck and good company.

270 – Orange-crowned Warbler. 13 October, Colonel Sam Smith Park. A late-migrating warbler, predictable at this time but often hard to find. Luck and good company.

So all the Effort/Homework/Good Company/Luck factors played their part, with luck perhaps the most important. At this point there are maybe five birds left that I can reasonably hope to see in the last months of the Biggish Year. Let’s hope the luck holds out!

Ontario 2018 Bird Count – 270

2018 Jon Bubb Birding Beer Challenge beer count – 204

Days left to try new beers – 77. New beers needed: n , where n = (270 + further new birds seen) – 204. Hmmm. Greater effort required.

[1] Cinnamon Teal is listed as a breeding bird on the Ontario checklist. E-bird shows a total of one reported bird in Ontario in the last ten years.

[2] And why, one wonders, does Ontario permit duck-hunting in a Provincial Park…?

A Grand Day Out at Presqu’ile

A Grand Day Out  [1]

A bad day birding is better than a good day at work

– Anon

Every day at Presqu’ile is a good day

– Me

Presqu’ile Provincial Park is one of my favourite wildlife spots. It features an incredible range of habitat for such a small place: a sheltered bay loved by migrating ducks, extensive marshes, wet woods, sand dunes and climax forest. And of course, beautiful sand beaches, which attract swimmers and sun-worshippers, but much more importantly, migrating shorebirds.

So when the I saw that Jon Ruddy was leading a trip to Presqu’ile in prime shorebird season, I didn’t need much convincing. And thus it came to pass that on Sunday the 26th we assembled at the Park gates for a spot of birding.

The Beaches

The first step in the Presqu’ile stations of the cross is a visit to the beaches. If shorebirds are present they will be somewhere along the 2.5km of beach, so (quelle surprise!) the best approach is to start scanning at one end and then work one’s way along to the other. We started at Beach 1 with a good look at the gull flock. The usual suspects were around – an assortment of Herring and Ring-billed Gulls and Caspian Terns – with singles of Bonaparte’s Gull and Common Tern. We were admiring Ring-bill youngsters in their juvenile plumages when the first “peeps”[2] came through. Baird’s Sandpipers are normally seen in the autumn in ones and twos, but on this day they were darting about in groups of ten or more.

Presqu'ile - Juvenile Ring-billed Gull (first cycle)
Juvenile Ring-billed Gull (first cycle)

Presqu'ile - The peeps arrive! Baird's Sandpiper.
The peeps arrive! Baird’s Sandpiper.

Continue reading A Grand Day Out at Presqu’ile

The New Manhattan Project

The Manhattan

A quick glance at the menu in your favourite bar will tell you that classic cocktails are back. The soi-disant “Martini Menu”, flogging such abominations as the Fluffy Duck and the Monkey’s Lunch, has mercifully been consigned to the dustbin of history, and we are back to the real thing, including the Old-Fashioned, the Martini, the Daiquiri and my personal favourite, the Manhattan.

The Manhattan is a go-to drink for whiskey[1] lovers. It’s a simple drink – just Angostura Bitters, whiskey, red vermouth and a cherry. It doesn’t rely on ingredients that might not be at hand (e.g. limes), nor on fussy preparation methods.

But in the same way that a simple dish like crème caramel reveals the skill of a chef, the simplicity of the Manhattan means that any flaws in the quality or proportion of ingredients is rapidly revealed.

In these troubled times it is important that we stand up for what is right, so I set out to answer the question: how to make the right Manhattan.

The simple answer is not to make one at all, but to simply order one at Bar SixtyFive in the Rockefeller Center. They serve the Platonic Ideal of a Manhattan, combining cask strength Wild Turkey, exotic Italian vermouths and those brandy cherries that are endemic to New York City. Properly, it is stirred, not shaken, and served on the rocks in a lowball glass. And the bar is in, well, Manhattan. With a stunning view of the Empire State Building.

So if you live in Manhattan your problem is now solved. For the rest of us there is…

The New Manhattan Project

The New Manhattan Project aims to use scientific methodology to determine the correct recipe for a Manhattan cocktail. A crack team of researchers has been assembled and have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of this important endeavour.

The elite research team: (l-r) Kevin, Anthony, Lynn, Nicholas, Cathy, Carl and Bryan.
The elite research team: (l-r) Kevin, Anthony, Lynn, Nicholas, Cathy, Carl and Bryan.

The first activity of this project was a seminar on Sunday afternoon, 4 August at On-the-Plus-Side secure facility and headquarters. The key objective of this seminar was to determine the correct basic ingredients of a Manhattan. Blind tastings were conducted to answer basic questions such as:

– Bourbon or Rye?

– Which vermouth is correct?

– Which type of cherry is best?

Report from the First Plenary

Vermouth

A modest selection of red vermouth.
A modest selection of red vermouth.

After an initial warm-up round of basic Manhattans, the researchers dove into the thorny issue of vermouth. Six red vermouths are currently available at the People’s Republic Patriotic Commissary LCBO. A preliminary round of research allowed us to down-select to four, with Bosco and Martini & Rossi voted off the island for being one-dimensional.

The four contenders were blind-tasted and compared, with researchers asked to rate them on colour, balance (sweet vs bitter), flavour as a solo beverage, and compatibility as part of a Manhattan.  For the most part the scores were close, but a clear winner and a clear loser were determined:

Lowest-rated: Dolin (France). The Tasters found it too sweet and lacking in complexity. Perhaps suitable as an aperitif over ice but not wanted on the Manhattan voyage.

Mid-pack: Cinzano Rosso and Lionello Original (Italy). Both were deemed suitable by most participants, and each received two first-place votes.

Highest-rated: Campano Antica Formula (Italy). A strong preference emerged for this vermouth. Many professional bartenders consider it the best, and a blind tasting confirmed this. A very complex drink that would make a lovely aperitif, its forté was as a mixer. Antica Formula had a dramatic, positive effect and was considered hands-down the best vermouth for a Manhattan.

Needless to say, it is only available at Paternalsim-is-Us the LCBO temporarily, so Ontario residents will want to lay in a supply to tide them over until (a) they re-stock it in another five years or so, or (b) hell freezes over and we get privately-run liquor stores.

Not tasted: Punt e Mes (Italy). Used in the Bar SixtyFive Manhattan. Unavailable in Ontario. Should have tasted it but ran out of glassware. 😉

Bourbon vs Rye

Whiskey
Proper whiskies all!

It is likely that the original Manhattan Cocktail was made with rye whiskey. Purists maintain that what was once must forever be, and are riled that bourbon has now become the default option. In order to resolve this debate and bring peace to the galaxy, the two drinks were evaluated side-by-side.

The constituent whiskies were Jim Beam Black Label, representing the bourbon team, and Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye. These are whiskies of good quality – a step above bar whiskey, but not at the top level. (I had Michter’s Small Batch Bourbon and Knob Creek Rye on hand but these are reserved for drinking neat).

This round of tests did not yield a clear winner. The team was split 4-3 in favour of bourbon, but none of the members were prepared to accept this as definitive. Then, as often happens in scientific endeavours, serendipity stepped in. One unnamed member,[2] possibly a bit in his cups already, dumped his two half-finished drinks together. He declared the resulting mash-up the winner, and the panel tentatively agreed. A confirmatory batch of cocktails would be needed, but professional decorum was starting to slide a bit so I called a time out on further cocktails until we had completed the next task.

CherriesCocktail cherries

The panel agreed that a cherry was an essential part of the drink, and that a stem was desirable but not essential. Six types of cherry were evaluated:

  • Amarena Fabbri Wild Cherries in Syrup (Italy)
  • Luxardo Maraschino Cherries (Italy) – the original maraschino cherry
  • Tillen Farms Merry Maraschino Cherries (USA)
  • Bog standard, bizarrely red cocktail cherries, as seen on a Dairy Queen sundae (Probably grown at Chernobyl)
  • Home-made New York-style brandied cherries, made with bottled sour cherries and brandy
  • Home-made fresh cherries in brandy

The above list shows the candidates in rank order from top to bottom. The top two were preferred by a wide margin, with the Amaretto cherries slightly nudging past Luxardo. Merry Maraschino and the industrial cherries were in the middle, while both home-made versions fell far behind. The bottled cherries were deemed unappealingly mushy, and the fresh cherries too boozy. In fairness the latter may have suffered from being too fresh – usually these cherries need about six months to moulder before they are ready. Further research may be needed.

The Correct Manhattan

The scientifically correct Manhattan
The scientifically correct Manhattan

A final batch of cocktails was produced in accordance with the initial findings, allowing participants to review their work in detail. The team pointed out that findings were not valid unless replicated, so a second batch was produced. By this point they were not making much sense, but they concurred that through diligent work we had scientifically determined the recipe for the Correct Manhattan.

The research team
Who says science is boring?

Recipe

In a lowball glass, combine:

Two dashes Angostura Bitters

¾ ounces bourbon

¾ ounces rye whiskey

1 ounce red vermouth, preferably Carpano Antica Formula

Stir to mix. Add three ice cubes. Skewer a cocktail cherry, either Amarena Fabbri or Luxardo, and add as a garnish. Repeat as necessary.

The team then relaxed. Concluding that they might by then be tired of Manhattans I offered something completely different – a Manhattan Negro, in which Amaro Lucano replaces the vermouth. According to  the Gibberish-English mode of Google Translate it seems that these were well-received.

Afterword

For its next task the research team will set its sights on gin. Amid the current wild proliferation of gin brands and styles it is necessary to determine the best gin or gins for the home bartender. A report will be published in due course. Stay tuned!

The Ethics Committee has determined that this activity met established guidelines. Participants were free to control their own intake. Alternative (non-alcoholic) beverages were available. Only mild bullying was permitted. No animals were harmed in pursuit of this research project.

[1] Whiskey in this case because it is made with Bourbon or Rye. The no-E (Scotch) whisky version is a Rob Roy. An oddity at best.

[2] It was Kevin. 😊

Waders, Warblers and Water

Onwards, ever onwards

As you may recall, your intrepid heroes had finished scouring the Carden Alvar, making a decent haul of … alvar birds. On the afternoon of 11 May we headed down to Brighton to check in on Presqu’ile Provincial Park. Presqu’ile is one of my favourite birding haunts. It’s another migrant trap that sticks out into Lake Ontario, but it also has long sand beaches that attract migrating shorebirds. Having arrived during peak migration season we hoped to find a selection of early waders,[1] though we still held out hope for a dose of warbler mania.

Our first stop was the Brighton Constructed Wetland (another sewage lagoon, albeit with a downtown name). This site can be excellent in the right conditions but it’s very much feast or famine. If the water levels are too high the mud flats, a.k.a. smorgasbord for waders, are submerged. Our visit was more on the famine side, with only a few waders sneaking about. Blue-winged Teal, normally a regular visitor, were also absent. The best sightings were our first Marsh Wren of the year – expected at the site – and a Sedge Wren – apparently unexpected at that site, provoking an I-don’t-think-so email from the local EBird[2] coordinator. We saw what we saw. But more about EBird in another post.

Marsh Wren - Biggish Year 2018
Marsh Wren

So basically we “dipped”[3] at the sewage lagoons, but we hoped for a regain when we got to the Park. Almost certainly we would be inundated by warblers and waders, as payback by the Bird Gods for our many hours of driving and birding. Almost certainly we were not.

Not that it was bad, mind you. We had two plover species (Black-bellied and Semipalmated) and two sandpipers (Least and Spotted). Nothing earth-shattering but two of these were new to the trip list. We also added a nice (and early) Olive-sided Flycatcher near the Camp Office and our first Great Egrets lounging about on Gull Island (as they do). Probably our best find was a lone Black Scoter lurking among a small gaggle of Surf Scoters. So… not bad, but not brilliant either. The warbler count consisted of the three most common warblers (Yellow, Yellow-rumped and Tennessee) and no others.

Yellow-rumped Warbler - Biggish Year 2018
Well, at least there were Yellow-rumped Warblers

Poignantly, there is a plaque at the Lighthouse, dedicated by his friends to a now-deceased birder “in memory of many twenty warbler days”. Our three-warbler day seemed a bit sad in comparison. At this point I was starting to doubt whether we would ever get to the 180+ species seen on the two previous Army Ornithological Society expeditions to Ontario. A serious case of mockery seemed likely.[4]

So with tears in our eyes we moped off to Lola’s Coffee House for a restorative tonic and set our course for Algonquin. Continue reading Waders, Warblers and Water

Birding Beer Challenge 2018

The Jon Bubb Beer Challenge

When I announced my intention to have a biggish birding year, one of my friends innocently(!) suggested that sampling a different beer for every bird seen was some sort of tradition. The provenance of this claim is unknown, but Jon is a straight shooter and former Royal Marine and thus trustworthy on the subject of drinking traditions, so I had little choice but to take on the birding beer challenge.

Simple enough, or so it seemed…

Birding and beers have a long and storied friendship. In the UK, where I cut my birding teeth, a visit to the pub was the normal end to a good day of birding. In Canada this is less true – stopping at Tim’s is more common (a poor substitute in my mind). But most birders can be talked into a post-ornithological pint with minimal arm-twisting.

We are also living in the golden age of craft beer, with hundreds of brews available and new micro-breweries popping up everywhere. So in principle there should be 250 beers available, even in our benighted province where the beer market is a government monopoly.

Oh, and I like beer.

There is a fly in this ointment, of course. On the best day so far this year (1 Jan, natch) I added 31 species to the year list. On no day this or any other year have I sampled 31 pints of beer. So I have been trying to play catch-up on the beer front while falling farther behind all the time.

Duchesse de Bourgogne - Jon Bubb Birding Beer Challenge.
Duchesse de Bourgogne – a fine example of a traditional top fermented reddish-brown ale from West-Flanders

However this post marks beer #100. I had planned to sample something special for the one hundredth beer species of the year, but due to poor accountancy skills I squandered the number 100 slot on the boringest of beers – Heineken. The pictured brew is more what I had in mind. It rings in at number 104.

A few general observations so far:

  • Why are Canadian craft beers unnecessarily strong? A session ale should be in the 3.5-4% range, especially if served in pints. The minimum for Canadian craft beers seems to be 5%, and 6+% is common. Lynn theorizes that this is because hipsters drink only one beer at a time and then waste their remaining in-pub hours debating its merits… 🙂
  • Yes, modern IPAs are interesting and voguish. But something close to 80% of available craft beers are IPAs. There are other beer styles known to humankind. Our local brew pub likes to brag about the number of craft brews they have on tap, but almost all of them are variations on IPA.
  • Where are the English-style bitters? A mere handful are being made. And again GUM Department Store the LCBO doesn’t help – on a typical day they will have one English bitter on sale, hemmed in by hordes of pedestrian imports and a plethora of nearly-identical IPAs. They once carried the excellent Propeller Extra Special Bitter from Halifax, but they have de-listed it in favour of Propeller IPA. Grrr.
  • Everything from Muskoka Brewery, Mill Street and Nickel Brook is good. Perth Brewery and Prince Eddy are very promising and will require further investigation.

The Best of the First 100

So I am 104 beers into the Beer Challenge and so far I have not tasted an actively bad brew. A few, however, stand out from the others and deserve mention. Herewith my recommendations. I have not attempted to rank them, save that the number one beer is my Number One Beer:

  1. Fuller’s London Pride
  2. (tie)
Prince Eddie’s Brewing Co Milk Shaka Stout
Skeleton Park Amber 6.6
Stone City 12 Star Session Ale
Spearhead Moroccan Brown Ale
Boshkung Brewing Company 35 & 118 Cream Ale
La Micro Brewing Co Conejo Mago IPA
Muskoka Brewery Mad Tom
Muskoka Brewery Moonlight Kettle
MacKinnon Brothers Crosscut
Boreale IPA
Boshkung Brewing Company North Country Kellerbier
Bobcaygeon Brewing Company Firestarter
MacKinnon Brothers Red Fox Ale
Black Creek Canada 150 Best Bitter
Fullers London Porter
Shepherd Neame Spitfire Kentish Ale
Manitoulin Brewing Co Cup and Saucer English Ale
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
St-Ambroise Oatmeal Stout
Creveceria Nacional Dominicana Presidente
Mill Street 100th Meridian
Muskoka Cream Ale
555 Brewing Co Footprint IPA
Muskoka Harvested Ale
Prince Eddy’s Milkshaka Stout
Granville Island Pale Ale
Four Fathers Brewing Co Shevchenko 9 Ukrainian dunkel
Manitoulin Brewing Co Cup and Saucer English ale
Railway City Brewing Co Black Coal stout
Nickel Brook Brewing Co Head Stock IPA
Nickel Brook Brewing Co Equilibrium English-style ale
Amsterdam Brewery Boneshaker unfiltered IPA
Waterloo Grapefruit Radler
Black Creek Canadian Frontier Best Bitter Ale
Mad and Noisy Orange Pale Ale
Chimay Blue Label
Upper Canada Repatriation Lager
Perth Brewery 25 Thistles Anniversary Ale
Br. Verhaege Vichte Duchesse de Bourgogne

Of course I cannot consider these results scientifically valid until I have replicated them…

Beer Challenge Rules (as determined by me):

  1. 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. I will allow half pints in a pinch, but samples do not count.
  2. Do radlers count? I deem that they do. Especially Waterloo’s Grapefruit Radler. Allowing the odd radler or shandy makes up for all those 7% IPAs.
  3. Neer beers (i.e. alcohol-free beers) do not count. That said, I can recommend two good ones: Grolsch and Molson’s Excel.
  4. In this era of trade wars and other sorts of strategic stupidity it is important to stand up for your friends and boycott the products of the countries that are intent on doing us harm. So rule number 4 is: no beers from fascist countries, from countries sliding towards fascism, and from countries run by populist demagogues.

To avoid offending anyone’s ancestral home (and to lessen the risk of hacking attacks) I will not name the offenders. Suffice it to say that I will have to continue the Beer Challenge without the help of Baltika, San Miguel, Tsingtao, and whatever swill they drink in Venezuela.  Peroni is no great loss anyway, but foregoing Zywiec is a blow. I will survive.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale remains on the list. For now.

Warbler Mania – The Agony of Defeat

When we last saw our heroes, they were headed East into the sunrise, destination…

Long Point

The Long Point area is another prime birding hotspot in Ontario and we planned to have a good look around for about a day. There are dozens of birding spots in the area but ground zero is a smallish patch of scrub known as The Old Cut. Long Point itself juts well out into Lake Erie so it’s another shortcut for migrating birds. They land at the point and then work their way North, foraging through scrub, reeds and wet boggy copses – the bird equivalent of a breakfast buffet.

Old Cut is the end of the road – the good habitat comes to an end and their next move is a long flight to the next feeding station. So the birds tend to stooge around Old Cut for a while, getting in their pre-flight meal and flinging themselves into mist nets so they can be banded by the diligent workers at the Long Point Bird Observatory.

In my previous May visits the Old Cut has been crawling with birds, particularly of the wood warbler persuasion. Wood warblers, for those not up on their North American birding lore, are a family of tiny, active insectivores that pass through in hordes on their way to breed in the boreal forest. Their claim to fame is that they are improbably gorgeous. Each species has its particular markings and colours, ranging from the pinstriped Black and White Warbler to the madly orange Blackburnian, the sky blue Cerulaean and the dash-of-everything Magnolia Warbler. They are spectacular birds, though their hyperactivity makes them notoriously difficult to photograph.

Black-throated Blue Warbler - Biggish Year 2018
Black-throated Blue Warbler

Golden-winged Warbler- Biggish Year 2018
Golden-winged Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler- Biggish Year 2018
Blackburnian Warbler

Magnolia Warbler- Biggish Year 2018
Magnolia Warbler

Warbler Mania

What we were hoping to experience at Long Point was a “fall” of warblers. When conditions are right (or wrong, from the warblers’ point of view) unfavourable winds and/or rain can force a huge number of migrating birds to seek shelter in the nearest available cover. They then try to load up on food until the time comes to resume the Northward trek.

A big fall is an epic experience. You can find yourself surrounded by hundreds of warblers of twenty or more species, all buzzing about and singing their special songs of love. Birders experiencing a fall often descend into warbler mania, a state of giddiness and mild confusion brought on by being surrounded by fast-moving natural beauty and trying to look at every bird at once.

A similar effect has been observed among tourists visiting Florence. As the author Stendhal[1] observed,

I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves’. Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.

Yup, that’s about it. Warbler Mania.

However, this time it was not to be. As in our visits to Pelee and Rondeau, there were a good number of birds passing through but nothing like the divine madness we were hoping for. 24 hours at Long Point only added two new birds to our list, though we had a frustrating might-have-seen-for-a-second experience with an exotic yellow-throated warbler. We consoled ourselves in the traditional birder way (application of beer) and then girded ourselves for the longest day of our trip.

Mike, Andy, Me - Biggish Year 2018
Slightly deranged from sun, driving and lack of sleep: Mike, Andy, Me.

The Long March

The next day we set out on a 500km road march, aiming to bypass Toronto, nab a series of scarce birds that hang around in the Carden Alvar, and end up in Brighton poised for a thorough scouring of Presqu’ile Provincial Park.

Alvars are limestone plains partly covered by a thin layer of soil and sparse grassland vegetation.[2] They tend to attract a special set of birds that are difficult or impossible to see elsewhere. The Carden Alvar, North of Kirkfield, is one of the best such spots in Ontario.

We escaped Toronto traffic relatively unscathed, and made it to Kirkfield in time to have a great lunch at the imaginatively-named but nonetheless estimable Kirkfield Restaurant. Thus fortified we headed North to Wylie Road, the heartland of special alvar birds.[3]

Alvar Birding

We first visited my no-fail site for Vesper Sparrow – and failed. But things improved when we got onto Wylie Road. Look for Eastern Bluebird on the fenceposts. Tick.

Eastern Bluebird - Biggish Year 2018
Eastern Bluebird. Not on a fencepost. Not on Wylie Road for that matter. Fake News.

Bobolink in the grassy field. Tick. Stop at the bird hide and look for Loggerhead Shrike. Tick. As we left the bird hide we were treated to, in quick succession, excellent views of Field Sparrow and Grasshopper Sparrow. Tick, tick. Down to the marsh for Swamp Sparrow. Tick. About the only target bird we missed out on was Upland Sandpiper, but for consolation we had extraordinarily close views of the normally shy and retiring Wilson’s Snipe.

Wilson's Snipe - Biggish Year 2018
Wilson’s Snipe

By 1730 our work there was done, and we headed south for Brighton and a few hours of sleep, punctuated by feverish visions of multicoloured warblers flitting just out of sight.

Would we get our fall of warblers? Would we finally experience warbler mania? Stay tuned…

Notes:

[1] Marie-Henri Beyle 1783-1842, best known for his novels The Red and the Black, and The Charterhouse of Parma.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alvar

[3] …and nutbar people. “The environmental theme is being challenged politically by a significant group of landowners, both local and away, who call themselves alternatively the Rural Revolution or the Ontario Landowners Association (OLA) They reject any government planned use of their private land (i.e. zoning) especially if it interferes with what they can do on it and who they can sell it to. They have posted signs throughout the City reading “THIS IS OUR LAND, GOVERNMENT BACK OFF!”. Seven local landowners, on the Carden Plain, went further in the summer of 2006 and posted signs prohibiting birders from looking for birds in their fields from the road. One local landowner even began stopping birders, walking on public roads, telling them to stop bird watching. He ceased this activity after being confronted by the police.” http://www.cardenplainimportantbirdarea.com/news.htm

The Vortex – Biggish Year 2018

American White Pelican - Biggish Year 2018
American White Pelican

After six weeks of virtually non-stop birding (and other events) I am trying to catch up on reporting. Hopefully my memories are not too blurred…

The Road Trip, Part 1

In pursuit of the Biggish Year I planned a two-week road trip to hit most of the major birding hotspots in Southern Ontario. Executing this plan would involve thousands of kilometres on the road, late nights, early mornings, breakfast at Tim’s, and long marches in all kinds of weather conditions. Travelling companions were needed to share the driving load and bear witness to the mayhem of Spring migration, but they needed to be stout-hearted types able to endure the conditions without whingeing. So naturally I turned to my colleagues in the (British) Army Ornithological Society and on 5 May Andrew Harrison and Mike Williams arrived at YYZ eager to pad their Canada lists. Mike’s was at zero when he arrived, so he was at that happy stage where every bird was potentially a lifer.

AOS Birders
If it ain’t rainin’ it ain’t birdin.

After the obligatory touristy stuff (a visit to the wildly-overpriced CN Tower, a somewhat adequate meal at Wayne Gretzky’s) we sped off down the highway bound for the vortex that is Point Pelee.[1]

The Vortex

Point Pelee National Park is justly renowned as one of the premier birding spots in North America. As the southernmost point in mainland Canada and the shortest way across Lake Erie it acts a superhighway for migratory birds. The masses of inbound birds that flow through in May are only matched by the thousands of birders and photographers who descend upon the park in droves.

Pelee - The Vortex
Anyone seen any birds?

Birding can be a peaceful, contemplative way of enjoying nature, but birding in Pelee in May is… not. The hordes rush madly between trails and viewing areas, hot on the heels of any rarish bird that peeks its head out of the bushes. Photographers with massive lenses and tripods elbow their way to the front, demanding to know which bird is the “good” one. Birders compare notes on what is being seen, often ending with the dreaded phrase “you should have been here ten minutes ago.” Lists-services and the park sightings book (a.k.a. The Book of Lies) taunt you with tales of extreme rarities seen briefly at the other end of the park, which might still be there but might also cause you to lose your precious parking spot to see where they once had been.

Are you getting the impression that I didn’t love Pelee? Perhaps, though it can’t be denied that we were seeing a lot of birds in a very short time. We arrived late on the 6th and “only” added 13 species in the pouring rain. Another 22 showed up the next day, including White-eyed Vireo (a lifer for me).

White-eyed Vireo - Biggish Year 2018
White-eyed Vireo

Rondeau

And Point Pelee is not the only hotspot in the bird-blessed Southwest of Ontario. Rondeau Provincial Park is about an hour away and a much more pleasant experience. The variety of birds on view was excellent but for some reason Rondeau does not attract the mobs. We birded the park on the 8th and added several good species including the much-desired Prothonotary Warbler. And just when spirits were dangerously flagging the Visitor Centre came up with cups of good coffee, and all was well again.

Prothonotary Warbler - Biggish Year 2018
Prothonotary Warbler

On the way back from Rondeau the word went out that American Avocets were being seen at Hillman Marsh. Of course we had to check it out, so we and a couple hundred of our closest friends descended on this conservation area for a look. The small, one-lane parking area was completely overwhelmed so we parked in a nearby churchyard, tabbed in,[2] saw the birds and moved back out in the space of about 15 minutes – much to the surprise of the lady collecting money at the gate.

Avocet Twitch - Hillman Marsh
Avocet Twitch – Hillman Marsh

American Avocets - Biggish Year 2018
American Avocets in the distance, apparently unconcerned

Then back to the vortex on the 9th for one last round of crowd-birding, netting a further nine species.

The Tally

For all its oversubscribed charms, the Pelee area was an excellent place to run up the year list. I started the excursion with 152 species on my year list, and added 66 species over three and a half days. We missed the enigmatic Worm-eating Warbler, but added a few semi-rarities and hard-to-see birds including Kentucky, Hooded and Cerulean Warblers, American White Pelican, Surf Scoter, Willet, the Avocets and a Red-headed Woodpecker.

Horned Grebe - Biggish Year 2018
Horned Grebe

Yellow-throated Vireo
Yellow-throated Vireo

We also had an excellent meal of ribs at Ray’s Ribhouse in Leamington, albeit on the third attempt: on Sunday evening the extraction fans broke down and the place was filled with smoke, and of course as everyone knows (!) all restaurants in Leamington are closed on Mondays. But Tuesday all was well and it was worth the wait.

The morning of the 10th saw us headed East. A short side trip to the Blenheim sewage lagoons on the way netted Wilson’s Phalarope, which was a great start to the next phase of the adventure: Long Point and The Long March.

Northern Yellow Warbler - Biggish Year 2018
Northern Yellow Warbler

Ontario Year List: 208

[1] For reasons unknown there is no accent on the first e.

[2] Another virtue of Army birders – we/they are not afraid of rapid-pace forced marches in pursuit of our quarry.