Lime Cordial

In a previous post on the great Gin Challenge of 2019 I promised the recipe for home-made lime cordial. So here it is!

Lime Cordial Recipe

  • Get some limes. Five is a good number to start. Let them get to room temperature
  • Wash the limes, scrubbing them with a dishcloth or a soft vegetable brush
  • Peel the limes using a vegetable peeler, trying to get only the green skin (minimize the amount of white pith). Don’t worry if the resulting peel is in small pieces – it will be used for flavour and then discarded.
I find that y-shaped peelers like this one work well.
  • Juice the limes and measure the amount of juice
  • Measure some table sugar. I find for cocktails the best ratio is 1:1 sugar to lime juice, but adjust as you see fit
  • Mix the juice and sugar in a non-reactive container. The sugar will eventually dissolve but if you want to speed up the process you can heat it up while stirring. If you do this try not to let the mixture come to the boil
  • Remove from heat, and add the lime peels to the juice, crushing them with your hands as you do
  • Let the mixture sit in the fridge for 24 hours, then strain out the lime peels
  • Store in the refrigerator. It will keep for a long time, as the acids and high sugar content make for a hostile atmosphere for pesky microorganisms
  • If you must have the unnatural neon-green hue of Rose’s Lime Cordial, I suppose you could add food colouring. But you’re on your own – this is one avenue that I don’t intend to explore.
And it looks like this.

Uses

Frankly, this stuff is so delicious that I have been known to just eat a spoonful straight out of the jar. But the traditional use is to thin lime cordial with soda water to make a nice summer drink.

However the key point of lime cordial, at least in my establishment, is that it allows you to mix up a batch of gimlets.

Gimlet Recipe

  • Start with a mixing glass or a the large half of a Boston cocktail shaker.
  • Pour in 1 1/2 ounces of gin (Plymouth Gin would be a good choice) and 3/4 ounce of lime cordial per serving.
  • Add a good number of ice cubes: Four will work, but six is better
  • Stir with a cocktail spoon until the mixture is ice-cold. Thirty seconds is probably enough. You should see a strong layer of condensation on the outside of the mixing tin/glass.
  • Strain into stemmed cocktail glasses
  • Enjoy!
  • Hint: if you have leftover mixture in the mixing glass, strain it out into a clean glass and put it into the fridge. If you leave it in the mixing glass it will become diluted. No one wants a weak and watery cocktail.
home-made lime cordial

BTW the cocktail glass shown on the left is a classic design called a Nick and Nora glass. I prefer it over the martini style as it is less prone to tipping over and takes up less real estate in the cabinet. I bought mine at The Crafty Bartender.

Gin Challenge 2019 – Part 1: the Preliminary Report

Gin cocktails: a Gimlet and a Gin and Tonic

Not that long ago, ordering a gin drink was a simple thing. There were three standard choices: the Gimlet – a lime and gin concoction, the Dry Martini – essentially straight gin with an olive added, and the self-explanatory Gin and Tonic.(1) If you ordered at a proper establishment the gin would be one of Beefeater, Gordon’s or Gilbey’s, or perhaps Tanqueray if it was a more upscale place.

The potion you would be presented would contain:

  • Gimlet: gin and Rose’s Lime Syrup, stirred with ice and served “up” (i.e. strained into a cocktail glass)
  • Dry Martini: gin, possibly with a minute quantity of dry vermouth, served up
  • Gin and Tonic: gin, bar tonic (hopefully Schweppes or Canada Dry) and a lime slice, served on the rocks in a lowball glass

So that was the way it was for a long time, but as you may have noticed, dull but simple, enduring standard, market leader and time-tested are phrases no longer in vogue. Constant innovation is the new shibboleth, and though this has not generally been a good thing in some spheres (politics comes to mind), it means boon times for those of us who enjoy a wee dram or two.

A potted history of the new drinks wave

The current golden age for drinkers started in the eighties when it suddenly emerged that wine could be made in places not named France. Soon afterward the first inklings were seen of the oncoming tsunami of craft beer. Single-malt scotches, so unpopular that even in the ‘80s fine distilleries like Port Ellen and Brora were going bust, unexpectedly became a thing and gained a mass following. Mad Men almost single-handedly revived the market for fine Bourbon.

Cocktails (outside of New York City) had sunk to the point that they were found in a “Martini Menu” that included no martinis but many sappy-sweet kiddie drinks (anyone remember the Monkey’s Lunch?). But thankfully, sanity has returned, and as signaled by Sex and the City and the famous Cosmopolitan (a sappy-sweet grown-up drink) we are now in the midst of a full-fledged cocktail boom, with a young generation of mixologists inventing new drinks and new takes on old standards, all made with exotic ingredients and artfully presented. Even Tiki Bars are making a comeback. It is indeed good to be alive. 😊

All things craft and beautiful

The numbers show that in general, in our part of the world at least, people are drinking less, but they are increasingly consuming higher quality products. So intrepid upstarts have responded with a wide and growing range of artisanal or craft products ranging from whisk(e)y to vodka to beer.

(Rant Warning) Craft beer has stolen so much market share that the top mass market brands are trying to buy out the creators wherever possible, and have even started producing faux craft beers that are marketed as if they came from bearded hipsters in a loft. Shock Top and Goose Island are popular examples of the big brewery fakes, while such fine brands as Stanley Park and Mill Street (Labatt’s), Creemore Springs and Granville Island (Molson’s), and Blanche de Chambly (Sapporo) have fallen into the hands of the same people who for a long time abused their oligopolistic control of the market by limiting Canadian drinkers to a near-identical range of bad, chemical-laden brews.

So their ongoing attempt to subvert and control the craft beer market does not bode well. But I digress… (2)

Craft Gin

Gin Challenge: craft gins from Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland.
A few from the new breed, representing (i-r) Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland.

So back to the world of craft potables, and to get to the point, let’s talk about craft gin. For anyone wanting to enter the now-crowded craft spirits market, gin and vodka are the best vehicles. Making brown spirits requires a large investment in oak casks, where the whisky or rum lays dormant for years, all the while needing to be housed and protected. Whereas anyone with a still and a handful of juniper berries is in the gin business.

As a result, even in benighted Ontario, where government nannies decide what the citizens will be allowed to drink, there are now 14 pages of gin choices on the LCBO website. Many come from new producers, and the big brand distilleries have also expanded their ranges considerably.

With choice comes confusion. “But what is the best gin for me?” I hear you cry. Fear not friends. Last year a crack team of researchers assembled to answer for once and all the correct recipe for a Manhattan. The team is now hard at work solving your equally vital gin questions. Herewith is the preliminary report.

The 2019 Gin Challenge Research Project – Phase 1

To mistrust science and deny the validity of scientific method is to resign your job as a human. You’d better go look for work as a plant or wild animal.  – P.J. O’Rourke

– Background/Literature Review/Experimental Design

Gin Challenge 2019 - Team 1 members relaxing
Science is serious business.

Job #1 was to frame the problem. We aspired to taste all known gins in every possible drink formulation in a scientifically valid manner. However there were limiting factors to be considered: permanent damage to our livers was to be avoided, and more importantly the host was not to be left with a huge collection of part-bottles of gin that had been weighed in the balance and found wanting.

So we made the early decision to set some limits. With a vast array of gins already available and more appearing every day it would have been rather expensive to try and test everything available. Gin fatigue also loomed as a potential problem – it’s not a drink that lends itself to being tasted straight. So we decided that 16 would be the correct number, for no good reason other than the fact that when we were setting this up the Women’s World Cup was entering the round of sixteen.

Narrowing the field

It would also have been beyond the scope of budget and interest to try out every gin-based concoction, so we decided to concentrate on only two of the Big Three Gin Drinks – the Gimlet and the Gin and Tonic. The Dry Martini was down-selected because, well, it’s a nasty-tasting drink. As noted, straight gin is not that appetizing and adding white vermouth, an equally nasty beverage, does not help. The drink became popular in the US during Prohibition, probably for the reason mentioned earlier: gin is easy to make. It maintained its popularity through the postwar era, an age of heavy boozing.

I like to have a martini,

Two at the very most.

After three I’m under the table,

after four I’m under my host.  — Dorothy Parker

Ultimately a less battle-hardened population came to their senses and said, collectively, “hey, this stuff is nasty. But I still want to get hammered in the fastest way possible”. And thus was born the Vodka Martini, made famous by James Bond and favoured during the era of the three-martini lunch on the supposition that one’s boss and co-workers would not detect the tell-tale signs of alcohol on the breath. (Slurred speech, bumping into things and needing a rest might still have given away the game).

So anyway, the martini was out. As were several other worthy drinks, including the classic Gin Collins, the ultra-boozy Fogcutter, and some sugary nuisances (Sloe Gin Fizz, the Singapore Sling). The estimable Negroni was also disinvited, as it might be worth its own research effort. But we would focus on perfecting G&Ts and the Gimlet.

Researchers

Meeting this challenge would require researchers of the highest calibre, willing to pursue results with vigour and determination. Fortunately I was able to call once again on the proven skills of the Canadian Beverage Research Institute faculty. In fact we had sufficient volunteers to make up two teams, meaning that we could conduct experiments on consecutive weekends.

Gin Challenge 2019 - research team 1
Team 1 (l-r) Marianne, Anthony, Lynn, Jennifer, Bryan, Cathy, Carl
Gin Challenge 2019 - research team 2
Team 2 (l-r) Louis, Anthony, Lynn, Nicholas, Branka, Kevin.

Methodology

We aimed to provide scientifically-valid results upon which you, gentle reader, could rely. Oh, and perhaps have a good time in the doing. So to the extent possible the testing was blind. We did not discuss the product range in advance, and the researchers made their notes based on samples identified only by numbers. Only when we compared notes were the identities revealed, and the team members from the first experiment were sworn to secrecy to avoid skewing the perceptions of the next crew.

Scheme of Manoeuvre

Preparation site for the gin challenge

Each experiment was intended to follow this programme:

  • taste a “reference” Gimlet (Rose’s syrup and Tanqueray gin)
  • record pre-festivities team photograph
  • taste: five gins, seven tonics, two lime syrups
  • taste five more gins
  • sample one or more libations made with the preferred products
  • rest
  • repeat as necessary

And it did sort of work out that way. Indeed Team 1 bravely volunteered to continue the testing until all 12 available gins had been assayed.

Yes, that’s all well and good, but when are you going to get to the results?

Oh alright then. But first I must report that a few twists arose from the decision to split the experiment over two weekends. On the plus side, we were able to compare the results of two different groups. Perhaps surprisingly, their likes and dislikes were very similar, so it was looking as though we could plausibly claim some sort of statistical significance. However since some of the gin was provided by team members (¡muchas gracias mis amigos!), we taste-tested a slightly different range of products at each experiment.

Further, as the poet Robert Burns noted, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/ Gang aft agley”. Or as the poet Mike Tyson put it, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”. And so it was to be. A nasty GI bug caused two of the Team 2 members to withdraw, and with them went the bottle of Bombay Sapphire. So our results can only be considered provisional.

As you have astutely guessed, the way to rescue the validity of the results and claim absolute authority for all time is simple: at some point soon we will conduct a plenary session where the top gins will face off head-to-head for world supremacy.

The results, please

Gin Challenge 2019 - research team 2 relaxing

First, the easy stuff.

Lime syrup

You have two choices. Get a bottle of cheap and cheerful Rose’s Lime Cordial and you will be able to make respectable gimlets. Or make your own stuff, which is easy to do and orders of magnitude better. I will publish a recipe on this site, or you can find a good one online.

Tonic Waters

The contestants were:

  • Schweppes
  • Canada Dry
  • Selection (Metro’s house brand)
  • Fever Tree Indian
  • Fever Tree Elderflower
  • Fentimans Traditional
  • Third Place Cocktail Company (a syrup, to be mixed with soda water)

To make sense of the results you should know that we learned early on that gin can be divided into two main groups. The traditional gins are robustly flavoured and fairly heavy in the juniper department. Many of the newer gins are less junipery, letting the botanicals take centre stage.

Best tonic for traditional gin

Gin Challenge - three tonic waters

The top choices were, not surprisingly, traditional tonics:

  1. Schweppes
  2. Canada Dry (preferred by some to Schweppes, and ranked only slightly behind)
  3. Fever Tree Indian
  4. Selection (deemed acceptable, but lacking zing compared to the top two

Best tonic for craft and juniper-light gins

Gin Challenge - four more tonic waters
l-r: Odd, avoid, obtain, avoid
  1. Fever Tree Indian
  2. Schweppes
  3. Canada Dry

Unusual but interesting in the right context

  1. Fever Tree Elderflower. This is a well-made product with a very floral and delicate flavour. Most researchers would happily drink it under the right circumstances, but it is really not recognizable as tonic water. So one to have in your larder, but expect odd looks if you serve this in a gin and tonic.

Not recommended/what the hell were they thinking?

  1. Fentiman’s Traditional Tonic. This was by far the most expensive tonic tested, and 10 of 11 tasters pronounced it nasty and undrinkable. So Nicholas is the proud owner of the remaining seven bottles, which were otherwise destined to disappear down the kitchen sink. Avoid.
  2. Third Place Cocktail Company syrup. Thoroughly nasty, metallic-tasting stuff. Like sucking on an old penny. And deep brown to boot. Avoid.

A final note about the tonics: ensure that you use fresh stuff. The big 2l jugs are cheap, but over the course of a week we noticed a slight degradation in a bottle that had been opened for experiment 1.

Gin – the best of the best

We didn’t have exactly the same set of gins at each experiment, so I will give you the rank order from each group, followed by the rank order of the six gins that were tasted by both groups.

Team 1 results

  • #1 (tied) – The Botanist (Islay/Scotland), Plymouth (England)
  • #3 – Seventh Heaven (Quebec)
  • #4 (tied) – Spirit of York (Toronto), Tanqueray 10 (Scotland)
  • #6 – Ungava (Quebec)
  • #7 – Seaweed Gin (Newfoundland)
  • #8 – Tanqueray (Scotland)
  • #9 – Iceberg (Newfoundland)
  • #10 – Sixty-Six Loyalist Gin (Ontario)
  • #11 – Dillon’s Unfiltered Gin #22 (Ontario)
  • #12 – Hendrick’s (England)

Team 2 results

Quebec Gin - Romeo's, Oshlag, Radoune
  • #1 – Radoune (Quebec)
  • #2 (tied) – Plymouth (England), Tanqueray 10 (Scotland)
  • #4 – The Botanist (Islay/Scotland)
  • #5 – Seventh Heaven (Quebec)
  • #6 (tied) – Dillon’s Unfiltered Gin #22 (Ontario), Oshlag Gin Hibiscus (Quebec), Ungava (Quebec)
  • #9 – Romeo’s (Quebec)
  • #10 – Hendrick’s (England)

Results – Gins tasted by both teams

  • #1 – Plymouth (England)
  • #2 (tied) – The Botanist (Islay/Scotland), Tanqueray 10 (Scotland)
  • #4 – Seventh Heaven (Quebec)
  • #5 – Ungava (Quebec)
  • #6 – Dillons Unfiltered Gin #22 (Ontario)

Discussion

A couple of themes emerged during this process:

  • In general the panels were quite accepting of non-traditional gins that featured interesting botanicals. But there seems to be a point beyond which they were not willing to go. For example, the Dillon’s “gin” is a well-made and interesting product, but it really isn’t gin at all, and was marked down accordingly. Testers noted that it could just as easily be labeled craft vodka or non-aged whiskey. So producers beware – spurn the juniper and you will be punished.
  • Looking over the notes I was interested to see that in a blind testing most people rated the gin they normally buy at or near the top. This is a good sign, I think.

So what gin should you buy?

British gin - Hendrick's, Tanqueray 10, The Botanist
l-r: No, yes, yes

As noted above, these are preliminary results. We need to bring all of the top-rated gins together before we can decide who is king of the mountain. But you would absolutely not go wrong with any of the top-rated gins from either of the teams.

Three craft gins
l-r: No, yes, yes

In my personal bar, I intend to stock Plymouth or Tanqueray 10, the Botanist, and Seventh Heaven or Radoune. I will also pick up some Seaweed Gin or Ungava from time to time.

Of course, that’s after I deal with the large number of leftovers. 😊 That may take a while.

End Notes

Statement on Ethical Research

No animals were to be harmed in the conduct of these experiments. Researchers were not to be compelled to participate and were to be provided ample food and water throughout. Only mild bullying was to be tolerated.

I ran this plan by the Ethics Committee over a long and convivial lunch, and as the port was passed and the cognac emerged they came to the view that the likelihood of permanent harm being done to the participants was manageable. Or at least that’s the way that I remember it.

Peer Review

I sent a request to the House of Lords asking for some peers of the realm to review these results. They didn’t even bother to respond. And to think these people once ran a world-wide empire. Sheesh!

Recognition

And finally, thanks to all the researchers who made this an entertaining project. And especially those who contributed hard-to-find gins and home cooking. Standby for the plenary session!


[1] There is learned debate about whether these are mixed drinks, not cocktails. Some authorities believe that to qualify as a cocktail a drink must contain three or more ingredients.

[2] And note that Molson’s and Labatt’s themselves were long ago bought out by giant mutinationals, Coors and AB InBev respectively.



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.

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. 😊

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