Category Archives: Birds

Bird #100 – Biggish Year 2018

#100

And just like that, bird #100 is in the bag.

During a cruise around Wolfe Island on Friday I was able to add Eastern Meadowlark, Turkey Vulture, and Northern Harrier to the year list, bringing the total to 96. Migrants are starting to flow in in increasing numbers, but the key task for now is to see the scarce ones that arrive for a brief stay and are now about to move North.

Gentlemen, your target for today…

BriefingMy next key targets were two very uncommon migrant geese – Ross’s and Greater White-fronted. Both birds should be working their way North on the Western Flyway by way of Saskatchewan, but every year there are a few who stray into the east. They are in a hurry to get to the high Arctic to breed, so they normally stay for only a week or two in Southern Ontario.

Both are hard birds to see. White-fronted geese are similar to Canada Geese, but have orange legs and a white mask around the base of the bill. If you met them on a downtown sidewalk you would see the difference immediately. Amongst a couple of thousand Canada Geese in a field… not so much. Especially since there is maybe one White-fronted Goose in every fiftieth flock.

In principle Ross’s Goose should be easier to find. Birders tend to estimate that one in every 1,000 geese in a Snow Goose flock will be a Ross’s. And a Snow Goose flock in Ontario is rarely smaller than 1,000 birds. But as always with birds, there are issues. A Ross’s Goose is almost identical to a Snow Goose. The only difference that can be seen at ranges over 50m is that it is somewhat smaller. And they are never closer than 50m. And they are almost always embedded in a typical Snow Goose flock of 10,000 birds, give or take.

The Snow Geese currently loitering around Prescott and Russell counties are due to leave anytime now – inclement weather is all that is holding them back. And when they leave the Ross’s will also depart, thumbing their noses at all the birders that didn’t see one.[1]

The Mission

Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I turned once more to my trusty local guide, Jon Ruddy of Eastern Ontario Birding. He had an aptly-named Wild Goose Chase planned for Sunday, and off we went with a small party of like-minded souls for a bit of what birders call fun – a massive game of Where’s Waldo played by peering through telescopes for hours in the bracing wind.

Ross's Goose and friends. Ontario bird #100 for 2018
Ross’s Goose and friends.

The trip was planned for four hours (about the limit of anyone’s tolerance for standing in the aforementioned bracing wind looking for geese that aren’t there). Along the way we lucked into a very early American Bittern (#97), whilst adding a few Green-winged Teal (#98) and a large clutch of Northern Pintail (#99) to the Ontario year list. But not a Ross’s or White-front to be seen.

Our time was up, but Jon was determined to get us a Ross’s Goose. We stayed and peered some more and finally when all seemed lost a rather pequeño goose was seen scurrying amongst a group of its hulking cousins. Victory! High fives were exchanged in the Canadian manner: politely, with insulated gloves.

A more cooperative group of Ross's Geese - Carrying Place, 4 Feb 16. #100
A more cooperative group of Ross’s Geese – Carrying Place, 4 Feb 16

Somehow it seemed fitting that the #100 bird in this biggish year was a good one that was found through hard graft. In order not to spoil the festive mood we will speak no more of White-fronted Geese.

#101

And just to show that St Thomas Aquinas was right (“that which is more difficult is not necessarily more virtuous”), I snagged bird #101 on the way back into Kingston – the usual Osprey that nests every year on the light standard of the RMCC soccer pitch.

An appropriate ceremony was duly conducted.

#100

 

[1] In a metaphorical sense, you understand – geese not being blessed with either thumbs or noses.

February Doldrums – Biggish Year 2018

The February DoldrumsThe doldrums

T.S. Eliot claimed that April is the cruellest month. Evidently he was not a birder. April is birding nirvana, or perhaps little nirvana to May’s big nirvana. It’s when millions of migratory birds start to pile into Canada from their tropical resort communities to get on with the business of breeding. And thousands of birders lurk in the bushes to see them, photograph them and marvel at their willingness to fly thousands of miles so we can enjoy them.

No, the cruellest month is February.

Birders start off every January with a blank year list and for the first few weeks it’s easy to add new species. Even very common species become new again. Crow? Tick! Rock Pigeon? First of the year! There are 75 or 80 bird species that can be seen in Eastern Ontario in the dead of winter, and with a bit of effort and luck I managed to get 71 in January.

But then the new additions started to taper off, and the February doldrums loomed. In the service of a biggish year list those missing species needed to be found. But of course they were the ones that are scarce or skulking enough as not to be seen during the hundred plus hours I spent in the field in January. So in the continuing deep freeze I knew that I was doomed to spend many hours trudging through snow and ice chasing the elusive pests, usually to no avail. And so it came to pass.

February Birds

The first February bird was Peregrine Falcon. A pair nests in downtown Kingston but I shamelessly saved them so I could start off February with a win. The next “tick” was totally unexpected and rather gratifying. Whilst out on a field trip with Jon Ruddy, where we signally failed to catch sight of the target Black-backed Woodpecker, someone scanned a raptor soaring by high overhead which mirabile dictu turned out to be a Golden Eagle. A rather excellent bird, as all eagles are, but previously I have only seen them in Crete and Scotland’s Findhorn Valley, so it was great to add this one to my Canada list. Two new birds by 3 February. Perhaps I was on a roll?

A far away Golden Eagle
A far away Golden Eagle

Well… no actually. The total haul for the rest of February was an Eastern Screech Owl on the 10th, and a big day by February doldrums standards – 23 Feb – when Mark Read and I added Long-eared Owl, Glaucous Gull and an overwintering Golden-crowned Kinglet. So six new birds for the month. A bit paltry, though the Long-ears were a great find that I frankly didn’t expect to see this year.

Long-eared Owl, wishing not to be seen
Long-eared Owl, wishing not to be seen

After a brief interlude with my bride in Costa Rica (257 bird species in 10 days – I do love the tropics!) it was back on the trail. The migrant ducks were finally starting to arrive. By the end of March I had added most of the standard ducks and swans to the list, though my punishment for sipping Guaro Sours and looking at hummingbirds during the short window when Canvasback pass through Kingston meant that I had to deploy to Presqu’ile to see them.

Rarities

There were also a couple of non-standard finds. A long trudge to the end of Tommy Thompson Park (a.k.a. the Leslie Street Spit) was rewarded with great views of a Harlequin Duck – a beast that lives on the East and West coasts but occasionally wanders in to catch up with the relatives.

Harlequin Duck
Harlequin Duck

But the two best finds came from serious twitching. A female Barrow’s Goldeneye had been seen regularly along the Rideau River in Ottawa, but then the much more handsome and colorful drake showed up. Despite serious emotional pain earlier inflicted by earlier attempts to twitch this species I concluded, entirely without reason, that this time luck would be on my side. I can now admit that at several points during my three-hour patrol along a short stretch of the river I succumbed to doubt, but the day was won when I finally clocked the beast in all his I-look-almost-identical-to-Common-Goldeneye glory. A lifer and a new year list bird – surely worth the trip to Ottawa. There is no need to spoil this happy tale by recounting the four hours I then spent waiting fruitlessly for the Marchurst Short-eared Owl to make an appearance.

More Rarities

The best twitch of all came from a to-hell-with-the-carbon-footprint dash up to Schomberg to see one of my favourite birds. Barnacle Goose was the first truly wild goose I identified as a beginner birder, and I have enjoyed seeing them and hearing their weird honking calls in Gloucestershire, Dumfries & Galloway, and on Islay. But they do not come to Canada. The bird is rated as “an occasional, rare straggler”, which in normal people speech means “you are not going to see one.” But there it was, happily swimming around in a water resource recovery facility (i.e. a sewage lagoon) and heading out with his new Canada Goose pals to feed in the surrounding fields.

Barnacle Goose
Barnacle Goose

As usual I agonized over this one, and thus almost missed it, but on a gloriously sunny day I braved the 401 and 400 in the hopes of seeing it. It went like this: parked, walked down the edge of the lagoon, saw the bird. And then just watched it for a long while enjoying its barnacle-ness. A great find, and for icing on the cake I had really good views of 10+ Cackling Geese. Bird seen, home for dinner. Sometimes it just works that way.

Cackling Goose (on the left) comparison with Canada Goose
Cackling Goose (on the left) comparison with Canada Goose

Biggish Year Total so far: 92 species. 158 to go!

Twitching the Barrow’s Goldeneye – Biggish Year 2018

The Biggish Year challenge brought me to the windswept shores of Prescott, Ontario last week, twitching and dipping on Barrow’s Goldeneye.

And “what does that translate to in English?” you may well ask.

Twitching

Twitching is the act of chasing a rare bird, usually far away from your normal birding haunts. The etymology is not entirely certain, but it originated in England, home to probably half of the world’s birders.

Many birders keep a life list of the birds they have seen, but if they have been birding for any significant time they reach a point where no new birds are being added to the list. So when they hear about some rarity they get excited, wondering whether they can afford to chase it. Big British listers (not chunky ones, but birders with big lists) have been known to fly to the Shetlands just to have a chance of seeing a new bird. But given that birds have wings, and therefore aren’t glued to a particular spot there is a strong possibility that they will not see the bird. So until they see it they exist in a state of extreme nervous anxiety – they are “twitchy”. Thus the act of chasing a rare bird has become known as twitching.

All twitchers are birders, but only a small subset of birders are twitchers. Non-birders often make the mistake of referring to all birders as twitchers, but this is wrong and bad. You, gentle reader, now know the correct way to use the word, so I will be watching you to ensure that you  do not backslide.

Dipping

A twitch can only end in two ways: see the bird and add it to your list – “tick” it – or miss seeing the bird, which is known, for reasons lost to civilization, as “dipping”.

I normally avoid twitching because the potential agony of defeat seems to outweigh the thrill of victory. But when I set out on the Biggish Year challenge I knew that I was not going to find 250 birds in Ontario without resorting to some twitching. So when the call went out on the birders’ jungle telegraph that a rare duck had been seen in Prescott I had to check it out.

Barrow’s Goldeneye

Barrow’s Goldeneye is a semi-mythical diving duck that breeds on the west coast of North America from Alaska and the Yukon to northern Washington. For reasons best known to ducks a slack handful (two or three) of these creatures appear in Ontario most winters, usually associating with Common Goldeneye, of which we get a fair-sized inundation in the Great Lakes and along the Saint Lawrence River. Cunningly, Barrow’s look a great deal like Common Goldeneye, especially when they are immature birds – the kind most likely to lose their way. Compared to a Common Goldeneye the crown of their head is farther forward, and mature ones have a different shape to the white patch on their face. If you held one in each hand and looked closely you would see the difference.

I should show you a picture at this point, but – spoiler alert – I ain’t got one.

Common Goldeneye
Common Goldeneye. So very common…

What I did get was four hours of standing in the cold wind peering through my telescope at the 2,000-odd Common Goldeneye bouncing around in the swell, hoping to see a flash of an uncommon one. And gripping my tripod with both hands to keep a bunch of pricy optics from crashing onto the sidewalk. And wiping my eyes so that I could see through the wind-induced tears. And cursing when I left the rain covers off my binoculars and had to mop semi-frozen drops from my nose and eyes out of the eyepieces. And did I mention that they are diving ducks? Which means that the moment you focus on one that looks a little steep-headed it disappears under the waves and eventually pops up somewhere else. So despite a valiant effort I dipped comprehensively. It was little compensation to learn that the Barrow’s made a ten-minute appearance a half a kilometre further downstream before vanishing into the ducky version of the Twilight Zone.

The Moral of this Story

Now if you are bored enough to have made it this far you may be wondering whether there is a point to all of this. Indeed there is, though it may sound a bit like grasping at straws. For all my moaning this was actually a half-decent day out. I did get a good, long look at all the subtle plumage variations of Common Goldeneye. I spent most of the day outside in the fresh air, which comprehensively beats out almost any day that I spent at the office in my former life, staring at a computer screen. And in a fully illogical bit of cognitive bias (the Monte Carlo Fallacy, for those that like such things) I delude myself with the thought that the more time I spend out looking for birds, the more likely I am in the long run to actually see them.

Since you’ve lasted this far, here’s a nice bit of bird porn to enjoy:

Snowy Owl
Snowy Owl. He don’t need no stinking Goldeneye.

And someday that Barrow’s Goldeneye will be mine! he said in half-crazed tones.

19 Feb 2018. Biggish Year total 74 species.

My Biggish Year 2018 – January Recap

January 2018 is in the books and my Biggish Year is off to a good start. I saw a total of 71 Ontario species, including some uncommon ones, which given the frigid conditions is a reasonably good number. Lake Ontario is well and truly frozen over and there’s not been much duck and goose action, so my main focus was on picking up the winter species of passerines. And moaning about the weather.

Early Days

Biggish Year - Horned Larks
Sketchy image of Horned Larks

On the first day of January Paul MacKenzie and I did a thorough search of Wolfe Island, turning up 22 species including Cooper’s Hawk and Snowy Owl. One advantage of a cold winter is that it draws in winter migrants like Horned Lark and Snow Bunting, and as expected we saw large numbers of both species.

The next day I “did” Marshlands Conservation Area, slogging  through deep snow but being rewarded with a light morph Rough-legged Hawk doing a low cruise over the golf course. Highlights from a trip with the North Leeds Birders were some large flocks of ducks at Ivy Lea as well as Ruffed Grouse, Great Black-backed Gull and an Eastern Towhee who apparently did not get the message when it was time to migrate south. And on a re-visit to Wolfe Island I manged to dredge up four Lapland Longspur, a winter migrant that is very scarce in these parts.

Northern Exposure

For a Big Year, or even a Biggish Year, to be successful you have to get out on the road and chase the birds where they are. So off I went to Algonquin Provincial Park in search of winter finches and other exotica. Day One was perishingly cold but I manged to link up with Red and White-winged Crossbills and Canada Jays. On the morning of Day Two I snuck in before it opened to see the feeders at the Visitor Centre, and had a bit of a moment enjoying large flocks of Purple Finch, Evening Grosbeak and Pine Siskin. So that was all the plausible winter finches in the bag, a success which partially offset the hours of frustration patrolling known habitat for Spruce Grouse and Black-backed Woodpecker and coming up with nothing.

Canada Jay
Canada Jay, aka Whiskey Jack

Biggish Year - Evening Grosbeak
Evening Grosbeak
Biggish Year - Purple Finch
Purple Finch

 

Biggish Year - Barred Owl
Like an owl, on a wire…

On the way back home I spotted a nice looking Barred Owl in North Frontenac, which somewhat made up for dipping again at a known  Black-backed Woodpecker site.

Sweeping Up

The rest of the month was spent gathering sightings of the resident  bird species in the usual spots. There was a nice second winter Iceland Gull at the Lansdowne Dump, Trumpeter Swans at Chaffey’s Locks, a Northern Saw-whet Owl at an undisclosed location and a Horned Grebe at Invista, as well as the usual woodpeckers, cardinals, chickadees and crows.Biggish Year - Trumpeter Swans

Trumpeter Swans, an Eastern Ontario specialty.

Biggish Year - Northern Saw-whet Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl, trying to ignore a nosy birder.

 

January in Review, February Plans

So the total for January was 71 species. “Only” 179 to go to hit the Biggish Year goal of 250. It was a good start, but February promises to be fairly slow going. There are not too many likely species hanging around that haven’t already been nabbed. So far I have resisted the lure of driving to Hamilton to see the vagrant Tufted Duck, but I may break down and twitch it if under the guise of visiting my in-laws. Anything to feed the addiction while I wait for spring migration to kick in.

‘Till next time, happy birding!

BTW as time permits I will publish the better photos from my travels at the Biggish Year Ontario Birds Gallery page.

My Biggish Year 2018

Birding is hard work.

The Big Year

In the heart of every serious birder lurks the desire to do a “Big Year”. A Big Year is a sustained effort to see the maximum possible number of species in a single year in a specified place. This is the story of my not-quite Big Year of 2018- my “Biggish Year”.

You may have seen the movie The Big Year, starring Owen Wilson, Steve Martin and Jack Black. Surprisingly (for Hollywood) it’s a reasonably accurate representation of what a “Big” Big Year means as three fanatic birders vie to determine who can see the most birds in the USA in a year. Most of us don’t have unlimited funds, and most of us have real lives to live, so for all but a tiny minority this sort of Big Year is out of the question. Fortunately a Big Year can be done on a more manageable scale – within a province, a county or even a city.

However, whichever way you set it up a Big Year is a non-trivial undertaking. It means that for a year a lot of normal life stuff has to take second place to the single minded pursuit of birds. Because it requires a lot of sacrifices (notably from one’s significant other) it’s really not worth doing in a half-hearted way.

It’s also hard to hide. And once your birding pals know you are on a big year, they will work hard to support you – passing on sightings, helping you see target birds, and working their contacts to ensure you have the best chance of succeeding. So you can’t really just lose interest halfway through – once you’re in it’s all in.

The Biggish Year Manifesto

Greater Yellowlegs – feeding up for the long flight North to Ontario

So… am I about to announce that I’m doing a Big Year? Well, yes and no. Yes, in my first full year as a full-time birder (i.e. a retired guy) in 2018 I am going to see every bird I can in Ontario. But no, I am not doing an official Ontario Big Year. By convention a Big Year in Ontario is 300 or more birds. Given that only 291 species of bird actually breed in Ontario, that means seeing them all as well as any rare bird that happens to wander by. The latest guy to set the Big Year record, Jeremy Bensette, put 90,000 km on his car chasing every rarity in the province for a year.

I could try to replicate that, but having done most of my birding in the UK, I don’t really know the Ontario birds well enough to set 300 as a goal. Yet.

So what I am going to do (indeed what I have already started to do) is a Biggish Year. The target is a mere 250 species, but to make it harder I want to see them all – just hearing them won’t count. (Yes, that means a bunch of purely nocturnal species are pretty much off the table).

And happily for all, I am not going to use some fake goal of “raising awareness” to hit up my friends for donations. My Biggish Year will be entirely self-funded.

The Plan

But I am counting on my friends in the Kingston Field Naturalists to help me out with tips and suggestions, and a couple of my Army Ornithological Society pals will be coming over from England to do an intensive 10 days during Spring migration. All the usual stations of the cross – Pelee, Long Point, Presqu’ile, Algonquin Park and Prince Edward County – will be thoroughly patrolled, and far-away places like Rainy River are on the programme.

So consider Biggish Year 2018 as a recce for a future Big Year. And standby for upcoming posts recounting the successes and the inevitable “you should have been here yesterday” stories.

New additions

OK, so I haven’t been posting much lately for a variety of reasons. This is just to advise my vast readership 😉 that I have put up a number of new pages, grouped under the Creatures tab. They include photo galleries of Arizona Wildlife, Birds of Cuba and Butterflies. I’m pestering you with this post because when I create a new page the system does not advise subscribers like it does when I post something. And of course you have been waiting with bated breath for more animal photos to brighten up your day!

Such as this one…