Tag Archives: Birds

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

Waders, Warblers and Water

Onwards, ever onwards

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

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

Marsh Wren - Biggish Year 2018
Marsh Wren

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

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

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

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

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

Warbler Mania – The Agony of Defeat

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

Long Point

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

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

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

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

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

Blackburnian Warbler- Biggish Year 2018
Blackburnian Warbler

Magnolia Warbler- Biggish Year 2018
Magnolia Warbler

Warbler Mania

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

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

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

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

Yup, that’s about it. Warbler Mania.

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

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

The Long March

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

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

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

Alvar Birding

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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

The Vortex – Biggish Year 2018

American White Pelican - Biggish Year 2018
American White Pelican

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

The Road Trip, Part 1

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

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

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

The Vortex

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

Pelee - The Vortex
Anyone seen any birds?

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

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

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

Rondeau

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

Prothonotary Warbler - Biggish Year 2018
Prothonotary Warbler

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

Avocet Twitch - Hillman Marsh
Avocet Twitch – Hillman Marsh

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

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

The Tally

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

Horned Grebe - Biggish Year 2018
Horned Grebe

Yellow-throated Vireo
Yellow-throated Vireo

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

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

Northern Yellow Warbler - Biggish Year 2018
Northern Yellow Warbler

Ontario Year List: 208

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

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

April Showers – Biggish Year 2018

Showers

April showers supposedly bring May flowers. So standby for Southern Ontario to be the garden capital of the world. April was – not to mince words – bleak. “Colder than normal temperatures predominated”, which is weatherperson speak for “there was no Spring this year”. By mid-April there was still significant ice cover on lakes Great and small. A significant dump of snow and freezing rain on the 16th didn’t help:  inter alia it caused the Blue Jays game to be cancelled when large chunks of ice plummeting from the CN Tower put a big hole in the roof of Skydome.

Mid-April in Sunny Kingston - April Showers
Mid-April in Sunny Kingston – Sheesh!

The birds, sensibly, opted to stay put in sunnier climes, proving once again that Sibley’s, Peterson’s and the National Geographic so-called bird guides do not actually guide birds.

Carrying On

Nonetheless the quest for 250 continued. With a fair amount of hard graft and a dollop of luck here and there I added a few more specimens to my year list. Of course, it wouldn’t be proper birding without the odd bootless quest involving a zero-dark thirty wakeup, a long drive and hours of staring into the cold wind to no avail. In this case it was a Ruff and a Snowy Egret in some nameless wet field near Arnprior, both of whom evaded my grasp. And I got to hear the words all birders dread: “You should have been here half an hour ago.”

Which leads to the first Rule of Bird Acquisition for a future Big Year, should I be masochistic enough to try for 300:

  • When a real rarity shows up (or two real rarities in this case), go now. Do not wait for tomorrow morning.
  • And the corollary: If you have to get up at an ungodly hour, the difference between 0500 and 0400 is marginal. The additional pain is transitory; the pain of missing a mega rarity is a lasting wound.

So… on to the

April highlights

Spruce Grouse - April Showers
Spruce Grouse

White-winged Crossbill - April Showers
White-winged Crossbill

Algonquin Park with Paul, Richard and Dianne yielded epic views of Spruce Grouse and a re-look at the winter finches. Once again the accursed Black-backed Woodpecker made itself scarce.

Surf Scoter - April Showers
Surf Scoter – Trust me!

At Prince Edward Point with the same gang plus Erwin we managed to see a Surf Scoter about a kilometre offshore. Good bird, not rare but hard to find.

Fox Sparrow - April Showers
Fox Sparrow in the murk.

At Marshlands Conservation Area I not only saw the scarce Fox Sparrow, but managed to get some decent pictures.

Under the Life’s Like That rubric I drove to Oshawa and stood for a couple of hours grilling[1] gulls way offshore before I had a confirmed Little Gull. Some days later at Kaiser Crossroads I had at least 17 Little Gulls at close range.

White-winged Dove - April Showers
White-winged Dove

And I did add one real rarity – a White-winged Dove has decided to take up residence in Sandhurst Shores, a wee community half an hour from home.

Slow Motion Showers

For Bird Nerds, the day-by-day line scores for additions to the list:

April

  • 11 Apr – Leeds County: Red-shouldered Hawk, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Bluebird, White-throated Sparrow, Rusty Blackbird, Tree Swallow
  • 11 Apr – Amherstview Sewage Lagoons: Northern Shoveler
  • 12 Apr – Whitney: Sandhill Crane
  • 12 Apr – Algonquin Provincial Park: Spruce Grouse
  • 17 Apr – Doug Fluhrer Park, Kingston: Bonaparte’s Gull, Caspian Tern, Pied-billed Grebe
  • 20 Apr – Prince Edward Point: Surf Scoter, Wilson’s Snipe, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  • 21 Apr – Helen Quilliam Sanctuary, Frontenac County: Winter Wren
  • 22 Apr – Lennox Generating Station: Blue-winged Teal
  • 22 Apr – Lennox & Addington County: Greater Yellowlegs
  • 23 Apr – Marshlands CA, Kingston: Virginia Rail, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Hermit Thrush, Fox Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow
  • 24 Apr – Oshawa Harbour: Little Gull, Barn Swallow
  • 24 Apr – Second Marsh, Oshawa: Swamp Sparrow
  • 24 Apr – Cranberry Marsh, Whitby: Dunlin, Lesser Yellowlegs, Common Tern
  • 28 Apr – Lanark County: Broad-winged Hawk, Upland Sandpiper, Brown Thrasher, Pine Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Field Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow

May

  • 3 May – Prince Edward Point: Cliff Swallow, House Wren, Veery, Yellow Warbler, Palm Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Bobolink, Black-crowned Night-heron
  • 3 May – Lennox & Addington County: White-crowned Sparrow, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, White-winged Dove
  • 4 May – Downtown Kingston: Chimney Swift (Ontario bird #150 for 2018)
  • 4 May – Lemoine Point CA, Kingston: Northern Rough-winged Swallow

E-Bird Checklist hits 150 - April Showers
E-Bird Checklist hits 150

So that’s it for April’s update. The May Showers – when the skies darken with migrating warblers – are upon us. Stay tuned for the next episode, when Andy, Mike and I go Into the Vortex.

[1] i.e. staring at them one by one through a telescope, looking for infinitesimal differences.

Costa Rica

Why Costa Rica?

Well, that’s not really a question people ask. More like “when are you going to Costa Rica?” We went for a look around in March, just the latest in a long line of tourists lured in by Costa Rica’s rare combination of a warm climate, huge amounts of biodiversity, friendly people and – almost unique in Central America – stable, democratic government. No wonder they are the Happiest People on Earth![1]

It’s a popular destination for beach vacations, adventure travel and surfing, but the variety and density of wildlife makes it a very compelling destination for nature trips. For the record: Costa Rica accounts for 0.03 percent of the earth’s surface (51,100km2), but contains nearly 6 percent of the world’s biodiversity.[2],[3] Costa Rica was also an early adopter of the notion of eco-tourism, and has made major efforts to ensure that all that biodiversity is protected and made accessible to nature-lovers, both foreign and domestic.

White-faced Capuchin - Costa Rica
White-faced Capuchin

Background

During the 1960s the growing demand for agricultural land, mainly cattle pasture, was leading to widespread deforestation.  The resulting pastureland was not particularly productive, and the usual results of deforestation – flooding, erosion, loss of wildlife – were becoming increasingly evident. Unlike many developing countries, it seems that Costa Ricans, or Ticos as they call themselves, were unwilling to sacrifice their natural resources for short-term economic gain. Starting in the 1980s, programmes were established to protect large areas of the different ecosystems. The National Parks and Reserves now cover 12 % of Costa Rica’s land area, with another 16% protected by various refuges, indigenous Indian reserves, and nature reserves. So Costa Rica stands proudly with Colombia and Tanzania in the select group of countries that have preserved significant parts of their natural environment against the depredations of developers.

Key Sites

I’m not going to bore you with a minute-by-minute account, instead focus on a few sites that were highlights of the trip.

Butterfly Ranch

On Day One, enroute from San Jose to Arenal, one of our stops was the Pierella Ecological Garden – a butterfly ranch. Twenty years ago the proprietor of the garden was seized with the notion that he could make a business out of selling butterflies in chrysalis stage to zoos and butterfly sanctuaries (such as the Butterfly Conservatory in Cambridge, Ontario). He acquired some marginal pastureland and began planting the native trees and shrubs favoured by different butterfly species.

William, the butterfly rancher - Costa Rica
William, the butterfly rancher

Of course as the garden grew into a forest lots of other wildlife recolonized it, so in addition to seeing the whole process of raising butterflies we had great opportunities to see birds, poison dart frogs, exotic insects, a caiman, and a sloth. We were completely entranced by a clutch of Honduran White Bats – tiny creatures that make a tent to roost in by clipping a seam in a heliconia leaf so it forms an inverted V. After our nature walk we had an excellent lunch while enjoying close-up views of birds gorging themselves on fruit at the nearby feeders. The proprietress also demonstrated the laborious process by which cocoa beans are turned into chocolate – with appropriate samples at each stage.

Honduran White Bats in their tent. Costa Rica
Honduran White Bats in their tent. (Dodgy cell phone photo)

Arenal

Sunset on the deck - Arenal Observatory Lodge. Costa Rica
Sunset on the deck – Arenal Observatory Lodge

Our first two nights were at the Arenal Observatory Lodge and Spa, which sits at the foot of an active volcano. Fortunately it has not had a major eruption since 1998, and it continued to behave during our visit. The lodge is extremely comfortable, and well equipped with a swimming pool, a large whirlpool bath/hot tub, and a good restaurant. The large viewing platform next to the restaurant provided an excellent observation point where we could watch masses of birds in the trees and on the feeders and coatimundis patrolling below, all whilst sipping a refreshing Guaro Sour.

Arenal, venting a little steam. Costa Rica
Arenal, venting a little steam.

We spent two days exploring the network of nature trails that emanate out from the lodge and provide access to the rain forest. We also took a night walk to investigate the frog pond and were rewarded with good views of the iconic red-eyed tree frog.

Red-eyed Tree Frog, Costa Rica
Red-eyed Tree Frog and friend.

The highlight of our time in Arenal was seeing a Margay (aka Tree Ocelot)– a rare and secretive jungle cat not much larger than a house cat. I had wanted to see one since I saw a photo when I was about 12, but never really expected to realize that dream. ¡Me quedé con la boca abierta! Fabulous.

Margay - Costa Rica
Margay, trying not to be seen.

Mangrove Boat Tour

On the southern end of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast lies the Osa Peninsula, a thinly-populated area mostly comprised of mangrove swamps. We took a small boat out of Sierte for a cruise of about two hours.[4] Our skipper, Eagle-Eye José, was adept both at spotting wildlife and at manoeuvring the boat for close-in views. In addition to some highly sought-after birds, we also saw all three species of Costa Rican monkeys along with a selection of bats, lizards, a river turtle and the only snake of the trip. José’s ability to bring the boat in close meant that everyone was able to see all the wildlife without having to struggle with binoculars, and to take good photos even if they didn’t have a long telephoto lens. Being “all in the same boat” we moved at the same pace, and could all see the wildlife at the same time. It was hot and steamy on the river but the boat had a canopy and cold drinks were available so it made for a very pleasant excursion.

Central American Squirrel Monkey, Costa Rica
Central American Squirrel Monkey, chilling.

Eagle-Eye José, Costa Rica
Eagle-Eye José

Scarlet Macaw, Costa Rica
Scarlet Macaw

Bosque del Tolomuco

Bosque del Tolomuco, Costa Rica
Bosque del Tolomuco

Up in the cloud forest near San Isidro is a scenic nature reserve and lodge owned by two ex-pat Canadians. Over the years they have planted a wide variety of native plants that are favoured by butterflies and hummingbirds, and the results have been spectacular. We stopped at Bosque del Tolomuco for about an hour and had close views of 14 species of hummingbird including the scarce White-crested Coquette and the stunning Violet Sabrewing. Silver-throated and Flame-coloured Tanagers and pair of Red-headed Barbet were features among the non-humming birds. Parrots and parakeets are apparently regular visitors as well. Sadly we were only passing through, but I have a strong desire to go back, rent one of their peaceful cottages and just hang out for a week or so.

Violet Sabrewing, Costa Rica
Violet Sabrewing

The Trip

Our trip was organized by Worldwide Quest, a Toronto-based firm that specializes in trips that combine excellent wildlife experiences with relatively luxurious accommodation. We had been to Tanzania on a Worldwide Quest tour so we knew that we could expect to be coddled … and we were not disappointed. However there are numerous other travel companies that can offer the same level of wildlife viewing and perfectly acceptable accommodation at a lower price. And it would be entirely possible to rent a car and do a self-guided trip. Once outside of San Jose the traffic is reasonable and most of the roads are in good condition. It is also possible to hire a vehicle and driver, and firms such as Tico Rides will help you plan your itinerary to make best use of your available time.

The List

“It’s all about the list” – The Birdfinder General

My species list for the tour includes:

Birds: 262 species. Click here for a photo gallery.

Mammals:

– Monkeys: White-faced Capuchin, Mantled Howler Monkey, Central American Squirrel Monkey

– Sloths: Brown-throated Three-toed and Hoffman’s Two-toed

– Central American Agouti

– Variegated Squirrel

– White-nosed Coati

– Alston’s Mouse Possum

– Margay

– Bats: Long-nosed, Honduran White

Frogs: 7 species

Lizards: 7 species

Snakes: Rainbow Boa

Turtles: Black River Turtle

Crocodilians: Spectacled Caiman, American Crocodile

Butterflies: 21 species

So… only about 600 bird species to go!Costa Rica

[1] The happiest country in the world according the Happy Planet Index, though merely the 13th happiest according to the UN’s World Happiness Report.

[2] Biodiversity can be defined as the totality of genes, species and ecosystems of a region. – Young, Anthony. “Global Environmental Outlook 3 (GEO-3): Past, Present and Future Perspectives.” The Geographical Journal, vol. 169, 2003, p. 120, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biodiversity

[3] For comparison purposes, New Brunswick is 72,908 km2.

[4] Not the dreaded three-hour cruise.