This site has been lying fallow for a few months while I have been out chasing birds. I’m going to attempt to catch up, starting with a KFN field trip to Algonquin. Algonquin Provincial Park does not quite make it into my Top Ten Birding Sites, but if there were a category for winter birding sites it would be at or near the top.
And why would one head into the frozen North in the depths of winter? To see birds, of course – it’s the primary reason for ever leaving the house. But the special winter birds don’t often show up in balmy Kingston so an annual expedition is mounted to catch up with these critters in their lairs.
Starting with one of the true stunners of the bird world – the Evening Grosbeak. These large, intensely yellow finches would look right at home in the cloud forests of South America. They are a standard fixture in Algonquin Park in winter, best seen from the deck of the Visitor Centre where they congregate to feast at the well-stocked feeders.
Purple Finches are another Algonquin Park regular. These are on the larger and bulkier side of the finch family, and are regularly seen in ones and twos on migration. Algonquin Park attracts large flocks in the winter, also best seen at the Visitor Centre.
Crossbills are another winter target species. There are two species to be seen in Canada and they are not always easy to find. Their bills with the overlapping tips are adapted to opening the cones of evergreen trees to extract the seeds. This specialized diet means that they roam over very wide distances in search of good cone crops. Rather than having a standard breeding period like most birds, they breed when they find a good supply of cones. So crossbills are never guaranteed, but Algonquin is a good place to try and find them. As it happened we found a few small flocks of White-winged Crossbills but alas no Red Crossbills were forthcoming.
Not very finchy finches
A hoped-for check in the box for a winter trip is the Pine Grosbeak. This is technically a finch species, though it lacks the pointy triangular bill of most finches. But it’s quite a smart-looking bird all the same. These birds can’t be counted upon in any given winter as Algonquin is at the south end of their range. We had consulted the Winter Finch Forecast and conditions looked good, but it was still great to catch sight of these chunky birds doing their thing.
Next in line on the sightings list are Pine Siskins. These tiny, agile finches are quite nomadic, but Algonquin Park is as close to a guaranteed site as you can find. This image shows them basking in the pale sunlight between bouts of seed-eating. As usual they were present in a large chattering flock – up to 40 at a time according to my eBird checklist.
Redpolls are always on the winter birds must-see list, and this trip did not disappoint. Like the Pine Siskin these are small finches mostly seen in packs, but they adopt a somewhat more lively colour palette.
It’s not all about finches. Two other winter specialty species were in our sights. The first would be easy. Canada Jays are regular breeding birds in Algonquin Park, and though they don’t frequent the Visitor Centre feeders, there are several accessible locations where they tend to hang out. And being jays, they are naturally inquisitive and will come in to investigate any invasive bipeds in their territories.
One bird that we always hope to see in Algonquin and rarely do is the elusive Black-backed Woodpecker. These birds are thinly-spread, quiet and reclusive in habits, and so black that light seems to bend around them and make them near-invisible in the deep forests where they abide.
But once in a while…
…and the usual Algonquin suspects
No winter visit would be complete without the ubiquitous Black-capped Chickadee and the Blue Jay – a bird so common we sometimes don’t notice how stunning it is.
This was the first trip where I relied exclusively on my Nikon D850 and the new AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR lens. This outstanding combination is now the default set-up for birding trips. The only problem is that I now have no excuses – going forward any flaw in an image will either be down to poor camera handling or operator error. 😊
I recently started teaching a Birding 101 course at the Seniors’ Centre in Kingston. Since the students are like me – late-onset birders – one of the points I wanted to focus on is how to accelerate their acquisition of birding skills and knowledge.
Most of my birding friends have been “in the game” since childhood, and they have often lived in the same area for many years, so their knowledge of everything bird-related is vast. They know all the calls, squeaks and squawks of birds both common and scarce, they know where and when to look, and their skills at identifying birds are honed by many years in the field.
Every time I go out birding with these people I learn something new. But how does someone become a good birder if they haven’t yet become friends with one of the Jedi Masters?
The obvious answers are (1) do your homework (study bird books, listen to tapes), and (2) spend a lot of time in the field. But I am a firm believer in my #3 recommendation: find a good birding guide and join some of their trips. I think this is one of the best and fastest ways to improve your knowledge and birding skills.
Think of birding guides as the personal trainers of the birding world. You wouldn’t start golfing without a few lessons and tips from the golf pro, nor would you take up skiing by reading a few books and watching YouTube videos. So why wouldn’t you take advantage of expertise in the birding world?
For overseas trips, this is a no-brainer. Local guides know where to go, recognize calls and habits, plan for food and accommodation, provide a vehicle, know how to drive in the environment, know the history and current events of the country, and non-trivially, recognize warning signs and know where not to go.
The advent of E-Bird and other bird-finding services means that you could travel to foreign lands without local knowledge, and some folks do. If your group includes a couple of burly and fairly menacing lads, so much the better. But when you look at the cost of flights, living expenses, and vehicle rental, and then calculate that you are likely to see twice as many species if you have a guide, to me the extra outlay makes sense. If I were 25 and had a full lifetime ahead of me I might think about this differently. But I have more money than I did when I was 25 and fewer years ahead in which to enjoy it, so guided trips are the way forward.
Closer to home…
Many people happily attend birding trips in their local areas organized by nature clubs, but I often get a puzzled look when I suggest that they should also consider working with a professional guide – as if “guide” has to exist in the context of travel to exotic lands. But for the beginning or intermediate birder, many of the same benefits that come from using professional guides apply equally to birding trips in their home province.
Guides have extensive knowledge of where to go and when to go there to maximize opportunities. With guides I have visited a number of little-known but productive sites for hard-to-find bird species in Ontario, and these trips were scheduled to coincide with the times when the bird was most likely to be seen.
Good guides also have an uncanny ability to recognize that an important bird is nearby, and great skills at locating it. Equally importantly, a good guide will ensure that everyone in the group has a chance to see the birds. This is not always the case in non-commercial birding trips, where beginners in particular may be frustrated by the tendency of the expert birders to speed by the more common species in search of more interesting fare.
The best guides are true “bird nerds”, and are willing to share their knowledge of all aspects of avian ecology, including feeding habits, breeding behaviour, and migration patterns. I have learned a lot about birds from people whose obsession is even greater than mine.
Finding a guide
So how to find a good guide? Personal recommendations are the most reliable method and I will give you a few of mine in a moment. But failing that, as with all things, Google is your friend. Search terms like “birding Ontario” or “Puerto Rico bird guides” should get you on the right track.
The websites of good guides and guiding organizations tend to contain the same sorts of information. You should expect to see specifics on their tours (dates, itinerary, costs). There should also trip reports from previous tours, ideally with trip lists (lists of species seen). You can also check the web for ratings, bearing in mind the usual caveat that some people are very hard to please.
I tend to favour guides from the country I am visiting, if for no other reason than the fact that their overhead costs are lower: when you bird with one of the large American or British companies you are paying for a leader’s flights and living expenses, and then they will often rely on the services of a local guide. If you can find that local guide you can cut out the middleman.
At the end of your search you have to make a leap of faith that your guide will be a good one, but I know of only a few cases where people were seriously disappointed. A poor guide will not last long in a competitive business. And part of the reason that the large global birding companies – operations such as Field Guides and Birdquest – are popular is that the likelihood of a poor experience is very low.
Let me save you some searching effort by suggesting these people, all of whom I have birded with and highly recommend. (And note that I do not receive any benefit for listing them here – though I am open to any free birding trips that might be offered. 😉)
Daniel is my guy in Colombia. I have been birding with him on four trips for a total of about eight weeks. Expert birder, safe driver, super organized and good company. My Colombia life list of 882 species speaks for itself.
On a trip to Tucson I had only one day to dedicate to birding. Melody led me on a fast-paced adventure to see a large number of Arizona specialties. Expert birder, safe driver… do you detect a theme here?
Josele was an outstanding guide but sadly I have just learned that for health reasons he has had to stop leading tours. This is a great loss. I believe he still operates his guest house in the Pyrenees where a number of great birds can be seen.
Predators was the local subcontractor for our trip to Tanzania, and they planned and executed a great trip. Joseph was one of our driver-guides and if you decide to go with Predators you should ask for him. Expert in all types of wildlife in the area, but he definitely has an eye for birds
I have not birded with the Burrell brothers (Mike and Ken) but they are expert birders and good folk so I am very confident that their trips would be excellent. They are co-authors of the recent book Best Places to Bird in Ontario.
Jim Palmer is a young biologist just starting out in the guiding business. I have good reports about him. email@example.com
E-Bird tells me I saw 665 bird species last year, a new personal best. Many excellent birds went into this list: gaudy tropical beasts like Motmots, skulking antbirds, and glorious migrant warblers. But what stands out most in my memory are the bird experiences – those special birding moments where everything comes together to make a truly memorable sighting. Herewith are my top ten birding moments in chronological order.
January 26, Amherst Island, Ontario
I was out looking for winter birds with Bruce Kirkland and Rachel Sa. We were stopped by the side of the road to look at a flock of Redpolls when Rachel saw something that looked like an owl fly into a tree. We got the scope out and sure enough we could see a small owl head peering out of the bush. High fives were in order – Short-eared Owls are not an easy bird to see in Ontario. Then a Bald Eagle passed over and all hell broke loose. Nineteen(!) Short-eared Owls exploded out of the tree and swirled madly around for a couple of minutes before settling down, each one to its own fencepost. It turns out there were over 50 Short-ears on the island, feasting on the plentiful voles, but to see nineteen at once was a special birding moment.
20 March, Ecolodge la Minga, Valle de Cauca, Colombia
The first stop on our Colombian expedition was this homey lodge in the foothills of the Western Andes. We spent the morning walking the entrance road and saw plenty of great birds, but then we arrived at the lodge. All thoughts of lunch were quickly pushed to the side as we drank in the hordes of avian jewels feasting on the flowering plants and fruit that the owners had provided. Within minutes I had seen my target bird for the whole trip – Multicolored Tanager, so everything after that was gravy. And very tasty gravy at that!
21 March, Bosque de San Antonio/Km 18, Valle de Cauca, Colombia
Sometimes great birding moments come in retrospect. We had heard Nariño Tapaculos calling at Ecolodge La Minga, but Tapaculos are small, dark, mouse-like skulking birds of the undergrowth so one rarely gets the chance to actually see them. But at this legendary birding site I managed to catch a quick glimpse of a calling bird. Not a big deal in itself, but the great birding moment came at my desk at home, when I worked out that this was life bird #1500 for me.
22 March, RN Laguna de Sonso, Valle de Cauca, Colombia
A great day at this very birdy marsh was capped off by a brief but clear look at a Sungrebe as it snuck across a short channel and disappeared into the reedbed. Sungrebes are uncommon and extraordinarily shy. Ken Edwards is a much more experienced tropical birder than I, and Daniel Uribe Restrepo is an ornithologist and full-time guide who has spent his entire life in Colombia, and yet this was a life bird for all three of us. Happiness abounded.
28 March, PNN Los Nevados, Caldas, Colombia
When I was studying field guides for my first trip to Colombia the Black-chested Buzzard Eagle caught my eye, and I added it to my mental most-desired list. In 2017 we spent some time in the right habitat, but no Buzzard Eagles were forthcoming. Cut to this year and we are 14,000 feet up in the Central Andes, waiting for a Buffy Helmetcrest to show up. In the far distance we spot two large raptors soaring. Scope views allow us to ID them as Black-chested Buzzard Eagles, but after a while it becomes clear that they have no intention of moving any closer.
So it’s a solid “tick” but a better view is needed to quench my Buzzard Eagle longings. Maybe next year. Or maybe later that day! Just before quitting time we were scanning the paramo looking for small seedeaters and looked up in time to see two majestic buzzard eagles silently cruising by about 20 feet above our heads. Gob-smacked we were. A great finish to that day’s excursion.
1 April, road from Riosucio to Jardin, Antioquia, Colombia
This was not a fun day as Montezuma was busy having his revenge on me. I tried to keep my whimpering to a minimum as we clambered up a steep mountain trail in the company of Doña Lucía, a local farmer. Years of patient work had allowed her to convince some Antpittas that she was a reliable and non-threatening source of their favourite delicacy: earthworms. So we got to the right spot, she called, and after a bit a couple of Chestnut-naped Antpittas emerged. Antpittas are proper unicorn birds, and any sighting is great, but to see them hopping onto peoples’ hands to nab worms was epic. Sadly I could not participate in the actual feeding as I needed to be able to dash into the bushes at a moment’s notice, but I got some really great still and video images, and even better memories.
1 April, Jardin
Later that day we made our way into the city of Jardin to visit a Cock of the Rock lek. This did not exactly test our birding skills – we went to the house, paid our entrance fee, and wandered down to the lekking trees. But the sight of those bizarrely gorgeous birds hopping, bowing, squawking and shrieking, all in hopes of impressing the ladies, was truly fine.
9 May, Point Pelee National Park, Ontario
The great Reverse Migration. A truly epic experience as thousands of birds, fleeing an incoming storm, streamed by on their way back to the US. Photos and the full story are here. I can envision a day twenty years from now where a group of birders encounter a gruff, grizzled bloke with weather-faded gear and a thousand-yard stare. They will say in hushed voices – “he was at the reverse migration of 2019”. 😊
4 July, Cape St Mary’s, Newfoundland
For my first trip to Newfoundland I was strongly advised to visit the Northern Gannet colony at Cape St Mary’s. It was a bit of a hike, but I am quite partial to Gannets so it seemed worth checking out. So after doing a bit of whale and Puffin watching in Witless Bay we headed south to the end of the road. Cape St Mary’s lived up to its billing as the best site anywhere for viewing Gannets at close range. Over 20,000 pairs nest on the sea stack and surrounding cliffs, and they are supremely not bothered by people staring at them from 30m away. Also crammed onto every available ledge were thousands of Guillemots and many hundreds of Razorbills and Black-legged Kittiwakes.
And as it turns out, also one lone Thick-billed Murre, at the far southernmost end of its breeding range. I saw a slightly odd-looking Guillemot and suspected that it might be a ringer Knowing that Thick-billed Murre was possible, I decided to wait until the sleeping bird raised its head from under its wing so I could see the diagnostic mark on the bill. For a full 45 minutes the pesky creature didn’t budge, but finally it took a look around and revealed its thick-billedness. So a day that started with Humpback Whales and Puffins and ended with epic views of Gannets and their pelagic friends was capped off by a new life bird. Not to mention a tasty lunch at St Bride’s.
31 December, Presqu’ile Provincial Park, Ontario
For reasons that are not entirely clear I have an inordinate fondness for Purple Sandpipers. Perhaps it’s because they are scarce and a bit elusive; perhaps because my first sighting was special. We were on a very pleasant driving tour through Scotland and I stepped out of the B&B on Islay to see two of the blighters playing in the kelp on the other side of the road. In any case I like them and was keen to add them to my Ontario (and Canada) list.
Typically that means wading out to Gull Island in late November in the hopes that this is the one day when a small southbound flock will stop for a snack. This year there were tantalizing reports of a trio hanging out at Owen Point. Family and social responsibilities kept me away, but finally on the last day of the year I decided to give it a shot. I arrived to a bleak and windswept scene populated by five long-tailed ducks and a Herring Gull. I scanned the area thoroughly with no luck. Then a snow squall kicked in. With melting snow starting to infiltrate my pricey camera equipment, and no reasonable prospect of success I considered packing it in.
Then fate intervened in the guise of one Kyle Horner, who had seen the birds earlier in the morning and posted a report on the OntBirds bird alert site. Knowing that they were likely still around, I redoubled my efforts and soon spotted small bird-like heads popping up and down behind an algae berm. Shortly thereafter the birds emerged and good views were had. After snapping off a number of shots I took a deep breath, remembered my own advice, and set a shutter speed fast enough to capture them as they frenetically dashed about. The results are below in all their rain-spattered glory. And just to cap off this tale, the Purple Sandpipers were the 300th bird species I have seen in Ontario.
So for all the great birds I was privileged to see last year, it is these birding moments that will remain clearest in my memory. Thanks to the birds, and thanks to the companions who shared the moments with me.
A large population of Emerald Shiner minnows migrates through the Niagara Gorge in December, seeking the warmer waters of Lake Erie. This concentration of tasty treats attracts an influx of predators, including Steelhead, Brown and Lake Trout, Pickerel and Muskellunge. It also forms a buffet for vast swarms of gulls, and when stormy weather drives birds in off the lake it is often possible to pick out rare and exotic gulls lurking amongst the hordes. And swarms of birds attract swarms of birders.
The Approach March
The first weekend in December 2019 was cool, with high winds and freezing rain in the forecast. Sensible people were staying indoors, but fifty or sixty hardy birders descended on Niagara Falls to take part in the Ontario Field Ornithologists’ (OFO) annual Gull Weekend. There were gull lectures, gull quizzes, an advanced gull identification workshop, and of course, lots and lots of gulls.
For the second year running (which qualifies it as an annual tradition) I linked up with Bruce Kirkland to make the trek to Niagara. We made a brief stop in Burlington to seek out a lone King Eider that had been hanging around with Long-tailed Ducks at the lift bridge. The eider was eventually spotted, though I was insufficiently organized to get a photo before it blended in with the 2,000 other ducks loafing in the ship canal. However I did get some smashing photos of Long-tailed Ducks and a decent shot of a Surf Scoter so all was well. Or so we thought…
Our next stop was Niagara-on-the-Lake. It’s a small tourist town with more tweeness per capita than anywhere else in Canada, thus normally to be avoided, but it sits at the mouth of the Niagara River so it’s an ideal spot to watch gulls as they stream out at the end of the day to roost on the lake. A rare vagrant Black-headed Gull was known to be in the area so it seemed a likely spot to try our luck. And sure enough when we arrived there were ten or so birders peering intently over the water.
Traditionally there is no more dreaded phrase in the birders’ lexicon than “you should have been here ten minutes ago”. This signals that the bird you were after has decamped, probably never to be seen again. However with the advent of modern technology, including time/date stamps on camera images, we can now state with some bitterness that “you should have been here four minutes ago” is infinitely more painful.
We dutifully set up our scopes and peered into the gloom for 45 minutes. Thousands of Bonaparte’s Gulls streamed by, which would normally be a wonderful spectacle but we were not to be mollified. There were even a few Little Gulls among them, which we could pick out by their very dark underwings. Little Gull sightings are not easy to come by in Ontario – these were my first ones in 2019 – but still we remained dejected. One fewer red light on the way and we would have had our quarry.
When it was finally too dark to see we repaired to the Sandtrap Pub and Grill for dinner. After a couple of pints of very pleasant Niagara College Butler’s Bitter I adopted a more philosophical attitude. The bird was still extant; we just had to find it in the next 36 hours.
The plan for Saturday had been to join the Peninsula Field Naturalists for a birding walk in the Welland area. But Bruce and I were now seized with the desire to “get” the Black-headed Gull so we set off to do the Niagara stations of the cross – a series of viewpoints where you can stand in the cold wind and stare down into the Gorge, searching among the Larid multitudes for the one slightly different bird.
The weather was decent – sunny, but with the usual cold wind ripping down the gorge. We visited such delights as the whirlpool, the Adam Beck power plant, the Queenston Heights lookout, the Queenston boat dock and the upper control gates, and carefully scanned thousands of gulls for the slight variation in field marks that sets apart a Black-headed Gull from its Bonaparte cousins.
Gull ID 101
In winter plumage the differences between these beasties are:
The Black-headed Gull is slightly bigger: its wingspan averages 100cm vs 84cm for a Bonaparte’s. This sounds like a lot, but when viewing moving gulls at a slant range of 300+ metres the difference does not exactly jump out at you;
The bill of the Black-headed is red in the summer and reddish-black in the winter whereas the Bonaparte’s bill is black year-round; and
The Black-headed has a greyish smudge on the underside of the primary flight feathers. This is absent on the Bonaparte’s. The field guides show this diagnostic mark as a black wedge, but as the picture below depicts on a winter-plumage gull it can be a lot less evident.
A whole day devoted to gull voyeurism netted us lots of good looks at gulls and a few other avian creatures, but our target remained elusive. Sunday would have to be the day, but the weather reports were ominous. A heavy lashing of freezing rain was not going to make life easier.
First light on Sunday saw us back on the trail. Scattered reports from the day before led us to conclude that the whirlpool might be our best bet, so we started the morning vigil as the first wave of freezing rain descended. We gutted it out for a couple of hours before retreating to the hotel for an IHOP breakfast. It was only when we started the move that we realized how thickly the roads and sidewalks, not to mention our gear and clothing, were coated in sheet ice.
This made things slightly awkward, and after sliding safely into the hotel parking lot we learned that the QEW was closed and we weren’t going to make it back to Toronto and Kingston that day. So we reasoned that there was nowt else to do but go back out for another dose of eyestrain.
And so it came to pass that on Sunday afternoon about 1320 we closed with our prey. I was scanning gulls on the water, hoping for one of them to lift its wings and show the dark primaries. The mighty Vortex Razor HD telescope should have been annoyed at me for letting it slam against the ground an hour or so earlier, but instead it allowed me to detect what I thought was just a hint of red on the bill of one specimen.
It was hardly a slam-dunk view but it was suspicious enough that as it lifted off I tracked it while shouting directions so that others could get onto it. The gull wheeled to dive on a minnow and as it did I did not see the hoped-for black wedge, just a slight darkening. It really didn’t look like the guidebook image at all, and I hesitated about whether I had seen enough to make the call. Fortunately, the third person out braving the whirlpool gale was one Jeremy Bensette, a crack birder who among other things set the new record for bird species seen in Ontario in a year. He had gotten onto the bird and confirmed its Black-headedness. So we spent the next ten minutes enjoying the view of this rare visitor, whilst dutifully getting the word out on e-Bird and the OFO listserv.
At this point, having seen all the possible target species, and with our way home blocked by weather, we concluded that the best course of action was a wee nap, a glass of wine, an excellent dinner, and then a leisurely gull-sated departure on the morrow.
Niagara Gull Weekend – Bag List
Gulls seen on this trip:
Little Gull (3)
Black-headed Gull (1)
Bonaparte’s Gull (~6,000)
Ring-billed Gull (~100)
American Herring Gull (~600)
Iceland Gull (2)
Glaucous Gull (1)
Lesser Black-backed Gull (6)
Great Black-backed Gull (9)
Most of the world’s 55 gull species are members of the genus Larus.
Flushed with success at our capture (metaphorically speaking) of the Harris’s Sparrow, when a vagrant Spotted Towhee showed up at Prince Edward Point this week it seemed clear that we ought to go and pay this rare visitor to Southern Ontario a visit.
The bird met two of my three criteria for an off-year twitch: it was local (about an hour and a bit away). And it seemed likely to stick around. The finder – Paul Jones – had been observing it for a couple of days and it was making regular appearances to feed on some seed that Paul had thoughtfully provided.
The third criterion – that the bird be a lifer – was… problematic. I have seen the bird in its natural stomping grounds near Tucson, AZ. However, since this species had never been seen before in the Kingston 50km Circle, on mature reflection and in the interests of ornithology, and with no hint of self-interest, I waived the final requirement. And we were off.
The search party – Jim Thompson, John Licharson and me – made good time and arrived at the designated spot at about 08:30. Two birders were already in position and another showed up at the same time we did. There was still seed on the road, the winds were light and variable, the temperature was somewhat clement at +30 C, and though cloudy there was no indication of rain. Now all we needed was for the bird to show up and all would be well.
So we waited.
And we waited.
Heat, and optimism, seeped gradually out of our bodies.
After about 90 minutes the aforementioned Paul Jones showed up. He showed us some photos he had taken of the bird at 06:45 that morning, and then noted ominously that up until now the bird had been showing up every 45 minutes or so.
So we waited some more.
Finally we heard, off in the distance, a Spotted Towhee’s distinct call (which of course we had dutifully boned up on the night before).
The calls started getting closer and we moved out on an intercept course. The beast was spotted in a tree. We had time for quick looks and poor photographs as it carried on towards its target. We scampered back to the road just in time to see a pair of Merlins swoop low over the road.
Merlins, as you may know, are small falcons who primarily prey on small birds. So suddenly our heretofore highly vocal Towhee was silent, and we all envisioned it skulking off ne’er to be seen again.
So we waited some more. To keep up morale I recounted the time I stood for five hours in a freezing wind waiting fruitlessly for a Ruff. Judging from the reaction this story was not as uplifting as I had hoped.
Finally, at about 10:56, the Towhee made its entrance. We had a few minutes to admire it before it retired into the scrub to digest its meal.
So all in all this turned out to be a proper twitch. We had a longish and fairly uncomfortable wait, events seemed to conspire against us, but then through a combination of perseverance and luck we got the sighting and went home happy.
Two epic birds in two weeks. What’s next, you ask. Stay tuned!
After making a maximum effort in 2018 on the birding front, this year I have ratcheted back a bit. The main difference is the amount of effort I devoted to twitching rare birds. Last year I chased or went out of my way to find at least 14 birds, whereas in 2019, until last week anyway, I had only twitched one bird in Ontario.
That bird was a Hermit Warbler, which I thought worth going after because (a) it was a life bird for me, (b) it was less than two hours away, and (c) there was a reasonable probability that it would stay put.
So assuming that those are my 2019 criteria, when I got wind
of a Harris’s Sparrow visiting a feeder in The County,
I was tempted. The day was wintry with snow flurries forecasted so I might have
prevaricated a bit, but Jim Thompson was up for a try so off we went.
Harris’s Sparrow is a prairie bird that breeds in northern Manitoba, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. This makes it Canada’s only endemic breeder – i.e. a bird that only breeds in Canada. So I had to see one. For national pride, y’know. 😊
The beastie winters from South Dakota down to Texas. It is normally seen on migration, sometimes in large numbers, in the Rainy River district but it is a distinctly uncommon visitor to southern Ontario. Perhaps this one took a wrong turn near Albuquerque?
On the way down we suffered the usual nameless dread of twitchers,
namely that the bird would not be there, or worse, was seen flying off south
ten minutes before we arrived. But this time at least it all turned out rather nicely.
Fifteen minutes after we arrived we had clocked the blighter, and it then
proceeded to hop around obligingly giving what my British friends would call “crippling
And a smart looking bird it was, in full adult non-breeding plumage.
Allowing for the fact that I am particularly partial to sparrows, this was a
really nice bird to see.
And the point is… ?
Nothing really. Just a nice bird so I wanted to put the photos up so my legion of followers could have a chance to appreciate the creature. 😊
Trip Report: KFN Field Trip to Southwestern Ontario – 6-11
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.
“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?”
(Nice Hermit Warbler image by Patko erika courtesy of Wikipedia)
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
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
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
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.
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.
 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
So there we were – year bird #278. Being a good citizen I drove home and parked before breaking out the single malt.
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
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 –
Distance Travelled – approximately 19,000 km
Circumference of the Earth – 40,075km
be precise for the perfidy of its species. It seemed unfair to make this one
individual a scapegoose.
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) 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.
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.
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.
254-255 – Red Knot, Baird’s Sandpiper. 26 August, Presqu’ile. Good shorebird habitat during peak migration. Homework + effort.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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).
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.
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!