A bad day birding is better than a good day at work
Every day at Presqu’ile is a good day
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 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” 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.
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, 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 coordinator. We saw what we saw. But more about EBird in another post.
So basically we “dipped” 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.
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.
When we last saw our heroes, they were headed East into the sunrise, destination…
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.
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 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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…
 Marie-Henri Beyle 1783-1842, best known for his novels The Red and the Black, and The Charterhouse of Parma.
 …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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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, 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.
Then back to the vortex on the 9th for one last round of crowd-birding, netting a further nine species.
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.
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.
Ontario Year List: 208
 For reasons unknown there is no accent on the first e.
 Another virtue of Army birders – we/they are not afraid of rapid-pace forced marches in pursuit of our quarry.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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:
During a cruise around Wolfe Island on Friday I was able to add Eastern Meadowlark, Turkey Vulture, and Northern Harrier to the year list, bringing the total to 96. Migrants are starting to flow in in increasing numbers, but the key task for now is to see the scarce ones that arrive for a brief stay and are now about to move North.
Gentlemen, your target for today…
My next key targets were two very uncommon migrant geese – Ross’s and Greater White-fronted. Both birds should be working their way North on the Western Flyway by way of Saskatchewan, but every year there are a few who stray into the east. They are in a hurry to get to the high Arctic to breed, so they normally stay for only a week or two in Southern Ontario.
Both are hard birds to see. White-fronted geese are similar to Canada Geese, but have orange legs and a white mask around the base of the bill. If you met them on a downtown sidewalk you would see the difference immediately. Amongst a couple of thousand Canada Geese in a field… not so much. Especially since there is maybe one White-fronted Goose in every fiftieth flock.
In principle Ross’s Goose should be easier to find. Birders tend to estimate that one in every 1,000 geese in a Snow Goose flock will be a Ross’s. And a Snow Goose flock in Ontario is rarely smaller than 1,000 birds. But as always with birds, there are issues. A Ross’s Goose is almost identical to a Snow Goose. The only difference that can be seen at ranges over 50m is that it is somewhat smaller. And they are never closer than 50m. And they are almost always embedded in a typical Snow Goose flock of 10,000 birds, give or take.
The Snow Geese currently loitering around Prescott and Russell counties are due to leave anytime now – inclement weather is all that is holding them back. And when they leave the Ross’s will also depart, thumbing their noses at all the birders that didn’t see one.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I turned once more to my trusty local guide, Jon Ruddy of Eastern Ontario Birding. He had an aptly-named Wild Goose Chase planned for Sunday, and off we went with a small party of like-minded souls for a bit of what birders call fun – a massive game of Where’s Waldo played by peering through telescopes for hours in the bracing wind.
The trip was planned for four hours (about the limit of anyone’s tolerance for standing in the aforementioned bracing wind looking for geese that aren’t there). Along the way we lucked into a very early American Bittern (#97), whilst adding a few Green-winged Teal (#98) and a large clutch of Northern Pintail (#99) to the Ontario year list. But not a Ross’s or White-front to be seen.
Our time was up, but Jon was determined to get us a Ross’s Goose. We stayed and peered some more and finally when all seemed lost a rather pequeño goose was seen scurrying amongst a group of its hulking cousins. Victory! High fives were exchanged in the Canadian manner: politely, with insulated gloves.
Somehow it seemed fitting that the #100 bird in this biggish year was a good one that was found through hard graft. In order not to spoil the festive mood we will speak no more of White-fronted Geese.
And just to show that St Thomas Aquinas was right (“that which is more difficult is not necessarily more virtuous”), I snagged bird #101 on the way back into Kingston – the usual Osprey that nests every year on the light standard of the RMCC soccer pitch.
An appropriate ceremony was duly conducted.
 In a metaphorical sense, you understand – geese not being blessed with either thumbs or noses.
T.S. Eliot claimed that April is the cruellest month. Evidently he was not a birder. April is birding nirvana, or perhaps little nirvana to May’s big nirvana. It’s when millions of migratory birds start to pile into Canada from their tropical resort communities to get on with the business of breeding. And thousands of birders lurk in the bushes to see them, photograph them and marvel at their willingness to fly thousands of miles so we can enjoy them.
No, the cruellest month is February.
Birders start off every January with a blank year list and for the first few weeks it’s easy to add new species. Even very common species become new again. Crow? Tick! Rock Pigeon? First of the year! There are 75 or 80 bird species that can be seen in Eastern Ontario in the dead of winter, and with a bit of effort and luck I managed to get 71 in January.
But then the new additions started to taper off, and the February doldrums loomed. In the service of a biggish year list those missing species needed to be found. But of course they were the ones that are scarce or skulking enough as not to be seen during the hundred plus hours I spent in the field in January. So in the continuing deep freeze I knew that I was doomed to spend many hours trudging through snow and ice chasing the elusive pests, usually to no avail. And so it came to pass.
The first February bird was Peregrine Falcon. A pair nests in downtown Kingston but I shamelessly saved them so I could start off February with a win. The next “tick” was totally unexpected and rather gratifying. Whilst out on a field trip with Jon Ruddy, where we signally failed to catch sight of the target Black-backed Woodpecker, someone scanned a raptor soaring by high overhead which mirabile dictu turned out to be a Golden Eagle. A rather excellent bird, as all eagles are, but previously I have only seen them in Crete and Scotland’s Findhorn Valley, so it was great to add this one to my Canada list. Two new birds by 3 February. Perhaps I was on a roll?
Well… no actually. The total haul for the rest of February was an Eastern Screech Owl on the 10th, and a big day by February doldrums standards – 23 Feb – when Mark Read and I added Long-eared Owl, Glaucous Gull and an overwintering Golden-crowned Kinglet. So six new birds for the month. A bit paltry, though the Long-ears were a great find that I frankly didn’t expect to see this year.
After a brief interlude with my bride in Costa Rica (257 bird species in 10 days – I do love the tropics!) it was back on the trail. The migrant ducks were finally starting to arrive. By the end of March I had added most of the standard ducks and swans to the list, though my punishment for sipping Guaro Sours and looking at hummingbirds during the short window when Canvasback pass through Kingston meant that I had to deploy to Presqu’ile to see them.
There were also a couple of non-standard finds. A long trudge to the end of Tommy Thompson Park (a.k.a. the Leslie Street Spit) was rewarded with great views of a Harlequin Duck – a beast that lives on the East and West coasts but occasionally wanders in to catch up with the relatives.
But the two best finds came from serious twitching. A female Barrow’s Goldeneye had been seen regularly along the Rideau River in Ottawa, but then the much more handsome and colorful drake showed up. Despite serious emotional pain earlier inflicted by earlier attempts to twitch this species I concluded, entirely without reason, that this time luck would be on my side. I can now admit that at several points during my three-hour patrol along a short stretch of the river I succumbed to doubt, but the day was won when I finally clocked the beast in all his I-look-almost-identical-to-Common-Goldeneye glory. A lifer and a new year list bird – surely worth the trip to Ottawa. There is no need to spoil this happy tale by recounting the four hours I then spent waiting fruitlessly for the Marchurst Short-eared Owl to make an appearance.
The best twitch of all came from a to-hell-with-the-carbon-footprint dash up to Schomberg to see one of my favourite birds. Barnacle Goose was the first truly wild goose I identified as a beginner birder, and I have enjoyed seeing them and hearing their weird honking calls in Gloucestershire, Dumfries & Galloway, and on Islay. But they do not come to Canada. The bird is rated as “an occasional, rare straggler”, which in normal people speech means “you are not going to see one.” But there it was, happily swimming around in a water resource recovery facility (i.e. a sewage lagoon) and heading out with his new Canada Goose pals to feed in the surrounding fields.
As usual I agonized over this one, and thus almost missed it, but on a gloriously sunny day I braved the 401 and 400 in the hopes of seeing it. It went like this: parked, walked down the edge of the lagoon, saw the bird. And then just watched it for a long while enjoying its barnacle-ness. A great find, and for icing on the cake I had really good views of 10+ Cackling Geese. Bird seen, home for dinner. Sometimes it just works that way.
The Biggish Year challenge brought me to the windswept shores of Prescott, Ontario last week, twitching and dipping on Barrow’s Goldeneye.
And “what does that translate to in English?” you may well ask.
Twitching is the act of chasing a rare bird, usually far away from your normal birding haunts. The etymology is not entirely certain, but it originated in England, home to probably half of the world’s birders.
Many birders keep a life list of the birds they have seen, but if they have been birding for any significant time they reach a point where no new birds are being added to the list. So when they hear about some rarity they get excited, wondering whether they can afford to chase it. Big British listers (not chunky ones, but birders with big lists) have been known to fly to the Shetlands just to have a chance of seeing a new bird. But given that birds have wings, and therefore aren’t glued to a particular spot there is a strong possibility that they will not see the bird. So until they see it they exist in a state of extreme nervous anxiety – they are “twitchy”. Thus the act of chasing a rare bird has become known as twitching.
All twitchers are birders, but only a small subset of birders are twitchers. Non-birders often make the mistake of referring to all birders as twitchers, but this is wrong and bad. You, gentle reader, now know the correct way to use the word, so I will be watching you to ensure that you do not backslide.
A twitch can only end in two ways: see the bird and add it to your list – “tick” it – or miss seeing the bird, which is known, for reasons lost to civilization, as “dipping”.
I normally avoid twitching because the potential agony of defeat seems to outweigh the thrill of victory. But when I set out on the Biggish Year challenge I knew that I was not going to find 250 birds in Ontario without resorting to some twitching. So when the call went out on the birders’ jungle telegraph that a rare duck had been seen in Prescott I had to check it out.
Barrow’s Goldeneye is a semi-mythical diving duck that breeds on the west coast of North America from Alaska and the Yukon to northern Washington. For reasons best known to ducks a slack handful (two or three) of these creatures appear in Ontario most winters, usually associating with Common Goldeneye, of which we get a fair-sized inundation in the Great Lakes and along the Saint Lawrence River. Cunningly, Barrow’s look a great deal like Common Goldeneye, especially when they are immature birds – the kind most likely to lose their way. Compared to a Common Goldeneye the crown of their head is farther forward, and mature ones have a different shape to the white patch on their face. If you held one in each hand and looked closely you would see the difference.
I should show you a picture at this point, but – spoiler alert – I ain’t got one.
What I did get was four hours of standing in the cold wind peering through my telescope at the 2,000-odd Common Goldeneye bouncing around in the swell, hoping to see a flash of an uncommon one. And gripping my tripod with both hands to keep a bunch of pricy optics from crashing onto the sidewalk. And wiping my eyes so that I could see through the wind-induced tears. And cursing when I left the rain covers off my binoculars and had to mop semi-frozen drops from my nose and eyes out of the eyepieces. And did I mention that they are diving ducks? Which means that the moment you focus on one that looks a little steep-headed it disappears under the waves and eventually pops up somewhere else. So despite a valiant effort I dipped comprehensively. It was little compensation to learn that the Barrow’s made a ten-minute appearance a half a kilometre further downstream before vanishing into the ducky version of the Twilight Zone.
The Moral of this Story
Now if you are bored enough to have made it this far you may be wondering whether there is a point to all of this. Indeed there is, though it may sound a bit like grasping at straws. For all my moaning this was actually a half-decent day out. I did get a good, long look at all the subtle plumage variations of Common Goldeneye. I spent most of the day outside in the fresh air, which comprehensively beats out almost any day that I spent at the office in my former life, staring at a computer screen. And in a fully illogical bit of cognitive bias (the Monte Carlo Fallacy, for those that like such things) I delude myself with the thought that the more time I spend out looking for birds, the more likely I am in the long run to actually see them.
Since you’ve lasted this far, here’s a nice bit of bird porn to enjoy:
And someday that Barrow’s Goldeneye will be mine! he said in half-crazed tones.
January 2018 is in the books and my Biggish Year is off to a good start. I saw a total of 71 Ontario species, including some uncommon ones, which given the frigid conditions is a reasonably good number. Lake Ontario is well and truly frozen over and there’s not been much duck and goose action, so my main focus was on picking up the winter species of passerines. And moaning about the weather.
On the first day of January Paul MacKenzie and I did a thorough search of Wolfe Island, turning up 22 species including Cooper’s Hawk and Snowy Owl. One advantage of a cold winter is that it draws in winter migrants like Horned Lark and Snow Bunting, and as expected we saw large numbers of both species.
The next day I “did” Marshlands Conservation Area, slogging through deep snow but being rewarded with a light morph Rough-legged Hawk doing a low cruise over the golf course. Highlights from a trip with the North Leeds Birders were some large flocks of ducks at Ivy Lea as well as Ruffed Grouse, Great Black-backed Gull and an Eastern Towhee who apparently did not get the message when it was time to migrate south. And on a re-visit to Wolfe Island I manged to dredge up four Lapland Longspur, a winter migrant that is very scarce in these parts.
For a Big Year, or even a Biggish Year, to be successful you have to get out on the road and chase the birds where they are. So off I went to Algonquin Provincial Park in search of winter finches and other exotica. Day One was perishingly cold but I manged to link up with Red and White-winged Crossbills and Canada Jays. On the morning of Day Two I snuck in before it opened to see the feeders at the Visitor Centre, and had a bit of a moment enjoying large flocks of Purple Finch, Evening Grosbeak and Pine Siskin. So that was all the plausible winter finches in the bag, a success which partially offset the hours of frustration patrolling known habitat for Spruce Grouse and Black-backed Woodpecker and coming up with nothing.
On the way back home I spotted a nice looking Barred Owl in North Frontenac, which somewhat made up for dipping again at a known Black-backed Woodpecker site.
The rest of the month was spent gathering sightings of the resident bird species in the usual spots. There was a nice second winter Iceland Gull at the Lansdowne Dump, Trumpeter Swans at Chaffey’s Locks, a Northern Saw-whet Owl at an undisclosed location and a Horned Grebe at Invista, as well as the usual woodpeckers, cardinals, chickadees and crows.
Trumpeter Swans, an Eastern Ontario specialty.
January in Review, February Plans
So the total for January was 71 species. “Only” 179 to go to hit the Biggish Year goal of 250. It was a good start, but February promises to be fairly slow going. There are not too many likely species hanging around that haven’t already been nabbed. So far I have resisted the lure of driving to Hamilton to see the vagrant Tufted Duck, but I may break down and twitch it if under the guise of visiting my in-laws. Anything to feed the addiction while I wait for spring migration to kick in.
In the heart of every serious birder lurks the desire to do a “Big Year”. A Big Year is a sustained effort to see the maximum possible number of species in a single year in a specified place. This is the story of my not-quite Big Year of 2018- my “Biggish Year”.
You may have seen the movie The Big Year, starring Owen Wilson, Steve Martin and Jack Black. Surprisingly (for Hollywood) it’s a reasonably accurate representation of what a “Big” Big Year means as three fanatic birders vie to determine who can see the most birds in the USA in a year. Most of us don’t have unlimited funds, and most of us have real lives to live, so for all but a tiny minority this sort of Big Year is out of the question. Fortunately a Big Year can be done on a more manageable scale – within a province, a county or even a city.
However, whichever way you set it up a Big Year is a non-trivial undertaking. It means that for a year a lot of normal life stuff has to take second place to the single minded pursuit of birds. Because it requires a lot of sacrifices (notably from one’s significant other) it’s really not worth doing in a half-hearted way.
It’s also hard to hide. And once your birding pals know you are on a big year, they will work hard to support you – passing on sightings, helping you see target birds, and working their contacts to ensure you have the best chance of succeeding. So you can’t really just lose interest halfway through – once you’re in it’s all in.
The Biggish Year Manifesto
So… am I about to announce that I’m doing a Big Year? Well, yes and no. Yes, in my first full year as a full-time birder (i.e. a retired guy) in 2018 I am going to see every bird I can in Ontario. But no, I am not doing an official Ontario Big Year. By convention a Big Year in Ontario is 300 or more birds. Given that only 291 species of bird actually breed in Ontario, that means seeing them all as well as any rare bird that happens to wander by. The latest guy to set the Big Year record, Jeremy Bensette, put 90,000 km on his car chasing every rarity in the province for a year.
I could try to replicate that, but having done most of my birding in the UK, I don’t really know the Ontario birds well enough to set 300 as a goal. Yet.
So what I am going to do (indeed what I have already started to do) is a Biggish Year. The target is a mere 250 species, but to make it harder I want to see them all – just hearing them won’t count. (Yes, that means a bunch of purely nocturnal species are pretty much off the table).
And happily for all, I am not going to use some fake goal of “raising awareness” to hit up my friends for donations. My Biggish Year will be entirely self-funded.
But I am counting on my friends in the Kingston Field Naturalists to help me out with tips and suggestions, and a couple of my Army Ornithological Society pals will be coming over from England to do an intensive 10 days during Spring migration. All the usual stations of the cross – Pelee, Long Point, Presqu’ile, Algonquin Park and Prince Edward County – will be thoroughly patrolled, and far-away places like Rainy River are on the programme.
So consider Biggish Year 2018 as a recce for a future Big Year. And standby for upcoming posts recounting the successes and the inevitable “you should have been here yesterday” stories.