Scarlet Tanager - Biggish Year 2018

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.

Algonquin Provincial Park

Moose - Biggish Year 2018
Not a bird.

Algonquin Park is basically a large chunk of boreal forest with a road through it. It’s not a place where you go to see masses of birds, and it’s a wader-free zone, but we were there aiming to spot some northern specialities. So to cut to the chase, we were successful in our hunt for these guys:

  • The elusive and semi-mythical Black-backed Woodpecker (huzzah!)
  • Spruce Grouse
  • Ruffed Grouse
  • Red Crossbill
  • White-winged Crossbill
  • Pine Siskin
  • Purple Finch
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch

… and were unable to find:

  • Boreal Chickadee (which have been very scarce this year)
  • Common Redpoll (though Andy may have seen one), and
  • Canada Jay (which ought to have been easy to find, but alas our jay-hunting skills were evidently not up to the job)
    Canada Jay - Biggish Year 2018
    Canada Jay, not being seen.

    Red Crossbill - Biggish Year 2018
    Red Crossbill

Assiduous early-morning scouring of the Spruce Bog Boardwalk also netted (in the metaphoric sense, I hasten to add) a sleeping Boreal Owl. Boreal is quite a rare bird this far South, and drew the expected I-don’t-believe-you message from the EBird police. We were also flagged for reporting an Eastern Meadowlark on the Old Airfield, which was a bit of a surprise. It’s a common migrant, but apparently not at that location. Any residual indignation at this offence to our amour propre was washed away by a few pints of Muskoka’s finest at the Mad Musher.[5] Then off to our next point of call.

The County

After lunch we made the long trek down to Picton, arriving in time to check in at our hotel, beetle off to Beaver Meadow for Black Terns and a Green Heron, then engulf some large meals at the Acoustic Grill.

Black Tern - Biggish Year 2018
Black Tern, off in the distance.

The next day’s met was ominous, but as ever we had our crack-of-dawn breakfast at Tim’s and set off. The first stop was Kaiser X-Road, an unlovely bit of farmland that is usually flooded in the Spring, and thus rather attractive to visiting waders. On that morning there was a decent array of waders from five species, but nothing new for our list. And just as we arrived the rain started to pour down with increasing enthusiasm. The omens for a bird-free day were all around us as we made our way to the Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area at the southern tip.

And sure enough, the rain was truly sheeting down when we arrived and there was nary a soul about – even the bird ringers from the bird observatory had vanished. After we had stood under a makeshift tarp for an hour or so, not drinking the coffee that should have been there (the Friends of something or other usually offer coffee during the Bird Festival), we began to feel a bit glum. The subject was not mentioned out loud, but our inside voices were arguing for a retreat to the warmth and succour of Picton.

Scarlet Tanager - Biggish Year 2018
Scarlet Tanager dreaming of happier times.

It was then, at the moment of absolute weakness, that Ken Edwards happened by. Soaked to the skin he was, as was his dog, but he allowed that he had heard some interesting warbler calls from the woods at Traverse Point. Now Ken is a bit of a bird savant, and will usually hear a given bird about 100 metres before I will. But the rain was starting to tail off a bit so we decided to see what we could dig up.

Warbler Mania – Redemption

Well, that title is a bit of a spoiler. Yep, we went to the woods and there they were: hundreds of birds lurking under their own equivalent of a makeshift tarp waiting for the weather to turn. It was the true warbler experience we had been hoping for, with each of us spotting different birds simultaneously and trying to “get on” all of them at once. In between sponging off our optics we managed to tick off 48 species in two hours – 16 warbler species, including the much sought-after Canada Warbler; Hermit and Swainson’s Thrushes; a Black-billed Cuckoo (lifer for me and presumably for Andy and Mike as well); and a variety of other migrants. Peering through the mist we spotted a gaggle of Surf Scoters at close range, though by then my lens was wet inside and out so the images are – shall we say – atmospheric.

Canada Warbler - Biggish Year 2018
Canada Warbler (record shot)
Surf Scoter - Biggish Year 2018
Surf Scoters in the murk.

When we repaired to the Bird Observatory more goodness awaited. A few other brave souls had by then materialized and we goggled at the array of birds on hand. At one point we were admiring a Golden-winged Warbler at close range (a hard-to-see bird) when about six feet in the other direction up popped a Blue-winged Warbler (equally hard to see). Added up there were fifteen warbler species on the site, of which six were additions for the day. And that does not count the Mourning Warbler seen another birder but not by us.

As we made the trek out to the lighthouse we continued to add to the list. The most unusual find was a Common Nighthawk perched on a limb. This bird is rarely seen at the Observatory – as far as I can tell “mine” was the only one spotted this year – and as a purely nocturnal and well-camouflaged beast is usually only identified by call. So to see and photograph one was quite good. It also illustrates an important lesson of birding: the likelihood of seeing a rare bird increases logarithmically with distance from the car where one left one’s camera. Fortunately while I was tabbing way back to the Observatory and then returning to the point the creature was content to sit in place, believing itself invisible, and dream of devouring giant moths.

Common Nighthawk - Biggish Year 2018
Common Nighthawk.

So for a dreary, rainy day we ended up with 62 species including six more for the Biggish Year list. Needless to say, a few more pints of Prince Eddy’s went down that evening, in honour of an epic day.

In our next episode we will revisit Presqu’ile and explore a few other choice spots. Stay tuned!

Year list: 235

[1] Waders tend to arrive in Ontario later than most of the land birds – wader migration can run well into June.

[2] EBird is an online tool that allows birders to report their sightings and see what others are seeing. It is run by Cornell University with the aim of crowd-sourcing a worldwide database of bird sightings that can be used by researchers.

[3] Birder slang for not finding the target bird(s).

[4] Not that birders are at all competitive. (!)

[5] Upon reviewing this I remembered that we had seen the two offending birds on the last morning in Algonquin Park. So to be totally accurate, it was pints of Prince Eddy’s Citra IPA. Or it would be, as it occurred in what was(is) the future of the sentence, though it’s now in the past. But I digress…

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