Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Evacuation of the Great White North

The depths of autumn have reached Algonquin.  Fall colors have peaked and so has the migration, and now most of the sombre-plumaged warblers have left the Park and the sparrows have replaced them. They too will soon be gone, and the Park will once again become a silent, dreary place. I will join the birds in only a few weeks, but for now I'm enjoying the tail end of the migration and some of the most beautiful scenery in Eastern North America.




The birds, too, have been pretty good. A lot of the resident species have become conspicuous again, including male Spruce Grouse in vain attempts to attract females. They won't succeed, because it isn't Spring, but the birds, influenced by the similar daylength and temperature, will try regardless.


As for myself, like the birds that I spent the summer with, soon I will bid goodbye to Algonquin and be en route to the tropics. I have been living in this Park for almost six months from late April, and witnessed the big influx of life into the Northwoods in Spring,


and now the great evacuation of life in Autumn in preparation for the Winter.


Not all life will leave, for there will still be much around to those who can find it, but for the most part the Northwoods will be a very lonely, quiet place.

The tropics however, will be hoppin'. Migrant birds will be settling in and by the time February rolls around much of the residents will have already been singing vigorously. In March, the Ficus will be in fruit and Lovely Cotingas will come with it. Bellbirds will make their way up the mountains to breed in the cloud forest. And I will be there to see it happen. 

Before all that however, I'll head to the northern recesses of Ontario....(New Liskeard) to band some of the last migrant songbirds and owls, attend a weekend of debauchery in North Bay, and otherwise see how much trouble I can get into in this country before I move on to the next one. Expect interesting updates.


Monday, September 17, 2012


Hey y'all,

Nothing exceptionally exciting (it's Algonquin in Fall, remember?) However, Kyle Holloway, a good birding friend of mine, has put together the following clip, concerning our seabirding adventures to Chile and the Falkland Isles this past Spring. I thought many of you would like to see it.

It's pretty outrageous. Enjoy -

Southern Royal Albatross
Southern Royal Albatross

Friday, September 14, 2012

Lev goes Salamandering

It's autumn in Algonquin. Nights are cold and long, the hardwoods are just starting to blush their beautiful fall colors and Gray Jays are once again seeking people out for handouts. The vast majority of our seasonal staff have gone off till next summer, but yours truly is still around, waiting for it to get cold enough to start my journey South.  Last night I devised a complex plan to go for broke and become a professional tuna fisherman, and then later ate my entire week's supply of tortilla chips. Yep, it's definitely autumn.

About a week ago, however, I had some free time (always dangerous) and decided to swing over to the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina to see if I can find some salamanders, and some neat birds down there too, plus see Appalachia before it gets blown up for coal. Always good.

I've been a birder for many years, but I've also done some herp trips here and there. Unfortunately for me, the vast majority of my friends are birders rather than herpers, so finding info about places to see things, especially not in Ontario, can be a bit difficult. In the world of reptiles and amphibians, just like in the world of plants, there are people out there looking to get their grubby little fingers on locations where they can poach specimens, either for the pet trade or the dinner table. This is why herpers tend to keep very quiet about their "secret spots" where certain species are hiding. It's a good thing, but unfortunate for people like me who want to see these things rather than sell them or eat them. So it was going to be a bit of an experiment - am I a decent field herper, or just a cheap wannabe who's all bark and no bite? I wanted to find out. So I went out there, without direction, without maps or spots - just knowledge of where these things live.


The Great Smoky Mountains

The Appalachians are exceedingly beautiful. There is no denying it. Though they lack the gothic, craggy appearance of the Rockies, their slopes, gentle peaks and valleys make up for it. Honestly, there was no place that I would rather have been at the time.

I had pretty decent luck finding most of my targets, but the whole search-and-find process isn't exciting enough to be blogged about, however there was one day that I thought was pretty remarkable and sort of puts this whole herping thing into perspective.

I was driving down the Blue Ridge Parkway in Western North Carolina to look for one of my "most-wanteds". It's a large, beautiful species that lives in moist talus slopes with lots of nooks and crannies to hide in - the Yonahlossee Salamander, named for an old road up at Grandfather Mountain.

So, here I am. It's 4:30 PM, I'm somewhere where I think this thing might range into. I can't be sure, but the elevation was right and I was close enough to the place where it was originally discovered. It's not that easy, though. Now the challenge becomes one somewhat reminiscent of a Pixar movie -

"Finding Talus"

You'd think finding a bunch of bloody wet rocks would be easy enough, but you are mistaken. I stopped here and there, found a couple of rocks that looked somewhat decent, but never anything that looked ideal. I decided to find a campsite for the time being, and maybe eat something. I managed to find a campground but by then it was on it's way to becoming dark. I had little hopes.

I set up my tent. It was a pretty little wooded area with some wet logs, and out of pity I turned one over.


Northern Gray-cheeked Salamander Plethodon montanus

And so I was back in the groove. I had some daylight left, about two hours worth, so I decided to drive further down the parkway and see if I can find some better talus than the two big rocks I'd found prior, that were now a 40 minute drive away. 

I turned onto a pulloff that looked somewhat innocent and touristy, but then I discovered a little, intriguing trail downhill. I followed it, and saw this:


A big fast-flowing mountain stream, with shallow pools, small riffles, and big wasn't habitat for the Yonahlossee, but it was potential habitat for a variety of other things, so I kept it in mind.

I continued plodding along, and it seemed like there were much better spots for the salamander here. I found some bigger piles of rocks, some seepy areas and other good-looking spots, but they were all right off the parkway and running around at night with a headlamp might attract some attention. Nonetheless, I had some good looking spots and headed back.

I don't know what caused me to pull into this crappy-looking pulloff spot. I think it was because of my internal satisfaction and I just wanted to admire the beautiful Blue Ridge sunset, but when I got out of the car and looked behind me to see what I couldn't from the road....


You know that feeling you get when you're doing a project, and you're struggling with it initially but you then get to the point where you know that you're going to be successful? The same feeling when you're out at the pub, and you see someone you like and you try hard to impress them until at one point you know for sure you're taking them home that night? (I say that like I know what that's like, right?)

That's what I felt when I saw this heap of talus. (I can't help it if I'm deprived) It was huge, seeping wet, and concealed from the public eye.

Just the way I like it.

I went back to the campsite and just chilled, satisfied with the way things were going. I even had a little nap. I woke up at 8:00 PM, and then it was go time. Oh baby.

It still wasn't pitch dark and I didn't want to scare any potential Yonahlossees back into the talus if they were just emerging, so I decided to check out that big creek I found earlier. I went in.

It was slippery and partially suicidal, but I made it down all the way to the creek bottom. Once I did, I shone my light at the first shallow pool I found, and look at what was looking back at me -


Shovelnose Salamander Desmognathus marmoratus

T'was a big ole' Shovelnose - an almost entirely aquatic species that is typical of quiet pools in streams like this one. It's very similar to another species, the Black-bellied Salamander, but this one is much paler, doesn't usually have a black belly, has a more shovel-shaped head, and their internal nostril openings (located at the bottom of their lower jaw) are shaped like slits. You can see the tail, too, is strongly keeled, allowing for the aquatic lifestyle that this species leads. Very cool!

There was another species here, the Black-bellied, which I also was keen on finding and the presence of this Shovelnose reassured me that they were here, as the two use similar habitat. Now it was a process of looking at the big rocks in the fastest flowing water.


Black-bellied Salamander Desmognathus quadramaculatus

I wasn't disappointed. These are big. REAL big - some reach 7 or 8 inches. They are ferocious predators of any unfortunate thing that they can catch and fit in their mouthes - including other salamanders. They even sometimes sit out in the middle of the day, but of course at night they are most active.

I found this guy wandering around too -


Blue Ridge Dusky Salamander Desmognathus orestes

And, of course, tons of Northern Gray-cheeks out and about as well.


Northern Gray-cheeked Salamander Plethodon montanus

I was having a great night hauling these lifers in so far, but now it was time to get serious. It was later, pitch dark, and there were Yonahlossees to be found. I drove to my lovely talus and began to scale the boulders, looking into the cracks for any signs of life.


Southern Ravine Salamander Plethodon richmondi

There were tons of Ravine Salamanders, in every wet crevice. These are remarkable little salamanders that spend the hot months of summer aestivating in the depths of the talus, relying on fat accumulated in their tails to keep them alive until they emerge in the cooler months again. This guy was clearly just out - his tail was very sleek and thin, unlike some other I saw whose tails still had fat reserves and looked like little sausages.

Suddenly, a big shiny thing caught my eye, wedged in a crevice. I was excited - here it was. My moment of truth!!!! I ran recklessly towards my waiting target.

It was remains of a beer bottle.

I cursed at humanity, sighed and turned around to go back, and on the rock directly behind me, there they were.


Yonahlossee Salamanders Plethodon yonahlossee

Both were adults, over seven inches long. The female is the one with the darker back in the background, and the male is the brighter individual in the foreground.


Yonahlossee Salamanders Plethodon yonahlossee

Neither of them cared about my spotlight. The male was busy displaying to the female - arching his back and wagging his tail like a little slimy dog. 

I stood there, quietly, watching the entire thing. I was alone, and for a few brief moments in this big, wonderful, hectic, stressful life, I was thinking about nothing. I was up on a remote talus slope, in the middle of the Blue Ridge, with some crickets singing in the background, observing these two creatures engrossed in their own world, completely separate from mine. And I was content. 

Being there with those two Yonahlossees is probably something I will never forget, and it's moments like these that I enjoy most while bumming around, looking at Nature. We spend a lot of time describing species, giving them names and explanations for their behaviours, reading about them, and drooling over pictures of them.

But there's nothing that beats going out there and seeing it for yourself.

That marked the 17th salamander species that I saw on this trip. I decided I was pretty good at this herping thing going solo, but certainly missed some embarrassing ones that I plan on catching up with next year, hopefully with some company. I got to see two more species in Shenandoah, but that is a story for another day. Meanwhile, enjoy these photos of some other species from this adventure.



Red-cheeked Salamander Plethodon jordani


Ocoee Salamander Desmognathus ocoee


Imitator Salamander Desmognathus imitator


Long-tailed Salamander Eurycea longicauda


Junaluska Salamander Eurycea junaluska


Seal Salamander Desmognathus monticola


Northern Slimy Salamander Plethodon glutinosus

Monday, September 3, 2012

Some Offshore Birding

After the whole Green Swamp adventure, the next day we went out on a pelagic with Kate and Brian to the Gulf Stream to look for oceanic birds. I was helping spot this time around, which was an awesome opportunity, so I wasn't able to photograph as many birds, but I did get some good ones.

It was a beautiful day - it was hot, sunny and the Atlantic was really calm (not too good for flying birds, though, because tubenoses can't fly properly without wind and just usually sit on the water) There was good company and it was just a lovely day to be out at sea. I don't get out to sea as much as I should being inland in Ontario, so it was a welcome change.

I saw some inshore Bottlenosed Dolphins for a brief few seconds, but they disappeared before anyone else could see them. Once we got a bit further offshore (it takes just under three hours to get to the Gulf Stream usually) we began seeing our first birds.

Just as we suspected, birds were sitting on the water with the lack of wind, and we flushed a small group of Audubon's Shearwaters.



There were many folks who'd never been out to sea before so the good looks were appreciated by all. Audubon's are cute, round-winged, stout little tropical shearwaters coming from the Caribbean to feed here. You usually see a few groups of them around on these summer/spring trips - they like feeding in floating Sargassum mats, which were few and far between on this day and so these were to be the best looks. You usually don't see them in baitballs or feeding "swarms" of the bigger shearwaters.

Our boat also flushed a Red-necked Phalarope but once again, nobody else saw it before it disappeared.

Eventually, once we hit the stream edge we began seeing the big, bulky Atlantic Cory's Shearwaters.

Cory's Shearwater

Cory's Shearwater

Atlantic Cory's are big, light grayish shearwaters with long bills that are common in the Stream at this time of year. These birds are coming from the Azores, the Berlengas and the Canaries. 

Kate put out some liver oil at this point to try and get some of the tubenoses closer to the boat, but with the no wind it had made the scent sort of pool around the boat and not go anywhere. A Black-capped Petrel can smell the gasses that baitfish release when they rise to the surface from kilometres away but when there's no wind, even the wicked scent of shark liver won't get them.

We did have some Wilson's Storm-Petrels following us and a couple of distant Black-capped Petrels go by.

Wilson's Storm-Petrel

Wilson's Storm-Petrels are coming into the Gulf Stream from subantarctic islands.

Suddenly, I heard Brian announce over our walkie-talkies -

"It's a beehive"

And looking off the bow there was a distant cloud of shearwaters and Skipjack Tuna leaping out of the water - a sign of a baitfish swarm! Brian hauled the Stormy Petrel II towards the flock but by the time we go there, it had calmed down a bit but there were still some fish and birds. Again, because of the lack of wind, many birds were sitting on the water. The flock was primarily Cory's. Cory's Shearwaters near their breeding habitat (i.e the Azores) exhibit feeding behavior that includes amazing, gannet-like dives in which the birds swim a few metres down to get baitfish, and these were featured in the television series Blue Planet, but the Cory's in the Gulf Stream off Hatteras are all young birds that do not exhibit this behavior. There were also some Great Shearwaters mixed in the flock. 




Great Shearwater

Great Shearwaters come into the Gulf Stream from Nightingale, Inaccessible and Gough Islands with the largest breeding colony on Tristan da Cunha. About 50 pairs also breed in the Falkland Islands amongst colonies of Sooty Shearwaters, most of them on Kidney Island, which I was fortunate enough to visit this March. They fly with snappier wingbeats and seem to carry themselves more easily than the big, lumbering Cory's.


Kidney Island - home to thousands of Sooty Shearwaters and about 50 pairs of Great Shearwaters, nesting in burrows in the tussock grass.

At one point, a shearwater flew towards the bow of the boat and Kate excitedly announced that it might be a nominate Cory's - a shearwater that is smaller, lighter and slighter-billed than the Atlantic Cory's and breeds in the Mediterranean, and is called Scopoli's Shearwater. The field mark here that distinguishes them from Atlantic birds is the amount of white on the primaries - it is quite restricted in borealis (Atlantic) but goes on to and is extensive on p10 on diomedea (Scopoli's). The biggest colony of these by far is on Madeira, and this bird was probably coming from there.

Sure enough, the bird turned up near the bow where I was and sat on the water. Since the key fieldmark was only seen when the bird was in flight, I waited until it took off.


A Scopoli's Shearwater if I ever saw one!

It was at this point when then wind picked up and finally sent our pungent fish oil smell out into the blue, which finally attracted several Black-capped Petrels close to the boat.


Black-caps are coming into the Gulf Stream from Hispaniola. Unfortunately, they aren't doing too hot over there, where first humans and now feral cats and rats deplete their already low numbers on the forested cliffs there. They used to breed in many of the West Indian islands but now Hispaniola is their only remnant habitat, and their numbers are declining. One may have seen thousands of them on a pelagic 120 years ago, but now we rarely see one hundred birds. It is very sad, but reassuring that they're still hanging in there, as we saw a couple of fresh hatch-year birds.

The picture above is the only good one I got on this trip, but to give you the gist of this beautiful ocean wanderer, here are a few from previous trips -

Black-capped Petrel

Black-capped Petrel

Black-capped Petrel

They come in two colour morphs - pale white-faced birds and darker black-faced birds. We don't know where the white-faced birds originate as all breeding birds on Hispaniola are dark-faced!!! The white-faced birds might represent a different species.

We had LOTS of Black-caps this trip, and that was because of the new moon. Pterodroma don't feed too much during the day and are reluctant to approach vessels of any kind - preferring to feed on squid and fish that migrate up from the depths in the middle of the night with the nightly plankton migration. They aren't owls, however, and can't see very well unless the moon helps them out. It hasn't been for the past several days, and these birds were starving. They buzzed metres away from the boat, ate our chum and we even saw one in 100 feet of water on the way back to shore. They were desperate for food at this point, but not to worry - the moon would shortly have made a presence and the birds would have been able to feed properly.

It ended up being a great day offshore, and many folks who'd never been out before got many new birds. As we were turning in and making our trip back, Kate was getting rid of the last of our chum and a second-year Pomarine Jaeger decided to become our 'pet' for a while. We usually see Poms now and again chasing shearwaters at a swarm but this bird learned that following the boat is more productive.




Jaegers do not use dynamic soaring to get around and have a lower wing-loading than the petrels and shearwaters. Their wings are very broad rather than very narrow like in the tubenoses. This means that they're not truly built for a mostly pelagic lifestyle - they spend a lot of energy flapping. This does mean, however, that during calm days when the tubenoses are almost useless that the jags can still fly, and we saw several poor Black-capped Petrels get robbed of their food!!

Everyone had a great day and we even had both Bottlenose and Spotted Dolphins ride the bow, and of course lots of flyingfish. I hope to return to Hatteras for more seabirding next spring and summer - I'll need it!


We saw many Black Terns offshore, and these two were exhausted from migration and landed on the water - unwise for terns, as their feathers get waterlogged quite quickly. This is why they try hard not to get their wings wet.


We saw a couple of Band-rumped Storm-Petrels as well, including this one which sat on the water for a while. They're bigger and longer-winged than the Wilson's, and fly very differently (like a shearwater). These are Mediterranean birds and are likely coming from Madeira.