Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Spring as Scheduled

It's that time of year again to come out of hiding and look for some spring birds. As much as I enjoyed having a "real" winter for the first time in a few years, it's nice to get out when there's a little bit more action - birds and otherwise.

It's very nice to see things appear slowly and deliberately like they're supposed to. This year, the Horned Larks arrived when it was still very cold and there was little other songbird movement. The prairie subspecies praticola is one of the first songbird migrants in Ontario.

In Algonquin, this Spring was not exceptional. I went there two weeks ago to check it out, and the harbingers are arriving as per schedule. Here, the first bird of Spring is the American Crow.

It was still bitterly cold and there was over 40 cm of snow, but Purple Finches had started to sing.

Black-backed Woodpecker was busy excavating a cavity (which he may or may not use as a nest later).

Kyle and I went to Pelee to look for some other "classic" early spring birds. One of my favorite things is seeing birds actively migrating, and because Pelee can only hold so many resident birds and the breeding diversity is not high, I can rightfully assume that most birds I see at certain locales in Pelee are migrants.

We had to stop on the side of the road to look at this lovely couple:

Red-tailed Hawks, like many raptors, are sexually dimorphic and the females are generally larger than males. These two were sitting right beside each other, and one can take an educated guess that the larger bird to the left is the female. Red-tails sitting side-by-side is another classic Spring sight.

As we got into the park itself we pulled over to look at some Snowdrops that were poking out of the disappearing layer of snow.

Birds were definitely moving. Many Ring-billed and Herring Gulls were moving North from the Tip. Handfuls of Red-tailed Hawks and Turkey Vultures went by, as well as single Red-shouldered, Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks.

There was some yelling and flailing when this Glaucous Gull went over.

We headed down to the Onion Fields later in the day to look for puddle ducks. Nothing beats seeing hundreds of almost a dozen species of ducks crammed into tiny little pools in the fields. It's an explosion of color and activity, and another timeless classic early spring event in birding. We found a/the Eurasian Wigeon with the masses.

Our next stop was Hillman Marsh, where we were treated to a Ross's Goose and hundreds of Tundra Swans - another one of the highlight sights and sounds of March in Ontario.

And interior! The real Canada Geese.

It was good to be able to finally see some change taking place. After being to Pelee earlier this January, it was evident that life indeed was on its way back North.

Another exciting bit of news is that I'll finally be down at Pelee for a good bit of the spring migration. Usually I'm up in Algonquin in May - an equally dynamic place to observe the Spring migration (but a little... you know, slower and with less Kentucky Warblers) but this year, Murray Shields and I are renting a house down near Wheatley and I'm leading guided trips out of there every day from May 2 - 12. It's a wide length of time and should produce a wide spectrum of birds, a little bit more than the "Yellow-rumped Warbler this week, Chestnut-sided Warbler next week" deal that I'm used to up North.

And the best part is, you can join too! It's a tad difficult getting a place to stay down there during migration (ask any seasoned veteran that books these things months in advance) but we still have a couple of spaces left - plus you get to hang out and see birds with a like-minded group of people. Plus I don't come with a Comfort Inn room booking. All the juicy deets are listed on this page here:

 But you don't have to be a member to join us, just let me know by e-mail and I'll see if we have space.

Enjoy your Spring ladies and gentlemen! I'm going to see if I can dig up some more birds!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Little Red Riding Wolf

I was on the road to the sea, helping my friends Brian and Kate of Seabirding spot on some of their trips off the Outer Banks.

I took my sweet time getting there and on the Friday evening had some time to kill, so I decided to head on over to Alligator River to look at Short-eared Owls. Alligator River is a 154'000 acres of everything from cypress swamp to peat bogs, open fields and high and low pocosin habitat. It's a beautiful place and protects several federally endangered species of flora and fauna. It's also one of the only places on the Eastern seaboard to see Black Bears. In short, it's a pretty cool spot.

I parked my car along some fields where the birds were hanging out and I climbed on top of it (couldn't do this with the Altima!) to get a better view. There were several harriers tacking around in the fields, and some patience was necessary to wait out the owls.

The sun set and in the twilight shapes began to appear from the pine plantation bordering the field. The harriers were still out and very quickly these new birds engaged the harriers and gave them some hell before they disappeared to roost. These were Short-eared Owls.

There were a few birders along the road but they all left shortly after the owls appeared. I figured I hadn't anything better to do, and I don't see these things very often so I stayed to enjoy the show. Eventually there were about a half-dozen birds coursing the fields. A pair of Great Horned Owls started singing behind the car and a Woodcock flew to the roadside about ten feet away and started peenting. It was also a balmy 13C. Beautiful evening.

I noticed some movement from out in the field and notice a reddish canid running around out there. I dismissed it as a fox initially until it was joined by something bigger - and that had a radio telemetry collar. I think I yelled some expletives and the dogs disappeared for about ten minutes and appeared again - they were Red Wolves!! 

Red Wolves are the epitome of "something you don't see very often". Indeed, with only around 100 animals in the wild, that chance is pretty slim. So I had a reason to be very, very excited.

I had briefly seen a Red Wolf last year in close to the same spot, however these two, later joined by a third, were putting on a show, with a glorious pink full moon rising behind them like in some sort of movie. They were hunting small mammals in the same manner that a fox does, leaping into the air several times in succession. I even managed a short video of it -


 I watched these wolves for about forty-five minutes until it literally got too dark to see. Then I got into the car and drove over to the Patteson house, playing loud music and yelling until I got there from the disbelief of what just happened.

Red Wolves are, in many ways, very different from the Gray Wolves we are used to seeing on TV from Yellowstone. They are a smaller, slighter animal adapted to surviving in more humid climates and hunting smaller prey, and while Gray Wolves can be white, gray or black, almost all Red Wolves with the exception of rare melanistic individuals, are one color.

(Captive animal - courtesy of the Red Wolf Recovery Program, USFWS)

A warm brown with noticeable cinnamon tones on the legs and behind the ears, a darker back and tail and a white throat patch.

In fact, they look quite similar to another species of wolf found in Canada.

The Eastern Wolf (Canis lycaon) of Algonquin Park and surrounding area of Ontario. 

In fact, at one point it was thought that the two were conspecific, but recent work (Chambers et. al. 2012) seems to show that the two are, in fact, separate species, likely derived from a coyote-like ancestor rather than Gray Wolves. Both had large historic ranges, with Red Wolves occupying most of the southeastern United States and Eastern Wolves in Eastern Canada including the Maritime provinces and down through the north Appalachians. The Eastern Wolves are a tad better off than their cousins in the South, however, as much of the historic range of the Red Wolf is now quite densely inhabited by people, and as we all know, people and wolves don't get along.

This is a shame, because even more so than the purported "big, bad" Gray Wolves, Red Wolves are very shy and unassuming animals that very few people, even researchers, ever have the pleasure to see. They're barely bigger than coyotes and unlike that species do poorly under the shadow of civilization and stay very far away from humanity. It is likely that if property owners and governors hamper the re-introduction efforts to support the tiny experimental population of these animals, they will be the responsible for the extinction of an anecdotal terror that none of them will have actually seen in the flesh to begin with. I, for one, am counting my lucky stars.

Monday, January 20, 2014

White on White

It was Friday night and Kyle and I were driving North to look for Gyrfalcons and other goodies. After several hours of driving we made it to a hotel at a very reasonable time. I think it was about 10 o'clock.

We unpacked our things and carefully placed them where they would be accessible in the morning. It was a good prelude to what was to be a good morning. Then, I made the mistake of venturing down into the lobby to look for a vending machine. The receptionist was cute. I was thirsty. It was Friday. We all knew this was a recipe for disaster.

"Where would someone like you be on a Friday night in Sudbury?"

I had a place and time. It wouldn't hurt to have a few friendly beverages before our quest... I mean, it was a big bird, and we needed to celebrate our impending victory. So we went to the bar.

Enter the Saturday. Kyle had already packed. I hauled myself out of bed with the elegance of a pregnant seal. 

(Thanks BuzzFeed)

The room looked like ground zero. Some blurry memories of airborne microwave ovens remained. Thankfully it wasn't too bad, and we (mostly Kyle) cleaned it up and it looked just like new. Sort of.

"You tried to hit on the bartender. She was unattractive."

Good Morning. I was ready for a day-long nap. Kyle was all pumped and for it. He didn't have any tequila.

I was somewhat hoping that we'd arrive at the bird sitting on a duck in some parking lot so that I could continue dying in the back of the car, but that was not the case. We scanned some popular spots from the car and the bird was not to be seen.

"Let's go for a little walk" said Kyle. "We might see the falcon out in the lake" he said.

It was time to kick up dirt. It was a pretty big lake. I was suffering. We walked for a few hours, seeing nothing but ravens and ducks flying around. The creek was kept open as a byproduct of carefully treated and tightly regulated human sewage, and the Gyrs were hunting the Mallards, Black Ducks and Goldeneye that were congregating here. 

We saw some ravens. Pointed-winged ravens, blunt-winged ravens, light-reflecting ravens, long-tailed ravens, blunt-headed ravens, ravens chasing ducks etc.. 

At one point, we encountered a lone Trumpeter Swan in the middle of the lake. I sat down for a while to take a break, and the swan emerged from the creek and beelined for us. All things considered, I wasn't ready to fight a swan and did nothing. The swan approached to within a few inches of us, and sat down beside us and honked gently. I pet it. I was convinced I'd gone off the deep end.

As much as this perverse scene was entertaining, before my vision of riding the swan into battle became reality, we got hungry.

"I'm so hungry, I could eat at Arby's."

We ate at Arby's. It was getting late. The sun was setting. It was getting colder. We'd lost our spirits. We did the rounds again. Nothing. I was waiting for Kyle to say it.

"Let's go for a little walk" said Kyle. "We might see the falcon out in the lake" he said.

On any other day, it would have been fine. I blame the receptionist. She did lie. I looked for her at the bar. Perhaps we'd see her out on the lake.

After another couple of hours walking I actually felt much better and we did spot a fox (ha-ha-ha) stalking the ducks in the creek. It was a beautiful one, very big, very red, and with a mange-free coat.

We watched the fox for a few minutes until it disappeared. It started to snow slightly. Suddenly, Kyle pointed.


In the air, a pair of goldeneye were hauling ass towards the creek at an ungodly speed. Trailing them was a massive, long-tailed, blunt-winged, short-headed white falcon

In the final stretch, the goldeneye pulled in and hurtled towards the creek. The Gyr also pulled in but wasn't quick enough and the ducks hit the water before it could grab one. It didn't stop. It didn't perch. It merely strafed the ducks and continued at the same pace into the gloom.

The Gyr is one of those birds that you imagine seeing. I've always decided on how I wanted to see my lifer Gyrfalcon - it's always been while it was snowing, I wanted to work for it, I wanted it to appear rather than finding it, but more than those things, I've always wanted it to be a white one. Dark and gray birds are beautiful, but there's something about the white Gyr. 

Kyle and I exchanged victory hugs and high fives. He called his wife Caitlin. We were yelling and raving about the bird. It was just like when I used to skip high school to chase birds.

We decided to check the lake again to see if it had come around. We still had about two hours of daylight, and now that we've seen the Gyr, we could continue further north for our other target bird.

I was watching a raven fly over the lake when it suddenly slowed down to a glide and turned onto a tree a few feet from the creek. It sat down and was paying attention to something - I put my bins on the raven.

"Hey Kyle, the Gyr is sitting right there in that tree."

Black and White.

Studying the bird perched, it became clear that not only was this bird white, it was very white. It's back and wings had a few dark spots, but its tail was clear as well as its belly. It was looking at the raven nervously.

Eventually the raven hopped even closer and the falcon decided that this was too much and took off, flying only a short distance away from us, giving crippling views, while the raven gave it some hell. Once it got past the creek, it did a bit of a roll and strafed the raven, and then disappeared into the snow, not to be seen again.

(This is Kyle's photo)

We woke up in Timmins on Sunday. We looked outside. It was white. The weather people said it was supposed to be sunny. Evidently it was not. I checked my email hopefully for discount flights, Boston Pizza coupons and reports of Slaty-backed Gulls. Instead I found a whole cluttered mess about owls and feeding and name-calling and all sorts of things I hadn't signed up for. It was the early morning. I'm usually not one to say anything, but I was tired, hadn't had a cigarette, and something had to be said. I thought it was somewhat polite. I even said "please". I just didn't want to see Ontbirds turn into *shudder* MassBird, where one must filter through dozens of irrelevancies whilst woefully searching for a spot to find a Dovekie.

Then, in reply to the few sentences I wrote, I got the most glorious e-mail I think I've ever had:

"You are not speaking for the collective. You are just another low live f******g moron, who does not care about the birds. You should be fed to the GGOW"

(Thanks Google)

Wouldn't that be baiting? know, murder? Luckily, they apologized and we kept it real. I had a good laugh in the woods about it. Especially whilst driving past all the owl boxes I put up last fall.

En route, the visibility at times was almost nil due to the vast amounts of blowing snow. It was less-than-ideal conditions to look for woodpeckers. By the time we got there however, it had cleared a tad and while there was still wind and snow, at least we could see our hands in front of our faces.

We snowshoed into the scorched woods. It was a surreal, beautiful landscape. Very, very boreal. Only spruce and aspen. And several feet of snow. At times I felt that we were swimming rather than hiking, and we both had snowshoes.

We made some owl sounds and squeaked, but got no responses. We then entered an area I thought looked particularly good so I brought out the iPod and laid down some beats.

Immediately, an enraged pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers were summoned. Yellow crown bristling, wings outstretched, white rectricies flared, the male flew only a few trees away from us and started loudly and aggressively spik-spikking and display-drumming. The female was not far behind.

A third bird flew in, further back. This immediately looked suspicious. It was kinda in-and-out, so once again I played the tape and it immediately came rocketing towards us - it was a Three-toed Woodpecker!

It was a lifer for Kyle and I hadn't seen once since 2007, so we high-fived to this bird as well. We watched it for several minutes, and at one point it and the male Black-backed were drumming on the same tree, side-by-side. It can be a difficult bird to pin-down in Ontario, but thanks to a tip from Tyler Hoar and the Fire 9 burn creating miles of excellent habitat, here it was.

It was a wonderful trip to a wonderful habitat. It had all the elements of a good bird trip, and all the elements of a brutal boreal winter that I have missed in the past years. It's good to be back!