The Big Year Takes To The Air



  Going into my big year I always knew that chasing a bird in northwestern Ontario was a possibility, however I thought I had gotten off easy. With it being late November and rarity season winding down, the possibilities of new birds were getting slim. In fact, I had just done a talk about my big year for a naturalist club in Bruce, during which I somewhat smugly said I didn’t have to go on any insanely long chases for a single bird.


Somewhere in western Canada however, a young male Bullock’s Oriole heard of my arrogance and decided to do something about it. It flew east, hundreds of kilometers out of its normal range, and landed a bird feeder in Dryden, located in the near-to-nothing land of Kenora district. This bird was smart though, it didn’t just show up at any bird feeder, it picked one that had someone watching who’d recognize it as a rarity. Yes, this bird was out to taunt me, and to hurt my bank account. Of course this isn’t what happened in reality, but that’s my feelings on it, as I for one believe that most birds are aware of the humans who watch them and have a cruel sense of humour. 


On November 24, Penny Pat posted the Oriole to a birding Facebook group for northern Ontario. News then spread to the southern birders, including the big year folk. Messages were sent to her, and after confirming that the bird had been seen the following day (to rule out it wasn't just a one-day thing) I booked a flight to Winnipeg. You may wonder why I flew out of the province, well that’s because Dryden is so far northwest that it’s actually about as close to Winnipeg as it is to Thunder Bay, and the former was cheaper.

Ezra and William came along too, plus Susan Nagy and her husband Jim, who were generous enough to rent a car for all of us to go in. Because of the insane fluctuations in flight prices, it made more financial sense to come back on Monday night, which gave us a full day to bird around Northern Ontario on Sunday. This wasn't my preference, but I was excited with the additional possibility of finding a rare bird (rosy-finch was on the mind).



Saturday morning started off with a 3:30am departure from Guelph, followed by an hour long drive to Pearson International Airport and a few hours of waiting before our 6:30am flight. As is almost always the case Pearson was chaotic and crowded with travelers, though despite this we still got to our gate with plenty of time to spare.


After dozing off shortly after takeoff, I awoke on the plane around 8:30, and was momentarily confused because we were meant to be landing at that time. Ah or course, a new time zone... Often the source of confusion while travelling. A bank of clouds hid most of my view of Lake Superior, but occasionally it appeared below us, all dark and ominous, which is the default vibe for this northern water body. As we passed over the imagery aerial border and dipped through the clouds, I got my first view of Manitoba… a patchwork of sprawling snow-covered fields, winding rivers and small pockets of conifers. Definitely a Northern feel to it, not quite prairie land but certainly different from home in southern Ontario. 


- Manitoba Countryside

- Outskirts of Winnipeg

The Winnipeg airport proved to be, unsurprisingly, far less busy than Toronto. After grabbing some snacks and picking up our rental for the trip (a black Toyota Rav4) we were off! Actually, getting out of Winnipeg proved to be a challenge though, as winding through the busy city streets and getting to the highway took over half an hour in itself. Some Black-billed Magpies flew around the more open parts of town, the first of many we’d see during the next few days. Then, after finally getting on the main highway, the first long drive of the trip began.... 4 hours east to Dryden. 

Northern Ontario, as well as most boreal habitat around this latitude, tends have depressingly low bird diversity at this time of year. The occasional raven or eagle beside the highway, a flock of Pine Grosbeaks on the top of a Spruce Tree, but few other lifeforms to speak of. Driving here for an entire day and seeing less than 10 species is certainly possible, if not the case most of the time. With all the big year birders in the car naturally there was talk of birds seen, missed and so on, which was most of the conversation during the drive over.


Arriving in Dryden, we followed Pat's directions (turn at the police station, look for the fifth house down the street) and pulled up to the driveway in question. To avoid spooking the bird we used the car as a blind, and not 10 minutes later the Bullock’s Oriole flew into the feeder and grabbed a berry. Success! And it was sweet. We spent over an hour there, watching it come and go (briefly land on a car window), admiring this rare and expensive visitor to Ontario. The Bullock’s Oriole is quite similar to our familiar Baltimore, in fact the two were considered the same species until a few decades ago, when genetic research was done and the AOS made the decision to split them. 

Females can be quite an ID challenge, but luckily this bird was a first year male, and was quite distinct. With a dark black throat, orange on the auriculars, breast and tail and broad white wingbars on dark, greyish black wings. The yellow on the belly fades quite sharply into a buffy off-white of the belly, creating a sort of two-toned look to it. Overall, an interesting looking bird, and also lifer for me.


- Bullock's Oriole





- Oriole Stakeout


After we were all satisfied, we moved on and drove the remaining 3 & a half hours to Thunder Bay, where we spent the next two nights at a nice Air B&B in town. Following the long day of flying and sitting in a car, stretching my legs and enjoying a sleep in a comfy bed was a welcome break. While being a nice car, the Rav4 is a bit tight and uncomfortable with 3 people in the back seat.



Since we were only in the north for another full day there was no time to waste, even if the 5:45am alarm made me want to silence it and just sleep for the remainder of the morning. We piled into the car, stopped briefly for some cheap drugs (caffeine, in the form of barely passable coffee) and headed south to the town of Rossport.



The town of Rossport is a two hour drive south of Thunder Bay, and something about its geography makes it perfect for rare birds. Whatever it is, this place just brings them in! 3 Lazuli Buntings, Painted Bunting, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Mountain Bluebird and Say’s Phoebe to name a few. Nothing was being seen when we visited, but it seemed like as likely of a place as any to find something good like a rosy-finch or a Black-headed Grosbeak. 

We arrived just after daybreak and spent a few hours wandering the streets around the town, which has a quiet, northern community vibe... In fact you could be convinced the town was abandoned until residents start waking up around 10am. Sheltered from Lake Superior by a large chain of islands to the west, the town (with a population of a mere 100 residents) is basically just 4 streets of small, pleasant looking log houses nestled between the water and the Trans Canada Highway.

- Sunrise at Rossport

The birding was very good, and we saw a total of 25 species there, which although low by southern Ontario standards, is quite good for the north in late November. 5 of these were filter tripping species for eBird too. Highlights listed below;

  • 3 Common Mergansers 
  • 1 Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • 1 Northern Shrike (new for the Rossport hotspot)
  • 5 Boreal Chickadees
  • 7 Bohemian Waxwings
  • 10 Red Crossbills
  • 1 Song Sparrow
  • 1 Red-winged Blackbird
  • 2 Northern Cardinals
  • Redpolls, both grosbeaks and lots of siskins


Some of those may not sound too exciting, but they are good birds in Thunder Bay! The cardinal and woodpecker were the only ones in the county this month in fact. 


- Red Crossbills

- Red-bellied Woodpecker

- Boreal Chickadee

- Another Red Crossbill

- Walking Rossport

- Random Sign


We spent the remainder of the day checking other small towns on the way back to Thunder Bay, although we were never as successful as we were in Rossport. One highlight was finding a berry tree with a mixed flock of Bohemian Waxwings and Evening Grosbeaks, not something you see too often.


- Bohemian Waxwing

- BOWA and Eveing Grosbeak

Another weird find in the towns were aliens… small, green and wooden, with a variety of different expressions, the towns around the area seemed to be weirdly fascinated with them, as we saw well over 60... standing in in front lawns, hiding behind windows and perched atop fences. Some intense research (a good search) turned up a CBC article about these. Apparently, a local artist makes them and they’re a huge thing here, and they’re even shipped out all around the world…. Strange…


- Alien

- Creepy


In the town of Nipigon we came across this large tower on the side of a ridge. There were some birds around (Evening Grosbeaks and Common Redpolls), so we spent a few minutes exploring the area and climbing the tower, which looked promising as a hawkwatch/morning flight spot during migration seasons.

- Nipigon Tower

Fear of heights 0 - Kiah 1

- The view


Nightfall is early during this season, so in no time our rarity search was cut short by darkness and we were forced to retreat back to Thunder Bay. The Canada vs Croatia FIFA game provided some entertainment that evening... but the 4-1 loss was a bit tough to watch : )


On Monday morning we spent an hour birding around the waterfront of Thunder Bay, mainly looking for Gyrfalcons, then started making our way back to Winnipeg. We had good luck with weather the previous two days (sun/cloud and 5 degrees, which is crazy for this part of Ontario in late November), but that luck had since run out. The morning was damp and cold with a constant light drizzle of rain. Any Gyrfalcons in the area were sensibly spending the day resting somewhere dry, so after checking out the grain silos and finding Mallards and Canada Geese (both tripped the eBird filter) we called it quits.

The 8 hour drive back to Winnipeg proved to be a long one, especially for Jim, who drove for the entire trip. We were a bit pressed for time, so we didn't do much birding on the drive back, however we did stop back in Dryden and drove around the town to look for for birdfeeders. A flock of 350 Bohemian Waxwings were the main highlight, with nothing else of note besides Black-billed Magie (not rare here, but a fun sight for us southerners). Something I'm not using to seeing, that was quite common here was the deer in town yards. Small groups of White-tailed Deer were scattered all over the town lots, sleeping under trees and beside garages, watching cars drive by from less than 20ft away... and never seeming fazed by the human activity.

Around the border we encountered slush covered roads and a snowstorm, a bit of added stress as the Rav only had summer tires... Seriously, why do rental companies in snowy parts of Canada do this? All was well though, and we arrived back at Winnepeg with plenty of time to spare

- Bohemian Waxwings

- Tame Deer


Waiting for the flight at the airport dragged on for a bit, as did the flight home, but that's often how it goes on the way back from chasing something... The way there is always more exciting. Due to some delays in disembarking I didn't get back to Guelph until after 2am, quite tired but happy with the success of the trip.


One final note, I do not recommend Flair Airlines... The leg room/seats are subpar, the website constantly crashes, customer support charges you to even talk to them... and they try to scam you for extra money at every corner. That is all.


Ontario Yearlist @ November 30th - 357






Shameless advertising


 

Not my usual type of post… but I thought I would use this platform to advertise Alessandra’s art! She’s working on a number of commissions for Christmas now and is available to do others if people want. 


They’re pretty great : ) buy them…. 


This is from her Facebook post


…….

Hey everyone!! Just putting this out incase anyone’s looking for a quality Christmas gift for someone they cherish (or hate, no judgment). 

 

I’m making custom bird art! I can bring any bird species to life, with some added creative flare! 

I have two main mediums I work with, Watercolour and Acrylic, and the subject will be a full bird with your choice of background, or a bird portrait. 


Watercolour is my favourite medium and I'm selling custom originals on your choice of paper (8.5"x6") or board (10"x8") for $80 and $95 respectively.

I can also do Acrylic paintings on canvas (10''x12''), these are more detailed and can include multiple birds, multiple species, + plants, background etc. These are more time consuming and use more expensive materials so I charge $230-300 depending on the details. 


Shipping is extra but I will be more than happy to deliver right to your door if you will be around Wellington or Bruce County! 


Some recent examples 







You can message her on Facebook (Alessandra Kite), or email alessandra_wilcox@yahoo.com



Big year related post with an insane chase coming in a few days 


Back to Ottawa for a Goose

 


When I was at Fifty Point November 6th, waiting for Cave Swallows to fly by, I was talking with some birders about my most likely new additions for the year. The first thing I said was Northern Gannet, then an hour later I see a gannet at Fifty! After the gannet, I explained that things are getting considerably harder because Pink-footed Goose is my most likely bird. That afternoon, of course, a Pink-footed Goose was found near Voyageur Provincial Park in Prescott and Russell by Jacques Bouvier. The goose had actually been around the area for a week, although it had only been seen on the Quebec side until then. 

Because I was busy the next day chasing the gallinule, I decided to wait to go until that Wednesday, with the plan being to spend several days searching for the goose if need be. Since the spot was an hour east of Ottawa, doing it in a single day felt a bit risky and not that enjoyable! 


On the morning of November 9th, Alessandra and I were picked up at 4:00am in Guelph by Isabel Apkarian, who had dipped on Pink-footed Goose 4 times in the past and was out for revenge. We stopped a few minutes later to pick up the last member of our goose hunting party, fellow big year birder William Konze. The Subaru Crosstrek looks quite spacious from the outside, an illusion that quickly fades however when 4 people, several scopes and a mound of supplies are piled in. It did have adaptive cruise control though, which may be worth the trade for space... even if the annoying lane assist sensor wouldn't shut up for the entire trip.

After several hours of driving, I received a message that Jacob Stasso had just seen an Atlantic Puffin at Dick Bell Park in Ottawa. It was only a flyby and chances of refinding it were slim, but we were only an hour away from the spot so we changed course and headed into the nation's capital for a quick alcid detour. It was a bit of a shock to the system getting out of the car to a chilly wind beside the Ottawa River, after the 25 degree Cave Swallow weather only a few days before.... That's Ontario for you. After talking to Jake and spending an hour looking along the river, it became obvious that the Ottawa River is indeed very long, and a puffin is a small bird to find in such a large space. Since there were a number of local birders out looking who all knew the area better, we left the puffin search to them and drove the remaining hour & a half to the goose spot.

The best location to view from was a small dirt road beside a large dam, that spanned the river and was closed off for construction. It seemed a bit iffy about people being allowed in the area, but if you look like you belong workers tend not to bother you, so we walked up the edge of the road and began scanning. Vince Fyson joined us shortly after that and helped scour the area for the rest of the afternoon. Numerous Cackling Geese and a single Snow Goose were mixed in with the thousands of Canadas present, but not our hoped for pink-footed variant. We gave it our best until light made scanning impossible, then drove back to Ottawa. where the Skevington's had graciously offered to let us stay. As is the case every time I have visited here, we were treated to wonderful food (thanks Angela) and entertaining stories... Always a nice part of visiting Ottawa.


The next day we were up at 4:00am again because we wanted to make it to the dam for sunrise, when a lot of geese take off to spend the morning foraging in nearby fields. William seemed to be slightly more awake than the rest of us, so he drove while everyone else passed out. Upon arriving at said dam, it was quickly visible that there were hardly any geese there. It seemed that they had roosted somewhere else for the night, so we turned around and drove down the river a bit further to find a vantage point to scan. I was just starting to wake up when we pulled over beside the road a few kilometers away, where we spotted several large rafts of geese sitting out on the river. Just as we were setting the scopes up they started taking off, so I began rapidly scanning through the flying flocks. My scope passed over a slightly smaller goose, with silvery wings, a white tail and a dark head. It was the Pink-footed Goose!! I proceeded to lose it a few moments later when it disappeared behind a treeline. The rest of the group hadn't seen it, and were rightfully quite frantic. 
We piled back into the car and William gunned it inland while we tried to keep the lines of flying geese in sight. After 10 minutes of skillful James Bond level driving, we arrived at a cornfield where large numbers of geese were descending. Suspense... had we followed the right flock? had the pink-foot peeled off? Isabel got on the bird as it was landing with canadas. Success! An Ontario lifer all around, we enjoyed amazing views of it in the scope for half an hour as it contently fed with the other geese. After putting in 3 long days looking for this species in the spring, seeing it felt pretty satisfying : ) This was 356 for my yearlist, and 350 for William (big congrats on breaking the 350 barrier sir!).

- Pink-footed Goose with Canadas


- #356

- Alessandra in goose watching stance

We spent the remainder of the day searching for Barnacle Goose (which William needs) and scouring the river for alcids, but came up short on both. That evening we enjoyed another great meal at Jeffs and had Eric Baldo over to play Wingspan (a birding board game). The following morning we returned back to Guelph, satisfied we wouldn't have to return to Ottawa for another goose in the near future. Unless...



Since then I have been busy leading a few bird hikes in Grey/Bruce and birding around Guelph and Hamilton. No new birds, but a few highlights including;

- My first self found King Eider of the year (flyby at Van Wagner's Beach)

- Self found female Barrow's Goldeneye with Alfred Raab on a birding hike around Owen Sound

- First of fall Northern Shrikes and Common Redpolls, also great views of a Golden Eagle



In rarity news, there is a Limpkin in Lewiston NY... just across the river and actually visible from Ontario... so close but so far........ arrrr. A plee to US birders, please flush this bird across the river. Use firecrackers, whatever in necessary.. Just make it happen ; )


Kidding of course...


Ontario yearlist @ November 17th - 356

Lake Ontario Provides

 


I'll start off this post by going back in time to last week, when I was looking at weather maps for the upcoming days. From last Thursday to Sunday, a low-pressure system wind was moving north from the gulf coast, bringing with it powerful south/southwest winds all the way up to Ontario. With that kind of setup in the late fall, the chances of rarities turning up here are high. 

On top of that, this system was perfect for bringing Cave Swallows to Ontario. Although caves are code 3s, their numbers fluctuate greatly depending on the year. Some seasons there are numerous reports around the province, while during others there are none. It just depends on the weather. Why these birds disperse north in large numbers during late fall is a mystery, but. When these birds first arrive here (generally after a day or two of strong winds) they are often see a long north facing shorelines during south winds, and then after that when the weather turns, south facing shorelines on north winds.

Saturday morning found me at the western edge of Niagara County just after sunrise, at Fifty Point Conservation Area, which juts out into Lake Ontario. Since this location has had Cave Swallows in the past, and the winds were ideal for that day (strong south) my hopes were high. Shortly after arriving I was joined by the usual crowd (the other big year birders plus Erik VDK and Isabel), and we began our watch. The first two hours passed by rather quickly, with large numbers of loons and ducks keeping our interest. Then, just around 10am I spotted a flock of 25 Swallows flying by, going west above the trees inland. They were gone a few seconds later, and all I was able to tell for sure was that they were small swallows with square tails. Almost certainly caves, but for my first one I needed a better look. We trekked inland to a parking lot with a nice, raised hill for viewing, a spot recommended by Brandon Holden. This turned out to be a good choice, as twenty minutes later another flock of swallows flew over, this time right overhead and definite caves. 353! This was a lifer for me too, and one of my remaining 3 code 3 species. 

I ended up staying until 1:30, and finished up with 45 Cave Swallows... Not too shabby!


The photos are a bit subpar, but that's how it goes sometimes...



- Cave Swallow






 The following day the winds were a bit lighter and more southwest and south, but I decided to go back to Fifty Point again for another watch. One reason was that seeing Caves in Ontario is a pretty rare opportunity and I wanted to take advantage while I could, another was that Alessandra needed it for life and couldn't make it the previous day. On top of that, there was a chance of something rare on the lake while we were there (gannet was on the mind).

Only about half an hour after arriving we had our first flock of caves, this time 8 birds. Again, views were brief and right above us, so my photos weren't really any better. That was followed by a flock of 5 birds, higher up this time. A cloud bank passed over after that and the winds shifted a bit, which for whatever reason shut down the swallow passage. 

Then I saw on discord that a Northern Gannet had just been seen of Fifty Point, a mere 500 meters from where I was standing! I full out sprinted from the parking lot out to the end of the point, where I got brief views of a distant gannet before it disappeared out of view in a thick feeding flock of mergansers. A crowd of birders had amassed at the point, and together we waited for it to return. 

It took a bit of patience, but about an hour later we picked it up along the shoreline further east. It was flying towards us... and ended up flying past the point only a few hundred meters away! This was a Ontario bird for me and Alessandra, and a great addition for the big year. We waited for a bit longer, with a nice highlight of a Little Gull flying past, then headed out for a celebratory meal with Andy and William.

- Northern Gannet




After a week of slow birding 2 new birds in 2 days was quite exciting, but the fun wasn't over there. That evening news came through of a Purple Gallinule that was found at Second Marsh in Durham! This was a bird that was on my radar for an addition this fall, but I wasn't too hopeful as it's getting a bit late in the year now. Juvenile gallinules often disperse north/get lost in the fall and can get brought up by the same systems that bring Cave Swallows to Ontario.

The next morning, I was at second Marsh with William shortly after sunrise. A quick survey of the area where the bird was seen, which was a small cannel of water beside an extensive marshland came up empty. A trail ran along the cannel, but seeing the water was a bit difficult due to high reeds. We scoured back and forth for over an hour, then someone down the path shouted that they had it. Another sprint ensued. Down the trail, a few birders were enjoying amazing views of the Purple Gallinule, that had just come out of the reeds and was showing nicely. #355 for the year and a lifer too! Bird secured we headed back to Guelph, not a bad 3 days if I do say!

- Purple Gallinule



Tomorrow I am headed to Ottawa for several days in hopes of seeing a Pink-footed Goose that was found on the weekend... 



Ontario yearlist @ Nov 8th - 355 

The Bluff - October Addition

 

On October 30th the conditions looked decent for a morning flight watch at "The Bluff" in Huron County. This is one of my favourite birding spots, but I've visited it a lot less than normal this year due to big year madness..

Anyways there weren't any rare birds around to chase, so I got up at a time that was much too early and headed over to the Bluff with Alessandra. There we met up with Isabel Apkarian and Andy Nguyen for a day of standing on a sand cliff beside the lake. Activity started off fairly slow, but things began to pick up after 9am with large flocks of Evening Grosbeaks and Pine Siskins. After seeing all the recent grosbeak reports across southern Ontario it was fun to connect a flight of them (my first ones since March). Red-necked and Horned Grebes were sitting out on the glassy calm water, with Red-throated and Common Loons flying out in the heat shimmer. The winds had shifted a bit more southwest than I was hoping for, which seemed to contribute to lower numbers of birds than expected. A massive flock of geese contained 2 Snows and 2 Cackling, adding further to the day list. While scoping a distant treeline I spotted a flying Pileated Woodpecker, a new species for my Bluff list.

By noon the songbird movement was winding down, with only the occasional flock of finches passing over. We were considering packing it in, but then a bit of a raptor movement started with a few groups of southbound Red-tailed Hawks, so we stayed until almost 3pm. The raptor highlights were a lovely dark Rough-legged Hawk, a Golden Eagle and an adult Northern Goshawk. Unfortunately for Andy he needs goshawk for the year and left twenty minutes before I had it... Next time Andy! 
The Black-capped Chickadee movement was pretty fun as well, with groups of 5-20 birds moving all day through the corn field. It's a bit odd to look up and see a flock of chickadees in the sky, not how you see these guys most of the time. I always wonder where these chickadees and coming from and where they're going... 

 Highlights from the the day below below;

- 9 Red-necked Grebes

- 5 Red-throated Loons

- 1 Wilson's Snipe

- 1 Golden Eagle

- 4 Northern Harriers

- 17 Sharp-shinned Hawks

- 3 Cooper's Hawks

- 1 Northern Goshawk

- 72 Red-tailed Hawks

- 1 Rough-legged Hawk

- 1 Pileated Woodpecker

- 350 Black-capped Chickadees

- 474 Evening Grosbeaks

- 22 Purple Finches

- 324 Pine Siskins

- 632 American Goldfinches

- 2 Lapland Longspurs

- 16 American Pipits

- 55 Species total

- Rough-legged Hawk

- Wilson's Snipe

- Pine Siskins

- Siskins

- Evening Grosbeaks

- Evening Grosbeaks

-More


A nice break from chasing and a really enjoyable day at one of my favourite spots: )


On the subject of the big year this past week has been pretty annoying.... There have been 5 good birds... Ross's Gull, Great Cormorant, Gray Flycatcher, Cassin's Kingbird and Atlantic Puffin... and they have all been one observer wonders/not chaseable... Argh! A nice chaseable mega would be nice right about now please.... 



The Big Year Takes To The Air

  Going into my big year I always knew that chasing a bird in northwestern Ontario was a possibility, however I thought I had gotten off eas...