2021 Big Year - Part 3, The plan

Part 3.

How will I approach the beginning of my big year? Read below for a brief description. 

I'll be based out of Brant County for most of the winter, so I'll be much closer to rarities in southwestern Ontario. I'll be chasing any rare birds that show up, as well as hunting for rarities and just getting in some general birding. Unlike a lot of my friends, I'm not a "winter lister", so I won't be wasting time chasing birds that will be common later in the year (like say, an overwintering Orange-crowned Warbler). 
At the moment there are relativity few rare birds kicking around in Southern Ontario..  White-winged Dove and Slaty-backed Gull notably, as well as some uncommon winter birds like Gyrfalcon, King Eider, Purple Sandpiper and Barrow's Goldeneye. My intital goal will be to get these out of the way.

I'll post about my strategy often, but for now this is the game plan..

Spend January birding southern Ontario, knock off the rarities and try to get all the winter specialities out of way (finches, a few ratpors, uncommon ducks etc). Below is a list of birds that I'll aim to have by the end of the month.

I'll be posting to the blog as often as I can, so stay tuned!

January Targets: 
Harlquin Duck
King Eider
Barrow's Goldeneye
Purple Sandpiper 
Black-legged Kittiwake 
Slaty-backed Gull 
Long-eared Owl
Pine Grosbeak 
Hoary Redpoll 

King Eider 

2021 Big Year - Part 2, The Strategy

Part 2

Regardless of what geographical area a birder confines themselves to during a big year, a lot of planning is required. Take Ontario for example, every year roughly 365 birds are spotted in the province. Even with a private jet (no, I don't have one of those) it would be impossible to see every bird. The reason for this is that the province is quite large and you simply can't be in two places at the same time. Also, some rarities are seen in flight on lakewatches never to be refound, or at private residences and reported months after the sighting. So try as hard as you will and there will be misses.

For his 2012 big year, Josh Vandermeulen ranked all 491 species that have been recorded in Ontario from 1-6, with code being common and code 6 being an insane mega rarity. His codes were designed for a birder attempting a serious big year while being based from southern Ontario. The codes have been tweaked a bit (moved a few things from 2 to 3 etc), since some birds have gotten more or less common since his 2012 big year (Neotropic Cormorant for example). Also the provical list now stands at 501, so that is edited as well.  Josh's explanation of the codes are great, so I'm going to paste them below.

 Code 1 birds include everything from exceedingly abundant (like European Starling) to common (like Stilt Sandpiper, Snow Bunting, or Chestnut-sided Warbler). There are 203 species listed as code 1.
Red-breasted Nuthatch (Code 1)

Code 2 birds are also very common, though they may be a little tough to get. This includes everything from annual winter specialties (like Pine Grosbeak and Snowy Owl) to uncommon breeding birds (like Sedge Wren, Acadian Flycatcher, and Prairie Warbler), to uncommon migrants (Red-necked Phalarope). There are 73 birds listed as Code 2. This makes a total of 276 birds which are Code 1 or 2. 
Sharp-tailed Grouse (Code 2)

Code 3 is when it starts to get a little tricky. None of these birds are guaranteed on a big year though, if one is persistent enough one should get nearly all of these species. These include regular spring overshoots (Worm-eating Warbler, Summer Tanager), rare breeding birds (King Rail), some of the owls (Boreal Owl), some of the rare gulls (Black-legged Kittiwake, Pomarine Jaeger), etc. Some species on this list, like Cave Swallows, are common some years but absent other years. There are 46 Code 3 birds. 
Black Vulture (Code 3)

Code 4 birds are generally OBRC birds, usually birds that show up 1-5 times annually (like Western Grebe). Some on this list however (like Black-throated Gray Warbler, or Mountain Bluebird) occur less than annually. Basically, all the Code 4 birds are genuine rarities and it can’t be counted on that any of them will show up.  There are 40 species which are categorized as Code 4. The “easiest” Code 4 species are probably Laughing Gull,  Townsend’s Solitaire, Black-headed Gull, and Kirtland’s Warbler. There are 41 code 4 species.
Say's Pheobe (Code 4)

As expected, Code 5 and 6 birds are the rarest of the rare. Most Code 5 birds on my list have shown up between 5 and 20 times EVER in Ontario (like Gray Kingbird, or Slaty-backed Gull), while others (like Ivory Gull with 29 accepted records) have shown up more often. I placed Ivory Gull as a Code 5 as opposed to Code 4 because if one shows up, the chances of it hanging around long enough for me to see are very small! There are 63 species as listed as Code 5.
Barnacle Goose (Code 5)

Finally, Code 6 birds. These ones have usually been seen less than 10 times in Ontario. Out of the 59 species listed, I’ll be doing really well if I see more than 3 in this category! These include extinct species like Eskimo Curlew, crazy vagrants (Bachman’s Sparrow, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher), and one-hit wonders (Black-capped Vireo, Audubon’s Shearwater, etc). There are 73 birds listed as code 6.
Great Kiskadee (Code 6)
So to recap there are;
203 Code 1s
73 Code 2s
46 Code 3s
41 Code 4s
63 Code 5s
74 code 6s

As you've read above, there are 276 code 1 and 2 species occur every year and for a successful big year missing even 1 of these birds is not an option. The Boreal Chickadee (code 2) isn't rare provincially, but I could spend 365 birding in southern Ontario and never see one. Appropriately named, Boreal Chickadee is a year round resident of the boreal forest and requires a special trip to see. There are also Upland Sandpipers in grassy fields, Acadian Flycatchers in southern Ontario forests and Black-backed Woodpeckers lurking in northern Ontario forests.. and I can't miss any of these birds.
Timing is also a major factor on a big year. Some birds are only around in the winter, so you have to get them out of the way quickly. Others are breeding species and can be found all summer long, but migrate out of the province in the fall, so seeing them in their "window is essential. Others yet are only migrants here, and may pass through Ontario in a window as short as a few weeks. I'll go on about this more in future posts.

2021 is forecasted to be a Lã Ninã year (click here for the definition of Lã Ninã), which could bode well for an Ontario Big year. What does Lã Nina have to do with birding? Well in general it means a warmer winter, so think overwintering rarities. Also, if it holds until the spring it means more storms and "rarity weather" for the Great Lakes region. I'll do a more in depth blog post on this in the future, but yeah.. could be sweet..

2021 Big Year - Part 1, The Game

So, I guess I'm doing this! 

~ Splitting this into 3 separate posts so it doesn't run on ~

Part 1.

As some of you know this is my gap year, so I figured I'd have some fun with it and try an Ontario big year (because that's what most teenagers do). Unlike my friend  Ezra Campenelli who will be doing a big year in 2022, my intentions are very foggy. I'm not setting out to break the record, my goal is simply to have fun, explore Ontario and hopefully find some rare birds. If I get within reach of the record I may go like mad to break it, but if I don't I won't be upset. Obviously things will be different this year with Covid-19 being a factor. I'll be masking/social distancing/birding alone or with my household for the foreseeable future and will be taking all available precautions. I'm only taking day trips in the first part of the year, so no hotels required. 

Anyway, before I go any farther I should explain the big year concept....
For those of you who aren't aware, a big year is when a birder attempts to spot as many species as possible during a calendar year (Jan 1 - Dec 31). There are many different varieties of the big year.. it could be a county, province/state, country, continent or even world. My big year will be confined to the province of Ontario, which is still a massive area! 

Big years aren't all that common of a thing amongst the birding community, drawing out only the craziest (eh, I mean most adventurous..) birders. A "big" big year isn't something that happens every year either, and attempts at the record are even less common. What is the record you may ask? 
A whopping 347 species, set in 2017 by Jeremy Bensette. For those interested, here's the history of big year records in Ontario;
1997 ~ 338, Glenn Coady 
2012 ~ 343, Josh Vandermeulen 
2017 ~ 347, Jeremy Bensette

I've always enjoyed keeping a "self-found" list, and my big year will be no exception. I originally was thinking of 300 as a self found goal, but decided to "lower" the bar to a seemingly more attainable 275. This will be quite hard to accomplish, but I'll do my best! As a secondary self found goal, I'd like to find at least 5 OBRC review species...
What will I count as self found? I'll basically follow Punk Birder's self found rules, check out the blog post for more info (Here)

Are there any rules for a big year? Well not official rules, but I'll be following the general "rules" that most other big year birders have.

-  Taxonomic changes that happen in the future won't affect my total. So if say.. Golden-winged and Blue-winged Warblers are lumped in 2023, I won't go back and add another species to my list.

- I will count heard heard only birds, but only if I'm positive about the ID. So if I hear a Sora in a marsh I'll count it, but if I hear a Lucy's Warbler or sonething singing I won't count it. Hopefully there will not have many heard only birds on my big year, but there will likely be one or two..

- I will only count a bird if I have seen or heard it well enough to identify it myself. So if I show up at a rarity chase and someone points out a distant speck flying away and says it's a Cassin's Sparrow, I won't count it.

I'll also l try to photograph as many of the species that I see as possible.

I'll end the post with a nice Gyrfalcon photo. 

An epic day of November birding

This post is coming a bit late, but better late than never right??

November 26th started out like many late November days, damp and overcast with light rain. Normally I wouldn't be too motivated to go birding in this weather, but a Gyrfalcon had been found in North Bruce the day before so obviously I had to go looking.

Anyway at 7am I left my place and headed north on Highway 6, aiming to be at the said location around "sunrise". The rain had stopped, but the fog was quite intense on the way up, which didn't bode well for scanning distant fields with my scope..

The visibility had improved marginally by the time I arrived, but it was still  quite poor. I started out by driving the concessions near where the bird was first seen, stopping occasionally to scan the fence posts.. which produced nothing besides a Rough-legged Hawk. 

Rough-legged Hawk 

Another half hour passed and a few cars of birders from South Bruce arrived to join in the search . I stopped to talk with them (I've found that most birders are quite chatty, maybe more so since the pandemic began) and we had just started discussing how to best search the area when BAM ~ I scanned over an adjacent field and spotted the Gyr barreling in! Everyone was able to get on it as it circled the field a few times, before eventually landing on a post. The views were actually quite good through my scope, but getting photos was almost out of the question. I decided to take a video with my camera... which turned out basically how I expected a handheld video with a 500mm lens would.. but I'll share it anyway.

Gyrfalcon was a lifer for the south Brucers, so the group was thrilled to get the bird almost as soon as they arrived. These faclons of the high arctic are notoriously hard to chase, as they are fast fliers and rarely remain in the same location for long.

- Foggy Falcon

Next our small convoy headed to a neaby field where Short-eared Owls had been seen the previous day. The visibility was starting to decrease, so we were lucky to see one fly up from right beside the road. The owl flew alongside us for a brief moment, then disappeared into the fog. I was a bit slow with my camera response time, so these are the best shots I able to get.

- Short-eared Owl

I rarely see Short-ears in Bruce, so this was a nice treat. 

Our group then went our separate ways, target birds out of the way. I headed to the Lion's Head Harbour with James Turland and Becky Grieveson (no birds of note), then headed down the coast towards Wiarton. Bluewater park was my first stop, as it often has decent congregations of waterfowl and gulls. The gulls & waterbirds were a no show however.. the only things around were Mallards and a lone Common Loon.

- Common Loon

Next I headed on to the Wiarton Sewage Lagoons. Unlike the park, the lagoons were bursting with waterfowl;  close to 200 Bufflehad, 50 Common Goldeneye, as well as a few scaup and Long-tailed ducks. As I was scanning the 2nd cell a small gray bird that was swimming in the middle the water caught my eye ~ a Red Phalarope! Luckily James and Becky had decided to follow me to the lagoons and were able to see this bird too.

- Red Phalarope and Long-tailed Ducks

And because I was on roll taking bad videos, here's one of the phalarope doing it's thing..

It was mid afternoon and the rain had started, so I decided to call it a day and head home. Definitely one of my most productive November days on the Bruce. Gyrfalcon, Short-eared Owl and Red Phalarope.. not a bad set..

*scroll down for quiz answers*


#1 - adult Iceland Gull (Kumlien's ssp)

#2 - 1st cycle Black-legged Kittiwake

#3 - adult Glaucous Gull 

#4 - adult Great Black-backed Gull (rare yellow legged variant)

#5 - 2nd cycle Ring-billed Gull

#6 - 1st cycle Herring Gull

#7 - 1st cycle Black-legged Kittiwake 

What's This Bird Wednesday

 Haven't done this in ages!

Anyway since we're approaching peak gull season (the most wondeful time of the year..) here in Ontario, I thought a gull quiz would be appropriate. Same as my last quizzes, guesses in comments. I'll put the answers on my next post.

Bonus points if you age the gulls too!


#2 (bottom bird)






Have fun! ;)

My 2022 Big Year From a Stats perspective

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