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

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