Saturday, 23 May 2020

2020 Great Canadian Birdathon

Today, my dad and I set out to complete a big day as part of the Great Canadian Birdathon. This was no ordinary big day though. Due to COVID-19 concerns and the need for social distancing, we decided to do our big day at one location so that we could bird together but not have to get into a vehicle together to travel from location to location. There was no better spot to do this than the St. Joseph Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary!

Prior to going out, I came up a with a list of 104 species that I would expect to see at this location for May 23rd. Getting all 104 of those would obviously be a best case scenario, as it's not like I see every common and expected species every time I go birding. However, I set our goal for the day at 100 species, hoping that I could get most of those, plus a couple unexpected ones.

We met on site for 4:00am. A calling American Bittern was our first bird of the day, followed by Common Loon, American Woodcock, and two Barred Owls. One of the owls flew in and landed in a tree right over our heads!

We continued to rack up singing and calling birds as we biked our way through the sanctuary. We reached the ruins of Fort St. Joseph for sunrise and waited until it was light enough to scan out over the water. Ring-billed Gulls and Common Terns were out there, but there was a real lack of waterfowl. That wasn't totally unexpected though, most of the ducks have gone through here already. A heavy fog started to roll in, so we took a break from atop the ruins and went to look for songbirds in the forested areas.

I heard the familiar call of a House Wren, which normally wouldn't be too notable, however, I knew this was a species that had never officially been recorded within the boundaries of the St. Joseph Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary before. House Wrens have certainly been there before, likely every year, but they just somehow never made it to eBird or any of the historical records from the sanctuary. It is now officially the 198th species to be recorded in the sanctuary!

As we birded along, we picked up some nice species like Scarlet Tanager, Canada Warbler, Great Crested Flycatcher, Wood Thrush, and Baltimore Oriole. By 9:00am or so, we had already accumulated almost 80 species, but we were running out of species left to get, we knew it was going to be an uphill battle to even get close to our goal.

Great Crested Flycatcher
Baltimore Oriole
Then I found our bird of the day. Foraging along the road was a Field Sparrow! This is a rare bird for the Algoma District, with only eight previous eBird records of the species, and my first time seeing one locally. Species number 199 for the sanctuary! Luckily, it cooperated great for photos. It even sang once for us, but I was unable to capture that.

Field Sparrow
After eating an early lunch, we hung around the ruins area to see if anything interesting would fly by. We added a few species, such as Warbling Vireo, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Goldeneye, and Ruby-throated Hummingbird, but no Great Egrets or American White Pelicans like we wanted!

Turkey Vultures
We continued to bird but the new birds for the day were few and far in between. Our last new bird was a Mourning Warbler, our 91st species of the day. At 6:00pm, we called it quits, we were just too tired and there was no way we were going to get to 100. However, we of course were very satisfied with our results, especially the Field Sparrow!

A huge thanks goes out to everyone who contributed to our birdathon. Ron and I were able to raise $1,200, which surpassed our goal of $1,000. All the money raised is going towards Birds Canada for their bird conservation efforts here in Canada. If you are interested, you can still contribute here:

Saturday, 29 February 2020

2019/2020 Winter Birding Season Wrap-up

November featured a Mountain Bluebird and multiple Northern Hawk Owls, so the upcoming winter season was going to be hard to beat. Sure enough though, it certainly did beat it. I managed to see a Gyrfalcon (a lifer!), six Northern Hawk Owls, three Great Gray Owls, a Boreal Owl, and a Harlequin Duck among a variety of other interesting birds. Here is the recap of my 2019/2020 winter birding season.
Boreal Owl
On the first day of the season, December 1st, I was excited to find a Harlequin Duck in downtown Sault Ste. Marie. While I initially assumed it was a female, it stuck around all winter and slowly transitioned into male alternate plumage. Many local birders and photographers got to see this duck and it was a lifer for most of them!

Harlequin Duck
The same day, I also saw my first Iceland Gull of the year. None were seen is late winter or early spring in 2019 and they showed up later than usual in late fall.

Iceland Gull
By mid-December, I was up to four Northern Hawk Owls that I had personally seen. The two that were found in November continued and I actually had clients come up from the Toronto area to see them. Then, one was found north of Bruce Mines and then I actually found one myself, it was along Highway 17 on my drive home from work one day.

Mid-December also was the start of the Christmas Bird Count season, one of my favourite times of the year. This year, I participated in five counts: Sault Ste. Marie, Mackinac Straits, Les Cheneaux, Rudyard, and Desbarats. I didn't end up finding anything too out of the ordinary in any of the counts, but lots of birds were to be had still. I had three Snowy Owls in my Sault Ste. Marie section, which was down from twelve the year before.

I started my 2020 list off by going up to visiting our long-staying Black-billed Magpie. This magpie showed up at Echo Lake in 2013 and has been here ever since. It'll be interesting to see how much longer it survives for. Upon returning home after a morning of birding, a small flock of White-winged Crossbills were in my yard. That was exciting!

Black-billed Magpie
Gyrfalcon was my most wanted bird this winter. It was one of the few remaining "holes" in my Algoma District list. I didn't think it would happen this winter, but I was sure excited when I photo came across my eBird alerts of one, misidentified as a Northern Goshawk. I just happened to have some time to kill the next day in Sault Ste. Marie, so I went looking, and lucky me, I saw it. Was it a good look though? Absolutely not, but it was enough to add it to my life list. It was chasing goldeneyes in the St. Marys Rapids and quickly disappeared. I was in town again a few days later and similar thing, it blew by overhead, but this time, I managed one absolutely terrible photo of it. The bird ended up posting up in the west end of Sault Ste. Marie and became fairly reliable to see well, so the weekend couldn't come fast enough. I actually had clients on Saturday who wanted to see it, so off we went. It wasn't there when we initially arrived, but it showed up soon afterwards and gave us some great views. At one point, it flew right over our heads, caught a small rodent, and landed it eat it. What an awesome experience!

Towards the end of January, I received a text from a friend with a photo of a Boreal Owl he had just found. I raced down with hopes of seeing it myself, and luckily, it had stuck around. This was only the second time I've ever seen a Boreal Owl, and it was a much better look than the first time. Here's a video that I took of it:

The first reliable report this winter of a Great Gray Owl came in towards the end of January (there were two faked ones late in 2019, but that's not a story for here). Since it was seen within the St. Joseph Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary, my favourite birding location, I really wanted to see it, as who wouldn't love a Great Gray Owl tick at their favourite place? Three attempts though and no luck. I saw my first Great Gray Owl of the year when one showed all day between Bruce Mines and Thessalon. It was by far the easiest Great Gray Owl I've ever seen, I drove up and there it was. On attempt number four, I finally found the one within the bird sanctuary, so that was really exciting. A few days later, I finally saw one that had been hanging out in the Desbarats area within another one of my favourite patches, so that was neat. Can't complain with three Great Gray Owls this winter!

Great Gray Owl
Great Gray Owl
Over the course of the winter, I was able to catch up with a few other interesting birds. My co-worker has had an Eastern Towhee visiting her feeders all winter. A friend has a White-crowned Sparrow, and interestingly enough, it appears to be of the gambelii subspecies. There were a couple Carolina Wrens in Sault Ste. Marie and I heard one singing, which was good enough for me. I had Horned Larks in a couple different spots and a couple Lapland Longspurs. I also got three blackbird species: Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, and Brown-headed Cowbird.  The abundance of White-winged Crossbills, Red Crossbills, and Black-backed Woodpeckers this far south was also a treat.

Eastern Towhee
White-crowned Sparrow
The only things missing were some of the winter finches. As the forecast predicted, grosbeaks and redpolls did not come south this year. I still managed to tick Pine Grosbeak, Evening Grosbeak, and Common Redpoll, but no Hoary Redpolls this winter.

In total, I managed to see 73 species between December 1st and February 29th, which I'm fairly sure is my best winter season yet. The relatively mild temperatures sure helped! Now hopefully spring migration starts sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

A Saturday in Sault Ste. Marie

This past weekend, I hosted a morning bird tour in Sault Ste. Marie in search of some of the interesting birds hanging around. 50% of the proceeds of the tour went towards Bird Canada, so it was great to raise a little money for bird conservation as well.

We started off by checking a few of the vantage points along the St. Marys River. Our first stop was the Pine Street Marina. The wind was very cold here, as we were completely exposed to the elements, and there were only a few Common Goldeneyes to be seen, so we moved on quickly.

Stop number two was at the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre. A few more Common Goldeneyes were here too, but the exciting bird was a Common Goldeneye x Hooded Merganser hybrid. This individual has wintered here in Sault Ste. Marie for a few years now (there were two of them in 2018!).

Next, we went to the vantage point behind the Art Gallery of Algoma. There were lots of ducks here, but mostly Mallards and Common Goldeneyes. Then the hybrid flew in from further up river, giving us a much closer look than the first time.

We hit the jackpot at our next stop by the Station Mall. The participants wanted to see the immature male Harlequin Duck that has been around since December. I was hoping to at least get them some distant views of it in the scope, as it's often on the far side of the river. However, with the strong winds, there was a group of ducks right close to shore, hiding from the wind off the end of a barge. Lucky for us, the Harlequin Duck was with them! We got some great, close up looks at it. Another bonus was that the female Great Scaup that showed up in town recently was there too, which is a great bird to see here in the middle of the winter. Check out this photo that one of the participants got of both of these ducks side-by-side.

We already got to witness a Common Raven eating a dead Rock Pigeon in the Station Mall parking lot. Based on the condition of the pigeon, it looked like it was a casualty of a vehicle, it looked pretty squished. Here is a video I took of it.

After checking out the river, we took some quick looks for the Gyrfalcon and one of the Carolina Wrens that have been in the area, but we struck out on both of those. By this time, the tour came to the end, with everyone still excited about the great views we got of the Harlequin Duck!

One of the tour's participants, Violet Aubertin, was taking photographs for a story she was doing on me for SooToday. You can read her story here. Thanks SooToday and Violet!

Saturday, 21 September 2019

St. Joseph Island with the Ontario Field Ornithologists

Today I lead my first field trip for the Ontario Field Ornithologists!

We started the morning off by traveling down to the St. Joseph Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary, the best birding location of St. Joseph Island. However, this morning was not our morning. Heavy fog covered the entire area, making it impossible to see anything out over the water. Inland, there were a few birds here and there, but not as many as I expected to be there. While we waited out the fog, we saw some Northern Flickers, Black-capped Chickadees White-throated Sparrow, and Sharp-shinned Hawks. When the fog finally lifted, at first all that was out on the water were a few Double-crested Cormorants, but after scanning and scanning, we found two Ring-billed Gulls. After a few minutes though, we realized there a smaller gull with them, a Bonaparte's Gull! This is a nice bird to see around here.

Our next stop was the Mountainview Centennial Grounds. Bird actively was actually pretty good here, although only for a few species. There were at least 16 Eastern Bluebirds here, many of them posing well for photos. Northern Flickers, Eastern Phoebes, and Chipping Sparrows were all over too.

We ended the day with visits to the Huron Line Fields and Maguire Drive Boat Launch. By now, it had warmed right up and raptors were on the move. Most were Turkey Vultures, but there were also Bald Eagles, Sharp-shinned Hawks, Broad-winged Hawks, American Kestrels, and a Merlin.

In total, 40 species were recorded during the field trip.

Thanks to everyone who participated! Hopefully there will a future Ontario Field Ornithologist field trips in the area again soon!

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Sault Ste. Marie's Summertime Greater White-fronted Goose

On July 26, 2019, I received a message from a local photographer. Her husband saw a different looking goose while kayaking on the St. Marys River in downtown Sault Ste. Marie. After reading her description, my first response was Greater White-fronted Goose, but I was thinking it was going to end up being a domestic Greylag Goose or something like that. She went off to take photos herself, and sure enough, it was a Greater White-fronted Goose.

Within Ontario, there was a grand total of zero previous records of Greater White-fronted Goose on eBird during the month of July, so this was a significant find, on top of the fact it's a rare bird for here to begin with. There are usually a few sightings of this species during spring migration in the Algoma District, usually requiring a scope to scan fields full of geese in agricultural fields. This bird was much easier to find, as all you had to do was drive up to the Civic Centre and you'd likely see it on the lawn or in the water at the adjacent marina.

Since I already had this species for the year, I wasn't going to rush into town just to see it. However, a few days later on the 29th, I had to go into town, so after running my errands, I swung by to see it. I couldn't believe how tame it was, it acted just like the usual city-living Canada Geese that have no issues with people being up close and personal. I was definitely able to get my best photos of this species to date! This was the 198th species I've seen within the city limits of Sault Ste. Marie.

The goose hung around the Civic Centre for a while. Multiple birders and photographers got to go see it and it was a lifer for many of them. A few people even saw it narrowly miss death as it attempted to cross the busy road.

On August 1st, the bird was seen making it's way east down the river towards Bellevue Park. Two days later, it was actually recorded within the park, making it the 209th species recorded there! I was in town again the day following this, so I made a quick stop, just to see it again.

As of today, August 6th, the goose continues at Bellevue Park. It would be interesting to know this bird's story. Did it leave the arctic breeding grounds early or did it never make it there? How long will it stick around for? Who knows, but I'm sure many will continue to enjoy its presence while it lasts.

Monday, 5 August 2019

Early Fall Migration Birding with the Sault Naturalists

For most people, fall is still several weeks away and there is still lots of summer to enjoy. For birders, fall has arrived and the birds have already started to begin their migration south.

Eleven participants met early yesterday morning, August 4th, at the Sault Ste. Marie Canal National Historic Site parking lot to start our search for birds on South St. Marys Island and Whitefish Island. As I usually do, I asked everyone what species they wanted to see during the walk. We had no problem finding Black-capped Chickadee, Belted Kingfisher, American Redstart, and Great Blue Heron, but Boreal Chickadee and Harlequin Duck did not cooperate with the requests, as expected.

The group was treated to a variety of interesting species. An immature Black-crowned Night-Heron perched in a nearby tree for us, but later on the walk, it flew right overhead and nearly landed right above us, before it changed course last second. There were not a ton of warblers around, but we did get to see Northern Parula, Tennessee Warbler, and Cape May Warblers in addition to the usual American Redstarts, Yellow Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and Nashville Warblers. Chimney Swifts, a Warbling Vireo, and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak round out the highlights.

In total, 40 species were recorded in our walk, which lasted just under three hours. This is a good total for early August, especially considering it is harder to find birds in a big group. Everyone had lots of fun and we are looking forward to the next few months as fall migration continues!

The full list of species can be found here:

Saturday, 29 June 2019

Algoma's Crazy Spring Migration

Now that summer is here and the birding has slowed down a little bit (and my dog just got fixed yesterday so I'm sitting at home taking care of him), I figured I'd do a little write-up on the crazy spring migration we had here in the Algoma District this year.

April was pretty typical for rare birds. We got some of the expected rarities, like Greater White-fronted Goose, Ross's Goose, Western Meadowlark, Canvasback, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Lesser Black-backed Gull. Early May saw twelve American White Pelicans as well, a good bird for here.

The run of real good birds started May 10th. My dad called me to saw he saw 4 Short-billed Dowitchers on St. Joseph Island. We don't get many of them here each year, but I wasn't going to make the half hour drive from home just to add them to my year list. He then sent me the photos and two were indeed Short-billed Dowitchers, but two were actually Stilt Sandpipers! This would have been a lifer for me so that was enough for me to hop in the car and head there. Luckily, they were still there when I arrived. This was the 7th record of Stilt Sandpiper for the Algoma District. See my eBird list here:

Stilt Sandpiper

The next day, May 11th, it was early afternoon and I was sitting on my front porch, enjoying a couple beers and the feeder bird activity in my yard. Having just moved into a house in Echo Bay at the end of January, I was busy working on my yard list. I was excited because I was able to add Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Evening Grosbeak to my list, but it got way better soon after. I noticed two large raptors tangling up in the air. My first though was Bald Eagle, but then they broke off, one going into typical Turkey Vulture flight, one not, which got me thinking this might be something really good. I got my binoculars up and sure enough, there were those white wing tips. Black Vulture! I'm sure glad I had my camera beside me, as I was able to snap a few pictures before it disappeared into the sunny sky. My phone was actually dead at the time, so I raced around the house, trying to find my charger so that I could get the word out, although I knew it almost certainly would not be relocated. This was the 2nd record for the Algoma District. The first one was also in Echo Bay, but back in 2002 in January. Here's my eBird list:

Black Vulture

Next up was the Painted Bunting. This bird was observed by a homeowner coming to her feeder (really it was seeds placed on the railing of the deck) in the west end of Sault Ste. Marie on May 14th. She notified local birder Don Hall, who went and observed it on the morning of the 15th. Since it was still there, he put the word out about it, but viewing was limited as the homeowner did not want her address posted publicly. I was able to get it that afternoon after work: This was the 3rd record for the Algoma District and first time within the city limits of Sault Ste. Marie.

Painted Bunting

On May 18th, a Parasitic Jaeger was recorded off of Gros Cap by Stan Phippen, west of Sault Ste. Marie. See the details here: This was only the 3rd record of the species within the Algoma District, although they are regular in Lake Superior during spring and fall migration, so they almost certainly occur in our waters each year, it's not not many people are out looking for them. On the same day, a Common Gallinule was heard at the Echo Bay viewing platform. Usually, this would be very exciting, but one spent all last summer there as well. We would later find out that there were two Common Gallinules there, this time at leats one of the birds has actually been seen. Prior to the 2018 bird, there were only two records of Common Gallinule for the Algoma District.

Shorebird migration is generally isn't too exciting in the Algoma District, as we lack good habitat for them. This year though, we received a ton of rain at the right time, flooding fields and knocking some birds down out of the sky. On May 20th, I received a call from Stan saying that a Dunlin was seen on St. Joseph Island. I had actually already got one that morning elsewhere, but I was heading to my parents' place later that morning and would be heading right by the spot, so I said I'd stop and check it out. When I arrived, Stan actually pulled up at the same time on his way back through. There were two Short-billed Dowitchers now present, which weren't there when he first went through. we got the scopes out and while we were making sure they weren't Long-billed Dowitchers, all of the sudden Stan yelled "Phalarope!". It had just popped up into his scope view behind the dowitchers. It was a Wilson's Phalarope, the 5th record for the Algoma District. It stuck around all day, allowing many birders to come see it. Here;s my eBird list:

Wilson's Phalarope

Later that night, I received a Facebook message from a local photographer of a shorebird, asking for an ID. It was a Whimbrel, but I assumed she got it down in the Point Pelee area, as I knew she had just been down there. I asked when and where she say it, and as soon as she said "Desbarats", I was in my car and on my way. I arrived at the spot she saw them and there was nothing there other than a bunch of Semipalmated Plovers (which normally I'd be happy about, but there were hundreds coming through this spring when he typically only see a handful). There was still a bit of daylight left, so I decided to check out some surrounding fields. As I went around the bend, I could see a Black-bellied Plover, so I stopped to check it out. As I started scanning the rest of the field, I saw a group of large shorebirds off in the distance. They were so far and there was some heat haze going on, but I was pretty sure they were godwits and not the Whimbrels I was looking for. The photos I managed were terrible, so all I had were scope views. All of the sudden, a few lifted up their wings and I noticed a brownish colour underneath. Having no prior experience with any godwits, I opened up the app on my phone and sure enough, they were Marbled Godwits, 13 of them. I sure was excited, as this was yet another lifer, but I really wanted identifiable photos. I drive down the road a bit, to see if I could get a better angle. That's when I saw someone I knew in their front yard, which happened to be the house that belong to the field that the birds were in. I got permission to walk back into the field to get a closer look. I was able to get much better photos and it turns out, there was a lone Whimbrel back there too. I never would have saw it if I wasn't able to walk back there. See my list here: This was the 5th record of Marbled Godwit and the first time more than a single bird had been seen in the Algoma District. For the Whimbrel, it was the 7th record, but there would be more to come. 169 were seen on the 23rd migrating over downtown Sault Ste. Marie, 8 were observed migrating through the St. Joseph Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary on the 25th, another 20 were in the Portlock Flats in Desbarats on the 25th as well (I went as saw 6 of those birds), and one in Thessalon on June 5th.

Marbled Godwits

On May 21st, Stan and his son found a Ruddy Duck in the St. Marys River in downtown Sault Ste. Marie. This was about the 11th record of the species for the Algoma District, the list can be seen here: The next morning, May 22nd, Ken McIlwrick found two more Ruddy Ducks in the Bruce Mines sewage lagoons, one of which was still there when I went later that afternoon.

Ruddy Duck

I'm going to back up a little bit to my morning of May 22nd though. While I was walking the dog, Lindsey posted a photo on an Indigo Bunting at our house. I was disappointed when I got back and couldn't find it, as I still needed it for my yard list and Algoma year list. Just as I was about to leave for work, I noticed a very pale bird eating at an orange I had out. I assumed it was a dull female, so I snapped a couple photos. I zoomed in and noticed that the beak was not the beak of an oriole, but a beak of a tanager. Then I realized the white wing bars it had suggested Western Tanager. Having not seen one before, I send the photo around to a few people to get their opinions. By the time I had made the drive to work, I had received confirmation that it was indeed a Western Tanager, only the 3rd record for the Algoma District! I was stuck at work for the day, but I invited all the local birders to drop by to see it, and everyone was successful. It ended up sticking around for five days. Here's my eBird list from the morning I found it:

Western Tanager

It turns out that on that same day, May 22nd, a Gray-headed Dark-eyed Junco was on St. Joseph Island. A co-worker of my dad had taken a cell phone photo of it and send it to my him, asking it it was a junco. Sure enough it was, and not just any junco. This was the 1st record of the subspecies for the Algoma District and I think only the 4th for all of Ontario. Unfortunately, the bird did not stick around, but the photos can be seen here:

The Algoma District Birding Facebook group helped find the next rarity, this time a really really awesome one. On May 24th, Bullock's Oriole was coming to oranges at a feeder station up in Wawa. This was the 1st record Algoma District and a provincial rarity. You can see the photos here: A bunch of us made the 2.5 hour trip the next day, but it was only a one day wonder. Instead, we were treated to families of Canada Jays and 20 species of warblers.

The last big rarity was on June 1st. Stan found a Yellow-throated Warbler out at Gros Cap, which was the 3rd record for the Algoma District. He had acutally asked me if I wanted to join him that morning, but I was unable to because I had to work. Darn it! See his eBird list here:

Those were the big rarities, but there were more among all those as well. There was Great Egret in Echo Bay, many Red-headed Woodpecker sightings, two Least Bitterns at the Echo Bay viewing platform, a Golden-winged Warbler at the St. Joseph Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary (my first for the Algoma District), multiple Ruddy Turnstones, a Yellow-throated Vireo, a couple Northern Mockingbirds, Black Scoters (rare spring migrants here), more American White Pelicans, another Yellow-headed Blackbird, a couple Willow Flycatchers, and a Carolina Wren.

Golden-winged Warbler

Hopefully fall migration will be half as good as this spring was!

Note: all record numbers are based off of eBird, therefore may not be entirely accurate.