Sunday, October 11, 2020

OFO Field Trip to the St. Joseph Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary

Yesterday morning, I was joined by three other Ontario Field Ornithologists members at the St. Joseph Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary, where we took in some migration action. It was fairly windy, but the sun was shining and it was relatively warm, making for a fantastic fall day to be outside.

I hoped that we would be able to witness a solid waterbird movement, however, that was not the case. We recorded only seven duck species with very low numbers. A few Common Loons and Double-crested Cormorants were on the move south too. The highlight waterbird were four swans, which were likely Tundra Swans, but they were ~5km away flying over Michigan on the other side of the river, so no chance to officially rule out other swan species.

Raptor migration made up for the lack of waterbirds. We recorded nine species of raptors, some of which in decent numbers: Turkey Vulture, Osprey, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Bald Eagle, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, and Merlin.

A flock of migrating Turkey Vultures
A flock of migrating Turkey Vultures

There was also a good flight of passerines. Flocks of mixed blackbirds, American Crows, and Blue Jays were constantly going overhead. We also had 40+ Eastern Bluebirds, a ton of Pine Siskins, some Purple Finches, and a solo Horned Lark. In the forested areas, both kinglet species were abundant, but it was generally quiet bird-wise, save for the odd woodpecker or sparrow. A Ring-necked Snake was definitely the highlight on the walk back out to our vehicles.

Pine Siskin

In total, 48 species of birds were recorded within the sanctuary over the course of the field trip.

Saturday, May 23, 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, February 29, 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, February 19, 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!