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!

Gyrfalcon
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.

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