Monday 23 December 2013

Ice storm impacts on birds

The recent ice storm across eastern Canada has been pretty impressive, making for some really nice scenery with all that build up of ice on everything
View from my desk
Near Kingston we have about 1+cm of ice on most surfaces
All that ice is making for many of power outages and broken branches/trees but it is also tough on birds. Raptors might have trouble getting food underneath the hard crust of ice but it also impacts many other birds in lots of ways.

Mourning Doves are relative newcomers to Ontario from further south. They're not very well adapted for our winter conditions and you often see them with missing toenails due to frost bite. At my feeders many Mourning Doves have damaged tails from the ice:

Are you seeing impacts to birds/wildlife from the storm?

edit: here's the Kitchener CBC results for Mourning Dove:

Sunday 22 December 2013

79th annual Kitchener Christmas Bird Count

The 79th Kitchener CBC was held, as usual, on the first Saturday of the count period, which fell on December 14, 2013. 

A few words about this year’s weather are certainly in order. Unlike the past couple of years, winter certainly arrived well before the count happened. That froze up many bodies of water, including the Grand River in places. The wintery lead-up meant that many species that sometimes linger (especially waterfowl) were non-existent this year. In addition, the actual count day was down-right miserable with 10-20 cm of snow to start the day with another 5-10 cm falling continuously throughout the day. The whole day was cold (low of -13.9° C, “high” of -11.0° C), windy (15-35 km/h out of the southeast), and decidedly wintery-feeling!

The weather on count day had the negative effect of fewer hours spent walking around and more time driving in cars, so species and numbers were undoubtedly missed. Many birds were simply riding out the storm on the day of the count too, making counting them difficult.  

As if the weather wasn’t enough, tree seed crops in the boreal forest was excellent this year, so the finches from the north that have been present the last couple years opted to stay north this year.

Still, despite all of the odds stacked against us, 59 species were recorded on count day, just below the twenty-year average of 60. Three additional species were observed during count week (Peregrine Falcon, Merlin, and Swamp Sparrow). 60 field observers and 41 feeder watchers1 logged a record total of just under 190 hours finding 24,618 individuals, pretty much right on the twenty-year average of 24,524.  No new species were added to the official count list. What follows is a list of highs, lows, and unusual species and then the complete list of results for this year’s count.

Unusual species: Greater Scaup (2nd record), Gray Catbird (3rd record), Brown Thrasher (5th record), Lesser Black-backed Gull (7th record), Red-breasted Merganser (8th record), Snowy Owl (8th record).

New highs: Canada Goose (8,428, previous high 7,213 in 2010), Lesser Black-backed Gull (4, previous high 3 in 2011), Snowy Owl (2, ties previous high of 2 in 1992).

Other high counts (20 year average): Iceland Gull 6 (1.4), Horned Lark 118 (32), Red-bellied Woodpecker 32 (10), Eastern Screech-Owl 22 (9), Bald Eagle 4 (2), Wild Turkey 134 (58), White-throated Sparrow 12 (7), Slate-colored Junco 1,052 (654), Northern Cardinal 379 (253), American Robin 140 (94).

Low counts (20 year average): Sharp-shinned Hawk 1 (9), Great Black-backed Gull 6 (45), American Kestrel 1 (7), Ring-billed Gull 99 (704), Cedar Waxwing 22 (125), Song Sparrow 3 (15), American Black Duck 21 (77), Herring Gull 386 (1185), Winter Wren 1 (3), Bufflehead 6 (12).

Notable misses (times recorded on last 20 counts): Swamp Sparrow (17), Carolina Wren (11), Ruffed Grouse (11), Merlin (9), all finches besides House Finch and American Goldfinch, and all blackbirds.

Thanks to all 101! counters we had helping make this year another success, and to Virgil and Beth Martin for hosting our wrap-up meeting and dinner.

The full results will be available on the KWFN webpage and through the Audubon CBC page.  Next year’s count will be held on December 20, 2013-mark your calendars!

Click here for a map showing the location of the Kitchener Christmas Bird Count.

1 Thanks to an article posted the week before the count in The Record, we had a tremendous response with 33 new feeder counts because of it.

Brown Thrasher at Laurel Creek. Photo by Laura Ehnes
Gray Catbird at Woodside Park. Photo by Doug Martin
Species Total
Great Blue Heron 6
Canada Goose 8,428
American Black Duck 21
Mallard 2,983
Greater Scaup 2
Common Goldeneye 158
Bufflehead 6
Hooded Merganser 1
Common Merganser 188
Red-breasted Merganser 1
Bald Eagle 4
Northern Harrier 1
Sharp-shinned Hawk 1
Cooper's Hawk 7
Red-tailed Hawk 43
Rough-legged Hawk 3
American Kestrel 1
Merlin cw
Peregrine Falcon cw
Wild Turkey 134
Ring-billed Gull 99
Herring Gull 386
Iceland Gull 6
Lesser Black-backed Gull 4
Glaucous Gull 5
Great Black-backed Gull 6
Rock Pigeon 441
Mourning Dove 576
Eastern Screech-Owl 22
Great Horned Owl 6
Snowy Owl 2
Belted Kingfisher 8
Red-bellied Woodpecker 32
Downy Woodpecker 127
Hairy Woodpecker 38
Northern Flicker 2
Pileated Woodpecker 4
Horned Lark 118
Blue Jay 192
American Crow 3,205
Black-capped Chickadee 936
Red-breasted Nuthatch 38
White-breasted Nuthatch 78
Brown Creeper 15
Winter Wren 1
Golden-crowned Kinglet 54
American Robin 140
Gray Catbird 1
Brown Thrasher 1
Cedar Waxwing 22
Northern Shrike 3
European Starling 2,668
Northern Cardinal 379
American Tree Sparrow 342
Song Sparrow 3
Swamp Sparrow cw
White-throated Sparrow 12
"Slate-coloured" Junco 1,052
Snow Bunting 158
House Finch 190
American Goldfinch 512
House Sparrow 676
Field observers 60
Feeder watchers 41
Total observers 101
Parties-max 30
Parties-min 22
Hours-car 44.6
Hours-foot 101.35
Hours-feeder 43.833
Hours-total 189.78
KM-car 993
KM-foot 139.3
KM-tot 1132.3
Hours-owling 8
KM-owling 80

With 79 years of continuous coverage and counting it is very interesting to look at trends in the different species. Keep in mind none of these are adjusted for effort. Here are a few for your viewing pleasure :)
American Kestrel

Canada Goose

House Finch

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Ruffed Grouse

Wild Turkey

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Thick-billed Murre in Kingston

Yesterday afternoon Janice Grant found a Thick-billed Murre on the Kingston waterfront. She called Mark Read who was able to confirm it as a Thick-billed Murre, follow it as it swam east along the lake shore and get a few local birders on it (side note, in two weeks Erica and I will become local birders in Kingston!). Mark posted to Ontbirds late in the day and not surprisingly many birders made plans to be there for first light.

I wasn't one of them because I had a meeting in the morning (which was cancelled due to the weather) but once the freezing rain cleared I made it out to try my luck before working the rest of the day from a local library.  Initially when we arrived my heart dropped a bit because there were only two birders present and all I saw were a couple of Common Loons in the harbour. However, a couple seconds later and I realized I was looking too far away - the bird was only about 20ft from the birders!

Needless to say, great views of this rare bird

I even took a short video - Erica's commentary sums it up:

Apparently, Thick-billed Murre used to occur semi-regularly on Lake Ontario in late fall/early winter but that hasn't been the case since the 1950s

The Birds of Hamilton by Bob Curry has a good summary of Thick-billed Murre in Ontario listing records from about a dozen years before the mid 1950s, some with fairly extensive "wrecks" of multiple birds.

[EDIT: Thanks to Glenn Coady for the following references if you are interested in Thick-billed Murre history:
Fleming, J.H. 1907. The unusual migration of Brunnich's Murre (Uria lomvia) in eastern North America. Proceedings of the IV International Ornithological Congress, pp. 528-543.

Hoyes Lloyd's review of the Birds of Ottawa:
Lloyd, H. 1923. The birds of Ottawa, 1923. Canadian Field-Naturalist 37: 101-115; 125-127; 151-156.
Lloyd, H. 1924. The birds of Ottawa, 1923 [conclusion]. Canadian Field-Naturalist 38: 10-16
Lloyd, H. 1944. The birds of Ottawa, 1944. Canadian Field Naturalist 58: 143-175.]

However, since then there have only been two documented records for Ontario:
1995: 5-6 December, Deschenes Rapids, Ottawa River, Ottawa. Found by Bruce Di Labio
1998: 29 November, Burlington Ship Canal, Hamilton. Found by Robert M. Sachs, Sheila Bowslaugh, Eleanor Sachs, and Carl J. Rothfels

The Ottawa record apparently was originally identified as a Razorbill (pretty easy to do when it isn't at your feet!) and it wasn't realized what it was until the morning of December 6. Since many birders already had Razorbill on their Ontario lists many missed out on this bird even though it was technically chase-able. Even relatively local birders missed this bird for that reason because there was only a couple hours between when its real identity was realized and the time it disappeared [edit - according to an anonymous comment it was killed by a Gyrfalcon!!].

Friday 29 November 2013

What a difference a year makes!

Last year at this time birders in southern Ontario were enjoying one of the biggest broad-scale irruptions of boreal birds we had seen for quite some time. The boreal forest had almost no food in the way of tree seed crops last year and so all of the birds that depend on those as food had to come south. That also included owls that had to move south in search of small mammal prey as their normal prey were in short supply (likely related to the poor tree seed crops).

Each fall, Ron Pittaway collects all sorts of information on  tree seed crops from a whole bunch of volunteers and puts together his now famous Winter Finch Forecast. And as usual, Ron has been pretty bang-on with his predictions this year (basically no real flight). That didn't surprise me, but what has surprised me has been just how few finches have come south. Much of this blog post is credited towards the information that is always contained in Ron's forecasts - if you haven't read the latest report I highly recommend it.

In this post I wanted to compare just how big of a difference a year can make with these birds, drawing on the instantly accessible (and free!) outputs of eBird.

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatches rely heavily on White Spruce cone crops. In a nutshell (pun intended!) when there aren't many spruce cones to feed on, they come south.

Here's an eBird frequency chart comparing the last two falls (August-November):
You can see that Red-breasted Nuthatches have been recorded on almost 50% fewer checklists in Ontario this fall compared to last year!

Bohemian Waxwing
Bohemian Waxwings feed mostly on Mountain Ash and other berries during the winter. According to the Winter Finch Forecast "mountain‐ash berry crops are very good to bumper from Alaska to Newfoundland and Labrador" so that means these birds have no reason to wander south.

Here's an eBird frequency chart comparing the last two falls (October-November).

The difference here is even more striking than with Red-breasted Nuthatch - last year at this time you were 16 times more likely to see a Bohemian Waxwing in Ontario!

And here's a map showing November sightings from this year and last year:
Orange = 2013, Blue = 2012

Pine Grosbeak
Like Bohemian Waxwings, Pine Grosbeaks are tied to Mountain Ash berries, so it isn't too surprising to see the similarity in the eBird results.

 Here's an eBird frequency chart comparing the last two falls (October-November).
That's not quite as extreme as Bohemian Waxwing, but at their peak during the third week of November last year Pine Grosbeaks were being reported on almost 14 times the frequency of checklist compared to the same period this year.

The eBird map for November Pine Grosbeaks is also similar to Bohemian Waxwing:
Orange = 2013, Blue = 2012

Purple Finch
According to Ron Tozer, Purple Finches are the wimpiest of the winter finches, only staying north when there is so much food that nothing could possibly go wrong.

The eBird frequency chart comparing the last two falls is interesting:

In 2012 we saw the normal spike in September and October as birds left but not so much this year. By the end of November in 2013 we are now more likely to find a Purple Finch in Ontario then the same time last year, suggesting there are more Purple Finches staying put in Ontario for the winter - this will be an interesting one to watch through the course of the winter.
Purple Finch near Bancroft
Red Crossbill
Ok, I'm starting to get's the November eBird map:
Orange = 2013, Blue = 2012

White-winged Crossbill
And again, the November eBird map:
Orange = 2013, Blue = 2012

Common Redpoll
Redpolls are virtually non-existant (like most of the other finches!) this year in southern Ontario.

Here's the eBird frequency graph for the fall (October-November)"
Looking at that peak during the third week of November, last year you were almost 19 times more likely to encounter a Common Redpoll during that week compared to this year!

And here's the November eBird map:
Orange = 2013, Blue = 2012

Pine Siskin
I'm probably beginning to sound like a broken record, but the trend continues...

Here's the fall eBird graph (September to November:
At peak migration during the last week of October you were 45 times more likely to see a Pine Siskin in 2012 compared to the same time in 2013!!!

And here's the November eBird map:
Orange = 2013, Blue = 2012

Evening Grosbeak in Algonquin Park
Evening Grosbeak
Last year was a huge year for this species while this year is back to the recent average.

Here's the eBird frequency graph for the fall (October-November):
That peak during the first week of November was 19 times higher in 2012 than in 2013!

And here's the November eBird map:
Orange = 2013, Blue = 2012
And of course it's not just finches that are irruptive from year to year. Check out this map comparing this November to last November for Snowy Owls - last year the west had a big flight and it looks like it is the east's turn this year:
Orange = 2013, Blue = 2012
Snowy Owl on Wolfe Island

I think there are some neat messages here. First it is amazing how we can tie in things like tree seed crops, small mammal populations and bird irruptions. It's equally impressive the amount of information that comes in every day to eBird by thousands of volunteers to help us better understand bird distribution and abundance patterns - even a couple years ago you wouldn't have been able to get such a clear, continent-wide picture of what was happening as it happens.

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Lunchtime birding

I'm down at BSC Headquarters this week and with the fresh snowfall over night birds were certainly active. At Old Cut first thing a Fox Sparrow and Vesper Sparrow were enjoying the offerings (complete checklist).

At lunch time I decided to drive down Lakeshore Road towards Clear Creek, hoping to find some geese in the fields here. I saw lots of Tundra Swans (1500-2000) in the fields and just before The Coves I came across a nice flock of Canada Geese. After a few minutes of scanning through them I was lucky to find a couple of Greater White-fronted Geese.

After alerting a couple other birders in the area I headed back east when I noticed a Peregrine Falcon perched along the road.

Closer inspection revealed that it was banded:

I have submitted the combination to the Bird Banding Lab and will update once I find out when and where it was banded - if you happen to know though, feel free to comment or email me!

UPDATE - wow, didn't take long to find out! Thanks to several people I now know that this is Rosetta, a female Peregrine hatched in 2013 and banded at her nest in Rochester, NY on June 18, 2013. Rosetta has a strong Ontario connection in that she is named after Rosetta McClain Gardens, site of the Rosetta McClain Gardens Raptor Watch in memory of Frank "Big Frank" Butson, who founded the raptor watch. There are some photos and information of Rosetta as a chick being banded on the RFalconCam website and on their blog.

Wednesday 9 October 2013

Brown Booby...yeeaAA!

Well, if there's one thing birders love it is a good wild goose booby chase! This crazy bird was found on Monday afternoon by Jim Pawlicki at Erie Basin Marina on the New York side of the Niagara River. (This is at the south end of the Niagara River Corridor IBA so please report all of your observation to eBird!)  A few lucky people saw it later that day (including in Canadian waters). Yesterday (Tuesday) I was able to get to Fort Erie for first light but had to leave mid-morning. I was a little bummed (to say the least) when I found out that I missed it later on but that's how it goes.  Luckily I had a second shot this morning and the bird obliged by doing a flyby heading upriver past my viewing location - thanks to Steve Charbonneau for picking it up! Apparently it was Steve's 400th bird for Ontario! It wasn't close enough for photos (but was closer than the reef tower) so here is a shot I took in Cuba of an adult female:
adult female Brown Booby from Cuba in 2006
The best photos and video of the bird I have seen were on the Nemesis Bird blog - check it out...they even have video! UPDATE - Jim Pawlicki et al. got out on a boat on the afternoon of October 9 and he got some stunners!!

This bird has already made the news media too - check out this story from the St. Catharines Standardthis clip from CHCH news, and a story on The Buffalo News.

Anyways, I wanted to give some tips for those that might try for this bird later this week or this weekend.

Be prepared:
First, if you have a smart phone be sure you are subscribed to Ontbirds and Genessee Birds - that way you'll know if anyone is seeing it on either side of the river.  You can also just check the listings on the web for those - Ontbirds archives and Genessee Birds archives.  If you are an Ontario birder, you need to know that Canadian cell service is pretty poor along the river so be prepared for American signals - consider a prepaid voice/data package from you regular cell phone provider so you can use the American signal without paying more than your binoculars (alternatively you can just wait until your next bill and try to get them to remove the charges since you didn't leave the country).

If you are going to be there in the morning, polarized sunglasses will help cut the glare from the sun, which unfortunately you will have to deal with. Of course, you need a scope as the bird has been mostly on the far side of the river. It has been quite cool both mornings - I've been happy to have a winter hat and gloves for the first hour or so of the day.

Know the bird's routine
It looks like a pattern is developing for this bird. Between 7:30 and 8:30 it has been seen between the red-roofed building and the Peace Bridge before heading towards the lake and disappearing for a long period of time. I think this bird roosts somewhere in this vicinity, gets up and flies around for a bit then goes somewhere to feed.  Then it seems like it comes back mid-afternoon (after 2 pm) and spends a lot of time resting on Donnelly's Pier for most of the rest of the day. It seems like later in the day is more reliable, but you might be less likely to get the bird in Canadian water (if you care about that!).

Know where to look
So far, almost all of the observations in Ontario have come from a small parking lot at Mather Park across from Old Fort Erie. From there you can see several key landmarks (as summarized by Willie D'Anna here).
-Mather Park parking lot - Ontario birders are parking here and viewing from this general area
-Erie Basin Marina tower - This is where a lot of American birders are watching from.  You can easily see this tower (and see if birders in it are getting excited!) through your scope from the Ontario side.
-Donnelly's Pier - This is the spot where the booby seems most likely to come to rest in the afternoon.  It has a big sand/gravel deposit
-Reef Lighthouse - 42.881273, -78.915133 (not visible on Google).  This is the old frame of a building on a big rock reef where cormorants like to hang out. On October 8 the booby was sitting here at dusk. This structure is in American waters but it is only about 50 m east of the international border.
-Red-roofed building - 42.879589, -78.915133 (not visible on Google). This is also known as the water intake building.  It is a good reference point when searching.

Here is the map (click here to open in new window) showing those locations.

Update: here are some distance measurements:
Mather Park to Donnelly's Pier (NW tip) = 1.95 km
Mather Park to Reef Lighthouse = 1.41 km
Mather Park to Red-roof Building = 1.72 km
Mather Park to Erie Basin Marina tower = 2.79 km
Mather Park to international border = 0.96 km (shortest distance, which happens to be in a straight line towards Erie Basin Marina tower)

Erie Basin Marina tower to international border = 1.83 km (shortest distance, which happens to be in a straight line towards Mather Park)
Erie Basin Marina tower to Donnelly's Pier (NW tip) = 0.93 km
Erie Basin Marina tower to Reef Lighthouse = 2.08 km
Erie Basin Marina tower to Red-roof Building = 1.88 km

If you're interested, here is a screen shot of a bit better resolution map showing the Reef Lighthouse and the red-roofed building with the international border shown:
The reef lighthouse (upper left), red-roof building (lower right) and international border
You can explore that imagery on MNR's make a topographic map tool, just be sure to turn on the
southwestern Ontario imagery layer and set the transparency to about 75% to be able to see the structures and the border.

Wednesday 2 October 2013

Where have you gone eBirding?

Alvan just posted his maps of eBird locations that he made using instructions provided on the Birdventure Blog, so I couldn't resist too!

It took me about 10 minutes or so and it is fun to see where all I have recorded birds in eBird.  You can go to my map by clicking here.

Anyways, here are some screen shots:

Looks like I still have lots of places to visit!

Here are detailed, step-by-step instructions:

Part 1: download your eBird data
1. sign in to eBird
2. click the "My eBird" tab
3. scroll down and click the "download my data" link from the right-hand margin (near the bottom)
4. wait ~5 minutes and you'll get an email with a link to download the data

Part 2: tweak it in Excel
1. open the csv file
2. select all of the data by clicking the corner between column A and row 1
3. click the data tab
4. click "remove duplicates"
5. click "unselect all" from the remove duplicates dialog box that opens
6. check the "my data has headers" checkbox
7. check the "submission ID" checkbox and then hit OK
8. delete all of the columns except location name, latitude, longitude and date
9. select all of the data as in step 2
10. in the data tab click sort
11. in the sort dialog box check the "my data has headers" then sort by the data column (A to Z should be default). This step doesn't really matter at all if you are just making the map...
12. in cell E1 type "checklists"
13. in cell E2 type "=Countif(A:A,A2)" (remove the quotes)
14. copy cell E2 and paste it into all of the other cells in column E (down to your last row)
15. copy column E by clicking the E at the top
16. right-click on E and click "paste special" and select values
17. go through steps 3-7 to remove duplicate locations
18. go through steps 9-11 to sort by checklist
19. now save the file as something in a location you will remember. be sure to keep it as a .csv file.

Part 3: map it 
go to and sign in/sign up
1. click "upload data"
2. scroll down and click "upload files from you computer"
3. click "add file"
4. find the file and add it
5. once you get the complete message, click "next"
6. click "next step" to georeference your data
7. click the "locate using the latitude and longitude columns" button
8. click the "continue" button
9. after a short wait to process the data you'll move to the next screen ("review your geodata") - click the "continue" button to move on
10. on the next screen you can give you data set a name and add a description (all optional). if you want your data (and map(s)) to be public be sure that "access" and "find" are checked off beside "everyone may:" under the heading "Who may access this data?" Alternatively if you don't want it to be public make sure those are not checked.  Once you're ready, scroll down and hit "save"
11. Now you should see your data on a map.  To make a map that you can edit, click the "Map Data" button
12. On your map screen (may take a few seconds to load all of your data) you will now have options in a "style" toolbar to edit what the symbols look like, plus you can edit your maps name.  Once you are done making your map pretty click the "save" button.
13. Once your map is saved you can just copy the url and share that with people (if you made it public), or you can click the "PrtSc" button on your keyboard to copy your screen view and paste that into a program like Paint.

There are a couple other, even simpler ways to make these maps! Thanks to Jeff Skevington for this one:
1. download your eBird data (as described in part 1, above).
2. delete all columns except latitude and longitude.
3. highlight all of the records (see part 2, step 2 above)
4. remove duplicates (see part 2, step 3-6 above)
5. copy all coordinates from the two columns
6. go to
7. create a login
8. paste the data into the point data tab
9. click on preview tab and refresh
10. position map and choose projection
11. click download and choose your preferred file type.

I think you can also now use the new Google Maps to do this- just save a spreadsheet with latitude and longitude and import it.