Friday 27 November 2015

A gaggle of geese!

Every spring and fall hundreds of thousands of Snow and Canada Geese pass through easternmost Ontario on their migrations between the Arctic and the east coast. The sights can be dizzying with so many geese in the air, especially for southern Ontarians who think a flock of a couple thousand Canadas is a big one!

This spectacle has made headlines in Ontario this month because Jacques Bouvier found a Pink-footed Goose in a large flock of Greater Snow Geese near Moose Creek. This, being the first record for Ontario, has obviously created lots of attention on these amazing flocks of birds. Even without this rarity it is well worth the trip in spring or fall to witness all of the geese in eastern Ontario and western Quebec.

I have visited the area twice over the past month (helps to have inlaws in the area!!) and captured some images that give you a bit of a feel for the huge numbers, but to really do it justice you'll have to check it out yourself!

If you really want to do this one justice, open it up in your browser (click here) and then zoom in to see it at full size! PS: there is a Greater White-fronted Goose in that image somewhere...

Immature Greater White-fronted Goose
On a more recent visit, I checked the Moose Creek Sewage Lagoons and was happy to find a neck-collared Snow Goose. This is my third I have found in this general area. The other two were both banded on Bylot Island (where most "Greater" Snow Geese breed). Here's the collared goose I found this time:

I submitted the information to the Bird Banding lab (so that they and the bander have the information about where the bird has been re-sighted) and got back this information:

As you can see, this bird was also banded on Bylot Island, this time in 2013. By my calculations it has flown at least 22,000 km in it's life, probably much further!

I also found a nice big flock of Canada Geese closer to Morrisburg:

After a bit of searching I found two Cackling Geese mixed in! Did you see them in the above photo?? Here they are:

Still can't see them in the big image? Here, I have marked their location:

Always fun sifting through these huge flocks!!!

Sunday 11 October 2015

Unprecedented numbers of White-rumped Sandpipers in Southern Ontario

Unless you haven't been paying attention to any birding list serves, google groups or eBird reports in the past 10 days you'll know something special is happening in Southern Ontario right now with a couple of shorebird species.

It all got kick-started last Saturday when Michael Butler found a Eurasian Dotterel. This is such a crazy bird - just a handful of North American records outside of Alaska (something like 3 California, 1 Washington, 1 Oregon, and 1 British Columbia records). This was obviously pretty exciting but there has been some really interesting other sightings that may all have their origin in the incredibly strong winds we had for several days in a row for the first few days of the month.
An adult White-rumped Sandpiper in August on James Bay
The main species involved is White-rumped Sandpipers. These birds breed in the high arctic, and most of them stage on James Bay from August to October before heading south-east. With some birds being tagged in James Bay over the last few years we'll soon have a better idea if these birds stop on the US east coast or if they go non-stop out over the Atlantic to South America. Regardless, what we normally see in southern Ontario are small groups (1-10 individuals) passing through Ontario in late May/early June and then again from August to early November. Don't believe me? Here's the eBird line graph:
Frequency of eBird reports of White-rumped Sandpipers in s. ON
Above is the eBird frequency graph for White-rumped Sandpipers in southern Ontario. This shows you the percentage of checklist reporting this species for each monthly quarter. You can see the spring peak in the first week of June and the fall peak in late August. That gap in late September could be just a gap in sampling effort or, may represent the gap between when adults pass through and when juveniles start showing up (in most shorebird species the adults migrate first).
Average count of White-rumped Sandpipers in s. ON
In this next figure the average count is presented. In most cases, the count is in the range of 1-5 with the exception of the second week of October when it shoots up to 24. Again, this may be the difference between when adults (experienced migrators) and juveniles (less experienced) show up here.
A northbound White-rumped Sandpiper in June in Polar Bear PP

But this October has been anything but ordinary for reports of large flocks of juvenile White-rumped Sandpipers in southern Ontario. Check out this figure:
Reports by year of flocks of White-rumped Sandpiper of >10 birds
In the above figure, I have compiled the number of reports per year (and per decade for earlier years) of flocks of White-rumped Sandpiper that contained at least 10 birds. In the past five years, we have only had 7 reports. Prior to that (admittedly when eBird data is probably far from complete), we average just under 8 reports per decade. This, year, however we already have at least 24 reports, from an impressive 17 different census divisions (AKA counties)! That's pretty remarkable.

And it's not just the number of reports that is impressive. Below is a table of the ten highest counts I could find for southern Ontario (using the following data sources: Hamilton Naturalists' Club database, Northumberland County bird database, eBird, Ontario high counts database maintained by George Bryant, and the GTA and Ontario bird records database maintained by Roy Smith).

Count Date Observer Location, County
310 07/10/2015 Mike
V.A. Burrell
Sewage Lagoons, Huron
200 14/10/2015 Dan Macneal Belwood Lake, Wellington
180 07/10/2015 Jarmo Jalava Wildwood Reservoir,
135 11/10/2015 Mike
V.A. Burrell et al.
Mitchell Sewage Lagoons
(West Perth Wetlands), Perth
120 07/10/2015 Wayne Renaud Oliphant, Bruce
120 04/10/2015 Doug McRae Presqu'ile Provincial
Park, Northumberland
120 06/10/2015 Elena Kreuzberg Ottawa--Shirley's Bay,
118 04/10/2015 Jarmo Jalava Mitchell Sewage Lagoons
(West Perth Wetlands), Perth
100 10/10/2015 Mark Patry Ottawa--Shirley's Bay,
92 04/10/2011 Jeff Skevington Ottawa--Shirley's Bay,

Even if you take out some of the records that are likely the same flock on subsequent days 9 of the top 10 high counts in southern Ontario are from the last 10 days, so it is very apparent that this October really is amazing for this species here. We can speculate that these numbers have resulted from a grounding of the flocks of juvenile White-rumped Sandpipers migrating out of James Bay; maybe it was that incredible wind we had to start the month?
A Hudsonian Godwit on the breeding grounds in Polar Bear PP
A similar, situation has been unfolding over this same time period with Hudsonian Godwits, which have a similar fall migration route/strategy as White-rumped Sandpipers. There have been many reports across southern Ontario during this time so perhaps they have been impacted by the same weather phenomenon as the White-rumpeds, but I'll save that analysis for someone else!

What I really love about this is it really shows the utility of using eBird to monitor and analyse bird events as they are unfolding - you don't have to wait a year until the seasonal summaries in North American Birds comes out!

Tuesday 6 October 2015

personal eBird milestones: complete barchart for my yard!

I was very excited to hit two eBird milestones this past month. The first (and least exciting) was to enter my 15,000th checklist:

But the really fun milestone was to finally fill out my eBird barchart for my yard. Here's are a couple snapshots:

Even though we had been living at this place since December 2013 (and of course I was regularly reporting my observations to eBird) there were a couple monthly quarters that I had missed in my first year. I was able to fill those gaps with at least a single checklist on the second pass this year. The result is something anyone can accomplish by regularly reporting the birds in their backyard (or their local park or favourite trail) - it's a pretty powerful way to summarize simple data!

If you want to see the full bar chart of all 165 species I have seen on the yard so far, you can download a pdf version. I'd love to hear about your complete barchart.

Sunday 20 September 2015

What do Long-tailed Jaegers eat in Ontario? A week full of surprises

It was a very exciting week for me with all sorts of pleasant surprises wherever I went.

To start things off, on Sunday, Ken, my Dad and I were headed down to Holiday Beach IBA for the annual Hawk Festival. We left Waterloo in the dark but hadn't even made it to the 401 when we had our first surprise of the day. Just as we were getting off Hwy 8 I noticed a raptor sitting on a light post. Without thinking much I said "hey there's a red-tail". But as I looked at the bird a bit longer I realized that's not what it was. I pulled onto the shoulder of the ramp and put my bins on it and was surprised to see this:

Yep, a Snowy Owl - on September 13! I think it is more likely that this is a lingering bird from the big irruption last winter rather than an early fall migrant. We don't expect them until November at the earliest. Last year there were a couple of lingering Snowy Owls in Hamilton and on Amherst Island through the summer, so it does happen but it sure is a surprise to see!

With our spirits high from our surprising find we continued towards Holiday Beach. Before arriving we knew we were in for a good hawk flight as the conditions were perfect (clear with a brisk NW wind) and we were already seeing Sharp-shinned Hawks flying over the fields we were passing. We weren't the only ones thinking the same thing as the turnout was excellent:

And here's what everyone was watching:
A kettle of Broad-winged Hawks
That's right, nice big kettles of Broad-winged Hawks. They really got going at about 11 am and were still going strong when we left at 2. In any given year 2-6% of the world population of Broad-winged Hawks funnels through Holiday Beach, and usually a big chunk of those birds pass through in a few key days. The day's tally was over 7000, or about .5% of the world population! Needless to say we weren't disappointed, or even that surprised since the conditions were perfect. What was a surprise though was a dark morph Broad-winged Hawk that we saw go over with a group of "normal" (light morph) broad-wings in the afternoon. That was my first ever and Ken's second.

Our highlight, however happened just before noon. I was waiting by the classroom to get organized for a presentation I was to give when Jeremy Bensette and Emma Buck came walking over. As we were chatting I looked up to see a line of broad-wings passing overhead through a gap in the trees. I lucked out because as I put my binoculars up I noticed a heavily marked, slightly larger, and longer wings buteo overhead - "I've got a Swainson's Hawk!". Jeremy got it right away and even snapped a couple photos. It was an Ontario bird for both of us. I phoned Ken since he was on the tower and I wanted to make sure they got the bird too - he answered the phone with "juvenile light or intermediate morph!" then hung up. Pretty sweet!

And we had one more surprise fly over that day from the tower:
American White Pelican

That was Sunday. Through the week I was busy with some great staff meetings at Bird Studies Canada's headquarters in Port Rowan. A Say's Phoebe was found near Rondeau but a chase was not in the cards for me.

But my biggest surprise came yesterday, when I was at Erica's childhood home for some birthday parties. I checked my email in the morning and saw that Parasitic Jaeger had been found feeding in a field just 10 minutes to the north. I filed the information away thinking I'd go have a look later in the day. My phone promptly died so I didn't think too much more about it. Then, Erica's brother texted her to say he had spotted a crowd of birders checking something out at the spot so Erica and I went for a drive. When we got there we found out that it was actually a Long-tailed Jaeger - much rarer, and probably a first county record. At first it was a bit distant but eventually it started flying around feeding around the field, sometimes flying within 5 metres of us. At one point it landed, caught and ate a worm about 10 metres away from us. Absolutely amazing views of a bird that I have only ever seen way out on Lake Ontario off of Hamilton.
Now that's a sweet yard bird!
Can't be too many shots of this species with a silo in the back

Yes, that's a worm!

Needless to say, before the week started if you had told me I'd see a Snowy Owl, Swainson's Hawk, dark morph Broad-winged Hawk, and a worm-eating Long-tailed Jaeger I would have asked you if you'd hit your head!

Wednesday 22 July 2015

mmmmMantidflies again!

Last summer I was really excited to find a Mantidfly at my moth light. I wrote up a pretty thorough summary about that observation including some information about Mantidflies in Canada and the identification of that beast so check it out for some background.

Anyways, fast forward to a couple of nights ago and sure enough, there was another mantidfly waiting for me! This one looks like the same species as last year but I managed a bit better images:

Anyways, as I said, this is the same species as last year - Dicromantispa sayi, a species formerly only known from the Carolinian zone of southwestern Ontario, but there was a 2013 record from Tweed (Hastings County) and now my two from my yard in Frontenac County. With the moths I have been catching here I have really noticed a lot of species I am getting are mostly restricted to the Carolinian Zone plus the Kingston area so it isn't too surprising I guess to see the same with other insect groups.

I took a short video of this specimen too:

Anyways, they're such cool-looking creatures, not to mention their bad-ass life history that it is exciting to find them! If you're not convinced read my post from last year.

Tuesday 9 June 2015

A little twitch

Last Tuesday (2 June), Ben Di Labio found a Little Egret along the Carp River outside of the town of Carp. Birders arrived quickly from nearby and most local birders go to enjoy the bird until just before dusk when it flew north. It was seen again first thing on the morning of 3 June before flying west along the Carp River.

Little Egret is an old world heron that has colonized some of the Lesser Antilles and is showing up more frequently on the northeast coast of North America. Even though it is increasing it is still VERY rare in North America (an ABA code 4) and this will be a new species for Ontario, bringing the list to 491 assuming the OBRC accepts the report.

Unfortunately, at the time, I was working down at Long Point. Normally I would have been 1.5 hours away from this location (probably more like 1 hour for such a rare bird :)) but instead I was more like 6 hours so a trip was out of the question. The earliest I could try would be the next Monday (8 June).

There was no word on the bird for several days so it appeared the bird was gone, until a report on Sunday (7 June) afternoon from Mike Norkum, some 14 km southeast from Carp. It was reported again briefly on the morning of 8 June at this same location (but there were several reports that turned out to be Great Egrets) and finally it was pinned down at a small pond in the Carp River floodplain in Kanata (10 km from the first sighting).  I hit the road, picked up Mike Runtz on my way, and a little over an hour later was enjoying fine views of this sweet bird!
First look with a Great Egret for size comparison
Check out those yellow feet and blue lores
A good shot showing chest plumes
One more!
The Little Egret spent its time feeding actively while we were watching it, mostly stalking prey (it caught many small fish as we watched), but we also observed it regularly stirring the water with its feet. This behaviour is well-known, particularly by foraging Snowy and Little Egrets and may take advantage of the brightly-coloured feet/toes to either scare up or attract potential prey. Check out this paper from 1959 to read more about it. Or, you can check out the video I took to see for yourself:
Identification of Little Egret from the North/South American Snowy Egret can be tricky but the presence of two long head plumes, blue-grey lores, long, distinct breast plumes and a few other features all help seal the deal for this bird as Little Egret. David Sibley has a good page on these identifying features and there is a great ID essay here.

The history of this species in the Americas is very interesting - it first appeared in Barbados in 1954 when found by James Bond and was first documented nesting there in 1994. For a full history and overview of the species in the Caribbean, check out this article on eBird Caribbean. And if you still want more background information on this species, check out the species account on the IUCN's Heron Conservation website.

Here's hoping it gets found again for more people to enjoy!

Wednesday 27 May 2015

Great Canadian Birdathon - 2015 edition

The 2015 Burrell family birdathon was held on May 11...we had a great day birding the Pelee area with a dash to Blenheim and Lake St. Clair. Below is the [redacted] official write-up. If you want the full details, you'll have to put up some money for bird conservation :)

Monday, May 11th the 4 of us (Carol, Ken, Mike and Jim) were up before the sun to get the day started. We began our day by making a quick stop at the Days Inn to pick up displaying _______, before bee-lining it to the Visitor Centre at Point Pelee National Park and catching the first tram to the tip (6:00 am).

When we arrived at the tip it was calm, about 70% clouded and 17° C out: a good day to be out and about! Our first sign of good things to come was a ____ landing in front of us almost as soon as we got off the tram. Our luck continued as we approached the extreme Tip as there was a light “reverse migration” taking place. We set up here and spent the next two hours identifying ___ and a whole host of other species in flight. Our efforts were well-rewarded with flybys of ____, ____, and best of all a young male ____, not to mention many species of ____ and ____. By 8:00 am we decided to move north to search for a ____ that had been found earlier on the west beach footpath.

On our way north we stumbled upon a ____ and our first ____ of the day. A short while later we heard some shouting to our south, looked up and saw an ___ flying directly overhead with a ____! The ____ was photographed just minutes earlier at the very tip and was identified from those photos as a ____ - a new Ontario species for everyone except Ken. Feeling pretty good we traveled a bit further north and came across our target - a large crowd of birders was watching the ____ feeding at their feet! We grabbed some great looks and moved on to make room for more eager observers. By this time it was 9:00 am and we already had some great birds and a total of ___ species…it was time to move into the more sheltered parts of the park.

We walked in to the Woodland Nature Trail and quickly added an ____, ____, a few ____, and a handful of other species to boost our species total to ___.

After a nutrition break at the VC we made a quick check of the west beach to see if we could find a previously reported ____. As if on queue, before we even arrived at “the spot” it flew up and perched in the open for us to see!

From here it was decided to walk the trails around the VC and Tilden’s Woods. This area was also quite productive. Here we added an ____ calling and sunning itself, ____, and our first ____ and ____, plus great looks at a ____, bringing us to ___ species before the clock even struck noon.

At 12:30 we lunched at a picnic area on the west beach and rested. Mike and Ken decided they would walk an inland trail while Carol and Jim drove up 4 picnic areas and birded that area.  We managed to find ____, ____ and, finally, a ____. One final stop on a hunch at Northwest Beach to check behind the picnic shelters yielded ____, ____, ____ and an ____. Not bad for 45 minutes of work!

By 2:00 pm our bird list was growing slowly (sitting at ___) so we left the Park and headed for the Onion Fields just to the north. This area usually produces some interesting birds feeding among the newly planted and not tilled land. We did pretty good by adding ____, ____ (flew across the road in front of us and landed in a field beside us), ____ and best of all a breeding-plumaged ____ (a very rare ____). By this time the sky was beginning to cloud and the wind was picking up. The local weather station was warning of possible tornados. We headed straight for Hillman Marsh ahead of the weather.

The marsh is always good for shorebirds and waterfowl. It didn’t let us down! Here amongst the grasses and water we found ____, ____, 500 ____, ____ and ____, ____, ____ and ____. The rain was not far away but we were up to ___ species!

At 5:00 pm we made a short visit to Wheatley Harbour and then to Wheatley to get our pizza for supper. While eating and driving east we managed to spot a ____ just outside of Erieau, and then the storm hit with hard, driving rain. We made our way to Blenheim Sewage Lagoons. The rain let up and blue sky followed. At the Lagoons we did well again. Not long after entering Ken said “what’s that?”- we looked up and saw an ____ coming in from the north. It made several circles over the lagoons before heading south. With good views in the scope we were able to identify it as a ____ – not even new for the day!  Based on some feather damage on its right wing, we suspect this was the same individual we had seen some 10 hours earlier and 60 km away! Despite the ____ not being new for the day list we did add ____, ____, ____, ____ and ____ bringing our total to ___.

We headed northwest towards Lake St. Clair for our last few stops. Along Angler’s Line we found ____, ____ and ____. Our last productive stop was the St. Clair National Wildlife Refuge. It was quite windy and cooling quickly and unfortunately no ____ were calling. However, we still found ____, ____, ____, ____ and ____ to finish up.

It was a great day: ___ species, good company and lots of birdy conversation.

Thank you for sponsoring us and helping bird conservation. If you haven’t paid your pledge yet you may send us a cheque payable to Bird Studies Canada or pay online at

Species list:

Monday 13 April 2015

Kingston Lark Sparrow

On this warm spring evening Erica and I were pulling in to our local mini putt establishment when I got a text message from Mark Read that read "Just found a Lark Sparrow at Lemoine Point.". Yep, he didn't even include an exclamation mark. So, with less than an hour of daylight left, we headed for Lemoine Point.

As we arrived we could see Mark and fellow Kingston birder James Barber up ahead on the path, faithfully keeping an eye on the prize:

So there it was. We all enjoyed this rare bird from the mid-west before it eventually flew into some nearby pines to hopefully spend the night.

As mentioned above, Lark Sparrow is primarily a bird of the central US, regularly reaching into Canada in southern BC and the southern prairies. It is also rare but regular in southern Ontario with up to about 5 records per year. It is a species that could be expected here more often in years of extreme drought in the core of its range, like this year. This must be one of the earliest spring arrivals of this species in Ontario - the only earlier date I could find was one on 10 April 2010 from Pelee Island - most records fall in late April or early May.

The great thing about seeing this bird was that it meant two rare birds in Frontenac County in two days after Mark and I found this wayward White-crowned Pigeon on Wolfe Island yesterday. 

Thursday 19 March 2015

Greater White-fronted Goose and waterfowl at Long Point

Big Creek is finally open and the warm melt water flowing through it is starting to open up a lead in Long Point's inner bay, so this morning when I stopped to check out the bridge on the causeway there I was happy to find about 1500 Tundra Swans, hundreds of ducks and geese and a single Greater White-fronted Goose.

Here's a link to my full checklist from the causeway. With south winds predicted on Friday and Saturday there should be more birds filling into the small bit of open water this weekend!

Even though it is still cold, it does look and sound like March in the area. Check out this video from the IBA Canada YouTube channel that I took a couple days ago:

Thanks for looking and don't forget to support my birdathon for bird conservation!