Saturday, 12 October 2019

James Bay 2019: Piskwamish Highlights August 4-13

It's been a while since the last post! I apologize for that, I have gotten busy (and distracted).

For the remainder of my time at the Little Piskwamish field camp, I will list some of the highlights.

August 4, 2019

I saw some cool plants.

Red Bulrush (Blysmus rufus)

Green Bog Orchid (Platanthera huronensis)

Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium) is a favourite of mine.

Also saw this Boreal Chorus Frog.

August 6, 2019

I went to go read some knot flags with Amie on this day in the Far South. Since it was a late tide (the latest tide of my time at Piskwamish), we ended up coming back into camp late (we got back around 9pm). The biggest highlight on this day, however, was on the walk back. I had stopped to take a picture of a plant, and then all of a sudden I heard it. A faint tick-tick-ticktick. It was my lifer Yellow Rail! Yellow Rails were oddly scarce at Piskwamish this year, and it was the only one I encountered all month.

August 7, 2019

I did a wee bit of botanizing in the marsh on this day. I also found my first Black Meadowhawk of the season.

Mud Sedge (Carex limosa)

Purple Rattlesnakeroot (Nabalus racemosus)

Chaffy Sedge (Carex paleacea)

Black Meadowhawk

In the evening I made a call home to my family on the satellite phone since it was my grandfather's birthday. This time I remembered to extend the antenna all the way!

I spent a little bit of time in the evening photographing the camp. It is very pretty.

One of the sleeping cabins (mine) on left

Pathway from camp to marsh 

Kitchen cabin (exterior)

Kitchen cabin (interior)

Rain barrel and water collection tarp (for camp chores)

August 8, 2019

A day for the odes! I finally found where all the "good" darners were hanging out, so I spent a couple hours chasing them around. I had been searching for Sedge Darner, but hadn't gotten lucky yet!

Lake Darner

Subarctic Darner

Four-spotted Skimmer

August 10, 2019

Tyler and I ventured north on the north survey route this day. Just before we started, I had to go back to camp to rebandage my foot since it was killing me. In my time away, Tyler had a Pacific Loon fly by. Can't win them all! This was something like the third southern James Bay record (surprisingly).

We went up to Big Piskwamish, which has a lovely little marsh in behind it. It had some neat plants in it.

Tilesius Wormwood (Artemisia tilesii)

American Slough Grass (Beckmannia syzigachne)

There were a few odes in the marsh behind, highlights being Emerald Spreadwing and Delicate Emerald.

Emerald Spreadwing

Delicate Emerald

Just as we were about to leave, I was walking along the ridge, and a Sedge Darner essentially flew into my net! Success! It was one of only a couple I would see the entire month.

Sedge Darner

That night, Tyler and I set up a moth sheet. Saw a couple cool things.

Boomerang Dart

Finned-willow Prominent 

August 11, 2019

Aerial survey day! The four of us split up and went to our respective spots to count birds as the helicopter, carrying a couple biologists, flew over. My spot was about 6 or so kilometers south of camp. When I was about 3 kilometers away, I get the radio call from Tyler. They had just had a Blue Jay in camp! Blue Jays are quite rare in Southern James Bay. Interestingly, Longridge had at a Blue Jay about 10 days prior. I decided I was just too far to turn around to go see it, and make it to my spot on time. Needless to say I was bummed. I never thought I'd be so mad to miss a Blue Jay.

The aerial survey itself was neat. Though a tad anticlimactic. The chopper circled around Amie to the south of me about 5 times, then buzzed over me in a matter of a couple seconds. My birds went up and down in 5 seconds, and the sun was in my eyes. There were only about 6500 shorebirds too, which made it a bit boring...haha. A highlight for me were two American White Pelicans that were flushed up by the chopper.

Later that day, Tyler and I made the trek to the winter road, about a kilometer inland from camp. The winter road is drivable in the winter and stretches from Moosonee up to Attawapiskat. It was quite the adventure to get back there, but now I can say I've been!

Winter road (note road sign)

August 12, 2019

My last day at Piskwamish.

Early in the morning, I went out to the platform (a wooden structure in the marsh that we put our bags on to keep dry during crew change), to look what birds were moving along the ridge. Then I heard it. a freaking Blue Jay! I ran into camp, making sure it wasn't Tyler messing with me. It wasn't! The jay eventually flew into camp. I wasn't able to get any photos, but saw it fairly well. On a side note, a Northern Goshawk flew in response to the Blue Jay playback.

 Of course, in the most James Bay like fashion possible, the weather was crap. It rained and the wind blowed (it was cold) for about 3 hours non stop as Tyler and I trekked 10 kilometers to the south. Our survey notes were very messy, and our fingers were frozen. The only way we could write was by wrapping out entire hand around the pencil. Optics became virtually useless, so it was a good thing I was able to identify everything by call!

As we reached the end of the route, the sun came out. It looked like it was going to be a nice day. We went on a little detour back into the marsh to see what we would find. And we found something. Tyler spotted a raptor a couple kilometers away sitting on a log. It was at a distance we could sort of make out patterns, but we couldn't say anything for certain. It was sitting pretty odd, and the pattern, what we could make out anyways, also seemed a bit odd. We picked up our scopes and walked about 10 feet before looking again, and the bird was gone, never to be seen again. We looked at the guide when we got back to camp that night, and had an "oh crap" moment when we saw Swainson's Hawk. Too far too call, and we couldn't be certain. Argh! Buteo sp. it is...

We were going to read flags on our way back, and Tyler and I each took a section of a flock. At one point I looked back, and over the treeline was a huge dark cloud, heading straight for us. I wasted no time in taking off. I managed to avoid it (amazing how you can see things coming for kilometers!) Tyler, on the other hand, persevered in his flag reading, and didn't miss it. He told me the rain and wind drove him to his knees, hanging on for dear life. I wasn't in the clear though. With 10 kilometers still to walk, I got hit by about four more waves of rain. Tyler eventually caught up, and we came back to camp cold and wet, but not miserable. You can never be miserable in James Bay.

That night I, along with Kevin, enjoyed our last supper at Piskwamish. The helicopter would be coming in the morning.

August 13, 2019

Except the helicopter never came in the morning. In fact, it never came that day.

Due to some weather conditions, and visibility issues (which Longridge may have contributed to, telling the pilot in Moosonee that it had "decreased"), we were stuck at Piskwamish for another day. We had fun, however, spending the day burning garbage and training our camp Gray Jays. We succeeded in gaining one's trust, having him seek us out for handouts. At one point, I raised my binoculars to look at a bird, and the thing landing on the binoculars as I had them on my face. A shame nobody had their camera ready.

That night, it was actually my last supper at Piskwamish. The next day I would be throwing my gear into a chopper and flying 20 kilometers north to Longridge Point.

Friday, 13 September 2019

James Bay 2019: Part Two

This past summer, I spent four weeks on the coast of Southern James Bay surveying shorebirds with the James Bay Shorebird Project (website). From July 31 to August 14, I was at Little Piskwamish Point, then for the remainder of the month until August 27 I was at Longridge Point.

James Bay 2019:
Part One
Part Two

July 31, 2019

The chopper was leaving Akimiski Island around 8am, so we were set to be at the Moosonee airport around 10:30. After one last breakfast at the Northern Store, we packed our stuff into the MNR truck, and went to the airport. The chopper arrived soon after.

Obligatory helicopter selfie...

After our safety briefing, we got into the chopper and prepared for liftoff.

Then we were off!

Little Piskwamish is located about 45 kilometers north of Moosonee, so the chopper ride was around 20 minutes. We flew over the expansive taiga forest. The Hudson Bay Lowlands make up one of the most intact true untouched wildernesses in North America, and perhaps the world.

Soon, we neared Little Piskwamish, my home for the next two weeks.

After unloading, we said goodbye to the chopper and the outgoing crew members. We were left alone, and would not be seeing the chopper until at least August 11th, when we were to have our aerial survey.

We unpacked, got acquainted with Amie MacDonald, our camp lead, and started to process that we were back on the coast.

After another safety briefing (this time on how not to be eaten by bears), I wasted no time in catching up with some odonates. Variable Darner was my first catch, and a lifer ode to boot! Variable Darners proved to be the most numerous darner.

After lunch, we headed out to the flats for an orientation. Tyler had been at Piskwamish last year, but this was mine, and most certainly Kevin's, who had never been to the region before, first time at the site. After hearing the stories of the tens of thousands of birds that congregate at Piskwamish, I was eager to see them for myself.

But...there were no birds. It was quite ironic actually.

We attributed the lack of birds to the high tide. Finally, we saw a couple birds further south, so we got closer. Soon, I was once again surrounded by Hudsonian Godwits, White-rumped Sandpipers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, and even a few Red Knots (one of which had a flag, which I successfully got...I think it was my first ever knot flag!). The highlight was a Red-necked Phalarope which essentially dropped out of the sky and landed right in front of me, becoming the first phalarope for Piskwamish of the season.

It was very windy, which seemed to push the darners out over the flats. Some would grab a deerfly (which were nicknamed "Bulldog flies" because of their fierce looking jaws), and then land on the ground. Over the course of the month, not to brag or anything, but I became quite skilled at hand-catching them (as I did that day) ;-)

Subarctic Darner

Zigzag Darner

I even managed to catch a Somatochlora emerald dragonfly, a Delicate Emerald (lifer).

With my new found appreciation of botany, there are some unique plants which are found on the coast. Here are a few seen on the first day.

Sea Plantain (Plantago maritima)

Sea Milkwort (Lysimachia maritima)

Marsh Fleawort (Tephroseris palustris)

Later that evening, I went down to the creek where we get our drinking water, and found another lifer ode, Taiga Bluet.

I caught a Lake Darner on the way back. Lake Darners were the second most abundant species of darner on the coast.

It was a splendid first day, and I was really looking forward to the next month!

August 1-3(ish) 2019

Days sort of got jumbled together, so I won't always have the most exciting stories for each day (though August 21, 2019 is forever burned into my mind), but I'll try to summarize what happened.

We did our first set of surveys on August 1. Amie and Kevin took the North Survey route, and Tyler and I took the "Near South" survey route. I remember "lots" (~6000) White-rumped Sandpipers and a few thousand Semipalmated Sandpipers as being the most numerous birds. Highlights were a couple family groups of Marbled Godwits, which breed in small numbers on the coast. Here are two juveniles.

We had a Marbled Godwit, who became to be known as "Dad", who for over two weeks relentlessly defended his young, which where near adult size by that point! He would regularly divebomb us, and other birds (ravens, cranes, and even a Bald Eagle). We always knew where we where when we heard him! (somewhere about 2.5 km south of camp, as I recall)

Later on in the survey, a bunch of shorebirds went up and the yellowlegs started making a racket. I looked over to see what was the matter, and couldn't believe it! I started screaming "GOSHAWK!!!" At Tyler, but unfortunately he wasn't able to get on it. We had a pair of adult Northern Goshawks at Piskwamish, and saw them almost daily. It was certainly a treat! There were a few times where they passed by us mere meters away.

A couple more plants, this time sedges.

Golden Sedge (Carex aurea)

Common Cotton Grass (Eriophorum angustifolium)

On August 2nd, Tyler and I did the "Far South" survey route, which was about a 2.5 hour walk just to get to the start point. The weather was not too nice (windy, rainy, cold), but we persevered.

As Tyler promised, I finally got to see some numbers...

The most numerous shorebird was White-rumped Sandpiper, numbering around 12,000. There were thousands of other shorebirds as well, including Semipalmated Sandpipers, Hudsonian Godwits, and Red Knots. Highlights were a Wilson's Phalarope, another first for the season at Piskwamish, and a Short-billed Dowitcher. An even bigger highlight was a flock of American White Pelicans which fly by low to the water at the end of the survey. Pelicans are a somewhat recent addition to the breeding birds of James Bay. They nest up near Akimski Island, and come down to the Moose River to feed.

On August 3rd, Tyler and I made the walk to "The Barge", an old rusted dock portion that has washed up, which is slightly over halfway between Piskwamish and Longridge. Ross Wood from Longridge was walking down to meet us, as were were going to have an exchange of goods. Newspapers for us (to dry boots!) and carrots for them!

The walk, which was somewhere around 13km, was quite enjoyable. It was a little more difficult than it would probably normally be, since our legs and feet were not quite used to the terrain yet (I battled numerous blisters and other walking-related injuries this year). Along the way, we saw the only Black Bears I saw during my time at Piskwamish, a mother and cubs, and a large male.

After the meetup and exchange of goods and intel, we began our walk back. Many Ruddy Turnstones were seen, the most we saw during the two weeks. We did the "North" survey route on our way back, which was highlighted by several Short-billed Dowitchers and a Wilson's Phalarope.

A wonderful start to the month!

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Hamilton Lakewatch

Today I decided to shake it up a bit, and head out to Van Wagner's Beach in Hamilton for a lakewatch. The winds were looking good, coming from the east, and with the hurricane that just passed through, I was hoping for maybe some sort of vagrant. While that did happen, it was still a productive day.

I got to the beach shortly after 10:30, and for the first two or so hours, it was completely dead. Things started getting interesting when a Sabine's Gull was picked out of a group of Common Terns. Sabine's are expected migrants at this time of year, however, they are quite uncommon, and are quite exciting whenever they are seen!

This poor Ring-billed Gull had a really messed up wing. It was somehow able to fly though!

After the initial excitement, things quieted down again for a bit. Then I spotted a jaeger straight out, which proved to be none other than a juvenile Pomarine Jaeger! This individual put on quite the show for much of the afternoon, as it chased around gulls hoping to steal its next meal.

Soon, another couple Sabine's Gulls made a pass with a group of Bonaparte's Gulls. And not too long after that, a group of twelve Sabine's Gulls was spotted! Things were shaping up to be a good day for Sabine's! A couple more jaegers were flying around, and as I was tracking one of them with my scope, I happened to pan right onto another group of 14 Sabine's Gulls! Much to our delight, the two groups of gulls merged, for a big flock of 26 Sabine's! There was even an adult bird, which is a very uncommon sight on the Great Lakes.

The winds were shifting to be even more favourable, and with them came more jaegers, including at least four Parasitic Jaegers.

Later in the day, a lone Sabine's Gull came in close for good views, and a group of four flew right over us observers! In that group of four was another adult. I didn't think to get photos until they were more distant, but others got great shots of them right overhead. In total, I saw 34 Sabine's Gulls today!

Adult Sabine's Gull in top right

After six hours, I decided to call it quits, as things were slowing down. After I left, the group had two more Parasitic Jaegers and another group of 14 Sabine's Gulls.

I made a couple quick stops into Windermere Basin and the Tollgate Ponds. I miss seeing shorebirds, so those were my main focus. I saw Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Killdeer, Semipalmated Plover, Black-bellied Plover, American Golden-Plover, Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Sanderling, Spotted Sandpiper, and Red-necked Phalarope.

It was quite an enjoyable day!