Tuesday 17 December 2019

Christmas Bird Counts 2019

This past weekend I participated in two Christmas Bird Counts (CBC).

On Saturday I did the London CBC. My area is a 5 kilometer stretch of pathway along the river in south London. It can be quite good, however this year I averaged lesser numbers of birds, and it was my lowest species count out of the previous years, with 30.

While there isn't too much to comment on, I did have a few highlights. Cardinal numbers were higher than previous years, with forty tallied. Early on I had a Red-winged Blackbird in a cattail marsh, which is a good one on the count. The best bird was a House Wren, which is the second record ever in the 100+ years of the count.

After the morning walk, I went down to the landfill. Best bird was a Slaty-backed Gull, which was found the previous day. The first record on the London CBC, and a first record for Middlesex county. Other gulls included thousands of Herring Gulls, lesser numbers of Ring-billed, and some Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed, and Glaucous. I couldn't turn up any Iceland Gulls.

Herring Gulls and Glaucous Gull
Overall, the results of the London count revealed that it was a below average year, but with some exceptional highlights. Another new one for the count was a Wilson's Warbler. Other highlights included Greater White-fronted Goose, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Cackling Goose, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

On Sunday I did the Rondeau/Blenheim CBC with Blake Mann. We did the area in the park south of the visitor center.

We started the day with a lakewatch off Dog Beach. It was quite cold with limited birds. We had four Red-throated Loons, which means I can keep my Red-throated streak! I have had them on every Rondeau count I've done. The one I had in my first count four years ago was the first seen since 1981. As others have noted, sighting of this species are increasing in the Rondeau area, which is quite odd.

After the lakewatch (we also had three Long-tailed Ducks, which was nice), we went and started our usual walking route; down South Point Trail to the washout, then back up Lakeshore to the VC, and back down Harrison. As it has been the last couple years, it was a fairly uneventful. Best bird was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, which was the only bird around it seems! A Pileated Woodpecker was also good to get.

On our Lakeshore walk, we had an Eastern Towhee, as well as Common Grackle. A Tufted Titmouse at the feeders may have been the only on the count. Harrison was mostly uneventful, but we did have a Hermit Thrush.

After lunch, we did a quick walk around the campground, where we basically had no birds! Seemed to be the theme that day...

Blake went off on his own to check some other areas, so I went to check a few areas on my own. I went to the maintenance loop, where the only notable birds were a Carolina Wren and Carolina Wren. I basically gave up on birding and did some botanizing.

I found two mulberry (Morus) species on the loop.

The rare Red Mulberry (Morus rubra) has one of its last population strongholds in Rondeau Park. From what I understand the Rondeau population includes some of the best examples of this species in Ontario. With only a few hundred trees left in the province, it is at risk due to habitat loss and this next species, White Mulberry (Morus alba) which is invasive, and rapidly hybridizing with Red Mulberry, which is resulting in genetically impure trees.

Next I went to the beach off of the VC. I found a few more plants.

Common Yucca (Yucca filamentosa)

Canadian Wild Rye (Elymus canadensis)

I also found this on the beach, not quite sure what it is. (EDIT: pharyngeal teeth of the fish Freshwater Drum, thanks Kate!)

 Afterwards I went to the trailhead of the Marsh Trail, because why not? Had a Winter Wren, as well as some more plants. I saw some winter stems of Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos), a somewhat rare plant in Ontario. Saw a couple other things too.

Swamp Loosestrife (Decodon verticillatus)

Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)

Prairie Cordgrass (Sporobolus michauxianus)
Afterwards I went to Erieau to do a quick check before heading off to the compilation.
Not much of note, other than a couple Field Sparrows in a flock of tree sparrows, and a Winter Wren along the rail trail.

Common Hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata) was locally abundant in the sandunes.

A few Muskrats were around.

The dinner and compilation was good as always. In total the count had 102 species, which is quite good considering the circumstances. I always enjoy Rondeau!

Sunday 24 November 2019

James Bay 2019: Longridge Point

Let's finish this thing...

August 14, 2019

The weather was looking good, so it was no surprise when we received confirmation that the chopper would be flying that day. The plan was that the chopper would fly in just over half of the new Longridge Point crew, then pick up three Longridge crew members, drop one (Gray Carlin) off at Piskwamish on their way back, and pick up Kevin, before making its way back to Moosonee. At that point, the chopper would pick up the remaining Longridge crew member, before flying back to Piskwamish, pick me up, the continue onto Longridge, where I would spend the next two weeks. Sounded simple enough.

I enjoyed my last few hours at Piskwamish, and right on schedule and to plan, the chopper came and picked up up. I got to see where I had been walking for the past couple weeks from the air, and had a new found appreciation for the winter road and power line.

Soon we touched down in the marsh at Longridge Point. I was back! I was reunited with Doug McRae, and after a few camp orientation things, the new crew went out to explore the area. Longridge is certainly very different than Piskwamish, since most of the walking involves walking along gravel ridges (compared to the expansive mudflats of Piskwamish). It is certainly more physically demanding, but having already spent two weeks on the coast, it wasn't as strenuous for me as the crew members who had just come in.

Autumn Gentian (Gentianella amarella)

eBird checklist 

August 15, 2019

I did my first Longridge Survey on this day, Paskwatchi Point, which is my favourite survey route. Whiles numbers were basically nothing compared to the numbers of birds I had seen at Pisk, it was still quite enjoyable. Highlights on the survey included a Red-necked Phalarope, a juvenile Marbled Godwit (the second record that season for Longridge), and an adult Little Gull.

I found a few orchids in the morning before survey.

Lesser Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera repens)

Nodding Ladies Tresses (Spiranthes cernua)

That evening I heard a Long-eared Owl, which had been hanging around for a few weeks apparently. This was actually my first ever Long-eared Owl!

eBird checklist

August 16, 2019

I was the first awake that day, so as I stumbled outside half asleep, I went to the main cabin and began disabling the bear fence. At one point, I looked up and there it was! A juvenile Northern Goshawk perched 20 feet above me! Unfortunately it flew off before others got to see it, however it came back several more times over the course of the next couple weeks. We also had a different individual hanging around, another juvenile.

On this day, I tackled the Longridge Point survey, which follows Longridge Point, a gravel spit about two kilometers in length. There wasn't too much of note this day, just the usual. We had 153 White-winged Crossbills tallied that day, which certainly made Doug laugh since he had said until I came, they would only get a dozen or so a day at most. We joked I brought the crossbills with me, since we had hundreds daily at Piskwamish.

eBird checklist

August 17, 2019

I believe on this day, I made another Paskwatchi survey. Again, nothing really of note.

I went out to explore in the marsh, with the intention of checking out where I had discovered a single Saffron-winged Meadowhawk the previous year. Imagine my delight when I found a few dozen!

A Green Comma in camp was a lifer butterfly for me.

A decent number of finches this day, with almost 200 crossbills, and decent numbers of Common Redpolls.

Common Redpolls

eBird checklist

August 18, 2019

I did the West Bay survey this day, highlighted by 15 Wilson's Phalaropes. It was an excellent year for phalaropes on the coast. In 2018, we would consider it a good day if we saw a phalarope. This past year, they were a nearly daily occurrence.

eBird checklist

August 19, 2019

Before heading out on the Longridge Survey, I saw a Northern Blue, only my second time seeing this species.

Around this time, we were dealing with pretty high tides. Because of the time of day, we decided we would start our survey at the tip of Longridge, and then survey our way back. As we were walking out, I noticed the tide coming in, and it was coming in fast. I remember thinking to myself that we were going to get stuck somewhere along the ridge today. As it turned it out, my prediction was right. However, instead of getting stuck where I had thought we would get stuck, we found ourselves stranded at the very tip of Longridge, a mere 500 meters into our survey! Since I was the "survey crew leader", I made the call to end the survey and stay put, since the wave action and current would have made the 20 foot crossing potentially dangerous.

After a few hours, the tide finally went down far enough for us to cross safely. However, that was the least of our problems. For the last hour we had watched as a massive thunderhead made its way towards us. So, with lighting and thunder coming at us, we began the walk/jog/sprint towards the closest cover...two kilometers away (oh, and I was carrying a metal tripod).

In short, we made it out alive, and there was an epic double rainbow (I was unable to catch all of it in the frame!)

eBird checklist

August 20, 2019

We had been planning to meet up with the Piskwamish Crew at "The Barge" which is between the two camps for a "party", however the forecast had been less than satisfactory, so we opted to postpone until the next day. It turned out to be a very nice day, and we remarked how we should have gone ahead with the party that day. We couldn't know at the time how postponing would be perhaps one of the best decisions we had ever made...

I did the West Bay survey this day. Just the usual stuff, but I finally saw my first James Bay Stilt Sandpipers.

eBird checklist

August 21, 2019

Ah yes, August 21, 2019...

I volunteered to do the Paskwatchi survey (quite) early in the morning, along with a fellow crew member. The rest of the crew would then meet us at Paskwatchi point, where we would ditch our gear and continue to walk the distance to the Barge for the meetup.

The survey went without a hitch, so when joined by the other crew, we began the walk, birding the ridge along the way. About a kilometer south of Paskwatchi, we stopped to "pish" because we heard a Red-breasted Nuthatch. Off to my left I saw a flash of the brightest yellow I had ever seen. Puzzled, I raised my binoculars, trying to discern what it was. The yellow body, black eye, huge bill...blue-grey wings?

"Holy @$#%, it's a Prothonotary!"

Doug has also gotten on the bird, and was seeing the backside. As soon as I said what it was, it came out into the open, in all its golden yellow glory. We observed it for the next few minutes, before losing it for good. It was fair to say we were all in shock. It took us a couple days before it to even begin to set in what we had seen! That chance sighting of a beautiful male bird represented the second record for the James Bay area, the last one being in Moosonee in October of 1989. Unless I am mistaken, this seems to be the most northerly record of the species in the province, and one of most northern records of the species ever. Honestly one of the craziest birds I have ever seen, good thing we postponed the party!

So yeah, it was a pretty good day. The "Barge Party" was fun, and it was good to see my old camp mates again.

eBird checklist

August 22, 2019

I did the Longridge Survey this day. Shorebird numbers were still much lower than we expected they should have been (only a couple hundred White-rumped Sandpipers, should have been thousands). We did a short seawatch after the survey, which was highlighted by a Marbled Godwit.

I should note that on the pond near camp we had a couple families of a rare bird...American Coots! We had seen a few juveniles daily, however on this day we finally saw all 14 young! This represented the second or third breeding record for the Hudson Bay Lowlands.

eBird checklist

August 23, 2019

I did the Paskwatchi survey this day. As was the trend for recent surveys it seemed, the survey was pretty quiet. As soon as we ended the survey, we found a nice and somewhat cooperative Stilt Sandpiper.

Lesser Yellowlegs and Stilt Sandpiper

We went for a walk down the ridge south of Paskwatchi after the survey, since the habitat was quite nice. Nothing rare on this day, but we did have a pretty high number of Tennessee Warblers, definitely the most common small interesting looking bird on this walk.

eBird checklist

August 24, 2019

Did the West Bay survey. Again, not much to report on, besides the small "flock" of six Silt Sandpipers were encountered, which seemed a bit out of place. A single Marbled Godwit was nice to see. Over 100 Snow Geese was a good count. We also had a good number of Broad-winged Hawks. We are north of their usual range, so they are a bit odd to see, however they sometimes do occur.

Highlight of the day was an Old World Swallowtail caterpillar.

eBird checklist

August 25, 2019

For my second last full day on the coast, I did the Longridge survey for the last time. Once again, shorebird numbers were low! Highlight were the first American Pipits of the fall. On our walk back to camp, I spotted a Ruffed Grouse, my first for James Bay.

That night at dinner, as we were doing our daily totals, a Grey Catbird showed up outside our cabin! This is a fairly northern record of the species. It was good to finally lay eyes on the bird, as I had been hearing catbird-like calls for several days now, but could never get a visual to confirm.

eBird checklist 

August 26, 2019

My last full day on the coast.

I did my favourite survey for the last time, Paskwatchi Point. Unfortunately, the shorebird numbers didn't increase. In fact, we had ZERO White-rumped Sandpipers that day. They are supposed to be the most common and numerous species! We had a couple good birds at Paskwatchi, including a pair of Little Gulls, and a Parasitic Jaeger.

It was with reluctance we walked back to camp, knowing it would be the last time we would make that walk this year. We enjoyed our last night together as a camp, and reflected on our past couple weeks together. For me, it was amazing how fast a month had flown by!

eBird checklist

August 27, 2019

It was zero hour. I secretly prayed for a freak storm which grounded all choppers for a month, but some of my camp mates were itching to get out, for they had responsibilities to attend to.

Doug found this dead Arctic Shrew, it was pretty cool.

We went for one last walk to the banding station to take a look at the ocean. My attempts at escape into the bush were foiled both times.

Around noon, just as I had finished lunch, I went outside, and in the distance I could hear it. The distinctive sound of a chopper. This was it.

I said my good byes, to both my friends, and the coast, and packed up the chopper, and then we were off. Less than half an hour later I was back in Moosonee. After my first shower in a month, we got onto the train, and were back on our way to southern Ontario. For another year, my time in the north had come to an end.

eBird checklist

I was really happy to be able to spend a month up on the coast, which is undoubtedly my favourite place I have ever been (which, I guess isn't too many places). I am anxiously awaiting my next opportunity to return!

Until next time, James Bay.

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.