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!

Friday 6 September 2019

James Bay 2019: Part One

Back in late July, I embarked for my second tour of duty up on the coast of James Bay with the James Bay Shorebird Project (website). I was up there for a month, spending the first two weeks at the Little Piskwamish Point field camp, before heading up to Longridge Point for the remaining two weeks. Once again, it was an outstanding experience, there truly is no place like James Bay!

Anyways, I'll try to convey my stories...enjoy!

James Bay 2019:
Part One
Part Two

July 28, 2019

I began the trek in Toronto, where I met up with Tyler Hoar, who was to be at Piskwamish with me for the first couple weeks. We picked up Kevin Shackleton on our way north, who was also going to be with us for the two weeks at Piskwamish.

Tyler was eager to show the two of us a recent burn in Gogama on the way up, so that's what we did (we also when on the way back south). It took less than 90 seconds for us to find our first Black-backed Woodpecker, and we soon found a few more. Woodpeckers really love these burns, as the dead trees are a haven for beetles and their larvae.

The burn (photo taken August 28)

Other than birds, there is a pretty little stream that runs through the burn. There were a few dragonflies, and perhaps I got a bit distracted...

Canada Darner

Eastern Least Clubtail

Band-winged Meadowhawk

A couple interesting beetles...

Yellow Velvet Beetle

Bee-mimic Beetle

Acmaeops pratensis

We got to Cochrane later that afternoon, where we met up with two other members of our party. Bruce Beehler (his blog here), an ornithologist who is writing a book on godwits, and Doug McRae, a great guy who just so happens to be the crew lead for Longridge Point. After a great dinner, we went to bed, as we were to board the train the next day, heading to Moosonee.

July 29-30, 2019

The train departed at 9am sharp, and we began the five-hour journey to the end of the line, Moosonee. It was fairly uneventful, but we did see a Canada Jay (still not used to the name change!), a Greater Yellowlegs, and a Red-tailed Hawk. Doug entertained us with his plethora of knowledge on the region, and we dreamed of the birds we could find.

It was raining pretty steadily by the time we pulled into Moosonee, putting a stop to any plans to fly out that day. So, with the help of Michelle with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources & Forestry (OMNRF), we loaded up our gear and brought it to the staff house, where we'd be staying the night. After confirming we wouldn't be flying out that day, we went to the sewage lagoons, in hopes of seeing birds. Immediately, I saw my first of year Lesser Yellowlegs. I was hoping to make it until Moosonee before I saw my first, just for fun! However, the yellowlegs were not the most exciting bird. That title belonged to a drake Canvasback, first spotted by Tyler! Canvasbacks are quite rare in James Bay, this being something like only the 5th or 6th record for the region. Pretty cool!

We ended up staying in Moosonee an extra day the next day, as the weather prevented the chopper from flying down to Moosonee from Akimiski Island. So, the day was spent sitting around (out of the rain), talking, and birding (we went back to the lagoons, as well as Tyler and I took a walk around Moosonee). This garter snake was a real highlight. As with many of the herps in that region, they much more strikingly patterned than the ones down here!

We enjoyed our last supper in civilization that night, for the forecast for the next day was perfect. We would be flying out the next day.