Sunday 22 March 2020

Elgin Excursions

Since getting back from my trip up north, I have made a couple jaunts down to Elgin county.

Last Thursday, I went to Port Stanley in hopes of finding the reported Black Vultures, as I have never seen one actually in Ontario. I have seen the ones in Niagara on the American side from Canada, but I took them off my Ontario list awhile back since it'd be easy enough just to see them in the province.

When I arrived, the fog was quite low, and it was looking grim, but on my second pass through the town, I found a gathering of vultures sitting in a tree, and with them was the target bird.

Today, I had Eurasian Wigeon on the mind, so I decided to check out the Aylmer Sewage Lagoons. No dice on a Eurasian though...will have to keep looking!

When I first arrived, there was no waterfowl visible. Thankfully, it seemed that they were all just hunkered down in the furthest cell. They were disturbed by my presence but soon settled down again.

Oh yeah, saw this Coyote.

There was a good assortment of waterfowl to sort through. Nothing rare, but plenty of Common Mergansers, Ring-necked Ducks, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, and Redhead. There were lesser numbers of American Wigeon, Gadwall, Hooded Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Canvasback, and Northern Shoveler, to name a few.

Common Merganser

American Wigeon



Lesser Scaup

There were a few Great Blue Herons.

A few Ring-billed Gulls were flying around, so they seem to be migrating back. A few Bonaparte's Gulls as well.

From what I have heard, the Tundra Swans moved through quite quickly. There were a few stragglers.

Some Horned Larks landed closeby. This one was in a plumage I don't see too often.

Best birds were a couple of Trumpeter Swans. This is a species that is still quite uncommon in the southwest of the province away from the GTA (though those birds are a whole other matter). They are probably overlooked though.

Onward with Spring...

Bonus: I found a nice Eastern Screech-Owl in my neighborhood a couple weeks ago. Here is a photo.

Thursday 19 March 2020

Escape to the North

A few weeks ago, some friends and I planned a short trip to Northern Ontario to try and see some of the birds that like to inhabit such region during the winter. "Northern" is not a term I take lightly - we would be spending the majority of the trip in the Arctic watershed!

On Friday the 13th (!), I met up with none other than Nathan Hood in Waterloo. After loading up my gear, we picked up Ezra Campanelli and Riley Walsh, and began our trip northward. The traffic was moving quite well, so we made good time to our first pit stop, Bala, to look for the reported female Barrow's Goldeneye. Unfortunately, we struck out on the duck, but it was still nice to be able to take a short break.

Afterwards, we continued up to Sudbury, where we had a minor scare when the car's range (how far it can get with the fuel in the tank) hit zero, but somehow we were able to roll into a gas station in the nick of time. After stopping for dinner, we booked it for Gogama, where we were going to be staying the first night. Other parties who have been coming up have had luck with Boreal Owls and other owl species on the road leading into town, so we tried our luck. However, after two hours, we turned up nothing more than a single distress call of some sort after the speakers accidentally played rock music instead of owl calls.

The next morning, we went to the recent burn in the area. This is the same burn that Tyler Hoar and I visited last summer on our way up to James Bay. Having met up with a couple more friends ( including Owen Ridgen) of ours, we put on our snowshoes, and split up into three groups. We went in different directions, with plans to text each other if we found something good (American Three-toed Woodpecker).

So, with Riley, I headed down the main road. It didn't take us too long to find our first Black-backed Woodpecker.

Soon after spotting this beauty, it became clear it was going to be a long and frustrating day for me, as my snowshoes kept coming loose and falling off. It was also warming up, causing the snow to become softer, making snowshoeing quite difficult, with some steps causing us to sink up to our waists in snow. There was even a point where my snowshoe came off in one of those instances, and I had to put my full upper body down a hole to dig it out!

Riley and I continued on for another two or so kilometres of walking. During this time, we came up with thirteen more Black-backeds, for a total of fourteen along our route. Other birds we had included a Ruffed Grouse, some Gray Canada Jays, White-winged Crossbills, Red Crossbill, and a Common Redpoll. Riley also had a Pine Grosbeak fly over as I was bent down fixing my shoe. Also found a stand of a few Black Ash (Fraxinus nigra).

As we were walking back, we got a message that the other groups had found a male three-toed woodpecker. We were still a fair distance away, but we hightailed it to their position (along the way hitting a spot which I sunk and left me more or less stuck in one place for ten minutes...thanks snowshoes). However, by the time we got there, they had lost the bird. We spent the better part of the next four hours and five kilometres trying to search for the bird, but had no luck. At least the view was nice.

I have walked in many different terrains, but I can honestly say the hike we did on that day is one of the hardest I have ever done (my snowshoe falling off every ten minutes didn't help either). Riley and I accepted defeat. On a positive note though, we tallied an excellent 38 Black-backed Woodpeckers!

After the burn, we kept heading north for Cochrane. We figured we'd have a bit of time to essentially kill, so we decided to drive to Hearst along Highway 11, and watch for Northern Hawk Owls along the road. It turned out to be a quiet drive, with no hawk owls seen. We didn't even make it to Hearst. Five minutes outside of the town, we hit this wall of trucks.

Nathan went and asked one of the drivers what was up, and they believe it was some sort of accident. We saw no better option but to turn around and make the two and a half-hour drive to Cochrane, so that's what we did. We stopped once along the way to try for Boreal Owl, but came up empty.

The next morning (-25c), we met up with Jeff Skevington and his group (Angela Skevington, Alexander Skevington, Paul Lagasi, and Jeff's parents), as well as Kiah Jasper (his blog), Judy Jasper, and Dana Latour. for a day of birding along the Detour Lake Road (Highway 652). It didn't take long to find the first Northern Hawk Owl of the trip, a lifer for both Nathan and me.

A couple of stops later, we were awarded with yet another Hawk Owl, along with Ezra's, Riley's, and my lifer Hoary Redpoll.

Finch numbers weren't insane, but there certainly were a lot. The most numerous species was either Pine Siskin or White-winged Crossbill, followed by Common Redpoll (we saw hundreds of each). We also saw a few Pine Grosbeaks here and there. We also happened across a Merlin (unusual for this time of year), a couple Northern Shrikes, and several Ruffed Grouse.

Common Redpoll

A bit later in the morning, we happened across our third Hawk Owl of the trip.

It was shaping up to be a really awesome day! (who am I kidding, it already was!)

A couple more hours passed, and then we spotted some Sharp-tailed Grouse! Another lifer for me. We pulled over and began to observe these beautiful birds.

Then, Dana spotted a Hawk Owl on a pole just to the right of the grouse. Awesome!

One of the grouse seemed to perk up and become agitated. Why would that be?

The answer came mere seconds later. A GYRFALCON flew over!!!

The falcon circled overhead for a couple minutes, providing great views. Then, just as we thought it wouldn't get any better...

...the Gyr took a dive at the Sharp-taileds, which sent them scattering. It missed the birds, then went up and perched on the same pole the Hawk Owl (which has fled) had been sitting on. Wow!!! And this all happened within a couple minutes, and we hadn't even moved!!

I think I can stop birding now, I have peaked.

After that little excitement (understatement), we figured we were near the end of the road (182km), so we kept going. Not too much more happened, aside from one more Sharp-tailed Grouse.

Common Redpoll

With our car in the lead, we started the long trek back to Cochrane. It took us a bit, but I did eventually spot a Hawk Owl, our fifth.

Soon, Riley spotted a sixth. Not too long after, I found the seventh. Incredible!

One of the highlights of the day was finally seeing my lifer Bohemian Waxwings! Terrible photo, but well seen and heard.

We pulled into Cochrane a couple hours later, without any other major highlights. After dinner, we went back out in search of owls along Highway 652. While many of our stops came up empty, we finally got lucky with a Boreal Owl (lifer) about an hour and a half outside of Cochrane. We were even able to call it in for some great looks through binoculars! It was a great end to a great day. I can't remember the last time I saw five new birds in a day!

The next morning, we started a but later (on account of not getting back to Cochrane until 1:30am), with plans to head up to Fraserdale, and perhaps a bit beyond.

Just outside of Cochrane, we got out only Hawk Owl of the day, and the last one for the trip. Number eight!

It soon became apparent that the day would be quite a bit slower than the previous day. The only things of note along the whole 70+ km road to Fraserdale were a couple Ruffed Grouse and some Pine Grosbeaks.

Having reached Fraserdale, we decided to keep pushing northward. We stopped to take a look at the Abitibi Canyon generating station. Quite impressive!

Continuing on, there were birds scattered here and there. We came across a couple small flocks of finches, Bohemian Waxwings, and even flushed a couple of Sharp-tailed Grouse. A pair of Red Crossbills was unusual for this far north.

Soon, we made it to the start of the We-Tum road, the winter road that goes up to Moose Factory. It is something I have heard about for a while and was quite happy to get the opportunity to see. One day I'll make the drive...

Since it wasn't too much further, we went to see the Otter Rapids dam.

Those who have ridden the Polar Bear Express will recognize this place.

As Riley said, all of a sudden, Northern Ontario doesn't seem so inaccessible!

We went about as far as we could before having to turn back, and with the snow starting to get heavier, we were eager to get back to Cochrane. There were a few large redpoll flocks along the way, one of which included a "Rostrata" Common Redpoll.

After a hearty dinner of Subway and Apple Pie, we quickly fell asleep. It had been an exhausting couple of days.

We awoke early the next morning, packed the car, and then, after saying our good-byes to Jeff and his family, went south, with intentions of stopping in at the burn in Gogama for American Three-toed Woodpecker again. There were plenty of crossbills and siskins out on the road this morning (though admittedly a couple less, they weren't exactly all able fly off the road in time).

By 11am, we had reached the burn, strapped on our snowshoes (mine cooperated on this day), and began to search the burn once more. One thing we noticed is that there definitely seemed to be a lot less woodpecker and bird activity, which did worry us a bit. However, we trekked on, determined to give it our best shot.

It took a while, but eventually, we did find where there was considerable woodpecker action (15 Black-backed Woodpeckers in total).

After some more aimless wandering, our group got spread out a bit. The snow and wind was also picking up, and I admit I was starting to feel as though our luck had run out. But then, just as I was about to give up, a small woodpecker flew in and landed on a tree not too far away. Could it be? I raised my binoculars, and there, staring back at me was a lovely lady American Three-toed Woodpecker!

I yelled at Ezra, who was a little bit ahead of me on the trail, who called Nathan and Riley over. Unfortunately, the bird didn't stick around long, but at least it stayed around long enough for them to get a quick look at. It was a great way to end the trip!

All in all, the trip was nothing short of spectacular. Aside from maybe Great Grey Owl (which we didn't expect), we didn't miss any of our northern targets, and even managed to score a couple bonuses! I've said it before, and I'll say it again. I love Northern Ontario.