Sunday 31 January 2021

Middlesex Biggish Year: January Update

We have survived the first month of 2021! It was quite an exceptional month for birding, with many highlights. After month #1 in my "Middlesex Biggish Year", I have amassed 82 species, almost 80% of the species reported from the county so far this year. This past month, my only "critical misses" were Pine Grosbeak and Barred Owl, and to a lesser degree, Red-shouldered Hawk and Lapland Longspur.

The breakdown:

Code 1: 60 species

Code 2: 14 species

Code 3: 4 species

Code 4: 3 species

Code 5: 1 species

Although code 1 species are pretty much guaranteed, there were several that I saw that are usually quite rare in the winter. These species include Wood Duck, Green-winged Teal, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Hermit Thrush, Chipping Sparrow, and Common Yellowthroat. These winter abnormalities are always fun to come across.

Hermit Thrush

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Green-winged Teal

Code 2 species were well represented, and I managed to see pretty much all the expected January ones. Highlights included Cackling Geese, three species of owls (Snowy, screech, and Great Horned), all the gulls, and a wintering Fox Sparrow.

Fox Sparrow

Although numbers were low for the code 3 species, that is to be expected for January. Golden Eagle and Short-eared Owl, two uncommon overwintering species, were ticked off, as was Common Redpoll, a common species this winter. An unusual winter Red-breasted Merganser on the Thames River was also found.

Red-breasted Merganser

Code 4 species were made up entirely of irruptive finches. Although I had scored White-winged Crossbill early on January 1st, it wasn't until a couple weeks in I finally found a Hoary Redpoll, as well as some Red Crossbills, the first of that species to be seen in the county for over a month. The mega flight of finches is certainly being kind to us...only three more species of finches to go!

Red Crossbills

A singular code 5 was seen, a Harlequin Duck first seen on January 9th, and refound on the 12th. I believe this may be the 5th record of the species for Middlesex County, and the first in a few years. An excellent bird to start off the year!

One month down, eleven to go. Although the next month will probably be pretty slow going, it will soon pick up! I can't wait to see what else is waiting to be found.

Tuesday 19 January 2021

2020: A Neighbourhood Year in Review

As much as I love to bird in areas further afield, my neighbourhood is where I do the bulk of my birding. While this is mostly because of its convenience, the birding isn't actually half bad. At the beginning of 2020 I had pretty much zero intention of doing much birding. Sure, I would do some spring birding in my usual haunts like Rondeau and Point Pelee (which as we all know, wasn't to be!), but I wanted to focus mostly on field botany, a hobby that was quickly growing on me! 

After my birding trip to Cochrane at the start of March Break, and the start of the pandemic, I found myself stuck at home without much to do except look for birds. Having such a successful northern trip definitely helped "rekindle" my excitement for birding just enough to make me muster up the energy to go outside (which admittedly, didn't happen sometimes for days on end!). Other than a few trips a bit further afield (COVID aware of course), I pretty much spent the entirety of spring migration in my neighbourhood! I typically don't do much birding during the summer (too many plants and insects to see!), but by the time the first fall migrants started to arrive, it was time again for almost daily pilgrimages out to my neighbourhood. Nearer to the end of fall, I was spending most of my free mornings out at Fanshawe CA, but I still got out every once in a while. My grand total for for my neighborhood in 2020 was 164 species out of the 179 species I have seen all time. I know of at least a few other species seen by others that I missed. Hopefully this year I can find some of those species!

I'll walk through some highlights in chronological order.

Even before the start of the pandemic and I started to bird more, something I look forward to each spring is the arrival of the blackbirds. They arrived pretty much on time on February 24th. Soon after, I recorded my first Turkey Vulture and American Woodcock on March 7th. Also that same day, March 7th, I was elated to find my first ever Eastern Screech-Owl for my neighbourhood list, a species I had been hoping to come across for awhile. It was my first "patch bird" of the year! I found another Screech-owl later in a different woodlot.

Throughout the end of March and into early April I continued to go out to my patch with some regularity. I saw several notable species including American Wigeon (March 21), Sandhill Cranes (March 26), Eastern Phoebe (March 26, a bit early), and Blue-winged Teal (April 6). April 18th was a big day, and perhaps the turning point for my patch birding in 2020. I was super happy to find my first Lesser Scaup for my neighborhood list at one of the local ponds. That same day, I managed to turn up a Virginia Rail, which would soon turn into two Virginia Rails. These rails were fairly cooperative and reliable, and remained in this wetland into mid May.

Lesser Scaup

On April 19th, I did my first yard watch of the year. I would complete several more of these stationary counts in the early mornings in my yard over the next few weeks. I saw my first Common Loons and cormorants of the year. The next day, I did another yard watch, and came up with my first Broad-winged Hawks of the year.

Common Loon

On April 24, I got a message that there was an American Bittern in a local wetland, the same place I had found one in 2018. I went over and saw it. I saw this elusive bird several more times into the beginning of May. 

April 25th was a pretty good day for a yard watch. I saw my first Eastern Meadowlark for my patch list, which landed in a tree for a moment. It was also my first big loon day of the year, with 124 recorded.

The first of year birds kept coming throughout the end of April, with highlights being Fox Sparrow, Wood Thrush, Eastern Towhee, Blue-headed Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Black-throated Green Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Brown Thrasher, and my first Great Black-backed Gulls for my neighbourhood, which flew over my yard on April 28th. April 28th also marked the first day of my daily early morning (starting before sunrise) walks of the spring, which I continued for the better part of three weeks. I certainly got my exercise in with these walks, and I estimated I walked a total of 10-15km every morning!

Fox Sparrow

Finally it was May, but unseasonably cold weather was really putting a damper on the arrival of spring migrants. I had a high count of migrating loons with 299 on May 5. We got a thin trickle of birds, including Sora (May 2), Great Egret, Savannah Sparrow, Lincoln's Sparrow, Baltimore Oriole, Ovenbird, and Palm Warbler (all May 3, the first "good" day), and Solitary Sandpiper (May 6). On May 9th, the global eBird big day, we got snow! It wasn't until May 10th I got my first Blackburnian Warbler and Least Flycatcher. May 12th brought Lesser Yellowlegs.

Palm Warbler

Lincoln's Sparrow

Then, on May 14th, the weather changed, and the floodgates opened. Warblers! Thrushes! WARBLERS! I found my first  Yellow-throated Vireo and Scarlet Tanager for my neighbourhood list. The vireo in particular was quite awesome, as it completed my set of all the regularly occurring vireos in Ontario for my patch. In the evening, I found a Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow in my yard, a somewhat rare subspecies in this area of Ontario. I had made it my goal to find one that spring!

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Yellow-throated Vireo

Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow

I spent May 15th in Rondeau, the first day it was open to the public after being closed all spring. Although apparently it was a great day for birds in London, I am glad I spent it here!

I didn't seem to go out in the patch on May 16th, I assume it was because of rain. I remember hearing about the Kirtland's Warblers that had been found at Rondeau that day, but being quit bummed as I wouldn't be able to go down to see them! 

When my alarm went off on May 17th, I was hoping it was raining outside so I would have an excuse to go back to bed. I looked out my window, and found it dry. I debated about going back to bed anyways, but I reasoned that if I didn't go out, I wouldn't find anything. I was outside by 5:30am to begin my 10 minute walk to the place I started in the morning. I thought of all the rarities I could see, including Kirtland's Warbler, which was on my mind after the ones in Rondeau the day prior. When I arrived to the park, I began to regret my decision to go outside, as there were basically no birds. I had seen one warbler. As I was walking along, I heard a chip note, and saw a warbler at the top of a tree. I raised my binoculars and my jaw hit the ground. Now, I can't repeat here exactly what came out of my mouth, but bottom line, not only was it a patch bird, but my full out lifer Kirtland's Warbler. My observation lasted for no more than two minutes, and the bird wasn't very cooperative, but it was undoubtedly the highlight of my year.

Kirtland's Warbler

Oh, and I saw my first Cliff Swallows and Eastern Kingbird of the year that day too, but they are but a footnote...

That day was the last of my almost daily morning walks. I was feeling quite tired, and my other interests like bugs and plants were starting to get the best of me! I added six more species to my neighbourhood year list over the rest of May, bringing my total up to 124 species.

The summer months are often quiet, but I added a few more species here and there. My biggest highlight of the summer was a pair of Black Vultures on June 6th, a new neighborhood and Middlesex bird for me. I was out looking for dragonflies, so I didn't have a good camera lens or even my binoculars! Thankfully, I managed to get some record photos that managed to confirm the identification. 

Black Vultures

July came around, and with it some of the first southbound shorebirds. I was pretty excited to find that I had good shorebird habitat this year, however this excitement was short-lived, and with a period of heavy rain, it all flooded and was useless by early August, before the bulk of the "good" shorebirds would come through. I never had anything crazy, but Least Sandpiper and Lesser Yellowlegs were highlights.

Also during July, while out counting dragonflies, I found my first Marsh Wrens for the neighbourhood. 

At the end of August, I began once again to make near daily visits out to one of my favourite migrant traps. In short order I added Olive-sided Flycatcher, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and several warblers to my year list. I added one new patch bird, Black-billed Cuckoo. Purple Finches began to move through, a sign of things to come.

Olive-sided Flycatcher

I did a couple hawk watches in early September, with my best day topping 600 Broad-winged Hawks.

By late September, many of the neotropical passerines had passed through. I found some Wilson's Snipes, a species that I hadn't seen for a couple years in the neighborhood. After being strangely absent for awhile, the Green-winged Teals finally showed up.

Wilson's Snipe

Late September gave way to early October, and with that, Winter Wrens, American Pipits, and more ducks showed up. Pine Siskins arrived, and I finally saw some Greater Yellowlegs. Later on in the month, I did a lot of hawk watching, and scored a Red-shouldered Hawk. I never could get a Golden Eagle though!

Northern Pintail and Green-winged Teal

Early November came around. A highlight in the first few days was a Vesper Sparrow, a new neighbourhood bird. Number 160 for the year was a Common Redpoll on the same day, the first of many. By mid November, we were getting crossbills, and I had both Red Crossbill and White-winged Crossbill fly over my yard. I never could connect with an Evening Grosbeak, although someone else did spot some!

My last two new birds of the year came just a few days apart, Snow Bunting (November 16) and Rough-legged Hawk (November 23). Although I did go out some more here and there over the next month, the quiet of winter had settled in.

So there you have it, a short(ish) recap of some of the highlights of my year in my neighbourhood. I certainly wrote a lot (I have been plugging away at writing this post for three days!), but there was so much more I could have included! For an area that is mostly subdivision with only a few greenspaces, I think I did pretty good! Just goes to show what can be seen once you look for it!

Friday 15 January 2021

A Middlesex Biggish Year?

Up until last year, I never really wanted to limit myself to just Middlesex County. It seemed like a pretty boring place. I would look at the historical records and think to myself "the good old days are long behind us now". Then we had 2020, when all of a sudden the "good old days" were starting to happen again. I added over 20 species to my county list, a feat I thought would be impossible. Having such good birding in 2020, especially in the fall, lit a fire under me. I wanted to see what else I could turn up. 

And so, my initial plans at the start of 2021 of just trying to see some birds early on and then lay off morphed into a plan to try and see as many birds as I could in the span of one calendar year.

Some may call it a "big year", but I'm more going to call my little attempt a "biggish year". I'm not going for any record (which is like 247 or 248 by the way, set by Bill Lindley in 2020), I just want to have some fun. I know I'll be in the county full time until at least the end of June, so why not? After that, we'll have to see what goes on (I have hopes and dreams that take me out of Middlesex I wish to accomplish, but with the current state of the world, only time will tell how realistic they are!) Chances are I'll get in some birding in the latter half of the year as well.

It seems whenever someone wants to do a year listing attempt, they make up some codes, usually ranging one through six. These detail the likelihood one is to see a certain bird that year. I made up some of my own. They aren't perfect, but I think they'll work for my purposes.

Code 1 

These are the commoners. Just by birding, I am pretty much guaranteed to come across them at some point in the year. There are 129 species in this category, and includes things such as  Canada Goose, Killdeer, Red-tailed Hawk, Eastern Phoebe, Tree Swallow, Song Sparrow, and Yellow Warbler.

Code 2

These are the more uncommon birds that usually require special effort or to get somewhat lucky to stumble across them. They aren't necessarily rare, but I may only come across a few of them in the year. Most are probably guaranteed in a good year. There are 63 species in this category, which includes Horned Grebe, Virginia Rail, Great Black-backed Gull, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Fox Sparrow, and Canada Warbler. 

 Code 3

These are typically annual or almost annual birds, but there are usually only a few records of them each year in the county. Rarer breeders that are more restricted to where they breed, or are uncommon in the areas where they breed, are included here. There are 34 species in this category, including Trumpeter Swan, Ruffed Grouse, American Bittern, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Acadian Flycatcher.

Code 4

These are the rarities. They cannot be expected to be recorded annually. A few of these are irruptive species (winter finches), while others are genuine rarities that may stir up interest from the birding community, even outside of our local one. There are 49 species designated under this code, including Greater White-fronted Goose, Black Scoter, Eared Grebe, Ruddy Turnstone, Wilson's Phalarope, Sedge Wren, White-winged Crossbill, and Summer Tanager.

Code 5

These are the birds that would make my whole year if I saw one. These are the rarest of the rare, with less than five records since 1963 (which is the furthest back in the records I can go for most species, although some earlier dates are included in the spreadsheet). Birds that are also deemed to be highly improbable as a result of loss of habitat or a population decline (ie Western Meadowlark) are also under this code. There are 65 species in this category including Brant, Rufous Hummingbird, Yellow Rail, Marbled Godwit, Glossy Ibis, Mountain Bluebird, and Kirtland's Warbler. 

Code 6 and Introduced/Non-countable

Code 6 belongs to our extinct species, Passenger Pigeon. Two species, Northern Bobwhite and Gray Partridge are non-countable. An exception may be made for Ring-necked Pheasant, but only in certain circumstances may it be deemed "good enough".

For reference, in 2020 when I saw 224 species, the breakdown was this:

Code 1: 128

Code 2: 59 

Code 3: 21

Code 4: 13

Code 5: 3

It will be tough to beat! 

So, what's a good goal? It is hard to say right now! Some years, such as last years, the birding is great (which is what I hope happens again), and others, birders trying for a high year list struggle to break 200. I think we'll have to play it by ear, but in the event of a "good year", I think anything in the vicinity of 220 is respectable! 

This should be fun. Lets see what happens...

Wednesday 13 January 2021

Weekend Birding

 My birding around Middlesex County has continued. This past weekend I put in some more time picking up year birds. First thing on Saturday, I went to the Fanshawe Conservation Area (where else?)

The large number of geese continued, but I could only spot two Cackling Geese. Hopefully more goose species will be found here in the coming weeks. I also spotted one of the Northern Pintails.

As for the passerines, I found my first bluebirds of the year, which was nice. A big surprise was a Chipping Sparrow coming to one of the areas people feed birds. Despite almost daily coverage of this area by birders, new wintering birds continue to be found!

Eastern Bluebird

My aunt and I went down to southwest Middlesex in the afternoon in search of raptors, in particular Golden Eagle and Red-shouldered Hawk. First was Shield Siding Road, where the hawk had been seen a couple weeks prior. No luck here however.

Argyll Drive was also pretty quiet. We spotted a suspicious eagle in the distance, but it disappeared before being identified.

We were driving down Watterworth Road, my tire pressure warning went off. I pulled over to investigate and found exactly what I was hoping it wasn't: my front tire was quickly losing air. I put my finger over the hole to try and save what I could (turned out we didn't have a tire plug kit, so it didn't end up mattering!) Funny enough, as I had my finger on the tire, an immature Golden Eagle flew over! At least we got our target bird!

Thanks to the assistance of a passing motorist, we managed to change the tire, but not without difficulty! The soft shoulder was certainly not kind to us. By any means, the birding was over for the day, and it was time to head back home.

The next day, I went for a long walk.(~11km) along the Thames River, starting at Springbank Park.

I spent nearly an hour sorting through a redpoll flock, but all I could find were Commons and a few tweener polls.

One of my intriguing redpolls. I left it as Hoary/Common. Who knows, they're probably the same species anyways (or at least, Acanthis flammea flammea and Acanthis hornemanni exilipes are). It would probably be easy to dismiss it as a regular old Common, but it stood out to me as a bit different. I'm always looking for those more "cryptic" Hoaries.

There haven't been a ton of ducks along the river this winter. My three year birds from the walk were all ducks, Bufflehead (basically absent from Middlesex this winter so far), Ring-necked Duck (unusual wintering bird), and a surprise Red-breasted Merganser.

On Monday morning, I got a text that a Harlequin Duck had been found on the Thames on the 9th. The finder was concerned for the wellbeing of the bird, so a location was not given. After some detective work, myself and a few other area birders were reasonably confident where the bird was, so on Tuesday morning, I went out to try and find it.

After searching for a couple hours, I finally managed to locate it. 

It eventually got up and went to feed and swim in the rapids.

Great looking bird, my second for Middlesex. The last one was 2016, and the last Harlequin I had seen period back back in 2018 in Hamilton. It was nice to catch up with one again.

That's all for now. Stay safe out there.

Saturday 2 January 2021

New Year, New List

When the clock struck 12 on New Year's Eve, we welcomed a new year, and with that, new lists. While I don't really have any intentions of a "big year", I thought it would be fun to try and tick off as many species as possible for my Middlesex year list in the first little bit of the year. I'm still riding the high of the exceptional birding in 2020, so we'll see how long my enthusiasm lasts. Probably until the sedges start to grow again.

I started off the day before sunrise in my neighborhood. I tried to get a screech-owl in one of the ravines, but no luck. I did have one here last March for a bit, but it was probably just a transient individual. My first bird of the new year was a Mallard. Better than how I started 2020, with a House Sparrow!

I picked up Northern Cardinal, Dark-eyed Junco, and Mourning Dove in short succession, then went to the wetland, where I had my first finch of the year, a Common Redpoll. It took a little bit of work to dig one up, but I eventually got my target, Swamp Sparrow. I picked up another 20 or so species as well.

Next, I went to Fanshawe Conservation Area, a favourite haunt in the last couple months of 2020. I was disappointed to find that the lake was largely frozen over, so there wasn't the large concentration of ducks as I had a couple days prior. I scoped the geese at the north end, and came up with three Cackling Geese, not a bad species to get in January. 

Overall, I found it to be much quieter than I had been expecting, but there were still a few quality birds to be had. While in the campground, I heard a couple soft "chuts", and was surprised to see a flock of 15 White-winged Crossbills fly over. These were the first crossbills I had seen since November 24th, so I thought they had all moved through. I guess we are getting the second wave.

I was told about a Fox Sparrow coming to some seed, but after waiting around for a bit, it was a no show, so I continued on my way. I checked another area which is a popular spot for feeding birds, and often gets some good wintering sparrows, and was rewarded with an immature White-crowned Sparrow, and a White-throated Sparrow. 

A bit later in the afternoon, I went to the very northern part of the lake, where the large numbers of Mallards that I had missed were apparently hanging out. Here I picked up Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, and Common Goldeneye. I also had another flock of White-winged Crossbills fly over, this one totaling 30 individuals! The previous high count for Middlesex this past season was eight, so that was pretty exciting! 

Down near Komoka, I tried for the reported Hoary Redpoll, but found no redpolls at all where they had been seen. I still have a couple months to try and find one I figure, so not a big deal! The quarry ponds in the area were frozen over, much to my disappointment, but at least the Mute Swans could be seen resting on the ice.

Out Strathroy way, we found three Snowy Owls, two of which were quite close on the hydro poles. They are always a highlight. A Northern Flicker flew by as well, which was a bit unexpected.

The weather was really turning at this point, but since I was in the area, I checked in at the sewage lagoons, and found the Common Yellowthroat that had been there since at least December. A bit of an odd wintering bird for this area. I also had a Sharp-shinned Hawk, which was my last new bird of the day.

My year list at the end of January 1st was a respectable 50 species.

Today, I went out in the morning in the neighbourhood in hopes of Carolina Wren and Cooper's Hawk, but came up empty handed. It was then back out to Fanshawe, where I found the lake to be largely ice free in the north end. I spent the better part of an hour counting the waterfowl, and came up with 1300 Canada Geese, 960 Mallards, 70 American Black Ducks, 34 Common Mergansers, a few Hooded Mergansers and goldeneye, as well as the wigeon. I also had an amazing 20 Cackling Geese. 

Just the usual suspects on the remainder of my walk, and I was getting worried I wouldn't see a single year bird that day! A fly over Rough-legged Hawk was a nice surprise, a new bird for my modest Fanshawe list. I stopped by the Fox Sparrow spot, and thankfully had it come right in to my pishing.

As I was crossing the dam, I spied a Merlin sitting in the distance, proving to be my only other year bird of the day. 

A fun couple days of birding, looking forward to what is still to come!

Happy New Year!