Monday, 23 January 2017

Big Year mid-January summary: back at home for a little while!

After returning from my Long Point - Toronto - Niagara - Ottawa - Algonquin trip, I returned home to relax for just over a week. I caught up with some local winter specialties, as well as some fairly common species that I had not yet seen in my first week. I also found some great photo ops with the more common species - something I will not be able to do once migration gets rolling! I am deliberately not bothering with looking for the most common species, as I know that I will come across them many times through the year. To chase the common species will just drain my time, energy, and gasoline.
This is a Red-tailed Hawk - one of my favourite common species in Ontario. It was not new for
my Big Year, but was still very exciting to photograph from the passenger seat of a friend's car!
This is an immature Red-tailed Hawk in flight.

The highlight of the trip home was a bit expected, but still a somewhat surprising 'self-find' that I got to share with a local friend. Before leaving for home I posted an inquiry on our local bird alert that I help moderate, asking if anyone knows if a massive flock of blackbirds that was around in December is still present in Essex County, or any other massive flocks of blackbirds for that matter. I received a number of friendly and positive replies, but they all suggested that the flock has moved on because a large pile of corn that had attracted them had been cleaned up and moved out of the area. Darn, there was a female Yellow-headed Blackbird hanging around in that flock. That's a species that I know I can see in the spring and early summer when a small number of them show up in the marshes around Lake St. Clair to breed, but I would prefer to not need to spend a day in prime spring birding season to go there to see them for my Big Year 2017.
Brown-headed Cowbirds and starlings, anyone? This photo represents approximately 1 or 2% of each
of the massive flocks we've been seeing at grain storage yards in Essex County this winter!
First, in case readers are interested, I want to mention our local bird alert email service, found at

WEPbirds (Windsor-Essex-Pelee Birds) is a google group created by my good friend Kory Renaud and moderated by Jeremy Hatt, Kory, and I. We use this site to post uncommon and rare bird sightings, and trip lists, and also welcome discussions and questions so the local birding community can connect and grow with each other. If you enjoy birds in southwestern Ontario you may find WEPbirds rather interesting! Also, Kory and his great family run a couple of very cool blogs that can be found at:

Now back to my story! I asked my friend Kit if he wanted to do some birding in the Leamington area on January 8, and he was already out this way so we met up after lunch and hit the backroads. We first tried a yard with bird feeders near a grain storage area in Staples where I had seen a Yellow-headed Blackbird a couple of years ago. There were probably 500-1000 House Sparrows there - so many in fact that I might go back there this winter to see if I can turn up anything rare! Aside from the House Sparrows and a few European Starlings, Cardinals, and Dark-eyed Juncos there were virtually no other birds at these feeders on this visit. We saw a couple of Cooper's Hawks taking turns attempting to hunt this large flock - always a treat to see.
This is a photo of an immature Cooper's Hawk similar to the ones I
mentioned above, also found hunting in Essex County this winter.
We continued on our way, hoping with little faith that we would find a pile of corn at the Agris storage compound. After all, this location belongs to the same company as the one I mentioned before, whose corn had been cleaned up and taken away. We pulled up to find close to ten thousand blackbirds and starlings feeding on a corn pile that could have filled a swimming pool!! The approximate proportions of this flock, estimated very quickly and roughly, were as follows:
  • Brown-headed Cowbirds - about 7000 individuals 
  • European Starlings - about 1000
  • House Sparrows - about 100 
  • Red-winged Blackbirds - about 50
  • Common Grackle - 10
  • Yellow-headed Blackbird!!! - **1**
I was very satisfied with the photos I captured of the Yellow-headed Blackbird on my second visit!
It took a few tries to get a few decent photos of the Yellow-headed Blackbird in flight, but there
were ample opportunities because of how restless the flock was with so many raptors around!
We found what we were looking for - a Yellow-headed Blackbird! Kit spotted it first when the flock picked up and all flew at once, and once they settled down we managed to spot and photograph it on the ground. I went back about a week later with Chris Gaffan and we re-found the Yellow-headed Blackbird, a new species on Chris's life list, and I captured much better photos of it than when Kit and I first spotted it. Also new for my year list, though not important to get out of the way early, was a Merlin terrorizing the blackbird flock and a nearby Red-tailed Hawk. Merlin falcons are always a treat to watch, especially when they interact with other birds!
This is the Merlin that was bombing on the blackbird flock repeatedly during our
second visit. This fellow really shook things up while we studied the flock!
I went on a bit of a road trip to Frontenac County, with a couple of stops along the way, including an unsuccessful attempt at seeing a Western Meadowlark in Oxford County. I did see a couple of new species for my Big Year, but unfortunately they were American Goldfinch - a species that I was trying to avoid seeing until the month of February just for fun - and a Sharp-shinned Hawk that was clearly trying to keep the meadowlark away from its usual feeders!

That sums up my week or two of birding spent (mostly) at home. My next trip should be pretty exciting and contain a bit more travelling than necessary during my Ontario Big Year. Thanks for reading!



  1. Facebook group: Ontario Rare Bird Alert

    Seems the rare bird sightings are spread out over a bunch of sites.

    1. Hi Brent,

      I'm not sure if this comment is meant to be criticism or not, or how it pertains to what I wrote in this blog post whatsoever, but regarding my good friend Lev's creation of the Facebook group for Ontario Rare Bird Alert, quite a few 'hardcore' or competitive birders who are interested in rarities in Ontario have been looking for a outlet that specifically addresses the status and presence of rare birds in Ontario, which the Ontbirds bird alert does not. Most of my friends and I love the Ontbirds service and the work that Mark Cranford does to maintain it, but it is a general bird sightings email service, and certain things like posting questions and repetitive status updates about rarities is a bit taboo in that outlet. Those factors, combined with the facts that every bird mentioned on that page has been posted to ontbirds listserv at some point anyway, that many (not to be confused with 'most') birders in Ontario who use Facebook do not subscribe to Ontbirds for the sake of either not knowing how or not wanting to receive as many as dozens of emails per day about bird activity in Ontario, that many other regions in North America (including the entire ABA) use a similar two or three part system, and that many birders seem to be enjoying the presence of this new Facebook group. There was a demand for it from many angles, so someone stepped up to the plate and created it, and I and many others are pretty happy about its creation and mission.

      I hope that clarifies the multiple outlets for rare birds. If you're not looking for real-time updates and the ability to ask questions without sending private emails, you probably aren't missing too much.

      Good birding!

    2. It was a dumb post. Sorry. My point was that in order to get the full picture lots of sources have to be checked out. Pretty obvious and not much of an inconvenience really.

      In any case, looks like your year is coming along well. Yellow-headed Blackbird. Nice! In my neck of the woods, the most interesting bird is a Brown-Headed Cowbird between Calander and Nipissing that persistently perches on the back of a horse. A winter rarity for the Nipissing District but not for Ontario.

  2. Thanks for mentioning Good luck and hope you're having fun out there!

  3. Your year is off to a great start! Good luck and thanks for the mention ;)

  4. Great post, Jeremy. I enjoyed reading it!

    You are doing very well. I've reached 50 species, but I'm sort of stuck for now.