Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Big Year Summary - Week 1

It's been over a week now since the start of 2017, and I've made some serious progress toward my Ontario birding Big Year! I spent the first week of the year touring much of Southern Ontario in an attempt to see any of the province's currently known rarities. It worked out, to say the least!
Smith's Longspur near Long Point was a great species to get out of the way on day one of my 2017 Ontario Big Year!
I was fortunate to capture this photo of the Smith's Longspur near Long Point in flight.
I started New Year's Day with an early morning trip to Long Point in Norfolk County. On the way, my first five species of the year included House Sparrow, European Starling, American Kestrel, American Crow, and Red-tailed Hawk. I got to Long Point by mid-morning and had a great time looking at the very rare (for Southern Ontario) Smith's Longspur, as well as a nice flight of over 700 Sandhill Cranes. From there I hit Toronto to successfully check out a rare Lark Sparrow, and met up with Josh Vandermeulen and Henrique Pacheco. We stopped to see a King Eider in Burlington before making it to Niagara for sunset. We stayed at Josh and Laura's house in Niagara Falls. It was great to spend the first couple days of the year with some great friends! By the end of January 1, my Ontario year list reached 37 species.
These Sandhill Cranes represent less than 10% of the total flock near Long Point!
Toronto's rare Lark Sparrow was a great early winter highlight in my Big Year.
The three of us birded together for part of the morning of day 2 before Josh had to leave for some non-birding plans he had made days earlier, and Henrique and I birded Niagara for the rest of the day. With some help from Richard, Mourad, and two other Josh's we had great looks and captures some readily identifiable photos of a known Black-headed Gull at the Whirlpool. Three of the four guys I mentioned in my last sentence headed to the upper river above the falls, where they felt that they were likely looking at the Slaty-backed Gull (big rarity!) that a friend named Willie had found the previous day on the US side. The trouble is it was sitting on the US side again, so when Henrique and I arrived we digiscoped (cell phone photo through our telescopes) it and waited. Eventually it lifted off, flying toward and eventually over the middle of the control gate construct on the Ontario side of the river!! I managed to capture some photos of it in flight showing just enough detail to be pretty confident of what it was. Between the flight and perched photos, as well as some backing from Amar Ayyash, one of North America's foremost gull experts, we were comfortable labelling it as a/the Slaty-backed Gull! We also spotted a number of other uncommon species like Thayer's, Iceland, and Glaucous Gulls. By the end of January 2 I had identified 58 species in the province since the year began only a few dozen hours prior.
Once we finally spotted this Black-headed Gull at Niagara Falls, it was tough to lose track of it!
This was our first view of the Slaty-backed Gull (the right side dark-mantled gull) at Niagara Falls. I have a subconscious reflex to capture a digiscope photo of distant rarities, and am very glad I do, because the flight photos of this were not quite enough to properly identify it without this photo! Believe it or not, this bird was probably over 1km away in this photo.
This photo shows my first ever Slaty-backed Gull flying away at Niagara Falls, but it was flying over Ontario water! This made it officially countable for us in Ontario.
The third day of the year was pretty lacklustre, mostly due to the borderline freezing temperature and frequent rain. The highlight of this day was probably a Pine Warbler that has been in Dufferin Islands Park for quite some time. That afternoon I brought Henrique back to Toronto and headed northeast to Ottawa, sleeping in a truck stop parking lot in my comfortable 'camper' in disguise as an SUV.
This Pine Warbler at Dufferin Islands Park in Niagara Falls is probably wishing it went a bit further south this winter, although it has survived some pretty extreme conditions!
It's too bad that this female Mandarin Duck is not countable as a wild bird species in Ontario... It's also too bad that she's not a male (males are insanely colourful), although she's still very pretty!
I spent a considerable amount of time on days four and five looking for Gray Partridge - my main target in Eastern Ontario at this point - in the outskirts of Ottawa. I did not find any on these days but had some great highlights, including a Snowy Owl, a Harlequin Duck that's been known about on the Rideau River, and a Barrow's Goldeneye well within the Ontario side of the Ottawa River. That evening I started on my way home but decided to call my friend Bruce DiLabio, a master of Ottawa area birding, to ask for more specific information to help find the partridges. I spent the night at my friends Victor and Dawn's house, who are terrific hosts and happen to live only a few minutes from the Gray Partridge location.
This somewhat rare Harlequin Duck sure caught my eye at the Rideau River!
I could not get a photo of this male Barrow's Goldeneye - another somewhat rare duck species - as it swam in the turbulent Ottawa River, so I was pretty lucky to spot and photograph it in flight!
Early in the morning on day six I headed back to that spot again, this time charged up with Bruce's additional information. Much to my surprise, I found a group of at least 8 Gray Partridges about five minutes into the search! Bruce's info really saved me there! After watching a group of owl baiters awkwardly try to lure a Snowy Owl closer to their cameras by dropping live mice on the snow, I figured it was time to continue on my way. I headed north to East Gate of Algonquin Provincial Park, where I stopped for a longer than expected birding detour in the small town of Wilno, Renfrew County, to check out some Bohemian Waxwings that flew across the road in front of my car. I did not end up seeing them again, but this detour led me to a flock of at least 50 Common Redpolls! For only a moment I caught a glimpse of a candidate for Hoary Redpoll (the whiter coloured northern counterpart of Common Redpoll), but the whole flock flew away just as I noticed it... I'm sure I'll cross paths with Hoary Redpolls at least a couple of times this year, so it's no big deal. I ended up coming across a couple (of humans) whose van had slid partially off the road and it felt great to be able to help them get it unstuck. This of course meant that my time was very limited in Algonquin, as I wanted to head home that night. Missing Algonquin's northern specialties was not a big deal, as I'll have ample opportunity to see all of those species this year.
I almost missed out on Gray Partridge and found these on my third day searching for them in Ottawa!
The rural areas of Eastern Ontario provide great photography opportunities for winter songbirds like Snow Buntings.
The ride home was fun, with plenty of loud music to assure that I would not get tired. I did not get tired, and am recently developing a bit of a taste for country music while on the road! By the end of the day on January 6 my year list was up to 72 species including all of Ontario's current rarities!

Stay tuned for more birding excitement. Thanks for reading and good luck birding!


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