Thursday, 8 February 2018

Big Year 2017 - Owls, Geese, and Blackbirds! January part 2

After my first awesome week-long Big Year trip, I returned home to relax for just over a week. I caught up with some local winter specialties, as well as some common species that I had not seen yet. I found some great photo ops and avoided going out of my way for the most common species, knowing that I would come across them many times through the year. To chase the very expected common species would just drain my time, energy, and gasoline.
This photo effectively represents what we are up against when we are lucky enough to find a massive flock of blackbirds at the grain storage compounds. Note the pile of corn in the left corner of the frame, and more importantly the black cloud flying between the two mostly black-covered roofs… Those are all blackbirds!
This trip's highlight bird was somewhat expected, but still a bit of a surprising "self-found" rarity that I got to share with a local friend. I had posted a message to www.wepbirds.com (Windsor-Essex-Pelee Birds is our local bird alert service run by Kory Renaud, Jeremy Hatt, and me) on January 7 2017, asking if any locals knew if there was a certain massive blackbird flock still present near Kingsville. I received a bunch of friendly replies, unfortunately suggesting that the flock has likely moved on... Naturally, I did what any over-ambitious competitive birder would do: called a friend and headed out anyway to a location that I had a good feeling about!
This is a Merlin, a tiny falcon that we enjoyed watching as it hunted blackbirds, sparrows, and pigeons. We did not enjoy when it put the whole flock back up in the air though!
Kit McCann and I headed to an Agris Co Op grain storage compound without getting our hopes up too high, and we were not disappointed! We found an outdoor corn pile that could have filled a swimming pool, feeding about 7000 Brown-headed Cowbirds, 1000 European Starlings, some Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, and one Yellow-headed Blackbird!! I was proud of Kit to have spotted it before I did, seeing as he was pretty new at birding at the time. It was also nice refinding it again a few days later with Chris Gaffan, one of my closest friends since we were kids, who had never seen a Yellow-headed Blackbird until that day.
Immature male Yellow-headed Blackbird in Comber, Essex County. This was exactly what Kit McCann and I were hoping to find here!
This photo makes the Yellow-headed Blackbird seem easy enough to spot, but imagine zooming out to the whole group shown in the first photo of this blog post!
The following few days were nice and somewhat relaxing. I focused on local sites like Point Pelee, my yard's bird feeders, and Jack Miner Bird Sanctuary in Kingsville where I saw my first-of-year Cackling and Greater White-fronted Geese. I also spent some time enjoying overwintering Short-eared Owls at an undisclosed location in Essex County.
Greater White-fronted Geese among Canada Geese at Jack Miner Bird Sanctuary near Kingsville, Essex County. Sightings of this almost-rare goose species seem to be rising dramatically in recent years in Southern Ontario, but I was glad to get them out of the way early!


Cackling Goose among Canada Geese at Jack Miner Bird Sanctuary. Yeah, the Cackling Goose is the cute tiny one pointing to the left near the centre of the photo that otherwise looks much like its larger relatives!
In mid January I visited a private suburban residence that had been astonishingly graced by a Barn Owl about a month before that! A blurry but readily identifiable photo was posted to Facebook in December 2016, and when I caught wind of it I did what I needed to do to get in touch with that property's owners, consequently leading to a visit to their house. They showed me the pellets still sitting under its favourite perch, which still too had the mystical owl's poop dried down its sides! This was almost too much stimulation for one hardcore birder to cope with, but knowing that they had not seen it in weeks I rightfully did not expect to refind it.
Barn Owl pellets (the grey blobs in the left half of the image) and Barn Owl poop (on the tree bark on the right half of the image). What more do I need to say under this one? It was painful but it was equally very exciting to stand in a place where a Barn Owl recently called home.
I followed my week at home with a trip to Frontenac County, hoping to refind Southern Ontario's first Great Gray Owl sighting of the year. I stopped at a private residence in Oxford County, aiming to see a Western Meadowlark that had been hanging around, which I did not see. On my way east I also stopped at a secret location that Dan MacNeal had contacted me about earlier in the day. Luck was on my side with timing once again! I happily saw the Long-eared Owl and headed on my way to Frontenac County, where I did not see any Great Gray Owls!
Long-eared Owl in Guelph area. This would end up being the only Long-eared Owl I saw throughout my 2017 Big Year. Thanks a bunch to Dan MacNeal for leading me to this sighting!
**Please do not bother anyone mentioned in my blogs about finding owls. Most of these owl situations were one-time instances for a very special purpose or these visits would not have happened at all. Owls are sacred to conservationists and are worth keeping private. If you are a deserving conservationist and are eager to see owls, I promise your time will come if you are patient.**

By January 18th I had tallied 90 species toward my Big Year. More importantly, five of these were notable rarities and about ten of these were notably uncommon or tricky species, which was a great pace to have started with. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for a story about a rather unconventional birding outing during an Ontario Big Year!

All the best,
Jere

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