Friday 26 January 2018

Big Year 2017 - January part 1: Hot Out of the Starting Gate!

My first month or two of 2017 was already somewhat documented in blog posts from last year, but since I aim to blog about the whole year, I am re-blogging these first few weeks with some photos and an actual computer in front of me rather than my phone this time…
Sandhill Cranes hanging out near Long Point for the winter. A certain rarity (seen below) was tricky to see so we enjoyed hundreds of cranes while we waited.
‘Day one’ of 2017 went as well as I had hoped it would! I knew the select birds and locations I needed to visit on January 1st, and left home for Norfolk County before sunrise to successfully see a long staying mega-rare Smith’s Longspur that had been found near Long Point by a few friends in December. This species does breed in Ontario but only at its extreme northern edge, so this was a very lucky start to the year! I headed to Toronto from there with my mind on a stakeout Lark Sparrow.
Smith’s Longspur, a very welcome and relatively unexpected bird on my 2017 list! This species breeds in limited numbers on Ontario’s Hudson Bay coast, but a trip to see them would have likely cost me well over $2000.
I met up with my good friends Josh Vandermeulen and Henrique Pacheco in Toronto, where we promptly refound and enjoyed the Lark Sparrow in great light. We stopped in Burlington to see a female (Queen?) King Eider on our way to Niagara-on-the-Lake, where we hoped to spot the long-staying Black-headed Gull among Bonaparte’s Gulls flying along the river to go roost for the night - unsuccessful! At this point it was dark out so we headed to Josh’s house for the night. My Big Year tally at the end of January 1 was 36 species - right around what I expected!
Lark Sparrow in Toronto. This species is not quite classified a provincial level rarity but it is still pretty rare... and pretty too!
The next morning, January 2nd, we started at the Whirlpool at Niagara Falls, where our friends Richard Poort, Mourad Jabra, and Josh Nieuwenhuis had just refound the previously mentioned Black-headed Gull! After a bit of trouble due to a lack of stationary landmarks in the turbulent water, Henrique and I got on it, unfortunately after Josh V. had to leave. The other three had already left to go scan gulls above the falls, and just before we arrived they spotted what they believed to likely be the Slaty-backed Gull that had been found in the same location on the US side of the river by Willie D’Anna the day before. We studied it and photographed it distantly before it took off, flying over the Canadian control gates and out of sight! Upon review of our distant photos both before and after it entered Ontario’s airspace, and double-checking with gull guru Amar Ayyash, we were certain that this was in fact that same Slaty-backed Gull! This species was new to my world life list, and I was pleased to hear that many other Ontario birders including Josh were able to catch up with this bird on days that followed. I ended my second day at 59 species!
Black-headed Gull flying over the Whirlpool at Niagara Falls. I went on to see another one or two through the year, but this was still a pretty rare one to get out of the way early!
January 3rd was a bit dull as far as Big Year birding goes, but some days will be slower and that is okay! I added a handful of species to my year list, dropped off Henrique at his house in Toronto, and headed east for a cozy sleep in my truck before birding in Ottawa.

January 4th was an incredibly exciting day in my Big Year! It started with a mindless and unsuccessful search in rural roads outside of Ottawa for Gray Partridge, though tundra species like Snowy Owls and Snow Buntings kept me entertained. In the afternoon I called my friend Jon Ruddy, one of Ottawa’s top young birders, to see if he had any specific directions for finding Gray Partridges, and to my surprise he said he was just thinking of calling me to see where in the province I was! Jon had just been notified of a Boreal Owl sighting the previous evening at a pretty secret location due to conservation concerns. He was willing to trust me with that info, and I met up with Ottawa birder Chris Traynor to search. I spotted a Northern Saw-whet Owl in the process, and we refound the Boreal Owl just before dark!! This was another new addition to my world life list, and needless to say, I was very happy that I had a hard time finding the partridges on this day haha.
Boreal Owl and Northern Saw-whet Owl, not 100m apart, in Eastern Ontario. Many thanks to Jon Ruddy for his magic powers of finding or hearing about great birds at least a few of the times I was already in Eastern Ontario! Special thanks to Chris Traynor too for giving me a hand tracking down the meaner looking one!
**Please do not bother these guys about finding owls. This was a one-time thing from a whole year ago and we were very lucky to have received news of a same-day sighting from an anonymous birder or this would not have happened. 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.**
Chris Traynor and I later on in the year at Britannia Park Pier, a very popular birding spot in Ottawa. Chris is one of many great people I had a chance to make friends with across Ontario during my Big Year!
The fifth day of January consisted of another unsuccessful search for Gray Partridge, but also included successfully chasing a Harlequin Duck and a Barrow’s Goldeneye duck in Ottawa. I called my good friend Bruce Di Labio, who gave me very specific and current directions for the partridges, and also made a very heart-felt and personal commitment to be there to help me with anything I may need help with through the year-long journey I was beginning. My friends Victor Dillabaugh and his wife Dawn very generously invited me to stay at their place right near the spot I would be birding in the morning.
Harlequin Duck and Barrow’s Goldeneye, two fairly rare duck species in our province. Both were seen in the same afternoon on rivers within our nation’s capital of Ottawa.
January 6th was a great day too, as Bruce’s instructions got my eyes on Gray Partridges within about five minutes of searching! I got out of that area in a hurry after enjoying the partridges as this is a spot where goofy ‘owl baiters’ were actively luring a Snowy Owl with live pet store mice for photos - I will not get too into why that act is embarrassingly petty but I'm sure you can do the math. I took the scenic route home, driving through Renfrew County and Algonquin Provincial Park before heading home. I crossed paths with a few boreal specialty birds in that area and a few pretty cool people. By the first hours of January 7th I was back home to rest with 73 bird species out of the way toward my Big Year.
A few of the small covey of Gray Partridges that were seriously within metres of where Bruce Di Labio, the master of Ottawa area birding, described. Speaking of birding magicians, this guy might as well have pulled bird-rabbits out of hats when I needed a rare bird to go see!
The first week of the year was overall a great and lucky start, and a great time with excellent company! I was already glad that I was following through with my Big Year plans.

Thanks for reading, and all the best to you!


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