Sunday, January 26, 2014

Let the games...begin!

Most of my posts this month were pre-written as I was busy preparing for a long adventure. Long story short, I have been wanting to go to the tropics for a long time (since before I got back from Costa Rica in 2006), and since I had no plans for this winter I figured it would be the time to do it. So, I started scheming, one thing led to another, and here I am, on my way to the tropics. Unfortunately since it was pretty short notice I failed to get more people to join me, and lost out on some opportunities while waiting to hear back, hoping someone would join! It is looking like this will all work out though - even if it is a bit more expensive than I originally bargained for.

Anyway, here's the basic route:

(image from Google Maps)

You'll notice there is a straight line between Guatemala City and San Jose - my original plan was to go a bit earlier and take the bus through the three other countries, making a stop in Nicaragua to pick up some dry-forest species and an extra endemic, but I ended up being short on time and so opted to skip them. Some day I will get to Honduras and Nicaragua (and maybe El Salvador) but for now the other 5 countries will have to suffice! My original plan was to copy (with a few changes) the route that Ethan Kistler et al. did last winter through the Yucatan, Belize and northern Guatemala. It turned out that Josh was planning a trip to Panama starting a little over a week after I was planning on ending my trip and had an extra space, so I decided I would join him and fill in the gap with some Costa Rica birding.

I am mainly hoping to see a good chunk of the regional endemics in the various places I will end up, but obviously a lot of the more common birds will also be lifers since this is only my second visit to the region! I still don't feel completely prepared (especially for the songs), but I guess the only real test is to go there and find out right? Anyway, I probably won't be posting on the blog for quite some time as internet access will be spotty (and I am leaving my computer here) but if I get a chance I will post an update or two. In the meantime, have a look at some of the locations where I will be birding! All times listed include travel days

Part 1 - 15.5 days in the north with Janice Chard
Rio Lagartos
Isla Cozumel
Camino Vigia Chico
Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary
Mountain Pine Ridge
Los Tarrales
covering the dry scrub of the northern Yucatan, the humid broadleaf forests of Belize and Tikal, the highland pines in Belize and the cloud forests in Guatemala

Part 2 - 9.5 days in Costa Rica on my own
Virgen del Socorro
Braulio Carillo
Cerro de la Muerte and the adjacent highlands
Osa Peninsula
covering the Caribbean foothills and lowlands, the central highlands and paramo and the South Pacific lowlands

Part 3 - 21 days in Panama with Josh V, Steve Pike and maybe some other people for various parts!
Chiriqui highlands
Cerro Santiago
Altos del Maria
El Valle de Anton
El Cope
Darien (El Real, Rancho Frio, Cerro Pirre)
covering pretty much the whole country with a few notable exceptions due to time constraints!

Here is a shot of what I am taking - not in this pic are my cell phone, passport and toiletry stuff+sunscreen and bugspray.

(Solo lightweight tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, binoculars, DSLR+lens+charger+memory cards, field guide (birds of Central America by van Perlo), clothes (merino T-shirt, quick-dry fishing T-shirt, 2 pairs of quick-dry pants, merino underarmour, lightweight longsleeve, lightweight fleece, rain jacket, socks+underwear), umbrella, pack towel, Lifestraw water filter, notebooks, iPod+mini speaker, headlamp+extra batteries, car GPS with preloaded maps from Open Street Maps, glasses and sunglasses and some protein bars)

This all more or less fits into a travel backpack (45L) and a dry bag (13L) - total weight of about 30lbs. The heaviest single item on this list is my camera gear...I debated leaving it behind but decided that wasn't an option!

Assuming everything goes well I will be back in mid-March to post a summary - wish me luck!

PS - not sure if anyone noticed but I put up a little gadget on the right-hand side of the page to track my year list. My goal of 779 species in the AOU this year would match my current AOU life list. I think it is going to be a tough goal to achieve but it all depends on how well this trip goes! Depending what else happens this year I may update it with a new challenge but we'll just have to wait and see on that one.

Thursday, January 23, 2014


Ok, so I forgot I had to post these and my last post wasn't the last BP-themed one - oh well.

My other 'lifer' on the island was Ipswich Sparrow - currently recognized as a subspecies of Savannah Sparrow and probably not a good candidate for a split, but I like subspecies so it gets it's own post! I was actually pretty excited to try to find some of these guys while I was on the island, and managed to find my first one on September 3 while out on census during a bad-weather day. We had great close-up looks at this individual but it wasn't until a little over a month later that the real show began. From October 8-November 3 we saw Ipswich Sparrows at least a few days per week and ended the season with 90 sightings (some likely involving the same individuals) and a single-day high count of 14 on November 2. Below are two of my favourite photos of them!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Southern Ontario meanderings

Back on January 10 I made my way down south, to visit friends I hadn't seen since last April/May and to pick up some birds for the year. I had success with both endeavours, although I think I would've needed about a week to do everything I wanted to! Oh well...

Friday - long drive down to Guelph to visit the old house, stayed over at Brett and Erika's where we ended up not going to bed till 3AM! Well at least Brett and I...Erika passed out well before I got there.

Saturday - up 'early' and after getting our stuff together we spent the afternoon birding with Barb in Hamilton. It was a rainy and foggy kind of day so we didn't see a whole lot (by Hamilton standards) but I did nail down a few target species such as Long-eared Owl, King Eider and about 28 other year birds. After a nice dinner I spent the night at Brandon's catching up (but not on sleep!).

Sunday - up early again and once Brett and Erika arrived we were off to Niagara! The river was actually pretty slow for this time of year (other than the masses of ducks in Fort Erie - where were all the gulls???) but there is always stuff to see. See Brandon's blog for a rundown of our sightings since he decided to put up all of our eBird lists! haha. Highlights were two Thayer's Gulls at Adam Beck in amongst the numerous Kumlien's and a total of 9(!) Black Vultures at Queenston. Since we had pretty well scoured the river and come up empty in terms of rarities, Brandon and I decided to cut our losses and head back to Hamilton while there was still some light. This proved to be a good strategy as we got to the lift bridge with perfect evening light to view a Snowy Owl being harassed by gulls, 3 King Eiders including a 1st-winter male that swam right up to us and the usual hordes of diving ducks. Then we did a quick check at Windemere Basin but came up empty on our targets before heading back to Brandon's for the night.

Monday - did some last-minute target birding around Hamilton. I had success with most of my targets, picking up Black Scoter at Millen Rd (plus 2 King Eiders at Brandon's condo), Black-crowned Night-Heron at Windemere, did some duck photography at the lift bridge and finally went to LaSalle Marina. I missed the Eastern Screech-Owl that roosts in the parking lot but did get Trumpeter Swan (a little over 200 of them) and 2 cooperative Carolina Wrens. Then it was back to Guelph for a quick MarioKart session before driving up to Sudbury to spend the night at my grandparents' house. It was a pretty uneventful 4 hours other than a Moose eating a tree about 15 feet off the side of the highway somewhere between Parry Sound and Sudbury!

Tuesday - I had plans to search for the Gyrfalcons this morning (made on the Thursday before I left), and it turned out that Brett and Barb had teamed up with Amanda Guercio for a bit of northern birding and had the same idea as me! So we planned on meeting at Kelly Lake for 8:30 to search for these mythical beasts. I was a few minutes late in heading out the door but this proved to be a bonus. Just as I was getting on Highway 17 I noticed a largish gray bird flying parallel to the highway about 300-400m south of me. I immediately pulled over and grabbed my bins - holy $#*& that's the Gyrfalcon!!! Luckily it landed on a power pole, and after a quick call to Barb I got the scope on it and managed a few shots with my phone. Brett, Barb and Amanda pulled up and each got a quick scope view before the bird decided it was time to go and headed off toward the lake. We spent a little over an hour searching for it (and hoping for the white-morph as well) with no luck and decided to call it quits as we all had more driving to do before the day was out. After saying goodbye I made my way back to the Sault, checking out some back roads and hoping to find a Hawk-Owl with no luck (see previous posts for comments on this species). The Gyrfalcon was only the second one I've ever seen, with the first also being a gray-morph back in December 2002!

All in all a great extended weekend, spending time with friends and only missing a few targets while adding 51 species to my year list, which has since stalled out except for a Merlin. There hasn't been anything reported around here for some time so who knows if I will add anything else until January 28.

Ducks packed in the ice at the lift bridge in Burlington on Saturday's foggy morning

Not a black&white photo!

 King Eider on Sunday evening - no photos from Niagara

2 female King Eiders made for a total of 3 birds here!

Better lighting was had on Monday morning - Long-tailed Duck


 This guy surfaced right underneath me after I watched him swim around underwater for a bit - thought this was a cool photo even if it isn't all that sharp

Long-tailed Ducks bounce on the water when they land...or faceplant

White-winged Scoter

Trumpeter Swans at LaSalle

An inquisitive Carolina Wren at LaSalle

Worked its way down the railing toward me until a squirrel chased it off when it was only about 4 feet away!

The looks we had at this gray-morph Gyrfalcon were much better than my phone-scoped shot would have you believe!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sharp-tailed Grouse photoshoot

Back near the start of the year I did a little cruise over to the Michigan side to try for some year birds, and to try to find some owls. While I failed to find any owls (including the usually reliable Snowys in Rudyard), I did pick up some goodies for the year such as Bohemian Waxwing, Northern Shrike, Snow Bunting and Sharp-tailed Grouse. We are lucky here in the Sault to have a homeowner who runs a great feeder setup next to some prime Sharp-tail habitat and therefore gets these grouse at their feeder on a reliable basis. As I pulled up, 7 Sharp-tailed Grouse quickly scattered from under the feeder, with 6 of them running further back into the cover of some spruce trees. The 7th bird ran up to the edge of the road and then sat there for about 5 minutes while I clicked away (using the car as a blind), and it even came out on the road to pick grit about 15 feet from me before it took off over the house! In the meantime the other 6 grouse had come out from hiding and were feeding again but decided they'd better get out of there once the 7th bird flushed.

Sauntering up the embankment toward me

Gave me a quick once-over

Then settled in for a bit

Eventually it wandered out onto the road


Hmmm maybe standing on the road isn't the best idea... After this shot it was up, up and away

Saturday, January 18, 2014


Further to my post about 400 in Ontario, a real goal of mine is to see 500 species in Canada in my lifetime. This will require a few trips here and there to pick up breeders as well as chasing some rarities! Ideally to do this I would live in either southwest BC or southern Ontario to be in the best position for rarity-twitching. Here's the breakdown for that - note I don't have any actual plans for these species...

Current list: 429

Group 1: the Breeders - species that breed in some part of Canada but could possibly be easier elsewhere (wintering grounds?)

Sooty Grouse
White-tailed Ptarmigan
Rock Ptarmigan
Greater Sage-Grouse - may be extirpated in the near future?
Yellow-billed Loon
Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel
Whooping Crane
Common Ringed-Plover - would require a trip up to Nunavut unless I twitched one in NF or something...
Mountain Plover
Ivory Gull
Ross's Gull
Thick-billed Murre
Cassin's Auklet
Ancient Murrelet
Tufted Puffin
Horned Puffin
Spotted Owl
Western Screech-Owl
Northern Pygmy-Owl
Northern Hawk Owl
Burrowing Owl
Red-breasted Sapsucker
White-headed Woodpecker
Cordilleran Flycatcher
Hutton's Vireo
Gray-headed Chickadee - would require a specialty trip just for this
Northern Wheatear
Bicknell's Thrush - if this is even a valid species
Smith's Longspur
McCown's Longspur
Lark Bunting
Golden-crowned Sparrow

Most of these can be seen on a few trips - southern BC in May, southern Alberta in June and Cape Breton/Newfoundland in June. Some would require a bit more effort and trips at different times of the year to get but I think that almost all of these would be guaranteed somewhere along the way (maybe not Common Ringed-Plover or Gray-headed Chickadee). Excluding those two species would leave me at 462. There are also a number of pelagic species that are fairly regular, even if they don't breed:

Black-footed Albatross
Flesh-footed Shearwater
Short-tailed Shearwater
Pink-footed Shearwater
Buller's Shearwater
Great Skua

One really good trip off of BC in September and some luck in the Bay of Fundy in late fall would turn up all of those, leaving me at 468. Then it's down to the vagrants (and some regular wintering species). The ones that are on my list of 'regulars' are:

Emperor Goose
Short-tailed Albatross
Laysan Albatross
Brown Pelican
Tricolored Heron
Little Blue Heron
Pacific Golden-Plover
Rock Sandpiper
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper
Elegant Tern
Tropical Kingbird
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
Western Scrub-Jay
Eastern Yellow Wagtail
Blue Grosbeak
Great-tailed Grackle

Getting all of those would leave me sitting at 485, meaning I would still need 15 really good rarities to hit the 500 mark. Some of these will no doubt overlap with the ones I have outlined in my Ontario post, but since this includes all of Canada there is always the possibility of Asian vagrants on Haida Gwaii, European strays in Newfoundland, weird pelagics off British Columbia or Nova Scotia, hurricane birds, etc, etc. The Canada Big Year record is apparently 444 - I think 450 is a real possiblity for someone with enough time and money (and luck).

Friday, January 17, 2014


Idea taken from Josh and Brandon... Thought it might be interesting!

I've kept a list for a while of all the birds I haven't seen in Ontario that fall into 2 categories: more than 10 records for the province or less than 10 but mostly in the past few years (and therefore more likely to show up in the near future).

To see 400 species in Ontario takes a fair amount of effort (twitching) but I suppose if you were really dedicated you might be able to find 400 species in the province. At the end of 2013, the Ontario list sits somewhere between 490-493 depending on whether some records are accepted or not. Since I was only in the southern Ontario twitching scene for a few years, my Ontario list is a bit lower than some of the other 'young' birders with some pretty gaping holes in it. Here I will outline those holes and see how close I could get to 400 for the province - won't be happening any time soon but maybe I will eventually get there! The species that say 'on my Michigan list' were almost all at Whitefish Point - a mere 15km or so from the Ontario border.

Current list: 345 species - meaning I need 55 more to hit the magic mark.

The easy ones: species that aren't even on the Ontario review list because they show up so often...

Common Eider - review species in south but not north
American Avocet - on my Michigan list...
Ruff - getting rarer???
Northern Hawk-Owl - these things breed near SSM but are my Canada nemesis bird...on my Michigan list...
Western Kingbird
Black-billed Magpie - need to drive through Rainy River
Lark Sparrow - dipped on about 4 of these buggers just this spring...on my Michigan list...
Smith's Longspur - breed up in Hudson Bay

running total: 353

The 'easy' ones - lots of ON records but require some effort to find (or twitch) - numbers are approximate as I only have the records up to the end of 2011, so may have been more since then!

Little Blue Heron ~ 70 records
Tricolored Heron ~ 35 records
Mississippi Kite ~ 40 records
Swainson's Hawk  ~ 60 records - on my Michigan list...
White-winged Dove ~ 40 records - on my Michigan list...
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher ~60 records
Northern Wheatear ~35 records
Blue Grosbeak ~90 records - on my Michigan list...

running total: 361

The tough but doable ones - either more than 10 ON records or species that I think will be more frequent in the coming years.

White-faced Ibis
Wood Stork
Fulvous Whistling-Duck
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Cinnamon Teal
Northern Fulmar - this'll be the time I get up to Netitishi
Black-capped Petrel - need a late August/September hurricane for this and several other species
Great Cormorant
Neotropic Cormorant - probably going to be more of these in the next few years!
Brown Pelican
Curlew Sandpiper
Mew Gull
Ivory Gull
Ross's Gull - already missed 2 of these babies - still trying to find one in the Sault...
Rufous Hummingbird
Lewis's Woodpecker
Say's Phoebe
Ash-throated Flycatcher
Fork-tailed Flycatcher
Bewick's Wren
Sage Thrasher
Hermit Warbler
Swainson's Warbler
Cassin's Sparrow
Lark Bunting
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Lazuli Bunting

running total: 388

That leaves me with 12 CMF birds to either find or twitch. What do I think/hope those might be???

Hurricane birds - maybe a shearwater or something crazy like a Trindade petrel - even a tern would be good
Magnificent Frigatebird - missed that Rondeau bird but I'm sure there will be more
White Ibis
Black Rail - may have found one in 2012...
a rare shorebird - Snowy Plover? European vagrant of some sort?
one of the alcids - Thick-billed Murre? Ancient Murrelet? Tufted Puffin? who knows
Groove-billed Ani - hasn't been one in 25 years so we are due, right?
Common Ground-Dove - on my Michigan list...
tropical swift sp. - just because
hummingbirds - not sure why Ontario is so hummingbird-poor but if I get a house here I will be putting up feeders in the hopes of attracting some! Anna's and Allen's are probably the most likely.
western flycatcher sp. - Dusky, Gray, Hammond's, Western Wood-Pewee, 'Western' - one of them will show up eventually
Vermilion Flycatcher - on my Michigan list...
Cassin's Kingbird
Gray Kingbird - may have found one in 2011 - better views or photographs required!
Violet-green Swallow - just a matter of picking it out from the thousands of Trees
western warbler sp. - Virginia's, Hermit, Lucy's, Red-faced, Golden-cheeked, etc...
Green-tailed Towhee - on my Michigan list...
Black-throated Sparrow - only 3 records but I think it'll turn up again
Black-headed Grosbeak
Great-tailed Grackle - I am guessing there will be more of these in Rainy River in the next 10 years or so
Bullock's Oriole - how have we not had more records of this???
Eurasian Tree Sparrow - a number of records from Whitefish Point, just need one to end up in the Sault...

That would leave me at well over 400 - of course this relies on me actually being in Ontario to look for these things, and Southern Ontario at that - the Sault isn't exactly a great location for twitching...

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Bon Portage - the rarities

This will probably be my last post about the island (at least for a while), since I am leaving home in 11(!) days to start a 7-week adventure (more on that later), but it's probably the most interesting one to all the birders out there!

Situated on the Atlantic Coast, right at the very southern tip of Nova Scotia, BP is in a pretty much ideal spot to turn up loads of provincial rarities. The island list (since 1997) stands somewhere around 315 species, not bad for an island that's only about 150 hectares (about 1/10 the size of Point Pelee National Park)! Since it's a pretty small island, we didn't get huge numbers of the regular migrants, and species that are 'dirt birds' on the mainland (Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Ring-billed Gull, Common Grackle, etc) are actually pretty rare! As an example, I think we only had 2 Mourning Doves actually on the island (could scope them on the mainland if we really tried), while we also had 2 Lark Sparrows. The nearest (regular) breeding Lark Sparrows are around 1000km away, while the Mourning Doves breed 3km away across the channel. I think this makes it easier to find rarities though since you aren't constantly being distracted by really common birds. Anyway, here's our list of rarities for the fall (taken from the NSRBA list) - bold species are the 'good' rarities, caps are the megas:

Manx Shearwater - 52 - I think this species is more regular but lack of coverage means it's on the RBA list

Cory's Shearwater - 1 - ditto
Black-crowned Night-Heron - 2 - only breeding location in NS for this species
Glossy Ibis - 1 - part of a small invasion of this species which is usually a good rarity!
Turkey Vulture - 48 - not rare in the southern part of the province, increasing
Cooper's Hawk - 9 - ditto
Northern Goshawk - 3 - regular rarity
American Oystercatcher - 2 - small breeding population on Cape Sable Island ~10km away
Solitary Sandpiper - 14 - probably shouldn't be on the RBA list

Red Knot - 8

Baird's Sandpiper - 2

Buff-breasted Sandpiper - 3
Long-billed Dowitcher - 1
Red Phalarope - 9 - regular offshore but not as common from land
Pomarine Jaeger - 9 - ditto
Parasitic Jaeger - 3 - ditto
South Polar Skua - 1 - really rare from land but regular out in the Bay of Fundy
CALIFORNIA GULL - 1 - potential first provincial record
Thayer's Gull - 1 - first eBird record for NS but there are quite a few older records

Lesser Black-backed Gull - 15 - probably shouldn't be on the RBA list

Roseate Tern - 1 - small breeding population nearby but an endangered species so makes the list
Common Murre - 2
Black-billed Cuckoo - 1 - small NS breeding population but rarely seen
Yellow-billed Cuckoo - 5 - regular fall vagrant

Long-eared Owl - 1
Willow Flycatcher - 4 - probably more regular than realized as it's a tough ID

HAMMOND'S FLYCATCHER - 1 - first provincial record  - check your latest issue of Birding magazine and you might recognize this photo! ;)

Eastern Phoebe - 10 - probably shouldn't be on the RBA list

Great Crested Flycatcher - 1
Warbling Vireo - 2

"WESTERN" WARBLING VIREO - 1 - first in-hand record for NS but there was one photographed in 2007 that is most likely this (sub)species - note the differences in colour from the above bird as well as the small bill. This is a potential future split and so is more exciting than your average subspecies!

Philadelphia Vireo - 7

Purple Martin - 1
House Wren - 1
Marsh Wren - 1

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher - 2

Eastern Bluebird - 1
Gray-cheeked Thrush - 6

Wood Thrush - 1
Northern Mockingbird - 1

Orange-crowned Warbler - 6 - probably shouldn't be on the RBA list

Connecticut Warbler - 1
Cape May Warbler - 6 - probably shouldn't be on the RBA list

Pine Warbler - 8 - probably shouldn't be on the RBA list

Prairie Warbler - 3

Yellow-breasted Chat - 1 - usually many more than this in a season, see below!

Eastern Towhee - 2

Clay-colored Sparrow - 1
Field Sparrow - 1

Lark Sparrow - 2

White-crowned Sparrow - 7 - probably shouldn't be on the RBA list
Indigo Bunting - 13 - probably shouldn't be on the RBA list
Dickcissel - 2

Eastern Meadowlark - 1
House Finch - 1

As you can see it's a pretty extensive list with 54 species on it (out of our 217 total, or 24.9%). That doesn't include out-of-season birds such as the 2 Brant we had (rare in fall), or the Red-necked Grebe we had on August 17 (crazy early)! We also missed a number of regular rarities as the usual late fall reverse migration of southern birds was almost non-existent. These possibilities (and regulars) include southern herons, more Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Red-headed and -bellied Woodpeckers, White-eyed Vireo, more swallows, Sedge Wren, Brown Thrasher, Blue-winged, Golden-winged, Yellow-throated, Cerulean, Prothonotary, Worm-eating and Hooded Warblers, more Yellow-breasted Chats, Vesper, Grasshopper and Seaside Sparrows, Summer and Scarlet Tanagers, Blue Grosbeak and Orchard Oriole (all of these have been seen in at least 1 of the last 3 seasons). If we had been hit by a hurricane we could have potentially added a good number of terns and other seabirds as well! All in all the place has a good amount of potential for provincial-level rarities although I think it has less potential for crazy megas (for Canada or NA) than some other places on the mainland.