Great Kiskadee

Great Kiskadee

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Rondeau/Blenheim Christmas Bird Count preview

The Rondeau/Blenheim Christmas Bird Count is tomorrow, December 16. This will be the 79th CBC here, making it one of the longest running counts in Ontario. Our cumulative list of birds is about 191 species, which is pretty phenomenal. Over the last couple of decades we have seldom recorded fewer than 100 species for the day, and on two occasions recorded 115 species. This count is regularly in the top three of Ontario.

This count has the potential to add four new species, all of which have been seen in the last week, and some just in the last day or so and are officially within the count week (three days before and three days after the actual count day). Those four species are Great Kiskadee, White-eyed Vireo, Baltimore Oriole and Trumpeter Swan. Only the vireo has been seen within the count week period so far, but the others are likely still around, so hopefully they will appear soon.

As usual, some effort is put in to the three days before the count day, to scout around and see if the rarities are still around. I have been out a couple of times. The kiskadee has not been seen, but there is a lot of area for it to move in to and it will be a challenge to find it. The vireo has been seen in its usual area.
 Some of us have been present at daybreak or before, hoping that the kiskadee, shown at the header of this blog, will stick to its usual routine, but this has not happened in the last few days. The sunrise, however, can be attractive while we patiently wait and watch.
 There are the usual species, although some are only present in low numbers such as the Northern Flicker.
 Raptors are not as abundant as some years. This Red-tailed Hawk has been hanging around the north end of the park,and doesn't seem to mind photographers.
 Ruby-crowned Kinglets are diminishing in numbers but there are still a few around.
 As the park quietens from the lack of humans present, the deer are out in the open a bit more.
One of the surprises of the last few weeks has been the abundance of loons, and specifically, the Red-throated Loon. We've only had Red-throats on one occasion on this count, back in 1981. If the ones that have been around are still around tomorrow, we will blow that number out of the water (pun intended). In the last week or so there have been as many as 100 Red-throated Loons seen off the east beach and along the lake shore just north of the park. They aren't real close to shore, but with binoculars one will usually see a few, and with a scope, a lot more.

Here's hoping.......

A visit to the Erieau area turned up a few expected species, none of which are a guarantee some years. We've had more than 8200 American Coots one time, but some years we don't get any. At the moment, there are two at Erieau.
 We get Belted Kingfisher about half the time. There could be as many as 5 in the area, possibly more. Four have been seen along the lake just north of the park, and this female has been hanging out at Erieau.
 Bald Eagles are pretty much a guarantee anymore. It wasn't that long ago when getting even one on the count was considered good. In the last decade and a half we have averaged about 10 birds.
Snowy Owls are around, although they are often well out in a field and too far to bother with the camera for. I saw two today in the fields between Lagoon Road and Fargo Road, but they were on a gas pipe a long way out.

Wild Turkeys were not seen until 2004, as a result of the re-introduction of the species in Ontario that began in the 1980s. Since 2004 we have recorded them annually, with as many as almost 350 reported one year.
Waterfowl can make up a significant part of this count's totals. Most years will see between 20-30 species of them. This year might not be a banner year due to the cold spell 2-3 weeks ago which encouraged a lot of them to depart farther south. However although the total number of waterfowl individuals and species might not be as high as some year, I'm sure we can get close to 20 species, maybe more, including a new species for the count: Trumpeter Swan, as two pairs of them have been sighted fairly regularly in various locations.

Tundra Swans and Mute Swans will be a guarantee, however.
In only a few hours we will have the results of the 2018 count, and a report on the highs and lows will be forthcoming. For those readers of this blog who are involved in bird counts in your areas over the next few weeks, have a great day with lots of birds!

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Excellent Early Winter Birding!

I have always really liked the Brooks Falls photo that has been on my header for a few weeks now. However I thought that with the Great Kiskadee continuing to fascinate birders far and wide with its presence at Rondeau since at least going back to September 7, it deserved being highlighted again.

While it is not yet winter officially, at least by the calendar, the weather is certainly typical of early winter. For bird listing purposes, the beginning of the winter period is December 1. Hence it is a great time to get some lingering migrants or whatever happens to be sticking around. And it is worthwhile checking out things as much as possible in preparation for the upcoming Rondeau/Blenheim Christmas Bird Count.

A couple of early morning visits to Rondeau from about daybreak, have been cold, but rewarding. Of course the presence of Great Kiskadee, the first for Canada, is very much a target species for the bird count. There have been people out every morning watching and waiting, with varying degrees of success. Sometimes it is heard and seen within a few minutes of leaving its roost; other times one needs watchers to spread out and check the places it may be at. On one occasion this past week when it left the roost quickly and moved off, it took at least a couple of hours for anyone to find it again. And even then, views were challenging due to distance and poor light. This first photo is the view at the equivalent of about 10 power binoculars. Not exactly ideal.
 Cropped to the equivalent of about 60 power, it looks better.
Yesterday the bird left its roost quickly, heard by one person only. It was only after about two hours when Jim and Blake found it while they were checking out the campground. It was a nice bright sunny day, but quite cold as the overnight temperature had been to about -7C. I'm sure the kiskadee was wondering what the cold was all about, but at least on this day it was able to soak up some sunshine. It was content to bask at this location for about 20 minutes or so before flying south towards the maintenance yard.
White-tailed Deer are usually returning from the more open eastern side of the park as daylight arrives. I guess they can read traffic signs....
 ....but when they realize people are close by, decide to move to more sheltered areas.
The cold caused various birds to spend a bit of time warming up in the sun, allowing them to be approached more closely than usual.
 Cedar Waxwings are moving about in small groups, feasting on berries such as these rosebush berries.
This Red-tailed Hawk was surprisingly tolerant of birders right close by.
 A White-eyed Vireo has been present for awhile in the vicinity of the maintenance yard, roosting and feeding in the white cedars lining the fenced area. Normally the species is not common in Ontario at all, although it has nested at Rondeau before, but all of that species should be a long way south at this time of year. If it sticks around and is counted next week, it will be the first record for this bird count, and one of the few bird count records for the province. I had one on the Pelee Island bird count back in the early 1990s. Often this bird is in the shadows of the cedars, flitting about quickly, making photography difficult. Yesterday it was quite cooperative for a time, and at one point it was in the bright sunshine and as close as about 5 feet, which was too close to focus on! I backed off a bit, and the next time it came out in the open sunshine, I had much more success.

 It was finding something to eat, but we couldn't tell what it was.

 Another species that is not often found at this time of year, although a small number is typically recorded for the bird count, is this next one: Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Its relative the Golden-crowned Kinglet is more abundant as the season goes on. There were several Ruby-crowns in the north end of the park yesterday.

 At the north end of the campground is a feeding station at a cottage, which has had a few birds using it in the last couple of weeks, including a female Baltimore Oriole. A few of us have had brief glimpses of the bird, but it does not stay out in the open for long. Here, a birder is heading around the street to check on nearby conifer trees which the oriole seems to prefer hanging out in.
 Two or more Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have been in or near the campground lately. This next photo shows a young bird working away on some holes it has drilled. If it is waiting for some insects to be attracted to it, it might be a long wait. But if it is going to suck the sap, it will be okay.
 White-throated Sparrows are still around in small numbers.
 The local resident population of Pileated Woodpeckers can be notoriously difficult to find on count day. Most years we get one or two, but not always.

There is a new conservation area just northeast of the intersection of Talbot Trail (Hwy 3) and Chatham-Kent Road 15. It isn't large but has a nice mix of planted hardwoods, pines and some open grassy areas. It was planted under a woodlot improvement agreement with MNR back in the early 1990s. The owners, Sally and Jack Foster, recently donated it to the Lower Thames Valley Conservation Area, and it is known as the Bannerstone Conservation Lands.

Yesterday just before leaving the park I got a text from Jim and Steve indicating they had found a Long-eared Owl in the pine plantation, and provided very detailed directions on how to find it. Apparently it was being scolded by chickadees and kinglets, always helpful in finding roosting owls. I got there a few minutes later just after Jim and Steve left, and followed the directions. I couldn't find any owl. After 20 minutes or so Keith came by, also looking for the owl. We scoured the area carefully, and even after Keith phoned them to make sure we were in the right area, there was still no Long-eared Owl to be seen. We broadened our search and came across an owl, but not a Long-ear. It was a Northern Saw-whet Owl!
As is often the case, branches etc are often in the way, but I was able to get reasonable focus. Interestingly Jim came back a little later and couldn't find either owl, and when Keith returned an hour later, the only raptor he found was a Sharp-shinned Hawk. A classic case of birds on the move, so there is never a guarantee of finding them, even in their roost.

Keith had told me of some Turkey Vultures feeding on something at the back end of the Blenheim Golf Course, so that was my next stop. Sure enough, from Harwich Road I could see two vultures feeding on a Raccoon carcass.
The Raccoon population has been fairly high recently, and canine distemper is running rampant. If you see a Raccoon wandering around erratically in the daytime, chances are it might have distemper, and when it gets to that stage, it apparently cannot be treated successfully. Virtually all affected animals will die sooner or later. Fortunately the disease is not transmitted to humans.

My last intended stop of the day was at the Stefina Line pasture. I have seen Northern Shrikes there in the past, as well as Short-eared Owls, among other things. With the pasture being grazed up until recently, the grass height it isn't ideal for the owls, and it seems there are very few small songbirds that might interest a shrike. I had seen the Sadler brothers checking out where the creek comes up and under the road, but they didn't stay long. We chatted briefly as we were going in opposite directions, and they went on their way. In a matter of minutes I was at the creek and didn't see anything either, so decided to 'pish' to see if any small birds might pop up. Almost immediately I saw a bird heading straight for me from a distance and at first thought it was a Mourning Dove, but as it approached I quickly realized it was a medium-sized shorebird. It plopped itself down in the wet grassy section of the creek bed and there was a Wilson's Snipe, a mere 20 metres or so away. This spot has attracted a snipe on a regular basis in the winter, and it is often the only one we get on the Christmas Bird Count. There's no reason to not expect it to stick around, but actually seeing it on the count day isn't a guarantee.
If the Baltimore Oriole, White-eyed Vireo and Great Kiskadee remain and are seen in the count week or on the count day, we will add three new species to our overall list, which considering we already have about 191 since this count began in 1939, will be amazing! Stay tuned!

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Winter Kiskadee

The Great Kiskadee adventures at Rondeau continue. This mega rarity has gone AWOL before, and had last been reported on Nov 9. In spite of local birders being on the lookout for it on regular visits to Rondeau, including at its usual haunts, the bird eluded us. That is until Dec 2, when two birders were walking down the Marsh Trail a bit before noon and saw it at the usual former canal along the north end of the trail. The discovery was reported to the staff at the Visitor Centre, which fortunately was open that day, and the word got out to others almost immediately. It was seen for a short period before going into its disappearing act once again, but this time only for a few hours. It was heard by several of us towards the end of the afternoon in the vicinity of the maintenance compound. Then it went silent, and we had no idea exactly where it went.

Bright and early the next morning, well as bright as a heavy overcast day with a hint of precipitation can be, several birders were stationed in what we thought were the most likely places it might appear at. After about two hours, we heard it, then saw it briefly as it flew north east over the maintenance compound. It continued by wing as we pursued it on foot, continuing in its northward trajectory. Then we briefly lost it, only to find it again heading into the campground. Was it looking for a vacant campsite? Probably not, but this was the first time any of us had seen it this far north in the park, even though it was only a short flight from its usual area. Is it possible that it had spent some of its time there after it disappeared in early November? Possible, but considering the amount of time that local birders had spent combing the campground in recent weeks for late migrants, or early wintering species, it would be a bit surprising. Regardless, there it was. But it was almost constantly on the move, rarely spending more than 30 seconds in one spot before moving on in what was a large circling route. We did get some distant views of the bird, and even fewer photos, also from a distance. This first one is cropped to the equivalent of about 60X, and with the bright, bland background, is nothing more than a record shot.

It eluded us for awhile longer, but we all thought that the best chance of re-finding this bird was to stake out the area immediately south of the maintenance compound. As the afternoon arrived and then wore on, there was likely a bit of uncertainty felt by the dozen or so birders who were committed to the task of waiting the bird out. And then it was heard, and seen where we had hoped. First it was down low over a slough and then it went and sat fairly high in an open deciduous tree branch facing us. The bright yellow belly was quite visible even against the bland sky, although binoculars were a necessity to truly appreciate it. At this point, it sat relatively motionless for about 30 minutes, and never made a sound.
It was apparent that being as motionless and silent as it was, and so high up, it would have been easily missed by even the most careful and observant birders. Who knows how often birders had walked by within view of it over the past several weeks when it was not reported?

After awhile, the bird flew downward and off towards the beginning of the Marsh Trail, and a few of us followed it as best we could before losing it again. It was seen briefly along Water Street feeding on berries before flying back towards the maintenance compound, presumably getting ready to enter its still unknown overnight roost.

It will be interesting to see if this bird can be found for the upcoming Rondeau/Blenheim Christmas Bird Count in less than two weeks. Given the weather that it has survived through already, and its omnivorous diet of berries, tadpoles, dragonflies, leeches and undoubtedly a few other things, we have no doubt it can survive. But will it be seen?

While on the lookout for the kiskadee on this day, a few other noteworthy birds were seen, including White-eyed Vireo, (Western) Hermit Thrush, Eastern Towhee, Baltimore Oriole, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Gray Catbird. Most were seen by only one or two others who happened to be at the right spot at the right time which is all so typical of birding. I was only able to catch up to the sapsucker and catbird, the latter species noted skulking amongst the dense honeysuckle shrubbery across from Lot 17240.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Flakey Friday

Okay I realize that many people look forward to Friday as it means the weekend is almost here. My title is in reference to the snow flakes that are gently falling on this Friday as I write this, and winter is still more than three weeks away. But if every year and season were identical and predictable, it would be boring, right?

I've been out and about a little since my last post. The former Dover Twp between Chatham, Mitchell's Bay and Lake St. Clair is often worth checking at this time of year. Snowy Owls are arriving in larger numbers, at least for now. On the day I was out looking, I came across 5 of them. Whether they stay for most of the winter or keep moving farther south, remains to be seen. There have been 4 or more along Lagoon Road, a bit north of Rondeau Bay as well.

Most of the Snowies that I have seen tend to be out in the partial shelter of a recently harvested cornfield.
 Once in awhile, one is a little closer to the road.
While out looking for Snowies, I came across a large number of Tundra Swans. Large numbers of them have been a little slower arriving in the Lake St. Clair area than some years, it seems. On this day I saw an estimated 7000 or more in several fields. This first photo is of a very small portion of one of the larger fields.
 They were frequently on the move, seeming to be startled when vehicles slowed down or ATVs roared by.
I looked for other birds mixed in such as Ross's Goose or Snow Goose, but did not see any at the time. However there have been Trumpeter Swans hanging out in southern Chatham-Kent in the last few weeks, sometimes at the Blenheim Sewage Lagoons or McGeachy Pond or somewhere in between. These were photographed at McGeachy Pond one cloudy, late afternoon.

A Great Blue Heron was at McGeachy Pond as well, taking shelter from the brisk westerly wind.
The forested landscapes are generally quiet these days, although they are still attractive in their own right.
Harrison Trail
Southeast Oak Savanna (Rondeau)
McKerral Woods
There are still berries around, but they are disappearing in response to birds feeding on them so as to withstand the colder season.

Bright red berries such as those in the first photo, are appropriately called Winterberry (Ilex verticillata). This native species is widespread but not abundant.
 Unfortunately another bright red berry producing shrub is much more abundant but not native. It is Japanese Barberry and is a real problem species in our landscapes.
Northern Saw-whet Owls have been migrating through the area from their northern haunts. They can be difficult to find, however. This next photo shows one that I was able to find, but only due to some kinglets and chickadees that were heard scolding it, which alerted Steve Charbonneau to find it and pass on the directions to others. Even with the very good directions it was hard to pick out quite high in this White Pine of the Rondeau campground. This bird was an estimated 25 feet up, much higher than they are normally found.

Of course bird feeding areas are often the best place to seek out birds, and the feeders at Rondeau are worth checking out at anytime.
 Winter finches, including Evening Grosbeaks, are irregular winter visitors to southwestern Ontario. This fall and winter seems to be one of those times that local birders look forward to, and at least a few of these grosbeaks have been sighted over the last couple of weeks or so. I photographed these at the drinking pool of the Rondeau Visitor Centre.

 Pine Siskins are another irregular winter visitor. Here are a few feasting on the niger seed at the Visitor Centre.
 White-throated Sparrows are fewer in number than they were a few weeks ago, but some remain.
Red-breasted Nuthatches are another, mostly winter visitor.
One has to work a little harder to find birds this time of year but the results, even if it is just being out for a nice long walk, can be quite satisfying.