After fantastic views of the ELEGANT TERN in Buffalo (and Ontario), I headed over to spend the weekend with Kathi. The drive along the 402 was marked by strong north winds so once across the Blue Water bridge I stopped in at the end of Riverview for a quick look at the gulls and the coast guard station. I was surprised to see another birder there, who quickly introduced himself as Ken Mettie. Once he told me about a HARLEQUIN DUCK he had just seen and photographed at Marysville I was on my way. He gave me some quick and excellent directions and I was soon at Marysville River Park.
As soon as I pulled my naked eye detected a single small dark duck that looked to have the right jizz. The binocs soon revealed a female/imm HARLEQUIN DUCK swimming just a hundred yards south of the parking lot! I grabbed the 500 mm and knocked off a few hand held frames which hopefully can be improved on if the bird sticks around for the winter.

If you are looking for this bird it was seen on the Michigan side of the St. Clair River, along River Road. The park was just south of the intersection of Huron and River in Marysville. On the Ontario side of the river this is opposite the Shell gas station just north of a small creek north of Guthrie Park and the town of Corunna.


ELEGANT TERN - border fun with a rare bird

I'm not much of a 'chaser'. This fall though three great Canada birds have prompted me to get back in the game. The first was the BROWN BOOBY at Fort Erie. After several tense hours of no show that stunning seabird gave me 502. Then Brandon Holden found an equally improbable SNOWY PLOVER at the tip of Pelee in early November. I was one of the lucky few who managed to get there in the nick of time, for #503. Then on Wednesday an ELEGANT TERN was found tantalizingly close once again to the Ontario border in Buffalo, NY. Paul Pratt and I deliberated heading down on Thursday but damn work commitments made that a no go. Despite predicted horrible weather we opted to head down to Niagara Falls that night and try early Friday morning for yet another crazy bird. After reading the posts from Ontario and New York we decided it made the best sense to head over to NY where we could likely get better views and also better follow the bird if it did make it into Ontario.

When we arrived at the north end of Squaw Island, there was literally a blizzard of bonies in the harbour. Walking out to the pier, we soon found several Common Terns and then Paul spotted the ELEGANT TERN! Amazingly there was no one else present, though we could see about six or so birders on the Ontario side scoping the bird. We were only about 50 yards from the tern and able to get stunning views over the next few hours as it fed off the end of the dock and in the harbor.

Here is a pic of the ELEGANT TERN with Bonaparte's Gulls. It spent a lot of time resting on the end of the pier with bonies.

The ELEGANT TERN would take off periodically and spend some time feeding in the harbour and off the very end of the pier - diving so close it would disappear over the edge of the pier. We had superb views and studies of the bird as it fed like this. 

The Ontario border was very close to where the tern fed and on a couple of occasions early in the morning it swung west a hundred yards into what was likely Canadian waters. However we continued to wait hoping we could get a definitive view of the bird in Canada  which would leave no doubt. While we waited a nice adult basic LITTLE GULL put on a great show in the harbor.

Alan Wormington joined us after about an hour and each time the gulls flushed we would watch with great interest to see where the tern would take off. It always seemed to head back into the harbour almost immediately. After we had been there for about two hours the tern started once more to feed actively. This time though it made ONE long pass to the west, where it DEFINITELY reached CANADA!!!! After this the drizzle picked up and we headed back to Canada for a well deserved celebration breakfast at Coras!

 Above is the 'Canada bound' ELEGANT TERN!


NWT Big Day - PART 5

Our last bird as we left Hay River was a group of 13 AMERICAN GOLDEN PLOVER walking around a vacant lot filled with trash! Below is a pic of one of the group.

We left Hay River with 133 species and knowing that we really had very few gaps left in the list! Our final destination was Yellowknife, which was almost 450 km or about 5 hours straight driving to the north. As there was now a bridge over the west arm of Great Slave Lake, we didnt need to worry about the ferry over this site! The road was in excellent condition with virtually no traffic and we made good time. Several speculative stops along the way added TUNDRA SWAN, CANVASBACK and WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW.
The next key stop was km 90 of Hwy 3 on the way north to Yellowknife. A report on eBird mentioned a marsh here with BLACK TERNS so we thought it was worth a shot. When we arrived at the appointed kilometer marker there was the marsh, and it was full of BLACK TERNS!!! Unfortunately there was only a narrow viewing angle to the wetland by looking down an old flooded road bed that led to the lake and marsh. I decided to grab my rubber boots and walk the hundred meters along the flooded road to where it provided a full view of the lake. Paul waited to see what I would find. I was thrilled to find 13 WHITE-WINGED SCOTERS, 2 SURF SCOTERS, and several pairs of RED-NECKED GREBES! I returned to the road and Paul donned the one pair of rubber boots and now repeated the process while I watched. Below is a pic of him wading back from a successful mission!


We finally arrived in Yellowknife around 10:30 pm but the sun was still up and there was lots of light for finding birds. Unfortunately we had few possibilities left to find here! Nonetheless we did enjoy a wonderful view of the harbour and below are some pics of a cottage in evening light and the sunset when it finally came after 11 pm! It was a beautiful way to end a fantastic day with our final total being a record Big Day for the NWT of 145 species!!!!


NWT Big Day - PART 4

We arrived at Hay River just before noon, with a great total of 103 species! Our first stop was the Nuisance Grounds (the local name for the town dump!). Here we tallied four gull species, and our what was certainly our rarest bird of the day - a flyover AMERICAN GOLDFINCH! This is certainly one of the few, if only, records for the NWT!! The nearest eBird observation is nearly 800 km to the south and the NWT bird list does not include this species.

Our real target in Hay River was the mouth of the river, where it empties into Great Slave Lake. When scouting there was still lots of ice here and we were hoping that some still remained. Ice is often a magnet to north bound migrants. When we arrived at our first view point we could see a large floe of ice to the west so we quickly moved there. Next began an amazing string of new birds for the day as flocks of shorebirds dropped in to the ice edge, along with loons, gulls and terns, and many waterfowl feeding busily along this area. We added 31 species in just two hours of scanning this area! Conditions were perfect, though it was extremely cold with a light wind off Great Slave Lake. Highlights of the birds here included RED-NECKED PHALAROPE (10), STILT SANDPIPER (5), SANDERLING (10), WHITE-RUMPED SANDPIPER (2), and EARED GREBE (1). The last species is quite rare in the NWT. Below are some pics of these same species taken in the days before while we were driving through Alberta.


 STILT SANDPIPER in breeding plumage

 SANDERLING in breeding plumage


EARED GREBE displaying in full breeding plumage!

NWT Big Day - PART 3

From Ft. Smith we now began the long drive to Hay River. This trip is about 320 km and takes about four hours of solid driving. Our target was to get there by noon with a few birding stops along the way. Not long out of town we passed a long wide area of low stunted spruce and both screamed when a medium sized raptor flew along the roadside and landed on the top of a tree. We were thrilled to see that it was a NORTHERN HAWK OWL!! Despite the time pressure we stopped to take a few pics. The photos below were actually taken the next day, of a different hawk owl we found later on the big day near Yellowknife!!

Not long after the Hawk Owl we stopped at a roadside site in Wood Buffalo National Park known as the wetland pulloff. Here we had an incredible string of luck with HOODED MERGANSER, FOX SPARROW, OLIVE-SIDED FLYCATCHER, COMMON GRACKLE, PEREGRINE FALCON, RUSTY BLACKBIRD, EASTERN KINGBIRD and BLACKPOLL WARBLER (our 16 warbler for the day) all being added within minutes!! While scoping Paul spotted a LYNX at the edge of the highway digging in the sand bank for some tasty morsel. Speaking of mammals, we saw lots up here and during the Big Day other highlites included no fewer than 8 BLACK BEARS, a RED FOX, the LYNX, BEAVER, WOODCHUCK, and over a hundred BISON!  The pic below as taken a few days before of a BLACK BEAR grazing by the roadside at dusk. In four days here we spotted at least 25 bears.

NWT Big Day - PART 2

We returned to Hwy 5 around 5:30 PM with 60 species already on the list. Now we backtracked in to the townsite of Ft. Smith. Our targets here were things like HOUSE SPARROW, STARLING and CROW. Yes, they all count on Big Days! Just as important was that Gigis coffee shop and bakery was now open. The sweet old lady who ran it made us some bacon and egg sandwiches to go. We grabbed some great coffee to go and were soon zipping around town looking for a few targets before hitting the road. One of the key birds in Ft. Smith is AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN. In fact our hotel was named the Pelican Narrows Hotel and for good reason. Only a few hundred yards away were a set of rapids with hundreds of pelicans feeding at close range. The evening before the big day we had hiked down to the river bank and photographed the pelicans feeding at close range. They provided incredible close views. Below is a small selection of pics from the evening before. And yes we easily saw hundreds on the big day, plus a bonus BAY-BREASTED WARBLER singing along the river valley!

Northwest Territories, Canada - Big Day May 31, 2013 PART 1

Sorry for the long break in blog posts. Been very busy! For the last week Paul Pratt and myself have been making the 6,000 km journey from Ontario to the NWT. Along the way we have stopped for breaks for some photography. On May 31st, we did a "Big Birding Day" in the NWT trying to find as many bird species in a calendar day as possible. This post summarizes that day using pics from the day, plus pics taken during the trip out (not much time to actually take photos on a big day!!).

Our day began at 2:15 AM in the parking lot of the Pelican Rapids hotel in Ft. Smith. It was a bit noisy due to the drunken partiers from the nearby bar (just closed), but we still managed to hear COMMON NIGHTHAWK, CHIPPING, SONG and LINCOLNS SPARROWS singing away. On the outskirts of town we heard the first two of ten GREAT HORNED OWLS recorded during the day.

We drove pretty much due west from Ft. Smith to an area known as the Fox Hole. We arrived at this wetland around 3:00 AM when the photo below was taken. You can see it is pretty light already! In fact, we were so far north there was always some light in the sky.

The amount of bird song at this early hour was remarkable. We spent about 45 minutes birding this wetland area and our list was 40 species by 4 AM. Among the highlights were both LECONTES (see photo below) and NELSONS SPARROWS, MARSH WRENS, SORAS, AMERICAN COOT, and SANDHILL CRANES. One of the best sightings was a pair of WHOOPING CRANES seen briefly flying to the west and then dropping out of sight.

It was a spectacular morning but mighty chilly. We were happy we had filled the thermos with hot coffee from the overnight pot from our hotel. Any coffee is better than none when you are cold!!

We had lots of ground to cover and in the Ft. Smith area we really wanted to get as many songbirds as possible. This area has lots of big trees, and good habitat diversity so many species reach the northern limits of their breeding grounds here. One of the key families was warblers, with about 16 species reasonable possible here. A key target was CONNECTICUT WARBLER. We had found one the day before and when we pulled up to the spot at 5:00 AM he was singing away! This pic below of this rare bird was taken the day before.


Owls and Ottawa birds part 4

Here is the last post from my visit with family to do some winter birding around Ottawa this year. These are some of the highlights from around the city of Ottawa.

These Bohemian Waxwings were part of a group of about 125 which were gorging themselves on berries right beside the road allowing incredible close views. Always a bit tricky even in good winters, it was nice to have such good luck.

A close up of one of the Bohemians on the tree.

A funny male Mallard shot with my point and shoot up close for fun!

The Hilda Road feeders near Shirley's Bay provided incredible opportunities for viewing and studying Common and Hoary Redpolls. We had maximum counts of 300 Commons (including several Greenlands) and up to 5 Hoarys at one time. 

Owls and Ottawa part 3

I headed to Algonquin Provincial Park for a night and had some nice birds and mammals. Although it was cold and the roads were snow covered, I had a great time.

This Boreal Chickadee was hanging around the trailhead for the Spruce Bog boardwalk trail right near the visitor center turn off. This species is much  more difficult to capture than Black-caps which readily pose and come to sunflowers.

The Visitor Centre feeders were great for getting close views of a good variety of birds. This male White-winged Crossbill was a regular visitor.

 At least fifteen Pine Grosbeaks were visiting the feeders and this handsome male was one of at least five in the group.

 On my way out of the park in late afternoon, I came across this very tame Red Fox right beside the road. I got some fantastic close images before it sauntered off.

One of the big targets for the visit was Pine Marten. This was one of three I managed to come across in the Mew Lake Campground.

Owls and Ottawa part 2

So here are a few of the owl highlights starting with the Great Grays...

I know this is just a portrait shot but I really love this image. It just captures the magic of a Great Gray to me and the subtlety of the white and dark around the face just pops!

So here is the classic image of a Great Gray on the hunt. This bird has just left a perch and has tone on a meal!

In Algonquin Park I came across this fresh set of plunge marks in the snow from what I concluded was very likely a successful hunt by a Great Gray (which had been seen exactly here just a few hours before). Note the mouse tracks coming from the bottom left which turn abruptly in the middle top and then end suddenly!!! 

This was a pretty good year for Barred Owls which meant it wasn't a good year for small owls. The Barreds will often predate the smaller Saw-whets and even Boreals that are roosting in the same wood lot. This one was near Montreal.

It took a lot of searching but eventually I had superb views of two Northern Saw-whet Owls. Unfortunately birders had been withholding information on these sightings. As someone who straddles both communities I find that practice incredibly short sighted. Indeed in the end it meant missing a Boreal owl in Ottawa. My view on this is simple - withholding information on birds is not part of the hobby and is shameful and short sighted.

After a lot of effort, on my last morning I finally found this Northern Hawk Owl. It was in a spot within a kilometer of where the owl had been seen two or three times over a two month period. This site was clearly a more reliable location as this post had a lot of pellets right underneath it! 

Ottawa winter owls trip

For the first time since 2005 I spent some time this winter in eastern Ontario. The trigger was a number of Great Gray and Snowy Owls which had been seen consistently in the Ottawa area. I also took a trip to Amherst Island near Kingston where I managed to see several Snowy Owls including the one above. The highlight though was an amazing encounter with two improbable birds.  As I scanned the ducks in the channel ahead of the ferry I noticed a Great Black-backed Gull which appeared to be attacking one of the ducks. It was about 800 meters away when first spotted, but the ferry really chugs along and soon I could see that the gull had a female Common Merganser in the water which was still alive an struggling! The gull would not give up its prize and as we got closer and closer I just kept firing away fully expecting that the gull would take flight. The ferry was on a collision path with the gull and duck but it wouldnt let go!! Incredibly the ferry drove RIGHT OVER THE GULL AND MERGANSER with the gull holding on to its prey and then popping up in the stern wake of the ferry. It was an amazing event to witness. The photo below was taken just a few seconds before both were submerged!

Fort Myers Hilites

Kathi and I made a quick five night trip to Fort Myers Beach for her winter mini-break. The weather was not that warm, but we had excellent photo opps and really had a great time. Below are a few hilites. As you can see, we saw a lot of predation taking place!!

This cormorant was mighty ambitious, and certainly never downed this huge mullet. 

We watched this Great Egret stalking and catching six Cuban Brown Anoles in less than twenty minutes! Lets hope this single handed attempt to remove an invasive exotic is successful!

I find Ding Darling is often an over-rated photo experience, but not on one of our visits. The cold temps seemed to have caused a lot of fish to be in stress and there were pelicans, vultures, eagles, ospreys and a host of herons and egrets feasting at close range.

Estero lagoon is still one of my favourite sites to photograph in south Florida and it didnt disappoint as we had incredible close encounters with four or five large herons and egrets including this adult Little Blue Heron.

Prairie Warblers were already singing and on territory in the coastal mangroves and we had superb views of several males including this one.

The Yellow-throated Warbler was a constant fixture in the palms just outside our hotel room. Nice backyard bird!

Hybrid Common Goldeneye x Hooded Merganser

On Feb 21st morning I spotted a puzzling male duck mixed in with Common and Red-breasted Mergansers and Common Goldeneyes just north of Port Huron, MI. The bird had very striking pied plumage with characters reminiscent of both Common Goldeneye (without the eye spot) and Hooded Merganser (without the salmon tones). Bill and head shape were intermediate between these two species. I checked on line for images of hybrids of these two species and the bird was a dead ringer for on line images of what are presumed to be hybrids of COGO and HOME. The bird was swimming just south of the main viewpoint and parking area at Fort Gratiot County Park a few miles north of Port Huron, MI. It was still present when I left at 10:30 am. I managed to secure a few images that show the overall appearance of the bird.