Sunday 30 June 2013

Saskatchewan Road Trip Part 1

June 1 2013 Regina Beach, Craven, Valeport and Rowan's Ravine. Saskatchewan

The area around Regina is ideally situated for a great birding holiday. I returned from Churchill via Winnipeg and caught the overnight Greyhound bus to Regina, apart from renting an expensive one-way rental car it was the only way to get to my next birding area.
Regina and area (see map inset for location) is on the main Central flight path and provides great birding from March through to November. Ducks and geese arrive even when the ponds and sloughs are still frozen. One of the the highlights are the Whooping and Sandhill Crane flocks that pass through Rowan's Ravine area in April and May. The wide open fields offers food and protection as they make their way to Wood Buffalo Park to nest. During my early June visit the rearing process was already well under way.

American Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) at Regina Beach. Regina Beach is where Regina should have been built and is at the southern tip of Last Mountain Lake. Clark's, Western, Pied, Horned, Red-necked and Eared Grebe can be found there.

Plan to spend a week here. Thirty minutes North-West of Regina there are hundreds of miles of birding. Rowans Ravine and campsite is at the Last Mountain Bird Observatory.

Brown Thrasher ( Toxostoma refum)
Finally a Brown thrasher that would trust me enough to get a few pictures. I was at Rowan's Ravine when I spotted a Brown Thrasher in the undergrowth, a bird I had never photographed. Later I found another pair in the hedgerows of the campground where they perched before dropping down to feed on insects and worms.

Bison used to roam this area prior to First Contact. From Yellowstone in the south to Edmonton and east to Winnipeg millions of Bison and  Pronghorn Antelope made an annual northward migration in search of fresh food sources. Sometimes called the 'Serengeti of North America'  the herds were followed by Grizzly, Black Bear and Mountain Lion.
 Then there were the birds, although numbers have decreased dramatically enough remnants population remain for us to study and enjoy. Fortunately nature has been resilient, some prairie species have decreased by 80% (Sprague's Pipit) while others populations like the Western Meadowlark and Horned Lark have adapted to the changing landscape. 

Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) feeds on an abundance of insects at Rowan's Ravine. The campsite and surrounding paths and roads are a wonderful place to see many grassland birds. For those with a boat there is access to Last Mountain Lake with its Pelicans, Cormorants, Gulls and shorebirds.

Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus)
Driving between Rowan's Ravine and Regina Beach I always taken the road less travelled with the chance of seeing one of my favourite birds, the Bobolink.  Bobolink nest in fields and wet meadows and can often be seen sitting on barbed wire and fenceposts. The Bobolink has one of the longest migrations of all songbirds spending the winter east of the Andes in South America. Once common, their numbers have plummeted due to loss of habitat and hunting on migration. They once existed in the tens of millions.

Friday 21 June 2013

Churchill Part 3 Some Final Thoughts

May 31 2013 Churchill Manitoba.
What are some of the things I learnt from my trip to Churchill? A good set of clothing for a start, a sturdy pair of boots and lots of layers of clothing, the same combination I would wear on a cold frosty or wet day in Vancouver. Even though I was out on the Tundra for ten hours at a time I was never cold. One moment the wind off Hudson Bay would be bitter cold then the winds would drop and the temperatures would rise several degrees. There were no bugs during my visit but by mid-June onwards you'll need both insect repellent and sunscreen.
As for photography the most important was to have at least three sets of batteries, one in camera, one ready to go and another in an inside pocket keeping warm. It wasn't always that cold, there were days of sun and there were also snow flurries so an exposed camera sitting on a tripod soon had depleted batteries. Whenever I changed locations I would put the battery packs on the truck dash to warm up, it seemed to work. I would also take along a plastic garbage bag or two, one to lie on and to get lower angles of your subject and one to cover your camera when not in use or between locations. The same as you would on an African Safari as the Churchill roads were beginning to get a little dusty and you don't want to have to clean your sensor every night.
As for timing your trip the best time is when you are there. Weather can be unpredictable. This year Spring was late but the birds still arrived on time, they were just less active and hungrier. The first day I could hardly find a bird, but slowly I began to see the little movements, hear the warblers singing and spot the Ptarmigan. I believe patience is the key.

Common Redpoll (Acanthis flammea)

Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus Lagopus) in spring moulting phase.
Packing for these types of trip can be problem as Calm Air have a restriction on the size of bag that can be taken into the cabin. I was lucky as my plane was half empty but during the Polar Bear season space can be more limited so pack wisely. You could always go with Via Rail for about $1000 return (private cabin) and baggage isn't such an issue. The train does offer less expensive options. Plane return is about $1300 but perhaps more in Polar Bear season. The one advantage about the train is the opportunity to edit files and rest after a strenuous shoot (I can hear my wife laughing)
I learned that there is much more to Churchill than just cute Polar Bears, there's plenty to keep the history buff happy, the best First Nations museum in Manitoba and genuinely friendly people. There are also Beluga Whales in July, Northern Lights in early Fall and Polar Bears in Oct and November. There were none on my visit but I was warned to keep close to my vehicle in case there was a straggler around, sometimes an old bear who hadn't left could pose danger.
I will be going back for sure but with more knowledge and confidence.

Gray Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)  Boreal subspecies with white crown and dark nape.
Good Birding

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Churchill Part 2 Three Sparrows

May 28 2013 Churchill, Manitoba Day 2.
The Tundra was beginning to reveal its secrets. Lesser Yellowlegs, American Golden Plover, Horned Grebe, Bonaparte's, Herring, Glaucous and Thayer's Gull, Northern Harrier, Canada Goose, , Common Raven, Northern Flicker, American Robin, Common Eider, Blue-winged Teal, Merlin, Northern Pintail, Harris, Savannah, White-crowned and Fox Sparrows, Slate Coloured Junco, Sandhill Crane. Red-necked Phalarope, American Widgeon, Tree Swallow, Tundra and Trumpeter Swans and the year round resident the European House Sparrow...not a bad count for one day, EH!
Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) These Sparrows from the Hudson Bay area are much
redder and are one of four subspecies of Fox Sparrow.

Harris's Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula) in full breeding plumage.

White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys)
Note the extensive white on this bird (gambelii subspecies)

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Churchill Manitoba Part 1

May27- June 1 2013 Churchill, Manitoba. Canada
Part two of my three week road trip began in Winnipeg. A Churchill bound VIA Rail train leaves three times a week and is one of the great rail journeys of North America. The train leaves Sunday noon with two nights on board arriving in Churchill Tuesday morning. I chose a cabin as this allowed me to edit my files from the Ontario portion of the trip and catch up on some sleep.
The changing landscape was an added bonus as the rolling farmland and lakes slowly changed to Aspen to stunted tundra Lodgepole Pine. As the train neared Churchill a single Sandhill Crane kept pace with the train before heading off and Willow Ptarmigan could be seen sitting in bushes.
Once in chilly Churchill my host Yijon kindly drove me around and at one of our stops a pair of nesting Merlins noisily made their presence known. I took a few quick shots as a Raven was nearby and I didn't want to draw the birds from their nest.
Merlin (Falco columbarius)
My first day out on the tundra was one of assimilation, the terrain so different from anything I had ever experienced. My very first shot was a Lesser Yellowlegs atop a tree, normally I would see them on the beaches of Vancouver. I then decided to go into the nearby Churchill Northern Studies Centre to get some tips about where exactly to look for birds. They were very helpful and had hot coffee. Slowly but surely the tundra began to reveal its secrets. A flock of American Golden Plover feeding on insects, a Northern Harrier hovering overhead and a pair Bonaparte's Gulls beginning the nesting process. Churchill doesn't give up its secrets easily so patience is a requisite, something I had cultivated when I used to fish.
The cold wind off Hudson Bay meant wearing three of layers of clothing so whenever possible I photographed from the truck ($75 rental a day and $2.08 a litre for gas) the vehicle also acted as a blind and windbreak. Next up was a trip along Goose Creek Rd, where a number of ponds and sloughs had thawed and were being used extensively by Hudsonian Godwit as well as Stilt, White-rumped and Solitary Sandpipers. There were also a smattering of Short-billed Dowitchers which were easy to identify as similar looking Long-billed rarely visit Churchill.
Hudsonian Godwit (Limosa haemastica)
 I had photographed Stilt Sandpipers (below) at Refel on their Fall return migration to South American but to see them in full breeding plumage was especially rewarding. Occasionally a Merlin would disturb the feeding shorebird flocks and reveal single sandpipers like the White-rumped hidden amongst the Stilts. All very exiting, enough to make one forget about the cold.
Stilt Sandpiper in breeding plumage (Calidris himantopus)
Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis)
Melting snow opens up new feeding opportunities. Seeds and insects make up most the Buntings diet.
Next was a visit to 'The Beach" a ramshackle collection of cabins and fish boats near to the downtown core. A flock of Snow Buntings were feeding on the foreshore. Common Eider, Thayer's and Glaucous Gulls were out on a distant ice flow. One bird that is present year round is the European House Sparrow.

Finally, I include a distant record shot of a Whimbrel with a tag. If anyone has any ideas about its origin please let me know.
Whimbrel with EH tag

Thursday 13 June 2013

Burnaby Mountain Walk

June 13 2013 Burnaby Mountain, British Columbia, Canada

Swainson's Thrush (Catharus ustulatus)

A Swainson's Thrush searches for food on the forest floor, its song fills the air, combined with the songster the Wilson's Warbler, the Black-capped Chickadee and American Robin the forest is a cacophony of sound.
Further along the trail a sudden flash of red and yellow gives away a brilliantly coloured Western Tanager, a drabber but no less stunning female is not far behind. What a treat to see them so clearly but getting a photograph will require some stealth.
The Western Tanager had been my reason to visit Burnaby Mountain. The elevated location and deciduous woods of the mountain provides the perfect habitat and opportunity to see this very exotic looking bird.
An early morning jogger disturbed the Tanagers but they soon came down from the forest canopy to continue feeding on berries and caterpillars. The male landed in clear view just long enough for a few shots.
Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana)
The final shot is of a Wilson's Warbler, one of a pair that I believe have a nest nearby to the water tower. They kept flying back to the same bush, so dense it was hard to see if there was a nest or not.

Wilson's Warbler (Wilsonia pusilla)
Good Birding

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Ontario 2113 Roadtrip Summary

May 17-24 Ontario Roadrip
How can I sum up the Ontario portion of my 2103 roadtrip? Nothing could have prepared me for the variety of birds I encountered in Southwestern Ontario. There were a few familiar birds but most were newbies to me. Keep in mind that I had only birded in Western Canada and the U.K and I had never seen a Northern Cardinal or Bluejay!
Just for the record, I keep a diary of the birds with locations and dates and can now add fifty-two 'Lifers" to it.
Keeping records is the best way to re-locate species at a later date and keep a tally of the birds. Each new bird gives me the opportunity to study a particular species in more deail, its habits etc leading me to a greater understanding of birding and whole scheme of things.
So that's the end of this portion of the trip before continuing my journey by train to Churchill, Manitoba.
Why Churchill? A 60th birthday present from my son Christopher...thanks Chris. That will be my next post.

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) at Rondeau Provincial Park.
I can't leave without thanking my host family Peter and Erika Braithwaite and their daughter Kait who hosted me while in Essex County. They are a wonderful family and for those who are making their way to Pelee Island they can contact me for more information about their wonderful cottage.

I photographed this Dunlin (Calidris alpina) at the Leamington Ferry Terminal whil waiting for the ferry to Pelee Island.
Good Birding

Point Pelee/Hillman Marsh/Rondeau

                         May 23/24 2012 Point Pelee/Hillman Marsh/Rondeau Provincial Park
Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

Magnolia Warbler (Dendroica magnolia)

Back at Point Pelee produced and yet another varied day of birding. To be honest I had become sleep deprived and needed to late breakfast and didn't arrive at Point Pelee until 8 a.m. The forest was quiet except for a numerous Wild Turkey that wouldn't move out of the road for anything, as it turned out, they presented a perfect photo op. Highlights for the day included 'Lifers' Red-bellied Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, Eastern Bluebird and Cape May Warbler.
In the afternoon I checked out nearby Hillman Marsh, where my first sighting of a Great Egret was a real treat. I think I may have seen them on my World travels but not being interested in birding at the time I didn't take too much stock on the sightings.
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herondias)
The marsh has a system of ponds and flooded fields that is similar to Reifel. There were numerous species of Sandpipers and Black-bellied Plovers and ducks.

Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopvo) blocking traffic.

On a whim I decided to head for Rondea Provincial Park. It was quite a drive and the looming storm clouds did not bode well. At one point I almost turned back but I'm glad I didn't.  The Rondeau interpretive centre is one of the best I have ever visited with an excellent overview of the park's inhabitants and history. There was also a bird feeder that was visited by numerous species. It is also one of the best places to view the Prothanatory Warbler. Nest boxes and a boardwalk snake through a forested swamp, the ideal habitat for the rare (in Canada) warbler.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)

Manning Park Bird Blitz June 14-16

Please come and join us for a wonderful weekend of birding and camaraderie.

Leader of the Pack!

Northern flicker


Thursday 6 June 2013

Point Pelee Day 4 Six 'Lifers'

May 22 Point Pelee Sunny
Another different set of birds passing through. The main migration of warblers had been late April and early May. However I managed 27 species and six 'Lifers'  on the day.

American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)

Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus)

Black-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus erythropthalmus)
Highlights were Black Terns, their black and white plumage was  tough to photograph in the evening light, a Nashvile Warbler and an Eastern Screech owl were treats even though the latter was too obscured for a photo.

Nashville Warbler (Oreothylypis ruficapilla)

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)
While photographing an Indigo Bunting these two Northern Cardinals dropped out of the sky at the tip of the forested area of Point Pelee. The brightly coloured male took no time at all to find a seed for his partner. The birds were very wary of me having just arrived from  a long flight over Lake Erie. I had to be very quiet while this moment unfolded. I was partly obscured by foilage but I am happy with the story telling seen here. It was a privilage to witness this tender moment that was repeated several times. The following shot is of the female after she was disturbed by a passerby.
Female Northern Cardinal

Black Tern (Chlidonias niger)

Point Pelee Day 2

May 21, 2013 Point Pelee Sunny and Warm. Thunderclaps 
Back at Point Pelee after the island visit was quite surprising. The warblers were very few and far between. However that didn't matter there was still enough variety to keep me photographing all day. Baltimore Orioles were busy collecting nesting material while bird song filled the air. Add to that the crashing of the waves on the beach and the odd crack of thunder to the scene was set. Despite the black clouds over Michigan only a few drops of rain fell while temperatures fluctuated between 65-85 fahrenheit. Some good birds, three 'Lifers' were seen and a reverse migration took place with Baltimore Orioles and Warbling Vireos started to make their way back across Lake Erie. I watched them fight a headwind, tiny specks disappearing into the distance.
Female Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) picks off insects from a Spider's web

Male Baltimore Oriole

Male Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius)

Warbling Vireo (Vireo  gilvus

Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus)
This pair of birds photographed at Point Pelee. At first glance  I thought they were Western's but the beak is longer and the tail has a reddish tinge. 

Pelee Island Essex County

May 16-17 Pelee Island. Sunny
When my hosts Peter and Erika Braithwaite suggested visiting their beach front cottage on Pelee Island my first response was "Are there any birds there"  I needn't have worried as Pelee Island is used by thousands of migrating birds as a stop over before arriving in Ontario. The one and half hour boat rip over is pictureque and invigorating, a pleasant break from the stifling heat of Point Pelee.
The Island is the most southerly inhabited part of Canada on the same latitude as Italy and Northern California. It is also the northernly edge of the forested and much depleted Carolinian Zone.
The island's forests, beaches, swamps and woodlands house some of Canada's most endangered species, many are only found on the island.
The forest floor was alive with Swainson's Thrush and the Prothonotary Warbler is found here and could be heard singing in the forested swamp. It is one of the few warblers to nest in tree cavities. Common in the USA but quite rare and hard to find in Canada. Only sixty pairs are known to nest in Canada. Point Pelee and Rondeau Provincial Park are also good spots to find this elusive warbler.
While on the beach one day a Snapping Turtle used the pounding waves to haul itself up onshore. The white sandy beach, the blue sky and a large turtle felt quite out of place, it's what makes Canada such a fascinating and surprising place to explore.
I also visited the Pelee Island Bird Observatory station and have a fascinating video and interview with founder and director Graham Gibson, which I will edit and post at a later date. His insights on banding are quite illuminating and thoughtful.
Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)
What is this mockingbird doing? After much investigation it appears it is using its wings to dislodge insects. It then quickly dispatches them and moves on. I asked at the bird observatory as I thought it might be a courtship dance or it was just wet from flying across Lake Erie. The bird performed this action for at least thirty minutes obviously hungry after its journey.
(Birdus Nuttus) on the southern tip of Pelee Island.

A Snapping Turtle come on land to lay eggs.

Canada's southernmost point except for a tiny island inhabited by double-crested  cormorants

Pelee Island sunset from the Braithwaite cottage porch. Contact me for rental details. Nearest airport Detroit.
I only spent two days on the island but saw:
* Denotes Lifer
Red-bellied Woodpecker*
Common Nighthawk*
Great-blue Heron
Warbling Vireo
Yellow-shafted Flicker*
Indigo Bunting*
Swainson's Thrush
Canada Goose
Red-eyed Vireo
Red-winged Blackbird
American Robin
Yellow Warbler
Baltimore Oriole
Prothanatory Warbler*

Painted Turtle
Snapping Turtle
Eastern Fox Squirrel
No mosquitos !!!!

Saturday 1 June 2013

Point Pelee 'Heaven on Earth' Day One

May 17th Point Pelee Day 1 

For a West coast birder Point Pelee is truly astonishing. For someone who had never seen a Cardinal or Bluejay except on a baseball cap I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Even though the general opinion of regulars was that the birding was 'slow' it wasn't long before a colourful Blackburnian Warbler popped into view. What a stunning bird.
Blackburian Warbler (Setophaga fusca)
For those who haven't visited Point Pelee National Park a good place to start is at the sandy tip of the that juts out into Lake Erie. For those of us lugging a heavy camera and scopes a regular shuttle service is provided. If you prefer, investigate the numeorous trail systems that snake through the woods around the car park. It was on one of these trails I spotted a Black-billed Cuckoo and an Eastern Screech Owl.
The visitor centre has an excellent display outling the history of the park, a gift shop and facilities but take enough food and drink for the day.
I was told that many of the birds arriving may have travelled as much seven thousand kms, some of the  smaller warblers covering one thousand kms a day. Once they arrive, a plentiful source of insects, nectar and seeds help them replenish their tired bodies for the next push on their migration route. The Blackpoll Warbler is will eventually make their way up to the sub-artic and can be seen in places like Churchill, Manitoba. In a later blog I'll describe how I photograped one in sub zero temperatures.
Although the majority of warblers had already passed through Pelee by late April and early May enough 'stragglers' were still coming through to please most everyone, myself included.
On the first morning a flock of Orchard Orioles busily fed on insects, in a Popular the brighter coloured  Baltimore Oriole scoured for green caterpillars and a shy Scarlet Tanager also newly arrived, picked off insects in the thick undergrowth. The Orioles were gathering nesting material.
One of the magical aspects of Point Pelee is the opportunity to see birds arrive on the spit after crossing Lake Erie. I witnesssed a pair of Cardinals, fresh from their journey land a few metres from the edge of the beach. The female playing a little coy as the brightly coloured male collected seeds and fed her in some elaborate courtship ritual perhaps!
I also witnessed a reverse migration where birds flew back out across Lake Erie toward Michigan, something that offers no explanation.

Blackburnian Warbler/Point Pelee. Photographing birds was a little dificult because of the amount of new foilage. I would suggest going a few weeks earlier when there are less leaves.

Tennessee Warbler (Oreothlypis peregrina)

Black and White Warbler (Mniotilta varia)

Chestnut-sided Warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica)

Birds photographed on Day 1 (with varying success)
* Denotes a 'Lifer'
Baltimore Oriole*
Orchard Oriole*
Bewick's Wren
Scarlet Tanager*
Chestnut-sided Warbler*

Black and White Warbler*
Tenesee Warbler*
Nashville Warbler
Cape May Warbler*
Yellow Warbler
Magnolia Warbler*
Black-throated Green Warbler*
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Double-crested Cormorant
Red-breasted  Merganser
Ring-billed Gull
Bonarparte Gull
Ruddy Turnstone*
Brewer's blackbird

Blackpoll Warbler (Setophaga striata)