A few weeks ago I had a few days free to do a road trip. Originally, my plan had been to turn my car southwest and visit Point Pelee National Park and adjacent areas in search of birds and rare butterflies with perhaps some late-season mothing thrown in. However, in the days preceding my departure, I was also keeping an eye on a Rare Bird Situation that was happening in South Porcupine, near Timmins, Ontario. Back on September 18, local birder extraordinaire Roxane Filion discovered a Northern Wheatear in a park next to picturesque Porcupine Lake. Most Ontario records of Northern Wheatears consist of "one-day-wonders", though some individuals have stuck around for as long as a week. Regardless, I was not expecting this particular wheatear to remain in South Porcupine long enough until the time commenced for my road trip. But, I was wrong. Each day Roxane confirmed that the wheatear was still present and slowly becoming a local celebrity in South Porcupine. On Thursday morning (September 25), the day I was to leave on my road trip, Roxane messaged me that the wheatear was still present. And so my decision was made.
I motored through the GTA with hardly any traffic slowing me down. Driving north, the trees were vibrant with their reds, yellows and oranges contrasting beautifully with the blue sky. I refrained from making any birding stops along the way, since I wanted to arrive in South Porcupine with plenty of daylight left to search for the rare Arctic songbird. Once I passed North Bay the highway was largely devoid of traffic. I love northern Ontario in the autumn!
With the afternoon turning into evening, I pulled into the parking lot for the White Waterfront Conservation Area. It was here, along the western shoreline of Porcupine Lake, where Roxane had first found the Northern Wheatear. It sometimes had wandered into the backyards of neighbouring houses, but this was a good place to start searching.
My heart sank a little when I saw a message from Roxane. She, along with two others, had been searching for the wheatear for half an hour without any success.
I started to explore the park and hardly two minutes had passed when a small, tawny-coloured bird flew up from some manicured grass and perched on top of a post. It was the wheatear!
For the next few minutes I watched the wheatear, approaching it slowly until I was close enough for nearly full-frame shots.
Unfortunately a passing cyclist flushed the bird, at which point it flew out of sight over some trees. I was pretty stoked though with the experience, even if it was brief!
Roxane showed up, along with several others who had been searching including new birder Swapnil who Roxane had recruited. It was great to chat with them and eventually the wheatear returned, much to our delight. For the next half hour or so we watched the bird hunt from various locations, seemingly unafraid of us. I wonder how many humans it had seen in its short life thus far. It does appear to be a young bird, born this summer in the Arctic.
The Northern Wheatear breeds mostly in Arctic regions of North America, Europe and Asia and migrates to Africa for the non-breeding season. This is really a remarkable migration with some radio-tracked birds flying 30,000 km annually to complete this journey! In North America, the birds from the eastern Canadian Arctic cross the Atlantic to Europe, and then fly south to Africa. Meanwhile the Alaskan birds travel the other way - crossing the Bering Sea to Siberia, across Asia, and eventually southwest to Africa.
Timmins is not really "on the way" to Africa from the eastern Canadian Arctic. However, enough have shown up in northern Ontario that I wonder if these birds are truly lost, or if they are just taking an alternate, slightly more southern route to get to their wintering grounds. Additionally, I know others have speculated that some Northern Wheatears might overwinter in the Caribbean. However, this is a species that clearly exhibits a lot of vagrancy since there are records from all over North America. I guess not totally unexpected for a bit that migrates such a long distance.
Alan Wormington once told me that I had a 1 in 4 chance of finding a Northern Wheatear on an autumn trip to Moosonee. In his mind, this species was a vagrant that could be expected each autumn (Alan would know, having found 9 (!) over the years in northern Ontario). Regardless, it was one species that I had not seen before in Ontario as I had struck out on all of my previous northern trips, and there had never been a chase-able one in southern Ontario since I began birding.
Eventually, the Northern Wheatear positioned itself on a bench overlooking Porcupine Lake. The yellow and green hues of the aspens, tamaracks and spruces provided a scenic backdrop while it seemingly posed in the sunshine.
It is said that Northern Wheatears abhor trees, preferring to perch on the ground, boulders, or on man-made structures. This certainly seemed to be the case here as it stuck to the light fixtures and park benches while it hunted for insect prey in the grass.
I felt bad for this Ring-billed Gull that was being ignored by us all in favour of the wheatear. I relented and took its picture.
And one final image of the Northern Wheatear. It was difficult to pull myself away from such a photogenic bird!
With two days remaining before I needed to return home, I had some options. I considered staying in the Timmins area or exploring some of the dams north of Smooth Rock Falls. In the end, I decided to begin my journey south and explore the Hilliardton Marsh in the morning.
That night, I fell asleep to the sounds of singing Northern Saw-whet Owls.
Morning dawned cold and crisp with a layer of frost coating all of the vegetation. The sun felt warm as it slowly rose above the horizon, quickly melting the frost and initiating a flurry of bird activity.
At this time of year, warbler diversity in the north is waning while sparrows are just ramping up. A nice variety of the later warblers were present along the dykes, including Yellow-rumped, Palm, Nashville, Orange-crowned, Tennessee and Common Yellowthroat.
A unique vocalization caught my ear as I walked - a Common Gallinule! This rarity in the north had actually been discovered several weeks earlier. I tried to locate the bird but it was not willing to give itself up easily and I eventually walked away. A little further along I inadvertently flushed a Sora from the edges of the cattails.
Sparrows, such as the above Swamp Sparrow, were positively abundant along the dykes. My main target was Nelson's Sparrow since there is a lot of suitable habitat at Hilliardton and late September is the perfect time of year to find Nelson's Sparrow at this latitude. Despite my best efforts I was unsuccessful. There were billions of Swamp, White-throated, and White-crowned Sparrows to keep my binoculars moving, however.
A few raptors caught my attention during the mid-morning. I watched one bird for a while over the treeline to the west. It was very distant, but its flight style and plumage suggested a young Golden Eagle. A very early autumn migrant, and a species that for some reason has few records in Timiskaming District.
Huge numbers of Black-capped Chickadees were moving through - perhaps, a sign of a big autumn migration for this species. On a few occasions I heard some chickadees excitingly scolding something deep off the trail. Likely, these chickadees had found Northern Saw-whet Owls of which dozens were undoubtedly around.
I was pleased to discover some Rusty Blackbirds which provided a half-decent photo opportunity. This species has undergone drastic declines in recent decades and while they can still be found in large numbers in some areas, I am worried for how things will look 10, 20, or 30 years from now.
A distinctive woodpecker call caught my ears - a Black-backed. Eventually the culprit revealed itself near the top of a dead snag.
With a solid 41 species under my belt I left the productive environs of Hilliardton Marsh behind and continued driving south (a flock of American Golden-Plovers flying over just snuck onto the eBird checklist as I was leaving). I made a number of birding stops along the way, though I found nothing really of note. One place I often check is the New Liskeard sewage lagoons. As these lagoons are heavily fenced in (it is not a fence you can hop over), the only way a birder can access them is if the gate is unlocked, or if they are one of the lucky few birders who possesses a key for the gate. Unfortunately the gate was locked and so I had to continue on.
Intermittent rain killed my afternoon birding plans and so I continued driving south towards the Tilden Lake area. I had scoped out a location ahead of time that I thought could be productive for late-season mothing. As a bonus, there were numerous options for car-camping in the immediate vicinity. And so that is what I did!
The above photo was taken from the location where I set up my moth light and sheet. Situated in a utility corridor with fantastic visibility to the surrounding forest types, I had high hopes for the evening. The temperatures had held steady at 20 degrees Celsius by dusk and the wind had completely died down as well - ideal conditions. I tried to temper my expectations by reminding myself that it was late autumn, and moth diversity would likely be quite low.
The night started strong with the first moth being a new one for me - an Unsated Sallow (Metaxaglaea inulta). Multiple Diamondback Epinotias (Epinotia lindana) also appeared throughout the night - another new one. As expected, some of the more common moths were Autumnal Moth (Epirrita autumnata) and Hemlock Looper Moth (Lambdina fiscellaria)
The genus Lithophane contains a number of species commonly referred to as pinions. These are late-season moths that sometimes overwinter as the adult form, flying again for a brief period in the spring. Prior to this night I had not seen a single species of Lithophane (like I said, I haven't done autumn mothing before). This evening, I found five species of Lithophane!
Closely related to the Pinions are the Swordgrass Moths (Xylena spp.), another genus I had never encountered before. A single Dot-and-Dash Swordgrass Moth (Xylena curvimaculata) appeared this evening.
Underwing Moths (Catocala spp.) are often a favourite among moth-ers due to their often large sizes and beautiful hindwing patterns. Up north, the classic late autumn Catocala is C. relicta, also known as the White Underwing or the Relict Underwing. At least three individuals investigated my light and sheet this evening.
Few "non-moths" appeared at the sheet, other than the obligatory midges and caddisflies. I only photographed a couple of these other insects including a Woolly Alder Aphid (Prociphilus tessellatus) and a Say's Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus sayi).
Surprisingly, I ended up with over 40 moth species including 16 that I had never seen before. Moth diversity continues to amaze me!
Below are a few more of my favourite moths from the evening. This first moth, Epinotia lomonana has very few records for Ontario. Its late flight season may be part of the reason why it has been so infrequently detected.
The next morning, my final of the trip, dawned warm and calm. I could not resist taking a photo of the beautiful river I had camped beside.
I completed a number of birding stops throughout the day, beginning with an hour or two along the North Bay waterfront (Some Black-bellied Plovers and a late Spotted Sandpiper were the highlights there). A few lagoons were also worth checking and Bracebridge pulled through with a rare Lapland Longspur on one of the pathways along with a nice diversity of ducks (and my first American Coot for Muskoka District). My last stop was a Slaty-backed Gull twitch in Mississauga, though I came up empty with that one. I rolled into St. Catharines around dinner time. It had been a pretty great trip!