The early summer is always a busy time for a naturalist here in Canada. My June and July have been pretty typical, with long hours in the field completing bird surveys and other inventories (my day job). I have been mothing in the evenings whenever my schedule allows, while I have filled in the gaps by searching for butterflies, herping, botanizing and the odd rare bird twitch. As a result, the blog often gets neglected. When I am home and in front of a computer, I have such a backlog of photos and recordings to go through and upload to iNaturalist and eBird that a blog entry isn't even considered.
Now that I have crested the peak of my busy early-summer work schedule, I will be attempting to write a little more frequently than just monthly. We will see how that goes! First up - a post about some of the rare bird highlights from this month.
July is typically a slow month for rare birds in southern Ontario. This is due to several factors, prime among them because very few species are actively migrating in July. That being said, more bird movement than you might imagine can occur in July - the dispersal of post-breeding individuals, the wandering of young birds, the arrival of nomadic species, and the return of the first autumn migrants. But for the most part, birds are hunkered down and busy with parenthood (or fledgelinghood).
Birders also tend to slow down during the hot summer months. I know that personally, I am usually a little burnt out from the rush of spring migration birding, and I rarely search for birds on my own time during the summer. There are so many other interesting creatures to seek out in the summer - the vast world of insects, for example.
Fortunately, there have been quite a few others out birding this July, and as a result, a handful of rare birds have been reported. Part of this is because we are in Year 1 of 5 of the 3rd iteration of the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas. Volunteers have been atlassing their squares across Ontario, searching for breeding evidence of every species, and this has turned up a number of interesting sightings.
One of the exciting finds this summer was a young male Blue Grosbeak that Erik Van Den Keiboom located near Backus Woods in Norfolk County. The Blue Grosbeak is not a regularly occurring species in Ontario, though it occurs annually in small numbers. Nearly every Ontario record consists of a "spring overshoot", spanning the dates of April 19 to June 7. There is a single winter observation, as well as an interesting record of a mated pair at Sleepy Hollow, Chatham-Kent that stayed from mid-May until early September in 1995. Breeding was never confirmed. The male was noted the following year with similar arrival and departure dates, but no female was observed that year. This is the closest that Ontario has come to confirming Blue Grosbeak as a breeding species.
I tied in a visit to see this young Blue Grosbeak at Backus Woods with a night of mothing at nearby St. William's Forestry Reserve. It was an hour before sunset when I arrived, and despite some effort I was unable to locate the grosbeak. I stayed in the area after my mothing escapades and returned to the site in the morning. This time, the Blue Grosbeak was easy to locate. It was frequently singing from the north edge of its chosen field, next to Highway 24.
Most of my Blue Grosbeak sightings in Ontario have consisted of adult males, along with a few females and young males. But I had never observed a young male so well, nor had I ever heard this species sing in Ontario. I was pleased to obtain several good quality recordings once the other birders continued on with their day and I had the bird to myself.
During the entirety of my visit, I did not notice a second Blue Grosbeak. Some others have thought that they have seen two birds here, but no one has managed any sort of documentation of this other bird. There are, however, lots of Indigo Buntings breeding in this same area. Personally, I would be quite surprised if a second Blue Grosbeak was present. I think it is far more likely that this bird will be singing away in vain, unable to attract a mate this far north of the species' typical breeding range. We will likely have to wait before we can confirm Blue Grosbeak as a breeding species in Ontario.
The Blue Grosbeak was not the only rare bird that I was seeking in the Long Point area. A flock of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks had been discovered five days earlier in the town of Port Dover, furnishing the first ever record for Norfolk County. Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks are well-known for appearing in small numbers far to the north of their typical range which includes the southern United States (as well as much of Central and South America). This species has become more frequent in recent years. Back in 2010 I saw my first Black-bellied Whistling-Duck in Ontario - a single bird in Prince Edward County that spent much of the summer in the area. Prior to 2010, there were only 2 accepted records of this species in Ontario. Now, there are at least 14 records.
The flock of 16 Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks was not difficult to find as the birds were frequenting a favoured grassy field behind a grocery store in Port Dover. It was a dark and gloomy evening, so I popped my camera onto my tripod and joined several others that were clicking away at the wayward ducks. I was quite pleased with the results of the photoshoot.
I called this image "Getting my ducks in a row". Count the legs!
My timing to see the ducks was fortuitous. They remained in the Port Dover area for only one more day before continuing on to points unknown. Who knows where they will resurface next?
In Ontario we only have a small number of herons and egrets that can be found regularly within our borders - six species, to be exact. But each summer almost without fail, a few of the rarer species can appear. Often, these are young birds dispersing far to the north of their typical breeding range, but mature birds do appear as well. The most likely rare summer wanderers include Tricolored and Little Blue Herons, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, and Snowy and Cattle Egrets. 2021, however, appears to be a good year for a much rarer species in the north: the Roseate Spoonbill. Ontario's only accepted record of this species was a one-day wonder in June of 2009 (there was also a rejected record from Prince Edward County in September, 2013), but we are holding out hope that 2021 will be the year that another one appears. There have been three Roseate Spoonbills within 150 km of Ontario's borders already this summer: one at Montezuma NWR between Rochester and Syracuse, NY; one south of Ann Arbor, MI; and another in Findlay, northwest OH.
But while we wait and hold out hope for a Roseate Spoonbill, it appears to be a good year for Yellow-crowned Night-Herons - there have been at least three reports already this summer. The most recent was discovered yesterday by Lisa Bacon in St. Catharines. She found the young bird alongside a small pond at Happy Rolph's Bird Sanctuary, which is just east of the Welland Canal and situated on the shores of Lake Ontario. Happy Rolph's was in my local patch back when I lived in St. Catharines, a place that I would visit regularly during the spring and autumn. During the summer the park can be filled with young families and couples, with birding opportunities not really possible. It must have been a great surprise for Lisa to find this Yellow-crowned Night-Heron at this location!
As a former Niagara birder, the pull of the night-heron was too much for me to resist, and so I braved the traffic and drove down yesterday afternoon. Fortunately, the night-heron was easy to find - just look for the birders. :) It was great to catch up with a few of those who were present, people who I have become friends with as part of the local birding community.
My time here was limited as I had another function later that afternoon, but it was good to study the night-heron and obtain a few distant photos. Compared to a young Black-crowned Night-Heron, a young Yellow-crowned is darker in overall colour, with tiny white marks on the wings, thinner, distinct streaks on the breast, longer legs and neck, a slightly different head shape, and a darker bill. Though the Yellow-crowned NIght-Heron is an annual species in Ontario, this represented only the third record for Niagara Region. The first was found by Willie D'Anna and Betsy Potter at Port Colborne in August 2002, and the second was discovered by Raymond Barlow in Grimsby on August 24, 2008.
As the days of July wind down with August just around the corner, the frequency of interesting bird sightings should increase. Autumn migration is well on its way! Hopefully I'll have some additional rare birds to report on in the upcoming weeks.