Since my latest post, I have done a little bit of wandering here and there in search of birds. Though - to be fair - I haven't done much actual birdwatching. Instead, I have been on a few rare bird twitches.
In recent weeks, I have taken advantage of the poor weather and lack of sunlight by staying inside and chipping away at the to-do list. I just haven't had much motivation at all to go look for birds; after Indonesia and Ecuador, walking around Hamilton in the cold and the rain and not seeing much just hasn't seemed that enticing. My work schedule has filled up as well, leaving not as much free time for the birds.
But, as is typical at this time of year, unusual birds have been reported on numerous occasions, and some have been too tempting to ignore. On November 29, a birdwatcher named Julie Belliveau discovered a very out-of-range Fieldfare in her front yard in Sturgeon Falls, Nipissing District. Fieldfare is a Eurasian species of thrush, one that I had seen previously in the UK and Turkey. It is a rare but consistent vagrant to the east coast (and occasionally the west coast) of North America, with Atlantic Canada receiving the bulk of the records. Ontario had three previous records of Fieldfare, from the years 1967, 1975 and 1981. Since it had been 42 years, this Fieldfare caused a bit of pandemonium.
I made some plans with Josh Mandell and Dave Szmyr to drive up the next day. I arrived at Josh's place in the evening and enjoyed hanging out with the guys, though perhaps we stayed up just a little too late. This meant that we would not be arriving in Sturgeon Falls until later in the morning, but our spirits were high.
The bird was rediscovered at dawn but, by the time we rolled up, it hadn't been seen for several hours. We kept busy by walking around the neighbourhood, hoping to be the lucky crew that re-found it, but that was futile. We left the area to grab some lunch and planned to stick it out for an hour or two more before admitting defeat. Fortunately, the bird returned and due to our lucky timing, we had great views of it, though they lasted for less than 30 seconds. I botched the focus on my photos, too.
A longer experience with the bird would have been better, but we were thrilled that our trip was successful. Any day with a mega-rarity like a Fieldfare is a good day, and it was made even better because I was able to share the experience with two close friends.
Speaking of Josh and Dave, it wasn't the only time we have gone birding in recent weeks. Laura and I spent a weekend with the Mandells and Dave in early December and we made sure to include some birding in the itinerary.
A drive around the back roads near Orillia produced some great looks at Northern Shrikes and some massive flocks of Snow Buntings. Since Laura and I haven't been around much in recent winters, it had been several years since we had studied either of these species.
We also birded the Orillia and Barrie waterfronts which can be productive before freeze-up. The long-staying Pacific Loon was present, though it had some fishing line wrapped around its right wing and leg and looked rather uncomfortable. I know that there was some effort to catch the bird to remove the line, but the loon could still dive and their efforts were unsuccessful. The loon disappeared a few days after we saw it; who knows what its fate was. We also found both Glaucous and Iceland Gulls, Red-necked Grebes and a nice selection of waterfowl.
A little closer to home, the west end of Hamilton Harbour has also provided excellent birding this autumn with a few rarities mixed in. Joanne Redwood found a Western Grebe one day, while Keith Dieroff found a Pacific Loon on another. Both birds remained in the area for a while, and I bumped into them on a few occasions.
In the below image, the Western Grebe is flanked by two Horned Grebes which is the "default" species at this time of year.
I was particularly keen to study the Pacific Loon as it was a juvenile and it had been several years since I had observed one in that plumage. This individual was often providing close views, though it seldom remained at the surface for very long, preferring to spend long periods of time fishing.
Often, great looks at various waterbird species can be had at this time of year in Hamilton Harbour. Below are a few of the regulars. They may get passed over by some birders who are searching for something rarer, but there is a lot to like about each of the following species.
American Tree Sparrows are one of the few species of songbirds that we only see during the winter in southern Ontario. This one was attending a feeder at Bayfront Park in Hamilton.
I also spent a day in early December co-leading the Ontario Field Ornithologists' Gull Weekend at Niagara Falls. I used to lead this outing each year but had passed it off to Marcie Jacklin when Laura and I began our travels in 2019. It was fun to help Marcie out this year, to spend a day checking out the gulls on the river, and to see many old friends while meeting some others for the first time. The weather wasn't ideal but we still had a great day with a few interesting gull species and hybrids.
One of the wackiest sightings of the year occurred just a few days ago when Pete Read and Peter Kelly stumbled across a wayward Limpkin while they were participating on the Point Pelee Christmas Bird Count. They found the bird in a thicket in Wheatley Provincial Park, and promptly got the word out to other birders who observed it throughout the rest of the afternoon.
If this sighting had occurred during any other year, it would be completely unprecedented. However, Ontario added Limpkin to the provincial list earlier this year when Josh Mandell and his daughters Emily and Rebecca found one in Simcoe County in May. There have been several other records this year as well (five or six in total, now). Still, finding a Limpkin in Canada in December is a shocking discovery and I am sure it will take Pete and Peter some time to recover!
Since I had spent the previous few days cooped up inside and doing work on my computer, I was ready for a birding day and the Limpkin was the excuse I needed. I arranged to meet up with Todd Hagedorn, as it had been too long since we had last hung out. Luckily, our trip was successful as the Limpkin was still present when we arrived.
I am not sure how hardy a Limpkin is, though other rails do exhibit some toughness (Virginia Rails have successfully overwintered in Ontario before). Still, this one was not looking too comfortable and it spent the whole morning standing there with its head tucked in. We never saw it feed, though it was still quite alert, looking around if a bird made an alarm call. Who knows how long this bird will survive in southern Ontario, though I am doubtful it will be for very long.
The above Great Blue Heron, on the other hand, looked as comfortable as can be in a nearby wetland area. This species can easily overwinter as long as it has open water and a steady food source.
As is always the case on these rare bird twitches, it was a social event as well and I enjoyed seeing a few familiar faces including Aaron Rusak, Paul Nicholson, Blake Mann, Barb Charlton, Mark Field and others. Todd, Mark and I birded Wheatley together on our walk back out, seeing neat species like Fox Sparrow, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Purple Finch and Hermit Thrush.
The day was still young and our hearts yearned for more birds. Todd and I headed southwest towards Point Pelee where we met up with Jeremy Bensette and Mark Field for some more birding. My main interest was to attempt to see the Townsend's Solitaire that Jeremy and Kate Derbyshire had found back in November, and which was still being faithful to the junipers and hackberries around the DeLaurier parking lot. Our search lasted mere minutes before the solitaire came flying in, giving us quite the show.
It didn't seem bothered by our presence and fed on juniper berries, often perching at eye level. Townsend's Solitaires are hardy thrushes that can stand cold weather and it wouldn't be surprising if this one hung around until the spring, given the abundant food for it here.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in the Sparrow Field area near the tip, unsuccessfully searching for roosting owls. However, a massive duck flock offshore was in good light, and the west wind meant that the east side of the peninsula was relatively calm. We enjoyed searching for unusual species amongst the thousands of Greater Scaup and Common Goldeneye. While true rarities did not reveal themselves, we found all three scoters, a Long-tailed Duck and a flock of Ruddy Ducks. It was a nice way to end a very productive day.