Mega Rarities Of May
Since Laura and I left Canada and embarked on our travels in the autumn of 2019, my Ontario bird list has moved to the back burner. Spending months at a time out of the province ensures that I will miss some birds, but I’m ok with that. Visiting other parts of the world and seeing the diversity found in those places is far more important to me than a couple of extra ticks on my Ontario bird list! Though, of course, it still stings a little when I hear the news of a “mega” back home in Ontario. Last fall was particularly painful as I was not around for Groove-billed Ani (7th Ontario record and 1st since 1988), Burrowing Owl (7th record) and Glaucous-winged Gull (2nd record).
Luck has been on my side since the calendar flipped to 2022. I caught up with my first Rufous Hummingbird for Ontario in early January during one of the few days that I was home over the Christmas holidays. This long-staying bird was attending a feeder in Oakville and I happened to be one of the last people to see this bird before it departed. It was a milestone bird too, my 400th species for Ontario.
From early January until late April I was out of the country traveling through Colombia, Costa Rica and the southwestern United States, and I did not miss anything else during that time (except for the Glaucous-winged Gull, which appeared again). And my return to Canada was timed perfectly to see an incredible rarity.
On April 30, James Holdsworth discovered an interesting shorebird at the Thedford lagoons in Lambton County which he quickly figured out was a very out-of-range Marsh Sandpiper. This species is in the genus Tringa alongside some New World sandpipers like Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Willet and Solitary Sandpiper. The Marsh Sandpiper is Eurasian, breeding mainly in a band from Ukraine across southern Russia eastwards to northeastern China, and overwintering in parts of Africa, southern Asia and Australasia. It is exceedingly rare in continental North America. A few records come from Alaskan islands in the Bering Sea that are closer to mainland Russia than mainland Alaska. Additionally, there are three or four from California and two from western Mexico (one from Baja California, another from Nayarit). It had never before been recorded in either the Great Lakes Region, eastern North America or Canada.
Countless birders would have interest in viewing the vagrant Marsh Sandpiper and so James coordinated with Jeff Skevington from the Ontario Field Ornithologists to reach out to the Lambton Shores municipality to try to arrange access (Thedford lagoons are generally off-limit to the public). They worked quickly and a viewing was set up for the next morning, hosted by OFO with an OFO member on site at all times and with access limited to the center dyke from which the bird could be seen distantly.
For the day of the viewing I had an early afternoon ferry to Pelee Island scheduled but my morning was free. I left the Leamington area early in the morning and, at 8 AM eastern when the gates were opened, birders reported that the Marsh Sandpiper was still present at the Thedford lagoons. An hour later and the bird was in my scope.
Despite the distant view, all salient field marks could be seen. It was overall a slender, whitish Tringa that was a little smaller than a Lesser Yellowlegs. Its plumage was rather light-coloured, with a pale face and a long thin bill. When seen in flight, an obvious white wedge could be seen over the rump and back. It fed in the back of the west lagoon for the duration of my visit, flying around from time to time with the other shorebirds.
These rare bird twitches are always fun, especially when the celebrity bird is present, and they are also a great opportunity to catch up with old friends. Many of these people I had not seen in nearly three years thanks to the pandemic. Despite the large numbers of birders descending on the lagoons, everyone was well-behaved and followed the rules outlined for the viewing. The mayor of Lambton Shores even dropped by to check out the situation! Because things were going so well, the municipality granted access for the rest of the week as long as OFO coordinated access and made sure an OFO member was always on site. Over 1000 birders from Canada and the US visited Thedford during the bird’s ten day stay. Because things went so well, there is a chance that birders may receive permanent access to the Thedford lagoons – discussions are in the works, I have been told.
There were many happy birders, myself included, thanks to James finding this incredible rarity. The timing could not have been better and I caught my ferry to Pelee Island later that day.
The Marsh Sandpiper was pretty clearly the leading candidate for Bird Of The Year in Ontario, but a second contender has appeared in recent days. On May 14, two young birders from the Hamilton region (Markus Legzdins and Ben Oldfield) discovered an odd tanager at Shell Park in Hamilton. Markus obtained some photos which were quickly circulated. The consensus came back quickly – this was Ontario’s first Hepatic Tanager!
The news broke while I was birding at Pelee Island and due to the poor cellular service on the island, I did not find out until around 9:30 AM. I was booked on the 4 PM ferry to the mainland and there was no way that I could leave earlier, as the only other ferry for the day (8 AM) had since departed. But I knew that I had to make a mad dash for Oakville since there was a very real chance that this Hepatic Tanager would be a one-day-wonder.
Afteran agonizingly long time was taken to unload the vehicles from the ferry, I was finally free. I made the drive from Leamington to Shell Park in…let’s just say a lot less time than Google Maps’ estimate had been. There was still 20 minutes of light to search for the bird and I was joined by Mike and Rowan Keunen. We stayed until it was nearly dark but the bird just wasn’t active. We must have missed it by 10 minutes once it went to roost.
Luckily, I was afforded a second chance with the Hepatic Tanager as it was reported again yesterday morning. I had spent the night with the Riley’s in Etobicoke, only 25 minutes away from the site, with no traffic to impede my progress on a warm Sunday morning. I ran into Paul Riss at Shell Park who had just seen the bird and after chatting we split up to try to re-find it. It took around 20 minutes but I eventually noticed a tanager-like bird feeding up in an apple tree with several orioles. The Hepatic Tanager!
During the 15 minutes or so that I watched it, it never left the apple tree. The lighting was a bit harsh but it was still easy to see all of the field marks. Overall, it was an olive and gray tanager with a dark bill and brightest yellow/orange on the forehead and throat. It appears to be a female, likely from the northerly subspecies group which ranges north to Arizona, New Mexico, and southwest Colorado.
The Hepatic Tanager has been documented on two previous occasions in Canada. The first was found in Montreal, Quebec on May 24, 1994 while the second was found in Wadena, Saskatchewan for five days in early November, 2012. There are two other records from the northeast that I am aware of, both from northern Michigan. Because of these records it was a species that we have had on our radar as a potential new addition to the province’s bird list. Thanks to Markus and Ben’s keen eyes, our first Hepatic Tanager has now been discovered.
The Hepatic Tanager flew out of view after ten minutes and so I continued to bird the general area. Many migrants were around and I picked up a few new birds for my Halton list including Canada Warbler and Green Heron. As I walked, the buzzy song of a Golden-winged Warbler caught my attention and with some patience I managed some reasonable views of it (and terrible photos). This species and the Blue-winged are very closely related and they hybridize extensively. This individual looked and sounded like a pure Golden-winged to me, but of course we will never know what its exact genetic makeup is. The Golden-winged remained in the general area for the rest of the day allowing many birders to catch up with it.
Unfortunately, as of this moment the Hepatic Tanager appears to have moved on as there have not been any reports since around 9:30 yesterday morning.
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