Saturday, 22 December 2012


With the end of the world rapidly approaching, Janean and I decided it would only be fitting to head down to the Lake Ontario waterfront to increase the Ontario winter bird diversity.  A couple weeks ago, there was a sighting of Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima) at Darlington Provincial Park near Oshawa.  That is the only species I am remotely likely to encounter out here at this time of year that would be a lifer, so I thought we'd give it a shot.

As directed on the listserve message about the sighting, we accessed Darlington from the end of Colonel Sam Dr. past the General Motors of Canada head office.  Unfortunately we were a little short-sighted with our choice of footwear and had to tread carefully on the Waterfront Trail, dodging saturated sections of the path.  Eventually we found ourselves at the edge of a lakeside marsh where the shore was lined with a small group of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis), a lone male Redhead (Aythya americana) bobbed on the water, and several American Herring Gulls (Larus smithsonianus) struggled against strong winds.  We continued on to the shoreline of Lake Ontario and were nearly blown over and sand-blasted, so we retreated to the sheltered side of a small hut.  From there, I scanned out for approximately 20 minutes trying to spot waterfowl among the white caps.  I was pleased to find a couple small groups of Long-tailed Ducks (Clangula hyemalis) and Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola), along with larger groups of Common Goldeneyes (Bucephala clangula).  A lone Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) was in the mix and several large groups of Greater Scaups (Aythya marila) flew by against the wind.  Just as we were packing up, a group of Common Mergansers (Mergus merganser) flew from the direction of the marsh, perhaps tucked away in a small channel that I couldn't see before.

The walk back to the car was relatively uneventful with a couple exceptions.  First, we had a small flock of Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) flash by and refuse to come out for better looks.  Then, when we were just a couple minutes away from the car, Janean stopped abruptly and gasped.  I thought something was wrong but soon saw it was a gasp of surprise and delight.  A Barred Owl (Strix varia) was perched low at the side of the trail.  I am certain a lady that passed us had walked right by it without noticing and I might have done the same as well.  The light was a little dull, but I managed some nice shots of this confiding owl.

Getting stared down by the classic pure black eyes of a Barred Owl!

Like I said... confiding!

I finished off the day with a quick scan over Second Marsh that is part of the McLaughlin Bay Wildlife Reserve.  The day's diversity was enhanced by groups of Gadwalls (Anas strepera) and a mixed group of gulls that included around 100 Ring-billed (Larus delawarensis) and three Great Black-blacked Gulls (L. marinus).

Now that I know the world is not going to end, I hope to get back down to Lake Ontario a couple more times over the course of our time here.  The lack of Purple Sandpiper reports, however, means it is not as imperative.  I'll keep my eyes open for more reports in the mean time.  I probably won't have anything to report on before Christmas, so happy holidays and good birding to all!

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Taking the bore out of arborea...

Coming from the West Coast, American Tree Sparrows maintain a high degree of novelty to me.  Their scientific name is Spizella arborea, but there is no need to have 'bore' nestled in the middle of the specific epithet.

I am in Ontario for the winter and let's just say it's not the same as being on the coast.  Unless I can find a lake with some open water, the bird activity is pretty limited.  I have walked around two days in a row and my species total barely cracks double digits.  That's not to say I'm not enjoying the birds I have encountered.  I've seen three of the quintessential birds of the east: Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) and White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis).  What's not to love about them?  The American Tree Sparrows, however, continue to be my daily highlight.  They have a certain charm as they twitter to each other while busily stripping flower heads of seeds.

They are one sharp little sparrow!

Not a bore - am I right or am I right?

The conditions have been pretty dull the last two days, but hopefully I'll be able to get out and take some better shots if the weather cooperates.  I wouldn't mind firing off some shots of Northern Cardinals if they are willing to cooperate on a brighter day.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Graveyard Shift

On this lazy Sunday afternoon, I decided to check out the cemetery at St. Stephen's Anglican Church off Mt. Newton X Rd.  A couple years ago I discovered it was a great place on the Saanich Peninsula to look for Red-breasted Sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus ruber).  Just inside the white picket fence, there is a large, exotic conifer that must have been planted in the late 1800s, and it is riddled with sapsucker holes.  I usually start by standing at the base of that tree and looking up for some movement or a flash of red.

Last week I brought Oskar Nilsson - a Swedish birder that is out for a semester at UBC - out to the cemetery and the scan up the heavily-tapped conifer was fruitless.  We walked all around the grounds and saw a lot of bird activity, but came up empty with the sapsucker.  Just as I called off the search, a stunning Red-breasted Sapsucker flew right in front of us and tacked itself to the trunk of a small hawthorn!  Today, I did the standard check of the large conifer and when that failed I went straight to the same hawthorn.  Sure enough, the sapsucker was in the exact same tree near an area that it had actively been tapping.

Red-breasted Sapsucker posing nicely by its handy work.

I watched the sapsucker for approximately 15 minutes and they are such a treat to see in action.  I was able to crouch a few metres from the hawthorn and observed it as it moved from one area densely packed with sap wells to another.

It was not only hard to get good lighting, but also getting a clear view through branches and Usnea lichens wafting in the slight breeze.

Here is a close-up view of the sapsucker's intricate network of holes and sap wells.

The sapsucker wasn't the only site worth noting.  If you have never been to the cemetery at St. Stephen's, you should make the effort to see this historic site.  St. Stephen's Anglican Church has been holding services since 1862, which makes it the oldest church in British Columbia running continuously from its original site.  Garry Oaks delicately draped in Usnea lichens looming over weathered gravestones gives the cemetery an ethereal ambiance.  This feels like its straying away from natural history, but it really is a beautiful place.  You'll understand if you visit, but maybe you can get a sense from the photo I took today.

Not your average birding location!

Red-booted Sightseer looking for Red-breasted Sapsucker - that's Janean if you don't recognize her field marks.

Aside from the target Red-breasted Sapsucker, the birding around the cemetery grounds was pretty good.  When I pulled up to the parking lot, there was a big flock of sparrows consisting primarily of Golden-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia atricapilla) and Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis).  Several raptors were sighted over Mount Newton to the north, including a late Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) and a Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus).  If you are interested in the remainder of the birds sighted during my visit, see my eBird checklist.

If you find yourself in Central Saanich with some spare time and don't mind feeling a little disrespectful and possibly getting stared at by churchgoers, consider stopping in at the cemetery to have a look around.