Thursday, 30 May 2013

Pilgrimage for a Lifer: The Kirtland's Warbler

Today was the day.  Well, yesterday was the day of travel to get to Grayling Michigan.  Well, to get to Gaylord Michigan, where Sue and I spent the night in excited anticipation of waking up early to return to Grayling for a tour with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to the secret habitat of the Kirkland's Warbler.

The USFaWS conducts daily tours throughout he nesting season to see this very rare bird.  It's not hard to see, once you're in the correct habitat, but it's habitat is confined to a small part of Michigan and only in Jack Pine forests with trees just the right hight for the Kirtland's breeding and nesting purposes.  The Kirtland's warbler is the Goldilocks of the bird world.  Trees not too big, not too small, with the habitat having to be ever just so or it won't nest there.

And because of this, every May through July birders from all over the world make the pilgrimage to Grayling, MI to see this endangered bird.  There are estimated to be just over 1000 Kirtland's Warblers remaining.  At one time the population had dipped to below 300 and that's when the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Forest Service, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Michigan Audubon stepped in to help save the Kirtland's Warbler.

For most people on our tour today, and there were nearly 40 of us,(the average on the weekdays is usually 4, so we came on an auspicious day), the Kirtland's was a Life Bird.  Claire, our guide to the protected Federal lands where the bird nests, started our tour with a video that told the history of the Kirtland's, who winters in the Bahama Islands, and then had us caravan out to the nesting grounds.  We walked a dusty path and within minutes were hearing the bird call.  Over the next half hour everyone got glimpses of the male and many got a great close look at the female.

Eventually, further down the path, past the spot where they capture Brown-headed Cowbirds, to protect the nests of the Kirtland's, a singing male was spotted high atop a dead tree.  It sang for nearly 5 minutes and everyone in the group got great looks and some nice photos.  My first look had been at the back of a male, just before seeing the female.  This last look was fantastic.  Afterwards we heard more calling but didn't see one again.

All in all a great day and lots of fun, along with seeing a nice bunch of other birds along the way.  Oh, and as for the Cowbirds, they lay their eggs in the Kirtland's nests and steal the original eggs.  The Kirtland's Warbler has no defences and ends up raising the baby Cowbirds.  In order to have the Kirtland's Warbler survive, they capture and "relocate" many of the Cowbirds each breeding season.

Brown-headed Cowbird Trap

Male Kirtland's Warbler Singing - North American ABA Lifer # 605

Male Kirtland's Warbler not singing

Female Kirtland's Warbler posing for all to see

After many attempts I finally got photos of Wilson's and Canada Warblers, at Col. Sam Smith Park.

Monday, 20 May 2013

No Pain, No Gain for a Lifer

The Kentucky Warbler is a beautiful, but rarely seen warbler in Ontario.  According to its range map, it rarely ventures north of The Great Lakes and is usually difficult to find as it loves to skulk in low vegetation and damp undergrowth.  Though I spent some time south of Lakes Ontario and Erie I didn't even get a report of this bird anywhere I ventured in 2012.

Just this past weekend one had been reported in Rondeau Provincial Park and I had not really planned on a third trip this year.  However, with 9 straight days of work coming up, starting today, Sunday was my last chance to bird in Rondeau during the height of migration and perhaps get the Kentucky Warbler.  My journey, however, got off to a rough start.

All day Saturday I was feeling uncomfortable and by late afternoon I realized I might be suffering through yet another kidney stone.  By the time I was preparing dinner I knew for sure, and by 9pm I had taken the "special" medication the doctor prescribed for just this occasion.  Saves a trip to the hospital, if the damned thing passed overnight.  I was in bed by 9:30 and set the alarm for 4am so I could, if feeling better, head out on the near 3 hour drive to Rondeau from my home in Etobicoke.

When I awoke at 4am I was feeling fine and alert and assumed the drugs had worn off and the kidney stone pain had passed.  But by the time I arrived in Rondeau, the pain had returned and I knew I wasn't out of the woods with the kidney stone as I ventured into the woods for the Kentucky Warbler.  I was in pain on and off all day, and glad for the Extra Strength Tylenol.

I was in and out of the woods all morning and had not even a sniff of the Kentucky.  I had the call of the Mourning Warbler, met Norm Murr from Toronto, who had also ventured forth for spring warblers, and enjoyed watching a female Baltimore Oriole gathering nest materials.  In between I took a couple of trips to other paths and found a Northern Waterthrush and both a male and female Canada Warbler, and actually got a good photo of the boy bird.  I also saw an Ontario Fox Snake and enjoyed a Philly Chocolate Cream Cheese and raspberry jam sandwich for lunch.  Yum,(sandwich, not snake).

As I was taking another break from my Kentucky watch, to check out another wooded area, another couple was walking in.  I told them to be on the lookout for the bird and when we met again, about 20 minutes later, they were happy to inform me that they had seen it just 15 minutes ago, not 5 minutes after they went looking.  Glad my 4 hours of advance scouting paid off for them.  I still had an hour or so before having to head home, so I took up the watch again and after finding a Swainson's Thrush and listening to and watching an Eastern Towhee, I spotted something down in the woods.

I made my way closer, trying to find and identify the bird, but it got away.  As I was scanning the low lying areas, in the distance, I saw a bird hopping about in a dead tree trunk.  I slowly moved in closer and got a glimpse of yellow and black.  The Kentucky Warbler had been described to me as having sideburns, or "mutton chops."  This could be it.  I got closer and for a about 5-10 seconds got my look. There was no mistaking the "mutton chops."  I had my bird.  Now I needed my photograph, but as has been the case with the Canada Warbler, just seeing the bird was reward enough.  604 for my ABA Life List.

After waiting around another 20 minutes hoping for a reappearance to get a photo, I left for the Visitors Centre to report the sighting and watch the Tufted Titmouse at the feeders there.  A few folks there heard about the Kentucky sighting and I offered to show them the spot on my way out of the park.  On the way there I stopped off at the cottage on Lakeshore Road and saw the Yellow-throated Warbler and a Field Sparrow taking a bath.  Not sure if they got the bird, but everyone had a great time looking, regardless.  For me, at least, it was worth the pain.  44 species for the day, and 60 for my three trips to Rondeau this year.

Next up: Kirtland's Warbler in Michigan at the end of the month, if nothing else appears before then.

And I did get other photos, yesterday, at Rondeau:

Thursday, 16 May 2013

The Hunt for Swainson's Warbler, Part 2: Failure is an Option

As the gentleman with whom I was birding today at Hanlan's Point on Toronto Island reminded me, after failing to find the relatively rare for Ontario Swainson's Warbler, when I do finally find the bird it will be that much more satisfying.  I had a failed attempt at the bird at Fort DeSotto in April and heard one had been seen yesterday near the tennis courts on the island, so I was just there for that one bird.

I searched for nearly two hours in the bush and scrub adjacent to the tennis courts, and while the target bird did not call and was certainly not seen, I did see and hear a very good list of birds,(25, including lots of warblers), in one relatively small patch of ground.  The most walking I did was from the ferry to the tennis courts.  The rest of the morning was mostly standing and wandering in circles.

In the past week or so, I have been back to Rondeau, where I saw 55 species, besting the 51 of the previous trip, including a sleeping Eastern Whip-poor-will that everyone in the park came by to see and photograph.  It was my first time seeing a bird I had only heard previously.  

Locally, I have birded in Tommy Thompson Park, both alone and with Sue, and finally got a photo of a Bay-breasted Warbler in Colonel Sam Smith Park, and just today saw my first Canada Warbler of the year but once again missed out on a good photo.  I was able to snap a photo,(for the first time on a Canada), but it wasn't anything you could refer to as a thousand words.

Bay-breasted Warbler-finally a photograph on my 4th sighting of this bird:

 Canada Warbler-finally a lousy photo on my 4th sighting of this bird:

A lovely action shot of a Chestnut-sided Warbler:

Black-throated Blue and Green Warblers:

 My first look and photo of an Eastern Whip-poor-will after only ever hearing them call at night:

My best look and photo yet of a Nashville Warbler:

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Birding in the Spring - Migration is Fun

This year I am enjoying spring migration in a very different way from last year.  This year I can enjoy the warblers without the stress of missing one for my Big Year.  I can also concentrate on getting photos of birds I didn't get last year, such as the Golden-winged Warbler,(which I heard only), and the Canada Warbler, which I saw on three occasions, but didn't get even an out of focus photo of.

Since my New York trip for the Ruff I have birded around Toronto, at Colonel Sam Smith Park, James Gardens and the Leslie Street Spit, where I found an Eared Grebe.  I have also been up before sunset twice this week, going to Rondeau Provincial Park and Longpoint Provincial Park.   In Rondeau I got my first look at a Golden-winged Warbler, but no photo, and  added a Hooded Warbler to my Ontario Life List.  Out at Long Point I was able to get photos of a rare for Ontario Harris's Sparrow, and enjoyed rounding up other birders in the area to come see him.

Locally I have even got photos of a Swamp Sparrow, Chimney Swifts and a Blackburnian Warbler, none of which I had a good photograph of last year.  And in our own backyard pond, a Mallard.  

Hooded Warbler in Rondeau PP - Species 240 for my Ontario Life List

 Harris's Sparrow in Long Point PP

 Mallard in my "duck" pond

 Swamp Sparrow at Tommy Thompson Park Wet Woods

 Blue-headed Vireo, seen near the Hooded Warbler in Rondeau PP

 Yellow-throated Warbler at the cottage on Lakeshore Drive in Rondeau PP

My first look at a baby Killdeer in Long Point

Chimney Swift at the Plant World Chimney

 Blackburnian Warbler at James Gardens - 211 for my "small" year, not that I'm counting