Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Saga of the Ontario Gray Partridge

Back in 2012, I did a Big Year and my only look at a Gray Partridge was from the car as it stood close to the highway in a farmer’s field.  Ever since then I have spent a day or two here and there each winter, when in the Ottawa area, searching for them in vain.  They are a non-migratory species, but are rarely, if ever, seen outside of the winter months.  Introduced to North America in the 1800’s and known as the Hungarian Partridge, they were a popular game bird for decades.  In more recent times, as farming changed, and land for them diminished, they have seen a severe reduction in population.  For a while, there were populations in the Brantford area of Southern Ontario, though it’s been years since regular reports of them around the Brantford Airport have been seen.  Nowadays, the best spots are on the outskirts of Ottawa and as farmland turns into housing developments, they may once again be at risk in Southern Ontario.  

With that in mind, I made my way to Ottawa, after visiting with my daughter in Kingston last week, hoping to finally see them up close and get photos.  Thanks to a report on OntBirds and eBird locations, I knew a good starting point, behind the houses on Nonius St. in Kanata.  I arrived by 8:30 am and other than a few tracks in the front yard, leading between the houses, there were no signs of partridges, let alone any avian life.

     If you look really closely, you can see the footy-prints in between the houses:

I had a lot of eBird map pins on my phone, so after about an hour of wandering the neighborhood, I drove to some other locations and thought I hit the partridge jackpot, not with a grove of pear trees, but with partridge tracks going in and out of the foliage.  I figured all I had to do was follow the tracks in the correct direction and I’d find or flush some game birds.  No such luck. 
      A closer look at Gray Partridge footy-prints in the snow in a nearby field:


 It was getting close to noon, and I had given myself until lunchtime to find the birds before I had to drive 4-1/2 hours back to Toronto, so I decided to go full circle, kind of like the partridge tracks in the snow, and head back to the housing development and the snow-covered backyards behind numbers 301-303 Nonius St.  As I pulled up behind the houses, I couldn’t believe my eyes.  There they were, seven or eight Gray Partridges, their beaks buried in the snow.  I took a few photos from the car and then pulled over and got out and enjoyed watching them for about half hour as they made their way between the houses, to the front yard, returned to the backyard and vanished as mysteriously as they had appeared.  A special thanks to Gregory Zbitnew of the Ottawa Field Naturalists, for his help in guiding me to the correct location, so I could finally see my partridges and have my photos too.

     And the stars of this blog, the Gray Partridges their own selves:

Afterwards, I found a wonderful little diner in Stittsville, called The Main Street Cafe, where they have great coffee, and homemade jam and baked beans to go with their tasty breakfast special.  When in the Ottawa area, do drop by, won't you.


 This weekend, it was warm and sunny enough for Sue and me to take a walk down by the lake and we were lucky enough to come upon a group of birders and photographers who had discovered a beautiful Snowy Owl perched on the edge of an ice-covered jetty on the edge of Lake Ontario at Colonel Sam Smith Park.  I would have loved to have had this kind of light to photograph the partridges, rather than the flat, overcast light I had that day.


Friday, 12 January 2018

A Picture is Worth 1000 Birds: Life Birds in Trinidad

We escaped the bitter cold of Toronto to head way south to South America to find birds, birds, birds.  We arrived in Trinidad at about 1:00am on the morning of January 4, having left Toronto the previous afternoon.  We arrived tired and weary, but Sue’s suitcase did not make it past Newark Airport.  We have now just wrapped up the final day of our week-long birding adventure and United Airlines is FINALLY sending the suitcase to Port of Spain Airport.  Just in time for us to pick it up on our way home. 

However, the suitcase wasn’t here to see birds, we were.  Sue had been to Trinidad 15 years earlier so she wasn’t going to get nearly as many Lifers as me.  I arrived with 949 and was really hoping to get at least 51 new species to hit 1000.  And that happened on our hike to find the rare and secretive Oilbirds, on our final day at the Asa Wright Nature Centre.  Interesting story behind their name too, as Jesse, our guide pointed out.  Once upon a time people would spear the young birds and render them down because the high-fat content of the young birds would produce a lot of good oil for torches and the like.  They are also the only nocturnal, fruit-eating bird and find their way using echolocation, just as bats do.

They live in a riparian grotto on the property of the Nature Centre and on our final day there we got to take the hike to see them.  It was a pretty good hike up and down wet, muddy and slippery trails to the grotto, and we saw plenty of birds along the way, but once down in the grotto, feeling like we were on an Indiana Jones crusade, and after wading through a little stream, we finally got to see one of  three prized bird species of Trinidad:

Some of the nearly 200 Oilbirds of Dunston Cave.  The Oilbird was species 1000 since I began birding in January 2012.  

  Entrance to Dunstan Cave, home to Oilbirds

January 4, 2018:

We began our trip birding on the balcony of the Asa Wright Birding Centre last Thursday with a Bearded Bellbird in one of the guide’s scopes, number 952.  The balcony is also one of the best places in the world to see a wide variety of hummingbirds up close and personal. I added 16 species that afternoon from both the balcony and a walk around the grounds.

Day 1, 16 Lifers:

Bearded Bellbird
Crested Oropendola
Channel-billed Toucan
Cocoa Thrush
Copper-rumpled Hummingbird
Green Hermit
Purple Honeycreeper
Silver-beaked Tanager
Spectacled Thrush
Tropical Mockingbird
Tufted Coquette
Violaceous Euphonia 
Turquoise Tanager
White-chested Emerald
White-lined Tanager
White-necked Thrush

Channel-Billed Toucan:                                            


                         Two male Tufted Coquettes battling over territory:


January 5, 2018:

The next day we were given a guided tour of the grounds with Elizabeth.  She took us to a few good locations and pointed out birds we would never have seen or identified on our own, including the beautiful Golden-headed and White-bearded Manikins.  We even saw both male and female Bearded Bellbirds up close.  Elizabeth was so excited because people rarely see the females since they don’t make a loud call like the males.  After lunch, Sue and I found a Guianan Trogon on our own.  That evening, with our private guide and local bird expert, Mukesh, we went to the old airfield for looks at the Moriche subspecies of the Epaulet Oriole, one of the few places this species can be found.  We also got to see a beautiful Sulphery Flycatcher.

                           Guianan Trogon:

Sulphury Flycatcher:


Day 2, 9 Lifers:

Forest Elaenia
Golden-headed Manakin
Golden-olive Woodpecker
Great Antshrike
White-bearded Manakin
Guianan Trogon
Epaulet Oriole (Moriche)
Rufous-tailed Jacamar
Sulphury Flycatcher

January 6, 2018:

After breakfast on the third day, we hit the road, literally.  Blanachisseuse Rd, leading north in a loop from the nature centre provides great birding along a narrow and scary road.  I sat in front full of anti-nausea meds as we wound our way around from village to village stopping along the way to bird in a variety of high altitude forest locations. Highlights were Long-billed Gnatwren, White Hawk, a Bat Falcon and a beautiful Speckled Tanager, which flew before I could get a photograph.  We got great, but distant looks at both male and female Bellbirds, which even long-time Trinidadian birders have rarely seen.  We got rained on frequently, but often there was a rainbow to go along with the amazing vistas.

Some of the views and birds from the day:

                                          Blue-black Grassquit:

                                           Bat Falcon:

                                            Rufous-tailed Jacamar:

                                    Green-backed Trogon:

Day 3, 11 Lifers:
Black-headed Parrot
Carib Grackle
Common Black Hawk
Green-backed Trogon          
Gray-breasted Martin
Grayish Saltator
Long-billed Gnatwren
Rufous-breasted Hermit
Speckled Tanager
White Hawk
White-winged Becard

January 7, 2018:

Day four at Asa Wright was another day of driving from destination to destination in search of a wide variety of lower elevation species.  Our eventual destination was to Nariva Swamp, where we got to enjoy birds such as the White-headed Marsh Tyrant, Pied Water-tyrant, Yellow Oriole and Yellow-chinned Spinetail.  Once again, our guide for most of the trip, Mukesh, was able to hear and spot birds we didn't even know were close by.  Sure we did okay on our own from time to time, but having local guides is what put me at 999 birds going into our last day at Asa Wright Nature centre.

Our view of the Caribbean Sea while we ate lunch on the way to Nariva Swamp:

       Yellow-chinned Spinetail: 

                                      White-headed Marsh Tyrant:

                   Pied Water-Tyrant:

                    Yellow Oriole:

Day 4, 13 Lifers:

Black-crested Antshrike
Blue-and-yellow Macaw
Pied Water-tyrant
Southern Rough-winged Swallow
Striated Heron
Trinidad Euphonia
White-winged Swallow
Yellow Oriole
Yellow-chinned Spinetail
Golden-fronted Greenlet
Gray-rumped Swift
Gray-throated Leaftosser
White-headed Marsh Tyrant

January 8, 2018:

It was our final evening at the Asa Wright Nature Centre, where the food and views were equally spectacular, when we took a boat trip to see the second of three species that were one of the main reasons for coming to Trinidad, the Scarlet Ibis.  That morning we had seen the Oilbirds and I had finally seen the Blue-chinned Sapphire hummingbird.  On the way to the Ibis we stopped to get close-up looks at a beautiful Red-breasted Meadowlark,(ie blackbird) and the striking Masked Cardinal, just outside Caroni Swap.  The Scarlet Ibis come in to roost there every evening.  Birders from all over the world take the boat trip at dusk to witness the spectacle of the more than 500 Ibis as they arrive.  Many, like me, sipping a rum punch.

Sue, me and our guide to the Oilbirds:

                     Red-breasted Meadowlard,(Blackbird as it is locally known):

                                Masked Cardinal:

             Scarlet Ibis:

Day 5, Lifers:

Blue-chinned Sapphire
Red-breasted Meadowlark
Long-winged Harrier
Masked Cardinal
Red-rumped Woodpecker
Bicolored Conebill
Cocoi Heron
Scarlet Ibis
Green-rumped Parrolet

January 9-10, 2018:

We concluded our trip in Grande Riviere where we were seeking the final bird of the Trinidad trifecta, the Trinidad Piping Guan.  Mukesh drove us up there, along a very winding, not very good road, where he got us one last bird for his portion of the guiding, a Pale-breasted Spinetail.  We had a good dinner that night at Mt Plaisir Estate Hotel, where we spent the night, and the next morning the owner himself, Piero Guerrini, drove us up to the Pawi Nature Centre at dawn so we could witness the incoming pawis ourselves.  They are not seen but a few hours every morning as they come to the wild nutmeg trees for breakfast.  Afterwards, with a couple of other birders, we ventured down the road and added three more lifers before our final bird of the trip, as Caribbean Martin on the wires along the main road.

The Indiana Jones of Birding:

 View from our Hotel:

       And the star of the show, the Trinidad Piping Guan, or Pawi as it is locally known:

Day 6 and 7, Lifers:

Pale-breasted Spinetail
Trinidad Piping Guan
Black-tailed Tityra
Euler’s Flycatcher
Yellow-bellied Elaenia 
Caribbean Martin 
We left Trinidad both adding lots of Lifers.  Sue had 17, but I added 65 and am now at 1009 all time,(accounting for lumps and splits in the avian world, otherwise I'd have 1015).  Sue will need a trip somewhere she's never been to catch and pass me on the Life List again.  Perhaps I'll sit that one out ;)

Monday, 1 January 2018

New Year, New Birds!

Six years ago today I began a quest to become a birder.  I began birding by chasing a Smew in Whitby Harbor after seeing my first bird of my first year of birding, a Northern Cardinal, out my back window.  Over the next 366 days of the 2012 leap year I birded all across Canada and the US during my first Big Year.  I’m still learning and still obsessed with finding birds.  I ended 2017 birding with a bunch of folks all out for a rare visitor to Ontario, a Tufted Duck.  I have seen them on two occasions in the US but it was exciting to add the Tufted Duck to my Ontario Life list, which now stands at 316 species.

   Alas, the only photo I did get only shows a tiny bit of tuft behind the head:

To begin my new year, this January 1, 2018, a frigid day in Toronto, Ontario, I started the by birding in James Gardens.  For the first time since I started birding there were no birds at our backyeard feeders early on New Years Day.  My first bird of 2018 was, fittingly, a Blue Jay.  Birds did eventually show up at our feeders, the first of which was a White-throated Sparrow, picking seed out of a planter box::



This will be a another year for adding Lifers.  On Wednesday Sue and I are on our way to Trinidad for 7 full days of birding, on my first trip to South America.  Sue has been there, but since it’s my first trip there will be LOTS of Lifers and I will once again pass her on our friendly Life List competition.  There are over 400 possible species and 150 possible Lifers, which will finally put me over 1000 on my World Life list in my 6 years of birding.  

My other goal for the year is to visit states and provinces in the ABA area I have not birded in.  I have birded in 24 of the 49 continental US states and just 4 of Canada’s 10 provinces. I need to get to work on that.  In 2017 I added 13 ABA Life Birds, plus the Black-backed Oriole.  It will be hard to add that many species to the ABA List this year without a lot of travel.

Let the birding begin!