Birding in Ontario

A Rarity Gets Us Started

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The longest journey, it is said, begins with a single step. In our case, the  BIG YEAR begins with the dreary month of November, although this November had less snow and more sun than normal.  With 74 species already on our list, for the most part it seems the month has treated us kindly.
Best bird of our maiden month?  Without question the Phainopepla who set up shop in a quiet residential neighbourhood in Brampton - a bird normally at home in Mexico and southern California who rode strong southwesterly winds to this province.  We drove down early one Thursday morning to search for this great rarity, thinking it could not possibly stay long.  There's a secret to finding birds such as this - we cruised the streets until we came across a scruffy gaggle of onlookers, mostly older men armed with binocs and scopes and cameras with a collective value far greater than our total net worth.  Two minutes of waiting, an invitation into a back yard, and up it popped - a handsome bird something like a glossy black Cardinal, preening itself on an open perch until all of us had our fill. Three weeks later, Mr. P is still there, a regular feature of the neighbourhood seen by hundreds of birders.  He seems to have become a sort of mascot for the good folks who live there.  They open their gates to invite in visiting birders, even when they are not home.  Some days, they bring out coffee and cookies.  For this quiet corner of Brampton, Mr. P has created their 15 minutes of fame.

Of course, there is another high-tech secret for those who seek out rare birds - a listserve called Ontbirds  with well over 2000 subscribers - the largest such listserve in North America.  That means any one of those 2000 birders, plus their friends, can instantly report any "good birds" they come across, and learn of everyone else's good birds too.  Ontbirds has replaced the networks of friends and the telephone hot lines that used to act as a sort of jungle telegraph about rarities.  So now a truly dedicated (or slightly insane) birder can start his day perusing the rarity reports, and decide whether to drop everything and head to Sarnia or Cornwall.  Or like us, dream wistfully about cancelling the day's plans for a mad dash to the Ottawa River for a reported Barrow's Goldeneye - maybe someday, but not yet.
Part of the dilemma, of course, is that rare birds have an annoying habit of popping up somewhere just long enough to be identified and reported, and then disappearing again into the void.  So there's no guarantee that 5-hour drive will yield the anticipated results; in fact, the odds are often against such a favourable outcome.
We were reminded of those odds last week, when after several reports spread over 10 days, we decided to make a before-work trek to the quaint little town of Cannington, less than an hour from our home base.  The quarry in this case was a Screech Owl who had been reliably snoozing away the daylight hours in a hole in a front-yard maple tree.  It seemed like an easy way to be sure of counting this species, but when we arrived, it was nowhere to be seen.  After a few minutes, the householder emerged to solve the mystery:  "You won't see that owl - he's in my bathroom."  Turns out he had found this tiny predator on the street the evening before, injured by a collision with a car.  It was awaiting the arrival of a wildlife rehabilitation group to take it under their care.  Still alive, but no twitch for us - birds in captivity don't count.
Same story during two great days of birding along the Lake Ontario waterfront with our good friends Jean and Paul - lots of waterfowl, but the elusive Cave Swallows which had been there the day before were not to be seen.little.gull.Casey.Tucker

We ended off November with the traditional OFO (Ontario Field Ornithologists) field trip to Niagara Falls, where great masses of gulls gather during the early winter.  With about 60 birders scanning the gulls, we ended the day with 8 species, including such rarities as Little Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls.  Whoever gave such graceful fliers such pedestrian names?  But of course we missed the rare California Gull, picked out late in the day when we had chosen to follow the schedule rather than the leaders - there's a lesson there!  We tried the next morning to winnow this western kernel of a rare bird from the chaff of thousands of swirling gulls.  "Just look for a slightly larger wedge of white in the black wing-tips," they said.  No doubt we saw it; we just couldn't identify it on our own.

So now that December is upon us, we watch for reports of Snowy Owls and Pine Grosbeaks and other winter visitors from the north.  The finch forecast is calling for a challenging year.   I'll bet you didn't know there is a "finch forecast" - it's based on the abundance of seed crops that sustain various kinds of finches; if the northern crop is good, the birds stay there rather than coming to southern feeders.  But Algonquin is not too far away, and a couple of trips there should pick up many of the winter species.

In the meantime, our thanks to everyone who has signed up so far as a sponsor - we are now at about $19/species, plus $3500 in other donations.  Every penny goes towards the purchase of Wolf Run Alvar, to ensure that another 303 acres of great habitat will be there for generations of birders to come.

It's never too late to add your pledge to our list of sponsors - just send us a quick e-mail and we will take it from there.
Best wishes for a happy and fulfilling Holiday season to all of you.  If you don't already do so, start a new Holiday tradition and take part in the Christmas Bird Count in your community; it's a great way to learn more about the winter birds and to make some interesting new friends.
Ron & Janet