The heat and humidity of August 2010 sure didn't feel like fall, but the birds knew better. Many of our summer songbirds, together with shorebirds that nested in the north, were on their way southward. Those movements give birders like us much better chances to find them, and we were able to take advantage, adding eight new species to our Big Year list.
But our first new bird of the month, #267, was a different kind of traveller. A Scissor-tailed Flycatcher showed up near Luther Marsh in the farmlands of northern Wellington County, far from its normal home in Texas. Even though this bird was not in its full adult plumage, there was no mistaking the long forked tail feathers which are the source of its name. We were lucky to find it almost immediately; later birders often had to search for hours before it showed itself.
1 Scissor-tailed flycatchers are unmistakeable. Photo from packetinsider.com
Late summer and early fall are favourite times for this kind of vagrant - birds that show up in odd places, often well away from their normal breeding range. Sometimes this is part of a dispersal pattern, where young birds head out in seemingly random directions, perhaps to explore whether new opportunities might exist to expand their breeding range next spring. Or perhaps they are just lost. Maybe some of them, like human teenagers, are just feeling the urge to "find themselves". In any case, this youngster was a great addition to our list.
August can be a great month for migrating wood warblers, even though these miniature songsters that are so spectacularly coloured in the spring are now so drab and subtly clad that even the bird books label them as "confusing fall warblers". Happily, we had already checked off nearly all of this group, so we were free to concentrate on migrating shorebirds; although these too can be challenging to identify in the fall. The striking plumage that displays their virility to potential mates in spring has been shed, in favour of more utilitarian browns and greys for the rest of the year.
We are not averse to expert help, so we joined an Ontario Field Ornithologists field trip to Rock Point on Lake Erie led by the wise and gentle John Black. Strong winds that morning were not helpful, but on a visit to a nearby lagoon, the group perked up considerably with the sighting of a juvenile Red-necked Phalarope, a medium-sized sandpiper that is as likely to be found riding the waves far out at sea as it is on an inland pond.
Like many shorebirds, Phalaropes nest in the arctic. But they are special in two ways, one of which makes them especially popular with feminists: they spin like tops as they float, stirring up small marine creatures they can pluck for food; and female Phalaropes are much more colourful than males, a reversal of roles shared by few other birds.
In keeping with that avian example, on the way home I dropped Janet off in Toronto for her two-day trade show marathon, while I snuck off to Cobourg Harbour to do a little more birding. The Eared Grebe which had shown up there in June, while we were unsuccessfully searching for it in Rainy River, was suddenly back. I found it easily, swimming and diving among the sailboats in the harbour, but by the next morning it was gone again, and Janet missed out on #269.
But we both shared a magical evening by the sod farms near Beeton, where the short grasses and muddy pools attracted mixed flocks of shorebirds. In the course of a half-hour, we notched up #270, a Golden Plover, #271, a Baird's Sandpiper, and best of all, #272, a Buff-breasted Sandpiper. Best of all in part because Buff-breasteds are usually among the rarest of migrating shorebirds, although for some reason they have been seen fairly frequently this year.
But we had more personal reasons as well for cherishing the Buff-breasted Sandpiper. We could see another car parked just down the road, and soon it stopped by us, driven by a twenty-something-ish young man with an expensive spotting scope. We had met quite a few of his kind before - keen young birders that are the future of the sport. Enthusiastic, talented with eyes and ears still sharp, maybe a tad cocky (were we ever that way in our 20's?), making a little-too-obvious effort not to be patronizing to those unbearably old fogies with the unfortunate grey hairs (i.e. anyone over 40) while they showed us their finds.
"Guess it's a no-show for the Buff-breasted," he chimed. "I've been here for two hours, all up and down here, but not a sign of it."
"No, no, we have it in our scope right here," we replied, and offered him a look for himself. Now it was our turn to try not to look smug, as his look of disbelief gave way to surprise - we did indeed have the bird he had missed. "Must have just flown in," he grumbled quietly, and we allowed as how that might be so. One-up-man-ship over the young may not be seemly, but it sure is sweet!
As the month drew to a close, we finally could no longer resist the reports of good shorebird sightings at Presqu'ile Provincial Park. So another Saturday night journey in Vanessa, knowing that the park campgrounds were full, and thinking that we might have to park somewhere on the street overnight. Ignoring the no vacancy signs, we arrived at the campground entrance about 10:15, just as the staff were locking up. As we had hoped, there was one no-show among the 400 or so campsites, so we camped in comfort after all.
Just after dawn the next morning, before the hordes descended on the beach seeking relief from the heat, we sifted through the flocks of small shorebirds feeding on washed-up algae to see what we could find. As expected, finding Sanderlings as #273 was easy. But only when other birders began to arrive did we focus in on a more distant point to see three dumpy dove-grey birds among the gulls - making Red Knot our Big Year #274.
Some species of shorebirds are still possible in September, or even into early October, but the main push is past. With two months to go, we hope to add a few more birds to our Big Year, but it won't be more than a handful.
In the meantime, the campaign to protect Wolf Run Alvar is winding down too. So far, our Big Year has raised more than $33,000 in pledges, and we are entering the final critical stage. By the end of September, we have to waive the funding condition on our offer, which means we are legally committed to complete the transaction. We are nearing our funding goal, but still need your help to finish off.