Birding in Ontario

Finishing our Big Year in Style

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1 Lapland Longspur by Howard B. EskinOctober was the Grand Finale of our year of chasing after birds on two fronts:  first, we added 8 new species to our Big Year total, including one at dusk on the very last day; and second, the Wolf Run Alvar property was transferred into Couchiching Conservancy ownership on October 29th.  We can't thank you all enough for your support and encouragement.


For us, October was a whirlwind.  Yet another trip to Hamilton early in the month yielded no more Jaegers, but a stop at the Redhill Creek stormwater pond added a Hudsonian Godwit, a large and long-billed shorebird. 

"Woodstock's not so far away," we thought, so off we went in search of a reported White-fronted Goose on the Pittock Reservoir.  After sifting through several thousand Canada geese, no luck, but a mud bar did bring us an unexpected surprise - a Stilt Sandpiper, one of those not-so-uncommon shorebirds that had been eluding us for weeks.  And at the grotty service centre where we stopped for long-overdue lunch, a flock of American Pipits feeding on weed seeds gave us one more.



We had nearly all the Ontario owls, except for Saw-whet - the tiny, cute species that peers out from innumerable calendars.  Saw-whets are banded by the hundreds as they migrate southwards in October, so adding just one to our list seemed almost a certainty.  But not to be - when we visited the banding stations, the Saw-whets did not, so a big miss on that species.


But hope springs eternal, so we decided a trip to London to stay with our old friends Ric and Sandy Symmes would be just the thing.  They came with us for a glorious day at Hawk Ridge, a bluff on the shores of Lake Erie, where watchers in lawn chairs scan the fields for passing raptors.  We stayed for most of the day, and began to clue in to the shorthand among the regulars to record the passing parade:

"TVs" are of course Turkey Vultures, "Tails" are Red-tailed Hawk while "Shoulders" are Red-shouldereds, "Coops" are Cooper's and "Shins" are Sharp-shinned.  So "2 tails and a shin" might sound like an assortment of body parts, but they are instead an efficient way of recording large numbers of birds in a hurry.


Our prime target for the day was a Golden Eagle, and indeed, a single Golden was recorded - during the half-hour we snuck away to grab some lunch!  By late afternoon, we decided to try our luck elsewhere, and raced back to Woodstock - this time, the two White-fronted Geese stood front and centre to be counted, so at least some success!


The next day, we started on a round-about route with a stop at Kettle Point north of Sarnia, where we watched a Peregrine Falcon nab a sitting duck and settle down to lunch.  None of the hoped-for Jaegers there either, but a Red-throated Loon flew right over our heads at low altitude - ye-e-ess!  To escape the cutting wind, we stopped by the Grand Bend Sewage Lagoons; lots of ducks and shorebirds but nothing new.  But the stubbly field next door did finally yield several Lapland Longspurs among the dozens of Pipits and Horned Larks, so one more new species.


On our wandering route home, a stop by the Maitland River finally brought us a group of 8 unmistakeable Cackling Geese among the hundreds of Canadas roosting there - not so easy as it sounds, for this "new " species was only recently separated from Canada Geese.  Cackling Geese are smaller, browner, with a stubby bill and shorter neck, but otherwise very similar to their larger cousins.  So with that, 4 new species for the weekend, and we were happy.


But not quite happy enough, for this listing hobby is addictive.  This time, we have to blame Ron Tozer, who e-mailed us to say that Redpolls had returned to the old airfield in Algonquin Park, and that a few White-winged Crossbills were being seen too.  So at mid-afternoon on Saturday, October 30th, Janet snuck away from work and off we set for Algonquin, figuring we should have just enough daylight.  As we travelled north, scattered showers turned to steady rain.  And as we passed the Park's west gate, rain turned to snow.  Within 3 km, the snow was 4" deep on the highway and very slippery, with more coming down heavily.  A truck that had launched off the road shoulder deep into the trees was the final straw - we turned back.  As we passed the west gate again, the snow changed again to rain.  It was clear that the God of Birding had decreed that we were not to see Redpolls!


Still, we had a whole day remaining, so lured by reports of Pacific Loons and Cave Swallows and all sorts of goodies on the Lake Ontario shore, we made the long dark drive to Trenton that night.  A quick morning  stop at Presqu'ile brought us a European Widgeon for Janet, but puzzling over the loons in Cobourg harbour was unproductive.  We headed for the mouth of Oshawa Harbour, where 2 Pacific Loons had been hanging about for days.  A tight cluster of birders was gathered at the end of the long pier - always a good sign.  And indeed, they told us, they were watching the Pacific Loons in their scopes when we arrived - but as we walked out the pier, a motorboat passed us, causing hundreds of Red-breasted Mergansers (and the Pacific Loons!) to rise and scatter.  Despite hours of watching and waiting, the loons never did return that day, so we missed them by minutes.


Our consolation came when we spotted a drab shorebird on the algae-covered rocks on the breakwall opposite us.  That turned out to be a Dunlin, but then a second shorebird appeared - bright orange legs and a stubby beak instantly confirmed a Purple Sandpiper.  This uncommon shorebird is the latest to arrive in fall, and as far as we know none of the other birders had seen it, so a great bird to top off our Big Year.


2 Purple Sandpiper by John Fox

When we sat down to add it all up, our Big Year in summary looks like this:


•·         Ron had 284 species, Janet 282 (she missed both Horned and Eared Grebes)


•·         37 new Ontario life birds for Janet, 31 for Ron


•·         A total of 460 volunteer hours each spent birding and driving (the equivalent of 65 7-hour days)


•·         A total of just over 20,000 km driving - almost exactly half-way around the Earth (that works out to 70 km/species, which makes us feel rightly guilty about our carbon impacts)


•·         Pledges of $62.60 per species,  plus $16,670 in flat pledges from 137 donors


•·         That means we raised a total of $34,358 from our Big Year!


That amount, plus a $15,000 grant from the EJLB Foundation, has been matched by an anonymous private donor in Carden, and that total matched again by the federal Natural Areas Conservation Program, and all that together buys Wolf Run Alvar!