Birding in Ontario

Chasing the Wary Birds of September

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September:

Ontario seems to feature two kinds of September - the crisp, sunny, autumn-leaves-turning kind of weather, and the grey monotone will-it-never-stop-raining type.  This year, the first half of the month was dominated by the latter.  Combined with a busy schedule and a lack of nearby rarities, that kept us away from hardcore birding for several weeks.

Red_Crossbills_MaleMid-month brought our annual canoe trip with far-flung friends, a yearly pilgrimage to the wilderness that never seems to grow old.  Even though this ritual has been going for about 15 years, and includes some of Ontario's top environmental leaders, several university professors, an archaeologist, and tons of tradition, we haven't yet gotten around to giving this group a name.  Most of our trips are in northern Ontario, but we have also canoed rivers in Quebec, Manitoba, and Nunavut, with some memorable birds.

This year, our group of nine could pry out only five days from our collective schedules, so we headed onto the upper French River, working our way eastwards to where Lake Nipissing drains into this historic waterway.  We poked our way through narrow channels and rocky bays, gradually leaving the cottages and motorboats behind.  A family group of Common Mergansers welcomed us to a quiet pond at the foot of Free-Run Channel, the only one of three exits from Lake Nipissing that hasn't been modified by a control dam. 

Despite a switch to generally good weather and being surrounded by scenic pine-clad shores throughout the trip, our birding list was meagre.  Yellow-rumped Warblers were everywhere, with Pine Warblers common too, and Blue Jay migration was clearly underway.  But finches were still uncommon, and only on the fourth day out did we finally confirm a female Red Crossbill for species #275.

Of course, we returned to a pile of reports about a phenomenal birding event we had missed at Van Wagner's Beach in Hamilton, with two species of Jaegers and a flock of Sabine's Gulls all doing fly-bys at close range for several days.  Seeing these species in September is not all that unusual at this location.  But nearly always their sightings occur only in partnership with a strong east wind, and even so at a long distance out over the water.  2010 was the fair-weather exception to that rule - and we missed it!

Undaunted, we scanned the weather network for east winds, and played hookey from work the following Monday.  By 9:30 a.m. we were on the beachside paved trail, and a little exploration soon turned up a small knot of birders on a lookout.  Among these watchers on the shore was Rob Dobos, another refugee from work for the day, who clearly has a gift for spotting Jaegers (and I suspect a lot of other birds too).  Within a few moments he identified a whorl of distant specks high above the waves as Jaegers.  Luckily the cluster of five birds drifted closer, until even I could pick out through the telescope the dark cap and lighter breast characteristic of Parasitic Jaeger - species #276.


As the morning wore on, with the cold east winds "freshening", we eventually retreated to the meagre shelter provided by a closed-for-the-season restaurant.  Our winter coats and gloves did get some odd looks from passing joggers in their Spandex shorts.  We caught sight of a lonely Sanderling and a Ruddy Turnstone, the gulls along the beach rose and fell, and the cluster of birders engaged in a fruitless and desultory debate about whether one of those five might have been a Long-tailed Jaeger.  But when the rain started in earnest, we decided that three hours was enough, and succumbed to the lure of a hot lunch.

Stops at a couple of local shorebird spots yielded nothing new, and a mid-afternoon return to Van Wagner's Beach revealed only a different cluster of determined birders huddled in the lee of the same building.  We took a break on the drive home at the Beeton sod farms to search for Pipits among the raindrops, but an hour of scanning barren fields brought us only Horned Larks.

So now we face October, the final month of our quest, with a sense of uncertainty about how many more species we can squeeze into our Big Year.  The reports from Hamilton are once again intriguing, with Kittiwakes and Arctic Terns showing up along the Beach, so we may need to play hookey again soon.  We will be trying again for Pipits, which migrate through by the thousands, so surely we can find one!

What else?  Saw-whet Owl is certainly on our hit list; Golden Eagle would be great; maybe Red-throated Loon or an early Purple Sandpiper.  We've scanned lots of flocks of Canada Geese, but haven't yet identified a Cackling Goose to our satisfaction.  Maybe a Lapland Longspur is possible, or even a stray shorebird such as Hudsonian Godwit.  Red Phalerope is also a possibility if we spend enough time along Great Lakes shore.  And for Janet, a couple of "catch-up" species - Red-shouldered Hawk and Horned Grebe which have evaded her so far.

Only a few weeks left, and so many birds left to find!  Between birding, and work, we are putting in place all the final paperwork to close the deal on Wolf Run Alvar - we have waived the funding condition, and are scheduled to complete the ownership transfer on October 29th.  Thanks for all your support and encouragement.

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