Friday, 25 July 2014

Day 1 (8 May).

Welcome to Canada. 

The journey from South Wales to Toronto was smooth and uninterrupted, with us landing slightly ahead of schedule in the early afternoon. Once the entry formalities were dealt with, the hire car collected and a bit of a jumpy start as MB got to grips with the car, we were soon on the Interstate heading South West. 

As well as the ubiquitous feral Pigeons, we soon picked up our first Turkey Vultures, Red-tailed Hawks, Red-winged Blackbirds (or “redwings” from now on) and Ring- billed Gulls.  A comfort break provided the first opportunity to get the bins out and have a proper look around. Tree and Barn Swallows, American Robin, American Goldfinch, Grackles plus redwings all showed well, while a Savanah Sparrow was more distant and a Meadowlark little more that a hazy yellow dot on a distant fence post.

Despite the seemingly distinctive lack of road signs (they are there, they are just not that obvious), once we got off the interstate, we made our way to our accommodation without getting lost, though I’m not sure whether that was more the result of luck rather than fortune.  By the time we had passed through Wheatley it was dark, but MB’s built in sat nav got us safely delivered to the cottage.

Day 2 (9 May).

Point Pelee here we come.

After a good nights sleep, we were all up and ready, looking forward to a new day in a new country, with lots of ticks awaiting us. The need to meet our landlords meant we were restricted to the local environs’,  but that worked out fine as we walked as far as Hillman Marsh, North Beach and back. Mourning Dove, Myrtle Warbler, House Sparrow (!), Eastern Kingbird, and Double-crested Cormorants quickly joined the trip list, before a splendid Red-headed Woodpecker was enjoyed. Northern Cardinal and Rose-breasted Grosbeak soon followed along with numerous Yellow Warblers. A couple of Vireo’s required a bit of close scrutiny before they were nailed as Warbling.  At the North Beach we found a pair of Downy Woodpeckers excavating a nest hole, with Tree Swallows using an old hole only inches higher up. A couple of Killdeers were on the beach, while groups of Red-breasted Mergansers and Black Scoters flew across the waters of Lake Eire.

Just as we were heading back, a car pulled up – local birders asking what was around. As soon as they found out we were out of towners and only just arrived, they informed us of a Great Horned Owl nest just up the road, and even offered us a lift to view it. It was, however, some 300m up the road, so we just walked, and joined a number of birders to look at the immense adult sitting on what looked more like a Woodpigeon nest that something substantial enough to support such a large bird. This spot also produced our first Indigo Bunting, a splendid male. A scan of the open fields behind us produced Dunlin, Semi-palmated Plover, Killdeer and a couple of Least Sandpipers. 

The walk back to the cottage produced our first “catharus” thrush, a Swainson’s, and two more peckers – Hairy and Northern Flicker.    

After meeting the Landlords it was off to the almost mythical Point Pelee (PP). Again MB’s in built sat nav took us straight there with a short stop just north of the PP area as Phil spotted a Yellow-headed Blackbird in a flying group of redwings. Unfortunately it could not be relocated as the group had flow over a ditch into the extensive reed beds of PP.  A quick look around the area pulled in another Savanah Sparrow and several Blanding’s Turtles. A car that pulled up slightly further along the road turned out to be a couple of Brit birders, who we were to meet up with many times over the next week. While talking to them a Common Yellowthroat and an empid’ flycatcher were found. After close scrutiny we concluded the flick was a Least Flycatcher and hoped to have our id confirmed as another birder pulled up. Hope increased when we found out the birder was Canadian, but his response on our asking for confirmation was “If that what you think I’ll go with that”, left us rather bemused. Welcome to the World of Empid’ flycatcher id! Later sightings of Least at PP and elsewhere with more expert eyes confirmed our original conclusion / identity.

It was then into PP itself. Being a weekend, the park was very busy so we had to park in one of the car parks midway to the visitor centre. This proved to be very fortuitous as during our stroll down to the centre Phil spotted a Black-billed Cuckoo – the first seen on PP this spring, and that was quickly followed by a female Hooded Warbler. Butterflies were few and far between but we did pick up our first Spring Azure and Mourning Cloak (Camberwell Beauty) just after enjoying the Hooded Warb’.

A call into the visitor centre for a quick coffee then onto the “train” for the journey down t the Tip.
We’d hardly walked 20m from the drop off point when we hit our first bird wave. Chestnut-sided; Black-throated Blue, Bay-breasted, Nashville and Black and White Warblers, American Redstart along with Blue Grey Gnatcatchers (renamed “bagsnatchers” in memory of Mr Hogan), Red-breasted Nuthatches and Red-eyed Vireo’s. The walk towards the tip produced further new warblers in the guise of Magnolia and Black-throated Green.  A couple of glowing male Scarlet Tanagers were found, followed by a drab female.  Another drab tanager was soon located but the lack of contrast between the wings and the body plumage, and slightly larger bill, showed this was a Summer Tanager. The patches of red within the green plumage hinted at it possible being a 2cy male, but an older female couldn’t be ruled out. 

Strolling back to the pick up point MJB picked up a bird flying towards us, over the trees. Both MJB and MB got onto the bird and were surprised to see it was a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, a rare overshoot from its breeding grounds in the Southern States. Unfortunately Phil and Rob were looking i the wrong direction at the time and neither Martin noticed they weren’t looking the right way.3 hrs into PP and one hard to find (the Cuckoo) and one rarity already in the bag.

Back to the centre for more refreshments, we were informed that a Scissor-tailed flick, either the one that flew over the two Martins heading South, or another, had been located at the Marsh Boardwalk. As Phil and Rob had missed the earlier one, we rushed back to the car and drove up to join the twitch at the Marsh Boardwalk. This time, having to park so far from the main car park worked against us as by the time we arrived at the Marsh Boardwalk the bird has disappeared, hiding from the rain and strong winds, about 10 minutes before we got there. 

We were just pulling out of the Marsh Boardwalk car park when we noticed a group of birders working some tall trees next to the road. Window down, “what’s about?” and Phil was out the door before the reply of “Blackburnian” was out of the birders mouth. It was his most wanted for the trip. After parking up we joined Phil and the others, who were now chasing a Yellow-throated Vireo. The Blackburnian was soon found, and we left Phil to his moment of ecstasy…. Our first Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the trip was then located, perched in the shade, so unfortunately not showing off its glowing iridescence. This was followed by the Vireo and a Northern Parula. 

Eventually tearing ourselves away from PP, we decided to bird the lane behind our cottage, where several Smith’s Longspurs were being reported up to a couple of days before our arrival. Unfortunately there was no sign of the Smith’s, but several breeding plumage Lapland Longspur’s (Buntings in the real world) provided some compensation along with several Horned Larks (a potential split from Shore Lark).

Day 3 (10 May)

Although conditions wasn’t looking great for a spectacular fall, we made the first tram to the tip of PP, where almost all the passerines, mainly redwings and Grackles, appeared to be heading South over Lake Erie. The  lake itself held more Red-breasted Mergansers than you could shake a stick at, with a few, distant, Black Scoters,  along with scores of Forster’s Tern’s and Bonaparte’s Gull’s. 

New warblers picked up in the tip area were Wilson’s, Tennessee and Canada before we made our way back to the centre, picking up Northern Waterthrush and Solitary Sandpiper on the way, before twitching the Yellow-throated Warbler that had been around for several days. Exploring the Tilden Woods area in the afternoon produced our first Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Wood Pewee, Eastern Phoebe and Mourning Warbler of the trip. A second Summer Tanager, again a 2cy male, gave us the run around before being nailed, but a Clay-colored Sparrow only gave fleeting, but tickable, glimpses. 

We then left for Hillman Marsh. On arrival we found the cap park full, so got to wonder what was about. The question was soon answered when a birder we had met briefly the day before at North Hillman Marsh Beach jumped out of her car and ran over to inform us of a male Prothonotary Warbler by the barn and 3 American Avocets on the wader scrape. Choices? Which one first? It was no contest, the Prothonotary won hands down, and not just because it was less than 30 meter away. Making our way to the small jetty by the barn, we quickly found this bright yellow jewel feeding quietly at the base of a large willow.

The warbler in the bag, it was the Avocets next. Two minutes later we were watching these, albeit distantly. Ducks were predominantly Gadwall, but careful scanning uncovered Blue-winged Teal, American Wigeon, Bufflehead, Green-winged Teal, Pintail, Ruddy Duck, Shoveler and Mallard. A juvenile Bald Eagle was pointed out sitting in a distant tree. 

A bit of an explore round the top end of this reserve saw us meet up with a local birder who informed us that a White-eyed Vireo had been showing well in the scrub just in front of where we were standing. This species was fast becoming a boggy bird with us dipping on it at several locations over the past two days. Despite giving it around 45 minutes the vireo never appeared, though Philadelphia, Warbling and Red-eyed Vireo’s all put in an appearance. The final species for the day came as MB was scanning the reed beds and was lucky enough to pick up a Least Bittern just before it dropped out of sight.

Day 4. (11 May)

A change of scenery today as we travelled up to Rondeau. Approaching Blenhiem a Belted Kingfisher was seen sitting in the overhead wires. And just before entering the park, while watch a pair of Chipping Sparrow, a breeding plumage Great Northern Diver (Common loon) flew over – a strange sight given no water could be seen. On entering the park, a short watch over the feeding station at the visitor centre found our first White-breasted Nuthatches and Black-capped Chickadee’s of the trip and, while MB was taking a comfort break, our only Tufted Titmice.  

We then set off on the long hike to the tip and back. At times the birding was tough with long periods of next to nothing in sight, not even the ubiquitous Yellow Warblers, though we did pick up the first Hermit Thrush of the trip. As we neared the tip, Phil and MB found an Orange-crowned Warbler, which proved to be the only definite sighting of the week, but Rob and MJB couldn’t get onto to it. As the temperature rose, the birding, as expected, became harder. Phil scored with a Coopers Hawk sitting high in a distant tree, before a couple of Sandhill Cranes flew over. A Swamp Sparrow, proved to be the only other new bird species for the trip, though we did enjoy good views of a Great Horned Owl chick in its nest. 

After a lunch break we headed for the Paddock pool where a Prothonotary and Blue-winged Warbler, as well as White-eyed Vireo, were reported to be showing well. While the scrub around the pool proved to be attractive to warblers there was a no show from the target three – the Blue-winged now starting to vie with the Vireo as the trips bogy bird. 

Leaving Rondeau, we made our way to Blenhiem Sewerage works. The closer lagoons held some of the more common species, Ruddy Duck, Bufflehead and Lesser Scaup. Approaching the far lagoon, MB noticed a small bird drop into the long grass. A quick change of position produced a nice male Bobolink in breeding dress. A look round the area, inc the surrounding fields, produced about half a dozen (males and females) of this struggling prairie species. Switching attention back to the furthest lagoon, it was clear this was where most of the birds were to be found. Highlights amongst the waterfowl was a small group of Redheads – a tick for us all after the Kenfig bird had been removed from the British list and our first American Coot.  Waders consisted of a single Lesser Yellowlegs and a group of half a dozen Greater Yellowlegs. 

The hunt was now on for the reported female Wilson’s phalarope which had been in residence for a couple of weeks and was MJB’s most wanted for the trip. Working all of the lagoons nothing resembling a Phalarope could be found. We passed a couple of birders focusing intently on a grass bank. On enquiring what they were watching we were informed it was the Phalarope. That immediately saw four more sets of optics scrutinising the long grass in front of us when suddenly up pops a head.  There she was, a gorgeous female Wilson’s phalarope. While only her head and neck could be seen when she deemed to raise her head, we enjoyed the moment. 

Heading home, we pulled into the side of the road to check out a lake in a private estate just off the main road. A flock of circa 30 waders were noted and closer scrutiny showed they were Short-billed Dowitchers, most in full breeding colours.

Day 5. (12 May)

Driving over to PP in the dark we had an Otter run along the road before diving into the reeds as we passed Hillman Marsh. As with back home, any day with an Otter sighting was a good day, we just hoped that that was not to be the only highlight.

On entering PP, we stopped at the marsh board walk hoping to connect with the resident Beavers. While Phil, Rob and MJB made there way along the boardwalk, MB decided to stay near the holt. This proved fortuitous as he was able to watch a Beaver swim past him before swimming under the boardwalk into the more open water.  On sighting the beaver he signalled to the others and they “rushed” back along the boardwalk – well as fast as they could without making too much disturbance from the floating boardwalk – before getting good views of the Beaver swimming away. An excellent start to the Beaver watch, but better was to come. 

Making our way down to the tip on the first tram of the day we joined the group of birders trying to find something worthwhile. The highlight, however, was a group of 4 White-winged Scoter that flew past, close to the tip.   

The birding round the tip proved to be quite quiet so we worked our way back to the visitor centre. By this point we had picked up a few new “members” of our group. At the tip we met up with Rick, a Canadian birder we’d met a couple of day’s earlier, who introduced us to another local birder, Michael Runtz. Actually to describe Michael as a birder does him something of a major disservice. While he was an exceptional birder, he was far more than that as he is an outstanding field naturalist. 

After a coffee and bite to eat at the centre we headed over to the Tilden Trail. We’d only gone about 50m down the trail and had found an Olive-sided Flycatcher when Michael came running past informing us that a male Kentucky Warbler had just been found, near the Boardwalk car park.  It was full reverse into the centre car park, a short drive to the boardwalk car park and join the group of around 20 birders trying to get a glimpse of a renowned skulker. The bird kept us on tender hooks by give brief bursts of song. Then suddenly, there it was sitting on an exposed branch, 5 seconds later it had dropped back down into the undergrowth. Everyone there had managed to get a good look at it. Knowing that was probably as good a view as we were likely to get, we headed back down to Tilden Woods, to try for the Golden-winged, Blue-winged and Cerulean Warblers that had been reported in that area.

A small group of birders where hanging around the stakeout for the Cerulean and we were informed that there was also a male Hooded Warbler in the same tangle, but neither had been seen for some time. There was some confusion on the sex of the Cerulean with reports of both a male and female being reported but both, apparently, referring to the same individual. We decided to explore down one of the seasonal trails that led off from the boardwalk, MJB and Rob stopped to enjoy a male American Redstart that allowed a very close approach – coming within touching distance – as Phil and MB made their way behind the tangle where the two warblers had last been seen. From behind a fallen log, the male Hooded appeared giving Phil and MB great views but MJB and Rob only managed brief glimpses as it disappeared. Almost immediately a vision in pale blue appeared – the Cerulean. Staying in view for only a few seconds, not all got onto it. Was it a male, or a female? Its colour was a pale sky blue rather than the deeper cerulean blue expected for a male but it looked nothing like the drab females illustrated in the guide books. Discussing it later with Michael it appears some females are quite blue, so a female it looks to have been. 

Needless to say neither the Golden nor Blue-winged Warblers put in an appearance.

We called into Hillman Marsh again on the way home. A Willet had dropped in and showed off its diagnostic wing pattern as it flew round the scrape area several times. Also new was a female Hooded Merganser.
As we were walking out f the reserve, a local police car drove in, circled the car park and drove out – a couple of minutes after it had passed we all turned to each to comment on the strong aroma of Chips. Knowing there was nothing close by that could be cooking chips we were wondering what else could give off the same aroma as walking past your local chippie. It took about 5 minutes before it dawned on us that the police car was being run on recycled cooking oil.  We were to notice the same aroma after an ambulance past us a few days later. Imagine if California Highway Patrols run on used cooking oils – Chips on chips!