Friday, July 24, 2015

Netley-Libau/Bird Count Way Down

Hi readers,
As some of you know I crossed Canada during the spring and early summer on a "Little Big Year" where I had the luck to meet some incredible people. Included on that list is Manitoba birder, environmental activist and altogether good human Charlie McPherson. Not only did he find me a number of lifers he also took me out in his boat and into Netley-Libau Marsh for an afternoon. He was recently interviewed about his stewardship work and his concerns about the effects of Lake Winnipeg on the surrounding marshlands near his home.

Please click on the link below for more information and the Winnipeg Free Press story.

Charlie McPherson scoping Lake Winnipeg.
American White Pelicans fly over what was once hay fields.
Bald Eagles have increased while ducks, grebes and shorebird numbers have plummeted. 
The summer cottages are now gone and the rising water level has submerged hundreds of acres of woodland. The roots become waterlogged and rot. The only birds using this type of shoreline were Spotted Sandpipers.

More from the trip

"It's never too late to start birding"
John Gordon
BC Canada

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Return "Little Big Year" Part 22

June 22-July 3 2015 The Return Trip

Bas-St-Laurent/Rimouski/Parc National du Bic to Toronto.

Morning fog rolls off the Saint Laurent River at Parc National du Bic.
After crossing Canada in six weeks I had to plan a return trip in two weeks. Here is a selection of images from the last two weeks of the journey. Enjoy!

After driving through a wet and soggy New Brunswick I spent a few days relaxing in Quebec. I arrived a day before St Jean Baptiste Day, a Quebec national holiday. On my outward journey I had booked my van in for an oil change not realizing my error. The extra day stopover was a good chance to practice my rudimentary Quebecois. It was enough to order my favourite comfort food, a large poutine with extra gravy. Most Quebecois I spoke to only had a few words of English, some were fluent even the mechanic who changed the oil spoke no English or wasn't comfortable enough so I had my brother-in-law explain some things I might want to fix on the van when I returned home.
Note: I made it back to BC after 20,000 kms with just an oil change. Gotta luv VW Westfalia's.


I stopped off in Ottawa's Andrew Haydon Park for a few hours where a Little Egret had been reported. I searched and searched finding a Great Egret and a Groundhog but no Little Egret. I was about to leave when another birder approached me and one thing led to another and soon were on our way to the other side of the lake where we joined about twenty other birders who were good enough to share their scope views of the rare egret. I believe it is the first record ever for Little Egret in Ottawa. Too far for a photo but yet another lifer for me.
Groundhog or Woodchuck (Marmota Monax) Hayden Park, Ottawa.
Great Egret with fish at Andrew Haydon Park, Ottawa.

Agawa Rock Paintings

The next notable stop after a scenic drive through Northern Ontario was Agawa Pictographs in Lake Superior Provincial Park. Fortunately Lake Superior was calm and most of the rock paintings were accessible. A precarious 45 degree slope leads to the cliff face and one slip would lead to a very cold dip in the deep water below. The forest trail was very birdy with Magnolia Warbler, Ovenbird, Swainson's Thrush and Ruby-crowned Kinglets the most evident. The mosquitos were in a miserable mood so I high-tailed out of the woods after visiting the rock paintings.

Agawa pictographs and rock paintings.

More on Agawa Rock Paintings

Sault Ste.Marie

The next stop was Sault St Marie to observe a colony of Chimney Swifts where I shot some video of the swifts but a better version from Tube is posted below. My video only shows a hundred birds. The swifts were lifers for me. It was too dark and they were to far way to photograph but the UTube video shows thousands milling around the post office chimney before plunging down to roost for the night.

The Roost

More on Chimney Swifts

Chimney Swift Video

Terry Fox Memorial.

As I made my through Northern Ontario I promised myself to visit the Terry Fox Memorial. I have to admit it was an emotional experience. I had lump in my throat as I drove up a beautiful tree lined avenue to the memorial. The site is a fitting memorial to Terry Fox and his legacy. Having just driven from St John's Newfoundland I cannot imagine the effort it must have taken him to reach Thunder Bay where his journey prematurely ended. 

Canada Day July 1 2015 Regina Beach, Saskatchewan.

Regina's Tavria Ukrainian Folk Dance Ensemble

July 2-3 The Manitoba Grasslands Birding Trail
                                                "Where the Grassland Birds Still Sing"

The Southwest corner of Manitoba is one of the best places in the province to see grassland birds. There are two well documented routes to take. 
A handy map with detailed description of birds that might be encountered can be found at Manitoba Tourism offices along the Trans-Canada.
I based myself in the town of Melita. The community run campground was quiet, clean with heated facilities including laundry and was very affordable at $20 a night. A good place to make a base for a few days. There are also a hotel in town.
On my arrival in the early afternoon I decided I had just enough time to drive the Northern Route with total driving distance of 53kms or 33 miles.

Here are some images from my four hour drive along gravel roads, past historic settlements, old school houses, farms, washed out bridges and incredible scenery.
Black Tern

     Note: the speckled head which is normally jet black occurs during the summer and the breeding period.


Swainson's Hawk v Eastern Kingbird.

I include this series of an Eastern Kingbird dive-bombing a Swainson's Hawk.  Forest fires made visibility difficult, there was no sunlight even in the late afternoon. There were two Swainson's which I would assume were a pair and they were up to no good. In some pictures the hawks were being attacked by another kingbird, a Red-winged blackbird and a Common Grackle, all at the same time! I think the pictured Swainson's acted as a decoy while the other went after nests. Later I observed the two Swainson's flying over the nearby wetland where both the kingbirds and blackbirds were nesting. 

Technically the images are below par as they were taken from quite a distance in lousy light but I think they are interesting enough to publish.

Dive bombed
An Eastern Kingbird comes into harass a Swainson's Hawk

Pecking Order
The Eastern Kingbird pecks the head of the much larger Swainson's Hawk.
In some pictures the red crest of the kingbird is clearly show.

                                                                         The Landing
Ouch! I am sure this hawk is more than a little angry.

Quiet Backroads

Away from the busier roads the number of species I found increased exponentially. These Bobolinks were quite happy with me photographing them from the van window but when a farmer drove by the birds were flushed.
Clay-coloured Sparrow
The entire time I was in the prairies I never saw a blue sky due to forest fires in NWT, Alberta and Saskatchewan blanketing the entire province in smoke.
Eared Grebe with young hitching a ride.

Another Eared Grebe with s a singlechick.

I just had to find a Grasshopper Sparrow. I had already found LeConte's and Field Sparrow so a third rare or difficult to find sparrow would be a fitting end to my grassland adventure.

Grasshopper Sparrow
Next day I attempted the Southern Manitoba Grasslands Birding Trail Southern Route. The trail is a 150 kms or 93miles and begins just outside the town of Melita, the same starting point as the previous day. The trail takes the visitor through native prairie, riparian woodlands, along and into the historic Souris Valley. Alhough I didn't see any, the chance of seeing a Burrowing Owl is as good here as anywhere in Canada.
Anyway I drove along gravel roads and some smaller side-roads where the grass scraped underneath the van. I was also on the lookout for Upland Sandpipers which I had seen north of Winnipeg close to Oak Hammock. Because of the remote location I was lucky enough to see several pairs hanging around a cattle pasture. The grasses about the same height as the birds themselves, the perfect nesting site.

Upland Sandpiper

I was pretty exited to get this close to such an elegant bird. A few miles down the road I found another bird and set up to photograph it when suddenly its mate or a competitor appeared out of nowhere, flushing my subject.

Had I looked away for a second I would have missed this scene.

Just another Upland Sandpiper!
         I eventually saw eight Upland Sandpipers on my drive, seven more than I had ever before!

Western Meadowlark
A ground nester, a Western Meadowlark collects food and keeps a wary eye open for predators like crows, magpies, coyotes and foxes. She also has to look out for flocks of Brown-headed Cowbirds who are looking for a host nest in which to lay their eggs.

Wilson's Snipe can usually be heard before they are seen.

A snipe makes the familiar winnowing sound.
Snipe were quite common on my prairie travels and I often saw them near human habitation, on  fence posts, adjacent to playing fields but none were as elegant as these two birds from the windswept grasslands.

Eastern Phoebe

Yellow-headed Blackbird binging food to the nest.

Wherever you find cattle you will see cowbirds. Certain species like the rare Brewer's Sparrow and to some extent the Grasshopper Sparrow need a specific type of grassland to nest in. They prefer native pasture which has been grazed by ungulates. Now that there are very few Pronghorn Antelope and no Bison the grassland is either sown for crops or used for oil extraction.
Brown-headed Cowbirds look for a host nest.
These Brown-headed Cowbirds were on the look-out for any unsuspecting birds to lead them to their nests. The cowbirds can then lay their own eggs just as they would have done each year as they followed the millions of bison that used to migrate from Yellowstone to the Prairies. 
Of course, we still haven't learnt our lesson and as I look out at the remaining 3% of Manitoba'a grasslands I wonder why there are new oils wells are even being allowed on the last remnants of native grassland.

Parting Shot

Grasshopper Sparrow

"It's never late to start birding"

John Gordon
BC Canada

Thursday, July 2, 2015

PEI A Quick Visit "Mini Big Year" Part 21

June 19/20 2015 Prince Edward Island. Sunny.

It was with a certain feeling of exitement that I finally arrived at my last Maritime destination, Prince Edward Island. Leaving New Brunswick I made my way over the 13 km/8 mile long Confederation Bridge. Grey clouds welcomed me after the remnants of a tropical storm continued to blow through the Maritimes.

Confederation Bridge.
My first destination was Charlottetown for the night. After a quick look around the historic city I made my way to East Point and its historic lighthouse. Miracles, the sun came out for me. East Point Lighthouse is one of PEI's best known attractions. Built in 1867 by William MacDonald, his two sons and a blacksmith. MacDonald went on to build many more structures, many of which are now heritage buildings. I went on to visit a number of lighthouses, some of which have been turned into B&B.

*Note: I will be presenting an hour long presentation of the trip at Langley's Muriel Arnason Library in September for those who would like to see a little more of the trip.

By this time the foliage had grown in and many of the song birds were on the nest and hard to see so I resorted to sightseeing.

East Point Lighthouse and strange sign. Guess what the other side says! 

On the tip of the island Common Eiders gathered to moult and will be in eclipse plumage for several weeks. The upwelling of nutrients make the area rich in food and good place for the ducks to take haven. Just off-shore, large rafts of Black Scoter and other seas ducks could be seen through a scope but too far and out of range for camera shots. Black Duck, scores of non-breeding Double-crested Cormorants, Herring and Ring-billed Gulls were closer to shore, taking advantage of the pounding waves that have carved off large sections of cliff face. A few buildings associated with the lighthouse have already been swallowed up by the ocean.

Wind and wave action is slowing eroding away the grounds of the lighthouse.
Immature Double Crested Cormorants gather at the tip of the island where there is a plentiful food supply.
Both shots above and below P900 at 2000mm. All other scenics P900.

Just off shore Herring Gulls and Common Eider bob in the waves . 

These fields will have potatoes sprouting soon but for now the colours create an interesting pattern.. 
I then drove along the East coast of the Island to a mixed decidious stand of trees where another birder suggested I check for the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.
Sure enough the trees were full of Yellow and Magnolia Warblers and thousands of nasty blood sucking mosquitos. These pictures were taken in haste as I was determined not to sucked dry of blood after my recent Newfoundland experience.

Red-eyed Vireo. ( both bird pictures Tamron 150mm-600mm D7000)

I set up to photograph whatever I could find, did some phissing and right away this Red-eyed Vireo popped out of the forest to see what all the fuss was about.

There was no mention of the swarms of mosquitos in the PEI visitors guide but eventually they drove me crazy and I decided to play the flycatcher's call. I checked for marauding crows or cowbirds, there were none around so with the Yellow-bellied call playing it didn't take long for this beautiful bird to show. The colours of the dappled sunlight filtering through the leaves and bathed the bird in a brilliant yellow and green.
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
The 33rd lifer for the trip and a bird not found in the BC. 

The red soil of PEI is famous for its potato crops, there is even a potato museum.

This Red fox is still loosing its winter coat in June only to grow new one in September.

This Snowshoe Hare will also turn white with advent of winter.
I did take in an evening of traditional folk music which made for a great evening's entertainment. 
It was a whirlwind visit of Canada and now I will take a breath and start my way back through Quebec, along the St Lawrence to Ottawa and the spectacular scenery of the Canadian Shield. I also plan to video the Chimney Swifts in Sault St Marie. Who knows what I'll find but the past eight weeks has been an amazing experience and it's not over yet.
My other plans are to bird the Manitoba Grasslands in the south-west part of the province where there is still remnants of the original grasslands that have never been ploughed. I plan to look for Sprague's Pipit and the Grasshopper Sparrow.
After that I plan to spend Canada Day in Regina Beach if that is I can see the parade for smoke as forest fires in NWT, and Alberta have blanketed all the Prairies in a thick layer of smoke severely reducing visibility.

"It's never too late to start birding"
John Gordon
BC Canada

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Nova Scotia/Cabot Trail and Bird Island "Mini Big Year" Part 20

June 18/15 Bird Island,Cabot Trail, Cape Breton-Nova Scotia.

Bird Island, Nova Scotia

Back from Newfoundland on the overnight ferry and straight to Bird Island Boat Tours. The tour was led by Captain Vince Van Shaick.

I had photographed Atlantic Puffins in the UK but never in Canada and so the Bird Island trip for that and to hopefully tick off a Great Cormorant. The guided tour is good value and costs just $45. The skipper gives a running commentary all the way out explaining the lifecycle and habits of all the creatures on view. Did you know that seal eats 40 kilos of fish a day! He explained how the Black-legged Kittiwakes are beginning to use the island in greater numbers than ever before. 
We approached within 50 metres of Bird Island. Crystal clear shallow water, not deep but too shallow for whales which need at least 30 metres to dive.
Great black-backed Gull

Did you know the Great black-backed Gull is the largest Atlantic gull with a wingspan of 54" or 137cm.
Just another gull to everyone else on board but when I explained that I rarely see them Vancouver they were still unimpressed! I wonder what they would think if I told them birders hangout at garbage dumps and sewage., Hmmm!

Black-legged Kittiwake
I think the rocks have a painterly quality, probably because it was taken on the lee side of the island in the shade.
A Lifer. Great Cormorant
Finally, the Great Cormorant was one of my target birds which I had missed in the other three Maritime provinces.
 Double-crested Cormorants. Two adults and first year bird (middle)

Below is a 15 year old study that gives some interesting insights into the island, the birds and human interaction.

I have yet to photograph a Razorbill with catchlights in the eye but i'll keep trying until I succeed.

Harbour Seals

The seals may look cute but to the fisherman they are competitors. What I find very worrying is the amount of lobster pots, ropes and other fishing paraphernalia strewn over almost every estuary, bay and even open sea. I hardly saw any open water free of fishing gear. The lobster pots go out tens of kilometres. During one crossing I took, the ferry was halted for ten minutes after tangling with ropes and pots. I just wonder how the whales, porpoises and sea turtles manage to make their way to the feeding grounds.

The Cabot Trail
There is so much history in the region starting with the Mi'kmaq First Native culture to the numerous villages and towns many named after Scottish or French settlers. Some villages are French speaking only, others English. There is so much to see and so little time. I decided to view the scenery and take a rest after a few long days driving.
The commonest bird I came across on Cape Breton was the Willet, almost every bay or riverbank had one. There were very few duck, mostly Mallards here and there. The lack of raptors surprised me, I saw the grand total of two American Kestrel, one Red-tailed Hawk and a Merlin. The Common Raven seemed was the main predator on most telephone poles and there were lots of them, Ravens that is! By now most of the songbirds were hiding way, protecting their nests and very hard to see. The odd male could be seen collecting food but in a few weeks the woodland fields should be alive with fledglings.

Willet from the car window with the D7100 and Tamron 150mm-600mm

Parts of the Cabot Trail reminds me of Scotland and Wales. No wonder the first settlers thought they could begin new lives there. What they hadn't planned for were the long winters, many perished. However many persevered and the rest is history.
Here is some of the signage found around the trail. I hope it gives you an idea about the wildlife, none of which I witnessed first hand. My chief aim was to find and photograph Bicknel's Thrush, alas I couldn't find any, a long shot but worth the try and one of the few places the bird nests on the East Coast.
There were however a few American Redstarts, Yellow and Black and White Warblers. Black-capped Chickadees along the trails. Over open fields Northern Harriers hunted. Mosquitos were ever present, no mention of them in the tourist guide!

There are plenty of places to stop and enjoy the view and learn about the natural history.

The Cabot Trail goes through Cape Breton Highlands National Park of Canada. The trail is 185 miles in length and can be driven in a day but two or more days would give the visitor a better feel for the area. I found a superb beach campsite at Presqu'ile where I spent a pleasant even enjoying the sea breeze and watching a spectacular sunset.

Not too much birding more sightseeing and enjoying some special time relaxing after the Newfoundland trek.

"It's never to late to start birding"
John Gordon
BC Canada