Friday, 5 January 2018

My 2017 Ontario Big Year - Summary and Thank You

Well, where do I begin? I am borderline speechless this week (New Years 2017-2018) but I will see if I can come up with a piece to share here. It turns out I have a lot to talk about! Consider dividing and reading this in two parts if time is limited.

It has been a blast, this whole year, and I cannot find enough chances to thank the countless uplifting, generous, and supportive friends and loved ones who have helped me along through this great journey all over our beautiful province of Ontario. If you are reading this post, then you in some way or another are part of that group of people, so thank you for being there too!

My noble pony and I at Lynde Shores, Whitby, after seeing a Neotropic Cormorant. This folding bike that I often kept in my truck saved me a long walk at least a few times!
I tentatively decided three or four years ago that I would do a big year in Ontario, approximately in 2017. My goal was to do the best I possibly could with what resources, time, and mental and physical stamina that I could muster. I always entertained the thought that perhaps I could end up somewhere near Ontario's Big Year record of 343 species, ambitiously set in 2012 by Josh Vandermeulen, one of the best friends a guy like me could ever ask for. Josh always knew that I had it in me, and so did Alan Wormington, a very special friend and mentor to both Josh and I, who sadly left this world just months before 2017 began. I did not take either of them very seriously until I realized the pace I was on part way through this year.

My first visit to Moosonee with Josh Vandermeulen and Alan Wormington in 2013, the year after Josh's record Big Year. This is us on the ferry between Moosonee and Moose Factory, moments before I set foot on Moose Factory for my first time, and I can't help but reminisce about these fond memories as I go through the timeline of my Big Year.
My preparation for such a goal might surprise you! I spent months of 2016 preparing myself by researching and setting a timeline of when I would need to catch up with certain species, designing a personalized seasonal 'rarity ranking system' for each of Ontario's near 500 species ever, and spent the last few years carefully learning how to go about finding (and re-finding) all tricky annual species found in Ontario. I spent the second half of 2016 focusing on not being excitable or high strung over birding matters, which turned out to be one of my most effective psychological tools throughout my Big Year. I fought against my strong urge to take on much guiding work in recent years, to avoid having to leave clients hanging for a year, and I kept my other field work commitments to a minimum going into 2017. I had a nice contract job with Bird Studies Canada for nearly half of the year, and because my scheduling is flexible, I opted to concentrate as much work time into single chunks and trips as possible rather than spreading it out in a slightly healthier way like I normally do. I pushed my good friend Tim Arthur to apply for a job to work with me, a job he ended up getting to do, leading to much company and friendship for some crazy road trips. It turned out that my good friend Tim was a *great* friend, as he ended up travelling with me for far more than field work for the rest of the year! If it was not for Tim's presence I am sure I would have quit my Big Year during some pretty difficult social situations unrelated to birding. Also, I very graciously accepted an offer for sponsorship with the Vortex Canada Field Team, a relationship that has since expanded that I look forward to continuing in the future. I did my best to prepare my friends and family for my sporadic absence throughout the year, which they all dealt with very positively. One very special friend and mentor of mine committed to be there to help me with any and all tough birding or social decisions I may run into through the year: Bruce DiLabio. That promise held true, along with offers for support from countless others! You will hear more about many of these great friends and arrangements in the future.

What would I have done without Bruce DiLabio this year? I joke that Bruce is my 'Ottawa dad' because of how much he has been there for me whenever I need to talk or am in need of a year bird. This photo was captured by Tim right after Bruce found me my first ever Razorbill at Constance Bay!
Now I owe you some information about the final product of this crazy journey! A combination of approximately 100,000 km driven, a couple flights, tram rides, bicycles, ferries, kayak, skis, snowshoes, a swim, and a wade through icy water have taken me to some pretty crazy places and crazy birds throughout this amazing Big Year across Ontario. My official final total at this point is 346 bird species, which breaks Josh's 2012 record of 343 by three. It is still hard for me to fathom that I managed this feat, but I maintain that I could not have done it on my own, nor would I have wanted to. My list on ebird will read 345 rather than 346, because Thayer's Gull lost its battle with species status this year and is now a subspecies of Iceland Gull. Thayer’s Gull is still officially listable in 2017 but no later according to the ABA Listing and Ethics Committee guidelines, since it was considered a species for a portion of 2017.

This photo with three of my closest friends (Josh Vandermeulen, Sarah Lamond, and Tim Arthur) represents many months of blood, sweat, and tears, and then some. This, perhaps the most special photo I own, was captured by my friend Bonnie as we celebrated seeing a Northern Gannet, the sighting that tipped my 2017 Big Year over Josh's 2012 record!
I would like to take a moment to admit that this 100,000 km 'vacation' was not the most environmentally friendly way for a conservationist to spend a year, and it is not something I plan on repeating. My number one goal for my career as a naturalist is to expose and promote as many members of the general public as possible to delve into the 'finer things' like conservation, wildlife, and natural history, in hope that they too will want to get involved. The only way to effectively do that, in my opinion, is to inspire and impress those not currently interested, and try to steer them in the direction of good. It still shocks me that this story gained so much traction in media outlets across Canada, but I think that the popularity of this story is a huge step in the right direction for the conservation goal I just described. The main work I do supports a purely conservation-minded project, building up data regarding the health of the Great Lakes, and I spend much personal time, thought, and energy on voluntary conservation efforts.

I was surprised to be contacted about a live interview across Canada with Lindsey Deluce on CTV's Your Morning! I hope I didn't embarrass myself TOO much! I also hope this story motivates others to pursue their dreams, and get into wildlife and conservation too.
Highlights? Yeah, there were a few! The first species I listed in 2017 was House Sparrow at sunrise on January 1 on my way to Long Point, and my last species was a male Tufted Duck found by Luc Fazio on December 16 in Toronto. The greatest milestone was of course the record-breaking Northern Gannet in Hamilton on November 20, particularly because I was fortunate enough to share this moment with three of my closest friends, who collectively were much of the foundation of my positivity and energy this year. My most exciting bird sighting was a Wood Stork found by Mark Nenadov in August at Point Pelee, Canada's number one birding hotspot and my home park, and I think my saucy email to the Ontbirds bird alert made that excitement evident! The most special bird I listed this year without a doubt was a Barn Owl that I was blessed with the chance to see in Southwestern Ontario! My knees literally buckled when I saw it, and I am so honoured to have been given that opportunity. Please do not ask about location details regarding this sighting **no matter what** because frankly, conservation issues combined with very firm wishes by the land owner to not have any strangers show up are more than enough reason for me to not share this location with any person. It appears to only have been present at this spot for about a week anyway and it has not been seen in quite some time.

The famous, ugly, sexy Wood Stork at Point Pelee. I sure hauled it home from Algonquin to miss it by minutes... Fuddle duddle... Until I refound it with my good friend Rick Mayos at around 10am the next day!
My year list had a few surprisingly missed species this year, but I must say for the most part I was incredibly lucky with catching up with rarities! There were give or take around 367 species identified in Ontario total this year, but quite a few of these were just not possible for various logistical reasons. Some of my closest and most surprising misses, some expected and some very rare, include Laughing Gull, Ivory Gull, Purple Sandpiper, Yellow Rail, Willow Ptarmigan, Swainson's Hawk, Mississippi Kite, Gyrfalcon, Tropical Kingbird, Western Kingbird, Yellow-throated Warbler, Lark Bunting, and Cassin's Sparrow. Of these, I considered seven to be 'almost guaranteed' but still tough, and in hindsight in my opinion, decisions could have been made differently to realistically catch up with six or seven of the above list. This is of course much easier said than done, when considering that I made the right decisions in combination with luck to catch up with 346 others. I think the absolute ideal I could have realistically managed this year is maybe 351 species, so I could not be happier with the outcome. One birder cannot be everywhere at one time, not even if they drive instead of sleep most of the time like I did haha. Would dishing out many thousands of dollars for many flights have changed my final tally? Yes, I think I would have had a lower final number had I tried to pay my way through a Big Year! The comfort of my own vehicle and my ability to stay wide awake no matter what (with some breaks, courtesy of Tim!) were two of the best things going for me this year!

My noble steed, telescope, and I on a fancy rock boat launch in Marathon, Thunder Bay District. Thanks for capturing this photo, Owen!
The last few days of the year came with a stroke of magic, but then again so did the rest of the year! On December 28 my awesome Thunder Bay friend Glenn Stronks was visiting Colonel Sam Smith Park in Toronto and crossed paths with Brian Bailey who had just found a Purple Sandpiper of all things! Glenn called me immediately, and by first light the next morning, I was out there searching with Tim and a handful of very ambitious up-and-coming young birders. The very next evening Owen Strickland reported a distantly photographed probable Gyrfalcon from Tommy Thompson Park just minutes further down the coast from the Purple Sandpiper spot! It does not need to be stated where Tim and I were for the last day of the year haha. We searched for Purple Sandpiper as well that day, and though we did not turn up either bird, it felt like a million bucks to be out searching for year birds right until sunset on the last day of the year. The year began great with maximum energy and chaos,but it ended with the same energy and clarity! On this final day of all days I knew that I had done well, and I knew more than ever before that this world, this life, this community, this is for me.

The last bird photos of the year were certainly photos to write home about! This gorgeous Snowy Owl was a welcome sight at Tommy Thompson Park in Toronto after a cross-country ski in extremely cold air.
I sent a text message to one of my closest friends on my way to the final search, and I think it really sums things up... “One last bird chase. One more late night, one more near meltdown, one more dice roll. One more two-hour radio concert with Tim. Tomorrow is the last day of the best year of my life and the last day of the worst year of my life, but I won't remember that side of it, before the first day of the rest of my life begins. One more day in this prison of ideal freedom. I did not expect to feel this much sentiment on this day, and maybe I will forget it when I wake up early and hit the cold air for one more search. I did not expect to have a bird to chase on this last day.”

Tim Arthur and I in my 'mobile home' SUV campsite! Tim discovered that he was much better than he thought at car camping this year, and I discovered just how great my car is for camping! I believe this photo was captured during an early October morning in a highway service station.
This year may be over, but it has been hands down the single greatest thing I have ever set out to do, and perhaps will remain the most special set of memories I ever collect. The things I have gained from this year are unmeasurable, and are by no means limited to birding accomplishments. I have learned so much about me by breaking the limits of what I thought I was capable of in so many ways, persevered through all kinds of social and psychological hurdles, made and strengthened countless bonds and friendships with loved ones, put a few unhealthy situations behind me, and got so physically healthy that I could see my ab muscles for the first time in my life haha. I am eternally grateful for the support offered and given by so many amazing people and I plan on paying it forward for the rest of my life. Doing something like this really opens one's eyes to see just how unconditionally positive this world around us can be if we just let it, and I hope that this inspires others to pursue their dreams, no matter how big a challenge it may be.

The second last bird chase drummed up interest from a concentration of young, hardy birders! Amanda Guercio, Tim Arthur, Quinten Wiegersma, me (Jeremy Bensette), Dennis Dirigal, Jack Farley, and Felix Eckley at Colonel Sam Smith Park in Toronto on December 29, 2017. Thanks for getting this photo, Rick!
I want to dedicate this Big Year accomplishment to far more people than I could ever list in this already lengthy piece, so I will touch on a few of the closest parties and people involved, but please do know that if you have done anything to help or root me on, even just reading this, I am personally very grateful to you and I hope that shows. This, above all, is for Alan Wormington (I know Alan would be so proud to see what we have done), Josh Vandermeulen, Tim Arthur, Sarah Lamond, and Bruce DiLabio, who really were the cornerstones and the main enablers of my positivity this year. I also want to dedicate this beautiful journey to my parents, brother, grandparents, family, and great friends from home for being there for many years and for moulding me into someone who could even try to do something this hardcore! I want to dedicate it to so many amazing friends and mentors, both near and far, both past and present, who have been around for so much of my growing naturalist and birding career, most of whom have been there for much support through this year. This includes all members of Ontario's very strong birding and naturalist communities the Ontario Field Ornithologists, Ontario Bird Records Committee, my local clubs like Essex County Field Naturalists' Club and Holiday Beach Migration Observatory, the American Birding Association, Bird Studies Canada with emphasis on my boss and great mentor Doug Tozer, Ebird and its wonderful community, Friends of Point Pelee, Vortex Canada (Paul, Val, and Ken especially), and my local LLBs and affiliates! Again, I apologize if I have forgotten anyone in this paragraph, but do know that I am grateful to anyone who has ever played any positive role in my life. I look forward to doing whatever I can with this social traction to pay it back by bringing together the birding and naturalist community, both for the community and for the sake of conservation.

These guys were planting our roots long before I was born, and our great birding community owes them and other 'pioneers' of birding tons of credit. Dan Salisbury and Luc Fazio, two of my mentors' mentors, at Van Wagner's Beach in Hamilton in early fall.
Thanks so much for reading probably one of the longest blogs I will ever write, and for finding interest in this mission I set out on over the last year. It has been a blast and really means the world to me, and I hope I can entertain you with my Big Year stories from 2017!


Sunset on December 31, 2017 at Colonel Sam Smith Park in Toronto, the last light in a perfect year.
Goodbye 2017! You may be finished but your story has yet to be told, and you will not soon be forgotten. 

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Happy 60th Dad!

Today is my dad's sixtieth birthday... Happy birthday Dad!
A great photo of Dad, Justin, and I. Dad is the kid in the middle :P
Being one of the people who created me, and a big positive support, mentor, and hero of mine my whole life, I figure what better way to wish him a happy birthday than through my first blog post in a while? My blog is primarily for telling stories of my adventures with wildlife, and in the coming year I aim to focus on writing about my Big Year. Seeing as my closest family and friends have been super supportive particularly this year and have done so much to help me get to this point in my life, I might as well kick things off by write about them some too!
Dad and I at The Tip on my first visit to Point Pelee when I was less than one year old! It's old photos like these at relevant locations like Point Pelee - the 'hints' for the future - that are real treasures for naturalists like me.
My dad was one of the first people to introduce me to the outdoors! When I was just a toddler we had a whole scheme down for sharing our outdoor work. I had a mini lawn mower and a set of garden tools for a person my size and Dad had his own set, and we worked well together! Okay, so the motor was maximum quiet and the whole thing was made of bright red plastic, but you know... The lawn got cut!
Look at how hard Dad and I worked on the yard together, when I was only two years old!
When my brother, dad, and I would drive around the county when I was wee, we would constantly play that game that many of us play these days, trying to be the first one to spot hawks perched, or turkey, pheasants, and deer grazing in the fields. Who would have thought that would turn out to be one of my favourite activities, clocking thousands of hours of searching while driving in recent years??
A Red-tailed Hawk from 2015 that was visible from my dad's house. A bit closer view than we had years ago!
Fast forward a bit to September 2001... Dad took my brother and I to the Hawk Festival at Holiday Beach for our first time, where we were treated to birds of prey actively migrating overhead and banding demonstrations! This was pretty cool stuff, but for a ten-year-old into video games and friends it could only seem so cool at the time. I did not know it yet, but this was one of my first experiences in what would turn out to be a whole lifestyle and career of bird watching and wildlife!
My brother Justin and I with a Sharp-shinned Hawk that Dad adopted for us at the Holiday Beach Hawk Festival. It's amazing how things like this sometimes come full circle. I like to think I am better at identifying birds today than I was at that time haha.
My dad has since been back to Holiday Beach's Hawk Festival a few times, to see my presentations and the great work that my now friends at Holiday Beach do for fall migration! He may not consider himself a bird watcher (yet!) but I recently noticed the Audubon Field Guide I bought him a few years ago, now looking a bit worn and used, in a high traffic reading location in his house! Christmas just happened a couple of days ago, and I was very pleased to see that Dad was thrilled about a pair of binoculars left by Santa under his Christmas tree. 
Like I said, Dad's Audubon field guide is in a high traffic reading area!
Cheers to sixty great years in the making, Dad, and call me a bit of an optimist if you will, but here's to sixty more! Thanks for your contribution toward this amazing career I have started on. Happy birthday xoxo
Dad with his new binoculars. I can think of a local tour guide who just might be up for showing him around!
Thanks for reading, good birding, and have a great winter!


Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Some notes about owls in my Big Year

I would like to first make a request to anyone reading this post. Please do not post argumentative comments or strongly worded opinions regarding the topic of owl viewing ethics under this piece of writing. I do not intend for this blog post to be the next great unresolvable owl ethics debate, and I do not want to have to hide angry and potentially inappropriate comments if a typical owl ethics debate begins. If you’re confused by my request, I will explain further below. This is a fairly long post for the sake of clearly explaining the complicated topic. If you are only interested in my Big Year owl list at this point, which is totally cool too, stay tuned for a post in the near future in which I list which species I have encountered so far this year.

If you’ve been keeping an eye out for my ebird lists during my 2017 Ontario Big Year, you may have noticed that I have listed relatively few owls so far this year. There is no doubt that a successful Big Year in Ontario should include all or almost all owl species as early as possible, particularly the less common species who breed in the inaccessible reaches of the Boreal Forest. Seeing as we are two weeks into March, one might assume that a number of owl species should bolster my year list at this point. I can tell you that this is indeed the case. I do not believe in publicizing owl sightings and locations so by reports and alerts on ebird it may appear as though I am falling behind on owls. I have not posted blog entries as regularly as I had hoped, and one factor for this is because of the extreme amount of time I have been spending travelling and birding.

I think it’s worth first addressing the topic of owl ethics, suppressing sightings, and why I asked that people do not post strong opinions. Why suppress owl sightings? Owls are very susceptible to abuse by those who are more interested in their own sightings or photos than in the well being of wildlife. They’re large, impressive looking, fairly stationary, rarely seen, and are more often than not pretty badass – naturally attracting much interest and attention by naturalists, biologists, and general public alike. Some photographers enjoy baiting owls (releasing live mice bought at pet stores to attract nearby owls) in order to get those amazing photos we’ve probably all seen in nature magazines, as this is nearly the only opportunity one may have for such photos. Is baiting owls ethically right to do? Probably not, but there is a lot of division and heated debate among birders, naturalists, and photographers over the ethics of viewing and photographing owls, so I’m not going to get into that here. Anyone who is a member of the Ontario Birds Facebook group can attest to this debate topic getting pretty out of control pretty fast. As an example, there was recently a post mentioning seeing photographers baiting an owl, and within a day or two there were over 350 comments under that post, including some very ugly language. This kind of thing only further divides people and is not a constructive way to get a point across. Peaceful and calm dialogue is generally the only effective way to educate people. Ultimately, many birders suppress owl sightings because of how quickly the information spreads into the hands of those who have different ethical beliefs than their own, turning that owl’s presence into a zoo of bird watchers and photographers.

If I believe in not publicizing my owl sightings, then why am I writing a post about owls observed in my Big Year? A Big Year is a pretty competitive quest, and in something so competitive I must go into it assuming that there will be people who will try to discredit some of my claimed sightings. I will not be posting exact locations of many owls or other sensitive species observed in my Big Year, but I feel that I can help to secure the validity of these sightings to others by at least posting about them.

Ontario’s owl list consists of twelve species, and with some work, one can expect to see up to ten or eleven of them in the province in a year. I know that my brief words describing seasonal abundance of each species is debatable, and most of this information pertains to Southern Ontario where I spend most of my time. Hopefully this at least gives a general understanding of the topic to those who are not familiar with these species. Ontario’s owl list includes:
  • Barn Owl (year-round and migratory, VERY RARE, nearly extirpated from Ontario)
  • Eastern Screech-Owl (year-round, COMMON in Southern Ontario)
  • Great Horned Owl (year-round, COMMON across Ontario)
  • Snowy Owl (winter, sporadically UNCOMMON TO COMMON in Southern Ontario)
  • Northern Hawk-Owl (winter, FAIRLY RARE in Northern Ontario’s boreal habitat)
  • Burrowing Owl (MEGA RARE vagrant, not realistically expected)
  • Barred Owl (year-round, somewhat UNCOMMON in Ontario)
  • Great Gray Owl (winter, UNCOMMON in Northern and Central Ontario’s boreal habitat)
  • Long-eared Owl (winter, UNCOMMON in Southern Ontario)
  • Short-eared Owl (winter and during migration, UNCOMMON in Southern Ontario)
  • Boreal Owl (winter, FAIRLY RARE outside of deep boreal forest)
  • Northern Saw-whet Owl (winter, UNCOMMON in Southern Ontario)

This concludes my thoughts on owls and how they pertain to my 2017 Ontario Big Year! You may have noticed that the photos in this post are clearly not necessarily photos I've captured this year in Ontario. In fact, none of them are from this year and a couple are not from Ontario, but these species are all on the Ontario list. I figured it would be fun to make a bit of suspense as to which owl species I have seen so far. Stay tuned for my post on which owls I have seen so far this year, and thank you for reading!

Good birding!


Friday, 17 February 2017

Mid-winter Europe Trip! (part one)

So I went on an eleven day trip to central Europe this winter… 
This is one of my favourite photos from the whole trip: Emma and I in Karwendel on the border
of Austria and Germany at about 2000m elevation with the Austrian Alps in the background
Some might wonder, why visit Europe while doing a Big Year in Ontario? More importantly, why leave Ontario at all during a Big Year that I’ve been planning for two years?? Well, my beautiful, talented, and very interesting girlfriend Emma is currently working in Max Planck Institut Fur Ornithologie in Bavaria, Germany. She has been in Europe since September and probably will not be back until at least mid-April. I miss her a lot – seriously a lot – and I figured that going to visit her would help us both to feel a little more comfortable for the rest of the season while being so far apart. Also, my close friend Josh whose Big Year record I am aiming to beat jokes with me regularly about how any serious Big Year contender needs to leave the province for at least one significant period of time during said year, like he did a couple of times in his 2012 Ontario Big Year. By the way, if interested, read more about Josh’s 2012 Big Year and other adventures on his very interesting blog, which can be found at

This is one of three 'gates' of Munich, certainly from a time when the city was not so large.
It was interesting and exciting to see many hundreds of German people in Munich taking
part in the Women's March in protest of recent US political values. 
I flew from Toronto to Munich on the evening of January 20 – an 8 hour flight. It dawned on me on the way to the airport that this was the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, and I realized that just about anything could happen on such a crazy day. I continued on into the new age of 'travel uncertainty'. Nothing was different than usual but I was glad that I chose to fly out of Canada rather than Detroit which would have been closer to home. I want to send thanks again to my good friend Michael Biro for giving me a spot to park my truck and for driving me to and from the airport, saving me a ton of hassle and parking payment.

Common Gulls are basically Europe's version of our Ring-billed Gulls!
The Black-headed Gulls on the Starnberger See know some
pretty cool tricks after being fed so much by people!
Emma had most of that day free so being a total sweetheart she met me at the airport so I wouldn’t get lost in Munich or its airport due to its entirely German signage, busy train stations, etc. We stopped in downtown Munich to take a short bus tour, and thoroughly enjoyed seeing some of the nice historical buildings and sights in the heart of the beautiful city. We then carried on to Starnberg, the smaller city closest to the institute where Emma is working out of and living at, where we briefly stopped to admire the Black-headed, Common, and Yellow-legged Gulls, Common Pochards and Tufted Ducks, and a number of other waterbirds present on the Starnberger See (Lake Starnberg). We eventually ran out of daylight so we boarded a bus to the institute.

This Coal Tit posed just perfectly for us while we were out walking. Coal Tits are
a lot like our Black-capped Chickadees but are arguably cuter and more compact.
Emma was arguably the cutest bird in the whole forest!
The first full day was a lot of fun too! We walked the nearby trails through beautiful forests and fields, seeing many of the European songbirds that I’m familiar with from England like Blue, Great, Coal, and Marsh Tits, Eurasian Jays, Carrion Crows, Goldcrests, and a number of finch species. Also, Emma showed me my first Yellowhammers and a Crested Tit, both being very pretty species. We eventually arrived at a monastery called Andechs where there is a pub type restaurant and locally brewed beer for sale. After a great meal we called it a day.

Yellowhammer was new to my life list. I did not mind them being so common or so colourful!
We picked up a rental car on January 23 and headed an hour south to the town of Mittenvald at the border of Germany and Austria, where we rode a gondola ski lift to the edge of Austria’s Naturpark Karwendel to search for alpine birds. When we got up the mountain we realized that the excessive snow this winter prevented visitors from walking more than a couple hundred metres on the trails, and we unfortunately did not see a single bird while we were up there. Emma somehow spotted a Chamois, a very nice looking goat-antelope species, at least five hundred metres away!

It was neat to be standing on the peak of a mountain that divided Germany and Austria, and the view was not bad either!
We headed back down the mountain by late afternoon, and as we crossed a small bridge I noticed a small dark object seemingly slip into the water. This quick glimpse of movement on the turbulent stream was a great sign for another potential new species for my life list, so I investigated. Sure enough it was a White-throated Dipper! Emma had seen them before so she waited at the car for fear of parking tickets, but it was too exciting to watch the dipper on my own and I eventually insisted she came along.  We watched this unique songbird (and a second one) repeatedly dive and swim around underwater for at least an hour until it was nearly dark, and then went back to the institute to rest before our trip to Switzerland.

I'm not sure what makes White-throated Dippers want to swim in such cold water
in the winter rather than forage on land, but this one was ready to dive right in!
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for my account of the rest of the trip!

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Mini-update mid-February - Big Year 2017

Hi readers! 

It's been a little while since I last posted because I have been travelling nearly non-stop! Since mid January I have been to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland for a week and a half, Thunder Bay and Cochrane Districts, and Algonquin Park for a whole bunch of high quality birding! 

I believe my Ontario year list is at about 115 species as of today, and I've seen nearly all of the expected specialty winter species! I've met some great people in my travels, and shared some great time with good friends. Expect to see a few blog posts soon about my adventures in the last few weeks! 

In the mean time, good birding, and if you'd like to help me out please consider sharing sightings with me of rarities that are not publicized. Like with the many owls species I have seen this year, I will not let people know about birds hidden on private property that home owners prefer to keep private, nor will I publicize the locations of any sensitive species. A successful Big Year is a team effort, and I greatly appreciate the support that my friends and acquaintances have been sending my way! Thanks again, and I'll be posting again soon!


Monday, 23 January 2017

Big Year mid-January summary: back at home for a little while!

After returning from my Long Point - Toronto - Niagara - Ottawa - Algonquin trip, I returned home to relax for just over a week. I caught up with some local winter specialties, as well as some fairly common species that I had not yet seen in my first week. I also found some great photo ops with the more common species - something I will not be able to do once migration gets rolling! I am deliberately not bothering with looking for the most common species, as I know that I will come across them many times through the year. To chase the common species will just drain my time, energy, and gasoline.
This is a Red-tailed Hawk - one of my favourite common species in Ontario. It was not new for
my Big Year, but was still very exciting to photograph from the passenger seat of a friend's car!
This is an immature Red-tailed Hawk in flight.

The highlight of the trip home was a bit expected, but still a somewhat surprising 'self-find' that I got to share with a local friend. Before leaving for home I posted an inquiry on our local bird alert that I help moderate, asking if anyone knows if a massive flock of blackbirds that was around in December is still present in Essex County, or any other massive flocks of blackbirds for that matter. I received a number of friendly and positive replies, but they all suggested that the flock has moved on because a large pile of corn that had attracted them had been cleaned up and moved out of the area. Darn, there was a female Yellow-headed Blackbird hanging around in that flock. That's a species that I know I can see in the spring and early summer when a small number of them show up in the marshes around Lake St. Clair to breed, but I would prefer to not need to spend a day in prime spring birding season to go there to see them for my Big Year 2017.
Brown-headed Cowbirds and starlings, anyone? This photo represents approximately 1 or 2% of each
of the massive flocks we've been seeing at grain storage yards in Essex County this winter!
First, in case readers are interested, I want to mention our local bird alert email service, found at

WEPbirds (Windsor-Essex-Pelee Birds) is a google group created by my good friend Kory Renaud and moderated by Jeremy Hatt, Kory, and I. We use this site to post uncommon and rare bird sightings, and trip lists, and also welcome discussions and questions so the local birding community can connect and grow with each other. If you enjoy birds in southwestern Ontario you may find WEPbirds rather interesting! Also, Kory and his great family run a couple of very cool blogs that can be found at:

Now back to my story! I asked my friend Kit if he wanted to do some birding in the Leamington area on January 8, and he was already out this way so we met up after lunch and hit the backroads. We first tried a yard with bird feeders near a grain storage area in Staples where I had seen a Yellow-headed Blackbird a couple of years ago. There were probably 500-1000 House Sparrows there - so many in fact that I might go back there this winter to see if I can turn up anything rare! Aside from the House Sparrows and a few European Starlings, Cardinals, and Dark-eyed Juncos there were virtually no other birds at these feeders on this visit. We saw a couple of Cooper's Hawks taking turns attempting to hunt this large flock - always a treat to see.
This is a photo of an immature Cooper's Hawk similar to the ones I
mentioned above, also found hunting in Essex County this winter.
We continued on our way, hoping with little faith that we would find a pile of corn at the Agris storage compound. After all, this location belongs to the same company as the one I mentioned before, whose corn had been cleaned up and taken away. We pulled up to find close to ten thousand blackbirds and starlings feeding on a corn pile that could have filled a swimming pool!! The approximate proportions of this flock, estimated very quickly and roughly, were as follows:
  • Brown-headed Cowbirds - about 7000 individuals 
  • European Starlings - about 1000
  • House Sparrows - about 100 
  • Red-winged Blackbirds - about 50
  • Common Grackle - 10
  • Yellow-headed Blackbird!!! - **1**
I was very satisfied with the photos I captured of the Yellow-headed Blackbird on my second visit!
It took a few tries to get a few decent photos of the Yellow-headed Blackbird in flight, but there
were ample opportunities because of how restless the flock was with so many raptors around!
We found what we were looking for - a Yellow-headed Blackbird! Kit spotted it first when the flock picked up and all flew at once, and once they settled down we managed to spot and photograph it on the ground. I went back about a week later with Chris Gaffan and we re-found the Yellow-headed Blackbird, a new species on Chris's life list, and I captured much better photos of it than when Kit and I first spotted it. Also new for my year list, though not important to get out of the way early, was a Merlin terrorizing the blackbird flock and a nearby Red-tailed Hawk. Merlin falcons are always a treat to watch, especially when they interact with other birds!
This is the Merlin that was bombing on the blackbird flock repeatedly during our
second visit. This fellow really shook things up while we studied the flock!
I went on a bit of a road trip to Frontenac County, with a couple of stops along the way, including an unsuccessful attempt at seeing a Western Meadowlark in Oxford County. I did see a couple of new species for my Big Year, but unfortunately they were American Goldfinch - a species that I was trying to avoid seeing until the month of February just for fun - and a Sharp-shinned Hawk that was clearly trying to keep the meadowlark away from its usual feeders!

That sums up my week or two of birding spent (mostly) at home. My next trip should be pretty exciting and contain a bit more travelling than necessary during my Ontario Big Year. Thanks for reading!


Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Big Year Summary - Week 1

It's been over a week now since the start of 2017, and I've made some serious progress toward my Ontario birding Big Year! I spent the first week of the year touring much of Southern Ontario in an attempt to see any of the province's currently known rarities. It worked out, to say the least!
Smith's Longspur near Long Point was a great species to get out of the way on day one of my 2017 Ontario Big Year!
I was fortunate to capture this photo of the Smith's Longspur near Long Point in flight.
I started New Year's Day with an early morning trip to Long Point in Norfolk County. On the way, my first five species of the year included House Sparrow, European Starling, American Kestrel, American Crow, and Red-tailed Hawk. I got to Long Point by mid-morning and had a great time looking at the very rare (for Southern Ontario) Smith's Longspur, as well as a nice flight of over 700 Sandhill Cranes. From there I hit Toronto to successfully check out a rare Lark Sparrow, and met up with Josh Vandermeulen and Henrique Pacheco. We stopped to see a King Eider in Burlington before making it to Niagara for sunset. We stayed at Josh and Laura's house in Niagara Falls. It was great to spend the first couple days of the year with some great friends! By the end of January 1, my Ontario year list reached 37 species.
These Sandhill Cranes represent less than 10% of the total flock near Long Point!
Toronto's rare Lark Sparrow was a great early winter highlight in my Big Year.
The three of us birded together for part of the morning of day 2 before Josh had to leave for some non-birding plans he had made days earlier, and Henrique and I birded Niagara for the rest of the day. With some help from Richard, Mourad, and two other Josh's we had great looks and captures some readily identifiable photos of a known Black-headed Gull at the Whirlpool. Three of the four guys I mentioned in my last sentence headed to the upper river above the falls, where they felt that they were likely looking at the Slaty-backed Gull (big rarity!) that a friend named Willie had found the previous day on the US side. The trouble is it was sitting on the US side again, so when Henrique and I arrived we digiscoped (cell phone photo through our telescopes) it and waited. Eventually it lifted off, flying toward and eventually over the middle of the control gate construct on the Ontario side of the river!! I managed to capture some photos of it in flight showing just enough detail to be pretty confident of what it was. Between the flight and perched photos, as well as some backing from Amar Ayyash, one of North America's foremost gull experts, we were comfortable labelling it as a/the Slaty-backed Gull! We also spotted a number of other uncommon species like Thayer's, Iceland, and Glaucous Gulls. By the end of January 2 I had identified 58 species in the province since the year began only a few dozen hours prior.
Once we finally spotted this Black-headed Gull at Niagara Falls, it was tough to lose track of it!
This was our first view of the Slaty-backed Gull (the right side dark-mantled gull) at Niagara Falls. I have a subconscious reflex to capture a digiscope photo of distant rarities, and am very glad I do, because the flight photos of this were not quite enough to properly identify it without this photo! Believe it or not, this bird was probably over 1km away in this photo.
This photo shows my first ever Slaty-backed Gull flying away at Niagara Falls, but it was flying over Ontario water! This made it officially countable for us in Ontario.
The third day of the year was pretty lacklustre, mostly due to the borderline freezing temperature and frequent rain. The highlight of this day was probably a Pine Warbler that has been in Dufferin Islands Park for quite some time. That afternoon I brought Henrique back to Toronto and headed northeast to Ottawa, sleeping in a truck stop parking lot in my comfortable 'camper' in disguise as an SUV.
This Pine Warbler at Dufferin Islands Park in Niagara Falls is probably wishing it went a bit further south this winter, although it has survived some pretty extreme conditions!
It's too bad that this female Mandarin Duck is not countable as a wild bird species in Ontario... It's also too bad that she's not a male (males are insanely colourful), although she's still very pretty!
I spent a considerable amount of time on days four and five looking for Gray Partridge - my main target in Eastern Ontario at this point - in the outskirts of Ottawa. I did not find any on these days but had some great highlights, including a Snowy Owl, a Harlequin Duck that's been known about on the Rideau River, and a Barrow's Goldeneye well within the Ontario side of the Ottawa River. That evening I started on my way home but decided to call my friend Bruce DiLabio, a master of Ottawa area birding, to ask for more specific information to help find the partridges. I spent the night at my friends Victor and Dawn's house, who are terrific hosts and happen to live only a few minutes from the Gray Partridge location.
This somewhat rare Harlequin Duck sure caught my eye at the Rideau River!
I could not get a photo of this male Barrow's Goldeneye - another somewhat rare duck species - as it swam in the turbulent Ottawa River, so I was pretty lucky to spot and photograph it in flight!
Early in the morning on day six I headed back to that spot again, this time charged up with Bruce's additional information. Much to my surprise, I found a group of at least 8 Gray Partridges about five minutes into the search! Bruce's info really saved me there! After watching a group of owl baiters awkwardly try to lure a Snowy Owl closer to their cameras by dropping live mice on the snow, I figured it was time to continue on my way. I headed north to East Gate of Algonquin Provincial Park, where I stopped for a longer than expected birding detour in the small town of Wilno, Renfrew County, to check out some Bohemian Waxwings that flew across the road in front of my car. I did not end up seeing them again, but this detour led me to a flock of at least 50 Common Redpolls! For only a moment I caught a glimpse of a candidate for Hoary Redpoll (the whiter coloured northern counterpart of Common Redpoll), but the whole flock flew away just as I noticed it... I'm sure I'll cross paths with Hoary Redpolls at least a couple of times this year, so it's no big deal. I ended up coming across a couple (of humans) whose van had slid partially off the road and it felt great to be able to help them get it unstuck. This of course meant that my time was very limited in Algonquin, as I wanted to head home that night. Missing Algonquin's northern specialties was not a big deal, as I'll have ample opportunity to see all of those species this year.
I almost missed out on Gray Partridge and found these on my third day searching for them in Ottawa!
The rural areas of Eastern Ontario provide great photography opportunities for winter songbirds like Snow Buntings.
The ride home was fun, with plenty of loud music to assure that I would not get tired. I did not get tired, and am recently developing a bit of a taste for country music while on the road! By the end of the day on January 6 my year list was up to 72 species including all of Ontario's current rarities!

Stay tuned for more birding excitement. Thanks for reading and good luck birding!