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!


Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Niagara Falls birding - we swept up!

Another somewhat brief and mostly photoless update for days 2 and 3 of my Ontario birding Big Year 2017. If I find time when I'm home I'll try to make some better quality summary posts with photos!

Josh Vandermeulen, Henrique Pacheco, and I were in Niagara area by the evening of January 1, hoping to see thousands of Bonaparte's Gulls heading down the Niagara River to roost on Lake Ontario for the night, and more importantly to spot rarities among the many Bonaparte's. The mouth of the river only turned up a few hundred gulls around sunset - far fewer than expected - probably due to the very comfortable weather giving them reason to continue feeding on the lake until after dark. This ultimately meant that our chances of finding anything rare were slim to none, and that's exactly how it went! The following day would be a different story...

After sleeping at Josh and  Laura's house, Josh, Henrique, and I headed to the whirlpools after sunrise where we ran into Richard, Mourad, and two other Josh's. They were already watching a Black-headed Gull, a previously known rarity from the Atlantic Ocean that has been seen here sporadically since the beginning of winter! Everyone got their eyes on this slightly larger Bonaparte's Gull look-alike except for Josh and I, which had us feeling pretty anxious. Josh had to leave before we refound it, but as it happens that would be the least of his worries for the day... Henrique and I persisted, eventually spotting the Black-headed Gull and capturing some pretty readily identifiable photos of it too. 

The two of us were in a hurry at that point, because we had just heard that Richard's crew was looking at what might be an adult Slaty-backed Gull, a species that's mega-rare to Ontario. Quite a few birders were on the lookout today for this species, as Willie D'Anna and party had found one just yesterday on the US side of the river. We arrived and almost immediately picked out the Slaty-backed Gull candidate. The gull had a lot of potential due to its structure, colours, and other field marks, but things can be tricky with gulls so we wanted to see its wings open. It eventually flew over the river's control gates (Canadian side of the border!!!) and out of sight, leaving us only with a handful of photos to analyze. After consulting with Amar Ayyash, we were confident that it was in fact a Slaty-backed Gull. This is one of my highest sought-after species in Ontario and I am still in awe over seeing one! Henrique and I ended up seeing it again just before sunset with Mark, Greg, and Kevin who were here from Toronto to take a shot at finding it. This time it was roosting on some Canadian rocks in the rapids above the falls.

January 3 at Niagara Falls was a bit of a birding bust, probably due to the warm air and fairly heavy rain. We were not able to refind the Slaty-backed Gull now that Josh was present, but there were just not many gulls out like the previous day. I have all the faith in the world that Josh will end up seeing it this week, along with my friends Lev and Amanda, who just arrived in Niagara to look for it too. The only new species I tallied new for my big year on day 3 were Red-breasted Nuthatch, Lesser Scaup, and a very out-of-season Pine Warbler that's been hanging around Dufferin Islands Park, for a total of 60 species so far. I brought Henrique back to his house in Toronto and headed northeast toward Ottawa. Oh, and we saw a bird that's not even on the Ontario list yet - a Mandarin Duck! Okay, so it's a released pet and not countable haha, but the lack of birds gave me a chance to get some nice photos of it. I'm now getting comfy for a nice sleep in the bed-sized back of my truck at a service station in Eastern Ontario. I'll be birding in Ottawa tomorrow!

Thanks for reading, and good luck birding or whatever you're up to this week!


Sunday, 1 January 2017

Day 1: An ideal start!

I'll be keeping this update brief, as I am away from home and only have my cell phone. 

Today went as well as I had hoped it would!! After a bit of a plan change that was out of the hands of anyone involved, I ended up sleeping at home last night and left before sunrise, tallying about a dozen species on the drive to Norfolk County in the morning, including a Pileated Woodpecker and a handful of Eastern Bluebirds. I had little trouble seeing the Smith's Longspur (mega rarity in Southern Ontario) by late morning, and also enjoyed about 700 Sandhill Cranes and a couple of Rough-legged Hawks in the process. 

I then headed to Toronto to look for the Lark Sparrow (not as rare as Smith's Longspur but still a great bird for Ontario), where I met up with Josh Vandermeulen and Henrique Pacheco and only had to search for about 15 minutes before getting super views and photos of it in the sun! The three of us made a quick stop at the Burlington Lift Bridge to see a female (Queen?) King Eider before heading to Niagara-on-the-lake. 

We hoped to turn up a Black-headed Gull among the Bonaparte's Gulls flying along the river to Lake Ontario to roost for the night, but the exceptional weather conditions likely had most of the gulls feeding further up the river right until dark, as we saw very few Bonaparte's fly by! No problem - the three of us will be spending some time birding Niagara this week! 

I ended up identifying 36 bird species today, which is about what I expected. It was a great day with great company and great birds!

Good birding!


Saturday, 31 December 2016

I’m doing a Big Year in 2017!

In case I somehow I have not told everyone yet, I am planning on doing a birding Big Year in Ontario in 2017! I have been planning for it for over a year and whether I am fully prepared or not, 2017 is less than one day away and I’m getting excited!

Many, many mornings will be spent behind my telescope at various shores. This is a photo of me birding the shore of Lake Erie at Point Pelee in autumn 2016.
My goal is simple: to do the best I possibly can with the time, money, and skills I have at my disposal. As much as I would love to ideally beat the record, I am not overly concerning myself with that aspect of the challenge. If I give it my best shot and I beat the record, great! If I do my best and fall short of the record, then that’s great too. I'll be travelling all over the province, aiming to see virtually every breeding and migrant species, but there is of course no guarantee of success with every one of these species. 

Another Vermilion Flycatcher in Ontario would be a great highlight for my 2017 Big Year! This is a young male that I photographed in Lambton County in winter 2015.
Wondering what the current record is? One of my best friends, Josh Vandermeulen, currently holds the Ontario Big Year record with 343 species identified in 2012. This number is no easy feat, and in fact I would argue that in certain select years it’s impossible for one birder to see that many species. For example, total number of bird species identified and listed in Ontario in 2014 was 347, so if someone wanted to beat Josh`s record they would have had to miss no more than three of all the species identified in the province that year! Josh took the record from Glenn Coady, who held a very impressive record of 338 for quite a few years from 1996 I believe, a time before mass media like Facebook, thousands of participants in email alert services like Ontbirds, and frequent text messaging and photo sharing. My fingers are crossed that 2017 turns out to be a pretty strong year for bird species in Ontario, but that aspect is out of my hands for the most part.

Will I have the chance to see a Gray Kingbird in Ontario in 2017? This is a photo of one that I found in the Point Pelee area with Emma Buck and Dave Ehrenreich in spring 2015.
Why a Big Year in 2017? Well, why not? We cannot possibly know ahead of time if a year will bring great fortune to Ontario's bird watching community or not, so if one wants to do a pretty serious Big Year, he or she really has to just pick a year, plan it out, and go for it. I'm quite young still and full of plenty of energy (not saying that I do not have energetic friends much older than me, but I don't know if I will be as I age!). I am also at a point in my life that I need to take on more steady work in the near future as my expenses grow, which would greatly compromise an all-out Big Year. I've needed some practice to really hone my knowledge and skills, hence why I have waited this long. This might come as a surprise to some, but I have only been bird watching for about five years. To attempt a Big Year with less experience than I have now seems like an idea I would have regretted. This coming year has been in careful planning for over a year, and now it's almost here!

Eurasian Collared-Dove would be a great addition to my 2017 Big Year! This is a pair that I found near Leamington with the help of Michelle Valliant and Jeremy Hatt in summer 2014.
Hopefully I can find some time to update my blog somewhat regularly, so anyone interested has a convenient channel to follow along with my adventures. I like to think it will provide some friends and family with entertainment, and maybe even some vicarious birding opportunities to those who are not able to get out often enough themselves! 

Purple Sandpiper is a regularly seen species in Ontario but can be an easy miss in a Big Year if I'm not careful! This is a pair that I found at The Tip of Point Pelee in autumn 2013.
There it is - my official announcement that I'm about to begin a Big Year in Ontario. I wish anyone reading this a happy and prosperous new year, whether it involves bird watching or not. See you in the field!

Jeremy Bensette