Monday, March 14, 2011

OFO Trip to Long Point / Norfolk County hotspots

Last Saturday was an incredible day. I was on call for only two canvassers through work, I knew my day was going to end at a birthday party for a dear friend, and I had the entire day to spend birdwatching with two great guys, as well as an enormous group of birders that were part of the OFO trip to Norfolk County.

eBird has made me far more aware of species abundance during particular seasons. Day lists are no longer presence/absences but now take a Christmas Bird Count-like approach of recording the number of each species in a particular area. This also ends up splitting day lists into regional/park lists. All of this is good. It makes you pay closer attention to common species, it increases your memory of parks and birding regions, and it also gives you a better idea of what can be seen in a specific area at a certain time of year in how many numbers.

Anyway, enough about the benefits of eBird. I could say other good things but I'll move on to my actual day.

We started on the road. It's pretty darn incredible how many Red-tailed Hawks you can get while driving if you just look. A while back, I was calling them out to a group of non-birders in the car and they couldn't believe how many hawks were around. It's actually pretty fun to keep a driving list...though counts quickly become an 'x' for the trip list. Do you really want to count every Canada Goose if it's not a CBC?!

Our first stop was Brantford Airport to try for Gray Partridge. This would be a lifer for me but we didn't have much time to look so we missed our first target. Oh, I was with Greg Stuart and Mark Field by the way (permission to use names granted). We then went on to the actual trip where the group met at St. Williams Nursery in Norfolk. The group was HUGE and the convoy of cars was HUGE but it still made for some good birding. I would go into detail about every stop we made but naahhhhh, I'll just give some highlights.

We had a really sweet-looking Canada Goose (hybrid? partial leucistic?). Its entire body was that of a regular CAGO but above the neck and head, usually all black on the neck and partially black on the head, the bird had a patchwork of white painted on. Boy did it stand out.

Got my first Killdeer for the year here. Also got my first Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles on the trip down. Wherever we were, there were always large flocks of Tundra Swans, one of the key target species for the trip and a sight to behold in Norfolk each early spring. Sandhill Cranes were in good numbers and we also got the third target species, Bald Eagle; two birds. The first was a 3rd? year bird with a transmitter on its back, a very interesting sighting.

Most of the areas where we expected ducks were frozen solid so the open fields were the place to look, especially where there was any standing water present. Good numbers of Redhead, Gadwall, American Black Duck, Northern Pintail, and Mallard along with Gadwall, American Wigeon, Canvasback, and (one of my favourite sightings for the day) a pair of Ring-necked Ducks.

Along the way we got Merlin and Great Blue Heron, a few Wild Turkeys, and later in the night (just before utter darkness), a single Short-eared Owl on the trip back. We were able to get it in the scope for a better look but the lighting made it fairly difficult to view. We had to be pretty patient for that guy, I tell ya. Waited for about an hour and a half in the cold and rain...only when we got back in the car did we drive by it and see it.

Passerines (including various feeder-birds) included Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatch, Song Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, House Finch, Dark-eyed Junco, Horned Lark in good numbers along the road, Pine Siskin, and American Robin, among others.

All in all a great trip. Wish I could have made the post more interesting but I'm going to try to update here more often this year so I wrote this quickly before going to zzzzzzzzzzzz...........

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Scotland Birding Poem for the Stephen Lewis Foundation

Last year, for the Stephen Lewis Foundation's Dare to Remember Campaign, I took on the challenge of doing a poetry reading in front of the Toronto Ornithological Club to raise funds for turning the tide of AIDS in Africa. Though nerve-wracking, it was a fantastic experience. Below is my poem for my trip to Scotland that I performed.

Thomas Cook touchdown! We reconnect w/ terra firma in Glasgow on August 20…something or other; European Herring Gull on the tarmac. Lifer 1 of a 2-week vaca, I pray to Jupiter, Saturn’s son, for sun, for 1), and 2), for safety, and of course, 3), for a ton of lifers as well, ’cause…well, I’m a birder. And every bird that I see here is new to me and it is great to be free from my now-distant domicile. Parents in tow, they know it’s important I at least see a few birds but it’s so much more than that. It’s a chance to explore, and to learn, and to do, and to see, and people to meet, and believe me, I adored the UK, a short flight away, chances are 10/10 I’ll visit again.

Adjusting to the southpaw drive, we wheeled, saucer-eyed, past immense expanse of Heaven’s hills, heather’s purple hue reflected on our Hertz® Rent-a-Car’s sides, and a vast green country dotted w/ Tide®-whitened sheep next to stone-fences in rows below the sky-blue flag flying high in bona fide Scottish pride next to quaint homes. Look up! Buzzard swiftly soaring, swallows’ beaks goring insects midair, and there(!): a Kestrel hovers, some sort of ground-prey tantalizingly calling, feathers suddenly falling but no time for stalling, which I found appalling but apparently (I’m told) a car crawling on a four-lane that’s sprawling is not exactly safe.

Eventually feeling the coastal air and arriving in Ayr, Ayshire, I escape the machine-prison; a free man now w/ a city to explore and I implore my parents to let me score some more birds. Bins in hand and a breaky of blood pudding in bowels, I’m in my element. After seeing Shag on the Firth of Clyde, I decide to glide through inland suburbia; softly applied whisper-strides through flower gardens and postcard-image yards until my eyes lay upon a T.V. antenna where perched is a prim Greenfinch: a concoction of pea-soup olive, grit-gray, and jaundiced makeup.

Despite copious, if not infinite, dire warnings against the next stage of our expedition, we mutually agreed on a lil’ road trip of 376 miles (give or take), the trip feeling more like a horizontally-shifted 8-distanced country-wide breadth, plunging us into the nation’s depths. You see, like ordering haggis, if you’re visiting the UK, U see London along the way, K?

Well, hop, skip, and a jump from Ayr to London, England, our longest tricky-traffic trip, and a trio, including yours truly, tried a sublevel track-ride trek, eventually traipsing into the sunlight-treated tramping grounds of Trafalgar Square. But so, we were like the definition of tired but sun-induced pinpoint-pupils adjusted, and an overpriced city map enticing a slice of city-life exploration, we fought the lethargy and marveled at the sights.

From the spinning Eye, a high spy in the sky, I sigh at the beautiful city that lies beneath: the bustle, Buckingham and boastful boy Big Ben, balustrades and bellcasts. Beside the ride, two gulls flies by: Lesser Black-backed and the abundant Black-headed trailing behind; no surprise, not a Bonaparte’s in sight.

Cue the Cockney! Now creamed and in a right old two and eight, we pulled up our almond rocks, tidied our barnet, fixed our dickie dirts, and passed the bird after a queue w/ a few Britney Spears @ a rub a dub dub. Goodbye, London!

We drive - now - north to Edinburgh by motorway, the central artery; highways, veins; claustrophobic streets, a network of capillaries, alive w/ traffic. Our GPS screams as, around and around like Celtic knots, roundabouts abound, but my Dad, by now, drives sound-ly, and as soon our apartment on the Royal Mile is found, we, within steps from the grounds of Edinburgh Castle, shill out the pound-priced fee and look out from the citadel’s crown onto Old and New Town. Jackdaws and Carrion Crows crow, night-quilled wraiths, phantoms, a stone-throw below.

Next: Holyrood Park, past parliament, prime parts for picking up possible passerines despite a plethora of prickly plants. Pals, pack pants, please. The passerines? Meadow Pipit, Wren, Blackcap, and Chaffinch, Whitethroat, Song Thrush, Skylark, and Dunnock…all a synch.

Dad / a fit dude / in due time / does the World Du / does us proud / does the drive-thru / to Dundee. Add Eurasian Curlew, and European Goldfinch, cherry-lipstick-faced jolly fellow, form feathered w/ a pinch of salt & pepper, chip-chirping in glory: 2+ more to the inventory.

Before 4:00, for more, we rest-stop @ a forlorn forest: get to check out Grey Wagtail, Great Spotted Woodpecker, and Goldcrest. Leave that green for Aberdeen, a.k.a. Granite City. Cloud-tears descend on stone, sinuous snake-trails of silver sparkle on Silver City’s bones. A Pied/White Wagtail alights, its chalk-whites and ash-grays mimic the city’s cold tones; Mother Nature’s impressionist art.

We depart on an overnight voyage on the North Sea. Alone from the ferry stern, I discern a subhorizon swelling sea below a black void. Our small ship amiss smashes the surf, sprays mist amidst the abyss. My mother, un-merry seasick supine sailor, yearns for turf. Swears, ‘NEVER AGAIN!’ - to Shetland.

We ante-meridiem-land in Lerwick. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Wind. Well, whatever the weather, whether windy or wetter, we willfully work our way west (what w/ the wish of a wealth of oiseaux) to a wonderland of rocky cliffs @ Sumburgh Head, instead of giving in to Poseidon’s warning-whip. Northern Fulmars, feathered scythes, perform treacherous cliff-dives toward the icy waters, slicing through gale-force winds.

Next stop is a search of a beach and a church. Within minutes, we see Twite, Little Stint, and Lapwing: feathered jewels w/ a tint of ethereal ephemeral emerald bling bling. European Golden and Common Ringed Plovers - flying over in pairs like lovers are ancestral Rock Dovers. Oh, brother…sorry for my smidgeon of sin in the birding religion. I know, I know, the correct name is pigeon.

On the side of the road, we stop and share a stare w/ a birding pair @ a Willow Warbler and a Fieldfare. They’re Americans from New York; corporate cats, who, canceling the cruise and casino craps, chose to chase Common Cuckoo. Their countenance a clue? Sharing a quip, they coyly catch me in their ruse as there near the cruck of a construct, cool as a cucumber, squats said cuckoo. To them, I cry, ‘Cheers’!

On Spiggy’s Sandbank / is a washed up plank / And abutting that plank / is a stately Redshank / W/ fire-orange legs / a diffusely mottled flank / and hind-wings blank / this abundant shorebird / in numbers outrank / and was enough to crank / me to 43 lifers / and a full fuel tank / of energy to burn / to the opposite of dawn / where, stifling a yawn / I laid eyes upon a swan / in a semi-oval pond / a Whooper that I fawned.

The next day, our itinerary took us north, which meant 2 more boat rides. My mom, after a terrific sigh, cried, “Gravol, stat!” The pharmacist replied, “Ah, a dash of diphenhydramine and a dollop of 8-chlorotheophylline to make dimenhydrinate. Aye.”

Two ferries later, we land on the island of Unst. Past towns Belmont and Baltasound, bypassing Balliasta on the B9086, w/ Bonxies over Burrafirth, we arrive @ the remote reaches of the Northern-most braes of Scotland (where apparently the residents’ ancestors were quite fond of alliteration). Away from the main, the foreboding sky points to rain but before our descent on the longitudinal ladder, my eyes are trained upon plain Jane: my first Garden Warbler on this here island chain.

Again on boat; row, row over H2O. Near the hull: Arctic Skua and Common Gull. Reverse now from U-N-S-T to the island of Yell, a bit pell-mell on the winding roads to ferry two via the blue dotted map-line between the 2 tiny towns Ulsta and Toft. A braw day no more, soft rain turns to water-pour galore, but not before adding Rock Pipit to the score. Back to the B&B / away from the shore / wet to the core / birding quit cold turkey / too damp / no more!

Lo! Long live the Leslies! As luck would have it, in an unlikely visit to the local Historical Society, we land ourselves a long-shot at locating relatives in Exnaboe, a lovely locale lying low as Shetland geography goes. Discovery made, we meet Alice Walker (quite the talker), a fine lass w/ a scissor-sharp memory. Fascinated by our ancestral past, we pass the afternoon @ Alice’s pastoral pad. Apr├ęs tea and cake intake, we discover a gap of only a few generations separation. Preparation of climbing the family tree and filling in the gaps, perhaps, bring us closer than we thought to this prior perfect stranger from across the pond. Dad, a newborn family history junkie, was elated w/ our new-fangled friend from the same Scottish monkey.

Gannets, Guillemots, Eiders, & Oystercatchers in droves @ the harbour, we depart from Shetland but now we be landlubbers unprepared for sea swells even greater (!) than before; my mother muttering something about The Perfect Storm. The journey equates the time it takes for a half rotation around Earth’s axis. Green-faced, Mom fell from the poop-deck and stumbled on sea-legs, shaking to the core, hair scraggly as she tore it from its roots, cursing the Atlantic and threatening the poor old chap w/ fisticuffs. Her gift to the ocean? A deluge of foodstuffs.

Driving cross country counterclockwise 133.3 ̅ km., cue the hour-hand clockwise 90˚, and we reach our next destination, Inverness.

Now, in Inverness, I confess, a mess I was. Less than distress, but that anxious feeling you get when your opponent is two moves from checkmate in chess, but…I digress. You see, the trip close to close, I was a bit morose having not got close to my goal of 75 oiseaux. My spirits rose though, provoked by my scope, pulled by fate-rope, helping eyeball a Little Egret on the Beauly Firth. Not a Great, too small a girth, and golden slippers gave birth to the ID of this bird, like me, quite far from its home turf. I guess the phrase ‘save the best for last’ is an apt way to end this section of pseudo-rap.

From Inverness and past Loch Ness, we drive, not as the Rook flies, but a circuitous wind through scenery so astonishingly grand, it makes one ponder a creator’s hand in designing such beauty in the Scottish highlands.

Thus forth, for the purpose of time, I’ll speed up this rhyme by listing leftover lifers I managed to find.

Grey Heron: mantle elephant epidermis, forehead ivory white.

Greylag Goose: well-known Canadian domestic, here an untamed wanderer; ashen leading edge the hue of a storm cloud.

Tufted Duck: chlorophyll sheen, green feathered fedora.

Wood Pigeon: 43 cm. of C4 explosives, winged machete crashing through the forest making Stock Doves look like hummingbirds.

House Martin: conspicuous enamel rump preceding a fine fork-tail, Concord grape nape and sickle-shaped wings contrasted w/ Elmer’s Glue®-white central ventral feathers proudly pushed forward on telephone tethers.

Robin: dun-backed diminutive extrovert, a wee but pugnacious poster-boy of the Old World.

Blackbird: body that of a moonless night, solar flare bill, and electric-yellow eye ring.

Magpie: AK47 assault rifle chatter, Glasgow’s gregarious gang bird.

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish –
Coal Tit, Great Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Blue Tit.

Treecreeper: coffee-/cocoa-/cream-/caramel candy-coloured coniferous crawler.

Hooded Crow: the unmistakable Corvus cornix, Carrion’s close cousin; tweed-vested, black V neck-breasted.

& Bullfinch: Britain’s Pepto-Bismol®-bellied buffaloes, a bird so mindblowingly beautiful it burned my intra-skull spaghetti, melting it down to obliterated jelly-mush.

Despite all these successes / I had one epic fail / Extensive searches to no avail / The quintessential Holy Grail / I did not see a Capercaill.

Arriving in Glasgow, waiting for the plane, I (jokingly) complain that, in vain, along w/ Nessie, my aim of 75 lifers was missed. But I admit that 65 is still a fair list and the memories of the trip certainly top a twist to the wrist or a fist to a cyst. Our airship took flight and I sat there with like, an insuppressible lopsided smile. Looking over @ Daddio reading up on the Leslie clan I said, ‘I could get used to traveling’. Reading glasses removed, he replied, ‘well, haven’t you always wanted to go to Japan?’ And just like that, the sperm meets the egg in the first stages of a plan.

Arrowhead Provincial, GBBG vs. LTDU

2011 has been a year of little birding so far. One might think that unemployment would allow for days upon days of birding...but, unfortunately, when all your mind is doing is broken-record-ing on 'I need a job' skip 'I need a job' skip and so forth, there is an annoying guilty, nagging feeling when you're enjoying yourself. Maybe that's just me. Oh, but I'm employed now so I've been able to get out birding again. In fact, I wanted to get out this morning, but for any of you Toronto folks, you know we are currently under a blanket of dreariness and rain.

Anyway, there have been some highlights in my well-kept-secret birding life of late. One, which wasn't really a birding trip, but an outdoor-loving trip nonetheless, involved a group of my friends heading up to near-Huntsville, Ontario, to stay a night in a cabin and do some snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. We visited Arrowhead Provincial Park, quite a nice area from what I observed between panting for air and crashing on every hill we skied on (personally I think 'mountain' a more apt name than 'hill' but a slope one degree below a level plane could hardly be called a mountain I guess). When we first arrived, we were heading to a warming station to take a break from the walk between the car and the station (which we parked next to). As I was walking by the window of the station, from within, unknown to me, my best friend from back home-Leamington saw someone that looked familiar, cocked her head to the side and got up to investigate. Opening the door, she caused a noise that caused me to turn around and cock my head to the side. MARIANNE??!?!!?!!??!! What a great surprise. Warm hugs and frozen tears followed by boiling-over-the-pot excitement for the approaching spring migration.

Next highlight came last weekend at Humber Bay East in Toronto. Our group of birders was counting the waterfowl off the bay (Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, Mallard, Gadwall, American Black Duck, Ruddy Duck, Trumpeter and Mute Swans, White-winged Scoter, Common and Red-breasted Merganser, Common Goldeneye, Greater Scaup, Canvasback, and American Wigeon), when one of us spotted a Great Black-backed Gull showing some odd behaviour a ways off. The bird was skimming the surface of the water, looking down into the water when it was landed, wings raised, and bursting up into shorts bouts of flight a meter or so before landing again. Curious, we watched and waited. To our surprise, after a minute or so, a Long-tailed Duck came to the surface for air, only to be stabbed at by a massive beak before diving to the depths again for escape. We were watching a hunt. This lasted for about 20 minutes before the Long-tailed Duck dove for one last time, exhausted, and ended up on the surface, immobile. The gull, not wasting the opportunity, bent its prey's wings to bone-breaking angles, and wrenched the duck's head under the surface of the water, inducing eventual death. The Long-tailed Duck gave a few final kicks, its life-force draining, a last struggle; succumbed, accepted its fate, its last thoughts clouded by fear and pain.

Eventually, the gull broke skin with its bill, a sword-stab, and we watched as strands of red material were pulled from the belly of the duck, the gull finally able to relish the coppery taste of blood and the feast it fought hard for. A few Herring Gulls circled, perhaps thinking of stealing some of the meal but the Great Black-backed Gull came out the victor.