Monday, June 18, 2012

Rainy River

Until this year, Rainy River has only been a place of stories for me. Birders telling me how much I'd love it, how some of their best time birding has been spent there, the great birds you see and the great looks you get. It's always intrigued me, but until this year, I didn't really know when I would have a chance to get up there.

Well, then my big year started and I knew this was a trip I had to do...and thank Quetzalcoatl, I managed to fit it into my year.

For reasons not blogged, my work and I parted ways so I was free to roam the North for the third time this year. Thankfully, I limited my H&M spring shopping sprees, so I had just enough money to eek by one more trip (and ruined a few H&M shirts on the trip as well).

Mark Field and I had discussed it a bit but it was always in a "yeah, maybe" approach so as to not get our hopes up too high that it would actually work. As June approached, however, and with our respective year lists ballooning after spring migration in Point Pelee, we made a final decision. We were going to Rainy River. And we were driving. And camping. And we were going to get Yellow Rail.

Let me tell you, I loved the area. Loved it. Loved it loved it loved it. It's an experience every Ontario birder has to have at least once. The area is beautiful, the weather unpredictable, the people helpful, the birds spectacular, and the chance for something truly special to show up always on your mind.

Thanks to Mark for a spectacular time. In total from leaving Toronto to return, we had 157 species, I tallied 8 Ontario year birds and 2 lifers, and Mark got a number of lifers (including Kirtland's Warbler in Michigan).

I'm going to break up this post in the order of new year birds on the trip and then cover our misses.

Red-shouldered Hawk - surprisingly, I missed this species in the spring despite making a number of trips to Norfolk County and sharing days of birding with Matt Timpf who has the best set of eyes and ears a birder can have. So it was to my delight (and endangerment) when a Red-shouldered Hawk flew over our car along Highway 401 near Perry Sound. I squealed in delight along with the tires of our car as I careened around on the highway. An ashy-faced Mark congratulated me on my first year bird of the trip (we were tied now...he got Cattle Egret in Keswick earlier that day on a detour before our long-distance travel. I remarked to him that this bird was garbage to me since I saw one at Hillman earlier in the spring. I'm getting used to Mark's unimpressed face).

Black-billed Magpie - our second year bird on the trip was also along a highway but this time, it wasn't the 401 so we were actually able to stop and look at the bird. A pair of magpies were hanging out on a front lawn next to a garage. A bit anti-climatic for our first Rainy River bird since it was so easy but we weren't complaining. The trip was starting off grand.

Wilson's Phalarope - even though seemingly hundreds of phalaropes were appearing in every sewage lagoon in southern Ontario except when I was visiting them, it took traveling all the way to Rainy River to see this species. It was one of the first birds I spotted and it was in flight. I followed it in my binoculars w/ relief as it flew with a flock of unidentified peeps. Another visit to the lagoons produced a much better look at a bird in the water. We ended up getting 3 total at the Rainy River Sewage Lagoons.

Western Meadowlark - we had (literally) breathtaking views of our first Western Meadowlark. I gasped and held my breath when one perched on a fence-post next to our car, its black-banded, sunburst yellow throat bubbling as it belted out its beautiful song. Up to this point, it was one of the highlights of my year and I had to lie to Mark that I had got some dust in my eyes.

Le Conte's Sparrow - After hearing a few in the preceding days, we finally got a stunning look at a Le Conte's that flew to roadside and landed on a fence near our car. Before this individual, I had only seen a fleeting glimpses of this species at Point Pelee, which, let's be honest, could have been a Chipping Sparrow with the looks that I got, so it was an absolute pleasure to have one close, in the open, and vocalizing. Another highlight of the trip.

Franklin's Gull - a relief that we saw this bird at a time that is considered too early for them to arrive but at Harris Hill Resort where we camped, we scoped the distant shores in Windy Bay, and by golly, we got 1 Franklin's Gull. The field marks we needed: black hood, dark mantle, and white spots on the wingtips were all visible. One of the owners of the campground offered to go out on a boat one of the following days to see them closer but weather and time did not permit unfortunately. We did look the following morning after the day we saw the first individual gull and had 2 together. Wish I could have had closer looks seeing as this was a lifer for me, but it was just a relief to get the bird. There was no way I was going to get to Rainy River again this year to try again.

Dickcissel - fortune was on my side w/ this one. We were driving a road names Wilson Creek, which I was starting to get a bit bored of since we drove it so many times in our effort to get Eared Grebe along River Road (which it connects to). The road finally delivered when I glanced over and saw a Dickcissel sitting right on a fencepost next to the road singing its heart out. I jammed on the breaks and sent Mark through the windshield but he was able to get some pictures of the bird during his aerial maneuvering. Heart-stopping looks at one of Ontario's most beautiful species.

Eared Grebe - we drove hours looking for this bird. We tried every sewage lagoon multiple times until we knew every bird we'd see at the lagoon and how many of each species we'd count. We were frustrated and disappointed and finally gave up on this species altogether. So it was to our complete surprise that we were rewarded for bad birding behaviour on one of our last days of the trip. We didn't drive as far as we should have. We camped near a sewage lagoon (H&M shirt ruined). Our alarm went off in the morning and we went back to sleep for two more hours. When we woke up, I strolled over to the nearby pond and lo and behold, it held a grebe. I screamed to the car with my arms flailing like Macaulay Culkin through the hallway in Home Alone and got my scope. Next thing we knew, we were getting excellent looks and horrible iPhone photos of an Eared Grebe in breeding plumage. Phew. On our drive home from Rainy River, we probably said about 500 times that we couldn't believe we got this bird. Another highlight of the trip.

The misses.

Yellow Rail - we didn't spend more time on any other species than we did w/ Yellow Rail. We traipsed through Fred's Marsh until it was pitch black smacking rocks together, crying, and pleading to the skies, but we didn't hear anything. We emailed Tyler Hoar, who had them the week previous, about a million times and he graciously responded to every question w/ another location to try. We kept hearing single ticks but they would turn out to be a Sedge Wren or some mystery sound that was never heard again. This species remains elusive to me and although I'm sure I won't get it this year, it is my number 1 target species for Ontario in the years to come.

Connecticut Warbler - although these are a guarantee in the area, we put the effort in and never even heard a single Connecticut. We heard a single bird singing on Woodland Nature Trail, Pelee, in the spring but I wanted to see one on their breeding grounds! No such luck.

Western Kingbird - although we did try a few locations the species had been found in previous years, while we were in Rainy River, we had no knowledge of a resident W. Kingbird. We only found out once we got home that there was a reliable spot for one! A crushing blow, but I felt good that we at least tried for the species.

Sharp-tailed Grouse - everyone who visits Rainy River has at least one encounter w/ this species. Whether it be in the middle of a short-grass field, or nearly picking one off w/ your car, it's a reliable Rainy River bird. Oh how we tried. I still have yet to see this darn species. I've only heard them on Everard Road near Thunder Bay earlier in the year. We thought we got lucky when we saw a grouse on the road ahead in a pouring rainstorm. We jumped out into the rain and soaked ourselves silly setting up the scope on it, only for Mark to point out that this bird had a black tail. And a high crest...and it was a Ruffed Grouse. He slapped the suicide pill from my hand and convinced me to enjoy the bird in front of us even though it was the wrong grouse. In the end, he got spectacular pictures of the bird despite the rain since it was tame as can be (there's a reason people are not allowed to hunt from cars). After batting my hands away from the steering wheel enough times, Mark said we'd stayed long enough and that it went against birding ethics to run over a bird. We drove on, Sharp-tailed Grouse-less.

Nelson's Sparrow - though one was reported singing earlier in the month, we were not fortunate enough to get this species. It's one I can still get in the year but boy, it would have been nice to get out of the way in June! I think sometimes we were so focused on hearing Yellow Rail that we forgot we should be listening for Nelson's Sparrow as well. 

To see my photos from the trip, you can visit my new Flickr page at, which includes captions on many of the photos. I took all of them with my iPhone.

My Big Ontario Year

Yes, it took me a while to come around this year and decide to do an official big year but somewhere just before spring migration I came out and admitted I was trying to see 300 species in Ontario in the 2012 calendar year. This is, of course, unless I only reach 299 and if by including December of 2011 instead of December of 2012 I can get to 300...then I will cheat. That Essex County Great Gray Owl is my fail-safe. I kid.

It hit me after my first trip to Thunder Bay in February that maybe I could try this. Andrew Keaveney, Mark Field, and I headed up north to go for a number of northern species, including some reliable rarities in the area. On the trip, we ended up getting Harris's Sparrow, Spotted Towhee, and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, as well as the expected guys: Pine and Evening Grosbeak, Hoary and Common Redpoll, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and American White Pelican. Andrew, bless him, had me convinced that 300 would now be easy since I've already got rarities in the bag.

Maybe it was the extensive driving on these trips, or something about the clean northern air, that I hummed and I hawed a lot until something clicked and I was like, "oh what the heck, let's go for 300 this year!!"

That's when my year changed completely.

I've had an amazing time of it. So far, I've birded more than I ever had during any year as a birdwatcher, I've learned a TON in the process, especially in regards to Ontario species' ranges and abundance, I've looked at eBird 10-100 times a day to keep myself posted on sightings around the province, and I've witnessed the craziness that surrounds being a big year-er. Now, I'm no competitor, so don't mistake my big year as an aim for first place. There are other young bucks who will get some obscene number by year end. I'm happy w/ getting to 300 and commend them for taking on such a bigger challenge than I! It's been a pleasure to watch their progress.

I feel pretty good about my standings right now. It's nearing the end of June and I currently sit at 288 species, my latest being Eared Grebe. I have only a few common guys left to see like Sanderling and Snow Bunting. I'm behind on shorebirds: Curlew Sandpiper (uh oh), Purple Sandpiper, Red Knot, Western Sandpiper and Baird's Sandpiper, Red Phalarope, and Buff-breasted Sandpiper. I have owls to see or hear: Great-Gray, Boreal, Northern Hawk-...but I'm not sure how many more times I can go north! Then there are the gulls: Black-legged Kittiwake, Black-headed, Sabine's, Ross's, Ivory...ok those last two are just dreaming but why not? There are the 3 jaegers. I've got two birds of prey that are remotely possible: Swainson's Hawk and Mississippi Kite. I'm behind a couple sparrows: Nelson's and Lark. So I've got some birds to work w/. And rarities will show up. Glossy Ibis, Northern Wheatear, Black-throated Sparrow...sure, Jeremy. With a bit of help from Marianne in the Pelee area in the fall, I should be on my way to glory.

Although fortune has been on my side many times this year (Western Tanager, Laughing Gull, California Gull, Ross's Goose to name a few), I've also had some savage misses. The aforementioned Great Gray, which I would have seen January 1st had I decided on a big year from the start, White-winged Dove, Band-tailed Pigeon, Varied Thrush, Smew, Western Grebe (my nemesis again!), Bell's Vireo, Kirtland's Warbler, Little Blue Heron, Curlew Sandpiper.

The list goes on and on, but that's birding for you. If we got every single bird we ever chased, we'd be too blessed. It's the dip, the crushing disappointment, that puts us in our place, that makes us charge into the field even harder the next trip. But boy those dips do sting...