Keeping Tabs on Ontario Big Days – 3rd place in 2018 with 197 species.

The Sedge Wren marsh at Carden.

Relevant eBird checklists are embedded within.

The basic formula to complete an Ontario Big Day has long been established: Touch the periphery of the boreal forest, visit remnants of the province’s remaining grasslands, scope the vast waters of the Great Lakes, and ensure enough time and daylight to bird the Carolinian forests of the southwest. The optimal time window is the last week of May assuming it aligns with cooperative weather, migration, and urban traffic patterns. Against these odds, a team of four supporters of the Long Point Bird Observatory (Yousif Attia, John Brett, Stu Mackenzie, and Ron Ridout) set out in a northerly direction to complete a Big Day to raise funds for bird conservation through the Great Canadian Birdathon. It would also be an unparalled excuse to test our birding skills, knowledge,  physical and mental stamina, and discipline. As is usually the case, we had minimal time to scout, but figured our experience with the distribution of birds in Ontario and the route, coupled with recent knowledge drawn from eBird, Ontbirds, and allies would suffice.

We started the Big Day on May 26, 2018 at 0:02 hrs listening to the twittering flight calls of displaying American Woodcocks west of Barrie. Conditions were warm, calm, with a clear sky at the Minesing Wetlands. A number of species scouted during daylight the previous day were stubbornly absent but we added vocal Soras and a Virginia Rail. We managed to add a few other species by sound before heading west to the shores of Lake Huron and Wasaga Beach Provincial Park. Anyone visiting Wasaga will notice the fenced off sections of sandy beach where Piping Plovers are nesting. One nest, conveniently close to a parking lot near the boardwalk is lit just enough for the shape of a Piping Plover sitting on her nest to be quite prominent. Little time was wasted as we set off towards Tiny Marsh to pick up a few more nocturnal wetland species before making the lengthy trek northeastward to Algonquin.

As we approached Algonquin we were reminded of the dangers of nighttime driving in moose country. John and Stu had a very close call the previous morning when a moose actually ran into the side of the vehicle causing some minor damage. Fortunately, we all made it to the west side of the park safely and with just enough darkness to search for owls. We had been watching the weather radar closely and it seemed we would narrowly miss the brunt of a storm that had been developing in the central part of the province. We were all a little anxious as heavy rain fell while we anxiously waited (slept) in the vehicle. The realisation that the entire day could be a wash at this point was almost setting in. Luckily, the rain eased off at around 03:45 hrs as the storm veered to the south. There was just enough darkness left to listen for nocturnals and quickly picked up Barred and Northern Saw-whet owls.

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Moose encounter # 1

It was not long after that the early northern songsters began to chime in. We drove up Opeongo Road and called out their names one by one as they awoke. We heard or saw all the expected boreal species, among them: four species of thrush, three vireos, a handful of sparrows, and some 15 species of warbler. A distant Olive-sided Flycatcher was a relief that meant we would not have to rely on lucking into a migrant. A Canada Jay called briefly along Opeongo but our search for Spruce Grouse at their usual haunts was fruitless. We pushed on to Mizzy Lake where we walked to Wolf Howl and West Rose ponds. Our northern targets did not disappoint and we tallied American Black Duck, four different Black-backed Woodpeckers, Boreal Chickadee, White-winged Crossbill, and Evening Grosbeak. We also encountered our only Bay-breasted, Black-throated Blue, Canada, and Wilson’s warblers for the day.

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One of four Black-bellied Woodpecker. Photo Yousif Attia

We left Algonquin at around 08:30 with only a few of our targets unaccounted for. The weather was improving as we drove south towards the Carden Plain stopping only for a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks. Upon arrival, Carden welcomed us with many new additions to the species list: Brown Thrasher, Eastern Towhee, Field, Clay-colored, Grasshopper, and Vesper sparrows, Loggerhead Shrike, and Golden-winged Warbler. The Sedge Wren Marsh on Wylie Rd had the expected Sedge Wrens but despite listening carefully we could not pick up the quiet call of the Nelson’s Sparrow that was there the previous evening. As we neared the end of Wylie Road, we were blinded by the glaring absence of Upland Sandpiper; an abundant species in the area and a painful one to mark in the miss column. Our option was either to cut our losses, head south, and stay on schedule or make a last ditch, go for broke effort by backtracking to an Osprey platform allowing more time driving through prime ‘Upland’ habitat. Eventually, a distant Upland Sandpiper was spotted on a fencepost but the decision came at a cost and we were well over 30 minutes behind in our schedule that we would be chasing the rest of the day.

It was now midday and despite being late, we decided to scan Lake Simcoe, which proved to be a productive stop when we lucked into a Red-throated Loon, our first truly unpredicted species. A Black-crowned Night-Heron and thirty Bonaparte’s Gulls were also welcomed to the day list. With Algonquin and Carden now behind us, we needed to pick up odds and sods on Lake Ontario WITHOUT getting bogged down by traffic. Even on a weekend, it only takes  one fender bender on a major artery of the Greater Toronto Area for congestion to build and foil a big day.

A lone Trumpeter Swan was collected on the outskirts of Markham before reaching our first opportunity to scope Lake Ontario at the Adamson Estate in Mississauga. We added some much needed waterfowl including a large flock of 50 White-winged Scoters and a Red-breasted Merganser, but the bonus species here was Canada’s first breeding pair of Fish Crows. We continued along the shoreline toward Burloak Park for a pair of Red-necked Grebe and a chance at Whimbrel. Only two Whimbrel showed up at the late time of day, but the best bird was a lone Brant which, unbeknownst to us, had been in the area. The Hamilton side of the Burlington Ship Canal/Lift Bridge produced our only Peregrine Falcon and a small raft of lingering Long-tailed Ducks on the lake. Windermere Basin provided a number of promised additions including Great Egret, Redhead, Northern Shoveler, Great Black-backed Gull, and six species of shorebirds.

Sustained by water, chocolate covered espresso beans, energy drinks, dried meats, and Twizzlers to battle the late afternoon lull, we booked it towards the Carolinian forests of Norfolk County where a suite of species awaited. On the way, we made an essential stop at Townsend Sewage Lagoons for more shorebirds and waterfowl. The hoped for diversity there didn’t quite pan out although Pectoral and White-rumped Sandpipers were new for the day. We drove to Port Ryerse for Red-headed Woodpecker passing a Bald Eagle nest on our way. Fortunately, the Long Point area is, or has been home, to all team members and familiarity with this diverse region allowed us to efficiently pick off a cornucopia of low-hanging fruit. Big Day Hint – have a strong closing location – you want options for new potential species everywhere you look.

Focused stops at Turkey Point Conservation Reserve and Backus Woods produced Yellow-throated Vireo, Louisiana Waterthrush and Prothonotary, Pine and Hooded warblers. Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Chimney Swift, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, and Orchard Oriole among other southerners were at various locations around Port Rowan, while Common Gallinules and a Willow Flycatcher were seen at the Port Rowan Wetlands. A scan of Long Point Bay from the Birds Studies Canada Headquarters produced a raft of Canvasback, and views of a Forster’s Tern colony. With the light fading, we found ourselves at the Big Creek National Wildlife Area observation tower hoping for a chance at Common Nighthawk. Least Bittern called from the reeds while Black Terns and eventually Common Nighthawks were picked up flitting over the extensive wetland.

At this point, it was certain that we would not reach the coveted 200 species mark, but there were some easy nocturnal species that we had to try for. Obligingly, Eastern Whip-poor-wills were calling intently in St. Williams Forest and an Eastern Screech-Owl piped up at a local creek crossing. Our final bird was a surprise King Rail heard at a wetland near Long Point, closing out the day at a surprising 197 species.

The mythical 200 species big day mark has only been reached or surpassed by two teams in Ontario (Table 1). Our 2018 attempt represents the third highest big day record for Ontario. Weather was cooperative for most of the day with low winds and good visibility. Bird diversity was as expected although we had hoped to encounter a few more shorebirds. As with all big days, you always have frustrating misses, the most notable of which were American Kestrel, an increasingly harder to find species in Ontario, Great Horned Owl, Acadian Flycatcher, and Cerulean and Mourning warblers. We are thankful to the scouting efforts of Ontario eBirders, our team members unable to participate this year, and our patient and supportive families.

For a live video summary see Long Point Bird Observatory’s Twitter Feed @LongPointBirdOb., or fb.com/LPBObs.

Table 1 Top Ten Ontario Big Day Totals as of June 2018

1 205 26-May-2012 J. Allair, J. Brett, C. Friis, S. Mackenzie
2 200 29-May-1999 T. Hince, P. Pratt
3 197 26-May-2018 Y. Attia, J. Brett, S. Mackenzie, R. Ridout
4 194 24-May-1994 T. Hince, P. Pratt
5 194 21-May-2011 J. Brett, C. Friis, S. Mackenzie
6 188 19-May-2018 K. Burrell, A. Timpf, M. Timpf
7 186 11-May-1979 A. Wormington, T. Hince, D. Sutherland, M. Runtz
8 182 18-May-1996 M. Bain, R. Tozer, D. Barry
9 181 28-May-1994 M. Bain, D. Beadle, B. Henshaw
10 180 17-May-1980 A. Wormington, P. Pratt, D. McCorquodale

 

Fundraising:

To donate in support of bird conservation in Canada and the Long Point Bird Observatory visit this link – https://www.canadahelps.org/s/2rUhN

 

Ontario Big Day (Shameless attempt at future sponsorships):

Optic support provided by Swarovski Optik Nature and ZEISS Birding, Manfrotto and Gitzo.

Birding locales provided by: Ontario Parks, Nature Conservancy of Canada / Conservation de la nature Canada, Couchiching Conservancy, Haliburton Highlands, City of Mississauga – Municipal Government, Burlington, Ontario, Hamilton, Ontario, Haldimand County, Norfolk Tourism, Environment and Climate Change, Bird Studies Canada.

Transportation provided by Enterprise and Nissan Canada.

Carbon offsets provided by Bullfrog Power. We estimated that we used 0.25 tonnes of Carbon to prepare and conduct our Big Day. Thereofer we offset 1 tonne.

Emotional support provided by each other.

Sustenance provided by TWIZZLERS and Starbucks.

Apparel provided by Fjällräven Canada, Patagonia, Buff Headwear, and SAXX Underwear.

Footwear provided by KEEN and Zamberlan Outdoor

Accommodation provided by Best Western Hotels & Resorts

Computers Apple Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Company

Time and checklist keeping powered by eBird

Encouragement and community provided by American Birding Association and OFO – Ontario Field Ornithologists