Thursday, January 26, 2012

Big Year birders visit Pukaskwa National Park and beyond

A Big Year is an informal competition among birders to see who can see or hear the largest number of species of birds within a single calendar year and within a specific geographical area. Wikipedia.
Josh Vandermeulen and Barb Charlton.
The phenomenon of the Big Year, with all of its excesses and eccentricities, has inspired a 2011 Hollywood movie (available on DVD Jan 31st!) and a sub-genre of travel literature.

The all-time total number of species recorded for Ontario stands at 486: many of these are vagrants which have occurred only once or twice before. In recent decades, a small number of mega-motivated Ontario birders have taken up the Big Year challenge. Seeing more than 300 species in a year is no mean feat. Glenn Coady's 1996 record of 338 - a total boosted by an unprecedented number of hurricane-borne waifs - remains unbeaten.

A target species
In 2011, Barb Charlton of Flamborough twitched a very impressive 322 species. Her friend, Guelph birder Josh Vandermeulen, has commenced a 2012 Big Year. The two - a Big Year veteran and a Big Year rookie - are now in the midst of a precisely calculated swing through northwest Ontario with their sights set on specific rarities and more common species unique to the boreal forest. A particular attraction was the pristine spruce-lichen forest of Pukaskwa National Park which provides excellent winter habitat for Spruce Grouse, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee and many "winter finch" species.

Owling with Josh, Barb & Martha
This week Josh and Barb spent some time at Pukaskwa and in the Town of Marathon. We joined them on daytime and nighttime snowshoeing treks as they sought out new species for the year. We had a great time. They were gracious guests and their enthusiasm for nature, Ontario and meeting people is infectious.

I won't say what Josh and Barb did or didn't see in the area because the story is really Josh's to tell. Fortunately, he updates his blog frequently.

We look forward to following the journey through 2012.

Good luck Josh!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A funky looking redpoll

This pale stranger showed up today...

[click on image to enlarge]

Learn about leucism and albinism in birds.

Photo1 and Photo2 of a similar redpoll seen near Ottawa.

And another from the UK.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch continues in MacDiarmid (and some other winter finches)

The Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch continues to be a regular visitor to a feeder in Rocky Bay-MacDiarmid, beside Lake Nipigon. Many thanks to Greg Stroud for sharing this awesome photo, taken this afternoon.

[click on image to enlarge]

Closer to home, the feeders are hopping with Pine Grosbeaks, Purple Finches, Pine Siskins and various redpols.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A good winter for American Three-toed Woodpeckers

The American Three-toed Woodpecker is one of the least studied birds of the boreal forest. Typically I see none along the north shore between April and October. In the winter, on still, cold days, I can usually find them in any of several mature spruce-dominated forest tracts between Marathon and Pukaskwa National Park.

In a previous post I discussed their specialized feeding behaviour. The sound of a foraging bird methodically flaking the outer bark off a beetle-infested spruce trunk is distinctive. Keying in on this sound is the most effective way of finding the species.

The birds are not especially wary and they can sometimes be approached closely. Getting a decent photograph is another matter. They inhabitat a shadowy, twiggy, lichen-adorned realm where often only a portion of the bird is visible.

Here are some photos of male woodpeckers I've seen this winter. The first is from the Town of Marathon, on December 16, 2011. I was scouting a friend's backyard feeder in advance of the Christmas Bird Count and I heard the bird tapping from the green space behind his lot.

From today in Pukaskwa National Park, this was the most visible of several American Three-toed Woodpeckers I found actively foraging in the afternoon. There were also several Black-backed Woodpeckers active in the same area.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"Greater" Common vs. "Southern" Common Redpoll subspecies - comparison of female plumage

Here is a comparison of typical female-type "Southern" Common Redpoll and the "Greater" Common Redpoll, that is:
  1. "Southern" Common Redpoll (Acanthis flammea flammea)
  2. "Greater" Common Redpoll (Acanthis flammea rostrata)
Compared to the more frequently observed "Southern" Common Redpoll, the "Greater" Common Redpoll:
  • is ~10% longer and ~25% heavier
  • has reduced pale feather edgings
  • has darker, bolder, more extensive streaking on flanks and undertail coverts
  • has more extensive black on the face
  • has darker auriculars, nape and back
  • has a proportionately longer tail
  • has a proportionately heavier bill (not apparent in these photos)
[click on images to enlarge - note that in the third image, the birds have traded places]

Acknowledgment: Thanks to Ron Pittaway and Michel Gosselin for their comments on an earlier version of this posting.

Related resources:

From Ron Pittaway
From David Sibley
Peer reviewed
  • Knox, Alan G. and Peter E. Lowther. 2000. Hoary Redpoll (Carduelis hornemanni), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: doi:10.2173/bna.544,
  • Troy, D.M. 1985. A phenetic analysis of the redpolls Carduelis flammea flammea and. C. hornemanni exilipes. Auk 102: 82-96 [pdf].
  • Wetherbee, O.P. 1937. A study of wintering Hoary, Common, and Greater Redpolls, and various intermediates or hybrids. Bird-Banding 8(1): 1-10 [pdf].

    Monday, January 16, 2012

    Crossbill trio

    Seen foraging on fallen spruce cones in a residential yard. Part of an impressive assemblage of irruptive "winter finches".

    [click on images to enlarge]

    Sunday, January 15, 2012

    A feast of Mountain-Ash in the Town of Marathon

    A bumper crop of Mountain-Ash, and to a lesser extent ornamental crab-apple, fruit has attracted thousands of Pine Grosbeak, Cedar Waxwing and Purple Finch to our community.

    [click on images to enlarge]

    Friday, January 13, 2012

    "Hornemann's" Hoary Redpolls and other yard birds

    A half an hour after sunset yesterday I looked out at our feeder hoping to see the Northern Flying Squirrel that's been a frequent visitor to our platform feeder. Instead I saw a lone, large pale white redpoll foraging below. I quietly stepped into the yard and snapped a photo from a distance of about three metres. This of course was a male "Hornemann's" Hoary Redpoll, perhaps the least observed of the four subspecies of redpoll in North America.
    During the winter of 2010-2011 we had an excellent opportunity to study and compare all four taxa. With the arrival of this 'snowball' we again have both subspecies of Common Redpoll and Hoary Redpoll, that is:
    • "Southern" Common Redpoll (Acanthis flammea flammea)
    • "Greater" Common Redpoll (Acanthis flammea rostrata)
    • "Hornemann's" Hoary Redpoll (Acanthis hornemanni hornemanni)
    • "Southern" Hoary Redpoll (Acanthis hornemanni exilipes)
    [The story of last winter's invasion by diverse redpolls into northern Ontario was featured, in the format of a 'photo salon', in the winter issue of North American Birds. The article is available here (pdf). It provides a thorough review of the finer points and limitations of redpoll identification.]

    This morning, the male Hornemann's Hoary Redpoll was back, this time among other redpolls, Purple Finches, Evening and Pine Grosbeaks. Although I wasn't able to get any great photos through our kitchen window,  I snapped a couple that show the larger size of the Hornemann's Hoary Redpoll - the larger size is critical to distinguishing this subspecies from the smaller exilipes Hoary Redpoll.

    The three  birds in the foreground, from left to right, are (1) "Hornemann's" Hoary Redpoll (m), (2) Purple Finch (f) and (3) "Greater" Common Redpoll (f?).

    [click on images to enlarge]

    Here are a few more shots from our yard from today and yesterday.

    Another view of the Hornemann's Hoary Redpoll.
    In the last week we've seen a huge influx of Pine and Evening Grosbeaks into the town of Marathon.

    Northern Cardinal at the northern limit of its breeding range in Ontario.
    A female White-winged Crossbill checked out all of the offerings.

    A male flammea or "Southern" Common Redpoll.
    A proven method of preventing cats from harming wildlife...

    Monday, January 9, 2012

    Another (Hepburn's) Gray-Crowned Rosy-Finch in the Thunder Bay District

    [The previously displayed content of this post has been incorporated into an open-ended, broadly scoped account of extralimital occurrences of GCRFs in eastern North America during the fall-winter-spring of 2011-2012.]

    [click on image to enlarge]

    Sunday, January 8, 2012

    Christmas Mockingbird in Manitouwadge

    This Northern Mockingbird made a brief, one-time appearance in Virginia Thompson's Manitouwadge yard on Christmas day. While the species is seen annually in the Thunder Bay District, it is scarce inland from Lake Superior.

    Thanks for sharing the photo Virginia!