Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 Photographic Year in Review

Check out past years here: 20142013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009

These are the twelve eight images that summarize my photographic moments of 2015. In the past, I scoured through my files and pulled out the images that highlighted my travels or personal favourite moments. In 2015, I found myself pulled towards non-photographic endeavours, so the selection is somewhat limited. No complaints here!

A brutally cold winter was exciting for both meteorology and photography. More and more I find my birding and photography are tied to interesting meteorological events - sometimes seeing or photographing very little but having a blast enjoying the weather. The flock of ducks (below) really showed how difficult life could be in the frigid weather - locked into a tiny pool on Lake Ontario. 

2015 was also the year I partook in my first "big year"! The final tally was 196 species - all from my condo. I don't mean to spoil the fun, but it really wasn't much of an effort. I knew I would be home for extended periods and kept track of the birds I saw... The best days in spring and fall were spent birding elsewhere... I hope this revelation doesn't ruin anything regarding my 2016 efforts.... Anyways - this Wood Duck is my favourite bird image from the condo in 2015. 

Eurasian Tree Sparrow - in flight! Given my limited availability, I was really happy with my ability to predict some exciting birding weather in May and make the most of two 2.5 day visits to the Pelee peninsula. Not only "rarity weather" - but volume days as well. 

A fall trip to Pelee went exactly as planned with huge numbers of Monarchs roosting at the tip (thousands). If I ever get around to it, I have a LOT more photographs to share from the adventure. 

Lunar Eclipse!

So that's all she wrote. I hope everyone has a great 2016! 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

2016 BIG YEAR plans

With El Nino raging, and the potential for an La Nina later this year (often, but not always follows an el nino) - I thought to myself, now is the time. Now is the time to do a big year. Not only that, but it's a leap year, meaning I'll have 366 days to break records. All the records.

It's not a decision I make lightly, and I've spent time consulting with my family to ensure that everyone is on board. Many who have come before detail the hardships associated with doing a big year and the stress it can put on your day to day activities.

The majority of big-year-patrons spend considerable amount of time on the fringes of their self-inflicted areas - such as the outer islands of Alaska in an ABA big year, or the hostile Mexico Michigan border for an Ontario attempt. In Ontario, my personal record is 301 species in a single year - a far cry from the records.

Throughout the year I may be chronicling my adventures on the blog in monthly updates - potentially with species totals and thoughts on what future months will hold.  Not unlike my 2015 Condo Big Year, there will be rules. They are:

1) - I will only count birds that I see while I'm standing in Ontario

2) - Taxonomy will follow the eBird checklist, unless I decide otherwise.

3) -  I will not take any trips specifically to add species to my big year

4) - I will not twitch anything

5) - It's gotta be fun

Be sure to check back as things unfold!!!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Book Review Time! Penguins - The Ultimate Guide

Disclaimer! Princeton Publishing provided the copies for review!

Price listed on book - US $35.00
Authors - Tui De Roy, Mark Jones, Julie Cornthwaite
Pages - 240
Size - ~8"x12" - maybe an inch and a half? - with a good thick cover
Topics covered - Penguins (duh)... Life cycle, general species groups, science and conservation, their natural history, where to see them etc. Not to mention some epic photos...  
Photographs - So many! I just hinted at this, but the book is visually stunning... Nearly every page is coated in some of the most spectacular Penguin photos I've ever seen... It seems to me that this charismatic bunch of birds has been worked from virtually every angle by highly skilled photographers... 

The Skinny: The large size and epic photos are more than enough to suck you in... Then, if you actually enjoy reading, you'll find a wealth of information to keep you busy! It may just take a while to get there, cause you'll want to keep flipping the pages to see the photos of the birds...

The Good: Penguins. I am going to sound like a broken record 

I should also add a disclaimer that I am no Penguin expert, so if there are any factual errors in their identification or life history 

The Bad: There is nothing bad about the book. I would say that it is rather hefty, falling somewhere between a reference work and a coffee table book. I certainly wouldn't bring it on a trip, or (heck) even in the car for a long road trip... But as long as you know about the size - there is nothing to complain about. 

Who Should Buy It:

Buy it for birders, naturalist, friends of birders/naturalists, children, schools, libraries, people looking for travel ideas, people with too much money, etc. etc. etc. 

There is going to be part of society (or just the people you know) who will think they're "above" something like a silly book about Penguins - but in reality, everyone loves Penguins and the only people who won't appreciate this book are the people who don't like books in general... I highly recommend it!

More info here: 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

2015 BIG YEAR - November Update

November 2015

This is the eleventh monthly summary of my 2015 CONDO BIG YEAR!!!

Red dot is my condo building

Red mark is the blue area defined in the first map

Click for - BIG YEAR RULES

The birds! (new species in bold) (hint - there are none)-

Canada Goose - 165
Tundra Swan - 39
American Wigeon - 19
American Black Duck - 120
Mallard - 214
Northern Pintail - 2
Green-winged Teal - 1
Canvasback - 2
Redhead - 168
Greater Scaup - 423
Lesser Scaup - 59
Surf Scoter - 2130
White-winged Scoter - 4440
Black Scoter - 475
Long-tailed Duck - 36500
Bufflehead - 55
Common Goldeneye - 745
Hooded Merganser - 1
Common Merganser - 15
Red-breasted Merganser - 7800
Red-throated Loon - 117
Common Loon - 170
Horned Grebe - 2
Double-crested Cormorant - 129
Great Blue Heron - 2
Sharp-shinned Hawk - 1
Cooper's Hawk - 2
Red-tailed Hawk - 6
Rough-legged Hawk - 1
Parasitic Jaeger - 1
Bonaparte's Gull - 47
Ring-billed Gull - 730
Hering Gull - 805
Lesser Black-backed Gull - 2
Glaucous Gull - 1
Great Black-backed Gull - 47
Rock Pigeon - 8
Mourning Dove - 21
Downy Woodpecker - 7
Northern Flicker - 1
Merlin - 1
Peregrine Falcon - 2
Blue Jay - 4
American Crow - 6
Black-capped Chickadee - 11
American Robin - 48
European Starling - 170
American Pipit - 1
Cedar Waxwing - 165
Snow Bunting - 160
Yellow-rumped Warbler - 1
Dark-eyed Junco - 17
Northern Cardinal - 8
Red-winged Blackbird - 15
Brown-headed Cowbird - 1
House Finch - 29
Purple Finch - 1
Common Redpoll - 8
Pine Siskin - 11
American Goldfinch - 696
House Sparrow - 55

Total species - 64

Total ebird checklists - 16

Best birds of the month:  Were hybrids? Parasitic Jaeger, Purple Finch, Canvasback... ugh. 

Useless rarities: Northern Pintail x Mallard hybrid (spankin male too), Herring X Great Black-backed Gull hybrid (spankin 1st basic too)... "Northwestern" Red-tailed Hawk

Highlight "big year" birds: 

Total species added to the big year this month: 0

Big year total to date: 194

Target species going forwards:  Harlequin Duck, Black-legged Kittiwake, Ross's Gull

KM driven: 0
KM flown: 0
KM by boat: 0
KM by train: 0
KM by helicopter: 0

(1 Kilometer = 0.621371192237334 Miles)

Previous summaries: January | February | March | April | May | June July |August |September | October



Welp... I appreciate all of the encouragement from last month, but I think we're at the end of the line here. After November failed to produce any "big year" additions, I feel like the chances of adding new species will come down to luck... 

Passerines are pretty much impossible, shorebirds are nearly so... Remaining species are generally "rare"  - I will cross my finders for some blistering N or NE winds and something totally unexpected. Here's hoping for one last addition! 

(Boy, I didn't even take any window "sun/weather" photos in November)... 

Monday, December 7, 2015

A Unique Opportunity? - Netitishi Point Dec 10-16th

While the weather is hardly "mild" - I can't help but notice things are exceptionally warm in Moosonee these days. Check out the temperature anomalies: 

And all of the major models agree - there are no "deep freeze" conditions in the forecast for the next several days around southern James Bay

Other than a big blast of cold air in late Nov/early Dec, it has been very mild for weeks on end. The cold blast did allow a large amount of ice to build up along the Ontario coast, but as far as I can tell, it has been breaking up since then...

I'm looking forward to a proper update from the Canadian Ice Service, which has high quality mapping for James Bay - but hasn't provided anything new for several days. I'll probably turn it into another riveting tweet when it arrives. 

As the title implies, I can't help but wonder what the birding will be like at Netitishi Point, one of my favourite scraps of land on the planet, over the next week or so... Warm-ish weather and open water in mid-December probably doesn't happen very often... So I wonder what birds are around to be seen?

Many of the major models keep things warm (ish) through at least Dec 16/17th... 

What I find particularly strange about the warm(ish) temperatures is that they haven't always been accompanied by southerly winds... 

Here's some 15 knot (~25kph) due N winds for Saturday Dec 12th - 

Which either stay a gentle NW to NE, or go light right through until Monday/Tuesday (Dec 14/15) when they really pick up again to nearly 30 knots, due N... That's 50-60kph!!!

And as far as I can tell, snowfall probably (probably) wouldn't be too much of a hinderance either... Allowing one to actually look for birds - 

So with reasonable temps, decent ice conditions, modest precipitation and sublime north winds - I would be VERY interested to know how the birding is at Netitishi Point over the next 7-10 days!!!

Will it be overflowing with King Eiders? Will Common Eiders and Black Guillemots be zipping around as they flee the rapidly freezing hudson's bay? Will Gyrfalcons be chasing them down? Will Ross's Gulls be hiding amongst the flocks of Glaucous? 

Perhaps in another life - where I had unlimited free time and money, these questions would be answered... For now, I'm content to wonder! 

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Dovekie Weather

This late-to-the-party Dovekie photographed on Nov 30th came from James Bay. Want to know how I know?

To begin, some background. I firmly believe that Hudson and James Bay trap ungodly numbers of rare birds (especially waterbirds) that "birders" never get to see... There's no one up there. Since much of this coastline is in Ontario, you'd think Ontario birders (and the Great Lakes) would be the secondary location where these birds occur, but I don't think that's the case. It is generally COLD NW to W winds that push birds off of Hudson Bay in the fall, and as the green line shows above - I think they fly over Quebec and towards Massachusetts (etc), meaning Ontario birders miss out. (And also why MA birders get nutty things like Gray-tailed Tattler)

So what does this have to do with the Dovekie in Oakville?!

Nov 28

If we rewind the weather, the important feature is the weak cold front over Hudson Bay (green) 

Nov 29

A day later, it is pushing SE - or bringing NW winds, right where it usually would... This front is fairly weak, but notable in that it was a blast of freezing/arctic Air (think -20 at night)... And it has been very warm on James Bay this fall, so this was one of the first mass-buildups of ice along the Ontario coast....

Nov 30

A day later, (Dovekie day) the front has pretty much died, and - which is somewhat unusual - high pressure has formed over the St. Lawrence, and is (hypothetically) blocking any migrating/freeze-out birds from their usual route into Quebec/NE USA and towards Lake Ontario. There were NE to NNE winds at the lift bridge in Burlington all day and the Dovekie is found in Oakville that evening. 

Supporting this theory is a small rash of King Eiders that hit Lake Ontario (and Erie) at the same time... One thing i'd really like an answer to (if this theory is true) is --- Did the Dovekie and/or King Eiders fly at night or at day? Or Both? And did they hit Lake Ontario at the west end? Or did they actually get blown (or just fly) to the west end on the NE winds? 

Overall this is not a weather event I would (normally) get excited about. I think there was a heavy dose of luck involved in bringing/locating a Dovekie... Pretty exciting stuff!

Friday, November 27, 2015

Book Review Time! - The Bees in Your Backyard

Disclaimer! Princeton Publishing provided the copies for review!

Who doesn't love bees?

Price listed on book - US $29.95
Authors - J.S. Wilson and O.M. Carril 
Pages - 288
Size - 7"x10" - almost an inch thick
Topics covered - All sorts of bee's! An introduction, how to help bee's, then discussion of the various families. 
Photographs - Who knows! 300? 400? There are many in this rich and colourful book. 

The skinny: bee's are all the rage these days with honeybee colony collapse, listing of bumblebees by COSEWIC or SARA, lots of research - so now is the perfect time to learn more about bee's. The authors want everyone to know just how awesome (and variable) our North American Bee's are! (4000+ species in the United States and Canada!) 

The good: This book is bright, colourful, and has a lot of information that will keep a budding (to avid) naturalist entertained for a long time. I can't help but feel the excitement the authors have for their subjects and that is the type of situation where things begin to rub off on others. I don't currently have any need to put the book to use, and the cold weather isn't going to provide many opportunities, but I can only imagine that it would help answer many questions you wouldn't easily find elsewhere. 

The bad: based on my early impressions - I can't find anything bad to say about the book. I mean, I can say things, but I will cover those in the "who-should-buy-it" below! It has great images, range maps, packed full of facts, great ID tips (oh yeah, this is the "bad" section - moving on...)

Who should buy it: I recommend it to all naturalists! All the naturalists! If you're interested in anything in the natural world, it's an easy progression to move onto something new - espicially when you have great information to start with. This is that book!

Also - if you want to get a gift for a naturalist friend, I think this book is a slam dunk. There may be those who aren't terribly keen on dropping 30 large ($30.00 for the older folk) on a subject-specific book they aren't 100% keen on, but getting a colourful bee-slap in the face from this book will keep them happy throughout Christmas and beyond (note - Christmas is coming!) 

and with that said, here's where I have some trouble....Who else buys this book? 

It's not really a kids book, despite it having the appearance of a kids book (heeey kids, should we read about Halictus tonight? Or Hoplitis?) It's not really a field guide, given the large size... It isn't quite a coffee table book... Although I'm sure non-naturalist-people will be happy to just look at the awesome photos when they come over for tea... It's just a really pretty reference book? But doesn't exactly cover all 4000 species? 

BEEKEEPERS! If you are, or know a Beekeeper, they'll probably like it too...

Be sure to check out the introduction to the book online here:

Also, Princeton put out a slideshow (with more of these awesome images) and an interview here:

It's available online, out in mid December!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

"Light Morph" "Westernnn" "Red-tailed Hawk"

Back on Nov 17th, this absolute beaut of a Red-tailed Hawk was hanging out around my condo... 

The photos are variable given the editing and light (shadow, sun, exposure adjustments, contrast, saturation etc)..

I also don't want to get too "carried away" with nailing this bird down as a "Western" Red-tailed Hawk... I was pretty surprised to run into dark morph "western" Red-tails in SE Saskatchewan a few years ago while working... Just how far "east" do these western birds go? Plus, others have taken interest in the "boreal" Red-tails, that are darker than our "carolinian" birds locally... I have always thought the northernmost "treeline" red-tailed hawks were the true "northern" birds, but it seems to be applied more to the boreal birds... Is there a difference? Does it blend with the "western" birds? Some even think the northern "eastern" birds can have a dark morph... Talk about confusing! 

I'm rambling... Let's stick to this bird... 

Clearly an adult with a Red-tail among other things...  Heavy contrast, heavy belly markings, dark throat/head with limited markings make this bird really stand out 

The one feature that really says "westerny" to me is the general lack of white anywhere on this bird. It's a creamy caramel colour everywhere our "local" birds would be white! 

I am not sure if anything is really diagnostic, but after the "impression and general colour" point to western - I think the barring on the primaries really seems like an unusual feature but "on" for Western... It also has pretty bold markings on all of the flight feathers (lots of barring down the primaries and secondaries) 

It's hard to see in many of the photos, but it also has some barring on the tail (visible here)... Eastern birds can show this, but it's a pro-western trait in my book. 

Over the years in Ontario I've had maybe ~15 "Dark Morph" Red-tails and ~3-4 "Rufous" Red-tails, so by the law of averages there must be a decent number of "Light morphs" around too, no? 

I have been trending away from doing much research before putting out blog posts ... I prefer to lay down what I know, and have someone else disagree if the situation calls for it. Feels like a great way to learn something to me. Let's see what happens! 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Ghosts from the Past

I get the impression that some birders go to great lengths to ensure they do not let it out that they have ever - or will ever - miss identify a bird. I thought I would buck the trend and pull out some old ontbirds postings where I've unquestionably made some mistakes. Not only that, but the level of confidence I had in some of my misfires is interesting in itself. If I were to put my OBRC hat on, I can also spot some items that would raise some red flags despite the claimed rarities. Let's take a look -

Baird's Sandpiper- Smithville Sewage Lagoons- Jun 2nd
Sun Jun 2 21:22:33 EDT 2002

   Today, June 2nd there was a breeding Plumaged BAIRD'S SANDPIPER in the

smallest pond of the Smithville Sewage Lagoons. Also in the pond were 14
WILSON'S PHALAROPE's and many other small "peeps".  Some of the Ducks in the
pong included an American Widgeon, a female Lesser Scaup along with many
Blue and Green winged Teal and Northern Shoveler's.

    Good Birding

Brandon Holden


I don't think I could tell the difference between Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers for a few years after this post, so the thought of calling a Baird's Sandpiper in spring is pretty ridiculous. 13 years later I still haven't seen a Baird's in spring. Many birders know that Baird's are a longer-winged peep than Semi or Least, so the assumption would be that I had goofed on a similarly long-winged White-rumped Sandpiper. Knowing the observation as I do, I think I was looking through my pages of the Sibley Guide, and just thought a very close (and sharp looking) Semipalmated Sandpiper matched the scaly pattern shown for Baird's in the book....

It is also easier for me to say this on my own post, but anytime anyone writes "Widgeon" instead of "Wigeon" my suspicion-o-meter goes up sharply.


Probable BARN OWL at La Salle- July 14th
Mon Jul 15 21:45:49 EDT 2002

    Yesterday, July 14th, I was at a Wedding at the Pavillion at La Salle

Park in Burlington. I was standing outside talking to realitives when a
white-undersided Owl, slightly smaller than a Ring-billed gull, Flew past me
at 10:56pm. By the flight style, size and colour the only bird I can think
that it was is a Barn Owl.  But considering the short look I had (and poor
Look) I can't be 100% certian.

I will look for it again tomarrow morning, and hopefully I will see it


Good Birding

Brandon Holden


It was a Ring-billed Gull. I have since learned that RBGU's flying around a night have a very owl-like GISS... White-undersided Owl - no... White-undersided Gull - yes.

Also - I have thankfully learned how to use the spell checker since this time.


Royal Tern: Long Point

Sun Sep 22 20:46:52 EDT 2002

    Today, September 22nd, my Mother and I decided to stop at Long Point
before going to Hawk Cliff. We got to Big Creek at about 7:20am and we
slowly walked to the viewing platform. Here I believe I saw a ROYAL TERN,
description below.

At roughly 8am I noticed a large Tern hunting in a small pond roughly 40
meters west of the Platform.

First I will note that the bird was an adult, because of the uniform gray
above its wings.

I immediately noticed the amount of white on its forehead. There was an
entirely white patch from the top of its bill, to behind it's eye. After
that, there was a black band around the back of its head.

I also noted that the birds bill was a dull red, almost orange. Not the deep
red of many Caspian's.

Also, the bird's wings had very little, almost no, black on the tips above
or below. There was a little bit along the outer edge of the wing tips, but
that was all.

It later flew close to a Caspian Tern, and then chased the Caspian for about
30 seconds. I noticed then that the bird was a very little bit smaller than
the Caspian. It also appeared to be a bit more slender as well.

The tail was notched. But I did not notice if it was more or less forked
then the Caspian Terns.

It flew about the pond for about 40 minutes. It hunted the entire time and I
had the chance to compare it with both Caspian and Forster's Terns. It
eventually moved to different ponds, hunting for a short time in each one
until it moved out of sight. We had excellent lighting conditions because of
the clear morning and the suns position.

Good Birding

Brandon Holden


Pretty good description for a Royal Tern - if I were to read this as if someone else wrote it. Since this time, I've seen enough (slight) Variation in Caspian Terns to learn that sometimes it's hard to see the black on the underwings of these birds, some in the fall have a LOT of white on their heads, and one bird can appear slimmer than another. Today I do not think (at all) that I have seen a Royal Tern in Ontario...


Sat, 20 Sep 2003 19:23:59 -0400 (EDT)

    There was a Juvenile LEAST TERN, at the foot of Prospect Point Rd. West of 
Fort Erie along the Lake Erie shoreline. I saw it at
around 10:45am, and no sooner than 2 minutes later it took flight, heading to 
the east. (which was very disappointing). While it may
not be seen from this location again, it might show up somewhere along the Erie 
shoreline with groups of gulls.

Good Birding



It' hard to pass judgement on this posting - which has virtually no information - but I think my only criteria used was "boy, that tern looks really small". I think I went as far as NOT submitting an OBRC report due to the brevity of the sighting (true story, a local homeowner came down with pressing questions about Pink Swans when the bird flew away and wasn't seen again). This was right after Hurricane Isabel, and the bird was in rough shape (presumably having weathered the high winds locally) but I have virtually no reason to believe/understand why it wasn't just a Common or Forester's Tern.


Well there we have it. I had a lot of fun pulling some old posts... Now that my reputation is ruined, we'll see how my birding-career plays out going forwards. I am quite certain I had once posted to ontbirds about a "flock of Harlequin Ducks" from Van Wagner's Beach - which were unquestionably Surf Scoters - but I can't find it!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

1st basic Herring X Great Black-backed Gull hybrid

I was treated to a rare sight while condo-birding on Nov 11 (2015) - a young (first year, first basic, first cycle, firstwhocares) Herring X Great Black-backed Gull hybrid.

This combo seems to be surprisingly regular on the Great Lakes - and when I say regular, I mean "rare, but I see far too many hybrids and not enough vagrants" sorta way. It is the 2nd one I've had this year from my place alone...

Typically I (we?) see adult birds, where their intermediate mantle shades make them stand out - tricking birders into calling them Vega, Western or even Slaty-backed Gulls... I have seen the occasional 3rd year bird as well... Only once before have I confidently said I've had a 1st year bird, and I don't mean to toot my own horn or anything but I'm inclined to say there aren't very many documented individuals of this age class (??). 

Anyways - it was an interestingly mottled (underneath) young gull... Not really like any of our regular gulls.. 

The dark wings gave it a strong LBBG or GBBG feel 

The white rump was all LBBG or GBBG too 

But it had that bit of a pale inner primary window, unlike GBBG or LBBG. Also a bit of a browner wash than I would expect for GBBG - although maybe within range for LBBG

It's hard to tell from the photos - but it was also a BIG bird, unlike LBBG

You can get a sense of the really wide wing (big bird) in this photo. ALso check out that tail - all dark - very much unlike GBBG. The molt timing (into 1st basic) is not like the LBBG's that are around right now. 

Long heavy bill gave credence to GBBG parentage... 

It is impossible to say a bird has HERG "giss" i would think, considering how variable they are - but it matches the pattern of GBBGxHERG hybrids perhaps being the most common hybrid we have around here in April through November. (Perhaps Nelson's is more common in winter). 

The checkered/streaky/blotchy pattern is more like Vega Gull or European Herring Gull - but the molt pattern is waay off for Vega (would still be juv garb) and Euro-Herring would not have a dark tail (plus the bigger GBBG ish giss helps separate it). 

Yellow-legged Gull is an interesting notion, especially with the molt timing - but a big michahellis YLGU would not have that dark tail. 

LBBGxHERG is another notion to consider, but once again I suspect that hybrid combo would occur in the far north (Baffin/Greenland north) and young birds should be in juv garb. The bulk is also pro-GBBG and con-LBBG, although perhaps not quite as useful as one might think, given that rarely hybrid gulls seem to have some gigantism issues. 

SO - for someone who enjoys gulls as much as I do - it was a pretty exciting bird.