Friday, July 31, 2015

CMFs vs OBRC - Even 1000 words won't save you

The 2015-2016 OBRC is just getting started on rare-bird related issues. This will be my fifth year as a voting member and sixth in a row with involvement in the OBRC (I did a mediocre job as secretary during my mandatory year off). I first served as chair for the 2012-2013 period, and wanted to do my best to improve the committee to better serve the birders who take time to submit reports and materials. It was an interesting learning experience! I found that the 90% of the community didn't really seem to care, but 9% had some serious complaints, and 1% had some great ideas on what could be improved (90-9-1).  Many things were changed and some were shot down on site... Overall I would say that the internal process has seen the greatest improvements, largely thanks to one person. Things will evolve over time, but for now I was hoping to write a bit about what may be the most common complaint/issue with the OBRC and how there may be no way to fix the issue.


CMFs vs OBRC - Mega rare birds and the review process.

I'm going to use my own experiences to prove that no matter what, things aren't going to go your way. A common variant on the "rejected record" complaint (now insufficient evidence) is:

"The OBRC members are all buddies, they accept their own but reject everyone else's records unless they get a photo". 

I know it is a select few who feel this way, but I found my own situation interesting enough to blog about. I went through and made a tally of my "best" bird finds, not just OBRC reportable, but the rarest of the rare, and created a tally of Accepted/Non-accepted Photographed/not photographed. Here's how it shakes down:

Accepted -

Black-tailed Gull
Black Swift
Carolina Chickadee
Sooty/Short-tailed Shearwater
Neotropic Cormorant x 4
Snowy Plover
Ross's Gull

Partially Accepted -

(Leach's) Storm-Petrel (not accepted to species level)
(Kamchatka) Mew Gull (only accepted as Mew Gull)

Not Accepted -

Brown-chested Martin
Glaucous-winged Gull
Little Stint
Lazuli Bunting

Photographed - 

Black-tailed Gull
Black Swift
Carolina Chickadee
Sooty/Short-tailed Shearwater
Neotropic Cormorant x 4
Snowy Plover
Glaucous-winged Gull
Lazuli Bunting

Not Photographed -

Ross's Gull
Leach's Storm-Petrel
Kamchatka Mew Gull
Brown-chested Martin
Little Stint

Let's run the numbers:

My fully accepted rate: 54%

Fully or partially accepted rate: 69%

Rejected rate: 31%


Accepted when photographed: 86%

Accepted when not photographed (partial): 50%

Accepted when not photographed (fully): 17%

Another interesting element would be the "single observer" element, which I feel dramatically decreases the odds of having a report accepted. I do a lot of birding on my own; but my photography acts as the "proof" in many of my records. It was one of the original reasons why I started taking pictures in the first place. If I had been alone, and without a camera - I shutter to think how many of these records would have been accepted at all. 

So what's the purpose of this blog post? They say a picture is worth a 1000 words, but even a 1000 word OBRC report may not be enough to save your sighting. It kinda sucks, but it's true. Looking back through the database, there are several "single observer, no photo's" type records that automatically raise suspension, based on those two facts alone. I often have two trains of thought when thinking about the issue:

For my personal records: 

"Why are my photographed birds identified correctly and accepted, but my sight-only records insufficient and rejected? Does the committee think my eyes are faulty?" 

then I switch to this:

"Why do we keep track of written-only reports in the first place"? 

I don't want to encourage anyone from NOT writing reports. Keep on doing it! But I can't deny the value of material evidence seems much greater than a written account. If anything, the writing should be in support of material evidence. Perhaps a media-only bird records database is a topic for another time...

I hope this serves as proof that this issue is not only real, but it (now) affects everyone nearly equally during the review process. Bad records get accepted and good birds fall through the cracks. I've thought about taking my ball and going home, but that doesn't help anything. After all, it's just bird records.

Does this change your perspective at all on the review process? Anyone have similar thoughts/issues that aren't discussed here?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Comparison of the Great Appalachian Storm (1950) and Post-tropical Hurricane Sandy (2012) Surface Analyses

Previously on the blog (from the November 2014 issue of the Wood Duck) we looked at a historical birding event and how the weather likely played an integral part in bringing a number of remarkable birds to the Hamilton Study Area (Holden, 2014) – check out the citation list if you missed it! 


The star of the show was some remarkable observations of the Thick-billed Murre Uria lomvia and the producer was the Great Appalachian storm of 1950. This storm was one of the strongest extratropical cyclones to be recorded in our region for this time of year, and also had an unusual track that brought it ashore and retrograding westwards over the southern Great Lakes. Reproduced below is a surface analysis map of the system on 26 November 1950. 

Figure 1. The Great Appalachian storm near peak intensity (978-980mb) on 26 November 1950 (Wikipedia 2015). 

Sometime after the publication of the November 2014 Wood Duck I was continuing my study of powerful cyclones and their implications to birding when I noticed some remarkable similarities between this storm and the infamous Hurricane Sandy of 2012. Ken Burrell and I had previously completed a summary of events and noteworthy bird observations on the Hurricane Sandy event which helped me to identify some of the commonalities (Holden and Burrell, 2014). Hamilton birders who were present at Van Wagner’s Beach during the morning of 30 October 2012 will not soon forget the swirling flocks of Black-legged Kittiwakes, Jaegers and remarkable Storm-Petrels that passed by that morning. Presented here is a surface analysis map from that very morning from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).

Figure 2. Post-tropical Hurricane Sandy on 30 October 2012 (NOAA 2015). 

Interestingly both maps show very large and powerful storms, both have large occluded* fronts passing over the Hamilton area, and both have recently moved from westward (inland) from the Atlantic coastline! Given that our prevailing winds are southwesterly, perhaps the most significant feature here is that both cyclones have gone east to west – a highly unusual direction for a storm to travel in our part of the world. Combined that with the fact that they’re both remarkably strong, we have a one-two punch that was undoubtedly the cause of some great birds gracing our shores.

While both of these cyclones were directed westwards by a blocking ridge of high pressure to the north, among other complicated factors, it should also mention that there are numerous differences between them. Major Hurricane Sandy was a fully tropical cyclone for most of its life, only transitioning to a Post-Tropical cyclone shortly before impacting our area. This is in contrast to the fully extratropical nature of the Great Appalachian Storm. In meteorological terms this is the equivalent of applies to oranges, if not greater (perhaps the fine details would be better suited for a different article). Nonetheless I have found the similarities to be another exciting little discovery in my look at the meteorological world and how it relates to the birds we see. Stealing from my last article; if I ever see anything like this occurring in the future, I will be one “sick day” away from some great birding!

* An Occluded front occurs where a “cold front” overtakes a “warm front” at the earth’s surface

Literature cited:

Holden, B.R. 2014. Reverse Engineering an Historical Birding Event. The Wood Duck 68(3):7-8. Available online at

Holden, B.R. and K.G.D. Burrell. 2014. A birding perspective and analysis of Hurricane Sandy in Ontario, Autumn 2012. Ontario Birds. 32(1):12-22. Available online at

NOAA. 2015. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association – Weather prediction Center. WPC Surface Analysis Archive for the United States (CONUS) 1500z 30 October 2012. Retrieved from Accessed by Brandon Holden on 6 February 2015.

Wikipedia. 2015. Great Appalachian Storm of November 1950. retrieved from Wikimedia Foundation, accessed by Brandon Holden on 6 February 2015.

Monday, July 27, 2015

2015 BIG YEAR - June Update

June 2015

This is the sixth 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)-

Canada Goose  15
Mallard  4
White-winged Scoter  4
Double-crested Cormorant  50
Killdeer  1
Caspian Tern  15
Common Tern  20
Mourning Dove  1
Chimney Swift  2
Northern Rough-winged Swallow  2
Purple Martin  1
Barn Swallow  2
American Robin  1
European Starling  2
Yellow Warbler  1
Chipping Sparrow  1
Song Sparrow  1
Northern Cardinal  1
Red-winged Blackbird  2
Common Grackle  2
House Finch  2
American Goldfinch  2
House Sparrow  5

Total species - 23

Total ebird checklists - 1

Best birds of the month: N/A

Useless seasonal rarities: White-winged Scoter is kinda late? 

Highlight "big year" birds:  N/A

Checklists of the month:

#1 - (unquestionably my only checklist)
#2 - N/A
#3 - N/A

Total species added to the big year this month: 0

Big year total to date: 168

Target species going forwards: July will be a bit of a write off as well.... Heck, it's almost over, so I'll save it until then! I would have guessed that shorebirds would be my only shot at new species in July, but rarities can happen anytime so who knows!

eBird targets - Field Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, Pied-billed Grebe, Ovenbird, Wilson's Snipe, Pectoral Sandpiper - are some of the reasonable species listed.

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 |



I... I... uh... wasn't home. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

Identification of 1st and 2nd year Neotropic Cormorants: Case Study

Neotropic Cormorant at Point Pelee (Tip), 13 May 2014

The ID of the bird appearing in this blog post was recently questioned by some American birder, and I had very little to offer in terms of field marks supporting it... I called the beast in flight at the tip of Pelee in 2014 as it passed by at close range with two Double-crested Cormorants (DCCO). Concern was raised that the structure was off for Neotropic Cormorant (NECO) and better suited DCCO - especially the tail looking too short. There was whispers that a lack of field marks definitively supporting NECO sealed the deal and the record should be located, taken out back, and shot without hesitation. 

Now I may take my bird ID less seriously than many high-horse-birder types, but my self-found rarity finding/identifying lists are rather important to me, so I took up the charge (in the name of Science) and - for the first time - began to actually look at this bird in detail (rather than ignore & move on). 

First, some photos - then some thoughts:

The culmination of some rather extensive research undertaken by Mr. Pawlicki and I. It's a bit embarrassing to say that I never really gave this bird much of a second thought on fine/proper ID points, but in the end I had a blast as we worked through various/potential ID criteria. The blog post may be a bit biased towards my own thoughts, but I did write it after all:


How long does it take NECO's to mature? New Jersey has only two records of NECO, and it's of the same bird (one can only assume) that returned to the same ponds in 2014 and again in 2015. 

Here it is in 2014: 

And on the same freakin branch in 2015:

Not that it does NOT look like a glossy/fancy black adult with a tidy white facial border. Therefore these things take three or more years to mature. This will be important later. 

Tail length:

NECOs have relatively longer tails than DCCOs. My warning is that photos - especially without context, can be misleading. The Pelee-14 bird is about as misleading as possible because it is not only FLYING AWAY, but it is also turning it's head back to look at me as I wildly swing my camera towards it. The body&tail are angled away, looking shorter - than the head/neck which is parallel (looking longer and heavier). Given that the ID of this bird was in question, the onus was on me to find clear NECO's showing shorter tails. I found them:

Probably one of the best examples:

Head Features:

Next, we move onto the head. I've chosen five features to discuss, but first wanted to discuss that the time of year is also important in using these marks. When young cormorants are still in the nest, or just recently fledged - the can look quite different. These young DCCO's have black lores and black marks down their bills and their facial skin is shaped differently than older birds:

The features i'm discussing will relate to birds that are at least several months old (think "May" - like the Pelee bird we've discussed): 

A - Bill Colour-

Young NECO's often have pinkish bills, rarely going yellow or otherwise. DCCO's often have yellow, especially on the lower mandible. This is a "general" mark and in no way diagnostic. There is a LOT of variation out there. 

Here is the "general" look in young NECO - 

General look for young DCCO:

Again, it's variable - but I think the Pelee bird is spot on for standard NECO (especially in May).

B - Throat Pouch Colouration:

Same thoughts on time of year. The standard look of NECO is to have a little patch of yellowish-peach skin, almost square in shape. Not extending much further (closer to the tip of the bill) than below the eye. DCCO typically has extensive yellow covering most of their throat/skin and bleeding onto the bill itself. 
Standard NECO fare with a yellow patch/square: 

Standard DCCO fare with yellow bleeding elsewhere:

No doubt you will find a LOT of variation out there on a bird-by-bird basis, so be careful with it - but overall the Pelee bird is very much in the NECO-camp and would be unusual for DCCO.

C - Pointed facial skin:

This is a common field mark to look out for, with NECO showing pointed and DCCO showing - not pointed ? - but it is highly variable. The Pelee bird matches NECO, but you will find a lot of young DCCO out there with a similar feature. 

D - Whiteish feather border to the facial Skin:
Another field-guide field-mark, this is shown readily by both species. Heck, just check out the photo I shared for the throat colour of DCCO - 
That bird has pointed skin and a paler feathered border too! It is another feather that matches NECO - even if it is also shown by DCCO, so for case study purposes I'll just move on... 

E - Lore colour 

NECO typically does not show yellow lores. DCCO almost always shows bright yellow skin in the lores. Especially in May. I've discussed how baby DCCO's can have black lores, and there is the potential that feathers/fuzz can seemingly grow overtop of the loral skin, but 99.9% of the time DCCO will show a bright orange/yellow patch of skin on the lores sometimes extensive. NECO can seemingly show yellowish skin here at times (often peachy), but not like DCCO.

NECO fare - 

DCCO fare - 

I chalk this up as a very strong feature for the Pelee bird as NECO 

F - Overall Impression

A copout field mark here. I've discussed how each of these field marks have varying amounts of overlap between the two species, but when all taken into account they can strongly point to one species or another. The odds of having a bird with: Pinkish bill, small yellow patch at the top of the throat and dull lores being anything but a NECO is extremely unlikely. 

Feather Shape:

We really looked hard at this feature, something I had never seen/noticed before. NECO has more pointed body feathers/coverts than DCCO. Sometimes obviously. Check out the differences in this photo:

I was shocked at how different the two species are. This photo of the Pelee bird showed rather rounded feathers, which had me worried. Yet this photo shows feathers that look more pointed... I did some digging and ended up using the New Jersey bird as a case study. In 2014 it had rather rounded feathers:

In 2015, it was decidedly more pointed:

This age difference was really interesting to me. If you had really good photos, it could potentially help separate these confusing 1st or 2nd year birds... It was also pointed out that the Pelee bird appears to be molting, so new feathers coming in should be more pointed - but perhaps they get more pointed as they age? This leads me to my next though:

Molt Timing:

I have no knowledge of Cormorant molt but I read the birds of north america online account to see if molt gave any hints. It looks like DCCO can be molting just about anytime, especially with populations from Florida to James Bay and beyond - BUT - young DCCOs really shouldn't be molting coverts in May according to the account:

""First Basic" or "Basic I" plumage of Humphrey and Parkes (1959) and later authors; see revision by Howell et al. (2003). Present primarily Dec-Jun. Similar to Juvenal Plumage but juvenal feathers of head, neck, and breast become increasingly bleached through winter and spring, to pale brown or whitish, variably mixed with scattered fresher, darker brown, glossier, and more-rounded formative feathers. Ornamental crest plumes not developed or rudimentary at best. Juvenal upperwing coverts, primaries, and rectrices retained, increasingly worn and bleaching to paler brown"

Neotropic didn't have a detailed account like DCCO, but it shows May as being a primary time for molt... I have no experience with this, but I like that it supports the ID of the Pelee bird as NECO. 


After a LOT of looking at online photos, it is possible to find some very difficult birds out there. Very difficult indeed. There are even hybrids! Not to mention the baby DCCO's that look rather odd as they come out of the nest.

So what about the Pelee bird? I think the finer details are in support of the identification as Neotropic. The bare part colouration on the face/bill may be bordering on diagnostic when all considered together. Yes, the birds tail looks short in the photos. If you think it looks too short, you'll always think it looks too short. I think it's a bit of photo trickery due to the angle of the birds body, head, and the angle I was shooting at - and I'll always think that... We also noticed it looks to be molting the tail feathers which may screw with the impression as well...

Only one "field mark" remains that wasn't valid for our photo interp - I actually saw the bird in real life. In my recent years voting on the OBRC I've learned to try and understand and appreciate that factor when reviewing reports. The suggestion of non-NECO features come from four photos appearing on this page here: (prior to this blog post adding more)... It was pretty freakin obvious to those of us who saw it fly past at 50ft with two DCCO's at close range...  Yet I know I was very guilty in never doing any additional looking/research and had no additional details to provide when asked. That shows the questions raised about the photos were 100% justified. Presumably it was accepted by the OBRC without a whole lot of research as well (I know I didn't do it). In the end it was a lot of fun as we dug into these features and tested them out. Maybe this mish-mash of thoughts will help someone else somewhere/someday as they too enjoy ugly non-adult Cormorants around the Great Lakes!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Cave Swallow, Petrochelidon fulva, in Ontario, 1989-2014

An edited version of this has previously been published in Ontario Birds


This note documents the occurrence of the Cave Swallow (Petrochelidon fulva) in Ontario, looking back through 25 years of data from eBird, which contains the complete set of accepted records from the Ontario Bird Records Committee (OBRC). This is not a comprehensive look at all published occurrences of the species in Ontario, but an overview of some easily accessible electronic data. With this information, we examine a brief history of occurrence, identification, trends in the data and some thoughts on what the future may hold for the species in the province. 

The Cave Swallow was first documented in Ontario at Point Pelee National Park on 21 April 1989 by Alan Wormington (Wormington and Curry 1990), which remains an exceptional spring record today. Nine years later, Alan would document the second provincial record, scarcely a few hundred metres from the first, from 7-9 December 1998 (Dobos 1999). The next chapter of the species’ history in Ontario began on 2 November 1999 when Kevin A. McLaughlin recorded an astonishing five Cave Swallows flying together inside Point Pelee National Park (Roy 2000). This was the first of fifteen records from 1999 accepted by the OBRC, constituting a total of 86 individuals from 2-6 November, capping off the provinces first “invasion”. 

Identification of the Cave Swallow can be straightforward, often aided by the calendar as much as visual field marks. A medium-sized swallow with a square tail, the Cave Swallow has a buffy throat, forehead and rump, dark wings and tail, with a white belly. Late in the fall, young-of-the-year are readily recognized by their suspended primary molt, with fresh dark inner primaries contrasting against the more faded outer primaries. (Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1. A first basic Cave Swallow at Point Pelee National Park, 13 November 2012, showing light outer primaries contrasting with light inner primaries. Photo by Brandon R. Holden.

Figure 2. A first basic Cave Swallow at Point Pelee National Park 13 November 2012. Photo by Brandon R. Holden.

While all swallows found in Ontario are fundamentally similar, confusion generally exists between Cave Swallows and the more common and closely related Cliff Swallow (P. pyrrhonota). Adult Cliff Swallows are distinguished by a combination of their dark throat, pale foreheads and generally more contrasting appearance (Figure 3). Adult Cliff Swallows from the southwestern regions (P. p. melanogaster) of their range show rusty foreheads, much like Cave Swallow although this subspecies is currently unrecorded in the province. These “southwestern” birds should be considered (especially in spring) when potentially encountering a vagrant Cave Swallow. Here it would be important to note the finer plumage details of a potential vagrant, as the southwestern Cliff Swallow will have a darker throat than the Cave Swallow. In the fall, juvenile Cliff Swallows can show dark or dusky foreheads with pale throat patterns. They are generally less buffy-orange than Cave Swallows, and do not show the contrasting primaries expected by the young-of-the-year Cave Swallows that have been recorded in Ontario in late fall. As noted, the majority of Cave Swallow records in Ontario occur from late October through November; long after most Cliff Swallows have left our borders. A large group of Petrochelidon swallows observed in November are likely to be Cave Swallows. It is with single or observations outside of the traditional late-fall window that require extended study and careful consideration when separating these species, subspecific vagrant or late Cliff Swallows must be considered when documenting a sighting. 

Figure 3. An alternate Cliff Swallow at Point Pelee National Park, 9 May 2010. Photo by Brandon R. Holden

Since the initial records (1989, 1998) and the invasion (1999), Ontario birders have recorded Cave Swallows in ten of the subsequent 15 years. Large invasions have been observed in 1999, 2005, 2008, 2010 (the largest) and 2012. When compiling records from the OBRC database from 1990-2009, we found a total of 63 accounting for 188 individuals documented. In 2010, the Cave Swallow was formally removed from the OBRC review list for southern Ontario, ceasing documentation from 2010-present. For these years, an additional 50 records were taken from eBird for 2010-2014 (eBird 2015). Total records by year (not individual birds) are graphed in Figure 4.

Figure 4. Cave Swallow records by year in Ontario using data from the OBRC and eBird. Annual data show dramatic swings in year-to-year occurrence. A linear trend-line shows that records are increasing. 

Thanks to documentation provided in OBRC reports, eBird and associated materials, we have a better understanding of the factors involved with these spectacular invasions. Powerful and far reaching southerly winds, with associated warm temperatures in October and November, have been a precursor to these irruptions. The record high count for Ontario (148 individuals) occurred on 26 October 2012 at Fifty Point Conservation Area in Grimsby, which was remarkable in that all birds passed east to west within three hours of observation that morning (eBird 2015). The flight abruptly stopped as a cold front swept through causing the skies to cloud over, a shift to westerly winds and temperatures to drop. The record event in 2010 was associated with an exceptional extratropical storm over the western Great Lakes (Figure 5), where the all-time North American land-based record for low pressure was broken (NOAA 2015). Long Point seemed to be the epicenter of the 2010 event, where counting exact numbers proved difficult as large numbers passed through the entire area.

Once large numbers of Cave Swallows have reached our borders, there is occasionally a “return” flight as north winds blow birds back to the northern shores of the lower Great Lakes. Prince Edward County, Erieau and Point Pelee National Park have been notable locations to receive such birds (pers. obs.). 

Figure 5. This record breaking extratropical cyclone in late October 2010 was responsible for bringing many Cave Swallows to Ontario (NOAA 2015). 

Determining noteworthy geographic patterns can be challenging in a province as large as Ontario, where the human population is heavily situated around the lower Great Lakes. Yet, here a pattern emerges, with the majority of records occurring along the shorelines of the lower Great Lakes throughout the various invasions. Locations of records, not accounting for total numbers of individuals, have been plotted in Figure 6.

Figure 6. General distribution of Cave Swallow records in Ontario (in red).  

We predict that Cave Swallows will continue to appear in Ontario whenever powerful weather systems bring appropriate surges of warm southerly air during late fall. Numbers have seemingly risen since the initial invasion in 1999, but having very few birds in recent years (2011, 2013 and 2014) makes it difficult to determine if the increase in numbers will continue. Without a doubt, our knowledge of the species will continue to grow with observers ready to detect new arrivals more readily than ever. Outside of the “traditional” late fall window are two spring records of single birds, which is perhaps a timeframe when birders are not expecting the species to occur and may be under recorded. We encourage birders to contribute records to readily accessible databases such as the OBRC and eBird, which were instrumental in the creation of this account. 

Literature cited:

Dobos, R.Z. 1999. Ontario Bird Records Committee Report for 1998. Ontario Birds 17(2):62-83.

NOAA. 2015. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, October 26-27th, 2010 Record Low Pressure, Strong Winds, and Early Season Snowfall. Available online at Accessed on 9 February 2015. 

Roy, K.J. 2000. Ontario Bird Records Committee Report for 1989. Ontario Birds 18(2):53-72.

Wormington, A. and R.H. Curry. 1990. Ontario Bird Records Committee Report for 1999. Ontario Birds 8(1):4-33. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

2015 BIG YEAR - May Update

May 2015

This is the fifth 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)-

Canada Goose - 250
Wood Duck - 30
Gadwall - 7
American Black Duck - 1
Mallard - 158
Northern Shoveler - 7
Redhead - 4
Greater Scaup - 22
Lesser Scaup - 27
Surf Scoter - 170
White-winged Scoter - 1028
Long-tailed Duck - 1681
Hooded Merganser - 2
Red-breasted Merganser - 209
Ruddy Duck - 10
Wild Turkey - 2
Red-throated Loon - 7
Common Loon - 69
Horned Grebe - 2
Double-crested Cormorant - 1125
Great Blue Heron - 12
Great Egret - 1
Green Heron - 1
Black-crowned Night-Heron - 19
Turkey Vulture - 9
Osprey - 4
Sharp-shinned Hawk - 3
Cooper's Hawk - 4
Bald Eagle - 5
Broad-winged Hawk - 7
Red-tailed Hawk - 1
Black-bellied Plover - 5
Semipalmated Plover - 2
Killdeer - 15
Spotted Sandpiper - 7
Solitary Sandpiper - 1
Lesser Yellowlegs - 52
Whimbrel - 45
Dunlin - 156
Semipalmated Sandpiper - 17
Short-billed Dowitcher - 1
American Woodcock - 1
Bonaparte's Gull - 231
Little Gull - 2
Ring-billed Gull - 665
Herring Gull - 146
Great Black-backed Gull - 14
Caspian Tern - 195
Common Tern - 375
Rock Pigeon - 18
Mourning Dove - 40
Common Nighthawk - 1
Chimney Swift - 195
Ruby-throated Hummingbird - 17
Belted Kingfisher - 3
Red-headed Woodpecker - 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker - 2
Downy Woodpecker - 3
Northern Flicker - 13
American Kestrel - 1
Peregrine Falcon - 1
Eastern Wood-Pewee - 3
Alder Flycatcher - 1
Willow Flycatcher - 1
Great Crested Flycatcher - 1
Eastern Kingbird - 62
Warbling Vireo - 9
Red-eyed Vireo - 3 
Blue Jay - 2810
American Crow - 28
Fish Crow - 1
Horned Lark - 2
Northern Rough-winged Swallow - 114
Purple Martin - 66
Tree Swallow - 179
Bank Swallow - 438
Barn Swallow - 390
Cliff Swallow - 167
Black-capped Chickadee - 15
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher - 6
Ruby-crowned Kinglet - 5
Eastern Bluebird - 12
Swainson's Thrush - 1
Wood Thrush - 1
American Robin - 174
Gray Catbird - 2
Brown Thrasher - 1
Northern Mockingbird - 1
European Starling - 935
American Pipit - 2
Cedar Waxwing - 1839
Northern Waterthrush - 1
Tennessee Warbler - 4
Nashville Warbler - 12
Common Yellowthroat - 2
American Redstart - 8
Northern Parula - 1
Bay-breasted Warbler - 2
Blackburnian Warbler - 1
Yellow Warbler - 40
Chestnut-sided Warbler - 1
Blackpoll Warbler - 2
Palm Warbler - 13
Yellow-rumped Warbler - 77
Prairie Warbler - 1
Wilson's Warbler - 2
Chipping Sparrow - 56
Song Sparrow - 13
White-throated Sparrow - 14
White-crowned Sparrow - 8
Northern Cardinal - 13
Rose-breasted Grosbeak - 4
Indigo Bunting - 12
Bobolink - 26
Red-winged Blackbird - 3301
Eastern Meadowlark - 1
Rusty Blackbird - 20
Common Grackle - 1271
Brown-headed Cowbird - 511
Orchard Oriole - 2
Baltimore Oriol- 37
House Finch - 35
Purple Finch - 16
Pine Siskin - 259
American Goldfinch - 1700
House Sparrow - 65

Total species - 130

Total ebird checklists - 24

Best birds of the month: Prairie Warbler, Fish Crow, Whimbrels, Little Gulls, Red-headed Woodpecker,

Useless seasonal rarities: none really. Everything is "in season" in May!

Highlight "big year" birds: rarities aside - WILD TURKEY (!!!), Wood Thrush, Northern Mockingbird.. Lots really... That's May for ya.

Checklists of the month:

#1 - (first decent dirunal migration of neotrop's)
#2 - (shorebirds & a nice mix)
#3 - (OBRC rare, condo rare, and a great day with m'lady)

Total species added to the big year this month: 55

Big year total to date: 168

Target species going forwards: June is off the table. Check back for the June into July update

eBird needs alerts - I missed some. House Wren, Swamp Sparrow, Veery, Canada Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Field Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, Ovenbird, and more... Some of these could really sting come December...

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 



It was May! It was awesome! A big year is a very serious commitment, and I may never forgive myself, but I clearly missed the best days of May. Some were unavoidable for "life" reasons. While others I totally broke down and went to Pelee to find some awesome rarities there instead...  Overall I probably missed the best 5-7 days of birding in the entire year. I may never forgive myself...

Anyways - it was my first taste of being at home and watching the morning migrations. It is much harder to ID birds in flight at my condo than, say, at the tip of Point Pelee. The light angle is worse and the birds are farther away, harder to predict and harder to find. Still, I was darn impressed with the haul including Red-bellied and Red-headed Woodpeckers, Orchard Orioles, Northern Mockingbird etc. I wasn't really sure what to expect, but there was just enough to really crank the list higher.

I also think I was quite lucky getting "condo-rare" birds. Wild Turkey was not on the radar. In no way, shape or form. Talk about excitement. I just can't get some "woodland" birds from the 17th floor, but I was impressed with my haul (N. Waterthrush, Wood & Swainson's Thrushes etc). Many of these birds were new for my all-time condo list, pushing it to 199!!!

Shorebirds put in a decent showing with 11 species. Considering I live on the shore of Lake Ontario, I'm always a bit surprised how FEW shorebirds I actually see... Hopefully I'll pull a few more species in the fall. June is a total write-off, so I'll worry about those fall birds later!

May 2nd

May 3rd

May 5th

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Snowy Owl Perch Selection in Cold Weather

The winter of 2013-2014 was remarkable in eastern North America for an unprecedented southward movement of Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus) with high counts around Ontario and records extending far into the southern USA (ebird 2013). It has been theorized that this movement was related to an excellent breeding season in northern Quebec, due to very high populations of small mammals (Mactavish 2013). This article examines an interesting behavior noted among a large concentration of Snowy Owls during a particularly cold period from January 21-22, 2014.

During January 2014, I spent multiple days conducting field work on Wolfe Island, Frontenac; a known location for high winter raptor concentrations (Weir 2008). The island was driven in a grid pattern, with locations, individuals, age and sex noted as the birds were observed. This served to prevent any sort of duplication when counting. While raptors in general were in very low numbers (pers obs), Snowy Owls were in particular abundance. Some sample high counts were 24 (Jan 15), 33 (Jan 22) and 23 (Jan 30). The high count on January 22 was obtained in a remarkable 3 hours from 2:30pm to 5:30pm; likely aided by a change in the birds’ typical behaviour. Immediately upon arriving at the island, I noted that the first individuals were all perched high in trees or telephone poles. The trend continued, were birds were typically perched at a height >3m for the next 150 minutes. The first individual found on the ground wasn’t until after sundown when a juvenile female was present on a high slope in a snow covered hayfield. She was the 26th individual of the day. Of the final 33 birds tallied, only 2 were on the ground and one additional bird was >2m up on a pile of lumber.

The weather from January 21-22, 2014 could be categorized as “very cold”. The Kingston Airport recorded a minimum temperature of -29C at 6am, with a wind-chill reading of -41C, on January 22 (Environment Canada 2014). During the survey period, temperatures ranged from -18C to -21C with wind-chills in the range of -26C to -28C. Winds were light (beaufort 2-3) and generally from the SW. Cloud cover was limited to a small area (20%) of thin high level cloud.

I theorized that the Snowy Owls had moved to higher perches to avoid sitting on the icy and snow-covered ground that dominated the Wolfe Island landscape. Extremely cold temperatures the previous night had warmed <10C during the daylight hours, leading me to believe that the birds had perhaps perched high to take advantage of the early morning sun and simply stayed there the entire day. The gentle breeze should not greatly affect the birds’ sensitivity to wind-chill. During the first 150 minutes of observation (23 birds observed) I did not note any individuals to be actively hunting, with the majority (>90%) not moving from their perch was I observed them. It wasn’t until dusk that I observed the two individuals on the ground, indicating they had possibly become active before I was able to observe them at their daytime roost location.

This interesting behaviour likely lead to 22 January 2014 being my highest count of Snowy Owls throughout the survey dates. My ability to detect them was greatly increased due to their preference of prominent perch locations, avoiding their typically camouflaged haunts low to the ground. This situation was likely compounded by the fact that there was an ample number of perches >3m for Snowy owls to choose from, after the 2013 Central and Eastern Canada ice storm damaged the tops of many trees throughout southern Ontario, including Wolfe Island (see; Coulson 2013). With that said observations before and after 22 January yielded lower counts of Snowy Owls, all of which had warmer maximum and minimum temperatures recorded.

These observations may give credence to the idea that days with temperatures well below the daily average could prove to be the ideal conditions for observers to detect Snowy Owls and/or conduct accurate counts of individuals present over a specific area.

Figure 1. Snowy Owl, Wolfe Island. 22 January 2014. Perched high on an ice damaged branch. Photo: Brandon R. Holden

Literature cited:

Coulson, G. 2013. Ontario Weather Review – December 2013. Environment Canada. 3pp.

eBird. 2013. Arctic wanderers – Snowy Owl invasion 2013. 11 December 2013. ( Accessed 23 January 2014.

Environment Canada. 2014. Climate Data Online. Retrieved from Accessed 22 January 2013.

Mactavish, B. 2013. “300 Snowy Owls in Newfoundland Weekend – An Explanation.” [Web log entry] The Bruce Mactavish Birding Newfoundland Blog. 11 December 2013. ( Accessed 23 January 2014.

Weir, R. 2008. Birds of the Kingston Region, 2nd edition. Kingston Field Naturalists. 611pp.