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. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The next one (weather)

Exciting weather of late! And another system is on tap.


A big dip in the jet over the western part of the continent is going to push a lot of warm air ahead of it. (Meridional flow)...


This is the classic Cave Swallow setup. It should be a very telling event to better understand the weather in relation to their movements  - primarily because Cave Swallows are already here! So what happens next? Do numbers continue to build? Is there an ever increasing number ready to move north, or will the "wave" (say, like spring Broad-winged Hawk migration) pass over us and leave us with less birds than before? That may be a bit of a stretch (especially because some will presumably move south again after each passing cold front) but I'm excited to see what shakes down.

Another unfolding story are these Franklin's Gulls - I noted that this last system looked pretty darn good for FRGU (in the comments, here) - but I'm not sure anyone could really predict why certain systems "pan out as expected" but others sometimes fall flat despite ideal setups. Anyhoot - with the FRGU, I am seeing a pattern in 2015 that the compounding effects of these weather events seem to be increasing FRGU sightings. Even before this big storm over the past few days, FRGU were turning up in unusual places... Then we had this monster low with far reaching winds - and huge numbers are being reported. 

Similar to my CASW questions I can't help but wonder - will the FRGU insanity continue? OR was this last system timed well enough with their final hurrah before getting ready to leave North America? Unlike CASW, will they just head south and no longer be "around" to feel the effects of the weather? Presumably they'll leave, but hopefully they take their sweet time in doing so. 

Wednesday morning again

The two lows in the above map are phasing and this system is going to rocket N fairly quickly:

Thursday am 

Not a whole lotta SW or W winds associated with the aftermath of this one...

Should be fun!

(Weds am again - hopefully condo CASW day) 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Mediocre Lakewatching at Fort Erie - 12 Nov 2015

With a gale warning in effect (45kt SW) and predicted waves up to 5m, Fort Erie was the place to be (for me). I arrived at 8am, and was entertained enough to stay in the exact same spot over 8 hours. This time I actually brought food though, which was good because it was boring as heck at times; so I entertained myself by eating... I was joined at various times by Josh Vandermeulen and Dan Riley.

The wind was strong all day, but didn't really kick it into overdrive until a trough passed overhead around 1pm. Winds gusted to nearly 50kt, and Bonaparte's Gulls finally started pushing in off Lake Erie - but there was precious little mixed in with them. Perhaps my biggest highlight was watching  the water levels rise and drop and rise again. Things were actually starting to look pretty hairy around Fort Erie and Buffalo by dusk, as several roads appeared to be closed.

Below is a screenshot of the buoy from offshore:

The "morning flight" of birds was not aided whatsoever by interesting weather, so I ended up watching the standard fare of gulls, ducks and cormorants wander in and out of the river - as well as a few feeding frenzies. Things started getting tossed around by 1pm (as noted) but there was a lack of unusual things about to keep one entertained as they were pushed in off the lake.

The list! -

Canada Goose  25
Gadwall  20
American Black Duck  25
Mallard  15
Northern Pintail  3
Redhead  6
Greater Scaup  30
Lesser Scaup  3
Surf Scoter  15
White-winged Scoter  20
Black Scoter  4
Long-tailed Duck  600
Bufflehead  2000
Common Goldeneye  85
Common Merganser  20
Red-breasted Merganser  225
Red-throated Loon  3
Common Loon  10
Horned Grebe  40
Red-necked Grebe  1
Double-crested Cormorant  400  
Red-tailed Hawk  1
Parasitic Jaeger  1  
Bonaparte's Gull  2000
Little Gull  6  
Ring-billed Gull  120
Herring Gull  25
Great Black-backed Gull  4
Peregrine Falcon  2  
American Crow  2
Black-capped Chickadee  3
Golden-crowned Kinglet  6
European Starling  20
House Sparrow  5

The skinny:

Lotsa Bufflehead
3 Red-throated Loons
1 Red-necked Grebe
1 Leucistic Milky/White Double-crested Cormorant
1 juv Parasitic Jaeger
6 adult Little Gulls
2 Peregrine Falcons

White one just right of centre

Buff City. 

Check out my ebird checklist for more commentary on numbers etc:

Still a fun day to be out there! Although I do  have a strong "went the wrong day" feeling as the winds continue....

Wall was damaged in ~5 places along the shoreline 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

2015 BIG YEAR - October Update

October 2015

This is the tenth 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 - 176
Mute Swan - 1
Trumpeter Swan - 1
Tundra Swan - 353
Gadwall - 2
American Wigeon - 275
American Black Duck - 69
Mallard - 421
Northern Shoveler - 55
Northern Pintail - 738
Green-winged Teal - 88
Redhead - 20
Greater Scaup - 295
Lesser Scaup - 50
Surf Scoter - 6070
White-winged Scoter - 7965
Black Scoter - 254
Long-tailed Duck - 20,550
Bufflehead - 152
Common Goldeneye - 417
Common Merganser - 8
Red-breasted Merganser - 307
Red-throated Loon - 12
Common Loon - 101
Horned Grebe - 2
Red-necked Grebe - 2
Double-crested Cormorant - 1160
Great Blue Heron - 3
Turkey Vulture - 1
Northern Harrier - 1
Sharp-shinned Hawk - 1
Cooper's Hawk - 1
Bald Eagle - 2
Red-tailed Hawk - 7
Black-bellied Plover - 1
Killdeer - 1
White-rumped Sandpiper - 2
Parasitic Jaeger - 1
Sabine's Gull - 1
Bonaparte's Gull - 110
Ring-billed Gull - 1210
Hering Gull - 368
Lesser Black-backed Gull - 6
Great Black-backed Gull - 36
Common Tern - 61
Rock Pigeon - 8
Mourning Dove - 85
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - 3
Downy Woodpecker - 3
Hairy Woodpecker - 1
Northern Flicker - 3
American Kestrel - 2
Merlin - 6
Peregrine Falcon - 7
Eastern Wood-Pewee - 1
Eastern Phoebe - 1
Blue-headed Vireo - 5
Blue Jay - 15
American Crow - 3
Black-capped Chickadee - 13
White-breasted Nuthatch - 1
Brown Creeper - 34
Winter Wren - 2
Golden-crowned Kinglet - 134
Ruby-crowned Kinglet - 36
Hermit Thrush - 4American Robin - 34
European Starling - 279
Cedar Waxwing - 2
Snow Bunting - 1
Orange-crowned Warbler - 1
Magnolia Warbler - 1
Palm Warbler - 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler - 34
Black-throated Green Warbler - 1
Chipping Sparrow - 11
Dark-eyed Junco - 124
White-crowned Sparrow - 38
White-throated Sparrow - 290
Song Sparrow - 3
Northern Cardinal - 3
Red-winged Blackbird - 152
Common Grackle - 3
Brown-headed Cowbird - 4
House Finch - 35
Common Redpoll - 40
Pine Siskin - 42
American Goldfinch - 38
House Sparrow - 105

Total species - 86

Total ebird checklists - 27

Best birds of the month: Sabine's Gull... Not much really

Useless seasonal rarities: Common Redpoll, Eastern Wood-Pewee

Highlight "big year" birds: rarities aside - Orange-crowned Warbler, Winter Wren, Hermit Thrush, White-rumped Sandpiper

Total species added to the big year this month: 6

Big year total to date: 194

Target species going forwards:  pretty much rares at this point. Snow Goose, Brant, Purple Sandpiper, Cave Swallow, Gannet, Harlequin Duck, Barrow's Gold, Pacific Loon, Black-legged Kittiwake... A few sorta-not-rares available though like Greater Yellowlegs, Short-eared Owl

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



I was guns blazing at the start of October. 50-70kph NE winds were in the forecast for days. DAYS I tell you. And there were no good waterbirds to show for it. I eventually scored 2 White-rumped Sandpipers (new for the condo, all time list now at 209), which were a tiny part of the "event" that grounded them in southern Ontario... But instead of basking in Kittiwake goodness, it was the passerines that kept me entertained (5 passerines new for the big year, including some previously notable admissions like Blue-headed Vireo, Hermit Thrush etc). 

After the torrid pace I was adding big-year-birds in late September and early October had me thinking that 200 was maybe slightly possible. Now my last new "year bird" for the big year was on Oct 11th... Since that time, the weather and birding have been decidedly dull around the condo... It could well be a vicious cycle where I start to lose interest in looking, and therefore see even less... I may need some motivation... Motivate me!!!

As the "target species" list shows above, the only birds I can score are genuine notable species around here, with perhaps greater odds of finding rarities (Kittiwake, Harlequin, Gannet, Cave Swallow) than any of the more common species in our region. Hopefully the weather cooperates and a few more "big" checklists are in store!

Oct 1

Oct 3

Oct 15

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Another Monster on the Way (Rarity Alert)

The gales of November - in Mid November.

GFS model run showing a mega 981mb low nearing the Great Lakes

I am starting to feel like a bit of a broken record, as we are roughly lined up with the storm track (of late) with phasing late fall low's putting us in the crosshairs. Instead of breaking down the weather right away, I've decided to toot my own horn instead:


Decidedly NOT a Cave Swallow storm (and limited passerine potential), noted in advance. Instead there was some great lake watching and something about a rare goose in eastern Ontario. Rarity alert sucess!


Looked far more suitable for Cave Swallows and associated passerines, although noted that it was not a slam dunk due to the timing of the storm and some local precip/fog. Regardless, some CASW were found on Lakes Ontario and Erie  and a freakin Bronzed Cowbird appeared in upstate New York. Rarity alert success!


SO with my tooting out of the way, let's break this one down!

Red - a moderate Colorado low is going to move NE, and will phase with 2 to 3 weak centres of low pressure pushing in from the NW (weaker lows in orange).

Due to the rapidly evolving nature of the cyclone there will likely be limited time in the Great Lakes for Cave Swallows (potentially worse than this last event), where suitable winds may occur overnight, but too late on Wednesday and rain spoils the fun on Thursday. The GOOD NEWS for Cave Swallow aficionado's is that they're already on the doorstep, so even a limited period of decent weather could yield a few birds (that is, of course, if you subscribe to the theory that they move north in stages, not unlike spring migrants).

The map above highlights the narrow/limited and short lived corridor of precipitation free airspace overnight from Weds-Thurs. The "all it takes is one bird" theory could be applied and some vagrants could be brought north on those winds, but overall it isn't looking as good as the most recent storm...

OF COURSE - it is important to remember that these maps are MODEL RUNS, meaning they are bound to change... If the storm slows down by 12 hours suddenly we could have a day of decent S winds (and sun) before having the rain fall overnight. Worth keeping an eye on!

The part that is much easier to predict, and the part that I'm more excited for is AFTER the system peaks and we are left with the blazing "witches brew" of SW to W winds pushing in from anywhere between Kansas and North Dakota right to Lake Erie. The low is going to be very strong and right over the Great Lakes, so things will be squally and awesome at your favourite waterbird spots. 

I'm betting on the best (worst) of the weather to be during the day on Thursday, but it could be good on Friday too. It's a classic November storm!

(I'm not sure why, but I have alcid's on the Brain. Tiny western alcids. Wouldn't complain over an eastern one either)