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Canada 2019

Simon Papps
Long Point, Ontario, 9-18th May

As always, this fantastic part of Canada made for a very enjoyable and highly productive tour, logging 175 species in total, including 26species of American wood warblers. Among the numerous highlights were frequent big 'falls' of migrants, great views of Worm-eating, Prothonotary, Blue-winged and Kentucky Warblers and Northern Waterthrush, American Woodcock adult and chick watched at close range in the midday sun, Black-capped Chickadee and Red-breasted Nuthatch coming to the hand at Algonquin, a very obliging Great Horned Owl, numerous sightings of Wild Turkeys, and great views of the normally reedbed-dwelling Virginia Rail and Least Bittern. And, of course, not forgetting the fantastic accommodation with very welcoming hosts, where Eastern Screech-Owl, Indigo Bunting and Pine Siskin were among the garden birds, plus a grand finale at the spectacular Niagara Falls.

Thursday 9th May

After landing at Toronto late in the afternoon we drove to Orillia, on the way picking up our first common Canadian birds along the highway. These included plenty of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles, Ring-billed Gulls, Double-crested Cormorants and a Red-tailed Hawk with an American Crow in hot pursuit.

By our hotel at Lake Simcoe an Osprey and a Caspian Tern passed overhead, while several Common Mergansers were on the water.

Friday 10th May

A visit to the beautiful wilderness of Algonquin Provincial Park was today’s plan. The weather didn’t look too promising as we headed through Huntsville, but after a quick breakfast stop it soon cleared. On a small field by the park gate a mixed flock of sparrows included more than 30 White-crowned, 15 Chipping, five Savannah and four or five White-throated, while an Eastern Phoebe showed off by the visitor centre, a Common Raven patrolled overhead and a Grey Jay called below the lookout.

Opeongo Road turned up trumps for woodpeckers, with the much-coveted Black-backed showing beautifully, as did a Downy and three or four Northern Flickers. Two Broad-winged Hawks performed repeated fly-pasts and two or more Common Loons graced the lake. A flock of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks worked its way through the trees and Golden-crowned Kinglets displayed in front of us and gave amazingly good views with their crowns fanned and glowing gold.

As we walked we encountered a wave of warbler migration with six Nashville, ten Yellow-rumped, two Cape May and a Common Yellowthroat joined by dozens of Ruby-crowned Kinglets and a Red-eyed Vireo. Near the end of the walk a Ruffed Grouse burst from cover and flew across the road.

At the Spruce Bog Trail Black-capped Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches came to take morsels of food from our hands. We had great views of four Moose and a Groundhog along Highway 60, and also discovered a very confiding Grasshopper Sparrow – no doubt a tired migrant – showing well in the short grass by the side of the road. The day ended superbly with a Brown Creeper and a male Hooded Merganser at Mizzy Lake, and a Wild Turkey and Ruffed Grouse performing a roadside double act near the park entrance as we headed out.

American Woodcock

Saturday 11th May

Our short journey to Carden Alvar was broken by brief roadside stops to watch Osprey, Brown Thrasher, Sandhill Crane, Wild Turkey, Wood Duck and Blue-winged Teal. Nevertheless we made it to Wylie Road in good time and were immediately greeted by a Wilson’s Snipe holding territory on a fence post. Sparrows were much in evidence, with Savannah, Chipping, Song and Vesper all showing well. Eastern Meadowlarks were abundant. Further along the road pairs of Eastern Bluebirds vied with pairs of Tree Swallows for rights to nest boxes. Upland Sandpipers showed out on the plain and many pairs of Eastern Kingbirds and Killdeers noisily proclaimed territories.

At the Sedge Wren Trail came a major surprise when a Black Bear ambled along the road ahead of us – wow! Sedge Wren was heard but remained resolutely hidden, while Swamp Sparrow, Common Yellowthroat, Black-and-white and Yellow Warblers and Northern Harrier showed well. Common Garter Snake, Eastern Painted Turtle and Common Porcupine were other unexpected additions to the day’s list of ‘critters’.

A drive through wooded areas added Nashville and Yellow-rumped Warblers and a fine male Pileated Woodpecker at the top of a dead tree. Then it was back to Wylie Road for some unfinished business with one of our main targets – Loggerhead Shrike. Still no sign, but a male Bobolink sang away and a pair of American Kestrels put on a show as the male presented the female with the gift of a dead Song Sparrow!

Finally the shrikes gave themselves up. There had been a huge visible passage of hundreds of Blue Jays heading north all through the day. A shrike took exception to one of these migrants, flying up high into the air from a bush to see off the bigger bird. Fortunately the Loggerhead settled in a nearby tree and was soon joined by its mate, with both birds remaining faithful to the same spot for quite some time. As we headed off two or three Upland Sandpipers gave outstanding close views by the roadside.

We then transferred to Long Point and our dinner stop in Port Dover produced new birds in the form of Bufflehead, Willet and Common and Forster’s Terns to round off a memorable day.

Sunday 12th May

A surprise encounter with a Virginia Rail by the Causeway was a great way to start the day and several Muskrats also showed well. Down at Old Cut the windy and drizzly conditions initially made the going tough. However, the weather soon improved and the birds began to emerge, with American Redstart, several Cape May and Nashville Warblers, a male Black-throated Blue Warbler and a pair of Warbling Vireos in a loose flock. The bird feeders were the scene of an altercation between two pairs of Downy Woodpeckers. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks fed on the ground in the gardens and a Least Flycatcher hawked for insects at the entrance to the provincial park.

After breakfast, which was brightened by the appearance of a stunning male Indigo Bunting in the garden, we headed to the Bird Studies Canada centre, where the swirling flocks of hirundines included dozens of Sand Martins and a Cliff Swallow. A Bald Eagle rode the winds and sailed along the ridge.

Once we reached the overlook at the lake a large owl shape in a bush looked promising, more so because it was being mercilessly mobbed by blackbirds and grackles. Indeed it turned out to be a superb Great Horned Owl, which was very alert and which we watched for more than 20 minutes. On the lake were 100 or so Lesser Scaup, 20 Ruddy Duck and five Canvasback, while an American Black Tern and a Caspian Tern passed by.

Two breeding-plumaged Horned Grebes were the highlight at Port Rowan wetlands and other birds there included 10 Bufflehead, seven Bonaparte’s Gulls, Northern Harrier, Gadwall, Spotted Sandpiper and two Pied-billed Grebes.

In the afternoon we returned to the Old Cut area, checking the campground and finding a couple of Ovenbirds and several Grey Catbirds. Lighthouse Crescent turned up trumps with Hermit and Swainson’s Thrushes and Veery all in close proximity.

Monday 13th May

A cold wet start at Wilson Tract was enlivened by a warbler welcome of American Redstart and Black-and-white and Blackburnian Warblers. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were much in evidence. Birdsong was subdued but Ovenbirds were in good voice and showing well, while a Wood Thrush performed superbly during and after an altercation with a pair of American Robins.

Next we headed to Backus Woods, where a singing Blue-winged Warbler low in a tree was the vanguard to a remarkable warbler-watching experience. At least two pairs of Pileated Woodpeckers were very active, drumming loudly and showing well a number of times. Several Hairy Woodpeckers and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were also giving good views and a Hooded Warbler was a great find.

Further along the trail the boggy areas were packed with warblers, all at ground level due to the cold, and giving the most amazing close views as they foraged, often picking mosquito larvae out of the water. (Another plus-point of the cool conditions was that the blood-suckers for which these woods can be notorious had yet to take flight!). We settled down to watch at one particularly ‘birdy’ spot at the water’s edge. The action was instant and so frenetic that it was difficult to keep up. The cast included several each of Tennessee, Nashville, Blackburnian, Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, Cape May, Palm, Yellow-rumped, Yellow, Chestnut-sided, Magnolia and Bay-breasted Warblers and American Redstart and Ovenbird – that’s multiple numbers of 14 species of warblers all in breeding plumage in one single spot. All together and all lingering, giving the most exceptional views. Other highlights here included two showy male Scarlet Tanagers, a couple of Eastern Wood-pewees, a pair of Veerys and two pairs of Swainson’s Thrushes – again all of these birds were very close to ground level. We remained rooted to the spot for more than an hour, and the unanimous verdict – from some very experienced birders – was that this was simply one of the best hours of birding that any of us had ever had.

Finally dragging ourselves away we next headed to Townsend Sewage Lagoons. Five or more Bobolinks and several Savannah and Song Sparrows were visible along the entrance road. Shorebirds on the first lagoon included about 30 Least Sandpiper, two Lesser Yellowlegs, two Spotted Sandpiper and three Ruddy Turnstone. Progressing through the complex we added about 30 Bufflehead, 10 Lesser Scaup and clouds of Purple Martins. The furthest pool was most productive, with Red-necked Phalarope, Short-billed Dowitcher, 30 Dunlin, two Green-winged Teal, eight Northern Shoveler, and three each of American Wigeon, Ring-necked Duck and Northern Pintail.

We ended the day near Turkey Point where, appropriately, a Wild Turkey flushed from its tree-top roost and we watched bugling Sandhill Cranes (one on a nest) out on the marsh.

Great Blue Heron

Tuesday 14th May

A Least Bittern at the Causeway was an excellent way to start the day. Also there were Belted Kingfisher, three Northern Harriers, two Bald Eagles, Marsh Wren and some very close Sandhill Cranes. Old Cut was rather quiet although we did see a Green Heron perched on a power line and a Canada Warbler performed well at close range.

After breakfast a roadside stop near Port Rowan produced Eastern Meadowlark, American Kestrel, Northern Harrier and no less than five Bald Eagles – a pair of adults, an immature and two chicks on a nest. In the fields near Wilson Tract we found Field, Song, Chipping, Grasshopper and Vesper Sparrows and several each of Eastern Kingbird and Eastern Bluebird. An amazing find was an adult American Woodcock by the roadside in broad daylight. We enjoyed exceptional views from the car, and were astonished to see that it returned to the long grass to join up with a fluffy chick! What an amazing piece of luck.

Yesterday’s warbler phenomenon at Backus Woods had quietened down due to the warmer conditions, but we saw pretty much the same cast as the previous day, albeit with many birds at higher levels in the trees. Scarlet Tanager, Hairy Woodpecker and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker all showed well, but best of all was a male Prothonotary Warbler with plumage so bright that it seemed to glow in the dark conditions of the dense boggy forest.

Our evening activities consisted of a return to the Causeway, where American Black Tern, Pied-billed Grebe and Chimney Swift were added to the day’s list and Muskrat and Common Snapping Turtle performed well. Several Whip-poor-wills were very vocal in the woods north-west of Port Rowan and an Eastern Screech-Owl showed superbly at St Williams.

Wednesday 15th May

What a difference a day makes! Both in terms of weather and birds Old Cut was a different place. The sun shone and the trees were alive with birds. Black-throated Green, Chestnut-sided and Magnolia Warblers were in the first bush, and every bush and tree seemed to hold more surprises. Highlights included a Northern Parula that was ‘to die for’ according to one observer, Veery, Swainson’s Thrush, a passing Broad-winged Hawk, and a Philadelphia Vireo, four Red-eyed Vireos and three Scarlet Tanagers in the same tree.

During our breakfast stop we added Pine Siskin to the trip list, with two birds on the feeders at out B&B. Port Rowan Wetland still held two Horned Grebes, and in addition we found a Willet, two Short-billed Dowitchers, two Blue-winged Teal and a Ring-necked Duck. A pair of Indigo Buntings showed well on the path at the Bird Studies Canada centre, while at the lookout a pair of Bald Eagles jockeyed for position on a tree and wildfowl included 100 each of Ruddy Duck and Lesser Scaup, four Greater Scaup, eight Redhead and three Canvasback.

A trip down the shore of Lake Erie to Jackson Gunn Forest produced the hoped-for Red-headed Woodpecker, which eventually performed well while excavating a nest hole. We ended the day around Turkey Point, watching a very confiding Blue-winged Warbler and an Osprey, while several American Woodcocks gave their weird-sounding display calls.

Thursday 16th May

Backus Woods was our first port of call today and signs of spring were in the air with increased levels of birdsong. Red-eyed Vireos were much in evidence and a number of warbler species showed well, including Chestnut-sided, Bay-breasted, Blackburnian, Yellow-rumped, Cape May, Black-throated Blue and Black-throated Green and American Redstart. Wood Thrush, Veery and Swainson’s Thrush were also seen, but best of all was a close Pileated Woodpecker which we watched drumming.

Old Cut was once again busy with migration, with plenty of warblers and other birds. Northern Parula was added to the day list, Scarlet Tanager and Ovenbird showed well and a Hermit Thrush was seen by Lighthouse Crescent.

At St Williams Forest Station a Green Heron flew over and a little perseverance resulted in views of Blackpoll and Pine Warblers. An Olive-sided Flycatcher which showed fleetingly was a major surprise and a pair of Belted Kingfishers performed well.

A return visit to Townsend Sewage Lagoons saw many of the same species as three days ago, including American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked Duck, Bufflehead, Lesser Scaup, Ruddy Duck, Least Sandpiper and Lesser Yellowlegs. We also added Greater Yellowlegs, Semipalmated and Grey Plovers and Redhead. Bobolinks and Horned Larks gave great views along the entrance road.

Blackburnian Warbler

Friday 17th May

Sandhill Cranes put on a fine show at the Causeway, with several birds performing a very close fly-past. Other birds here included Bald Eagle, Marsh Wren, Common Yellowthroat, Gadwall, Bonaparte’s Gull, Forster’s Tern and four Ruddy Ducks.

At Wilson Tract, Red-eyed Vireos and Scarlet Tanagers were much in evidence. We had good views of singing Ovenbird, Black-throated Green Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler and Wood Thrush. Near the end of the trail a small bird almost dive-bombed us from high in a tree, alighting in a bush right next to us – a Worm-eating Warbler. Incredible! It showed very well twice for about 30 seconds each time and we congratulated ourselves on finding such a fantastic rarity. On the way out of the woods we added Wild Turkey and Eastern Bluebird to the day list, while a Grasshopper Sparrow uncharacteristically sang from an exposed perch for an extended period and put on quite a show.

Arriving at Old Cut around mid-morning we were greeted by the news that a Kentucky Warbler – another major rarity here – had been trapped and was awaiting processing at the ringing station. We waited as bag after bag was emptied, and it was something of a treat to stand and watch as an impressive line-up of quality birds was paraded in front of us and released back into the woods. This included Canada Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Ovenbird, a series of Red-breasted Nuthatches, two Common Grackles and two Blue Jays. Eventually we arrived at the big prize – a female Kentucky Warbler – and the experienced ringer took extra care over the measurements as it was the first of this species that he had ever banded.

Out in the woodlot it was another ‘fallout’ day and the trees were heaving with birds. We found Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, Black-and-white and Bay-breasted Warblers. An Eastern Phoebe hawked insects from a tree root. A Least Bittern stalked minnows in the shallows, several Scarlet Tanagers showed well and a Philadelphia Vireo gave good views.

After an ice cream stop in Port Rowan it was back to Backus Woods where a Northern Waterthrush song broke the silence. The woods were quite quiet on a hot afternoon but eventually our persistence and patience paid off when first a pair of Hooded Mergansers landed on one of the pools, then a Northern Waterthrush gave brilliant views at close range. As we headed out of the wood we watched as a Pileated Woodpecker excavated a nest hole, scattering sawdust out into the forest. To round off an excellent day we were serenaded by at least three Whip-poor-wills at dusk in St Williams Forest.

Saturday 18th May

It was a much quieter morning at Old Cut but nevertheless we found a good selection of migrants. Highlights included Ovenbird, Bay-breasted, Black-throated Blue, Cape May and Magnolia Warblers and a stunning make Scarlet Tanager. A Green Heron showed on the Causeway and another was by Port Rowan Cemetery, where a pair of Warbling Vireos also performed well.

After breakfast we set off for the airport, but not before paying a visit to the incredible Niagara Falls. En route we passed a couple of fishing Ospreys, while in between admiring the falls we watched good numbers of Black-crowned Night Herons, Great Egrets and Northern Rough-winged and Cliff Swallows.

In the afternoon we headed to Toronto airport to conclude what was a very enjoyable and memorable tour with highlights that were too many to list, although stand-out moments included the boreal delights of Algonquin, the remarkable ground-level warbler parade in Backus Woods, and the rarity duo of Worm-eating and Kentucky Warblers watched in quick succession, not forgetting the mega-fauna of Moose and Black Bear!

The Top 10 species voted 'bird of the tour' were as follows:

1. Prothonotary Warbler
2. Black-capped Chickadee
3. Kentucky Warbler
4. Worm-eating Warbler
5. Eastern Screech-Owl
6. Great Horned Owl
7. Wilson’s Snipe
8. Tree Swallow
9. Eastern Bluebird
10. Hooded Warbler

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