Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Not rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail shall keep us from the birds.

This weekend was amazing. Saturday, it poured big, cold drops of rain. Sideways. Sunday saw snow, rain, sleet, and hailed, with a few sunny patches. How is this amazing? Birds of course. Lifers even. True, the weather Saturday and Sunday was absolute shit and Monday was only marginally better. Though it really felt so much more amazing because of the two previous days.

I took a big birding trip this weekend with two good friends, Bradleyboy Mac Arthur and Jon Wayne Brown. Brad is a one-man-band doing the soundtrack for this documentary and John is a talented screen writer (currently writing a series called Small Time) that was acting as my cameraman. The trip wasn't really on the weekend; we did most of the birding Monday. Sunday was spent driving 600 plus kilometers just to get to the spot. I saw a few birds along the way but the weather was so bad that in six hours I really only saw six birds. A pair of Common Mergansers, a single Wild Turkey, a pair of Common Loons and one Northern Harrier. The latter being new for my Big Year.

Northern Harriers by kevincole.

We left Orono about 8:30 Sunday morning and drove to Gore Bay on Manitoulin Island. Making one stop in Bala for breakfast (with desert) and one stop in Little Current to pick up our birding guide, Dave Milsom (President of Flora & Fauna Field Tours). We arrived in Little Current at 3:30 pm to howling winds, very cold temperatures and a lone Pine Siskin singing in a tree. There was no sign of Dave even though we were a half hour late. He would've been birding with a larger group all that day and might be late if they had seen something special. We wandered the town and observed that there were only two places open, The Anchor Bar and the beer store. We though maybe beer should be our first order of business because they way this town looked, it might close at any second. 12 PBRs were purchased. That should be enough for one night's stay (barely). After that, we went back to The Anchor Bar and grabbed a pint and waited. Looking out the window, I saw a few Double-crested Cormorants, a Common Loon in the frigid water and then a Volkswagon Jetta that was filled with what could only be birders.

Little Current Swing Birdge by haven't the slightest.

Dave came in for a pint and then we headed off to the hotel, trying and failing for some Loggerhead Shrike he had seen the previous day. We checked in, ate dinner, ordered breakfast for 5 am the next day and quickly went out birding again. That evening we failed to find any American Woodcock. Nor did we see the expected Short-eared Owl. We did find a group of Sandhill Cranes. I'd seen these many times this year already but what was special about this was that it was just after dusk and the Cranes were displaying. Sandhills display by dancing. They dip their head in the water, fan their wings, jump up and down and shake their head about. It was really a beautiful sight. So many people will die having never experienced that. Too bad for them. It was a peaceful way to end a pretty tiring day. We went back to the hotel and got to know Dave a bit better while we drank most of our beer.

This isn't quite the same as seeing it in the late evening but it gives you an idea.

At about midnight, we retired. I never really slept until probably about 2am. It can be like that when you're going out to see a lifer the next morning. I woke at about 4:45 to the sound of Jon and Dave talking in the next room. I got up, dressed and looked outside. Spring had not arrived overnight. I touched the glass door of the room. Freezing. I decided right there that three pairs of long johns, three shirts, jeans and two winter coats wasn't too much. We all sat and ate eggs and bacon with toast out of cardboard boxes. Then we packed the car and hit the road. It seemed nice enough out. No more wind to speak of. That would certainly change things.

Manitoulin's version of Spring by Dave Milsom (With Cranes).

Then we arrived at the field that was said to house seven Sharp-tailed Grouse. We got out of the car and realized where all the wind was. The wind blew so strong that my eyes started to tear up right away. It was really cold. Then Dave says, "We'll go in here and circle over that way and head toward those trees. Hopefully we find the Lek quickly." We did not. I took my first step and immediately broke through the crust of icy snow and sunk to just above my ankle in water. Brad's idea of wearing plastic grocery bags on our feet was much appreciated at that moment. Each step was pretty much the same. Being out in that field was like walking in a giant shallow pool filled with ice-cubes and freezing water while a humongous fan blew cold air into your face. After an awful lot of searching, there were no signs of these birds. We wandered around the field, stopped, scanned the field, then wandered some more. When we had covered most of it, we started to head back. I was sure we were done and that I'd be going home without the bird I needed so badly. Suddenly, I saw something flying low over the ground. Bigger than a Robin, very stout and brownish-gray. I called out to Dave. We scanned the area where I saw it. Nothing. We turned to head back to the car and Dave shouts, "I've got it! It's sitting on a rock, the bloody thing is sitting up on top of a rock!" I looked but saw nothing (there were at least 5000 rocks to choose from). He ran to his scope, scanned, scanned, scanned and then, "Oh, I got them boys." We all gathered at the scope, got really good looks at them, creeped closer, looked again. They were dancing up a storm, in a storm. It was exactly like the video I have here. I got some nice looks at a few of the birds and then we headed back to the car. It's just so typical of birds to show up right about where you started after you wander around for an hour.

Sharp-tailed Grouse by Dave Milsom.

Back at the car, I had so much ice on my pants and boots that I had to hack at it with the windshield scraper. From there, the day only got better. It warmed up, the sun came out and we saw plenty of good birds and in such cool ways. One Pileated Woodpecker was frozen with fear as a Bald Eagle flew past and a Merlin swooped at it. Both predators were within moments of each other. She dashed into the hole she'd made in the telephone pole for safety. But not before Dave got these photos of her. Another highlight was a pair of Loggerhead Shrike hunting in a field. While we watched them, another Merlin comes to land on a telephone wire right above our heads. We stopped at a house feeder and got superb views of a Vesper Sparrow, the kind where you can study all the features that are important, the chestnut shoulder, the eye ring and moustache.

Loggerheard Shrike by Dave Milsom (Note the leg band).

Merlin (A Falcon) by Dave Milsom.

Pileated Woodpecker by Dave Milsom.

Every trip has it's jinx bird. This time it was Fox Sparrow. I missed it several times throughout the day. Then, casually, Brad asks what bird is up in the tree above the car. Dave gets on it right away and it's a Fox Sparrow. I can't find it even though it's in the open right in front of us. Even Jon (sans bins) gets it through the sun roof. I still can't see it. After another moment, I get it. Just then, a second one lands next to it. It get great views of them. Sparrows always look the same until you have moments like this and the Vesper. Then, they look nothing alike at all. You begin to wonder how you could even begin to have trouble making an ID. It's just that most views are not so lengthy, nor in perfect light.

Vesper Sparrow by Dave Milsom.

This trip was a great success, though I really only added a few new birds, some would be difficult later in the year. We got on the highway and headed home, stopping in Espanola where I removed several layers of clothing in a parking lot of a restaurant. I'm sure the locals loved that. We dropped Dave at his car in Alliston and Jon in Toronto and Brad and I returned to Orono; very tired, with sore backs and legs, we parted ways and went home. Neither Brad nor Jon are birders but I think they gained a real appreciation for birding and what people will go through to see a species.

April 15, 2011 day list
Belted Kingfisher

April 17, 2011 day list
Northern Harrier

April 18, 2011 day list
Sharp-tailed Grouse
Eastern Meadowlark
Vesper Sparrow
Eastern Phoebe
Hermit Thrush
Ring-necked Pheasant
Fox Sparrow
Loggerhead Shrike
Broad-winged Hawk

Other birds seen (but already counted this year):
American Robin
Common loon
Wild Turkey
Common Merganser
Common Raven
Turkey Vulture
Black-capped Chickadee
Common Grackle
European Starling
American Crow
Red-tailed Hawk
Common Goldeneye
Black Duck
Rock Pigeon
Ring-necked Duck
Tree Sparrow
Brown-headed Cowbird
Pileated Woodpecker (6-7)
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Red-breasted Nuthatch
American Kestral
Canada Goose
Sandhill Crane
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Dark-eyed Junco
Double-crested Cormorant
Song sparrow
Horned lark
Coopers hawk
Fox sparrow
Red-winged Blackbird
Hooded Merganser
Common Goldeneye
Pine Siskin
Bald Eagle

Paul Riss


  1. Wow, what a day, love the videos!

  2. It was quite an experience Nicole. Not an easy trip but very rewarding. If you search YouTube for 'dancing Sandhill cranes' there's many more.