Sunday, 30 December 2012

A Look Back at the Mammals of our Big Year

Mammals were a wonderful complement to birds while doing our big year.  They were the source of some of our most memorable moments and also of some of our greatest frustrations.  With one day to go, we are at 76 mammals … enough to help us reach our 500 target but a little below expectations.

Our mammal highlight of the year was undoubtedly our Polar Bear sighting near Repulse Bay in Nunavut. We were out in a boat and our guide, Steve, spotted the bear onshore on a hillside. Steve said that a bear will normally disappear when they see humans but this one went down to the shore and swam toward us. When the bear got close, it jumped up onto the ice and gave us spectacular views. Phil was feeling pretty smug as he took a wonderful shot with his compact camera while Ray and I had to do with close-ups of the bear’s head.

Polar Bear
Polar Bear swimming along side the boat
The other mammal highlight that sticks out in my mind is finding the Vancouver Island Marmot on the slopes of Mount Washington on Vancouver Island.  This animal is one of the world’s rarest and most endangered species though captive breeding programs have had some success.  The ski hill was a known location for the marmot but some knowledgeable experts gave us little chance of seeing it.  With four scopes scanning the slopes, eventually one darted out from cover and gave us all decent looks.
Red Squirrel - the most common mammal
The best provinces for mammals were Alberta with 36 species and BC with 33.  Alberta could have been even better had we driven the Banff-Jasper Highway as this is one of the best places I know of for mammal viewing.  We did see mammals in every province and territory; Newfoundland had the fewest with just 2 species.  46 species were seen in only one province/territory – BC had 16 species and Alberta 13; New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and the Northwest Territories did not have any unique species.  The mammal seen in the most regions was Red Squirrel (11/13) followed by Muskrat (8/13) and Red Fox (6/13).

During the year, a couple of people commented upon hearing our mammal total that they didn’t think there were that many mammals in Canada.  "The Natural History of Canadian Mammals" by Donna Naughton includes 215 species in 10 orders.  If one were to do a mammal big year for Canada, I think 100 species is possible without resorting to trapping them.  However, unless you are a nocturnal and patient person, I don’t recommend doing just mammals.
Following is a brief rundown by order on the mammals we saw and didn’t see this year.

Order Didelphimorphia: New World opossums (0/1)
We expected to see an opossum in southern Ontario but had no luck on a pre-dawn walk nor on any night drives; we didn’t even see any road kill.

Order Primates: humans (0/1)
Of course we saw thousands of humans but all seemed to be of the domesticated variety (though I know of a one or two with a wild streak!). If we were one short of our target, we might have had to count this one!

Red-tailed Chipmunk showing off his red tail
Order Rodentia: rodents (29/70)
We did very well with the squirrels and marmots family (22/23), missing only the Southern Flying Squirrel.  However, we did poorly with voles and lemmings (2/24).  The population of these small animals is cyclical and we appeared to have done our big year at a low point in the cycle.  In Nunavut, we talked to a Peregrine Falcon researcher who had been out in the field every day for three months and he had seen only a couple voles and lemmings.
American Pika
Order Lagomorphia: pikas, hares and rabbits (7/9)
We had expected to get most of the lagomorphs and missed only Arctic Hare and European Hare.

Order Soricomorpha: shrews and moles (0/25)
We knew these little guys would be tough but thought we might come across one in some leaf litter.  We met a mammologist who studied shrews and when we asked him how we could find one, he replied, “you won’t”!

Little Brown Myotis
Order Chiroptera: bats (2/20)
The two bats that we did see, Big Brown Bat and Little Brown Myotis, were both at known roosts in Alberta.  We did try for some other species at known locations but came up empty.  White-nose syndrome is a fungal disease that is decimating bat populations and may have been the reason that there were no bats in a cave that we explored in Nova Scotia.
Order Carnivora: cats, dogs, bears, seals, weasels, skunks and raccoons (19/39)This order had some of our most wanted mammals – Polar Bear was a success story but, apart from some Cougar tracks, didn’t see any of the wild cats. We did see a feral cat which we aren’t counting but that is another species that we were keeping in our back pocket. If you’ve been following the blog, you know that we worked hard to see Striped Skunk and American Badger (i.e. many unsuccessful searches). As a team, we never did see Long-tailed Weasel or Gray Wolf though other family members did!
American Mink
Order Perissodactyla: horses (1/1)
We were pleased with ourselves when we tracked down some wild horses west of Sundre (about  a 2 hour drive from Calgary) on a full-day outing.  A few weeks later, we were quite surprised to see one on the roadside on the outskirts of Penticton which got us wondering why we had gone after them in Alberta.
Order Artiodactyla: deer, bison, sheep, and other even-toed ungulates (11/12)
The animals in this order graze out in the open so we expected to get most, if not all of them.  We missed Muskox, mainly because we didn’t venture into its main territory.  We did fly over its range but cloud cover negated any opportunity to see this Arctic mammals.

Fallow Deer
Order Cetacea: whales, dolphins and porpoises (7/37)
We put a lot of effort into finding these sea mammals with only moderate success.  Our trips included two off the west coast of Vancouver Island, three from Brier Island, one in the St. Lawrence River and numerous ferry trips on both coasts.  The biggest problem was the way whale watching companies operate – once they find a whale, they tend to stay on it and don’t care if they don’t see any other species.  This happened to us three times, first with a Gray Whale sighting in the Pacific, next with a Humpback Whale in the Bay of Fundy and finally with a pod of Minke Whales in the St. Lawrence River.  Our biggest miss was Killer Whale which we did see but the ferry was in U.S. waters at the time.  One other thing about whale watching, you very seldom see much of the whale, usually just the spout, the back and then the tail.

Tail of a North Atlantic Right Whale
We had high hopes to see Narwhal and Bowhead Whale in the Repulse Bay area but ice kept us from venturing more than three kilometres from the village.  Walrus and Bearded Seal were also good possibilities if not for the ice.

A final bit of advice before doing a mammal big year – do your homework!  There is not the same network of amateur information as exists for the birding world so you would do well to develop some contacts within academia.  We went in cold not having done too much in the way of actively looking for mammals – it would be well worth it to develop some expertise before jumping into a big year.
As for the best spots to view mammals in Canada, I suggest the mountain national parks (Banff, Jasper, Waterton and Yoho), Vancouver Island and southwestern BC, whale watching trips from Brier Island, the Dempster Highway in the Yukon Territory and wherever you can afford to go in Nunavut.

Good mammaling everyone.




Saturday, 29 December 2012

A Look Back at the Birds of our Big Year

The birds were pretty cooperative for us this year – at the beginning of the year we were hoping to get about 420 species and we now have 431.  Our big year was different than most as we worked as a team rather than individuals, we were looking for mammals in addition to birds and we wanted to visit every province and territory (some of which one would not likely visit if doing just a birding big year). 

Still, we ended up with a pretty good total and may have broken the Canada big year record. I say“may” because we don’t know what the record is!
We believe that Peter Hamel, whom we met on Haida Gwaii, set the record in 1988. He didn’t say what his total was but he did indicate that it would be 436 using 2012 taxonomy.

Blue-headed Vireo (l) and Cassin's Vireo (r) - formerly subspecies of Solitary Vireo
There have been a number of splits since 1988 such as Baltimore/Bullock’s Oriole, Pacific/Winter Wren, Spotted/Eastern Towhee, Gray-cheeked/Bicknell’s Thrush, Canada/Cackling Goose, Dusky/Sooty Grouse, and Blue-headed/Cassin’s Vireo), perhaps a lump (Common Teal/Green-winged Teal?) and delisting of the Crested Myna. Regardless, his total seems quite amazing considering that internet birding groups didn't exist back then and email was in its infancy.

We did see a lot of great birds (with the help of a lot of great people!) including some life birds for each of us.  Certainly rarities rank among the highlights and the rarest ones (from a Canadian perspective) were Citrine Wagtail, Hepatic Tanager, Rustic Bunting, Brambling, Brown Pelican, Acorn Woodpecker and Costa’s Hummingbird – all but the tanager were seen in B.C.

Rustic Bunting (BC)
We ended up with four “heard only” birds – Yellow Rail, Boreal Owl, Chuck-will’s Widow and Bicknell’s Thrush.  One of my goals was to see a Yellow Rail and this was about the only personal goal that I did not achieve during the course of the year.

Before starting the year, we constructed a spreadsheet with Canada’s birds assigned to one of three categories: “should get”, “could be tough”, and “not expected”.  We found 383 of the 391 “should get” birds and the ones we missed are:  Flesh-footed Shearwater (which should have been in the “could be tough” group) Leach’s Storm-Petrel, Ancient Murrelet, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Acadian Flycatcher, White-eyed Vireo, Golden-winged Warbler and Louisiana Waterthrush.  Note that the last five are all Ontario breeding birds – I’ll touch on that later.
We found 40 of the 71 “could be tough” birds and found 8 birds that we had not expected: the seven rarities listed above and the Pacific Golden-plover (which should have been in the “could be tough” group).
Pacific Golden-Plover (BC)
We did not keep track of “team” birds by province, so the following statistics are based on my personal records.  The province/territory with the most birds was B.C. (5 trips) with 265 species; Nunavut (1 trip) had the least with 25 species.  Out of 431 species, 126 were seen in only one province.  The top 3 provinces in this category were B.C. with 63, Ontario with 32 and Nova Scotia with 10.  Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Northwest Territories and Nunavut did not have any unique species for us and Quebec and Manitoba had just one each.  Only two species – Canada Goose and Common Raven – were seen in every province/territory.  Seven other species were seen in all but one province/territory:  Mallard, Bald Eagle, Herring Gull, Northern Flicker, American Robin, Yellow Warbler and Savannah Sparrow.
Common Raven - one of 2 species seen in every province and territory
You’ve read about our adventures and how much fun we had traveling throughout Canada so perhaps you’d like to do your own Canada big year.  Well, all it takes is a bit of research, some good contacts and lots of time and money! If you focus just on birds, it should be possible to record 450+ species in Canada in one year.  To do so, it would be helpful to be based in southern Ontario or southwestern B.C. or perhaps Nova Scotia.

This year, over 500 bird species have been seen in Canada so we missed more than 70 of them.  Of the 70+ missed species, over 30 were in Ontario, 20 in BC and 11 in Nova Scotia.  Canada is a very big country and unless one has unlimited funds, our strategy of planned trips versus chasing rarities worked pretty well.  Following is a run-down of what worked well for us and what one might do differently for a birding big year.
Dovekie (NL)
Our first trip was to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland in January.  With lots of help, we recorded some key species that would be difficult to get another time or place:  Purple Sandpiper, Black-headed Gull, Yellow-legged Gull, and Dovekie.  We missed Thick-billed Murre (which we did get in the summer), Slaty-backed Gull and a Blue Grosbeak that had been seen in St. John’s.  Dickcissel and Northern Mockingbird were bonus birds for us which we did not get again (though both species have been reported in various locations).  A winter stopover in Ontario could have added 2 or 3 species such as King Eider, Fish Crow and Black Vulture.

We could have taken the next two months off but the excitement of building our list kept us busy in Alberta.  Our late March trip to BC was timed to get the wintering birds before they departed and to get some early nesting birds with Hutton’s Vireo and Williamson’s Sapsucker as the primary targets.  This was a very successful trip including a Costa’s Hummingbird in Vancouver.  We missed Ancient Murrelet and I think there had been a Lesser Goldfinch reported earlier in the year so a winter trip to the coast may have been worthwhile.

We spent the first two weeks of May in the Point Pelee area and recorded 190 species which was what we expected (and what one might get on a commercial birding tour).  We picked the first two weeks rather than the 2nd and 3rd weeks thinking we might get some southern overshoots and also get some early arriving late migrants.  We did get some southern birds including Yellow-throated Warbler, Summer Tanager and Chuck-will's-widow (heard only) but missed overshoots that were seen by others like Kentucky Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler. Eastern Whip-poor-will, Golden-winged Warbler, Little Gull also eluded us as did late arriving migrants such as Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Acadian Flycatcher.  There were also some rare breeders that we didn’t have enough local knowledge to track down: King Rail, Northern Bobwhite.  Clearly, one should spend more time in Ontario than a single two week visit.  For us, a few days later in the spring should have picked up most of the breeding species that we missed.
Summer Tanager (ON)
We made our second trip to B.C. to finish up with the breeding birds such as Gray Flycatcher, Common Poorwill and Flammulated Owl; our only miss was Sage Thrasher.  There are also some rare breeders that we didn’t go after: Horned Puffin and Spotted Owl.
The prairies, our home turf, were good to us.  In April, May & June, some day trips and a couple of overnight trips to eastern Alberta/western Saskatchewan got us prairie specialties such as Greater Sage-Grouse, Burrowing Owl, Baird’s Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow and McCown’s Longspur.  The only species that we missed was the Mountain Plover – not surprising as we didn’t look for it at the right time of year.  I have seen them previously in the last week in April; others have reported success early in June once the young have fledged.

Greater Sage-Grouse (SK)
We had originally planned to go to Churchill but dropped it from our itinerary as the Yukon offered pretty much the same species and we were going to the Yukon regardless.  We were there the first week of June.  Based on our experience, the last week of May might have been better but we did see most of our targets including Smith’s Longspur, Willow Ptarmigan, Rock Ptarmigan (world’s worst views of a distant bird looking very much like a rock except for occasional movement), Long-tailed Jaeger and Gyrfalcon.  We went onto Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk but didn’t add anything.  A week earlier, one might get some migrants; a little later one might find King Eider or Yellow-billed Loon (both of which we missed).
Smith's Longspur (YT)
We did an east coast summer trip (Iles de la Madeleine, PEI, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland) at the end of June.  Once again, it was a successful trip recording key species such as Roseate Tern, American Oystercatcher, Bicknell’s Thrush (heard only) and Thick-billed Murre as well as nesting seabirds.  Our pelagic off of Brier Island was moderately successful with Manx Shearwater and Wilson’s Storm-petrel but no Cory’s Shearwater.  We also picked up some common species that we missed elsewhere – Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Black-billed Woodpecker and Mourning Warbler.  If we had been doing a birding only big year, we probably would have just focused on Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.

Roseate Tern (NS)
We took it easy from mid-July to mid-August – I highly recommend a break now and then to recharge.  Besides, about the only birds one might go after in mid-summer are Arctic birds such as King Eider (though they are regularly reported in Ontario in winter), Ross’s Gull and Ivory Gull.  The best way to see these birds is probably by cruise ship – this option was way beyond our budget.  We did go to Repulse Bay, Nunavut in late August which was not the best time for birds.  

Fall gives you another crack at the migrants as they head south and we made two trips to BC and one to Nova Scotia.  In BC, we made only one pelagic trip (apart from ferries) and saw expected species such as Black-footed Albatross and Pink-footed Shearwater.  A couple more pelagics might have been useful to find species such as Flesh-footed Shearwater, Leach’s Storm-Petrel, Buller’s Shearwater and any rarities wandering into the coastal waters. 

Black-footed Albatross (BC)
On the east coast, we did pick up a couple of species we missed in BC – Red Phalarope and Pomarine Jaeger – and probably had a South Polar Skua but couldn’t be sure.  We were hoping for some less common species such as Yellow-crowned Night Heron that had been seen earlier and Prairie Warbler which is regular in the fall but had no luck.  A Northern Wheatear west of Truro was a nice bonus bird.

In October, we made a quick trip to Saskatchewan for the Whooping Crane … easily done from Alberta but a long trip from most other provinces for just a single bird.
Our last planned trip was to Haida Gwaii in mid-October.  This trip offered the chance for some uncommon birds that we still needed, a second try for some pelagic birds and the chance of an Asian rarity or two.  We added Rock Sandpiper, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and Short-tailed Shearwater and also saw a couple of Asian vagrants – Brambling and Rustic Bunting.  Anyone doing a Canada big year would be well advised to spend a week or two on Haida Gwaii.

Rock Sandpiper (BC)
Our last couple of trips were not planned far in advance but undertaken due to a couple of mega-rarities – Hepatic Tanager in Saskatchewan and Citrine Wagtail in BC.  The BC trip also offered Brown Pelicans and a final (but unsuccessful) chance at Ancient Murrelet and Tropical Kingbird. 
Late fall is clearly the time for rarities with good birds being reported in Ontario (thanks to Hurricane Sandy) and both coasts.  If doing a big year, it would be worthwhile to spend some October/November time in any or all of these locations.

One last thing, it helps to be young with good ears and eyes but you can do a big year at any age.  Mike, who is now 81, was truly an inspiration to the rest of the team.  He did miss our Arctic adventures as well as a couple of fall trips but not because he was at home taking it easy – instead he organized and led trips to Texas and Brazil and also made a solo trip to Costa Rica!  I’ll be happy if I can be half as active in 20 years’ time.
Good birding everyone,



Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Christmas Bird Counts - a winter birding tradition

For birders, Christmas is sometimes more about what is perched on the tree as opposed to what’s under it.  However, one can be surprised – my wife once gave me a pair of optically perfect 1x binoculars made with two empty toilet paper rolls.  As good as they were, she did allow me to trade them in for the binoculars of my choice.

Christmas means Christmas bird counts (CBC’s) and, for one of our team, that means photo shoots and press interviews.
Phil as he appeared in the Calgary Herald - photo by Ted Rhodes of the Herald
Phil is the compiler of the Calgary CBC and recently was featured in the Calgary Herald.  You can read the story at:

Prior to the counts, Ray and I did a couple of excursions to bone up on the calls of the winter birds and to do a bit of scouting.  Of course, we are still looking for a couple of mammals but they seem to have migrated south with the birds.
Our first trip was to the mountains and, as usual, the scenery was fantastic.  However, both birds and mammals were rather scarce so it was a quick trip.
Looking west from the Spray Lakes Road
Last Friday, we did a scouting trip to the Weaselhead Environmental Park in southwest Calgary.  Right in the parking lot we were treated to close-up views of a male White-winged Crossbill.
White-winged Crossbill
Walking through the park, we saw most of the expected winter birds including two sightings of immature Northern Goshawks.
Northern Goshawk
Finally, on Sunday the Calgary count day was upon us.  Six of us started pre-dawn on the ridge overlooking the Weaselhead, diligently counting Black-billed Magpies as they flew into the suburbs.  After a short walk to some feeders in the park, we split up into three groups to cover the Weaselhead north of the River and the Tsuu T├Čna lands to the west.  This count is done almost entirely on foot so we were fortunate that the snow was not too deep and the weather was mild (for Calgary!). 
Ray with the Elbow River below
Ray and I had an okay day with all of 20 species but the six of us combined had a fantastic day with 38 species.  We are expecting Phil to bestow great honours on us when he presents his summary of the count in early January!

Today, Ray and I participated in the High River CBC to the south of Calgary.  This count has fewer participants so the assigned areas can be quite large – we had the entire northeast quadrant excluding the town itself.  Pat Diehl of Priddis joined us and we cruised the country roads in search of birds.  Fortunately, it is a good finch year so we had Common Redpolls at almost every stop.
Common Redpoll
When doing the CBC`s, one must count every bird even if the compiler might adjust the number later.   For example, in Calgary the same Bald Eagle might be sighted by 5 different parties so Phil has some secret algorithm that he uses to come up with an official number.  Counting birds is an art in itself and my experience is that we tend to undercount large flocks.  At a glance, can you estimate the number of House Sparrows in the photo below?
How many House Sparrows?
By my count there are at least 30 in the photo.  You can imagine the excitement we had today recording 416 House Sparrows and 529 Common Redpolls.  I just don’t understand why Mike skipped the CBC’s in favour of birding in Costa Rica!

As a team, we have one more outing planned – the Snake' s Head CBC near Sundre (northwest of Calgary) on December 31st.  That evening, we will take our wives out to dinner to celebrate what has been a great year for us.
Best wishes to you all for a happy and birdy holiday season.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Vancouver and Victoria

Wednesday November 28

The weather forecast for the next few days did not look too promising, with rain expected to begin this afternoon. Our review of the forecasts suggested that today would be our best bet for taking the ferry to Vancouver, so that’s what we did, after a quick visit to Sidney pier.

Leaving the ferry terminal at Swartz Bay at 9:00 AM, we were pleased to see a good number of birds offshore, mostly cormorants, gulls and ducks and a few Pacific Loons. In Active Pass there was a big flurry of activity with at least twenty Bonaparte’s Gulls very close to the ferry as well as three species of alcid: Common Murre, Rhinoceros Auklet and Marbled Murrelet, but unfortunately no Ancient Murrelet.

Our target in Vancouver was a Tropical Kingbird which has been hanging around Boundary Bay for a few weeks. In fact both Ray and Brian had seen it, but not together on a team outing. We toured the various streets which terminate at Boundary Bay, 72nd, 96th, etc., checking out locations where the bird has been seen, but eventually we had to admit defeat. Both Short-eared and Snowy Owls were visible on the shore from the dyke. Rain began around 1 PM and continued on and off for the next few days. There were fewer birds on the return ferry ride and we drove back from Swartz Bay to the home of Mike and Joan Cowley in Victoria, who kindly put us up for the rest of our stay.

Thursday November 29

After yesterday’s lack of success we were determined to get today off to a good start, so we headed to Victoria’s Inner Harbour where Brown Pelicans have been seen recently, an unusual species in Canada at any time, and especially this late in the year. We were very pleased to see at least twelve of these impressive birds feeding hungrily, and some of them came very close to our location by the marina between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Laurel Point Inn [Species no. 507].

Brown Pelicans and gulls in a feeding frenzy, Victoria
Juvenile Brown Pelican
Ogden Point was our next port of call, but with the wind and pounding waves, not surprisingly we found that access to the breakwater was padlocked off. During the rest of the day we alternated between sea-watching from the several points and bays in Victoria, and some inland birding at Panama Flats and Hyacinth Park. We soon found the Harris’s Sparrow and two White-throated Sparrows recently reported at Hyacinth Park, as well as a remarkable leucistic Fox Sparrow.

Leucistic Fox Sparrow, Hyacinth Park, Victoria

Close by a Barred Owl perched on a willow, our best look of the year at this bird.

Barred Owl, Hyacinth Park, Victoria
We concluded the day scoping the offshore, enjoying a break in the rain and no doubt improving our skills at finding and identifying birds bobbing up and down in the waves, but not finding an Ancient Murrelet.

Scoping from Clover Point, Victoria

Friday November 30 

If I were a poet of Brian’s caliber I would try to come up with some verse channeling Coleridge called The Rime of the Ancient Murrelet, and containing the line “water, water, everywhere”. There was indeed no let-up in the rain, and we spent much of the morning scoping the offshore waters for signs of our nemesis, the Ancient Murrelet. We checked a few places we hadn’t visited yesterday, and finished up at Clover Point.

Unfortunately our efforts were in vain, as the pesky alcid remained elusive. The best we could come up with was a Marbled Murrelet at fairly close range.

Marbled Murrelet
Phil had to fly out after lunch, so after a quick visit to Swan Lake in hopes of adding Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher to our BC lists (no luck there either), we headed to the airport. We thus brought to a close what will probably be our last Fur and Feathers 500 out-of-province trip: “Not with a bang but a whimper… [T.S.Eliot]”