Totally captivated in 2007 by the live camera feed of the Hornby Island nesting Bald Eagles in B.C., I was drawn into birding and have never looked back. Thus begins my account of what I'm fortunate enough to discover each day and perhaps capture with my camera.

Unless otherwise stated, all images were taken by and are the property of Janice Melendez

Species Counts:

2014 Final Year List: 255; 2015 Year List a/o June 5, 2015: 235; Life List: 327

Sunday, February 24, 2013

HASP for the Holidays

Christmas came a few days early in the form of another potential lifer for me when Dan Bone phoned to advise me of a Harris’s Sparrow coming to a private feeder in the Kawarthas. Asking if I would be “at all interested” in joining him and a few others on Christmas Eve day to see this unexpected visitor who should be wintering in the central region of the United States, I reluctantly declined but secretly prayed that it would still be in attendance on Boxing Day. Thankfully, it was, not only for me but for several others whose Big Year was quickly drawing to a close.

My interest in birding began only five years ago but has quickly developed into a passion, and, if nothing else, I have learned to expect the unexpected in nature and that timing is everything. Recent examples of One Week Wonders (or less!) include Whitby harbour’s Smew in 2011, Presqu’ile Provincial Park’s Thick-billed Kingbird and Oshawa’s Western Tanager in 2012, so my initial fear was that this Harris’s Sparrow would fall into this category, but at the time of writing, it is still enjoying a Canadian winter at an extremely well-stocked feeder in a sheltered yard, amongst numerous American Tree Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and the occasional Evening Grosbeak.

There was no immediate sign of the Harris’s Sparrow on Boxing Day when John Stirrat and I first arrived at the feeders with Susan Blayney, but we didn’t have to wait too long as we briefly saw it tucked away in some bushes, but clear views of it eluded us.

With more patience and the generous hospitality of the kind property owners who invited us into the warmth of their home, we quickly learned what to expect if there was a total absence of birds: wait and watch for American Tree Sparrows to fly back in, one by one, then wait for them to drop down to the ground, also one by one. Eventually the chunky Harris’s Sparrow would surreptitiously arrive, usually staying somewhat concealed in the bushes, but, with time, it would venture out into the open, affording better views as it foraged on the ground. At times during my second visit there, two days later, as part of the Kawartha Christmas Bird Count, it amused us by creating a snowy landscape, madly kicking away at the snow to forage for seeds using an effective “double-scratch” technique.

The Harris’s Sparrow (as well as the Harris’s Hawk) was so named by John James Audubon after his friend Edward Harris, an American amateur birder. It is also one of only two Canadian breeding endemics (the other is the Ross’s Goose) and is quite a striking sparrow, especially when in breeding plumage, with its black crown, face and throat. Based on the amount of black on its throat, this particular Kawarthan individual is an adult, and despite its non-breeding plumage was really quite lovely to see against a pure white backdrop of snow.

By coincidence two days later, I discovered a Durham region connection with this species when Doug Lockrey and I stopped in at Betty Pegg’s home in Claremont during our Pickering Christmas Bird Count. Chance would have it that Edge (co-founder of the Pickering Naturalists) and Betty Pegg also had an over-wintering Harris’s Sparrow at their feeders for five months, between December, 1998, and May, 1999. Almost three hundred birders that year had views of it, and Edge and Betty were awarded a letter of recognition from the Ontario Field Ornithologists, signed by then-President Jean Iron, which was included in the photo album shared by Betty.

The Harris’s Sparrow is now officially my 301st species since I began listing, as well as the best bird of the Kawartha Christmas Bird Count for 2012, not to mention the most unexpected!

Dan's notes, as my OFO News editor: Since Janice wrote this story the Harris’s Sparrow has disappeared. Perhaps it just moved on or maybe the Sharp-shinned Hawk got it, but it has not been seen since early Sunday morning, January 6, 2013. It was first observed on December 22, 2012.

Despite the no-posting agreement and through the cooperation and trust of a network of birders, 15 birders recorded it as a life bird. Kevin Shackleton got it for #299 on his Ontario big year list and #970 on his life list. It is a new bird for the official City of Kawartha Lakes checklist. At least one birder completed the zonotrichia quartet for Ontario. (Can you imagine such a musical quartet? The Golden-crowned Sparrow could sing bass-- the White-throated Sparrow would carry the air, as it always does.)

If the bird had stayed longer, a controlled-visit strategy was in place to include many more birders. The property owners did not want the bird to be posted for security reasons as the secluded residence could not be seen from the road and the driveway was narrow, winding and uphill with restricted parking. The strategy consisted of arranged visits at set times with parking away from the residence and carpooling in to reduce parking pressure. A member of the Kawartha Field Naturalists club was always on hand at the parking area to guide the groups to the feeder.

The property owners and all visitors had a very positive experience. All agreed they would use this strategy again in similar situations.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Algonquin Adventures with the Kawartha Field Naturalists

Yesterday's chilly temps of -28ยบ in the Kawarthas at Susan and Dan's lovely country home did not deter Susan and Cooder taking a brief walk before we headed off to Algonquin:

It was an excellent day with some of our targeted boreal species appearing as if on cue, while others eluded us, including the Great Gray Owl(s) that have been frequenting the park. Then again, I had warned the group that they didn't have a prayer of seeing one as long as I was around!! We made our way along highway 60 looking for owls to no avail, but our first official stop at Spruce Bog Boardwalk rewarded us instantly with Gray Jays at the parking lot.

A surprise Brown Creeper at the suet feeder (my first for the year) was unexpected, but imagine our delight when we next picked out a Brown-capped Chickadee, aka Boreal Chickadee!

This was way too easy as Boreal Chickadees are usually heard first and a challenge to get a visual on as they usually flit around high up in trees in dense foliage, but these were the best views ever for most of us! It was also the first time for me to never hear one, as it was far too busy stuffing its face in the cold winter temperatures:

As we made our way out to the boardwalk after dipping on both Spruce Grouse and Black-backed Woodpeckers, Susan spotted a gorgeous Pine Marten that I suspect was perturbed because we stood between it and the suet feeder:

This was a Lifer mammal for Dan, it was so beautiful against the white snow:

Susan experiments with her new camera along the boardwalk:

Our next stop was for lunch at the Visitor's Centre where we were blinded by the striking male Pine Grosbeaks at the feeders:

The females are spectacular in their own special way, though! 

She and my camera were having a moment as she was totally intrigued by the noise of clicking shutter:

Common Redpolls were plentiful, but we were too cold and lazy not inclined to look for any Hoarys in the dozens of Redpolls:

We skated along Opeongo Road to the north end where I had an interesting time of turning around on sheer ice, knowing full well there was no way I would be venturing back there on my own later, yikes! It's so desolate at this time of year, but still incredibly beautiful:

A black-and-white version of a Gray Jay...

...and a colour version of one of his buddies trying to stay warm:

Our final stop was at one of the few trails with open water that I knew of, which was a first for the others. Although devoid of wildlife, other than tracks and scat, it was a peaceful way to finish off the day:

Many thanks to Tim for leading the outing, as well as Susan and Dan for their hospitality towards me ahead of the day.