Lanark Big Year
A Lanark Big Year – Full Circle – January 2015
The year has come full circle and I sit here in my family room thinking about how fast it went. First things first. As of my last report (Nov 15th) I was at 197 species. By that point every new bird required a lot of effort, usually in the form of multiple trips to locations which presented the best chance of a target species. The water in the Almonte lagoons had frozen over so I concentrated on ducks at open water spots like the Madawaska Dam, and along the Mississippi and Rideau Rivers. As well I started frequenting the Perth Dump as they are ideal places for gulls late in the year. I even established a relationship with the guy at the entrance hut as well as discussing raptors with the backhoe operator at the top of the garbage mountain. Eventually these cold and smelly trips paid off in late November when 4 Great Black-backed Gulls, #198, turned up. They were amongst a large number of Herring Gulls whereas most of the Ring-billeds had already left. I was still hoping to find Iceland and Glaucous Gulls but further trips to the dump produced fewer and fewer gulls and nothing new.
While further trips to the Madawaska Dam didn’t turn up any new species there was one spectacular sighting there; as I was slowly scanning 3 or 4 thousand geese one day, all of a sudden they all took off simultaneously. The sound of their wings and the honking filled the air as well as my head, so I stood there just enjoying it. A car stopped beside me and the driver pointed out the Bald Eagle that had just landed 100 meters behind me. Now I understood what had spooked the geese.
In early December I got a message from Mike Jaques that a single Common Redpoll had turned up at a feeder in town, so I quickly drove over and located #199 feeding on the ground below a very active feeder. Redpolls continued in low numbers all the way to the end of the year.
I decided one day to return from my daughter’s place in Ottawa via Merrickville as there is open water on and off between there and Smith Falls. It was a propitious decision as just west of Merrickville and viewable from Hwy 43 I found a group of gulls standing on the ice by the open water. The 2 gulls I had almost given up on were there, Glaucous and Iceland. These gulls are often referred to as white-winged Gulls because they have little or no black at the wing tips and they lack the clear colour distinction between the wing tops and the rest of the body which most gulls have. As well the Glaucous looks like it has dipped just the end of its bill in ink while the juvenile Iceland’s bill is all dark. These were birds #200 and #201. I had reached my goal of 200 so a bottle of bubbles was shared that night. Of course this only meant I now wanted to see how far past 200 I could go.
Over the next weeks there were many trips along Bellamy Road looking for any finches, follow-ups to Madawaska Dam as well as slow drives along many of the eastern roads of the county where there are open fields looking for Longspurs. Perseverance paid off as I came across 8 Bohemian Waxwings on Bellamy road, bird #202 on a cold and sunny day. During the Carleton Place Christmas Bird Count on the 27th I got an email from Ken Allison that there was one Hoary Redpoll amongst 10 Commons at their feeder. I was there in minutes and spent over an hour watching the feeders until the Hoary turned up again; bird #203. This left 4 days in the 2014 so I concentrated on one more species, the White-winged Crossbill. In past year’s I have seen them in the Lanark Highlands and even in our backyard This year there were very few reported but Ken Allison had several flyovers at his place during December. I combined driving the roads of the Highlands, stopping at stands of conifers, especially Spruce and Tamarack, their favourite, listening for their calls, with stops at Ken’s to stand in the cold beside the pond hoping to hear one. I was there so often that their dog became my friend. My last attempt was New Year’s Eve. I arrived around 2 PM and stood by the pond listening carefully for nearly 2 hours. The only sound was the wind through the trees, a Pileated banging on trees, the yank yank of Nuthatches and the cracking of the ice. I eventually realized it was done, there was to be no Crossbill, let alone any more days on the road for the Lanark big year. So I surrendered to just enjoy the moment as the sun, low on the horizon, peeked in and out of the heavy overcast. I returned home to enjoy tapas, bubbles and time with my family, happy with the year’s result.
A quick wrap of the numbers is always in order. At least if you are an A type like me. In one year I identified 203 species! It is interesting to note that my lifetime species count for Lanark County is 215. On top of that there are a number of birds I know were seen in Lanark in 2014 that I missed including; Northern Mockingbird, Whimbrel, Black-crowned Night Heron, Great Egret, Peregrine Falcon, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Screech, Long-eared and Short-eared Owls, Red-headed Woodpecker, Carolina Wren, Prairie Warbler, Lincoln’s Sparrow, and that elusive White-winged Crossbill.
Highlights of the year included finally seeing Trumpeters Swans in Carleton Place and then seeing them several more times in the county, finding the Long-billed Dowitcher in the fields besides Ramsay 7, listening to Woodcocks while drinking wine, getting Gray Jays at a hunting camp in the north of the county, listening to Chuck-will’s-widow at High Lonesome, calling in two Saw-whet Owls on a calm March evening and the buzz of Golden-winged Warblers at Murphy’s Point. I discovered that birds such as Yellow-throated Vireo, Scarlet Tanager and Whip-poor-Will are common in the county. As well I experienced the cycles of migration and movement birds engage in every year.
I want to thank everyone who called, texted, and emailed me with sightings. Without your help I never would have reached 200. I also want to thank Martha and Arnie Simpson, Ruth and Ken Allison, Joyce and Mike Jaques and my Ottawa buddies Paul and Rick. I thank all of you for the constant help and patience with my endless emails. Finally I have to recognize my partner Zaza’s contribution. She joined me to take pictures, packed up snacks and hot drinks for my many forays, accepted that at any moment I might jump off the couch, exclaiming that a “so and so” bird was just reported as I raced to the door and left with a brief “see you later”, and for always asking what I had seen when I returned! I am sure I never got home when I said I would. Love you
NOTE: All photos by Susan Wilkes except as indicated
A Lanark Big Year – Nov 15th – Fall
Well it is Nov 15th. It seems forever ago I started a big year and, at the same time, like yesterday. There is only 6 weeks to go and many miles before I am done. The great thing about fall is that the spring migration happens in reverse so there are opportunities to see species one missed in the spring.
The Almonte lagoons continue to be an excellent location. I visited the lagoons almost once a week since September. In early October there were 15 Pectoral Sandpipers close to the viewing stand. The breast has a clear demarcation where the streaks end, as well the bird has a white eyebrow. The Pectorals stayed there over several weeks in varying numbers. Oct 4th turned up one Greater white-fronted Goose amid the 1 to 2 thousand Canada Geese Ten minutes after spotting the goose when another birder arrived to see the Greater white-fronted, I could no longer find it amongst the Canadas. I have experienced this many times before and never did find it again.
Throughout the fall there has been Cackling Geese present with more than 10 at some times. It was an excellent opportunity to see the clear differences. By Oct 10th the Ruddy Ducks arrived and continue to be present even now although in reduced numbers. A lone Bonaparte’s Gull floated around the lagoon for over a week accompanied by a few Ring-billed Gulls.
The return of the ducks on the way south included flocks of Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup and Redheads. The year has provided the chance to really observe the cyclical nature of bird life. In the early spring you see Red Necked Grebes going north and on Oct 19th the Grebes appeared again on the Mississippi and Rideau Rivers going south.
The wooded area along the trail into the lagoons had small flocks of warblers on and off especially if the weather was bad. Mostly Yellow-rumps and a few Cape-Mays silently feeding in the tree tops. It was also an excellent spot for seeing dozens of White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows.
Through October and into November the Rough-legged Hawks arrived in the eastern fields of the county in good numbers. These dark raptors can be seen hovering over fields along 12th Concession Ramsay north of Panmure as well as Ramsey 7th north of Wolf Grove.
I was treated to a flight of Trumpeter Swans at McGowan Lake at Hwy 7. There were 5 swans. I passed this spot almost every weekend this fall and saw up to ten Trumpeters on the lake. On one of these trips at dusk a flock of smaller birds disappeared into a field of dry soybean plants near Gardiner Road and Hwy 7. I couldn’t find a single bird until I crossed the fence and walked the field until I got close enough to flush roughly 20 Pipits.
Late in October the Hooded Mergansers appeared in flocks from 10 to 20 in size along the Mississippi and Rideau Rivers. It is a treat whenever one of the males fans out the head feathers showing the large white headgear.
November started the arrival of the winter species I desperately need to reach my goal. Pine Siskins stopped at our pine trees for 10 minutes one day. I visited Ken Allison’s to see 2 male and 1 female Grosbeak. But the highlight of November so far was on Thursday, November 13th. My friend Howard had arranged to visit a hunting camp in the Highlands where Whiskey Jacks come for the winter. We travelled west from Clayton and up Darling towards the California Road. We turned into a side trail with a simple tree trunk pole for a gate. The road, no more than a track, wound through the woods. It was one vehicle wide with large rocks and gullies in the middle and the occasional trees that had fallen partially over the route. We stopped at a couple of ponds to see some Mergansers and Geese. Eventually we arrived at a small hunting camp complete with 3 freshly killed deer, gutted and handing from an old pine, a one story rustic cabin and several hunters in their bright orange outfits. Seems the Gray Jays travel south in winter to the camp and feed at the bellies of the deer as well as any bread the hunters throw out. We waited for nearly two hours with no luck and finally decided to leave. Luckily my final look around the tree tops turned up one Gray Jay flying overhead. My first in Lanark. It is commonly thought that these Jays only come as far south as Algonquin Park, but I can attest they are here in Lanark and maybe in larger numbers than we know.
This photo of a pair of Gray Jays was taken last year by Howard Robinson at the same place I saw the Gray Jay this year.
From there I had to meet an old canoeing friend, Karl on White Lake, as I wanted to look for Scoters, Grebes and Long-tailed Ducks. There were only Loons and Mergansers on the lake, so I decided to go home via the Madawaska Dam at Arnprior which has a spit of land on the north side which is still in Lanark County. While searching the several thousand geese near the shore for a possible Brant, Karl, a non-birder, spotted a White-winged Scoter. Another first for the county for me. It was a juvenile which can be confused with the juvenile Surf Scoter except this bird fanned out one wing to show the white wing patch.
So I am at 197 with 6 weeks to go. Reaching 200 seems very possible but every new species requires a significant investment in time. I am hoping the Christmas Bird Count ensures 200+. My target birds now are owls (SE, LE, GG and Boreal), Crossbills, Redpolls and Bohemian Waxwings.
Please share sightings of these birds at
Cheers from the guy with the crazy idea till next report.
A Lanark Big Year – Sept 15th – Summer
This is my first report since early July! Summer is a very slow time of year for birding, the forests are mostly quiet and the migration is over. On top of that I took a contract job in Mississauga in mid-July so I am only birding in the county on weekends.
For the months of July and August I saw one new species, a juvenile Goshawk just south of Blakeney. I was treated to seeing it fly, observing it for 5 minutes in a tree as well as listening to its call, which is repetitive and helps distinguish it from other accipters. The same day I saw two Sandhill Cranes gliding in unison over the fields west of Mountain View Road. Despite the lack of new species I had some very enjoyable days around the county. July turned up Bald Eagles being harassed by Ring-billed Gulls at Christie Lake and Yellow-throated Vireo calling on Anglican Church Road. I must be close to 10 of these Vireos I have heard or seen this year making me realize they are more common here than I ever expected.
My buddy Paul joined me for a canoe trip from Perth to the Beveridge Locks in the hopes of seeing a Sora Rail or Black-crowned Nightheron. No luck with either but we saw lots of Moorhens, American Bittern and Black Terns.
Canoe-birding the Tay (photo Paul Roy)
In August I started visiting the Almonte Lagoons every Saturday hoping to catch early shorebird migrants. Early in the month there was one Trumpeter Swan as well as Yellowlegs and Solitary Sandpipers. The lagoons are an excellent place to visit throughout the year with a well maintained path through the woods to a viewing stand. The woods are good for warblers and vireos both in spring and fall. The last time there a small warbler fallout was in progress after the rain with dozens of Yellow-rumps and a few Cape Mays bouncing around the trees. The real attraction is the lagoon itself. The water levels have taken a long time to lower enough to create good habitat for shorebirds. In the last two weeks I have seen dozens of Blue-winged Teal, Wood Duck, Mallard and a couple of Black Ducks. As well the shorebirds are starting to arrive with one Whimbrel spotted which I missed by half a day. Small groups of Short-billed Dowitchers, White-rumped, Pectoral and Semipalmated Sandpipers have arrived. The lagoons also turned up my first American Pipit of the year. I usually go to Algonquin to see flocks of Pipits so this was a first in the county for me.
As well I am constantly learning about more than just birds. A beautiful Polyphemus Moth turned up at the front door. It is named after the Cyclops Polyphemus, a one eyed monster that Homer encountered during his odyssey. They do not eat as adults, living only a week or two to mate, literally starving to death in the process. As well Ken help me identify the 12 Spotted Skimmer!
Polyphemus moth (photo Susan Wilkes)
12 Spotted Skimmer (photo Susan Wilkes)
So where do I stand at this point towards my goal of 200. I am at 189 which means it is still possible to get there but I will need some owls, more shorebirds and winter finches.
Cheers from the guy with the crazy idea till next report.
A Lanark Big Year – July 2nd – Half way through the Year
The year is half way through and the spring migration is over. June was a mop up month, concentrating on finding species that were missed during the last two months. Of course by June the trees are in full leaf and the birds call less often as they have already established territory, mated and they are now feeding the young. So there is less need to sing especially if it could mean attracting predators. So needless to say it is a challenging environment.
One of the birds I still needed was the Sora Rail, which in past years I have easily seen or heard at several cattail marshes in the county. This year, despite over 2 dozen visits to multiple marshes, I have yet to find a Sora. Possibly later this summer when the chicks are more developed and water levels are lower, one will turn up skulking through the reeds.
After the May rush, there were a handful of warblers still possible. I travelled to the Silver Queen Mica Mine Trail in Murphy’s Point Park for Golden-winged Warbler as they breed there. I quickly turned up 4 pairs with males regularly doing their “buzz, buzz, buzz” call. Next a Canada Warbler turned up calling from the woods at Code and Tennyson Roads. Luckily Zaza had her window down and heard it, so we stopped. As well multiple trips to Murphy’s Point Park had failed to turn up the Cerulean Warbler. Then one week Arnie Simpson noted reports two days in a row at Hoggs Bay Campground in the park. This time I left at 5:50 am in order to be on site as early as possible. I spent more than two hours walking all of the campground roads and luckily heard the Cerulean sing but only once. Not the most satisfying identification but being familiar with the call I am comfortable adding it to my list. One additional thing I did observe was how noisy campgrounds are, even at 7 am. There are dogs, groups of campers having communal breakfast and lively conversations and trailers with AC units humming.
Murphy’s Point on Black Ance Point road. Photo Iain Wilkes
There were also several Sparrows on my target list. I got my first Clay-coloured Sparrow at the side of Jordan Kelly Road just west of Highway 15. Another group was located on Drummond Conc #1 west of Burns Road where several were calling close to the road. Arnie travelled there shortly after to get an excellent picture of a male. A morning trip with Ken Allison looking at all of the grasslands in the south east of the county turned up 4 Grasshopper Sparrows. The first was on top of a Mullein plant calling. It was far enough away to require a scope to confirm. Three more were found at the side of Rosedale road calling in a less than typical environment. The day also turned up 3 Upland Sandpipers on the front lawn of a house near Nolan’s Corners on Rosedale.
Clay Coloured Sparrow. Photo Arnie Simpson
Rosedale Road Grasshopper Field. Photo Ken Allison
There were still two outstanding Swallows, Bank and Purple Martin. In past years there have been Purple Martins regularly in Carleton Place and Appleton by May, but for some reason none this year. Mike Jaques contacted a friend who directed me to a colony by a farm at Rosedale Road and Hwy 43 and sure enough they were there this year. The Bank Swallow took a concerted effort. Many kilometers of driving while looking at river banks or exposed sandy hillsides where there could be the telltale set of entry holes to their nests. On Lanark Concession 5 north of Pine Grove Road there is a disused pit on the west side. Near the top there were a number of typical nest holes but no Swallows. Fortunately just 100m down the road a Bank Swallow was busy feeding over a grassing field.
One incredible highlight of the month was to get a ‘Lifer’, not something I expected. A Chuck-will’s-Widow (CWW) was reported twice on High Lonesome, west of Pakenham and Cliff Bennett alerted me to the reports. A potential life species is worth any effort and this case was no different. That night around 8:30 I arrived at High Lonesome. I wasn’t prepared for mosquitos which kept driving me back into the car. When I was out of the car I heard numerous Whip-poor-Wills competing. Soon the fireflies came out making me imagine the eyes of animals. All to say no luck that first night. The next night I was there again but this time I was wearing a fleece with high collar and a toque with ear flaps that I soaked in repellent. The mosquitos were only held back for a short time. In a 2 hour period I heard the CWW called 3 times and each time the many Whip-poor-Wills would try to drown it out. Having the call on my phone ensured I was identifying the right species and helped to get the CWW to start calling.
The final really good bird of the month was a Sedge Wren I discovered on 9th Line Beckwith east of Hwy 15. I was out going on my regular look at the Jock River and marshes close by on 9th. I was traveling west on 9th when I slowed down to look at a grassy field, partially mowed, when I heard the characteristic harsh single notes and short trill of the Sedge Wren. I stopped and listened for 30 minutes to a species I had been trying to find for weeks.
Of course it hasn’t all been about birds. I am starting to learn a little bit about dragonflies and butterflies and Ken is very patient with my email pictures asking “what is this”. As well I have run across camouflaged Tree Frogs, lumbering Porcupines, beautiful Ebony Jewelwings and Zen-like water Lilies in many ponds.
Tree Frog and Water Lilies. Photos Zaza
Okay time for the numbers. In half a year, 182 days, the total is 184 species. It would seem that 200 is possible in Lanark in one year and I am starting to believe I can do it. There is the return of the shorebirds on their journey south, the fall migration of song birds and waterfowl, plus possible rarities that might wander into our corner of the world. My next 3 months have 53 target birds but I will be happy if I get 10 to 15 of these birds as many of them are only occasionally found here. Many thanks to my many friends who provide alerts in the form of emails, text and cell calls (). Keep those cards and letters coming, and “nature willing and the creek don’t rise”, 200 is attainable.
Cheers from the guy with the crazy idea till next report.
A Lanark Big Year – May 28th – Why I Bird
A beautiful Yellow Warbler photographed by Susan Wilkes
May in Ontario is the reason I bird! It is an incredible month with the arrival of large numbers of song birds and especially the Warblers. Warblers are little gems that arrive from the neotropics in huge numbers. They set up home in the north (especially the boreal forest), find a partner, raise a family and get ready to head back south, all in a matter of a few months. They are small, constantly moving, often brilliantly coloured and they have complicated songs. When you find yourself in the midst of a few hundred of these jewels and the air is filled with song and you don’t need binoculars to identify them since they are so close, you remember this is Why I Bird?
This year was a really good migration year. It started out slowly in April with cool temperatures which meant there were few species and individuals. On a cold and rainy day I stood by the Mississippi in Carleton Place while a few hundred brave swallows fed over the river in endless swoops and dives. Despite needing to constantly clean by binocs and my glasses I was able to see Tree, Barn, Cliff and Northern Rough-winged Swallows. A great start to this family with only the Bank and Purple Martin left to find this year.
May 1st was a nicer day starting with a Snowy Owl north of Wolf Grove Road, probably the latest I have even seen one here. Later that afternoon I stopped at my favourite flooded fielded north of CP on Ramsay 7 and south of Drummond Road. Over the last month I had learned that constantly scanning any flooded field could turn up something and this was a banner day. I found a single Long-billed Dowitcher! Of course, this species can be difficult to tell from a Short-billed Dowitcher, especially when you find out the bill length has little to do with separating the two species. I called Joyce and Mike Jaques who came out and we decided it was probably a Short-billed and given its rarity here we emailed Bruce Di Labio, a very knowledgable local birder. Immediately, just by date, he leaned towards a Long-billed as they arrive around this time so a few days later he came out to view the bird and take pictures. Luckily I went out again and met him there. He walked me through the markings that confirmed it was very likely a Long-billed. Subtle items such as amount and extent of barring on the chest and sides as well as brightness and amount of frosting around the body feathers were crucial to the identification. One thing I learnt from this experience was that I knew these distinguishing marks from books and a few sightings over the years, but I didn’t have enough field experience to apply it in this case. The joy of birding is that there is always something to learn.
Long-billed Dowatcher. photo by Mike Jaques
The first week of May continued to be slow for new arrivals but there was Upland Sandpiper and Rose-breasted Grosbeak on Campbell’s Side Road near Weedmark, Northern Waterthrushs calling along several roadsides where the forest was thick and wet, as well as a flock of 50 Rusty Blackbirds making an incredible racket near Malloch Road as they stopped for a break on their way north. An early trip to Murphy’s Point with my buddy Rick only turned up a few Black-throated Green Warblers, Pine Warblers, Chipping Sparrows, Black and White Warblers and lots of Turkey Vultures and Red-shouldered Hawks. We did see two Barred Owls there which are resident at the park.
Left: Barred Owl (photo Rick Muise) and right, at Murphy’s Point, photo Susan Wilkes
On May 9th a warm front came through and everything changed. There were warblers everywhere for the next two weeks. While enjoying a glass of wine and supper in the backyard, a small fall out of birds happened; Nashvilles, Yellow-rumpeds, Black-throated Blue and Cape May Warblers appeared. The next day the O Kee Lee park in CP was filled with warblers; Blackburnian, Magnolia and Redstarts. A few days later my buddy Rick and I walked the Carbine Trail at the end of Ramsay Conc 9. Many spots of on the trail were busy with Black-throated Blues, Cape Mays, Nashvilles, Yellow-rumpeds, Ovenbirds and Chestnut-sided Warblers. Everywhere I went in the next week had excellent numbers. Even the small woods at Almonte Lagoons was buzzing with calls including a close look at the Solitary Vireo and a single Semipalmated Plover at the edge of the snow melt. As well as warblers the Red-Eyed and Warbling Vireos arrived along with a Yellow-throated Vireo on Nolans Road.
Yellow Warbler (left) and Cape May Warbler (right). photos by Susan Wilkes
As well this spring there were excellent numbers of Scarlet Tanagers seen at Mill of Kintail, Ken Allison’s on Wolf Grove, Carbine Trail and Lanark Highlights around Watson’s Corners. Its’ characteristic song is like a Robin with a sore throat.
Left: Scarlet Tanager (photo Rick Muise) and right: Creeper (photo Susan Wilkes).
In addition to all of the gems from the south were the White-crowned Sparrows who spent 2 weeks in our yard before moving north. They seem to race from one place to another incessantly calling with heads that look like they are wearing bicycle helmets. Green Herons turned up at ponds through the county and Towhees could be heard calling “drink your teeee” in many locations.
My network of birding buddies moved into high gear. First Arnie invited me over to see Woodcock at 8 PM one night. Before arriving I walked the roadside at McGibbon Creek on 9th line Beckwith in the twilight and scared up a Least Bittern. Later at Arnies’ I was treated to wine and Woodcocks in their front yard. Then Ken had a resident pair of Swainson’s Thrushes which seemed to evaporate every time I arrived. I finally saw them after dropping Ken off at is home and he emailed me they were back 5 minutes after leaving his driveway. Thanks to cell phones I got the email immediately and went back to see them. During all of this I have been searching for Sandhill Crane with several reports from my network but no luck until I drove into Rosetta to find a single bird in a cornfield. The month was topped off by a beautiful male Indigo Bunting at a friend’s feeder!!
Thrush (photo Rick Muise)
Okay, time for the numbers. As of the 27th of May I have 165 species. Now that is only 35 from my goal of 200, but in the world of big years the final 20 birds are the hardest and will still require turning up several less than common species.
Cheers from the guy with the crazy idea till next report.