Saturday, December 23, 2017

Anatomy of a Northern Winter Trip

So, in the last couple of months my "accidental" Big Year has turned into an actual Big Year. Since I wasn't doing a big year during the winter months at the beginning of the year I needed play catch up and that meant doing a northern winter trip. December isn't the ideal time for this kind of trip as some of the boreal species haven't necessarily felt the need to move further south yet, but with the encouragement of Jeremy Bensette and Josh Vandermeulen I decided make a solo trip up into Algoma, Thunder Bay and Cochrane Districts. Prior to this trip I was sitting at 324 species in Ontario this year and I had 6 target species for this trip. I left home at 6:00 am on Sunday to see the Tufted Duck and a also caught up with a Barred Owl. I then drove from the GTA area to meet up with Keith Burk (who was very understanding that I was chasing birds instead of meeting him early in the morning) to join him for the Rondeau Christmas Bird Count. I stayed at Jeremy Bensette's house Sunday night in Leamington to save a couple of hours travel time on my trek north. I left Jeremy's a little after 6:00 am on Monday and headed up through Michigan. The only real bump in the road happened when I stopped for a coffee at McDonald's. Once I was back in my car in the parking lot I put my keys down and had a sip of coffee. It was the most horrible tasting coffee I had ever had. I got out to go back in to ask for more sugar and cream and as I locked my car door and closed it I realized I was in the process of locking my keys in my car. I blame it all on McDonald's!! After the initial moment of thinking that I've just ruined the first day of my trip I headed back into McDonald's to call CAA, which thankfully works in the U.S. I was told that it would be about at a 2 hour wait for someone to come and let me into my car, so I had written off the idea of getting to Wawa in time to try to see the long staying Eurasian Tree Sparrow. As I was settling in to drink my disgusting coffee loaded with way too much cream and sugar, I got a call saying that the tow truck driver was already at my car! The whole ordeal had only cost me half an hour and about 400 extra calories!

For the rest of the drive to Wawa I was trying to figure out if I would actually have enough daylight left to look for the bird. I figured that it would probably get darker a bit earlier that far north so I knew it would be close. It was about 4:15 and very overcast when I arrived at the location, so it was getting dark. When I pulled up I didn't see any bird activity so I thought that the birds had probably settled in for the night. Luckily the Eurasian Tree Sparrow hopped up out of the bushes after a short wait! Year bird #325! It was pretty exciting that not only did I get my first target bird of the trip so quickly, but that the troubles earlier in the day didn't cost me any real time in my "schedule". Jeremy had mentioned that the homeowners were really friendly so I knocked on their door. Gail and Willard Smith were very welcoming and invited me into their home to chat. It's always great meeting people like this that really enjoy and appreciate people who come to see the rare bird that they are hosting!

Poorly lit photo of the Eurasian Tree Sparrow in Wawa, ON

So after a short visit I decided to try to get to Nipigon to sleep for the night. It seems like I'm always travelling this stretch on the north shore of Lake Superior at night. I'd really like to see what it looks like in daylight! The first bit of excitement that woke me up a little on my drive was seeing 2 moose just off the highway. At night you often don't see moose until the last second. I slammed on my brakes just in case there was an unseen moose on the highway and then I honked my horned and scared the huge beasts into the forest. Hopefully that kept them away from the highway for at least a little while. Shortly after this it started snowing and visibility started getting worse. I stopped for gas in Terrace Bay and as I was filling up a couple of snow plows passed by. I figured that even I was going slow behind the plows, I'd at least be able to see the road and hopefully make it to Nipigon. Once I was back on the road I followed the plows for about 20 minutes until they pulled off the highway. I was still about an hour from Nipigon and the road was covered in snow and the visibility was terrible. I reluctantly decided to turn around and head back to Terrace Bay for the night. I pulled into a gas station and set up my "bed" in the back of my car.

It worked out well sleeping in Terrace Bay. When I woke up at 7:00 am the gas station was being plowed out. I was on the road within minutes and on my way to Nipigon. I arrived at the Tim Horton's in Nipigon when it was still fairly dark so I took my time drinking my coffee and taking advantage of the free WIFI to catch up on emails and messages. The house that the Varied Thrush had been frequenting was only a few minutes away and I arrived shortly after 9:00 am. The yard had many trees so it was an obstructed view of the feeders. There were a few Black-capped Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches and a Pine Grosbeak but no sign of the bird I was hoping for. At one point I was pretty sure I heard a brief Varied Thrush song in the distance. I was pretty sure but it was so distant I wasn't sure enough to count it. After a short wait I saw a robin sized bird fly from the property and almost directly over my head. It landed at the top of a tree across the road and posed for a good look and some terribly back lit photos! Year bird #326! This trip could not be working out better so far, getting my first two target birds this quickly and easily! As I was walking down the street to try to get a better, not so back lit photo, the bird flew off into the distance. This trip is about knocking off year birds and not about photography so I decided to move on.

Back lit photo of the Varied Thrush in Nipigon, ON

My next plan, since I had seen the Varied Thrush so early, was to drive up to the Hearst burn to try to find an American Three-toed Woodpecker. After a forest fire these birds and their Black-backed Woodpecker cousins  take advantage of the wood boring beetle larvae that infest the charred trees. As I was driving north it started snowing again and once again visibility and road conditions were pretty bad. According to the forecast there wasn't supposed to be much chance of snow so I thought that it might not last long and might only be a localized squall so I was trying to decide if I should turn around or just keep going. At that point Jeremy Bensette called me. He had mentioned in an email to the Northwestern Ontario Birds listserv that I was up north with a list of target species. He had received some feedback of a good location for Great Gray Owls further south and west, so I was glad that my decision to turn around was made for me! I got in touch with Lindy Wagenaar who was kind and generous enough to drive from Thunder Bay to meet me and then to drive me to the area she had seen Great Gray Owls fairly recently. Once again I was blown away by the kindness and generosity of a fellow birder that I'd never met before. We drove around the area for a while looking at previously reliable locations without any luck. After I while I spotted an odd shape in a tree across a field so asked Lindy to pull over. I looked with my bins and was happy and relieved to see a Great Gray Owl, year bird #327! I managed a few distant photos then we decided to drive around a bit more to see if we could find a closer one, which we were unable to find.

Distant Great Gray Owl

After Lindy dropped me off at my car I decided to stop and look at a couple of properties with feeders in Dorion. At the first house I saw a few Redpolls sitting in a bush at the side of the road and was quite happy to see that one of them was a Hoary Redpoll! The year birds just keep coming, #328!

It was getting late and it would be getting dark by the time I got back to Nipigon so I decided to sleep there for the night. I wanted to do as much of my driving the rest of the trip in daylight since I hoped to spot a Northern Hawk Owl. I spent the evening at Tim Horton's catching up on more messages and phone calls. It was great to receive so many private messages in response to my Ontbird emails about the Eurasian Tree Sparrow and Varied Thrush. It was humbling to see that so many people were following my progress and were so supportive! That night I nestled my car in a corner of the Tim Horton's parking lot for a long winter's nap.

The next morning (Wednesday) I started out north of Nipigon once again, but this time the weather was much better and the roads were in great condition. The scenery was so spectacular that I almost had trouble focusing on looking for birds! I didn't realize just how mountainous and rocky the landscape was up this way and all the fresh snow on the coniferous trees made it truly beautiful! I wasn't in a rush so I drove under the speed limit the whole way to the Hearst burn. Once I was past the most spectacular scenery I was able to really focus on looking for a Northern Hawk Owl perched within sight of the highway. I made it to the Hearst burn by 2:00 pm and strapped on my snowshoes. I searched pretty intently for two hours and only found 4 Black-backed Woodpeckers, a Ruffed Grouse and heard a couple of Chickadees. I eventually figured that I had been thorough enough and accepted defeat. The trip had been such a success to that point I couldn't be too disappointed and I knew that it would unrealistic to expect to get every species I was after.  About 20 minutes after I got back on the road, a woodpecker flew across the highway right in front of me. I had never seen an American Three-toed Woodpecker before, but I knew right away that it had to be one. It wasn't a Downy or a Hairy and it was smaller than a Black-backed. It landed out of sight but I jumped out of my car to try to refind it. I only grabbed my binoculars so my gloveless hands were freezing and painful. The bird flew to the back side of a tree so I still couldn't get a good view. I thought that the size and shape looked right for Three-toed and it was making some soft calls that sounded good as well but I wanted a better look to be 100% sure. I try not to do this often but I played a call on my phone and the bird flew back across the highway and landed in a bare tree in great light. I was able to see faint, white barring on the back and a bright yellow patch on it's forehead. It was an adult male and year bird #329! I couldn't believe that this bird decided to fly right in front of me after my disappointment of not finding one at the burn site! I had now knocked off 5 of my 6 target birds!

My ride with the awesome mountainous scenery

The plan was to sleep at Hearst this night and as the rest of the trip had gone, my timing was perfect. I arrived in town just as it was getting too dark to see much. Just before I arrived I saw an owl perched at the top of a tree just outside town. At first I hoped that it would be a Northern Hawk Owl, but I was pretty sure it wasn't. I turned around and saw a nice silhouette of a Great Horned Owl. I spent another evening in a Tim Horton's using their WIFI and then I drove down to the Husky station and found a cozy spot between a couple of semi trucks to sleep for the night.

Thursday was much less eventful. I was tired and after an intense few days of driving and searching for birds I found it harder to be so laser focused on scanning for Northern Hawk Owl. I still think I was pretty thorough, but I didn't come across my final target bird. I found a flock of Redpolls along the highway and found another Hoary in the bunch. I also saw a female Spruce Grouse eating grit on the shoulder of the main highway. I was a bit surprised she was on such a busy road. There was supposed to be bad weather in southern Ontario this night so I didn't want to linger up north too long. I did make a quick stop at Hilliardton Marsh. It was nice getting great looks at several Pine Grosbeaks.

Not a year bird but a nice look at a Pine Grosbeak at Hilliardton Marsh

So, in my 3,700 km solo northern trip the most stressful part was the drive between Toronto and London because of the poor weather and even worse drivers! I couldn't have expected this trip to work out so well. I have to thank Jeremy and Josh for encouraging me to go and Jeremy for putting the word out that I was looking for specific species. Also, a huge thank you to Lindy for helping me see my lifer Great Gray Owl and the only one I found on the trip!

My route. It was closer to 3,700 km because of some backtracking.

Anatomy of a Northern Winter Trip

So, in the last couple of months my "accidental" Big Year has turned into an actual Big Year. Since I wasn't doing a big year ...