Friday, February 12, 2016

2015 BIG YEAR - December Update

December 2015

This is the twelfth and final monthly summary of my 2015 CONDO BIG YEAR!!!

Red dot is my condo building

Red mark is the blue area defined in the first map

Click for - BIG YEAR RULES

The birds! (new species in bold) -

Canada Goose - 72
Wood Duck - 1
American Black Duck - 1
Mallard - 41
Canvasback - 3
Redhead - 130
Greater Scaup - 1850
Lesser Scaup - 149
King Eider - 1
Surf Scoter - 535
White-winged Scoter - 1115
Black Scoter - 122
Long-tailed Duck - 18450
Common Goldeneye - 515
Common Merganser - 2
Red-breasted Merganser - 550
Red-throated Loon - 19
Common Loon - 26
Red-necked Grebe - 4
Double-crested Cormorant - 17
Great Cormorant - 1
Bald Eagle - 2
Red-tailed Hawk - 5
Black-legged Kittiwake - 1
Ring-billed Gull - 128
Herring Gull - 230
Great Black-backed Gull - 49
Rock Pigeon - 4
Mourning Dove - 10
American Kestrel - 1
Peregrine Falcon - 1
European Starling - 50
Snow Bunting - 1
American Tree Sparrow - 1
Northern Cardinal - 2
House Finch - 10
American Goldfinch - 66
House Sparrow - 55

Total species - 38

Total ebird checklists - 9

Best birds of the month: King Eider, Black-legged Kittiwake and Great Cormorant...

Useless rarities: Northern Pintail x Mallard hybrid (spankin male too), Herring X Great Black-backed Gull hybrid (spankin 1st basic too)... "Northwestern" Red-tailed Hawk

Highlight "big year" birds: Black-legged Kittiwake and Great Cormorant.........

Checklists of the month:

#1 -
#2 -
#3 -

Total species added to the big year this month: 2

Big year total to date: 196

Target species going forwards: nada!

KM driven: 0
KM flown: 0
KM by boat: 0
KM by train: 0
KM by helicopter: 0

(1 Kilometer = 0.621371192237334 Miles)

Previous summaries: January | February | March | April | May | June | July |August |September | October | November 



30 seconds of a Great Cormorant and a Black-legged Kittiwake on Dec 26th increased the total, but overlal the fall / early winter really died out. With that said, getting 196 species for the year - I can hardly complain. Check back soon for the big-year summary post. 

Dec 12

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Book Review Time! Offshore Sea Life ID Guide - East Coast

Disclaimer! Princeton Publishing provided a copy for review!

Price listed on book - US $14.95
Authors - Steve N.G. Howell & Brian L. Sullivan
Pages - 64
Size - ~5"x8" - Less than 1cm thick and floppy
Photos: 100+
Topics covered - A wide assortment of sea life one would encounter off the east coast of the USofA

The Skinny: This is a cute little book... A little expensive given the size of the thing, but it's packed with photos and tidbits of information and ID tips... I would bet my left button that this book will sell very well with casual naturalists who spend time anywhere on or off the east coast. Like - have a timeshare/cottage or a sailboat nature enthusiasts. Not the people spending lots of time & money to get a brief glimpse of a European Storm-Petrel in late May...

The Good: The amount of photos and information packed into a small package. Howell's photos (and the other contributors) are out of this world. Also - there probably aren't too many people who are familiar with each and every species in the book - so a great chance to quickly learn something new.

The Bad: I'm reaching a point where seeing multi-photoshopped-images (like the cover) make me a little sick to my stomach. Yes, i'm being overly dramatic - but - enough is enough. Sir Richard Crossley was the first out of the gate with the idea, and I was more than willing to give credit where credit was due (heck, it was my first book review in this series!) I grew to like the idea because we could jam 10,000 bird photos into a single book, and it was a really neat reference. With this tiny little book - we didn't need to save space. Maybe most of society is happy to have many photos mashed into one - saves time and increased stimulation - but i'm not really a fan of it!

Who Should Buy It:

Naturalists of all shapes and sizes. Or anyone you know who spends time on the atlantic coast - or - especially if they spend time on a boat off the coast. If you're a "hardcore" lister/birder, then you may not want to drop $15 bucks on a tiny book that won't help you find that latest tick, but that's getting picky. Personally, I'm not sure i'd recommend it for a broader audience. Perhaps too technical for the general population, and perhaps not exciting enough for youngsters...

More info here: (Princeton's page)

"This guide, designed for quick use on day trips off the East Coast, helps you put a name to what you see, from whales and dolphins to shearwaters, turtles and even flyingfish" 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Harlequin Duck - Great Lakes Population

A copy of this has recently been published! Love the Wood Duck.

Holden, B.R. 2016. Harlequin Duck - Great Lakes Population . The Wood Duck 69(6):128-129.



Do you get the feeling that Harlequin Ducks have become more of a regular occurrence on Lake Ontario in recent years? In my early days of birding the Hamilton area the discovery of a Harlequin Duck was a big event, and the thought of seeing a stunning adult male hovered somewhere between a hope and a prayer. The Birds of Hamilton (Curry, 2006) details records from ~1850-2005, and notes that the Harlequin Duck was increasing as a winter resident through the second half of the 20th century. At the time of publication, the high count for Harlequin Duck was 3 individuals, from 1958 and 1980. Since publication, that count of three birds has been matched in 2005, 2009, 2012 and 2013 with a new high count of 4 in 2010 (eBird 2015). Clearly, Harlequin Ducks are on the rise in Hamilton - and, although I'm not willing to do an equally detailed search for other regions around the Great Lakes, you can be sure that high counts from Prince Edward Point, the Niagara River and the incredible eight (with five adult males!!) from Whitby this fall all mirror the upswing of occurrences on the Great Lakes. Check out the Harlequin Duck occurrence map from eBird, 2010-2015:

(eBird 2015)

The reason I'm putting pen to paper on this topic is due to a recent discussion I had on this increase in Harlequin Ducks in our area in contrast to my disappointment in having not recorded one from my home in Stoney Creek since moving here in 2012. Now, I may be greedy for suggesting I should have seen a Harlequin Duck by now, as they are rare birds... But my place is a bonafide duck bonanza on a normal day (Holden 2014), not to mention that I have the ability to watch active migration throughout the seasons whenever conditions are good. For context, I've seen at least 20 different individual King Eiders in the same timeframe. So where are the Harlies? 

To try and explain, I'm going to move from the realm of stats and facts into something theoretical. Is it possible that we are on the brink of having a genuine wintering population of Harlequin Ducks, sustaining itself from year to year with augmentation from wandering/vagrant individuals?  The eastern Canadian breeding population of Harlequin Ducks was assessed as Endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) in 1990, and was subsequently down-listed to Special Concern in 2001. Recent assessments suggest a population of roughly 4600 mature individuals (COSEWIC 2013). Dramatic increases to the wintering populations of Long-tailed Ducks, White-winged Scoters, and other duck species are well documented since the arrival of Zebra Mussels (Curry 2006). The Harlequin Ducks small source population could be masking a shift in the species wintering biology from vagrant individuals to a true wintering population. 

Historically any Harlequin Ducks that reached our shores would not have encountered beds of the invasive Zebra Mussels to sustain them, whereas now, in the 21st century, they find this new and abundant food source and are able to successfully winter. After initial success, the same individuals are encouraged to return year after year, increasing the odds of encountering other individuals of their species. Chance encounters in the fall and winter could theoretically lead to courtship rituals prior to migrating back to their breeding grounds further increasing the benefits of wintering in the Great Lakes. This hypothetical scenario would lead to a gradual increase in numbers, which mirrors the patterns the birding community has been documenting through eBird and other databases. It is also unlike the dramatic swings in occurrence and number for other vagrant species where meteorological events set the stage for irruptions or invasions - leading to wild swings in year to year occurrence and numbers (see Holden 2015).  Many Harlequin Duck records over the past ten years in the Hamilton Study Area and beyond have involved one or more individuals wintering at the same site for multiple years - which helps explain why numbers are on the rise, but why the odds of getting that first record for my place in Stoney Creek has not risen correspondingly. If one or more of these theories proves true, we should continue to see a steady increase in numbers and occurrences of the species - an exciting prospect for all local birders regardless of their home address! 

COSEWIC 2013. COSEWIC assessment and status report on the Harlequin Duck Histrionicus histrionicus Eastern population in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Ottawa. ix + 38 pp. Available online at

Curry, R. 2006. Birds of Hamilton and Surrounding Areas. Hamilton Naturalists’ Club. 647pp.

eBird. 2015. eBird data accessed  December 2015. Harlequin Duck for southern Ontario from 2010 to 2015.

Holden, B.R. and K.G.D. Burrell. 2015. The Cave Swallow, Petrochelidon fulva, in Ontario, 1989-2014. Ontario Birds, 33(1): pp 44-48

Holden, B.R. 2014. eBird checklist for aaa_Condo, Hamilton County, Ontario, CA. 2 November 2014. Available online at

Friday, January 29, 2016

A new standard for reviewing rare bird reports

A recent discussion on "good" vs. "bad" rare bird reports got me thinking..... The discussion involved producing a new "how to document rare birds" note or article, but we came to a stark conclusion --- that not many people really give a damn darn. So no matter how many times we re-hash the "please provide details on the bare parts colouration" - we are still going to get short reports...

On the flip side, we end up with people (myself included) who know exactly how to write a rare bird report, making it difficult to truly appreciate the circumstances surrounding the observation. For example, I've seen two Dovekie's in Ontario... One was total BS - distant and bad looks - and potentially a Long-billed Murrelet for all I know. The second was relatively close and in good light, leaving no doubt about the ID. BUT - in the eyes of the annual OBRC report, two equal Dovekie sightings occurred.

On the flip flip side, I also end up voting "no" to several records each year that were probably excellent circumstances by skilled observers  - who just aren't familiar with documenting birds in general.

On the flip flip flip side, you get birders who know what they're seeing - but don't care enough to write a proper report. Then you're really stuck, as you end up voting "no" to a bird you're totally confident was properly identified.

On the flip flip flip flip side, you get skilled birders who write an excellent report - that is nearly impossible to vote no to - but you get the very strong impression they have actually miss-identified the bird they saw in the field. (eg,/ I saw a Mountain Plover, and here's why it wasn't anything else without doubt --- when I suspect it's actually a 1st basic/alternate American Golden Plover).

On the flip flip flip flip flip side, you get birds - like Fish Crows - that you couldn't properly document with words no matter how hard you tried. I've reviewed no less than 50 reports saying "It was a crow that went nuh, uh, nu, uh, neh, nah, nu-nu, nuh-neh, nah-nah, uh-uh...

On the flip flip flip flip flip flip side. Actually that's enough flips.

I couldn't help but think that a new "standard" for review might help ease some of these problems.

Three levels of review:

1) - Media review

2) - Well supported observations

3) - Single party/observer observations or generally short observations

Media Review would involve, well, media. If you have a specimen, a photo, a recording, DNA etc - the review falls under this category. We would ask for circumstances of the observation and details about the day/weather etc - but overall you can forget 90% of the description and separation of similar species - cause the media takes care of it. Overall, the "easiest" or most lenient form of review.

Well Supported Observations would involve non-diagnostic media, or birds that have been seen well by several observers. A good example of this would be a hypothetical Cory's Shearwater at Van Wagner's Beach... Yes - no one got a photo of it, but it was seen by 38 observers flying around during a Hurricane. The accumulation of accounts and documentation helps ease concern that any mistakes are made - however this review is more strict than "Media review" and expects detailed notes on plumage and separation of similar species...

Single Observer (or single party) review would be more strict than the current review. I keep getting the impression that a high percentage of these reports are either misidentified, or misrepresented accounts of what actually happened. Not only would a reviewer expected detailed notes on the appearance of the bird, but would also consider WHO is writing the report, their skill level/experience, and expect an honest account of what was actually observed (based on circumstances). Observers should know, before writing this style of report/documentation - that it is difficult to get acceptance through this level of review for brief sightings.

So how would this shake down? Well occasionally "media" would be dubbed "non-diagnostic" and fall into one of the other two categories. Otherwise photos/media will solve the issue. I would also hope that this helps straight-arm people into trying to record the birds they see. (I'm specifically thinking about recording Fish Crow calls with your cell phone!)...

Well supported observations would also pass with relative ease, as long as they qualify for this level of review. There is onus on the observers to write a decent/standard OBRC report, but the reviewers will know in advance that they should write a decent report to help the cause!

Single observer (or party) observations will become a bit more challenging, and some good records will fall through the cracks, but that already happens. In 2013 a casual birder found a Roseate Spoonbill in Prince Edward County - and wrote a brief yet acceptable account - and it was ultimately rejected. Understanding the observer who wrote the report and the circumstances would have made it perfectly clear that it was an acceptable record. Likewise, rarity obsessed/hunting birders will know in advance that their single-observer records are going to be scrutinized in abnormal ways - like "How did they produce such incredibly detailed notes from a bird they saw from a Helicopter?"

I'm sure this plan would cause problems unto itself, but we haven't actually tested it yet - so it's hard to get worried about it at this point in time! What do you think? Would it work?

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Unusual foraging behaviour of a Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra) during a spring reorientation flight

An edited version of this has been published! ---

Holden, B.R. and K.G.D. Burrell. 2016. Foraging by a Summer Tanager during a reorientation flight. Ontario Birds. 33(3):83-85.

Onwards and upwards, as they say:


Spring reorientation flights of landbirds are a rarely studied phenomenon. Observed and previously defined by Lewis (1939) and Gunn (1951) these flights consist of birds flying diurnally in a southerly direction, opposite to what one would normally expect of a spring migrant in North America. Sandspits along the north shore of Lake Erie, Ontario have commonly harboured these flights (Burrell 2013, pers. obs.), while reorientation flights have also been observed to occur in the fall throughout the Atlantic Maritimes (Richardson 1982, McLaren et al. 2000), New Jersey (Weidner et al. 1992), and Fennoscandia (Ã…kesson 1999). The Pelee region in particular has regular flights involving dozens of species and thousands of individuals, predominantly in May (Lewis 1939, Gunn 1951, Burrell 2012 and 2013). These substantial flights have raised questions about the physical demands placed on the individuals taking part; as the elevated energy requirements of migration on passerines is well documented (Richardson 1978, Bairlein et al. 2012). This note documents an unusual observation of a Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra) foraging during a spring reorientation flight.

On 12 May 2014 Holden was observing a reorientation flight at the southerly tip of Point Pelee National Park, Ontario, Canada. As the morning progressed, many observers previously present (including Burrell) ventured elsewhere as activity was relatively light. Mid-morning Holden recorded two observations of Summer Tanagers; a first-alternate male (Humphrey and Parkes 1959) at 0924 EDT and an alternate female (Humphrey and Parkes 1959) first detected at 1009 EDT. While the male exhibited the expected behaviour of a reorienting migrant; that of steady flight southwards over the waters of Lake Erie; the female displayed unusual foraging behaviour during her passage. As she approached the tip of Point Pelee from the north at an estimated height of 50m, Holden raised his camera to document the individual. At this instant she made an erratic twisting flight, followed by a rapid descent to the southernmost trees remaining at Point Pelee. At this time it became apparent she had captured a wasp sp. (Order: Hymenoptera) and spent the following three minutes consuming her catch at close range. Upon consumption she made another unexpected move, rapidly ascending from her perch and immediately continuing her flight southwards over the open waters of Lake Erie. The sequence was captured with a Canon DSLR and 600mm lens (Figures 1, 2, and 3). An additional forty minutes of observation yielded no further observations of the species, or individuals.

The Summer Tanager is one of the quintessential “reverse migrants” in Ontario, where observation of reorientation flights have recurrently documented the species (Burrell 2013). With no confirmed nesting of Summer Tanager for the province (Reid 2007) observations here most likely pertain to overshooting migrants beyond their traditional breeding grounds. The individual documented here was presumably trying to leave Ontario, flying south from Point Pelee National Park over the open waters of Lake Erie, where considerable danger to diurnal migrants has been documented (Jehl and Henry 2010). With the mainland rapidly vanishing below, this individual managed the capture, descent and subsequent ascent with little hesitation. While it would be difficult to fully understand the energy expenditure placed on a single individual during a spring reorientation flight, this observation would indicate that the phenomenon is not engrossing to the point of stopping basic foraging instincts. We hope this observation can provide but a small piece to helping understanding reorientation flights in the future.

Figure 1. The mid-air capture of the Wasp. Photo: Brandon R. Holden

Figure 2. The female Summer Tanager consuming the Wasp at the very tip of Point Pelee. Photo: Brandon R. Holden

Figure 3. The female Summer Tanager resuming its reverse migration immediately after the Wasp was consumed. Photo: Brandon R. Holden

Brandon R. Holden and Kenneth G.D. Burrell 



Ã…kesson, S. 1999. Do Passerine Migrants Captured at an Inland Site Perform Temporary Reverse Migration in Autumn? Ardea, 87 (1): 129-137.
Bairlein, F., D.R. Norris, R. Nagel, M. Bulte, C.C. Voigt, J.W. Fox, D.J.T. Hussell, and H. Schmaljohann. 2012. Cross-hemisphere migration of a 25g songbird. Biology Letters, 8: 505-507.
Burrell, K. G. 2013. The spring reverse migration of landbirds in the Pelee region: 2010-2012. Masters Thesis. University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON. 70pp.
Burrell, K.G. 2012. Examining a large reverse migration off Fish Point, Pelee Island. Ontario Birds, 30:140-147.
Gunn, W.W.H. 1951. Reverse migration of birds in the Pelee Region in relation to the weather. PhD Thesis. University of Toronto. Toronto, ON. 108 pp.
Humphrey, P.S. and K.C. Parkes. 1959. An Approach to the Study of Molts and Plumages. Auk 76:1-31.
Jehl, Jr., J.R., and A.E. Henry. 2010. The Postbreeding Migration of Eared Grebes. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 122(2): 217-227.
Lewis, H.F. 1939. Reverse Migration. Auk, 56(1): 13-27.
McLaren, I., B. Maybank, K. Keddy, P.D Taylor, and T. Fitzgerald. 2000. A notable autumn arrival of reverse-migrants in southern Nova Scotia. North American Birds, 54(1): 4-10.
Reid, F.A. 2007. Summer Tanager, pp. 532-533 in Cadman, M.D., D.A. Sutherland, G.G. Beck, D. Lepage, and A.R. Couturier, eds. Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario, 2001-2005. Bird Studies Canada, Environment Canada, Ontario Field Ornithologists, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and Ontario Nature, Toronto, xxii + 706 pp.
Richardson, W.J. 1978. Timing and amount of bird migration in relation to weather: A review. Oikos, 30: 224-272.
Richardson, W.J. 1982. Northeastward reverse migration of birds over Nova Scotia, Canada, in autumn. Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology, 10 (3): 193-206.
Robinson, W. D. 2012. Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: (

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Raccoon (Procyon lotor) Wind Turbine Mortality

Still digging through old photos (from early 2015)... Photographic proof of a Raccoon mortality due to a strike from a wind turbine blade. Check it out:

Sunday, January 10, 2016

House Sparrow ain't need no feet

At first - I thought this would make an interesting article somewhere. Something like, "House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), surviving despite limb impairment" ... After throwing up in my mouth a little bit, I wrote this post. 

Waaay back when things were green - I saw this House Sparrow at my parents place in Burlington. They had seen him around for quite some time. In the above photo, the posture isn't particularly unusual - especially among young (lazy) birds. 

I was unable to capture the exact sequence - but the bird was well enough to consider bathing. In the above image, he is ready for launch. Below - he has flapped his way across the entire birdbath - through the water - and ended up on the other side. 

Feeding didn't seem like much of an issue either. In the image below, he had flown up to the feeder and carefully flopped into the perching ring. 

Overall it was rather sad to see the loss of function - but also uplifting to see him go about his daily activities without too much difficulty.