During the week leading up to May 21, 2011, an American preacher began proclaiming that the “End is Nigh.” According to him, the Judgment Day was imminent. May 21 would be mankind’s last day on earth. The apocalypse, it seemed, was going to coincide with our annual Baille Birdathon.
What would you do with your last 24 hours on Earth? For “The Warbler Hunters” — a four-man birding team consisting of Kevin Shackleton, John Watson, Art Needles and me — you bird like there is no tomorrow!
We left Newmarket in the late afternoon of May 20, stopping to savour views of a rare American Avocet* that had shown up north of Beeton, before continuing on to dinner at Art’s place in Alliston. (*Ironically, this rare bird would not appear on our official Birdathon list as it had flown the coop by May 21.)
We ate a wonderful meal that night, drank a variety of uncommon tipple, and had some good laughs before heading to bed early, well aware that we would be up at 3 a.m. to begin our “Big Day.”
In contrast to 2010, we hadn’t spent much time scouting for birds this time around. Kevin had knocked himself out finding uncommon species prior to last year’s Birdathon but when we looked for them on the official Birdathon day those target birds were often absent.
With scouting scuttled, we prepared ourselves by birding in various places (Point Pelee for me, Thickson’s Wood for Kevin, the local eco-park for John), sharpening our identification skills for the annual epic. We trusted that Kevin’s itinerary would produce a decent amount of birds when we got to each location in Simcoe County... providing that the sun rose at all on May 21!
At 3:19 a.m., we were away from Art’s, driving north across a planet that still appeared to be blessedly intact. We drove to the northwest corner of Simcoe County (Hwy 400 and Quarry Road) and, with flashlights guiding the way, ventured out into the pre-dawn gloom.
Two hours later, we had circumnavigated the dike trail surrounding Matchedash Bay and had recorded 54 species including the increasingly uncommon Common Nighthawk, a “qwoking” Black-crowned Night Heron, and — in the slowly-lightening morning sky — a Broad-winged Hawk (alertly spotted by John Watson).
We drove to the Cowan Nature Trail on Kinnear Road next and penetrated the property more deeply than last year when we’d been concerned about the threat of rogue bears (a man had, in fact, been attacked there two days prior to our 2010 Birdathon). Here we heard and saw several Brewster’s Warblers, the hybrid of the Golden-winged and Blue-winged Warbler, singing the Golden-wing song. We also heard Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, a bird Kevin had seen and heard there previously.
Back in the team vehicle we made our way down old country lanes, watching and listening for birds as we drove. Art’s van has rear windows that open (not every van does!) and that feature came in very handy when Kevin heard an anomalous song outside his window on Lawson Line. He quickly asked Art to pull over.
After a flurry of tree-scanning, we located a non-descript bird that appeared to be a Tennessee Warbler but when the bird sang again we agreed that this was not the distinct three-part song used by that species.
We raised our sensory antennae to greater lengths and relocated the elusive bird, noting its field marks more carefully and giving our own impressions of its song (“...kind of a varied trill, eh?”). The process of comparing notes helped us reach a happy conclusion: it was an Orange-crowned Warbler, a species we don’t usually get on our Birdathons. Back in the car, Kevin’s CD of bird songs confirmed the auditory aspect of this bird’s identity.
Entering the town of Coldwater soon after that, we managed to hear and see a pair of Chimney Swifts flying overhead. It was time for coffee and a pit stop so we pulled into the local Country Style Donuts and grabbed some java. Art produced a container of mouth-watering prawns (with seafood dip) for each of us to snack on, so we munched on jumbo shrimp beside the local gas station in front of some rather bemused locals.
Dabbing our mouths with fine linen (okay, Country Style Donuts’ serviettes), we were soon moving westward to Tiny Marsh near Elmvale, a bird-rich wetland that is bordered by some excellent forested areas to the north. We had very good luck here, adding 23 species and breaking the 100-species mark before 11 a.m. Highlights included Least Bittern, American Bittern, Black Tern, and Sandhill Crane.
Our determination to improve on the 2010 count (we’d “only” found 121 species on that Birdathon) hardened as we drove to Wasaga Beach to see the endangered Piping Plover on Beach 1. Despite a fog bank that was hovering low over Georgian Bay, we saw the bird sitting tight on its nest under anti-predator mesh.
We chatted with two volunteer birders that were monitoring the rare plover before proceeding to Scott Martin’s home for a few tips on local birds. We added Blackburnian Warbler to our list while eating a delicious lunch in Scott’s driveway then bade him adieu and drove west to Collingwood. The harbour there helped us regain momentum as we added 11 species including a few pleasant surprises: both Northern Parula and Palm Warbler singing from a small cluster of ornamental trees in the parkette.
Although we struck out on Upland Sandpiper at the Collingwood Airport, the Stayner Sewage lagoons were quite productive, giving us a dozen new species including a female Northern Pintail, a Ruddy Duck, a Sharp-shinned Hawk, and a rare Western Sandpiper in the company of several “peeps.” These additions brought the day’s total to 131 species.
We were well ahead of last year’s pace and knew that we could count on several more species as we continued to work our way southward. The birding gods — likely aided and abetted by the late, great Keith Dunn — seemed to be smiling on us as we enjoyed continuing good fortune at each subsequent stop. We added Pileated Woodpecker in Angus, Dunlin, Lesser Yellowlegs, and a “whinnying” Sora on MacKinnon Road, then a Black-bellied Plover on 15th Sideroad in New Tecumseth, bringing our total to 140, one species shy of our team record from 2009.
Fatigue fell away when we saw how close we were to setting a new high-water mark. Art, however, had to get back to Alliston. Since he had fed us, served as our team driver, and put up with our ornithologically driven madness for the past 16 hours, we released him from his duties and bade him adieu at the parking lot of the Cookstown Outlet Mall. Then, with continued obsessiveness, we got into Kevin’s car and headed back up the 400, making for the Sparrow Lake area above Orillia!
Because Kevin knows this area well, he made for Brennan Line, arriving there as the sun prepared to touch the treetops. In the fading light of the not-so-last-day-of-all-time we added two crepuscular species — Common Snipe and Whippoorwill — to the day’s list, thus setting our new record of 142 species.
In the process of chasing all these birds, we had also set a record of 19.5 hours in the field and 547 kilometres travelled. We had avoided the apocalypse and enjoyed our best day ever. The success of the 2011 Baillie Birdathon was the result of a great team effort.
Again this year, the funds I raise are going to be shared between Bird Studies Canada and Ontario Nature.
If you have already pledged online, thanks sincerely for your support. If you have not but would like to pledge now (hint, hint), simply submit a cheque payable to the Baillie Birdathon or donate online by clicking this link:
By Ron Fleming (with Kevin Shackleton)