Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Dark morph Red-tailed Hawk in Ontario

There seems to be a lot more interest in Red-tailed Hawk subspecies in Ontario lately. This is obviously a good thing as it is great to see people taking an interest in what is our most commonly observed hawk and probably most variable species in southern Ontario! This species makes for a great study here...I think of them like juncos - you can stare at them all day long and notice the individual variation from bird to bird - no two are exactly alike!

If you are interested at all in the variation of this species then you should probably head on over to Jean Iron's website to check out these articles by her and Ron Pittaway:
Subspecies of the Red-tailed Hawk (1993)
Dark Morph Red-tailed Hawks: calurus or abieticola? (2012)
Hawk Commentary (2016)

Another good article is Identifying Northern Red-tailed Hawks by Jon Ruddy (2014). Check the list of references in all of those articles for more reading!

Anyways, I point you to these information sources so you can read about these wonderful hawks before you see what I have to say/show...

Ken and I were down at Long Point for a quick tour of winter birds on Sunday morning. We weren't disappointed! We racked up 64 species in a morning of birding, highlighted by some good winter birds like Greater White-fronted Goose, Red-shouldered Hawk, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Hermit Thrush, Gray Catbird, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Fox Sparrow and best of all, a dark morph Red-tailed Hawk. We weren't the finders of any of these birds but rather benefited from other birders being out and about in the days.

Anyways, here's the Red-tailed Hawk in question. For now, I have identified it as a dark morph calurus, sticking with the conventional wisdom that all dark morph birds in Ontario are of that species, but as Jean points out in her article, there could well be dark morph birds of the abieticola subspecies that no one has located in their remote breeding grounds yet!

Luke Berg also observed and photographed this bird on 14 January.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

My experience with Leica Customer “Service”

In early March, while checking in to a hotel room, I was holding my Leica 10x42 Trinovid BA binoculars (ca. 1991) on my hip with some other gear while I tried to open the hotel room door. Unfortunately, during this process my binoculars fell the ~70 cm to the ground. When I picked them up I was shocked to see that parts of the optics had become loose in the right barrel. I was very disappointed because they were great binoculars and it meant I had to conduct field work for the rest of the week with damaged binoculars. I also knew it meant I may be without my binoculars for some time.

I sent in my binoculars and did some online research to see what other’s experiences with Leica repair/warranty service was. The results were mixed but weighted towards negative results, with some people happy and others not. I prepared myself for the worst. Unfortunately, as you will see from the timeline below, even preparing for the worst was not enough to get me ready for the complete lack of care Leica has shown me as a customer. Basic courtesies like returning emails and phone calls when promised were completely absent. There was no attempt made to give me any information without considerable effort on my part.

So read on and make up your own mind. But I don’t think you need to bother asking me for my opinion on Leica!

  • March 7: I emailed for instructions on sending binoculars in for repair. Received instructions back within 3 hours. Mailed my binoculars as instructed later that day.
  • March 14: binoculars entered into Leica’s system. Notice mailed to me to tell me I needed to call them to proceed further.
  • March 24: I received the note and I phoned Leica. Was informed the binoculars were not covered by warranty and the damage would cost more than a replacement pair. I expressed my disappointment and the Leica rep told me they would have another technician inspect them to confirm and then call me back on Monday (29 March; which was Easter Monday so I assumed it would be Tuesday).
  • April 1: Having not received a call back I phoned Leica. I waited on hold for a couple of minutes then was transferred to the voicemail which was full so I could not even leave a message.
  • April 5: Still hadn’t received a call back so I emailed Leica with a CC to the president. Received a phone call and email from Customer Care manager explaining that the binoculars were indeed damaged beyond repair but they would offer me a discount on a replacement pair. 
  • April 6: I phoned Customer Care manager and agreed to their offer and passed on my Credit Card information for payment. He informed me they should ship the following week.
  • April 21: emailed Customer Care manager to ask about status. Did not get a reply back.
  • April 22: phoned Customer service in morning. Rep told me they should have been shipped but will check on the status and phone me back (I assumed that meant that day). Did not hear back from this person – ever.
  • April 25: phoned Customer Care since I did not get a call back from previous rep. I was placed on hold, then transferred to voicemail, which was full. Phoned Customer Care manager and got through. He told me they hadn’t been shipped yet but they would be very soon. I asked about having them shipped to my work address since I wasn’t at home much at that time and living a couple hours away from my home address and he said no problem, just email the address to him, so I did.
  • April 26: Phoned Customer Care manager and got through; he told me he would get the binoculars tomorrow AM and ship them overnight. He confirmed he did get my work address by email (even though he didn’t reply).
  • April 27: Phoned Customer Care manager – no answer.
  • April 28: Phoned Customer Care manager. Left a message. Called back twice more but no answer.
  • April 29: Phoned Customer Care manager. Got through. He told me they had shipped on April 27 and should arrive today, or Monday (May 2) at the latest. He didn’t have the tracking number handy. Checked credit card info and debit to Leica was processed on April 27.
  • May 2: Since I hadn’t received the binoculars yet, I phoned Customer Care manager. No answer so I emailed him- no reply. Tried calling Customer Service dept. and was placed on hold then transferred to voicemail that was full. Tried calling another number I had from March 7 for a Leica Technical Advisor and got through; he checked with the operator who transferred me to someone who was in the service department who was supposedly in – my call went to voicemail.
  • May 3: Still no binoculars or response to email from Customer Care manager. Tried calling customer service – was placed on hold then transferred to voicemail that was full. Tried calling customer care manager – no answer. Tried calling other person in service department – no answer. Tried being transferred to operator – no answer. Tried again later and got a hold of the operator; she looked through files but said the shipping information must be still with shipping department (which was already closed for the day) and she or Customer Care manager would call me back tomorrow morning.
  • May 4: emailed Custom Care manager with a CC to the president reminding him that I needed the binoculars for a trip on Friday and sharing the timeline and frustration I have gone through so far. I got an email back from the president saying I would be sent the tracking info shortly. The Customer Care manager sent me the tracking info….and….they sent them to my house, despite me telling them not to. I hadn’t been home for a couple of weeks and that is why I asked them to be sent to my office. To make things worse, according to UPS, they were signed for by me when they were delivered at 4:30 pm on Monday (May 2). I phoned UPS and they emailed me the signature – someone else’s hand-written “Mike Burrell”; I told them there has not been anyone at my house for over a week and they told me all I could do is check with my neighbours to see if they had been delivered to the wrong address. If not, then I would have to get Leica to open a complaint with UPS. Great, I thought, another ordeal! I scrambled to get in touch with someone nearby (I was two hours away) and got a hold of my friend, James. He was good enough to make the 45 minutes round trip up to my house and there they were – sitting on my porch (presumably for two days). He grabbed them and held on to them until I was able to pick them up.
  • May 5: I finally picked up my binoculars and eagerly opened the box. At first things looked fine but I soon realized that there was a problem with the diopter: even at the most extreme setting I couldn't get the two barrels to be in focus together! So, I now had my binoculars in time to head to Pelee but they were broken...
  • May 11: When I returned home from Pelee, I packaged them back up and express-shipped them back to Leica (at my expense) and emailed the Custom Care manager with a CC to the president to send them my shipping receipt and tell them what had happened and that I expected to be reimbursed for the extra shipping cost ($80), which seemed like a perfectly reasonable request.
  • I never heard anything back in reply to my request for reimbursement but I did get another pair of binoculars (that were not broken) within a few business days.

Morals of the story is a) don’t expect to ever have email or phone calls back from Leica unless you get a hold of them directly by phone (don’t bother with voicemail); b) don’t believe anything their customer service department tells you unless they can give you some proof; c) if you think you will ever want something related to customer service/repair, it is probably best to buy some other brand than Leica; and d) if you do have to deal with customer service, I’d CC the president for Leica USA, Roger Horn, to make sure you are actually dealt with.

In fairness to Leica, at least some of this poor service resulted because they were undergoing upgrades to their computer system. And, the offer to replace my 25 year old binoculars for a reduced price on a new pair seemed fair, even though I was very surprised that they broke in the first place. But that’s probably fairer than I should be…

How does that compare to customer service you have received from a binocular manufacturer? You can find all sorts of reviews online about the performance of different binocular makes/models but it seems we rarely talk much about their post-purchase service.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Pelee pewee

Last week (May 8 to be exact) I was walking a footpath at Point Pelee National Park with my Mom (it was Mother's Day afterall!) when I heard a bird calling up ahead. It was fairly faint but I thought to myself that it kind of sounded like a Western Wood-Pewee. That's a pretty damn rare bird in Ontario, with only three accepted records by the OBRC so I pretty quickly dismissed the calls as coming from a European Starling or a Gray Catbird. At that point, I hadn't even seen an Eastern Wood-Pewee yet this year, as they had been slow to arrive. Imagine my surprise then when a few minutes later I came around a corner and there was a wood-pewee feeding actively in the shrubs.

I studied the bird for about ten minutes and took a bunch of photos of it. I tried playing Western Wood-Pewee calls on my phone and the bird cocked its head a bit but didn't really seem too interested. From what I could see in the field and remember about Wood-Pewee ID at the time, the bird seemed like a pretty good fit for an Eastern Wood-Pewee; all orange lower mandible, fairly equal wing bars. I thought it seemed quite grey to me, but having not seen a wood-pewee for about 8 months I didn't put much weight in this.

Anyways, having reviewed the photos I still think the bird is an Eastern Wood-Pewee but I am by no means an expert and would love some extra opinions! So what do you think?

Friday, 27 November 2015

A gaggle of geese!

Every spring and fall hundreds of thousands of Snow and Canada Geese pass through easternmost Ontario on their migrations between the Arctic and the east coast. The sights can be dizzying with so many geese in the air, especially for southern Ontarians who think a flock of a couple thousand Canadas is a big one!

This spectacle has made headlines in Ontario this month because Jacques Bouvier found a Pink-footed Goose in a large flock of Greater Snow Geese near Moose Creek. This, being the first record for Ontario, has obviously created lots of attention on these amazing flocks of birds. Even without this rarity it is well worth the trip in spring or fall to witness all of the geese in eastern Ontario and western Quebec.

I have visited the area twice over the past month (helps to have inlaws in the area!!) and captured some images that give you a bit of a feel for the huge numbers, but to really do it justice you'll have to check it out yourself!

If you really want to do this one justice, open it up in your browser (click here) and then zoom in to see it at full size! PS: there is a Greater White-fronted Goose in that image somewhere...

Immature Greater White-fronted Goose
On a more recent visit, I checked the Moose Creek Sewage Lagoons and was happy to find a neck-collared Snow Goose. This is my third I have found in this general area. The other two were both banded on Bylot Island (where most "Greater" Snow Geese breed). Here's the collared goose I found this time:

I submitted the information to the Bird Banding lab (so that they and the bander have the information about where the bird has been re-sighted) and got back this information:

As you can see, this bird was also banded on Bylot Island, this time in 2013. By my calculations it has flown at least 22,000 km in it's life, probably much further!

I also found a nice big flock of Canada Geese closer to Morrisburg:

After a bit of searching I found two Cackling Geese mixed in! Did you see them in the above photo?? Here they are:

Still can't see them in the big image? Here, I have marked their location:

Always fun sifting through these huge flocks!!!

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Unprecedented numbers of White-rumped Sandpipers in Southern Ontario

Unless you haven't been paying attention to any birding list serves, google groups or eBird reports in the past 10 days you'll know something special is happening in Southern Ontario right now with a couple of shorebird species.

It all got kick-started last Saturday when Michael Butler found a Eurasian Dotterel. This is such a crazy bird - just a handful of North American records outside of Alaska (something like 3 California, 1 Washington, 1 Oregon, and 1 British Columbia records). This was obviously pretty exciting but there has been some really interesting other sightings that may all have their origin in the incredibly strong winds we had for several days in a row for the first few days of the month.
An adult White-rumped Sandpiper in August on James Bay
The main species involved is White-rumped Sandpipers. These birds breed in the high arctic, and most of them stage on James Bay from August to October before heading south-east. With some birds being tagged in James Bay over the last few years we'll soon have a better idea if these birds stop on the US east coast or if they go non-stop out over the Atlantic to South America. Regardless, what we normally see in southern Ontario are small groups (1-10 individuals) passing through Ontario in late May/early June and then again from August to early November. Don't believe me? Here's the eBird line graph:
Frequency of eBird reports of White-rumped Sandpipers in s. ON
Above is the eBird frequency graph for White-rumped Sandpipers in southern Ontario. This shows you the percentage of checklist reporting this species for each monthly quarter. You can see the spring peak in the first week of June and the fall peak in late August. That gap in late September could be just a gap in sampling effort or, may represent the gap between when adults pass through and when juveniles start showing up (in most shorebird species the adults migrate first).
Average count of White-rumped Sandpipers in s. ON
In this next figure the average count is presented. In most cases, the count is in the range of 1-5 with the exception of the second week of October when it shoots up to 24. Again, this may be the difference between when adults (experienced migrators) and juveniles (less experienced) show up here.
A northbound White-rumped Sandpiper in June in Polar Bear PP

But this October has been anything but ordinary for reports of large flocks of juvenile White-rumped Sandpipers in southern Ontario. Check out this figure:
Reports by year of flocks of White-rumped Sandpiper of >10 birds
In the above figure, I have compiled the number of reports per year (and per decade for earlier years) of flocks of White-rumped Sandpiper that contained at least 10 birds. In the past five years, we have only had 7 reports. Prior to that (admittedly when eBird data is probably far from complete), we average just under 8 reports per decade. This, year, however we already have at least 24 reports, from an impressive 17 different census divisions (AKA counties)! That's pretty remarkable.

And it's not just the number of reports that is impressive. Below is a table of the ten highest counts I could find for southern Ontario (using the following data sources: Hamilton Naturalists' Club database, Northumberland County bird database, eBird, Ontario high counts database maintained by George Bryant, and the GTA and Ontario bird records database maintained by Roy Smith).

Count Date Observer Location, County
310 07/10/2015 Mike
V.A. Burrell
Sewage Lagoons, Huron
200 14/10/2015 Dan Macneal Belwood Lake, Wellington
180 07/10/2015 Jarmo Jalava Wildwood Reservoir,
135 11/10/2015 Mike
V.A. Burrell et al.
Mitchell Sewage Lagoons
(West Perth Wetlands), Perth
120 07/10/2015 Wayne Renaud Oliphant, Bruce
120 04/10/2015 Doug McRae Presqu'ile Provincial
Park, Northumberland
120 06/10/2015 Elena Kreuzberg Ottawa--Shirley's Bay,
118 04/10/2015 Jarmo Jalava Mitchell Sewage Lagoons
(West Perth Wetlands), Perth
100 10/10/2015 Mark Patry Ottawa--Shirley's Bay,
92 04/10/2011 Jeff Skevington Ottawa--Shirley's Bay,

Even if you take out some of the records that are likely the same flock on subsequent days 9 of the top 10 high counts in southern Ontario are from the last 10 days, so it is very apparent that this October really is amazing for this species here. We can speculate that these numbers have resulted from a grounding of the flocks of juvenile White-rumped Sandpipers migrating out of James Bay; maybe it was that incredible wind we had to start the month?
A Hudsonian Godwit on the breeding grounds in Polar Bear PP
A similar, situation has been unfolding over this same time period with Hudsonian Godwits, which have a similar fall migration route/strategy as White-rumped Sandpipers. There have been many reports across southern Ontario during this time so perhaps they have been impacted by the same weather phenomenon as the White-rumpeds, but I'll save that analysis for someone else!

What I really love about this is it really shows the utility of using eBird to monitor and analyse bird events as they are unfolding - you don't have to wait a year until the seasonal summaries in North American Birds comes out!

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

personal eBird milestones: complete barchart for my yard!

I was very excited to hit two eBird milestones this past month. The first (and least exciting) was to enter my 15,000th checklist:

But the really fun milestone was to finally fill out my eBird barchart for my yard. Here's are a couple snapshots:

Even though we had been living at this place since December 2013 (and of course I was regularly reporting my observations to eBird) there were a couple monthly quarters that I had missed in my first year. I was able to fill those gaps with at least a single checklist on the second pass this year. The result is something anyone can accomplish by regularly reporting the birds in their backyard (or their local park or favourite trail) - it's a pretty powerful way to summarize simple data!

If you want to see the full bar chart of all 165 species I have seen on the yard so far, you can download a pdf version. I'd love to hear about your complete barchart.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

What do Long-tailed Jaegers eat in Ontario? A week full of surprises

It was a very exciting week for me with all sorts of pleasant surprises wherever I went.

To start things off, on Sunday, Ken, my Dad and I were headed down to Holiday Beach IBA for the annual Hawk Festival. We left Waterloo in the dark but hadn't even made it to the 401 when we had our first surprise of the day. Just as we were getting off Hwy 8 I noticed a raptor sitting on a light post. Without thinking much I said "hey there's a red-tail". But as I looked at the bird a bit longer I realized that's not what it was. I pulled onto the shoulder of the ramp and put my bins on it and was surprised to see this:

Yep, a Snowy Owl - on September 13! I think it is more likely that this is a lingering bird from the big irruption last winter rather than an early fall migrant. We don't expect them until November at the earliest. Last year there were a couple of lingering Snowy Owls in Hamilton and on Amherst Island through the summer, so it does happen but it sure is a surprise to see!

With our spirits high from our surprising find we continued towards Holiday Beach. Before arriving we knew we were in for a good hawk flight as the conditions were perfect (clear with a brisk NW wind) and we were already seeing Sharp-shinned Hawks flying over the fields we were passing. We weren't the only ones thinking the same thing as the turnout was excellent:

And here's what everyone was watching:
A kettle of Broad-winged Hawks
That's right, nice big kettles of Broad-winged Hawks. They really got going at about 11 am and were still going strong when we left at 2. In any given year 2-6% of the world population of Broad-winged Hawks funnels through Holiday Beach, and usually a big chunk of those birds pass through in a few key days. The day's tally was over 7000, or about .5% of the world population! Needless to say we weren't disappointed, or even that surprised since the conditions were perfect. What was a surprise though was a dark morph Broad-winged Hawk that we saw go over with a group of "normal" (light morph) broad-wings in the afternoon. That was my first ever and Ken's second.

Our highlight, however happened just before noon. I was waiting by the classroom to get organized for a presentation I was to give when Jeremy Bensette and Emma Buck came walking over. As we were chatting I looked up to see a line of broad-wings passing overhead through a gap in the trees. I lucked out because as I put my binoculars up I noticed a heavily marked, slightly larger, and longer wings buteo overhead - "I've got a Swainson's Hawk!". Jeremy got it right away and even snapped a couple photos. It was an Ontario bird for both of us. I phoned Ken since he was on the tower and I wanted to make sure they got the bird too - he answered the phone with "juvenile light or intermediate morph!" then hung up. Pretty sweet!

And we had one more surprise fly over that day from the tower:
American White Pelican

That was Sunday. Through the week I was busy with some great staff meetings at Bird Studies Canada's headquarters in Port Rowan. A Say's Phoebe was found near Rondeau but a chase was not in the cards for me.

But my biggest surprise came yesterday, when I was at Erica's childhood home for some birthday parties. I checked my email in the morning and saw that Parasitic Jaeger had been found feeding in a field just 10 minutes to the north. I filed the information away thinking I'd go have a look later in the day. My phone promptly died so I didn't think too much more about it. Then, Erica's brother texted her to say he had spotted a crowd of birders checking something out at the spot so Erica and I went for a drive. When we got there we found out that it was actually a Long-tailed Jaeger - much rarer, and probably a first county record. At first it was a bit distant but eventually it started flying around feeding around the field, sometimes flying within 5 metres of us. At one point it landed, caught and ate a worm about 10 metres away from us. Absolutely amazing views of a bird that I have only ever seen way out on Lake Ontario off of Hamilton.
Now that's a sweet yard bird!
Can't be too many shots of this species with a silo in the back

Yes, that's a worm!

Needless to say, before the week started if you had told me I'd see a Snowy Owl, Swainson's Hawk, dark morph Broad-winged Hawk, and a worm-eating Long-tailed Jaeger I would have asked you if you'd hit your head!