Saturday 25 May 2013

Rainy River area - May 23

Our first full day of birding the Rainy River area was on Thursday, after 3 days of traveling through northern Ontario.

It didn't take long to find one of my most desired species, the Sharp-tailed Grouse. We were lucky to observe a male doing a half-hearted display from a rock:

We ended up seeing many of these grouse throughout the area. Most of our sightings were of flushed birds from the roadside. Almost every time we flushed the birds we all thought they looked like ducks before realizing what they actually were...

Another target bird was Marbled Godwit. This species breeds in the Rainy River area in low numbers. eBird helped us locate where previous sightings have been and sure enough there was one :) Nearby were several other shorebirds, including Dunlin, Short-billed Dowitcher, and Lesser Yellowlegs!

A confiding Ruby-throated Hummingbird got the attention of my camera:

In the late morning we returned to our campsite when Mike and I decided to photograph the Harris's Sparrow and Yellow-headed Blackbirds that were visiting the nearby feeder. This feeder is amazing (at the Harris Hill Resort). There were always Yellow-headed Blackbirds nearby, Evening Grosbeaks, Purple Finches, Pine Siskins, several sparrow species, and many more birds!

When we arrived at the feeder I noticed that one of the male Purple Finches looked a bit different. It was sitting in the middle of 3 other male Purple Finches where I noted that its red/purple colour was very noticeably different than the surrounding Purple Finches, and it seemed slightly larger. I pointed out the different bird to Mike and it stole our attention for the next couple hours.

The bird in question is on the right and a normal Purple Finch is on the left, facing away.
Note the difference in red/purple colour

Other things that we noted were the more streaky back, and a contrast between the red head and brown nape. This contrast is higher up on the unusual bird, vs the normal Purple Finch.

Unusual finch - note streaky back, and contrast between the head and nape/neck

We were able to rule out House Finch because of the forked tail, and lack of brown streaks on the lower flank.
The behaviour was also distinct from the 10+ Purple Finches (they're dirt birds up here!) It barely moved throughout our observation and often was in a tree all on its own, while the Purple Finches were in a completely different bush and seemed much more active.

At this time we didn't have a field guide with us so we resorted to taking a ton of pictures to help make an ID later.

One thing I didn't notice in the field, but seemed clear in the photos, was the two different shades of red/purple. The purple colouring around the breast seems to be similar to that of a normal Purple Finch.

Cassin's Finch was on our mind so we quickly read through the Sibley page for Cassin's Finch. Many of the field marks seemed to line up: larger size, somewhat straighter bill, the more reddish plumage, the contrast between head and nape, and the brown streaks on the back/mantle. But it was definitely not a perfect fit. The bill was definitely not straight and long enough, the head shape was off, and there wasn't any streaking on the undertail coverts. So we sent some photos off and the general consensus is that it's definitely not a Cassin's Finch. It could be just a normal Purple Finch that was eating some unusual food, or a hybrid Purple X House Finch. What are your thoughts?

A normal Purple Finch:

We did eventually get around to photographing the Yellow-headed Blackbirds. Beautiful birds! I would love to have them at my feeder:

Clay-colored Sparrows were never very far away - I love these guys:

This Richardon's Ground Squirrel was a neat find, apparently a rare breeder for the area, and the only area where you can see them in Ontario:

Quiz time:
Merlin feeding. Any guesses as to what species is in its talons?

Don't miss the blog post from Mira below - she's in Edmonton for the summer and is seeing some awesome birds!