Thursday, 20 February 2014

Monthly trip to Pelee

This past weekend I made the long and familiar drive down to Point Pelee on my monthly visit to the area. The Point Pelee area is a home away from home for me. In the summers of 2010 and 2011 I was working in the Windsor area so whenever I could, I would make the 45 minute drive to Hillman Marsh, the onion fields, or the National Park itself. In 2012 I devoted five weeks of my Big Year (from late April to early June) to living and birding in the Point Pelee area and I also made numerous trips to the area throughout the rest of the year. Some of my most notable birds on my big year were seen in the Point Pelee Birding Area. Quite a few of those species I did not observe anywhere else in Ontario throughout the year, like Bell's Vireo, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Worm-eating Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Chuck-will's Widow, Summer Tanager, American Avocet, Cave Swallow, Red Phalarope, Henslow's Sparrow, Acadian Flycatcher, Curlew Sandpiper, Lark Sparrow, and Prothonotary Warbler, to name a few.  While I now live north of Toronto, I still visit the area regularly; in fact, in 2013 I visited during every month with the exception being October (though I had two April and two September visits, plus 12 days in late April and early May). I've seen most of the common species on the Point Pelee checklist, with big misses being Short-eared Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Northern Shrike, Western Kingbird, Hudsonian Godwit, Cattle Egret, Pacific Loon, etc. Not a lot left to see, apart from rarities!

I arrived late Friday night and stayed at Jeremy Bensette's place. The next morning we were up relatively late and did not arrive into the park until mid-morning where we met up with Kory Renaud and Blake Mann.


A check of the areas around the VC parking lot and the Shuster Trail revealed several Yellow-rumped Warblers and some Hermit Thrushes. At the east end of Shuster Trail it looked like a bleak winter landscape, though there was some open water. The winds were from the west and the north, pushing a lot of the ice on Lake Erie away from shore. While the Great Lakes are predominately frozen over, the ice is dynamic and constantly shifting, creating polynyas (cracks containing open water) which ducks and other waterbirds will use.

A total of 9 Bald Eagles were flying around at different points. Jeremy, Kory, and Blake all obtained excellent images. My camera was safely stowed in my car.

Jeremy and I did a check along Point Pelee Drive around noon. While the landscape was mostly devoid of birds, several bird feeders had birds visiting. One of the blackbird flocks contained a nice male Brewer's! We had it in the scope when Steve Pike arrived.

Later that afternoon, while enjoying a barbeque lunch at Blue Heron, Kory and I happened to notice a large white bird slowly flying by out over the marsh. A check with the bins revealed that it was a Snowy Owl! Who knows if this is a local bird flying around, perhaps to move between new hunting areas, an individual from further north moving south (as has been happening since the autumn) or if it was a returning bird from south of the Great Lakes.

While driving out of the park, Jeremy and I stopped on occasion to check out the several screech owls, all sunning at the entrance to their tree cavities. Check out this red-morph!

Later in the afternoon several of us drove around in the onion fields, hoping to scare up some interesting birds. Three Tundra Swans were seen (spring migrants? please???), as well as several Rough-legged Hawks and Northern Harriers. The usually predictable Long-eared Owl location was devoid of owls (as has been the case for most of the winter), so here is a shot of one from last year instead.

The following day was fairly uneventful bird-wise. I birded by myself for most of the day and did not see a whole lot. Certainly the highlight of the day was snow-shoeing around the Hillman Marsh Couture Dyke at dusk. While I did not see the Northern Shrike that had taken up residence here, I did find a Great Horned Owl sitting on a dead snag out in the marsh. A great way to end the day!

On Monday (long weekend! woo!), Jeremy and I did a quick run around the onion fields. Once again, we were not surprised by a lack of birds and I have to say I'm pretty much at that point where I would be ok with winter coming to an end!

I left Pelee around noon, arriving at the Thames River in London by mid-afternoon. Over the last few weeks an interesting phenomena has been occurring with sea-ducks and grebes showing up on inland waterways in Ontario. White-winged Scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers, Greater Scaup, Horned and Red-necked Grebes and even Red-throated Loons have been the reported species, and most of these had been seen recently on the Thames River in London, southwest of the water treatment plant. One theory that seems plausible and is being thrown around by many is that these birds had been frozen out of some of the Great Lakes, likely Lake Huron (including Georgian Bay) in this case. With the recent freezing of Huron, ducks and other waterbirds have been pushed south, stopping wherever they can find open water. Tens of thousands of Long-tailed Ducks are now crammed into the St. Clair River, for instance. Quite a few of the displaced ducks have been reported dead and dying, and some have been found landing on roads which can give off the appearance of a river to a flying waterbird, especially at night. There is also the possibility of early "spring" migrants augmenting the numbers of waterbirds, as some species including Red-necked Grebes and Red-throated Loons are known to have some individuals that migrate as early as February. Most Red-necked Grebes, however, stage on Lake Ontario which is the only Great Lake that is mostly ice free.

Different numbers of diving ducks had been reported at several locations along the Thames so I decided to do a long walk along the south bank to try to tally up everything. Unfortunately I only had about 3 hours to spare, otherwise I would have covered a much larger distance.

I started at the west end of Springbank Park (Halls Mill Road) and walked pretty much non-stop to the water treatment plant at the east edge of Greenway Park, a distance of just under 6 km. In that stretch I came across quite a few ducks, including some of the unusual species.

My totals:
380 Canada Goose
21 American Black Duck
935 Mallard
3 Canvasback
22 Greater Scaup
4 White-winged Scoter
8 Long-tailed Duck
27 Bufflehead
157 Common Goldeneye
32 Common Merganser
3 Red-breasted Merganser

Not a bad haul for a river in the middle of Middlesex! I missed a few of the reported species including Red-throated Loon (which apparently was a one-day wonder) and Redhead. There has been the occasional report of Lesser Scaup as well (including on the same day as my visit) but I only saw Greaters! ;)

Other highlights in London included a beautiful Snowy Owl and a 3rd cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull, both near the landfill south of London on Manning Drive.

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