Tuesday, 24 June 2014

An evening on Amherst Island

As I mentioned in my post early this morning, I traveled to Amherst Island to look for a reported Lark Bunting yesterday. That morning, I was up early to complete a breeding bird survey in Burlington, and after finishing my surveys (and stopping near Guelph to see an Upland Sandpiper), I headed back to the office. As I was finishing my day in the early afternoon, the news broke about the Lark Bunting on Amherst Island. It had been present for about five days and was singing away in the same location that morning.

I immediately contacted a few birders to see if anyone wanted to go with me. This was a bird I wasn't going to miss! I had never seen one before in Canada (or Ontario for that matter), and these days I only add 4 or 5 new Ontario birds a year. Not only that, but it was on a rare afternoon where I did not have any commitments - not too common for me in June.

Barb Charlton was interested in coming with, so I met her somewhere along the 401 around 3 PM, and we were off! The drive was fairly uneventful, and by 6:15 PM we rolled into the Millhaven area to catch the ferry. Barb spotted an Upland Sandpiper on a wire just outside of Millhaven, so I turned the car around to get a better look. It hopped down onto a stump right beside the road.

Upland Sandpiper - Millhaven

 Sweet bird! Uplands are closely related to curlews, and they are one of only a few species of shorebirds in Ontario that nest in dry, open fields. They have been experiencing population declines in the past few decades, coinciding with the loss of grassland habitat - a similar fate shared by many other species including Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark, Loggerhead Shrike, and Henslow's Sparrow.

Upland Sandpiper - Millhaven

Upland Sandpiper - Millhaven

After enjoying the Upland for a few minutes, we raced down to the docks and just caught the 6:30 ferry. It was a warm and calm evening and we enjoyed watching the swallows foraging above the boat, and dreaming of glimpsing perhaps a Neotropic Cormorant or Arctic Tern somewhere over the water...

ferry to Amherst Island

We arrived 20 minutes later and had just started south down the main road when we drove past Mike Burrell, Erica Barkley, and James Barber. They had just returned from looking for the bird which was still singing away. They needed to catch the return ferry and we were eager to see the bird, so we said goodbye and continued on.

As we drove along we added a few new "county ticks": - Brown Thrasher, Grasshopper Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark. Much of the island consists of pastures with farmers still utilizing old-school farming practices, and many fields are left fallow or as grazing for cattle. The grassland birds were reaping the benefits with high numbers of Upland Sandpipers, Short-eared Owls, and even a few Wilson's Phalaropes nesting, along with all the common grassland birds.

We arrived at the spot and a birder was pulled over at the side of the road, taking pictures of a small dark bird on the wire. We approached and had great views of the Lark Bunting singing away!

Lark Bunting - Amherst Island

Lark Bunting - Amherst Island

The other birder was local Kurt Hennige who does a lot of work with grassland birds on Amherst Island. The Kingston-area birders have had a number of good birds over the past month, including Kentucky Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, Chuck-will's-widow, and now the bunting. Not to mention the Thick-billed Murre late last fall.

The Lark Bunting spent a few minutes at a time perched on the wire, singing away. Strangely, its song was nearly identical to that of a Northern Cardinal. If I heard that song coming out of a thicket somewhere I probably wouldn't even think twice about it. It did sing a longer song, interspersing other more sparrow-like sounds with the cardinal phrases. Cool bird!

Lark Bunting - Amherst Island

After singing it would fly back behind some shrubs, landing deep in the long grass. Sometimes it would perform a short display flight while singing before dropping into the grass. I was not quick enough to catch a good photo of that though!

It flew down to the road briefly, as well as to some other trees in the area .We approached it as it was on a fence line beside the road for some closer photos.

Lark Bunting - Amherst Island

Eventually we had to get going to catch the return ferry, or risk having to stay an extra hour on the island. We had a long drive ahead of us to get home, but we also had more birding plans!

Lark Bunting - Amherst Island

After catching the ferry, we stopped over at Parrot Bay Conservation Area near Amherstview. The Worm-eating and Kentucky Warblers had been seen here for the better part of the month, and the Kentucky was reported as recently as June 22. Unfortunately, neither species would not reveal itself in the fifteen minutes that Barb and I stayed.

Our final birding stop was Hilltop Road in southern Prince Edward county where the Chuck-will's-widow had been calling for about a month as well. We made a few wrong turns but eventually ended up at the spot well after dark. The clouds were rolling in and the wind was starting to pick up. Arriving at the spot, we got out of our car and met Tyler Hoar who was waiting for us. He had heard Chuck a handful of times over the last 45 minutes. After a few minutes we heard Chuck call about three times, though despite waiting it out for another half hour, that would be it. The Whip-poor-wills had stopped calling as well, and downpours began shortly after, as Barb and I departed for the long trek back to Toronto.

It was a pretty decent after work excursion, that's for sure!

Lark Bunting - Amherst Island

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