Monday 16 March 2015

Weekend at Pelee

Like everyone else, I was getting pretty sick of winter. Though I've had the good fortune of being able to travel south a few times this year, when I have been around it has been one of the harshest winters I can remember. And we all thought last year was bad. This year the Great Lakes ice built up to record high levels, while the month of February did not see a single day go above zero for most of the province. The snow has been unrelenting and there have been some wicked cold snaps. On top of that, it has been a relatively slow winter for birding in Ontario. There have been some bright spots, such as the long-staying and easily accessible Harris's Sparrow, Painted Bunting and Varied Thrush, and Snowy Owls have made a big push southward for the second straight winter. But finches have been almost non-existant and the extreme cold either killed off a lot of the birds or forced them to retreat back south. By late February even Red-tailed Hawks and Rough-legged Hawks had become scarce, and Northern Shrikes were few and far between. For many, winter birding is a lot of fun, as it allows for close range study of certain types of birds (diving ducks, gulls, Snow Buntings, various finches etc) and birding can be done at a more relaxed pace. It is easier to regularly check certain locations close to home during the long winter, unlike in the spring when there are too many great birding spots around that it is harder to concentrate on these local patches as much.

I eagerly anticipate the arrival of spring each year, and luckily it seems to have finally arrived. It started with Horned Larks and American Crows while the early March temperatures remained well below average, but by late last week we were finally graced with a prolongued warm spell, beginning the long process of snow melt. As a result I anticipated a flood of birds into the southwest of the province over the weekend and planned my first Point Pelee visit since last fall. It would be my last chance until late April, and while there wasn't a huge variety of potential species to see, I was happy to just be looking at migrants again. 

I drove down after work on Thursday after having worked enough hours in the first four days of the week. In particular I had a groundwater monitoring site at a quarry in North Bay that I do monthly sampling for. This time around it involved trekking through waist-deep snow, so Pelee was sounding pretty inviting.

Friday dawn relatively warm and overcast, and I got started by driving a route through the onion fields north of Point Pelee. The roads were snow free and it was beginning to recede from the fields as well, though nearly every field was mostly snow covered. One of the first birds I came across was this male Ring-necked Pheasant. Normally I find them quite shy and difficult to photograph, though they will tolerate the close approach of a vehicle. If however the vehicle slows down, the pheasant nearly always darts away. This one for some reason was not too bothered by my close approach.

Ring-necked Pheasant - onion fields

Ring-necked Pheasant - onion fields

A stop at "Stink Creek" in south Leamington was productive with a flyby Merlin and some Ontario year birds - Gadwall, Hooded Merganser and both Common Grackle and Red-winged Blackbird. Since this was my first real chance to bird in Ontario so far in 2015, I wanted to raise my yearlist from the paltry 34 I began the weekend with.

A stop at the lakeshore at the southeast corner of Hillman Marsh revealed that both the marsh to the west and the lake to the east were fully iced over. Further out on the lake, with a scope I was able to spot some waterfowl in a few slivers of open water - Canvasback, Redhead, both scaup and the first Tundra Swan flock of the spring appeared.

I drove down to the national park, visiting it for the first time since November, 2014. It was good to be back! In the icy wintery conditions the park was still pretty quiet despite the comfortable temperatures, though American Robins, Horned Larks and blackbirds constantly called as they migrated over, as did a low-flying Rough-legged Hawk. Most of the common wintering sparrows appeared and a few Bald Eagles were nice to see. I stopped near the Blue Heron parking lot and was pleased to see that the red morph Eastern Screech-Owl was getting some sun. This particular individual has been visiting this cavity for months.

Eastern Screech-Owl - Point Pelee National Park

That afternoon I drove back through the fields, noting little change in the conditions, and eventually continued around to the edge of Hillman Marsh. An American Kestrel patrolled the shorebird cell area,

On Mersea Road 21, a.k.a. the road that was home to the Smith's Longspurs last spring, I finally came across a large puddle in a field that was full of waterfowl. It was a great way to finish off the day, scanning the swans, geese and ducks, all recent migrants, while Horned Larks and Red-winged Blackbirds provided a background chorus. Later, as I was getting ready to leave, I heard the distinct wing-whistle and peent of two American Woodcocks in the field. A welcome sign of spring.


Roxane Filion said...

I agree, it was a long harsh winter. I'm happy to hear that you guys are starting to see spring migrants in Southern Ontario; that means we can start seeing them here in 3 to 4 weeks! What a gorgeous Eastern Screech-Owl! One day I'll have to drive down there to see these neat birds that don't come to our part of the province!

Josh Vandermeulen said...

Yes it is finally feeling a little more springlike down here in the "south", though there is a long ways to go! The majority of the snow has melted which is nice. Hopefully it isn't too long until you see spring in your area, Roxane!