Thursday, 24 September 2015

Blenheim shorebirding

The Blenheim sewage lagoons are always worth checking out in the autumn, and this year has been better than most with above average shorebird habitat. These lagoons have historically been excellent and boast a bird species list near 250 species, if not higher. Included are at least 35 shorebird species, including notables such as American Avocet, Piping Plover, Curlew Sandpiper, Ruff and Red Phalarope. Unusual gulls, wading birds and songbirds have been found at these lagoons as well, including White-faced and Glossy Ibises, Little Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Laughing Gull and Yellow-headed Blackbird. I'm sure there are many other interesting records that I am not aware of.

The sprinkler cells have been used throughout the autumn and often all four of these cells provide decent shorebird habitat. Additionally, the mud edges of the south lagoons are beginning to be exposed as the water slowly draws down. Many of the shorebirds alternate between the southeast lagoon (it has the best habitat) and the sprinkler cells.

I usually make a stop in on Blenheim whenever I am going to or from the Point Pelee area as it is often my best stop for shorebirds on a weekend excursion. On Friday, September 4 I passed through the Blenheim area while on my way to Pelee for the long weekend. It was 2:30 in the afternoon, leaving lots of time to check out the lagoons, the Erieau area and Wheatley harbour before dark.
The shorebirds were busy feeding along the edge of the southeast cell. Solitary Sandpiper and Greater Yellowlegs were mixed in with the dozens of Lesser Yellowlegs and a few Pectoral and Least Sandpipers. As I walked along, a small group of shorebirds hidden along the near bank flushed and flew away from me. One caught my eye without having to use binoculars as it had a striking black and white wing pattern. It was a Willet, and it flew around with the yellowlegs before finally settling down on the south bank. This made me run back to the car for my camera, and the Willet gave an encore performance once I returned.

Willet - Blenheim lagoons 

Willet has two distinctive subspecies – the Eastern Willet is coastal and breeds along the eastern seaboard and into the Caribbean, while the Western Willet is found in prairie marshes in western North America. Easterns are closely tied to their coastal saltmarshes and beaches, and Ontario has yet to see its first record. Westerns can be seen sporadically but regularly in southwestern Ontario, particularly in late April and May when small flocks are occasionally found. They are less frequent in the autumn, though the odd individual is reported from a beach or rocky shoal along the lower Great Lakes. This was my first autumn Willet and also the first one I had ever seen at a sewage lagoon. The Willet has since become an on-and-off resident at the lagoons (mostly on) for the last two and a half weeks.

Willet - Blenheim lagoons 

As I mentioned above, the sprinkler cells have consistently provided good habitat for shorebirds in at least two, but often all four of the cells. A group of 17 adult American Golden-Plovers were standing in the cell during the September 4 visit, providing excellent views of their intricate plumage. Up to 15 Semipalmated Plovers have tried to blend in with the dozens or hundreds of Killdeer in the cells, depending on the day. On that visit as well as on recent visits this past weekend both Baird’s and up to three Stilt Sandpipers have been easily observed. This juvenile Stilt Sandpiper fed cautiously in the shallows five meters away, providing the opportunity for a few phone scoped photos (while I cursed leaving the camera in the car!).

Stilt Sandpiper - Blenheim lagoons

After the successful Say’s Phoebe chase on September 17, Jeremy Bensette, Emma Buck and I stopped in at the lagoons before dusk. A smaller number of shorebirds than usual were feeding and resting in the cells but the Willet was accounted for. Since I still had a 3.5 hour drive ahead of me I began to walk back to my vehicle, but a mixed flock of shorebirds came flying in and circling the sprinkler cells right when I was leaving. At least three dowitchers were in the group along with Stilt Sandpipers and yellowlegs. I was pretty sure I heard a Long-billed Dowitcher call on several occasions. After some close study of the three dowitchers, we came to the conclusion that one was a Long-billed. It was nice to have the birds side by side at close range to compare features!
Another poor phone-scoped shot...

Long-billed Dowitcher (right)- Blenheim lagoons

Ducks are always a regular feature at the Blenheim lagoons, even more so now that we are into mid September. Redhead, Northern Shoveler and Ruddy Duck numbers have been growing, while Blue-winged Teal are tapering off. There is often a small group of Hooded Mergansers as well as Green-winged Teal and American Wigeon. The long-staying Tundra Swan continues its lonely existence in the southeast pond and will be soon approaching its six month anniversary there. Nobody has seen it ever fly and it will likely meet its fate when the ponds freeze over in a few months.

This past Sunday, Todd Hagedorn and I stopped in for one final check at the end of a busy weekend in the Pelee area. A small group of shorebirds flushed from the muddy shore of the southeast pond. Though the group was twisting and turning, I noticed a juvenile Red-necked Phalarope with the pack. It continued to fly around for several minutes over the lagoons, providing excellent scope views! Unfortunately it never did land, though it did call at times when it was within earshot. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed one vocalize before. Usually they are just a small white blob spinning away on the far side of a lagoon. This Red-necked Phalarope had been found the day prior by Blake Mann, who had posted some photos on his blog.

The lagoons should continue to be excellent throughout the end of September, October and into November, provided the habitat remains. Certainly a worthwhile place to check out as the species composition changes frequently. Often unusual species will turn up after unsettled weather, and cold fronts can spur migration. I would love for a Ruff or Black-necked Stilt to turn up!


  1. Don't forget your ABCs:

    A = Always
    B = Bring
    C = Camera

  2. It is a great place and I hope we continue to have access. I don't recall Little Blue Heron here, but I did find a Snowy Egret once. Several Ruffs have been see at Blenheim, but not for a few years. We are due for another!
    Thanks for the mention!

  3. Little Blue Heron -- May 3, 2002: one adult (Ronald G. Tozer)