Sunday, 15 May 2016

Point Pelee and area - May 4-6, 2016

Late last week, I took some of my few remaining vacation days and headed down to Point Pelee for a solid five days of birding. After returning from my trip to Spain at the end of April, I was itching to get down to Pelee for the first time since an early March visit. The migrants were returning in early May and I satiated my thirst for warblers, orioles, and other spring migrants by exploring some local areas in St. Catharines/Niagara-on-the-Lake during the few days I was back in Niagara. However, the reports coming in from southwestern Ontario were enticing - particularly the news of a Black-necked Stilt that had been present at/around Hillman Marsh since being found on April 30th. 

As I detailed in a blog post last week, the Black-necked Stilt was kind enough to depart the day after I drove down to Pelee, and I enjoyed stunning views that evening as it fed in the shallows of the shorebird cell. It was a great start to my Pelee adventure!

Black-necked Stilt - Hillman Marsh Conservation Area

Birding on May 4 was fairly slow by Pelee standards at this date, but many first of the years revealed themselves and I enjoyed revisiting some of my favorite areas of the park, seeing some familiar faces, and observing migrants newly arrived to Ontario. 

A decent reverse migration failed to appear at the tip, though Chimney Swifts and Northern Rough-winged Swallows overhead were my first of the year. A male Bobolink departed the tip with a small group of Red-winged Blackbirds before looping back to the mainland, while several Indigo Buntings gave their diagnostic calls as they flew overhead as well. 

Several Horned Grebes were feeding just off the tip, including these two individuals in contrasting plumage - the first has almost completed its molt, while the second was still in the awkward stage.

Horned Grebe - Point Pelee National Park

Horned Grebe - Point Pelee National Park

The warbler pickings were slim, and aside from Yellow Warblers which had recently invaded the park, the only other warblers I saw were singles of Blue-winged Warbler and Common Yellowthroat. The Blue-winged was a nice surprise on a slow day. A wave of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks had recently arrived - it was music to my ears to hear the first one "chink"-ing and I was very happy to lay eyes on several individuals, often close to the trails and fairly low in the understorey.

A Great Horned Owl nest is easily visible, directly above the Woodland Nature Trail. Two fluffy hatchlings peered over the nest when I passed it in the early afternoon.

Great Horned Owls - Point Pelee National Park

While walking the trails failed to produce any migrant warblers, the recently arrived Yellow Warblers, Baltimore Orioles and Orchard Orioles provided splashes of color.

Yellow Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Several more first of the years appeared over the course of the day, including both White-crowned and Field Sparrow. Field is one of my favorite sparrow species -there is something to love about the tiny species with the distinctive "bouncing ball" song.

Field Sparrow - Point Pelee National Park

That evening I had some amphibian surveys scheduled in London, so I made my way northeast via the onion fields, Hillman Marsh and Blenheim lagoons. My first stop was the most memorable - the horse paddock along Concession E just outside of Point Pelee National Park. Almost immediately after beginning my scan of the muddy field I came across two orange shorebirds feeding with a sewing-machine motion. While a little distant, with the scope cranked up to 60x they appeared to fit the mold of Long-billed Dowitcher, the earlier-migrating but much rarer of the two species of dowitchers we see in Ontario. Jean Iron pulled up a couple of minutes later and agreed that they were both Long-billed Dowitchers after studying the birds. Several other shorebirds were making good use of the productive habitat, including Least Sandpiper, Killdeer, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, two Solitary Sandpipers and a single Least Sandpiper. Hillman and Blenheim both had more or less the typical species I expected, though the duck diversity at Blenheim was nice to scan through. Tree Swallows had trickled into the Blenheim lagoons - I dutifully picked through as many of the 500+ presence in the off-chance that a wayward Violet-green Swallow had determined that Blenheim was a sufficient resting stop.

The following morning dawned bright and sunny, and with it a small wave of birds had descended into the park. It was nothing mind-blowing - just a nice diversity of early to mid-May migrants to pick through. The really excellent days are rare at Pelee, with slow days especially rampant some years early in May. While total numbers of species were not high on this day, it was quite enjoyable to observe many species that I hadn't seen in months. New warblers included Northern Waterthrush, Ovenbird, Nashville, Magnolia, Hooded (heard only), Tennessee, Magnolia, Blackburnian and Black-throated Green. At one point I chased a reported Kentucky Warbler in Tilden's Woods. It remained fairly skulky but did show for a few seconds before flying back into the more distant understorey. Too quick for photos, however.

Tip at Point Pelee National Park

The onion fields yielded many of the same shorebirds at the horse paddock (minus the Long-billed Dowitchers), but with the added bonus of a flyover Sandhill Crane and American Pipit. I was happy to spot a single American Golden-Plover with the other shorebirds at the Hillman Marsh shorebird cell - it would end up being my only one of the trip.

That evening I walked down to the Tip, which can sometimes be quite productive at that time of day and with the added bonus of lacking the big crowds from the morning. A few new species were added to the year list, including Lincoln's Sparrow, Veery and a heard-only Scarlet Tanager. An obliging Black-and-White Warbler was an easy photographic target along one of the side-trails.

Black-and-white-Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Black-and-white Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

When the birding is slow it is easy to become distracted with common birds perched at eye-level beside the trail. Red-winged Blackbirds aren't usually my photography targets as they are ubiquitous and I already have some good photos of the species, but I couldn't resist snapping a few shots of this female.
Red-winged Blackbird - Point Pelee National Park

I checked Sparrow Field as the sun crept lower towards the horizon. As is always the case this time of year, I kept an eye out for any sparrows or other skulkers hanging out in the grasses or brushpiles of Sparrow Field. I was surprised to flush a small streaky sparrow flush from the grass near the side of the trail, and it landed far up ahead along a brushy edge. Brief, semi-obscured views in the binoculars confirmed my suspicions that it was a Henslow's Sparrow, a rare species in the province. Unfortunately it ducked out of view soon after, and I failed to turn it up after walking over to the spot where it had disappeared. Here is a photo of a Henslow's Sparrow from the nearby "Serengeti Tree", taken on May 4, 2014.

Henslow's Sparrow - Point Pelee National Park (May 4, 2014)

It turns out that Ken Burrell had happened upon the Henslow's in the same area about 45 minutes earlier, while Jeremy Bensette had fleeting glimpses of an Ammodramus sp. earlier that morning. While once numerous, Henslow's Sparrows have declined over much of their former range as fallow fields are being converted into more intensive forms of agriculture. Other than a couple of tiny remnant populations, most of the Henslow's encountered in Ontario are presumed spring-overshoots, with many of the records coming from Point Pelee. This was my 10th time observing Henslow's Sparrow in Ontario, with most of those sightings coming from Point Pelee. The only exceptions were a bird I found last spring at Wheatley Harbour, and a couple of singing males on territory last spring near Harrow.

Slough in the Woodland Nature Trail - Point Pelee National Park

The plan for May 7 was to meet up with Josh Mandell and David Szmyr as they had arrived the previous night for their long awaited Pelee trip. Excitement was high for our first of three days, though the birding was a bit slower than we had anticipated!

On my drive in to the park I couldn't help but photograph a displaying male Wild Turkey. Unfortunately it half-depressed the display as I rolled to a stop, and I did not want to waste too much valuable early morning daylight, so this shot will have to do.

Wild Turkey - Leamington onion fields

It was great to be birding with Dave and Josh again, meeting up with other birders throughout the day. Despite it being very slow for birds, we slowly added things here and there, including this Prothonotary Warbler that we had heard about along the Woodland Nature Trail. The lighting was a bit harsh at this point of the morning but it was great to observe this Endangered species to Canada at close range. They may be a common bird in wooded swamps further south, but up here it is always a pleasure to observe this sharp-looking warbler.

Prothonotary Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Prothonotary Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Prothonotary Warbler -  - Point Pelee National Park

That afternoon we tried our luck walking some of the footpaths further north in the park. While we were walking along the bike path between Sleepy Hollow and Dunes, Josh stopped to check out a flitting songbird which turned out to be a Nashville Warbler. There appeared to be a little bit of activity here, and after spotting some movement down low, I was surprised to see the facial pattern of a Golden-winged Warbler staring back at me. The only problem was that the bird was mostly yellow with blueish wings. It took a second before it dawned on me that this was a Lawrence's Warbler, the rarer of the two hybrid phenotypes between Golden-winged and Blue-winged Warblers. Brewster's Warbler is the dominant phenotype when these species hybridize, and its one that I have seen well over a dozen times. This however was my first Lawrence's Warbler - and a drop dead gorgeous adult male at that! After sending out some texts, Ken Burrell magically appeared down the trail only a few minutes later, as it was one that he had never seen before either. Luckily we were able to refind the Lawrence's, while Josh and Dave obtained decent photos. Unfortunately I had left my camera in the car for this excursion - a mistake not to be repeated the rest of the weekend! Here is a cell phone shot of the back of Josh's was a real stunner of a bird.

"Lawrence's" Warbler - Point Pelee National Park (original photo by Josh Mandell)

In the early afternoon Jeremy Hatt discovered a Stilt Sandpiper at the horse paddock on Concession E, so we drove down to check out this rare spring migrant to Ontario. While fairly common in the autumn, it is not every year that Stilt Sandpiper is observed in southern Ontario during the spring migration. This was only the third spring bird I had seen, after the two last year that spent a couple of days at Hillman Marsh.

Stilt Sandpiper - Concession E horse paddock

A walk to the Tip later that afternoon failed to produce much else of interest, though it was interesting to watch several hundred Blue Jays streaming in from the southeast in a broad line of birds. Some flew over our heads before continuing north through the park.

Blue Jay - Point Pelee National Park

We had two more days remaining at Pelee during the most wonderful time of the year - I will be making another post detailing those days soon!

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