Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Shorebirding at the Hearst lagoons

Since Thursday I have been crisscrossing  the northeast region of Ontario with a coworker on a work trip. Starting in Barrie, our route has taken us north to Sudbury, Matheson, Englehart, Temagami, Hearst, Chapleau and now Wawa. We still have dates in Chapleau, Sault Ste Marie and Sudbury before heading back this weekend, which will thus conclude a busy but productive week and a half in northern Ontario.

On Sunday I had a few hours free in the evening so I took a swing south of town towards the sewage lagoons. The Hearst lagoons are some of the most productive for birds that I have seen in Ontario. Four massive cells are arranged in a square while three smaller cells are arranged off to one side. On most visits it is not uncommon to see a thousand or more individual ducks and the rarity potential is always quite high. The surrounding forest contains a typical representation of boreal species, providing a nice soundtrack while one is scanning through the ducks.

Early June is peak migration season for several arctic breeding shorebirds. While the surrounding landscape doesn't provide much in way of habitat for migrating shorebirds, the Hearst sewage lagoons stand out like a shimmering oasis for those birds that are looking for somewhere to land that isn't at the top of a Black Spruce.

I was barely halfway through scanning across the northeast cell when two tiny shorebirds appeared on the water, dwarfed by the surrounding ducks. Of course a few seconds later my presence was detected by the wary waterfowl with most birds taking off in one raucous flock, splitting off into smaller factions before landing in more distant cells. A scope can look suspiciously like something more dangerous to these ducks! Fortunately, the two shorebirds had remained, perched in the water and spinning around, picking at morsels of food. They were two Red-necked Phalaropes molting into their breeding plumage, a species I don't see too often in the spring.

Red-necked Phalaropes - Hearst lagoons, Cochrane District

Red-necked Phalarope is one of three species of phalarope found in the world; the other two being Wilson's Phalarope and Red Phalarope. Wilson's Phalarope is considered more of a terrestrial species than the other two as it breeds across the prairies of North America. Both Red-necked and Red Phalaropes breed high in the Arctic, spending the majority of the rest of the year in flocks out in the open ocean. At least part of the population will migrate overland though few pit stops are needed on this journey. Luckily, I happened to be in Hearst around the time that these two dropped in. Red-necked Phalaropes in breeding plumage are pretty cool looking shorebirds; its too bad these ones were on the other side of the lagoon!

Another fun fact about phalaropes is that they exhibit a reverse sex-role. The females are larger with brighter colours and will display/fight over the males, while the smaller, more cryptic males will take care of all aspects of incubation and chick care. The females will even begin their southbound migration earlier in the summer, leaving the males to finish rearing the chicks.

Red-necked Phalaropes - Hearst lagoons, Cochrane District

The Red-necked Phalaropes were fun to see but soon I came across an even rarer shorebird in these parts. As I was scanning some Bonaparte's Gulls in the next cell I noticed a few shorebirds on the muddy edge of the lagoon. Among them was a Willet! I was without my camera but was able to take a few digiscoped photos of the bird as it foraged in the shallows.

Willet - Hearst lagoons, Cochrane District

Willet comprises two subspecies. The Atlantic form is seldom found far from the ocean, ranging from the Canadian Maritime provinces south to South America. The Western form breeds in the prairies in western North America, migrating to both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. In Ontario Western Willets are a rare but regular spring migrant in southwestern Ontario, particularly in Essex, Chatham-Kent and Norfolk counties. They are rare further east and north in the province but there are usually a handful seen each spring along Lake Ontario.

Willet - Hearst lagoons, Cochrane District

There are currently 20 accepted records of Willet for northern Ontario, though there are several more that have not been submitted to the OBRC. Of the 20, most sightings are of single birds in Thunder Bay District during the spring, though there have also been a flock of 9 and a flock of 12. A further four records are from the Rainy River area while two are from the Hudson Bay coast. New Liskeard, Marathon, and Neys Provincial Park all have one accepted record. This is the second record for Cochrane District I believe; the first was a bird found by Doug McRae and Liam Curson on August 22, 2016 at Longridge Point in southern James Bay.

Willet - Hearst lagoons, Cochrane District

So far we do not yet have our first accepted record of Eastern Willet for Ontario, though there have been a couple of birds that have shown traits of this subspecies including one from earlier this year in Toronto.

I think the Hearst bird is of the expected western subspecies. Eastern Willet is smaller and streakier with more brown tones in its plumage along with a shorter, stubbier bill, while Western has longer legs and a longer bill, as well as a paler gray plumage among a few other features. There can be a fair bit of variation among individual birds. I sent the photos to a few people and the consensus is that this is an adult Western Willet in high breeding plumage. The birds we see in southern Ontario in the spring are often much grayer; likely because they haven't finished their molt.
Willet size comparison with Lesser Yellowlegs - Hearst lagoons, Cochrane District

For comparison to the Hearst bird, here are some photos of Willets from southwestern Ontario in early May.

Willets - Point Pelee National Park (May 2, 2013)

Willet - Point Pelee National Park (May 2, 2013)

Willet - Point Pelee National Park (May 1, 2014)

One striking fieldmark among an otherwise relatively plain gray bird is the bold black and white wing pattern, visible when the bird is in flight. This photo below was taken at the Blenheim lagoons on September 4, 2015.

Willet - Blenheim lagoons (September 4, 2015)

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