Saturday, 8 July 2017

Birdathon results (May 13, 2017)

Jeremy, Dan and I planned to complete our Birdathon within the confines of the Point Pelee Birding Area on May 13, 2017. Compared to Big Day attempts elsewhere in the province, Point Pelee Big Days are highly dependent on the local conditions, in particular the variety of migrant species that happen to be in the area on a given day. While Big Days completed in central and eastern Ontario can rely on a good diversity of breeding species, especially if one is not limited to a small geographic area, the success of a Point Pelee Big Day is based almost exclusively on the selection of migrant species that one catches up with. During some days it may be possible to see 160+ species while during other days 110 may even be a difficult number to reach. Dan, Jeremy and I all happened to be in the Point Pelee area from May 12-15, and after some scouting on May 12 we determined that May 13 would be the day of our attempt. Theoretically, this date is near the peak of bird migration with a nice selection of both earlier and later migrants.  

From left to right: Daniel Riley, Josh Vandermeulen, Jeremy Bensette. Photo credit: Ken Burrell

We were up by 4:30 and as we stepped outside the neighbourhood was already alive with the familiar song of several American Robins, our first bird of the day. We motored out of Leamington towards Hillman Marsh where we hoped to pick up a few marsh birds before heading into the park. A quick stop at the Leamington Airport provided a few Horned Larks and Savannah Sparrows, singing away while the sky was still mostly black. These species can be difficult at times within the Point Pelee Birding Area. 

We only spent a few minutes at Hillman Marsh as dawn was approaching. Rails remained quiet or at least had their voiced drowned out by the hoardes of blackbirds, but we did have a Hooded Merganser fly over us here, our only one of the day. 

New birds were quickly added as we entered Point Pelee National Park and by the time we reached the Marsh Boardwalk we were near 40 species. Walking around the boardwalk was quite productive – a Marsh Wren rattled away, several Wood Ducks flew over, but best of all was a great look at a flyby American Bittern while a second “blonk-a-donk”ed from somewhere out in the marsh. 

We made our way towards the Tip, adding numerous warblers and other species as the forest awoke. It was apparent that a few new birds had arrived overnight including good numbers of the early-ish warblers such as Nashville Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Black-and-white Warbler and Northern Parula, but the conditions were not ideal and many of the later migrants had yet to appear. As we were birding among the crowds in the woods near the Tip we spotted a White-eyed Vireo at eye-level, which had somehow gone undetected by the crowd until that point! We completed a brief vigil at the very Tip, scoping the waters for gulls and ducks while occasional orioles (and not much else) flew off the Tip. A Bobolink suddenly appeared in a Hackberry at the Tip, while a Tufted Titmouse also alighted in a nearby tree a few times throughout our Tip watch. Tufted Titmouse is quite unusual within the Point Pelee Birding Area, so it immediately became a candidate for Bird of the Day. We scoped a few Greater Scaup and a female Bufflehead off of the Tip, the four “expected” species of gulls, and both Common Loon and Horned Grebe. We were in decent shape with our day list quickly approaching 80. 

Tufted Titmouse - Point Pelee National Park

The rest of the morning consisted of wandering trails throughout the southern half of the park. Our warbler tally hit 20 by late morning, though we only added a few more in the afternoon to bring us to 22 species on the day. Notable misses included a few of the earlier migrants (Pine, Blue-winged) and several of the later species (Blackpoll, Mourning, Canada, Wilson’s). Speaking of warblers, we spent 30 minutes with the Prothonotary Warblers on the Woodland Nature Trail; perhaps not the best strategy on a Big Day, but it was hard to tear ourselves away from the “Swamp Candles”! 

Prothonotary Warbler - Point Pelee National Park

Tilden’s Woods was probably the most productive area though it was the busiest I had ever seen it with birders and photographers! The tall trees in the sloughs provided a Golden-winged Warbler and our only Cape May, Orange-crowned and Bay-breasted Warblers on the day. A bright Acadian Flycatcher was associating with a Least Flycatcher at the Shuster/Tilden’s intersection, though we couldn’t catch up with the Hairy Woodpecker that several birding parties had noted in Tilden’s Woods previously.

As the afternoon wore on our energy and motivation levels began to wane somewhat, and we spent too much time socializing with all of the familiar faces we came across. But we continued to slowly add new birds, such as Lincoln’s Sparrow, Scarlet Tanager, Winter Wren (a nice surprise so late into the season), and Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Try as we might, we couldn’t pull out an Indigo Bunting or Swainson’s Thrush!

By 5:00 PM we were finally ready to leave the park. Our list was over 110 species and 130 still remained a possibility. We scored a couple of Ring-necked Pheasants at a typical location in the Onion Fields and by 5:30 PM began to bird Hillman Marsh. An American Woodcock with several fuzzy, super cute babies had been spotted in the grasses near the parking lot; a nice addition to our Birdathon and saving us a stop later in the evening.  

American Woodcock - Hillman Marsh Conservation Area

At the shorebird cell we quickly added the expected ducks – Gadwall, American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal and Lesser Scaup – though Blue-winged Teal, Ring-necked Duck and Ruddy Duck were nowhere to be found. Other than a few Dunlins, shorebirds were also almost non-existent and our ambition of reaching 130 species was quickly fading. We made the decision to walk along the dyke towards the southwest corner of the shorebird cell and here we lucked out, adding Pectoral Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper and Short-billed Dowitcher in quick succession. Both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs were nowhere to be found and the same could be said for Ruddy Turnstone, Willet, Semipalmated Plover and several other hoped-for shorebirds. We lucked out with a few Forster’s Terns and a single Black Tern in the main part of the marsh – those would have been embarrassing misses! By 7:15 PM we had wrapped up at Hillman Marsh, with 126 species to our name. 

At this point Dan and I called it a day as there were very few possibilities left to get, but Jeremy continued until dark. Thanks to his efforts, four new species were added to the day list – Solitary Sandpiper, Semipalmated Plover, Swainson’s Thrush, and Eastern Whip-poor-will.

When it was all said and done we had tallied 130 species. It was a number that was a little less than what we had hoped for, but considering the modest diversity present that day we were quite happy with our final count. For those wondering, some of our big misses for the day included Red-tailed Hawk, Indigo Bunting, Ruddy Duck and Blue-winged Teal. Can’t get them all! 

We would like to thank everyone who sponsored us on our Birdathon! There is still time to donate if you haven’t had a chance – click here to visit the link. 

Good birding!
Josh, Dan and Jeremy

from left to right: Jeremy, Dan, Josh. Photo credit: Sarah Lamond

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