Monday 3 August 2015

Rarity chase to Point Pelee - May 20

The weekend had been quite successful from a birding point of view as I had managed to see Mississippi Kite, King Rail, Blue Grosbeak, Snowy Egret, Glossy Ibis, Henslow's Sparrow, and Nelson's Sparrow. A solid collection of rarities, though none were red-letter mega rarities that we always hope for, especially during the middle of May.

I arrived at my parents' place in Cambridge that evening, staying for dinner than going for a nice walk at a local area where we were able to enjoy watching Common Yellowthroats and Veeries - both first time views for mom and dad. As we were finishing up the hike while the sun set I received an email notification - an Ontbirds message. A group of birders, including Alan Wormington, Jeremy Hatt, Jeremy Bensette and Rick Mayos had found a Mottled Duck at Hillman Marsh!

Mottled Duck, superficially resembles something like a cross between an American Black Duck and Mallard, can be found in marshes and other wetlands in the southeastern United States. One population is found throughout Florida up the Atlantic coast to North Carolina, while a separate subspecies is confined to the Gulf Coast from northern Mexico to Alabama. Mottled Ducks likely have a relatively recent common ancestor with Mallard and American Black Duck as they are able to produce fertile hybrids where their ranges overlap.

It was a little annoying that the bird was found at Hillman Marsh about six hours after I had combed through the area, but the bird was not present earlier. I recall scanning all the ducks thoroughly, there were only a few Mallards when I was present, and the birders who found it watched it fly in with a group of Mallards. At least I was in Cambridge when it was found, as opposed to my place back in Aurora!

I certainly wasn't looking forward to turning around and driving back down the 401 to Point Pelee, but this was a bird I couldn't pass up. It may not be the most "exciting" of vagrant birds as it resembles a Mallard, but it was only the second time one had been reported in Ontario (and Canada!). Interestingly enough, the only prior record of a Mottled Duck was also of a bird at Hillman Marsh, from May 1 to June 6, 2008. I remember at the time I was a brand new birder. I had one day to bird the north shore of Lake Erie that spring which I spent at Rondeau Provincial Park. I recall that instead of chasing the Mottled Duck I decided to stay at Rondeau, where I could see potentially 10 lifers instead of just one at Hillman! I wasn't about to let this Mottled Duck slip by as well.

The alarm went off at 2:30 that next morning and by quarter to three I was on my way, heading west into the night. The lack of traffic made the drive quite tolerable, and as the sky behind me began to show the first signs of dawn I exited the highway at Tilbury and drove down to Hillman Marsh, pulling into the parking lot at 5:30 AM. The local Point Pelee birders had watched the Mottled Duck until well after sunset the evening before, leaving little doubt that it would be roosting there. Despite arriving before sunrise, a number of ducks were flying around the cell in the pre-dawn light. It was with a touch of anxiety and serious concentration that I scanned through all the ducks in the shorebird cell. No luck. I told myself to relax and scan again, and this time I caught a glimpse of a suspicious looking duck near the back of the cell, obscured behind other ducks. It was the Mottled! I switched from spotting scope to camera, and in the excitement bumped my scope, causing it to fall hard on the ground, causing a loud bang. Well wouldn't you know it, most of the ducks took off and flew away, including the Mottled Duck. I looked around and luckily no other birders were present to witness my colossal error! The scope was OK, and I waited while the ducks slowly filtered back in. Finally, after about 5 minutes, a small group of Mallard containing the suspicious looking duck settled back into the wetland. This time, I enjoyed prolonged, though distant views and was able to go over all the field marks. This was the bird all right.

My photos leave a lot to be desired - heck the bird probably isn't even ID-able with these poor record shots!

Mottled Duck (second from left) - Hillman Marsh 

Mottled Duck (second from left) - Hillman Marsh 

Mottled Duck (second from right) - Hillman Marsh 

Brandon McWalters soon arrived and got on the bird, thenI  ran into Chris Gaffan as I was leaving. I had to race back to Hamilton to complete my surveys that morning but made a quick stop at Wheatley harbour to scan the gulls. A couple hundred gulls were on the beach, and in an attempt to not flush them all I walked through the dune grasses along the shore, further east. A small streaky sparrow flushed from my feet, and after a few seconds of observation it stepped out into the open to reveal itself as a Henslow's Sparrow! This was my fourth self-found Henslow's, and my first outside of Point Pelee National Park. I went back for my camera, but upon returning the Henslow's was very difficult to observe well, let alone photograph. I decided to stop pursuing it to prevent it undue stress and also to allow other birders to see the bird (it ended up being seen by several others throughout the rest of the day). Here is a photo of a typical Henslow's seen in migration, from last spring at Point Pelee.

Henslow's Sparrow (May 4, 2014)

It was a pretty productive hour and a half in the Point Pelee birding area! And I even made it back to Hamilton in time for my surveys....

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