Saturday 29 April 2017

Sunday and Monday at Pelee

I touched on the birding during Sunday morning briefly in my last blog post. Obviously the Lark Sparrow was the main highlight but I did see a few other birds.

This Point Pelee Mississippi Kite, errr I mean Northern Harrier,  flew over me as I was walking down the main park road. Always a species I enjoy seeing as they have to be one of our more unique hawk species in Ontario.

Northern Harrier - Point Pelee National Park

Shortly after finding the Lark Sparrow this little Marsh Wren flushed from some nearby grasses. It wasn't until we were done nearly filling up our memory cards with the Lark Sparrow that we decided to check in on the wren. I always get a kick out of seeing this species in the dune grasses around the tip as it isn't the habitat one immediately thinks of with Marsh Wren.

Marsh Wren - Point Pelee National Park

Eastern Towhees have infiltrated the park in numbers and its impossible to walk any stretch of the west beach, or the Sparrow Field area, without hearing one or two do their distinct "Tow-hee!" call. This one below is an Eastern Tow-she.

Eastern Towhee - Point Pelee National Park

Butterflies have really emerged (or in the case of some species, arrived on south winds) in the past couple of weeks. This "Spring" Azure was one of several seen throughout the park. Some taxonomic revisions are going on with this species complex, so who knows what species this population will end up being!

Spring Azure - Point Pelee National Park

Among the diversity of woodland flowers was this Bloodroot, a common species that we often see early in the spring.

Bloodroot - Point Pelee National Park

The warm temperatures on Sunday were quite conducive to snake activity and I was happy to observe this Dekay's Brownsnake as it traversed one of the crushed gravel paths throughout the park.

Dekay's Brownsnake - Point Pelee National Park

This melanistic Eastern Gartersnake drew my attention as I walked one of the trails at De Laurier, the sound of it slithering through the dry grass beside the trail catching my ear.

melanistic Eastern Gartersnake - Point Pelee National Park

While normally a rare genetic mutation in a population, several island/peninsula populations of Eastern Gartersnakes near Lake Erie have a much higher proportion of these nearly all black individuals. Both selective and non-selective forces contribute to this. A selective force includes the increased thermoregulatory advantage that melanistic individuals show (black snakes soak up sunlight more efficiently than striped snakes). Non-selective forces include the effects that islands can have on genetics - as melanism is a recessive trait, having a "closed" population such as an island or a peninsula can cause recessive traits to become more prevalent in a population due to inbreeding.

Pelee Island is one place that is famous for this, and between 1/3 and 1/4 of the individual Eastern Gartersnakes there are melanistic. I am not sure if any sort of formal study has been conducted with the snakes at Point Pelee National Park, but anecdotally perhaps 10% of the Eastern Gartersnakes I see there are melanistic. Below are a few photos of one from a few years ago; this one was from the Sparrow Field area.

melanistic Eastern Gartersnake - Point Pelee National Park (May 17, 2014)

melanistic Eastern Gartersnake - Point Pelee National Park (May 17, 2014)

In the evening, I met up with Jeremy Bensette and Emma Buck to go on an evening hike on the marsh boardwalk. Our main goal was to check out the extent of the fire that had raged through the marsh on March 29, but we also happened to see a few other things of interest!

This beaver was patrolling the area near the canoe launch, allowing great looks. Beavers appear to have become a little more common in recent years within Point Pelee.

North American Beaver - Point Pelee National Park

Certainly the highlight for us was this American Bittern that flushed out of the marsh! Originally we heard a Black-crowned Night-Heron call, and after a few seconds we spotted it to the west of us. Emma, facing east, noticed the bittern as it rose out of the marsh!

American Bittern - Point Pelee National Park

This Red-winged Blackbird was dealing with some pigment issues, yet that did not get in the way of it vigorously singing and defending its territory from the other males. I wonder if it will find a mate this year?

Red-winged Blackbird - Point Pelee National Park

Monday was my last day in the Pelee area and I only had until early afternoon until I had to begin my drive back home as I had plans to be at my parents' place in Cambridge for dinner. I birded for most of the morning in the national park, and while it was a beautiful day the birding was somewhat slow. There were still a good number of sparrows to sift through as well as decent numbers of Yellow-rumped Warblers and other typical mid-April migrants.

Upon leaving the park I drove over to the Harrow lagoons where a Greater White-fronted Goose had been hanging out for several days. Quite a few individuals of this species had been seen in Ontario earlier this spring but by mid-April most of the unusual geese species we see (Ross's, Cackling, G. White-fronted, etc) have moved through. I was happy to finally connect with this lingering individual, my first of the year. Many thanks to Donny Moore for providing daily updates on this bird!

Greater White-fronted Goose - Harrow lagoons

Greater White-fronted Goose used to be so unexpected in Ontario that it was a reviewable species by the Ontario Bird Records Committee. However like most other geese species, Greater White-fronted Goose has been doing quite well and as a result Ontario is seeing more and more records. It is expected now that flocks totaling several dozen birds will pass through the province in spring and autumn, as has been the case over the last few years.

Harrow was my last stop before beginning the long drive back home. It had been an awesome weekend!

Saturday 22 April 2017

Lark Sparrow at Point Pelee

On Sunday morning I headed back into the park, eager to see if any new arrivals had dropped in at the tip. I walked down the main park road and was pleasantly surprised to hear the songs of Yellow-rumped Warblers and Pine Warblers on my walk down. The few dozen Yellow-rumped Warblers and ~5 Pine Warblers was the largest group of warblers I had encountered all spring.

Eventually I made my way over to Sparrow Field and I decided to do a quick check to see if anything interesting was present. After walking through Sparrow Field, I had stopped to photograph an American Lady butterfly when I noticed a few Field Sparrows that were among the beach grass and driftwood. There were about three Field Sparrows and one larger, sandy-coloured sparrow off on its own. It was feeding on the ground and facing away from me so that I could only really see its back, but my subconscious kicked in and started given me Lark Sparrow lifted its head, and I was surprised to see that it was in fact a Lark Sparrow! For the first few minutes I tried to photograph the bird, taking a few blurry shots through the grasses and then finally a few sharp images of the bird, hidden behind vegetation.

Lark Sparrow - Point Pelee National Park

Eventually it walked into an open area where I managed to take my first "clean" photos of the bird. I quickly posted to Ontbirds and snapped a few more shots.

Lark Sparrow - Point Pelee National Park

When I looked up again, I saw someone walking down the beach towards me - it was Jeremy Hatt. I thought to myself, wow he really responded quickly to that Ontbirds post! It turns out that he just happened to be up the beach and had not seen the post yet. Jeremy had noticed me intently staring at something on the beach and was surprised when a Lark Sparrow materialized!

Lark Sparrow - Point Pelee National Park

The bird was somewhat wary at first but soon became a little more comfortable with our presence. A few other birders showed up and we all had excellent looks at it foraged among the beach grasses, looking for seeds.

Lark Sparrow - Point Pelee National Park

Lark Sparrow - Point Pelee National Park

Lark Sparrow is a species associated with open areas in much of the western United States and northern Mexico. It has sporadically attempted to breed in the past in Ontario, but its current breeding range is just southwest of the province. In fact there are a few pairs in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan and it is likely only a matter of time before it attempts to breed again in Ontario. Lark Sparrow is a fairly regular vagrant in Ontario with 97 accepted records through 2011, at which point it was removed from the South and Central review lists. Each year almost without fail, Ontario sees between three and eight records of Lark Sparrow. In the last five years I see 22 records on eBird, and since a few sightings likely haven't made it onto eBird that averages around five or six  sightings annually in the province in that time.

Lark Sparrow - Point Pelee National Park

It also happens to be a species that I seem to have a lot of luck with - it was the fourth Lark Sparrow I have found, following birds at Dorcas Bay, Bruce 24 Sept 2011, Erieau, Chatham-Kent 24-26 Apr 2013, and Port Weller, Niagara 15 Aug 2016. I'll trade someone a couple of Lark Sparrows for an Ivory Gull....anyone???

Lark Sparrow - Point Pelee National Park

Lark Sparrow has to be one of the more distinctive sparrows we get in Ontario due to that unmistakable "harlequin" facial pattern with bold chestnut, white and black markings. It is a very large sparrow with a long tail with white edges - reminiscent of an Eastern Towhee's tail.

Lark Sparrow - Point Pelee National Park

After getting our fill of photos, Jeremy and I continued on with our day, though the Lark Sparrow remained along the beach or in Sparrow Field for the rest of the morning. I heard of no reports during the late afternoon or evening, and the following morning it was nowhere to be seen.

Thursday 20 April 2017

Saturday birding in Essex County

Saturday dawned grey and rainy so I took my time in the morning birding a few areas outside of the park before entering around 8:45 AM.

Bonaparte's Gull -Towle Harbour, Leamington, Essex County

Bonaparte's Gulls -Towle Harbour, Leamington, Essex County

Fortunately the front quickly passed through and the rain ended soon after my arrival at Point Pelee, and I enjoyed a great walk down the west beach footpath towards the tip. The birding was pretty steady and I sorted through the small flocks of kinglets, sparrows and occasional Yellow-rumped Warblers. Chipping Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Song Sparrows and Ruby-crowned Kinglets made up the bulk of the smaller songbirds. A few House Wrens were in as well, a few days ahead of schedule, but not too unusual given the other early species arriving a few days early.

Just south of a well Honey Locust known as the "Serengeti Tree" I heard a Northern Parula singing. It was doing the alternate song with numerous buzzes, and I eventually tracked it down for decent enough looks. This was the earliest Northern Parula I have had in Ontario, though it is a species with several mid-April records in Ontario.

Northern Parula - Point Pelee National Park

Aproximately 2,800 ducks were in a loose flock offshore, with most of the birds within a reasonable scoping distance. The vast majority of the birds were Greater Scaup, though Lesser Scaup was also present in decent numbers. I counted 109 Surf Scoters and 5 White-winged Scoters, though the strangest find was a female Blue-winged Teal tucked in with all the diving ducks.

Greater Scaup - Point Pelee National Park

Near this area I also noticed my first Spotted Sandpiper of the year as it fluttering past along the shoreline. I birded the tip area pretty throroughly and enjoyed sifting through the sparrows, but eventually I turned back towards the tram loop to head back to where my car was parked. Mike Nelson had discovered a flock of American Avocets at Hillman Marsh earlier in the morning so I was hoping to catch up with these birds. American Avocets are one of my favorite shorebirds and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see 36 of them in breeding plumage!

Hillman Marsh was productive and we enjoyed the somewhat distant scope views of the avocets as they mostly rested in the shorebird cell but occasionally became a little more active. I ran into Blake Mann, Paul Pratt and Dan Loncke here as well. A flock of 35+ Pectoral Sandpipers in the back of the cell was nice to see, my first of the spring.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet - Point Pelee National Park

I decided to go for a walk at nearby Kopegaron Woods after lunch. This tract of Carolinian woodland can be quite productive with migrant warblers and other songbirds and in the past I have seen Worm-eating Warbler and Connecticut Warbler here among other more common species. This time, several flocks of kinglets and Brown Creepers were near the parking lot while the flooded woods held several Rusty Blackbirds, a declining species and one that I always enjoy seeing at this time of year. The biggest surprise was a Fish Crow that was with a few American Crows, flying around and calling just south of the parking lot. I watched it for a few minutes and was even able to see the differences in overall size and wingbeats in comparison with an American Crow.

Jeremy Hatt, and Kory Renaud dropped by, following shortly afterwards by Jeremy Bensette and Emma Buck. While we waited unsuccesfully for the crows to return in the parking lot, word came in of seven Black-necked Stilts that had been found in Windsor, Ontario a couple of hours earlier. We did not know who the observer was and there were few details, but Jeremy called Dwayne, a fellow birder and resident of Windsor, and asked him to check out the constructed wetland where the stilts had been reported. Seven Black-necked Stilts would be unprecedented in Ontario!

Dwayne investigated the pond and was surprised to see that seven Black-necked Stilts were indeed there! Needless to say a large contingent of Essex County birders made their own over to Windsor in record time...

Black-necked Stilt - Windsor, Essex County

Black-necked Stilts - Windsor, Essex County

The stilts were right where they had been reported and we were able to approach within a reasonable distance along the shoreline. They didn't seem too concerned with our presence which made for some great photo opportunities!

Black-necked Stilts - Windsor, Essex County

Black-necked Stilt is a common breeding species in much of the Americas, but their range stops short of Ontario. Prior to this flock, Ontario had 18 records of Black-necked Stilt with all records pertaining to single individuals or small groups of 2-3 birds. Most records have been from the spring time and the earliest ever was a group of three birds at Hillman Marsh Conservation Area on May 5, 2013. This was an unprecedented number of birds for Ontario, but not completely unexpected given the trend of this species in neighbouring states.

Black-necked Stilts - Windsor, Essex County

Black-necked Stilts - Windsor, Essex County

Black-necked Stilts - Windsor, Essex County

This is perhaps my favorite photo of the group. At one point the group of stilts took flight and landed on some mudflats to our left and I was ready with my camera for flight shots. This particular image caught Emma Buck on the far shoreline, watching the stilts as they flew past!

Emma Buck and the Black-necked Stilts - Windsor, Essex County

Eventually I was able to get all seven birds in one photo.

Black-necked Stilts - Windsor, Essex County

We enjoyed the stilts for about an hour and a half, getting more than our fill of this very rare species for Ontario. Samantha Dundas who found the birds that morning even dropped by to check in on them and say hello to us, so it was nice to meet her as well (and thank her for the great find!).

I planned on making one more birding stop that evening, checking out the Harrow lagoons where a Greater White-fronted Goose had been found by Donny Moore over the previous days/weeks. It wasn't there during my visit, but I did come across a group of nine Least Sandpipers. This was another fairly early species as the first individuals usually arrive towards the end of April.

Least Sandpipers - Harrow lagoons, Essex County

As I finished up in Harrow I realized that I still had time to drive back to Hillman Marsh and quickly scope the mudflats at the shorebird cell one more time before dusk. Upon arrival, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the avocets were still present. I took advantage of the rare opportunity to approach the birds on the mudflats and take some photos from a reasonable distance. The avocets did not seem at all concerned with my presence, continuing to rest or lazily probe the mud while I photographed them. It was an awesome half hour of photography with a species that I had never really photographed well. What a way to end the day!

American Avocets - Hillman Marsh CA, Essex County

American Avocets - Hillman Marsh CA, Essex County

American Avocets - Hillman Marsh CA, Essex County

American Avocets - Hillman Marsh CA, Essex County

American Avocets - Hillman Marsh CA, Essex County

American Avocets - Hillman Marsh CA, Essex County

Wednesday 19 April 2017

Good Friday birding at Rondeau and Point Pelee

Early on Friday morning I loaded up my car and began the long drive south and west towards Point Pelee, where I was planning on spending the long weekend. With Laura having arranged to fly home to Nova Scotia for Easter, I decided to take Monday off of work. This gave me a solid four days of early spring birding in one of my favorite parts of the province.

I decided on visiting Rondeau Provincial Park first and after a quick stop at Ridgetown Lagoons I entered the park. The White-winged Dove was one of the birds  that I was hoping to see here, and after a short search I found it perched in a tree opposite the address #17168 Lakeshore, where Steve Charbonneau and Blake Mann had observed it building a nest on top of the chimney here earlier in the day. 

White-winged Dove - Rondeau Provincial Park

The dove sang a few times while I was watching it, and eventually made its way over to the "nest" to contribute a few loose sticks, some of which promptly rolled off the uneven platform it had chosen to nest on. Eventually the bird flew north, where I later found it on the ground near the bird feeder at #17272 Lakeshore, its usual spot.

White-winged Dove - Rondeau Provincial Park

White-winged Dove - Rondeau Provincial Park

I explored the Spicebush Trail afterwards, enjoying the new migrants that had evidently recently arrived. It had turned into a beautiful sunny day with only a slight breeze deep in the forest, adding up to an enjoyable hike. No waterthrushes appeared for me, though I saw a couple of Eastern Gartersnakes, a number of Eastern Commas and Red Admirals, and my first Yellow-rumped Warblers and Rusty Blackbirds of the year. 

Red Admiral - Rondeau Provincial Park

For a few hours in the late morning/early afternoon I went for a long walk out the Marsh Trail. The winds had picked up at this point and not as many birds were active due to the time of the day. A Brown Thrasher skulked in a thicket, and on the walk back my first Blue-gray Gnatcatcher of the season buzzed from along side the path. I took a minute or two to soak in the views of the bird which brightened up the dead tree it was flitting around in.

Out in the marsh I did see a handful of Eastern Gartersnakes and a few Painted Turtles, but none of my hoped for turtle species!

Midland Painted Turtles - Rondeau Provincial Park

Eastern Gartersnake - Rondeau Provincial Park

Field Sparrow - Rondeau Provincial Park

I left Rondeau around 3:30 PM and continued west, making a few stops on my way to Point Pelee. On account of the strong winds I decided to avoid the Blenheim lagoons, often hailed as the windiest spot in Chatham-Kent! 

Red Fox - north of Hillman Marsh Conservation Area

It was early evening by the time I pulled up to the shorebird cell at Hillman Marsh. Shorebird numbers were about as expected, with 150+ Dunlins as well as a few Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs. A good diversity of ducks was present including about 160 Green-winged Teal and 250 Northern Shovelers. My interest was piqued by two swans swimming in the back of the cell. They were a little distant and the haze was not helping matters, but they appeared to be Trumpeter Swans. While still a rare bird at Pelee, sightings have increased in the last couple of years, and these two birds had been in the area all spring. The first record of Trumpeter Swan for the Point Pelee circle wasn't until 2010!

The Trumpeters eventually flew out of the cell shortly after Jeremy Bensette and Emma Buck had arrived. The swans appeared to be flying south so I drove some of the onion fields south of Hillman Marsh to see if I could turn them up. Sure enough, two big white birds were near the roadside at Concession B and Mersea Road 19. The lighting was not the greatest but the two swans were very close to the road, enabling decent enough photos.

Trumpeter Swan - Leamington onion fields, Essex County

Trumpeter Swans - Leamington onion fields, Essex County

Trumpeter Swans - Leamington onion fields, Essex County

I entered the park with about an hour and a half before dusk. A walk around the Dunes area produced a few handfuls of sparrows, while literally thousands of swallows caught midges all up and down the coast. The vast majority were Tree Swallows though a few Barn Swallows were scattered among them. It had been a great day and the forecast looked phenomenal for the next morning - a good push of birds seemed inevitable. The only question would be whether the forecasted front (and associated rain) would pass through early enough in the day to encourage migration throughout the day.