Thursday, 5 April 2018

Early spring birding in southwestern Ontario

With Laura flying home to Nova Scotia for Easter Weekend, I decided to make the long, familiar drive down the 401 for a weekend of birding at one of my favorite locations - Point Pelee National Park. The previous few weeks had been relatively uneventful for me from a natural history perspective, as work and other items on a to-do list far too long had kept me from being outside. Other than an hour here or an hour there, I hadn't explored much and I feared that my birding skills were a bit rusty.

After finishing up a few last minute items at home in Niagara Falls, I took the morning on Friday to slowly work my way west along the north shore of Lake Erie, while the strong north winds buffeted my car and instilled a chill in the air. The Port Stanley lagoons held my first Blue-winged Teal of the year- a male sporting crisp spring plumage - among the throngs of other duck species in the four large lagoons. This allowed me to declare that spring had arrived even though the air temperature and cold winds disagreed with my assessment. While all of the other migrant ducks will spend the winter in parts of southern Ontario, Blue-winged Teals are almost never found during the winter period in the province. Spotting my first Blue-winged Teal at some point during March is just as good evidence of springs arrival, as is the first Western Chorus Frog singing from a roadside slough, or the first Ambystoma salamander slipping silently under the ice edge of a vernal pool.

The Ridgetown lagoons are always worth a stop whenever I pass through Chatham-Kent. The large lagoons often hold big flocks of geese and Tundra Swans at this time of year, sometimes with other interesting species mixed in. Before I could even reach the lagoons I was distracted by this Red-tailed Hawk, enjoying an opportunistic meal courtesy of a vehicle.

Eager to wolf down as much of the road-killed leporid as quickly as possible, the Red-tailed Hawk tolerated my approach, as I pulled over to the opposite side of the road to take point blank photos.

Red-tailed Hawk and deceased presumed Eastern Cottontail - Ridgetown, Chatham-Kent, Ontario

Given the time of day the lighting wasn't ideal but it was a great opportunity to study this individual Red-tailed Hawk as it gorged on the free meal.

Red-tailed Hawk and deceased presumed Eastern Cottontail - Ridgetown, Chatham-Kent, Ontario

Red-tailed Hawk and deceased presumed Eastern Cottontail - Ridgetown, Chatham-Kent, Ontario

Red-tailed Hawk and deceased presumed Eastern Cottontail - Ridgetown, Chatham-Kent, Ontario

Red-tailed Hawk and deceased presumed Eastern Cottontail - Ridgetown, Chatham-Kent, Ontario

I was in luck as I picked up a tight flock of six white geese sleeping on the far north bank of the big cell of the Ridgetown lagoons, while four Greater White-fronted Goose were loitering nearby and a few Cackling Geese hung around the edges of a Canada Goose flock standing on the berm. The white geese eventually awoke and went for a swim in the lagoon, showing their identity as Snow Geese. Many of the white geese seen during migration in southwestern Ontario appear to show intermediate traits between Snow and Ross's Geese; these ones all looked to be far enough over on the spectrum to be safely called Snow Geese, despite some slight variation in the bill shape among all six individuals.

Snow Geese - Ridgetown lagoons, Chatham-Kent, Ontario

I was happy to see the Greater White-fronted Geese since they were my first for Chatham-Kent. Much like Snow and Ross's Goose, Greater White-fronted Goose has also increased in abundance over the years and now the species is not entirely unexpected when it appears during spring and autumn migration. Over the last half decade or so, Greater White-fronted Goose has become an uncommon but regular spring and autumn migrant in the southwest. Much of this increase can be tied to the size of the North American population, which has multiplied by approximately 173% per decade over the last forty years (as per the IUCN Redlist). It's hard to believe now that Greater White-fronted Goose used to be on the Ontario Bird Record Committee's review list for southern Ontario.

Greater White-fronted Geese - Ridgetown lagoons, Chatham-Kent, Ontario

Hillman Marsh was my last stop of the day and it was here where I ran into Rick Mayos and Jeremy Bensette. We enjoyed an awesome couple of hours of waterfowl study, punctuated by great views of a dozen duck species, each perfectly lit by the golden rays of the setting sun. The long-staying Northern Shrike also made an appearance, though I couldn't obtain a decent, non-backlit angle for photos. We joked that if the shrike was taking pictures of us, every single photo would be perfectly lit.

Northern Shrike - Hillman Marsh CA, Essex County, Ontario

A few Sandhill Cranes landed in the shorebird cell and we were pleasantly surprised to discover some of the first Dunlins of spring, still sporting their "basic" winter plumage. After a full day of birding I could definitely feel the rust beginning to work itself free!

Dunlin - Hillman Marsh CA, Essex County, Ontario

Sandhill Cranes - Hillman Marsh CA, Essex County, Ontario

Jeremy and I birded together all day on Saturday, beginning with a few hours of watching ducks at the Tip. Hoards of Greater Scaup could be seen in all directions, often with several small groups in the air at any given time to complement the flocks on the water. I went to work studying the differences between Lesser and Greater Scaup, something I hadn't done in a while. With all of the birds present, it was easy to obtain great looks at both species from all angles, both in flight and on the water.

What remains of the Tip - Point Pelee National Park, Essex County, Ontario

Quite a few other species were mixed in including White-winged and Surf Scoter, Redheads, and even some Long-tailed Ducks. Occasionally we would spot dabbling ducks fly past as well including Blue-winged and Green-winged Teals, American Wigeon, Wood Duck and Gadwall, while the first good flight of Common Loon and Horned Grebe for the year was also occurring. Of greater interest however were our first Eastern Phoebes and Tree Swallows of the season! Small groups of Tree Swallows flew south off the west side of the tip all morning into the strong southwest winds, causing us to question if they were all different birds or the same small group(s) doing laps. An Eastern Phoebe also appeared to be doing laps, flying out from the very tip and circling back, landing back in the forested areas of the tip.

Greater Scaup near the Tip Point Pelee National Park, Essex County, Ontario  (photo taken on April 15, 2013)

Few songbirds appeared to be in, other than a few small groups of Golden-crowned Kinglets along with the aforementioned Eastern Phoebes and Tree Swallows, so we kept looking for waterbirds. From the tower near the Marsh Boardwalk, the visibility was quite good and we tallied thousands of ducks, most being Lesser Scaup. We also noticed a few Pied-billed Grebes, Northern Shovelers, Wood Ducks, Northern Harriers and an American Coot, further evidence that spring was slowly progressing. A flock of around 80 Turkey Vultures flew in off to the lake from the southwest, continuing northeast past us, and towards Hillman Marsh.

Dabbling ducks - Mersea Rd 21 fields, Essex County, Ontario

Jeremy and I explored the Onion Fields and Hillman Marsh for the better part of the afternoon as a front moved through the area, bringing with it lots of rain. While grabbing lunch in Leamington, Jeremy told me to look up - three Great Egrets cruised over together in formation. Ah, spring.

Hillman Marsh can be quite dynamic this time of year and you never know what will drop in. While we did not find anything spectacular, we did have fun scanning through the hundreds of Green-winged Teals, searching unsuccessfully for the Common Teal which Jeremy had found on March 22. The driving rain made conditions difficult at times, and it was not easy to avoid it even when we placed ourselves in the viewing shelter by the Shorebird Cell. One of the highlights from our time at Hillman was flushing a Wilson's Snipe from alongside the main path on our walk back to the parking lot.

The Mersea Road 21 fields, those famous fields which hosted the Smith's Longspurs in the spring of 2014, often hold standing water and the subsequent waterfowl that this attracts. It was no exception this time, and hundreds of teal, pintails and wigeons were in the fields on every most of my visits over the weekend. While Jeremy and I couldn't dig out the Common Teal, I was surprised to spot a "storm" wigeon, which is a plumage anomaly of American Wigeon in which the individual exhibits a white face. This was only the third one I've ever seen so I was pretty excited to have the opportunity to study it. The winds were approaching gale-force so taking photos through my scope was a little challenging!

"storm wigeon" morph of American Wigeon - Mersea Rd. 21 fields, Leamington, Essex County, Ontario

In the Onion Fields we discovered a Snowy Owl just south of Hillman Marsh, a Ring-necked Pheasant in the "usual" field on Mersea Rd 12 (Jeremy indicated that this was his first in the Onion Fields in months), and a few ducks scattered here and there.

Blue-winged Teals - Leamington Onion Fields, Essex County, Ontario 

We finished the day by scoping the thousands of ducks at the tip, our eyes straining through our scopes until well past sunset. I picked out a female Black Scoter in flight, which was surprisingly my first of the year, and Jeremy photographed the dynamic scene unfolded in front of us, as brightly lit flocks of scaup passed by at a close distance, contrasted against the angry dark gray sky in the background. I had unfortunately neglected to bring my camera, citing potential rain as my excuse at the time. While driving out of the park we heard a few American Woodcocks "peent"ing near a section of savanna habitat, another first of the year for me.  It had been a great day!

I entered the park on my own on the Sunday morning and drove down to the tip where I ran into Blake Mann. Together we scoped the waters off of the west side of the tip as a moderate southwest wind blew in off the lake. While the birding was a bit slower than the previous day and Tree Swallows were nowhere to be found, the waterfowl show was pretty great. Among the highlights were more Long-tailed Ducks, a smattering of dabbling ducks, and several Bonaparte's Gulls, Horned Grebes and Common Loons. Following a few months with limited migration, it was good to soak up the visible migration of loons, grebes, ducks and gulls.

Eventually I met up with Jeremy and we birded for a bit, but by late morning we went our separate ways as I needed to be in Cambridge by dinner time, and he had a family function in Windsor. Just outside of the park I noticed this Snowy Owl in a field along Mersea Road D. The heat haze coming off the field was causing problems, making photography extremely difficult.

Snowy Owl - Leamington Onion Fields, Essex County, Ontario 

Before leaving for good, I birded Hillman Marsh and the Mersea Rd 21 fields one more time, in case the Common Teal was in. Again, I was out of luck, but I did spot an intergrade teal (Common x Green-winged Teal) which Jeremy later indicated had been around for the last week. While finishing up at the shorebird cell I noticed another first of the year - three Greater Yellowlegs! One obliged me by flying around and calling with its two friends before settling back in among the ducks in the shallows.

Greater Yellowlegs - Hillman Marsh CA, Essex County, Ontario

Several Northern Leopard Frogs were tentatively calling from the shallows of the shorebird cell, yet another harbinger of spring. Hopefully the weather warms up soon, as we are nearly into the most wonderful time of the year!

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