Tuesday 30 April 2019

Point Pelee weekend!

Spring is here! With the first pulse of Neotropical migrants arriving soon, I took the chance over the weekend to head down to Point Pelee. It is always fun to bird the park in late April for a couple of reasons. A nice mix of migrants are often present, rarity potential is quite high at this time of year, and there are several orders of magnitude fewer birders/photographers in the park when compared to the three following weekends.

The plan was to meet with Dan Riley and Todd Hagedorn but due to our different schedules we each drove down separately. My first stop on Friday afternoon was the Ridgetown lagoons, where not much was going on (though there was a Tundra Swan present). Dan checked Blenheim around the same time (not much there either) before we met up and motored on down to Wheatley. We had plans to camp at Wheatley Provincial Park for the weekend, but first there were some birds to see!

A flock of 44 Willets had dropped into Wheatley harbour earlier in the day and were still on the beach when we rolled in. The western subspecies of Willet migrates north through the Great Plains, but a not-insignificant number pass through the lower Great Lakes each spring. These large flocks of Willets are now an annual occurrence at Point Pelee, and rare elsewhere in southern Ontario, so are always a treat to see! The light was pretty gloomy, making photography a challenge.

Willets - Wheatley Harbour

Willets - Wheatley Harbour

Willets - Wheatley Harbour

Marbled Godwit is another primarily western species that sometimes stops down in southern Ontario during spring migration. While it is rare to see more than one Marbled Godwit in the autumn in Ontario, sometimes small flocks will touch down during the spring migration. A group of 15 had been found earlier in the day just north of Hillman Marsh along a flooded field which we checked out. Fortunately they were still there, giving great views through the scope, though too far for good photos. Previously the largest group of Marbled Godwit I had seen in Ontario was a flock of 12, also on April 26 interestingly enough (back in 2014). This is the best I could do for photos, using my phone through my scope.

Marbled Godwits - north of Hillman Marsh

There were still a couple of daylight hours remaining so we headed towards Point Pelee. The "Onion Fields" were flooded in a few areas, providing ephemeral shorebird habitat. Dan and I scoped the fields northeast of the corner of Mersea Rd E and Rd 19 and had a nice surprise as four Willets were walking around in one of the puddles, along with both yellowlegs and a Solitary Sandpiper.

Todd soon arrived and we also met up with Jeremy Bensette and Steve Pike for a stroll around Cactus Field, Tilden's Woods and White Pine to finish the day. It was a great walk, though relatively slow for birds. I did see my first Spotted Sandpiper of the year, and heard my first Yellow Warbler. There were also a couple of Nashville Warblers and I saw an unidentified waterthrush briefly at Tilden's Woods.

The boys - Point Pelee National Park

That evening we enjoyed a campfire at Wheatley Provincial Park and hung out with Ken Burrell and Lillian Knopf for a bit as well. They had heard an Eastern Whip-poor-will singing prior to our arrival but it had gone silent soon after.

The next morning we were up at 5:30 to head back into the park. It had been a cold and windy night and we were not expecting many new birds to be in, but at this time of year there is always something to look at! We started at the tip, where a good number of Chipping Sparrows, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Yellow-rumped Warblers were present. At various points we birded with Steve Pike, Jeremy Hatt, Amanda Guercio and Justin Peter in the Tip area.

Chipping Sparrow - Point Pelee National Park

There are usually one or two House Sparrows in the park, and they are most often seen by the Tip (especially around the washrooms where they may have nested last year). It is certainly not a species I look at closely too often, but I could not resist cracking off a few frames of one standing on a log near the tip. It is rare to get a photo of a Black-throated Brown in a natural setting!

House Sparrow - Point Pelee National Park

While we stood at the Tip, an adult Peregrine made several passes.

Peregrine Falcon - Point Pelee National Park

We birded our way towards Sparrow Field, finding a few warblers here and there as we walked. The cooler weather and north winds had stalled a lot of migration but with some effort we found around five warbler species. Two Orange-crowned Warblers in the Sparrow Field were fun to watch; a species I only see a couple of times each spring migration. In addition to the warblers, we also enjoyed picking through a big flock of swallows on the east side of the Tip with all six species represented, while we also saw a Brown Thrasher and Winter Wren in the Sparrow Field.

Orange-crowned Warbler - Sparrow Field, Point Pelee National Park

We walked up through Post Woods, finding birds here and there. Blue-headed Vireo and Pine Warbler were fun to see!

Soon, our stomachs were growling and so we headed over to Birdie's Perch, aka the Red Bus. This was their opening weekend for the season and it was well worth it! With our bellies full of perch we decided to do a drive around the Onion Fields. Along Concession E we saw the Stilt Sandpiper that Ken and Lillian had discovered earlier, while we also took a look at the seven American Avocets just south of Hillman Marsh that Rick Eckley had spotted. A flock had evidently invaded the area, as throughout the weekend there were sporadic avocet sightings from several locations.

American Avocet - field south of Hillman Marsh

A large number of Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs were also new arrivals, while we saw one flock of Dunlin and a few Solitary Sandpipers.

Solitary Sandpiper - north of Hillman Marsh

We were discussing our next move when a message from Kory Renaud came in on the WhatsApp group. He had just seen a Pileated Woodpecker at the Tip! This bird was originally found by Paul Pratt just outside the park on April 17, then Sarah Rupert had seen it earlier on the 27th. All of the sightings were relatively brief as the bird was constantly on the move.

We got down to the Tip in good time and began searching. The bird had been seen on and off since Kory's sighting and it was constantly on the move. Near the tram loop, Todd got on it and quickly called it out, but by the time we arrived, it had flown out of sight. A bit later we heard it call from north of the Serengeti Tree, but it was not until later that evening when we had success. Dan, Todd and I were birding with Victor, a friend of ours originally from Costa Rica who lives in Leamington and is an avid birder and herper. Dan Riley spotted the Pileated flying directly towards us while we explored Tilden's Woods. We watched it land on a nearby tree and quickly take off, flying in a circle before blasting through the forest, and repeating that process again. None of us managed photos, but we had good looks at this Point Pelee rarity. It was a lifer for Victor (congrats!).  I'm sure a few hundred years ago Pileated Woodpeckers lived through much of Essex County, but apparently cutting down 98% of the natural forest cover will have an impact on forest species.

That evening Dan, Todd and I went back to Wheatley harbour for another night of camping. This time, we were in luck and the Eastern Whip-poor-will called, while we were also serenaded by two Eastern Screech-Owls doing the full assortment of trills and whinneys. The rain began late in the evening, and continued through much of the night. I was glad I decided to car-camp instead of setting up my tent...

Dark-eyed Junco - Point Pelee National Park

On Sunday morning we were back at it, heading into Point Pelee for one more kick of the can. The winds were moderate strength out of the north but at least it was sunny! The mix of birds was a little different and there were many Yellow-rumped Warblers to sift through. Black-and-white and Black-throated Green Warblers were great to see, as was our first Lincoln's Sparrow of the spring. Meanwhile, a Brown Thrasher in Sparrow Field tolerated a rare, mostly unobscured photo.

Brown Thrasher - Point Pelee National Park

We were only in the park for three hours when we heard that a big time rarity in Whitby had been re-discovered, so that was the end of our Pelee weekend! The Hermit Warbler twitch will be the subject of my next post.

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