Saturday 16 May 2020

A Ruff Few Days of Birding

This spring has certainly been an interesting one. It goes without saying that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a massive effect on society as a whole, but this has influenced the behaviour or birders and naturalists as well. With much less travelling and a focus on social isolation/birding from home, the data set of bird records from Spring 2020 will be much different in Ontario this year compared to a "typical" year when many people are spending weeks down at Rondeau, Long Point, and Point Pelee. Needless to say, there have been more than a few interesting birds found in people's yards or local patches!

In the last few weeks, talk of opening up the province has begun in earnest, and recently various parks and other open spaces may be legally visited again. On Friday, Rondeau Provincial Park opened for the first time all spring for passive use/birdwatching. In addition, the forecast called for interesting conditions with heavy nocturnal migration followed by bands of rain in the morning. There was potential for the f-word (fallout!). 

Bay-breasted Warbler - Rondeau PP, Chatham-Kent, Ontario

Laura and I rolled into Rondeau around 7:45 AM, shortly after a heavy wave of rain washed the park clean. Upon driving through the main gates, the songs of various warblers caught our ears and we excitedly thought about what the morning had in store. 

The birding was off the hook! We parked near the maintenance area and immediately began seeing birds, almost everywhere. Within the first 20 minutes we were already pushing close to 20 warbler species, including Mourning and Hooded Warblers (we finished with 26 warbler species for the day!). A Black-billed Cuckoo streaked across the path. Nearly every tree seemed to contain a Rose-breasted Grosbeak and a Least Flycatcher. We marvelled at all the newly arrived migrants, thrilled to be pointing our binoculars at something other than Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers!

We worked our way to the maintenance circle and then walked the small trail that parallels a pond in the nearby woods. Here we found two nice birds - a singing Golden-winged Warbler, and an Acadian Flycatcher. I botched my photos, though! The trigger finger was a bit rusty...

Acadian Flycatcher - Rondeau PP, Chatham-Kent, Ontario

We next explored the campground and, following a tip from Quinten Wiegersma, locked onto a Sedge Wren in the campground. It was very birdy throughout this area and we found Canada and Wilson's Warbler, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Lincoln's Sparrow, Red-headed Woodpecker and more. Birds were everywhere!

Sedge Wren - Rondeau PP, Chatham-Kent, Ontario

Sedge Wren - Rondeau PP, Chatham-Kent, Ontario

The morning slowed down from here, as we made our way further south into the park towards the Visitor's Center. A single Prothonotary was singing beside one of the boardwalks along the Tulip Tree Trail, but otherwise it was dead in this part of the park. A Northern Ribbonsnake though was slithering in the leaf litter here, one of two we saw on the day.

Northern Ribbonsnake - Rondeau PP, Chatham-Kent, Ontario

The long-staying White-winged Dove was easily found along the main park road near "the pink cottage". This White-winged Dove has been seen at Rondeau on and off since May 2015, assuming it is indeed the same individual.

White-winged Dove - Rondeau PP, Chatham-Kent, Ontario

We birded the park for a bit more, but the rains came down again and we decided to head out with around 110 species under our belts. Before heading back to Cambridge, we checked out the very productive Thedford Sewage Lagoons near Lambton Shores which has excellent shorebird habitat at the moment. We joined Ken Burrell to scope the scene. (Note that if you plan on visiting these lagoons, do so after working hours since you may be kicked out otherwise). 

The birding was awesome and we had a blast sorting through all the birds. Ken had a few Long-billed Dowitchers mixed in with the Short-billed before we arrived, but I had no luck pulling one out. However, I spotted an adult Little Gull which was in immaculate breeding plumage. We soaked in amazing scope views. It even featured a pink flush to the breast, something I hadn't seen before in this species.

We also caught up with one of the breeding-plumaged Red Knots that James Holdsworth had found the previous day, also a stunning bird that we rarely get to enjoy in the spring. A Willet, some White-rumped Sandpipers, and a Semipalmated Sandpiper rounded out the highlights among hundreds of individual shorebirds. A great way to close out an excellent day!

Red Knot - Thedford Sewage Lagoons, Lambton, Ontario

Today, Laura and I headed back south, this time to Long Point Provincial Park. The forecast did not look as delicious and while there were new birds to look at, many had cleared out as well. In the morning we ran into a few familiar faces, but fortunately the provincial park is big enough that social distancing was not at all a problem! We birded with Dan Riley and his parents, Nancy and Garth for the morning.

We had few highlights in the park, though four Soras was a good count and I saw my first of year Willow Flycatcher and Eastern Wood-Pewee. Still, we finished with around 80 species including sixteen warblers.

Blue-headed Vireo - Long Point PP, Norfolk, Ontario

Next up was a quick spin through Old Cut. A late Golden-crowned Kinglet was singing from the conifers, while we enjoyed some of the common mid-May migrant species. Easily the highlight was a Eurasian Collared-Dove that streaked overhead, alongside a Mourning Dove. Awesome!

Our final stop of the day was going to be the Wilson's Tract to look for herps, butterflies, Louisiana Waterthrushes and Hooded Warblers. The Rileys were up ahead, followed by Dan in his vehicle, and Laura and I in my car. Near the north end of the causeway there are some mud flats and so we stopped our vehicles on the shoulder of the road to scope them. A 1st summer Little Gull was a highlight, along with some Dunlins and Semipalmated Plovers. 

Little Gull (left) - Long Point Causeway, Norfolk, Ontario

But the highlight of the day (of the spring thus far?) for us was yet to come. Garth got the rest of us on a funny looking shorebird flying past and heading away from us. It pulled up to an island, landed, and turned its head. We all immediately realized what the bird was. "A F****** RUFF!" I recall shouting, probably at the same time as the others. We watched the gorgeous Eurasian species strut his stuff on the mudflat and quickly made a few calls to some friends who were in the area. 

Ruff - Long Point Causeway, Norfolk, Ontario

Unfortunately the bird was too distant for good photos and it also kept disappearing on the far side of the island, out of view. A number of birders came by to check it out, perhaps 20 or 30 in total while we were there, and fortunately the Ruff "performed" well for everyone. 

Ruff is an unusual shorebird in which the species exhibits a lekking mating system, with three different plumages of males that use a variety of strategies to obtain mating opportunities at these communal leks. Dominant males will gather in small groups in their territories and perform an elaborate display, hoping to impress one of the rather plain-looking females nearby, erecting their ornamental head and neck feathers (their "ruff") which can be either black or chestnut/orange. Satellite males show a white ruff, and these individuals do not have their own territory - instead, they enter one of the dominant males territories and try to attract females here. The dominant males tolerate the satellite males, since the present of both of these types of males in a lek is more attractive to females. A third type of male resemble the females and try to "steal" copulations from the females when they are crouched down to solicit copulation from one of the dominant or satellite males. 

Ruff - Long Point Causeway, Norfolk, Ontario

Ruff is a very rare bird in Ontario with perhaps 2 or 3 reports annually. I am aware of four other records for the Long Point area/Norfolk County in total, including one from earlier this May which also had an orange ruff (it was not as bright or with as full of a ruff - maybe this is the same bird but further along in its breeding plumage?). We were pretty stoked to find one, and for it to be a bird with a full and elaborate chestnut ruff!

We finished our day at the Wilson Tract where we enjoyed Hooded Warblers and good conversation with friends, including Henrique and Hannah who joined us. It had been a beautiful spring day and it felt so good to be able to share it with some friends that we had not seen in a long time! Fortunately our hobby can easily be practiced with social distancing and I am looking forward to more similar outings in the future. 

Hooded Warbler - Wilson Tract, Norfolk, Niagara

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