Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Positives and negatives of all that rainfall

There is no question that the last few days have had many people concerned in the Great Lakes Region. With the warm weather and substantial amounts of rainfall quickly melting the snow pack, there is a lot of water on the landscape!

I've been up along the St. Clair River a couple of times recently, partly hoping to see the King Eider that had been hanging around the north end of Stag Island for a few days. I didn't catch up to it, but saw lots of other waterfowl. The warm weather and rainfall has certainly cleared out a lot of the ice.

A Horned Grebe, hanging out in the vicinity of the Chenal Ecarte at the bridge that goes to Walpole Island First Nation was a bit of an early arrival.
 Common Mergansers were quite common.
 There was the occasional Hooded Merganser.
 Long-tailed Ducks used to be a novelty on this river, but for the last decade or so, have become much more common. Several hundred, sometimes more, are scattered somewhere along the river on any given day.
 Red-breasted Mergansers aren't as abundant as their Common relatives, but a few can be found.
 Redheads are frequently seen, sometimes in large rafts.
Canvasback are reliably seen, although this year they haven't been nearly as common as Redhead.

I saw three Bald Eagles also, all immatures, but not well enough to try for a photo. A Great Blue Heron flushed up from a warm water outflow just south of Bickford Line. No photo there either.

While driving south along the river, I looked over at the edge of a woodlot which belongs to the family of a friend. I knew Wild Turkeys hung out there, as it is within my usual territory for the Christmas Bird Count. Sure enough there were a couple of dozen roaming around in the field just beyond the woods.

With all the rainfall, I knew that the McKeough Floodway would be in use. It was constructed in 1984 in response to the major flooding that Wallaceburg often experienced. The floodway re-directs excess water from the East and North Sydenham Rivers before it gets to Wallaceburg, thereby alleviating some of the flood risk. Sure enough, there was a lot of water flowing through the floodway and entering the St. Clair River safely away from Wallaceburg.
Floodway looking 'upstream' from Baseline Road
 After viewing the floodway I returned home via West Holt Road heading over to Hwy 40. I was pleased to see a Snowy Owl sitting cooperatively on top of a hydro pole, which allowed me to get some reasonable shots.
Upon arriving home on one of these occasions, before all the snow had disappeared, I was surprised to see Am Robins hanging out in our yard. At least a dozen were there, taking turns searching in the leaves near the base of the house which hadn't been covered with snow. They hung around for several days until most of the snow was gone, scattering to other snow-free areas.

Waterfowl were arriving in greater numbers in the vicinity of St. Clair NWA, as expected. I checked them out and saw many of the usual overwintering species, but caught up with Snow Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese as well, although they were too far away to bother with a photo. I did capture these Northern Pintail, however. The occasional one had been around all winter, as had Gadwall, Green-winged Teal and Am Wigeon, but there was definitely an influx of them in the last few days.
The flooded fields were very attractive to waterfowl.

They were much less attractive to the farming community. This part of Chatham-Kent is extremely flat, due to the outwash of receding glaciers a long time ago. This highly productive area dominated by rich black soil is a result of the wetland or prairie vegetation that developed here after the glaciers left. If the water levels of adjacent Lake St. Clair was high, it would be wetland; in periods of lower water level, it would be dominated by wet tallgrass prairie vegetation. But it has very poor natural drainage, so farmers do everything they can to remove standing water as quickly as possible. Pumping stations are strategically located, and in these last few days every one of them has been in operation where tractor powered pumps are going full tilt pumping the water off the fields, through the tile drains, and emptying the offending liquid into the larger drain system.
 This particular photo was taken along Town Line Road and empties into Lake St. Clair at St. Luke's which is the north end of Town Line Road.

The Erieau area is always worth checking out due to the wetlands and waterfront there. Again, this time of year waterfowl are the most abundant bird species. It wasn't many days ago where the extensive ice conditions limited open water to these birds. The main channel often had a bit of open water.
A lone Gadwall was there, hanging out in the vicinity of Am Black Ducks.

A four-legged Mute Swan?
On one of the warmer days I was there, the fog had rolled in making views much more challenging, so I opted for a different kind of photography.

I did see some waterfowl resting and feeding in the wet fields adjacent to McGeachy Pond just outside of Erieau. The fog wasn't quite as thick, but still made viewing and photography challenging. I got these three Greater White-fronted Geese under much less than ideal conditions.

On the way home I decided to check out the Indian/McGregor Creek diversion that protects the south end of Chatham from flooding. It is much smaller than the McKeough Floodway mentioned earlier, but the Indian/McGregor Creek watershed is much smaller than the combined East and North Sydenham Rivers. It wasn't that many decades ago when residents of south Chatham greatly feared the weather conditions we have been experiencing these last few days, as late winter and early spring flooding was almost a regular event. There hasn't been any serious flooding in that area since 1992 when this floodway project was completed. This first image shows McGregor Creek at the corner of Hwy 40 and Boundary Line, looking south. The creek at this point is normally less than 5 metres wide at the bottom with only a little water flowing. Here it is probably well over 100 metres wide.
 This next photo shows McGregor Creek at the corner of Maynard Line and Creek Road. It clearly looks more like a small lake than a creek!
Flooding to some extent does still occur in the immediate area of downtown Chatham. Here is an impressive aerial video of downtown Chatham taken today, Feb 24 just before peak water levels of the Thames River arrive. This video has now been taken down by the owner, unfortunately. But this one shows another section of the river flood downstream from the downtown.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Some Natural Areas of Chatham-Kent, Part 7 (Paxton's Bush)

This post will feature another woodland area, a bit smaller than the previous one and even closer to Chatham: Paxton's Bush. It has been known as Paxton's Bush for decades, and visited by many local folks. It has recently been named the O'Neil Nature Reserve. It is great to know that this site is now in municipal ownership and accessible. The first photo shows its location, being east of Baldoon Road and north of Oxley St. The 'O' is Oxley Mid-Wood Park and the 'T' shows the entrances at the corner of this park, as well as the Thornhill Park on the lower right of the woodland.

There is a trail system through this woodland of approximately 12 hectares (20 acres), some of it official and is known as the Rotary Eco-trail, where there is a good fine gravel base.....
....and there are a few unofficial sections, which can be a little muddier depending on the weather conditions.
It is always fun to explore this site in late April and early May, as the spring wildflowers are at their prime. Some examples are:

Spring Beauty
Spring Cress

It is also an excellent time to find birds. With so few woodlands in this part of C-K, any woodland can be an attraction for migrating birds. There are currently about 110 species of birds known, which is excellent considering its small size. Being so accessible makes it easier for birders to check it out. On one mid-May day in 2017, I had 19 species of warblers in only a couple of hours!

Some migrant species are:
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Blue-headed Vireo
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Scarlet Tanager
Wood Ducks, as well as Mallards, can be found here. I don't know if the Wood Ducks successfully nest here, but the creek system going through attracts them on occasion.

Locally, one of the best known species is Great Horned Owl. A pair has been here for many years, and it was in 2013 when the pair nested in a cavity created by a broken branch of a Black Cherry tree. The bonus was that it was quite low and very visible just a short distance from the trail, and gave some amazing views. It got lots of media coverage and people from quite a distance came to view and photograph them.

Since that time, the owls have chosen broken tree stubs quite a bit higher and a lot less visible, but it is still a regular thing to see the adults, and eventually one or more young, perched high up in a tree.

The forest here is fairly typical of most southwestern Ontario woodlands, made up of Sugar and Silver Maples, Basswood, Sycamore, Black Cherry, etc.
Black Cherry
Black Cherry
A less common tree species is Common Hackberry. It is often found along southwestern Ontario rivers, but is less common inland. Its bark is one of the most identifiable characteristics.
Common Hackberry

Friday, 16 February 2018

Some Natural Areas of Chatham-Kent, Part 6 (McKerrall Woods)

This natural area takes us inland, well away from the Lake St. Clair shoreline and associated wetlands of the last few posts. It is a little known natural area, and I feel confident that at least 99% of the residents of C-K have never even heard of it let alone visited it. In fact during all the years that I have been going to it, I have yet to see anyone else there except for the one time I led a hike to feature the display of spring wildflowers. The name of this place? McKerrall Woods.

This first image shows it relative to the north end of Chatham. The large Superstore/Walmart shopping area in north Chatham is visible in the lower left hand corner. Towards the upper right hand corner is an area marked with 'M'. This is the location of McKerrall Woods. So distance isn't a factor to explain why it is not known and seldom visited.
 This closer map shows the configuration, outlined by the blue line. The gravel road along the bottom of the photo is Darrell Line. At the bottom of the image is an 'X'. That is where the small parking lot is, just a kilometre or so east of DeGeest Line. What makes this site difficult to find is that in spite of there being a small parking lot, the woodlot is at least a couple of hundred metres away from the parking lot, and even though there is a sign in the parking lot, the white cedars that were planted along it quite a few years ago have grown up and completely hidden the sign. To access the woodlot, after parking in the small lot, one can walk through a red steel gate and along a grassy path and cedar hedge to the edge of the woods. There are no trails here, you just wander wherever you like.

This woodlot was given to the municipality many years ago. I don't know any of those details. However it is publicly owned and accessible. It is about 20 hectares (50 acres) in size and the mixed upland/lowland forest is in nice condition.
 Some parts of the woodlot have a fairly dense understorey, as shown in the next photo.
 Other parts are quite open.
 During late April and early May, there is a good diversity of spring wildflowers, some of which are shown below.
White Baneberry
Squirrel Corn
Red Trillium
Long-spurred Violet
After the forest canopy is in full leaf, the wildflowers are usually on to the next stage of their lives, which is developing seed, and the forest floor is covered with greenery.
During the bird migration, a number of birds can be found, including migrating warblers. The site has not been heavily birded, as the modest number of species recorded for the site to date (45) would indicate. If it was birded more intensively, this number could likely be doubled. For example the next site I will be describing is a smaller woodlot, but has 109 species known, primarily because it is visited more often.
Cape May Warbler, a migrant
 Rose-breasted Grosbeak will be found as well, although probably do not nest here.
Birds typical of this size of woodlot include species such as Great Horned Owl, Red-tailed Hawk, various woodpecker species, one or two warblers, flycatchers, Baltimore Oriole, Cedar Waxwing, etc.
Baltimore Oriole
Cedar Waxwing
There is a good diversity of trees as well, all of which are fairly typical of the area. With the topography varying very little in this part of Ontario due to the outwash of the receding glaciers, the entire site is gently undulating, with lowland forest in the wettest areas, and upland forest in the higher drier areas. Therefore there is a mix of typical maple and oak species, along with American Beech, Sycamore, Black Cherry, Basswood, etc.

The lowland forest part does support a fairly healthy population of Poison Ivy. I usually wear rubber boots to minimize contact with it.
Typical lowland forest with shallow pools of water
Sycamore is not a common species, but is widespread. Looking at the lower part of the trunk, doesn't show anything that really stands out about it. The large tree on the right hand side of this next photo is a good sized Sycamore.
 If you look a little higher up the trunk, you may notice the bark looking quite mottled like either of the next two photos.

One of the reasons I go there several times a year is to enjoy the peace and quiet. Being so far off the road, and at times when farm machinery isn't very active, it can really be pleasantly quiet, especially when you have the place to yourself. On occasion you may hear cattle from a property nearby.

Another reason I enjoy this place is because there are a few impressively large trees, the older growth characteristics giving one a few hints of what the area might have looked like before settlement. Here are a few I've captured on digital film. This first one is an American Beech, and is slightly less than one metre in diameter. That makes it one of the largest diameter American Beech in the province!
American Beech
 This Bur Oak is a little more than a metre in diameter.
 This next one is a Swamp White Oak, and is a good size for the species.
 A really large individual is this Silver Maple, measuring 143 cm in diameter. Silver Maples grow quickly since they grow in wet sites, but don't live nearly as long as many other trees. However their rapid growth even in such a relatively short time can give them some impressive diameter.
McKerrall Woods is always a treat to explore. While the walking conditions can be a little wet in the spring, depending on the year, the late summer and fall period is very enjoyable, shuffling through the leaves or looking through the amazing golden colours.

Check it out.....I'm sure you will be glad you did!