Great Egret

Great Egret

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Return of the Dickcissels

They're back! Over the course of the past few days, Dickcissels have returned to places they were present at in 2017. Of course the site just east of Wheatley has had them for a couple of weeks or more this year, but that was a location where they had been present for several years.

2017 was an unprecedented year for them in Ontario, and the southwestern municipalities of Essex, Chatham-Kent and Lambton had the vast majority. Members of the Ontario Field Ornithologists will be aware of the article I wrote in the April, 2018 issue of Ontario Birds discussing the 2017 influx of Dickcissel in Ontario. One of the questions I posed near the end of the article was whether any would return in 2018. The Dickcissel population in the heart of its range had been expanding slowly north and northeast for a few years, and if birds have successfully bred in their newly expanded territory, there would be a good chance they will return the following year. We haven't had the same types of weather yet that 2017 experienced....sustained high winds from the west or any returning birds are likely the result of successful nesting in 2017.
So far Dickcissels have been reported in several places where they were known to have nested the previous year. This includes places in Lambton and Middlesex as well as several places in Chatham-Kent. For example the Campbell Line Pasture just northeast of Blenheim had as many as 19 birds in 2017. So far only one or two birds have been reported this year, but I am not aware of anyone doing a thorough check of this large site. Observations have been from the road only, and that is probably due in part to the presence of large numbers of Wood Ticks. Even if you stay on the grassy laneway, you can encounter a couple of dozen ticks or more in just a few dozen metres or so.

The Dealtown Crown Land prairie (southwest of Blenheim) is another site which had as many as 11 Dickcissels in 2017. I went out a few days ago and came upon at least one and possibly two, males as well as two females. Today some birders went to the site and also saw two males and two females.
It will take a bit of effort to re-visit all of the sites in southern Ontario to see what the return rate might be. I will be keeping a close look at eBird and Ontbirds to document the results.
There are other grassland birds occupying similar sites. Bobolinks and Eastern Meadowlarks are frequently encountered. The former is officially a Species At Risk, so it is nice to see them around in good numbers.
Eastern Kingbirds aren't really a grassland species, but they do like open shrubby areas adjacent to grasslands. I came across several pairs of kingbirds at the Dealtown site.
 Along the trail in to the Dealtown site there were lots of Summer Azures.
A recent, but short, visit to Rondeau didn't turn up any unusual birds. But I did see that Hoary Puccoon is doing well along the grassy beach areas.
A few butterflies were out along the trails there, including:
Red-spotted Purple
Spicebush Swallowtail
Northern Crescent
 I'm a little rusty on my skippers, but I think this next one is a Hobomok Skipper.
I also saw Monarchs, Red Admirals and Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, but didn't get any photos.

On the Monarch theme, a few days ago Marie and I noted a female Monarch busily laying eggs on some of the numerous Common Milkweeds in our yard. I thought they might have hatched by now and did some investigating. Sure enough I found my first Monarch caterpillar of the year.
It is really tiny, measuring not quite 4 mm in total length, so undoubtedly only hatched a day or two ago.

I was up at the Angler Line area to see if the Cattle Egret and Yellow-headed Blackbirds were still around. They were on private property, but the landowner has graciously told me to come by any time. The Cattle Egret has apparently not been seen for several weeks now, but the Yellow-headed Blackbirds are still around at another feeder. One of these days I hope to get my kayak out to see if they are nesting in the maze of cattail islands about half a kilometre off the end of Angler Line. So although I didn't catch up with my target species, I did have the satisfaction of seeing other things.

Yesterday I was at a meeting at a private property just west of Lighthouse Cove, in Essex County. We did spend a bit of time outside, and saw some interesting critters.

An immature Bald Eagle flew by.
 There were two or three Black-crowned Night-Herons.
 It was bright and sunny, so Map Turtles were taking advantage of the conditions.

No more room here!
 Several Northern Water Snakes were also enjoying the sun, including this big female. Since water snakes give birth to live young, they need to bask a lot so that the young are fully developed to result in a successful birth later in August.
 Some water snakes were a little shy.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Fishing, Night-Heron Style

Black-crowned Night-Herons (BCNH) are pretty distinctive birds. They aren't abundant, but are widespread and most often found in areas near large wetlands. The huge wetlands adjacent to Lake St. Clair and the rivers emptying into the lake are prime locations to find them.

One day not that long ago I had the opportunity to watch a BCNH fishing in a large channel right along the gravel roadway where I was parked. Since I was waiting for a train to pass, I noticed this bird, and then lingered for almost an hour longer watching the heron's behaviour. Even though I was no more than 25 metres from the bird, it didn't pay any attention to me that I could tell. As any prepared bird photographer would do, I had my camera and telephoto lens on the seat beside me ready to go. All of these photos were taken from the vehicle.

Herons are noted for their patience. This one was standing motionless on a small log barely out of the water, hoping for a fish or frog to come within reach.
They will move very slowly and deliberately to a new spot if the current spot doesn't produce.
 If there is an indication of something potentially available, the bird will hunch down, getting poised to strike.
 It happens in a flash, and surprisingly the bird had no problem getting back to its feet after extending itself so far out into the water, and with the additional weight of a fish in its beak.
 It only took a few gulps and the fish was gone. I couldn't see the fish clearly enough to tell what kind it might have been.

When the action wasn't happening, I noticed the heron do something I had never seen before. It would stand at the edge as before.
 And then it would slowly put its head down with the open beak in the water. It would then slowly open and close the beak, stirring the water slightly. I suppose this gentle stirring of the water might trick a fish or a frog into thinking that there was an injured critter of some sort at the water surface, and it would come to investigate the possibility of a meal, only to become a meal itself!
I never saw the heron actually catch something as a result of doing this, but I noted the bird try it on several occasions in different places when it wasn't catching anything else. If it wasn't an attempt to catch a fish or frog, I have no idea why else it would be doing it. Any ideas?

Friday, 8 June 2018

Early June Jaunts

There is no question that the bird migration has slowed down, but that just means there is more time to look at so many other things. I tend to roam a bit more, spending less time at bird hotspots like Rondeau, and spend more time elsewhere. However there are lots of things besides birds to appreciate at Rondeau. There are still some noticeable wildflowers on display.
Wild Blue Phlox
 Some wildflowers are hard to notice, and blend in very well with the surrounding vegetation. This next one is one of the 19 species of orchids known from Rondeau. It is Puttyroot (Aplectrum hyemale). It is fairly rare in Ontario and Canada.

 While crossing one of the boardwalks to look for Prothontary, this Green Frog was giving its distinctive 'plucked banjo string' type call. It had just called, and you can see the partially inflated throat and the ripples on the water.
A wetland plant that is becoming common in the sloughs and other wet areas is the Tufted Loosestrife.
Prothonotary Warblers are always a highlight, and it is great that they are one of the birds Rondeau is well known for. For the longest time, and perhaps still today, the majority of the breeding population of this Endangered species in all of Canada is at Rondeau. Surveys have not been done for quite a few years, but there is at least 50 kilometres of linear habitat for them. In spite of the amount of habitat, undoubtedly fewer than a dozen pairs are at Rondeau on an average year. Fortunately one or two pairs nest within a reasonable view of some of the trail boardwalks, giving the patient birder an excellent chance to see them either singing from an open branch.....
 ...or searching for insects in the vegetation to feed either itself, its mate, or hopefully a nest full of the next generation.
The woodlands are devoid of migrants at this time, but you can hear the melodious call of things like Wood Thrush through the vegetation.
White-tailed deer are periodically visible along the trails and roads. This buck has its developing antlers covered with the velvet that nourishes their growth. In the fall, after the antlers have stopped growing, this velvet covering will dry up and eventually be rubbed off.
 Seedlings are visible on the forest floor, trying to grow and find their place in the future canopy. This first one, with its distinctive leaves, is Sassafrass.
 This next one, also with fairly distinctive leaves, is Tuliptree.
 When the Tuliptrees get mature, they will have flowers like this. While most of the flowers on the trees that are in the forest proper are very high and difficult to see close-up, on occasion you can find an open grown tree where the flowers are at eye level. There is a tree at the north side of the Marsh Trail parking lot where they are in good flower, and you can see them at eye level.
On sunny days, you might find a Five-lined Skink sunning on a log, or even on the boardwalk. This is a male in breeding colour, with its bright orange throat.
A recent visit to the Blenheim Sewage Lagoons was not all that exciting, as the water levels remain high, and even the sprinkler cells are either bone dry or very full. There isn't much shorebird habitat. But a few shorebirds were noted in the weedy edges.
Semipalmated Sandpiper
White-rumped Sandpiper
Here is one you don't see all that often, at least in this plumage. It is a juvenile Horned Lark, and it only has this plumage for a short time.
There are lots of Savannah Sparrows at the lagoons.
I made a recent trip to Walpole Island. I had tried to photograph the flowers of the Ohio Buckeye last year, but missed it by about a week. This year was more successful. Ohio Buckeye is one of the rarest trees in Canada, as it is only considered naturally occurring on Walpole Island, and even there, there is only a very few trees. The tree is in the same genus as Horse Chestnut, which readers may be familiar with; hence the similarity in the flowers.
I've checked out some good Bobolink habitat lately, including an area at the northeast side of Blenheim as well as a much larger, private farm near Florence in northeastern Chatham-Kent where there are at least a couple of dozen hectares of grassland habitat. Bobolinks have been fairly cooperative, and seem to be doing well. Sometimes they are a bit more hidden in the grass....
 ...and other times they are sitting up and allowing less obstructed views.
 Sometimes they sing from their exposed perch..... other times they flutter and sing from the air. Their song is so cheery and lovely to hear.
 This one had an odd growth on its beak, but it didn't seem to hinder either its singing or getting food.

 Savannah Sparrows, Song Sparrows and Common Yellowthroats are scattered across the grassland habitat.
Common Yellowthroat
 Along the shrubby creek of the farm I was visiting was this Black-billed Cuckoo that paused long enough for a couple of quick shots. The light wasn't the best, but it worked.
 A brief stop at Clear Creek Forest Provincial Nature Reserve didn't turn up anything all that unusual. The woods were quiet at the time of day I visited, and the open areas were rather hot. But it didn't stop the butterflies, and I noted Silver-spotted Skipper, Common Ringlet, crescent sp, Spicebush Swallowtail and a couple of Monarchs.

It has been a very enjoyable few excursions out to natural areas in recent days!