Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Waterbirds are the order of the day

A few days ago it was time to check the St. Clair River. I hadn't been there since the Wallaceburg Christmas Bird Count (CBC) on Dec 27, and the river at that time had very few ducks compared to what it can look like. On that day, I had to resort to some of the creeks entering into the river to find much....even Mallards!

The sky was quite brightly overcast that CBC day, making this shot of an immature Bald Eagle flying overhead challenging.
There were a few Long-tailed Ducks...always a highlight in my opinion.

Gulls were almost non-existent. There was the occasional lake freighter moving up and down. I always get a kick out of seeing how much the bow of the ship raises the water level as it plies its way through.

On this more recent trip, things had improved a bit. There were some quite large rafts of ducks, almost entirely Redhead. There were probably in excess of 5000 birds altogether.
Raft of Redheads
There were a few other species mixed in, including Canvasback as well as one of my favourite ducks, the Ring-necked Duck.
A couple of male Ring-necks mixed in

Common Goldeneye were plentiful in small numbers, as were some of the other typical diving ducks such as Bufflehead and scaup.
Common Goldeneye
A bonus bird was this Common Loon in its winter plumage. There is often one somewhere along the river, but so much of the river is not in view due to residential areas, there is no guarantee one can find it. This one was fairly close to my side of the river, and no housing was nearby to obscure the view.

On the way to and from the river, I checked out out the area along Meadowvale Line, just south of Wallaceburg. It has been one of the more reliable spots to find Snowy Owls this winter again, and today was no exception. There was one right close to the road, but it didn't like that the car was slowing down, so it headed farther into the field.

A bit of a surprise on this particular visit was the large number of Tundra Swans already in the field, and while I was there, more kept pouring in. There had to be more than 500 swans spread out across the field, and certainly more than I had seen in several weeks. Perhaps the recent mild weather had encouraged them to return, and they were spring migrants???

At one point a large falcon came through, flying low and fast and hugging the ground before landing briefly in a tree. I didn't get a definitive look at it, but the way the swans reacted, it was something they were concerned about, and about a third of them got up and left in a hurry.
Given the arctic flavour of the day, with Snowy Owl and Tundra Swans the only birds in view, I considered it might have been another arctic species...a Gyrfalcon. I'm not sure a Peregrine would have elicited the same response by several hundred swans. Nonetheless, I just entered it on ebird as a large falcon.

Yesterday I took a trip to Erieau. There was still lots of fog around!
Upper part of turbines rising through the fog

I noted the male Harlequin Duck at the far east end of the rocks across the channel.....too far away for anything more than a record shot. At least the water was fairly calm, allowing the auto-focus to hold on the bird. This bird has been in the area for more than a month, although not always visible.
Harlequin Duck on the far right

Today I headed over to St. Clair NWA, hoping that the warmer weather would have brought in some waterfowl. It has been fairly quiet there in the last couple of weeks, due to most of the visible area of the NWA being frozen pretty solid. And it was mostly frozen today as well, but there were lots of Canada Geese in the adjacent fields, feeding on what looked to be left over carrots from last year's harvest. There were at least 1000 Canada Geese, with some white ones in the mix. I noted them first from Balmoral Line, on the south side of the NWA, but later headed over to Bradley Line, the next road south. Of course the geese were about half way in between, in a slightly lower part of the field, so a scope was necessary to examine the flock and photography was challenging.

There were also 18 Snow Geese mixed in, including at least 4 blue phase Snows.
Six Snows on the right, and at least one blue phase on the far left
There had been some Greater White-fronted Geese seen in the vicinity of the Blenheim Sewage Lagoons earlier today, and I scanned this scattered flock carefully to see if any were here. I didn't see any but off by themselves were two small white geese, about half the size of the Snows. I was not able to see their heads, as they were tucked under their wing, so I couldn't check for the 'grin' patch which if present, would indicate they were Snows. But the very small size was pretty characteristic of Ross's Geese! Definitely an unexpected highlight, but no photos to be had.

With all the mild weather, will Snowy Owls stick around or be heading back north?

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Water falling....

....and no I am not talking about all the rain we've been getting. Some readers will know that I really enjoy waterfalls. I haven't been to very many lately, but last week I had the occasion to visit a couple near Hamilton, a.k.a. the City of Waterfalls. Being on the Niagara Escarpment provides lots of settings where waterfalls are present.

One of the more accessible ones is Sherman Falls. It is a mere 200 metres, more or less, from the nearest road. It is on private property, but since the Bruce Trail runs right along it, it is accessible for viewing. This is the first view, showing the water falling in two stages for a total of about 8 metres from top to bottom.
 And a slightly different view.
Admittedly it isn't as colourful at the moment as it is at a warmer time of year, such as this next photo, taken in September. But the place isn't as crowded with hikers, either.

Another easily accessible waterfalls very close to Sherman is Tiffany Falls. It is on property owned by the Hamilton Region Conservation Authority. It is a little farther from the parking area, but well worth the easy hike.

Nonetheless, in winter the trail can be snow-packed and icy. Such was the case on this visit. There is a viewing platform at the end of the trail, just visible at the lower left hand side of the above photo. The trail was extremely icy in spots on this day, however, and we didn't venture as close as we normally would have since the uneven and wet slippery surface along side the jagged rocks were not something we wanted to contend with!

Tiffany Falls often flows all winter. The water drops about 10 metres in total. In the coldest part of the winter, there are massive ice columns and walls that are created and, with special permits from the CA, people who want to practice ice climbing are allowed to climb up the ice walls at Tiffany.

There are some excellent resources to finding and photographing waterfalls in Ontario. Probably the most useful one I have found is conveniently called  Waterfalls of Ontario.

Much closer to home, I noted more than the usual bird activity in our yard one day. There were at least 10 American Robins, more than I had seen so far in 2017.
It seems that there has been a deluge of American Robins in southern Ontario over the past few weeks, with most Christmas Bird Counts recording them in record numbers. Are these late migrants, or do they represent an influx of Americans who were threatening to move to Canada pending the results of the US election :-) ??

A Red-breasted Nuthatch shows up regularly in the yard as well.

Of course there are the more regular bird species, including Dark-eyed Juncos, House Finches, American Goldfinches, European Starlings, House Sparrows Downy Woodpecker and even the occasional American Crow :-) !

Not a yard species yet, but the Snowy Owls continue to show in their usual places. The numbers aren't as high as the last couple of years, but on a good day it is still possible to find anywhere from 2-5 birds in the area between Chatham and Wallaceburg, with the 2-3 birds near Meadowvale Line being the most predictable.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Snipe hunt, waterfowl survey etc

With the Christmas Bird Count season behind us, less intensive birding, etc is the order of the day at least for me. There is a mid-winter waterfowl survey that takes place in the first week of January across the continent...okay so the first week of January isn't really the middle of winter...I don't know why that term was used. Regardless, a waterfowl survey takes place during that time, with the results being used to gauge the long-term health of the waterfowl populations. I began coordinating this locally back in 1987, during my MNR days. It was always fun to get out and do some focused counts within the tri-county area wherever waterfowl could be found. When I retired 5 years ago, I continued doing a route as a volunteer.

Fortunately the St. Clair NWA CBC falls within the survey period, so those waterfowl results can be used for the waterfowl would be difficult to duplicate the survey effort again. The SCNWA CBC waterfowl results are almost always impressive. This year was fairly normal. We totalled 25983 individuals of 22 species. The year 2007 was memorable, and our best single CBC when we tallied almost 96000 individuals of 28 species.
Redhead and scaup
There have been some huge numbers of individual species over the years on the SCNWA CBC. For example: Canada Goose (17413 in 1984); Tundra Swan (10870 in 2016); Gadwall (185 in 2007); Am Black Duck (5370 in 2007); Mallard (35800 in 2007); Northern Pintail (172 in 1997); Green-winged Teal (325 in 2012), Canvasback (25800 in 2007); Redhead (15200 in 2007); Greater Scaup (3203 in 2004); Common Goldeneye (479 in 2006); Common Merganser (2899 in 2008); Ruddy Duck (663 in 2016); etc. The Lake St. Clair marshes have been well known for decades by waterfowl hunters and specialists, which is the reason so much of the wetlands have been acquired by private hunt clubs as well as the federal government.

This past weekend was the time I set aside to do my waterfowl survey route. What a difference a few days of cold weather makes with strong northerly winds! The southern shore of Lake St. Clair, once you get west of the mouth of the Thames River, is not prime for waterfowl. Wetlands are almost non-existent and the waterfront is largely built up. Nonetheless there are sometimes small numbers of waterfowl to add to the overall survey.

Not so in 2017. This is what Lake St. Clair looked like from the mouth of the Thames.
There was a small opening not far from shore, but the only birds making use of it were a handful of crows. Presumably they were picking at the remnants of a dead fish abandoned by a gull.

This next photo was taken from the Belle River marina, looking west towards Windsor. Not a speck of open water in sight.
It was at this point, I decided to discontinue my waterfowl survey along this stretch. The first time ever I have been skunked here!

One of the things I did notice were several large plumes of smoke coming from the north end of the lake. These would be the marsh fires that occur almost annually at Walpole Island, where people are burning dead Phragmites which had been sprayed late in 2016, or they were clearing the cattails so they could trap muskrats. Fire has been going on there for centuries.

Having abandoned this part of my route, I returned to Chatham to check a portion of the Thames River where the warm water outlet is. As expected there was a bunch of ducks, mostly Mallards of course, with a small number of Am Black Ducks, but there is often a few others. This time it included Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal and Hooded Merganser.
Am Black Duck and Mallard
Female Hooded Merganser
So the day wasn't a total washout for recording waterfowl. I did have time in the day to check on Snowy Owls closer to Wallaceburg. I came across 4 altogether, with three of them being in one field along Meadowvale Line. They must be getting tired of people searching for them, however, as they are often well away from the road and even a cropped photo taken with a good telephoto isn't as close as one would like.

Yesterday I decided to go to Erieau, as I hadn't been there for several days, and with the ice build-up along the lake shore, some open water right at Erieau would likely have a few species of waterbirds there.

There were 17 species of waterbirds, not including gulls! Things like Tundra Swan, Ring-necked Duck, both scaup, Canvasback, etc., etc. Not all were in decent photo range, however. I was hoping that the Harlequin Duck might be there, but not that I saw. It has been missing in action for awhile now.

I also swung by Stefina Line, where there is a sizable pasture that is sometimes grazed, sometimes not. When it isn't grazed it sometimes attracts Short-eared Owls, but I haven't seen any reports of them there this year. One thing that is there all the time is a medium sized drainage ditch that has lots of low vegetation in it. Most winters it has some open water, and also a Wilson's Snipe hanging out. This is what it looks like from the road....there is a WISN in there.
 Can you see it? Maybe if I zoom in a little closer....
 How about this one?
It plays hide-and-seek behind the clumps of vegetation, so is often difficult to see.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Some highlights of the SCNWA CBC

The 37th St. Clair National Wildlife Area Christmas Bird Count is now history. It is always a nice way to start off a new year, although in some years there has been some pretty horrible weather. This year it was almost too nice...sunny all day, very light wind and temperatures starting off a bit below freezing but for most of the day, above freezing.

So what is 'too nice' about it? The snow cover we had was completely gone, so birds were much more spread out to enjoy such great early January weather, making it more challenging for us counters! But that is okay....the birds needed a respite from the early snow and cold.

That being said, it was a successful count not only due to the great weather but overall slightly above average numbers of species.

This count began back in 1981 by staff of the Canadian Wildlife Service who had acquired a core area of this coastal wetland complex a few years earlier. I have only missed one or two years at the most, and have been the compiler since 1988. It has had its challenges. Much of the 24 km (15 mi) diameter count circle is wide open agricultural land, which does nothing to attract much bird diversity. A significant portion of the circle is Lake St. Clair, which is often frozen over. Historically the terrestrial part of the count circle would have been wet prairie or wetland, so woodland never was a dominant vegetation type.
SCNWA at a much warmer time of year

From a bird diversity standpoint, the best areas remaining are the immense wetland area along the shoreline of Lake St. Clair. One of the reasons they still exist and have not been converted to farmland is because decades ago, rich industrial executives liked to hunt ducks, and combined business with pleasure while out hunting. Hence the majority of the wetlands were once owned by well-to-do owners, and duck hunting was a priority. Fortunately many of these wetland owners still believe in the value of conserving wetlands, partly for the tradition of waterfowl hunting but also for the much larger benefit that wetlands provide to a huge diversity of wildlife. As a former hunter myself, I can understand the philosophy of hunting and conserving that go hand in hand.

When this CBC started in the early 1980s, the waterfowl hunting season typically ceased a day or so before Christmas, which meant that holding a count that included these private wetlands after the season ended was possible. A little later it was extended to the end of December, so an early January count was still possible. Currently, hunting continues into early January, and so unless things freeze up and the ducks are mostly gone, some private wetlands are not accessible for our count.

We are fortunate that we still have access to some of the best private wetlands. And of course there is the ~240 hectare (~600 acre) St. Clair NWA available.

My territory typically includes part of SCNWA, as well as a few small places elsewhere in the circle. This year I had the immense pleasure of counting birds in an adjacent private marsh. The marsh manager, whom I've known casually for several decades, allowed me in along with one other person, to view the baited area before the ducks were disturbed by the arrival of the morning's trailer load of corn. Once that arrived, most ducks at the feeding station would move elsewhere within the marsh, to the two or three other locations several hundred metres away where there was open water and lots of ducks.

The marsh manager even suggested that I climb up into a tree stand that partially looked out over the open areas where the ducks would re-locate to. It was a safe enough distance so that the ducks would not be disturbed. So I climbed the tree stand, carrying scope and binoculars, and watched. There were already several thousand ducks swimming in the open water or resting on the ice surrounding the water. By far the most numerous were Mallards, with a few Am Black Ducks and a handful of others, including Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, Hooded Merganser and Lesser Scaup. There were likely others, but they were so jam-packed it was impossible to see them all.

A few ducks and geese in the from last year's CBC
And then I heard a thundering rumble from the direction of the feeding station. In seconds, the sky was almost black with the arrival of several thousand more ducks! When all was said and done, I firmly believe there were upwards of 16000 ducks in that immediate area.

Unfortunately I only have memories of this. With my all of my optical gear, I didn't have my camera with me at this point. I'm not sure that a few frames taken with a still camera could capture the essence of this event anyway. But it is an event that I will likely never forget.

The rest of my day was not anti-climactic, but different from the first part. I travelled along one of the dikes of SCNWA with John, the marsh manager there. An adult Bald Eagle was noted in a tree.

Elsewhere in the trees along the dike were things like Brown Creeper and Downy Woodpecker. Creepers blend in so well at times!

There were lots of waterfowl here too, adjacent to a private marsh. Clearly they were contented geese!

Green-winged Teal in the centre
I did some more inland, non-wetland areas, but birds there were few and far between. There were the usual suspects, including White-breasted Nuthatches and Northern Cardinals.

Somewhat of a surprise, was to find a Tufted Titmouse. I have never had one in my territory before on this count.

A non-bird bit of interest was to come across an opossum out roaming around in broad daylight. It didn't stick around for long and most of my views were of it running away, but managed to get a couple of side view photos.

We had crows, as usual, and by far the most abundant species of bird on this count. It is difficult to get an accurate number, but our best estimates were about 126,000 birds.

Our total for this count was 84 species, a bit higher than our most recent 10 year average of 81 species. There were five count week species, including the Nelson's Sparrow that I wrote about in my previous blog. Blake, Pete, Sue and Don worked hard to try and relocate that bird so we could add it to the count day total, but it was not to be. Our record of 92 species was not in any danger of being broken.....maybe next year.