Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

Monday, 26 June 2017

More DICK-y birds

Most readers will be well aware of the significant influx of Dickcissels (DICK is the 4-letter code used by birders) into Ontario. In the past, I would have said southwestern Ontario, but according to reports on Ontbirds and ebird, some are well beyond these parts. Birds have shown up in Grey and Bruce counties, as well as the Waterloo area and as far as the Peterborough area.

According to the most recent ebird database, there are at least 14 sites in Lambton County. I am aware of about 18 sites in Chatham-Kent, with likely a few more as yet undetected. If those rarities such as Violet-Green Swallow and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher would just stop showing up somewhere in Ontario, maybe birders would be more inclined to get out closer to home and discover many more DICK sites across southern Ontario :-).

Yesterday I had the opportunity to explore a property of ~40 ha (100 acres) just east of Blenheim. It is an abandoned pasture, with some of it having grown rather shrubby, but with at least a quarter of it left quite open. Tallgrass prairie species had been planted on it a few years ago. It is private property, and is posted with "No Trespassing" signs. However I have known the landowner since my high school days, and thankfully he has given me permission to explore it.

My ears aren't the greatest, and it was rather breezy, but I encountered 19 DICKs in all: 15 males and 4 females. Given that DICK is polygynous (a male often has more than one mate) it is quite possible that there may have been 30 or more birds here. On a less windy day, I might have found more than I did. I did flush up three of the four females, but due to the early stage of their nesting cycle, I did not want to disturb them so I didn't look for nests.
 With most birds only having arrived here in the past couple of weeks, it is likely that incubation has barely begun if at all, and nest abandonment is much higher at this stage. Hopefully in another couple of weeks or so, females will be seen carrying food and nesting can be confirmed then.

The light varied considerably.....sometimes very bright and sunny, sometimes heavy overcast. When the birds were down low on a dead weed stalk it was relatively easy to get decent photos.
When they were up higher, the bland sky made it much more challenging.

The breezy conditions caused both the birds and the stems they were perched on to be constantly in motion, so it was often difficult to maintain decent focus. Fortunately at least a few of the many dozens of shots I took were worth keeping. I learned early in the game that dead weed stalks such as Common Mullein were more stable and less prone to the wind than most other more flimsy stems.

There were the other expected birds to be found, including a few Bobolink and Savannah Sparrows, and even an Orchard Oriole.

A little later I continued slowly down the road, and there in a partially cut and raked alfalfa field I caught a glimpse of a suspicious bird flitting by. It landed and there was another DICK, perched on a Curled Dock stem.

Another bird was also in the field. I'm not sure how long it will be until the hay is all cut, raked and baled, but I suspect the future of these birds is not promising. In yet another grassy field only a couple of kilometres away was another DICK.

It is surprising to some extent, why the birds pick some sites (e.g. the partially cut hayfield) and there are numerous other grassy fields that looked perfect, but without DICK. And one tallgrass prairie planting just east of Ridgetown of about 5 ha in size, where I had a DICK four years ago, is without any this year. At least not yet......

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Delightful, Dashing Dickcissels

Most birders will be aware of a recent influx of Dickcissels into southern Ontario. The Dickcissel is a smallish songbird, most abundantly found on the grassland and shrubby prairies of the mid-western USA. But every once in awhile, they go through an irruption, when a number of them arrive in southwestern Ontario in unusual numbers. The thought has been that during drought in its traditional range, the birds would move farther afield. I'm not sure that is the case this year, as the mid-west seems to be getting a reasonable amount of precipitation this spring.

Up until about a few days ago, the only reliable location to find Dickcissel in southwestern Ontario was to check out a shrubby/grassy field just east of Wheatley in southwestern Chatham-Kent. One or more had been there almost annually for several years.

This past weekend, that changed. Reports started to appear on ebird about one or two here, and another one or two there. Jim Burk was the first to report them along New Scotland Line on Sunday. Once birders started checking other likely spots in the area, the birds were clearly much more widespread.

Chatham-Kent seems to be a hotspot for the species, although there are birds being reported in Middlesex, Lambton, the GTA and even the upper Bruce Peninsula. One wonders if some of the suitable habitat in between might be harbouring a few as well.

I first got out to look around this past Monday, and did indeed find a few Dickcissels. However I was not able to get any photos, and in my previous post, had to rely on some of the photos I had taken several years ago while visiting the prairies of Missouri. Yesterday was quite a different story. The weather was great with lower temperatures and humidity, although it was a bit breezy. I had some fairly cooperative birds at a couple of sites, but the weather conditions or lighting weren't always what I would have liked.

I checked out several likely places, including:
-Dealtown Crown Land prairie
-Blenheim Sewage Lagoons
-Hyland Drive (NE Blenheim)
-Stefina Line Pasture (SW of Blenheim)
-Clear Creek Forest Provincial Park (SE Chatham-Kent)
-New Scotland Line at McKinlay Road (just north of Rondeau Prov Park)
-New Scotland Line (just east of New Scotland)

The Dealtown Crown Land site was wonderful....I had at least 10 birds, 7 of which were males; it is a publicly accessible spot, but not all that easy to find and get to.

Female; the male was very close by
 This female below was building a nest. I took a quick peek after she had left and noted the beginning of a nest well hidden low down in a leafy shrub.

The Blenheim Sewage Lagoons had zero Dickcissels (but some less common ducks, including Ring-necked and Greater Scaup); the grassy area had been recently mowed, with some of the grass raked and already baled, so very few grassland birds were here except for a few Savannah Sparrows.

Hyland Drive had at least one pair (along with several Bobolinks and Savannah Sparrows); the female had a mouth full of nesting material but stayed mostly hidden from the camera.

Stefina Line pasture did not seem to have any, although some of the best habitat is difficult to see from the road;

Clear Creek Forest PP: on the south side of Talbot Trail there is a huge old field/shrubby area, but I only could find one male (not to mention a few Wood Ticks);

New Scotland Line/McKinlay Road had a singing male on a brush pile out in the open pasture area on the SW side of this intersection;

New Scotland Line just east of New Scotland had at least 4 birds, including 3 males. Most of the time they were too far off to attempt a photo, but at one point this male came and sat in a tree right next to the road.

With the other sites reported on by other birders, there are now at least 10 sites in Chatham-Kent with Dickcissels, and given the wide variety of sites they are located in, I know of at least a dozen or more additional sites in C-K where they could be.

Most of the birds reported are males, since they can be located as they perch in a conspicuous place and sing frequently. Presumably there are about as many females which are busy building nests, although the species is polygynous, so there could be more females than males. All in all, there are at least 30-35 birds on the known C-K sites. It is interesting to note that breeding records during the most recent Breeding Bird Atlas (2001-2005) had most of the occupied squares occurring in Chatham-Kent (5). In 2000, there were up to 30 pairs in C-K.

Undoubtedly birders will be out investigating potential sites across a much greater part of southern Ontario to see just how extensive this influx actually is!

Good luck checking the habitat in your area!

Monday, 12 June 2017

Some recent interesting bird observations in Chatham-Kent

Now that the peak of the migration is past, birding has been a little less intense. But there have been some interesting sightings in the area. I hesitate to call them 'good' birds, since it implies that ones that don't fit into this category are not good, and that does the avifauna as a whole a disservice.  One could also make that argument regarding 'interesting' vs uninteresting, I suppose. This wasn't intended to be a philosophical discussion on the merits of one bird species over another, so I will leave it at that.

A few days ago I stopped in at Erieau hoping that the Franklin's Gull that was reported a few days earlier, or a Little Gull might be around with the others. While standing adjacent to the channel and scanning the gulls with a scope along the far shore of Rondeau, a 'largish small' gull, larger than nearby Bonaparte's, flew into view. It had an almost complete black hood, a largish dull red bill, upper wing solid gray changing to solid black at the last quarter of the wing tip. The underside of the wings were mostly white, slightly grayer at the trailing edge and the last quarter of the wing tips were solid black. I never saw it land, it flew around for about a minute and then headed west towards the fish tug harbour when I lost it from view behind trees. It clearly was not any of the gulls I had expected or hoped was a Laughing Gull in almost full alternate (breeding) plumage! I had not seen one for several years. I remained in the area for at least another 30 minutes, since gulls were coming and going being stirred up from time to time by passing motor boats, but I never saw it again. Unfortunately I did not have a chance to get a photo. What added to the interest was that in checking ebird, there had been one or two others reported along Lakes Ontario and Erie in the previous couple of days.

A couple of days later, I visited Clear Creek Forest Provincial Park, a few kilometers east of Rondeau in eastern Chatham-Kent. It is one of Ontario's newest provincial parks. There is some impressive forest in parts of it, including one of the largest, if not the largest, American Beech trees in Ontario, with a diameter of 104 cm.

On the north side of the park are a few old abandoned gravel pits. They have been abandoned for at least 40 years, as I recall swimming in the largest one as a teen. The lowest ones have lots of vegetation around them, as does the uppermost one.
Lowest pond

Uppermost pond
It was in this uppermost one that I came across a female Ring-necked Duck hanging out with about 40 Canada Geese. It certainly is late for the species. Perhaps it is injured, although it looked healthy enough from a distance.
Ring-necked Duck female in background

There is a new pond system just dug out this spring, on an old berm feature that was mostly old field vegetation. Hopefully it will mature nicely and attract lots of things.
 This next photo is from the edge of the recently constructed pond, looking down over the older lower ponds.

A couple of days ago I made it out to Rondeau just after 7 a.m. Steve Charbonneau had been there for anhour or so already, and informed me of an Olive-sided Flycatcher that had been in good viewing range a short time before. We went looking for it, as I had missed this one so far in the spring. Steve could still hear it, but it was too far away for me to pin point its location. We eventually saw it perched in typical fashion high up at the top of a dead snag. I attempted a couple of photos, which were not well focussed due to the distance. Steve left and I continued on, searching for a late Black-throated Green Warbler and also a Yellow-breasted Chat that Steve had encountered. The chat had been on territory, it seemed, for several days so there was a good chance to locate it. I heard it giving its variable and raucous calls, so I knew where it was. Eventually I did see it, but only for about two seconds, so I struck out getting a photo. This next photo is of one that I found nesting in the park many years ago.

While looking for the chat, a Canada Warbler was calling from the shrubbery, but did not appear. The 'resident' White-winged Dove was heard a couple of times.

And then about a kilometre north of where I had seen the Olive-sided Flycatcher earlier in the morning, I came across one again, high up on a dead snag. This first image is taken at about an equivalent of 22X.
 This next image has been highly cropped, probably at an equivalent of about 40X, but at least one can see enough detail.
Olive-sided Flycatcher

In the last day or so, it seems that there has been a mini-invasion of Dickcissel. One or more had been reported at the shrubby old field just east of Wheatley Provincial Park and I thought about going to look for it, but yesterday Jim Burk reported several in an old field along New Scotland Line, about a kilometre east of the road to Rondeau. This morning, I headed out to look, as I had to be in Blenheim later in the morning. Sure enough, there were at least two birds, but not close enough for a photo. (the DICK photos that follow are ones taken in Missouri several years ago, as the species is relatively common there.)
Dickcissel male
I checked the pasture along Stefina Line, hoping for more Dickcissels, but I didn't see any. A little later I checked the grassy industrial lot on the NE corner of Blenheim where Bobolinks are regular. No Dickcissels, however. Another spot I checked was a large old shrubby pasture (private and posted) along Campbell Line, a few kilometres northeast of Blenheim. There were several DICK, including at least 3 males and 2 females. Likely there were more, but I could only view from the road and a scope was handy.

Dickcissel female

As one might expect, there were other grassland type birds in these grassland areas, including numerous Savannah Sparrows and Bobolink.
Bobolink male

Bobolink female
It seems to be a good year for Dickcissels, and it would be worth checking any shrubby grassland area across the southwest.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Colourful May Wildflowers

A few weeks ago I posted about April showers bringing April flowers, of which there are many that show up late in that month. However May seems to have the greatest diversity of flowers, especially in woodlands before the trees leaves get too dominant. The profusion is amazing, especially along some trails. In fact I have had birders tell me that when the birding got a bit slow, they thoroughly enjoyed the abundance of wildflowers.

This first one shown started in April, but May is its normal flowering period, and this population did persist flowering well into May.
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)
Forests with developing heavy canopy have the earliest species. Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) is abundant.
 Less obvious is the Virginia Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum)

 White flowers, such as this Sweet Cicely (Osmorhiza claytoni) don't stand out as much as more colourful ones. This is one you need to watch out for, especially if you venture off a trail, since the developed seeds are black and sharp-pointed and will penetrate clothing and prick you.
A similarly looking white flower is White Baneberry (Actea pachypoda), sometimes known as Doll's-eyes since the white berries with black dots were used by pioneers as eye's for home-made dolls.

Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata), sometimes called the pinwheel flower, is plentiful. It is just as often pinkish-purple or white as it is blue.

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), in peak flower in May, should prossibly be called Juneapple, since the little apple fruit seldom occurs until June. Parts of the plant are poisonous.

On one occasion when I was getting ready to photograph some of the wildflowers, I encountered a species I had never seen in Rondeau before: False or American Gromwell (Lithospermum latifolium). In fact until I came across this small clump, it was considered an historical species for Chatham-Kent, and hadn't been seen in Rondeau since the early 1960s. It is nice to update the historical records.

A fairly rare woodland wildflower blooming in May is Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica). There are historical records for Chatham-Kent, but a fabulous colony of them occurs on a private property along the Thames River in Elgin County.

In more open woods, especially where there are lots of oaks and leaf development is slower, are a slightly different mix of wildflowers. Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is widely scattered, and often sought out by hummingbirds which can sometimes be seen hovering beneath the flower with its long bill up into the flower searching for nectar.
 On a very few occasions, you might encounter a pale yellow form of this normally bright orange-red flower.
 Robin's Plantain (Erigeron pulchellus) is quite restricted to sandy/grassy openings of the oak forest.
 False Toadflax (Comandra richardsonii) is another very restricted species, and not nearly as large and colourful as many others.
 Wood Betony (Pedicularis canadensis) on the other hand is usually quite abundant in these oak forest openings. They may be purplish, as shown in the first image, or yellow, as shown in the following one.

 An abundant member of the Lily family, growing in sandy soils along oak forest edges, is this Starry False Solomon's-seal (Maianthemum stellatum).

Just a few of the more obvious and sometimes less obvious, herbaceous wildflowers to be found in May, with some of them persisting into June. Herbaceous plants aren't the only ones with flowers. Woody plants have them too...some are obvious and some are so diminutive they aren't noticeable unless you look really, really hard for them. Some will be featured in a future post.