Great Egret

Great Egret

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Black Changing To White

Okay don't panic....I'm not suggesting that we are getting more of the white stuff, although with the way things are going this year, who knows. Everyone I've heard from recently is tired of the way winter is dragging on.

No, the 'black' I am referring to is the presence of American Crows......I'll get to the 'white' shortly.

Chatham-Kent, and specifically the city of Chatham, happens to have the notoriety of supporting the largest winter crow roost in Canada in most years. It wasn't too many years ago that the town of Essex was competing for, and sometimes winning, those accolades. I know that many other cities in southern Ontario have seen an increase in wintering crows, even cities as far east as Ottawa. But it seems that over the last decade or so, Chatham-Kent has usually been the 'winner', much to the chagrin of many locals.

Crows undertake a major migration in the mid to late autumn, just like many hawks do. Even though estimates of crows in the Chatham-Kent area on a single day in late November have often been well over 250,000 birds,  the hawk migration watches at Holiday Beach Conservation Area and at Lake Erie Metropark just across the Detroit River counted almost 550,000 crows passing their observation towers during the autumn. And there were some days when they were too busy counting hawks that they just stated "crows moving all day, no numbers taken." So even though well over half a million crows left southwestern Ontario, typically well over 100,000 birds remain in the Chatham area for the winter. For example the St. Clair NWA Christmas Bird Count, for which the count area includes the western part of the city of Chatham, almost always tallies over 100,000 birds within the count circle, and our all time official number for the count is 159,860 birds! The number of crows in Chatham-Kent has rivalled even the largest winter crow roosts in the U.S.A., according to the results of the Christmas Bird Counts held there.

Crows in Chatham-Kent in December

Crows roosting in the neigbourhoods along the Thames River in January

I know it isn't fun to have so much bird poop landing on ones car, sidewalk, steps, roof, person, etc. But from a bird perspective it truly is a fascinating phenomenon. This roost has been here to some degree for as long as even the oldest human residents can remember. I won't get into the reasons in this post as to why the crows have chosen Chatham-Kent as their principal wintering spot.....I'll save that for a post this autumn, so stay tuned.

The crows build up their numbers steadily, beginning in early to mid-October, and essentially remain in the C-K area until early to mid-March. As the days get a bit longer allowing them to travel a little farther during their daily excursions to forage, in combination with some milder weather, the crows tend not to return to their roost. That is happening right now, and although there are still some crows around, they would more likely number in the several hundreds rather than the tens of thousands.

And now on to the 'white stuff'.....instead of surrounding fields being blackened by crows, they are being whitened by the arrival of those magnificent Tundra Swans, which to many people, herald the arrival of spring! While in some milder winters a few dozen or more swans may overwinter in places like Rondeau Bay, this year there was a total absence of them......they must have realized that they would have much better wintering conditions in their traditional area of Chesapeake Bay along the east coast surrounded by Virginia and Maryland.

In the last few days, Tundra Swans have been arriving in southwestern Ontario, from Long Point to Essex County, in large numbers. As many as 7500 birds were estimated to be in the Rondeau Bay area last weekend, and the numbers continue to grow. As they spread out to surrounding fields of corn stubble from Lake Erie to Lake St. Clair, it is difficult to get an accurate count.

Hundreds of swans may be feeding in old corn stubble fields, often with Canada Geese.

Canada Geese arriving at a field

They will sometimes use the same fields for several days in succession, but with lots of these types of fields to choose from in C-K, are apt to move around. It is best to watch for birds leaving their resting area near Rondeau Bay or another large body of water and follow them to their feeding area. Most likely when one flock goes, others will follow.The fields of the former Dover Township, especially between Pain Court and St. Clair NWA and north to Mitchell's Bay is another favourite area for thousands of these birds to feed. In short order, they will continue to northern Lambton County just south of Grand Bend using the former Lake Smith, which is often flooded in spring, as a resting and feeding area before continuing their journey north.

They won't be in southern Ontario for a long time. In most years they arrived before now, so will soon be on their way to feeding areas much farther north, before they take the final leg of their migration to their breeding ground in the Arctic and sub-Arctic watersheds.

And while they are here in Chatham-Kent, they have to contend with numerous wind towers. But it seems that the towers do not present a problem for them.

When one encounters a flock of swans feeding in a field, it is prudent to look for other, perhaps less obvious species. Can you see something other than Tundra Swans in this photo?

You might see Snow Geese, such as the five birds towards the front of this image. They are much smaller than the swans. Here, there are two pairs of white Snow Geese and one Blue phase Snow Goose. The Blue one is towards the left of the image, and can perhaps be seen better in the image below, taken today. The photo below also has some Canada Geese at the left, and some ducks in the back ground, including a male Wood Duck. These birds were a long way from the road, so were difficult to get good photos of even with an excellent camera and telephoto lens combination.

As the patches of water become more extensive close to shore, many other waterbirds can be observed. Places like the Erieau harbour are perfect right now, although as the ice recedes the waterbirds will spread out considerably. A few photos taken over the last couple of days in the Erieau area are posted below.

Bufflehead male
Common Merganser male
Common Merganser female

The female Common Merganser's crest doesn't always show up so distinctly. This was the result of a 'tail wind'.

Canvasback male
A large mixed flock of mostly Redheads and Greater Scaup
Some birds, such as this male Redhead, have not been able to survive this winter
Ring-necked Ducks, with Canvasback and a Greater Scaup

Pair of Mallards
Greater Scaup....note the length of the white in the wing which is longer than in Lesser Scaup

Wood Ducks in the foreground; male Northern Pintail in upper left; male American Wigeon in upper right

Besides waterfowl, there are other species that have recently appeared. I noted my first Killdeer today, although an occasional one had been reported a few days earlier. Around one of the small 'lakes' in a flooded field were at least 6 Killdeer.

Killdeer, newly arrived in the Erieau area

Red-winged Blackbirds have been slowly arriving over the last week or so. As the weather warms, the males are frequently heard giving their spring songs in preparation to attract a female when they arrive.

In the woodlands, new life is appearing as well. While I was at the Rondeau Visitor Centre yesterday I saw no less than 8 Eastern Chipmunks scampering around, chasing each other and feeding on the scraps below the bird feeders. They would normally appear once in awhile on a warm winter day, but during this winter, that just hasn't happened!

Near watercourses and wetlands, animals such as Muskrat and Mink will be roaming around. I photographed this Mink a few days ago as it was exploring along the edge of a deep channel in northern Chatham-Kent. They are normally shy creatures, but do have an inquisitive nature on occasion. This one was apparently unconcerned with my presence and I got numerous photos, using my vehicle as a blind.

Spring officially arrives tomorrow. Here's hoping it will be able to stay!


  1. OMG! The picture of "Crows roosting in the neighbourhoods along the Thames River in January" is fabulous. Funny, I just saw a few crows around here 2 days ago.

    1. Hi Monica. Thanks for checking out this post. The crows are truly fascinating. You will have to come to Chatham some winter and see it for your self (and take some home with you) might remind you of an Albert Hitchcock movie!