Great Egret

Great Egret

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

A Christmas Bird Count day, Rondeau style

The 2014 Blenheim/Rondeau Christmas Bird Count is now history, including the three days before and after the actual count day which makes up the count week. You may have read Blake's post of Sunday evening, highlighting some of the things he found or which were tabulated by others. Certainly considering how open the area was, with no snow and very little ice, the birds that lingered after the snowy cold spell a few weeks back were scattered widely, making detection of them somewhat difficult. The total number of birds was down from average, as was the total of 105 species, slightly below the 107 species average of the last decade. But I will take the relatively easy going over some of the tougher conditions we've had to deal with such as last year!

My day normally goes something like this: I start at the north end of Rondeau Road calling for owls well before daylight, making several stops along this road with the intention of reaching the very south end by about day break. The wind was light, the temperature was mild and sound carried, so it should have been good for Eastern Screech Owls to respond to my whistled calls. But something must not have been quite right for these little denizens of the forest. In spite of the ~10 stops, I only totalled 5 Eastern Screech Owls this day. Of course the fact that there were at least three Great Horned Owls hooting up a steady storm not that far away towards the edge of the forest might have caused some of them to resist the temptation to respond to me.....after all, Great Horned Owls eat many things, including smaller owls.

Just before 8 a.m., I reached the south end of Rondeau Road and began my day-time route, which means venturing out along the south beach and, if all is well, walking out the almost 4 kilometres to Erieau. And back. On sand. In rubber boots. All bundled up in heavy winter clothing designed to withstand whatever I might face along the way. Sometimes it is bitter cold with very strong head winds, which one time almost blew over my scope & tripod. My optical equipment weighs about 13-14 lbs. Or it might rain or snow. Fortunately this day was quite mild, and the wind was not strong, so it made it more comfortable. But there are a lot of trees and shrubs on the shoreline, due to the significant erosion of these last few weeks and months, so just walking along the shoreline is not an option.

This next image shows where the trail ends with about a 4 foot drop. There used to be a road here....I remember driving on it in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

This bench finally succumbed to the erosion in the last week or so.

Instead for the first half kilometre or more, I made my way through mucky sloughs, shrub thickets and the edge of the cattail marsh to get beyond the last ridge of trees so as to see the marsh and more open section of the south beach. But it was worth it. In the process I came across a new nest of a Bald Eagle on about the last ridge of trees, and about 300 metres from the shoreline. The Burks had been out this way the week before and told me about it. It may be a new nesting pair. Park staff were not aware of this nest until I told them, but when the leaves are on the trees, it would be difficult to see from the south beach.

As recently as the first half of the last century there were two pairs of eagles nesting at Rondeau, but the population was hit hard by pesticides and production fell drastically throughout their range. Only one pair has actively nested at Rondeau since the 1960s. As the population continues to rebound, maybe once again two pairs will be here if they are not here already.

Parts of the south beach are quite open, with grassy dunes in abundance.

Looking towards Erieau
This grassy dune system on a barrier beach is quite a rarity in Ontario, with some of the best examples at places like Rondeau and Long Point. There were quite a few ducks, geese and swans as well as gulls on the Rondeau Bay and marsh side....thousands of them in fact. Ring-billed, Herring, Bonaparte's and Great Black-backed Gulls were all noted, but nothing any rarer. About ten species of waterfowl were recorded, but nothing unexpected. However the only 4 Gadwall on the count were ones I saw here. And two of the several Bald Eagles I saw this day were perched on the ice, feeding on the carcass of something. An adult Red-shouldered Hawk hung around, giving me views on three different occasions. The lake side was less populated with these water birds, but several flocks of mergansers and scaup passed by as did an intermittent stream of gulls.

This area does not get visited by birders often at this time of year, or any time of year for that matter. So one is always on the lookout for uncommon species. Over the years on this section of my CBC route, I've had such things as Harlequin Duck, King Eider, Purple Sandpiper and Red Phalarope as some of the more unusual species. This year I didn't find anything that notable, but I did come across Snowy Owls.....two of them were perched on some of the driftwood scattered on the more open beach dunes. I managed to get them both in one of the photos. The second photo below shows the bird with much more barring, indicating it is likely an adult female or a first year male. The closer, whiter bird is an adult male. They aren't the best shots, as I only had a point & shoot camera with me. With all the other stuff I was carrying, I wasn't going to carry my big lens too!

 I didn't get right to Erieau like I sometimes do. The sand was not frozen, making it more difficult to walk on, and there was another major blow down blocking the shoreline, and it didn't look too promising on the bay side to get around either. I scanned the water near Erieau as best I could and added the things I saw to my checklist. Then I headed back to the car to spend more time on the next part of my territory. It was kind of disappointing, since the wooded area at the far western tip always has the potential to find something good.

Upon returning to the car, I headed up to the north end of the park to access the marsh road. This next part of my territory requires me to drive half way out the Marsh Road to the large parking lot. From there I walk. And walk. And walk some more. The south beach in the first part of the day only involves about 7 kilometres of walking carrying my gear. The Marsh Road section to the south end as well as the side shoot over to Long Pond and area involves about 9 kilometres of hiking, but at least it wasn't on sand.
Rondeau Marsh

I saw various raptors, including Northern Harrier, Rough-legged Hawk and more Bald Eagles. I saw at least 6 Great Blue Herons to add to the two I saw along the south beach earlier. And a few ducks. And another Snowy Owl. The shrubby thickets along the trail harboured a few sparrows, including American Tree, Song and White-throated. There were lots of mudflat edges, and I was hoping for a shorebird or two. Over the years I've had as many as 10 species of shorebird on my route, including such things as American Avocet, Western Sandpiper and Black-bellied Plover in addition to the ones mentioned from along the south beach earlier. But alas, there was so much shorebird habitat and so few shorebirds (most left at the previous cold, snowy spell), I didn't find any this day. I'm sure they were out there, but just not where I could see them. Fortunately Blake had a couple in his territory along the southeast beach: Purple Sandpiper and Dunlin, so at least there were some for the overall count.

I ended up with 40 species for the day. Not as good as I had hoped, and I'm sure I missed some that were there. Surely if I had someone with me to help watch in 360 degrees, especially someone with better ears and eyes than my aging ones, the total for this part of the overall count circle would have been higher. But all in all, it was a worthwhile venture. I've been doing this Rondeau count for about 45 years now, and I've had the south beach and south end of the marsh road territory for about thirty of those years. The weather has varied considerably, of course....on a couple of occasions in the early 1980s, I even managed to get out in a canoe to explore areas otherwise inaccessible!

I went back out to Rondeau today with the hope that one or more of the shorebirds that Blake saw was still around. The brisk wind was out of the west, providing a calmer shoreline along the east beach, adding to my hopes. I went via Erieau just to see what was there, and 5 Snowy Owls were still visible along Lagoon Road. But my goal was to walk a stretch of the southeast beach. There were a few Common Mergansers and scaup along with Bonaparte's and Ring-billed Gulls appearing to be following a school of minnows. And there was a single shorebird, a Dunlin, looking rather forlorn at the edge of a pond just in from the shore. Perhaps it is the same one that Blake had. I wonder how it will fare when the below freezing temperatures return in these next few days. I hope it has the energy to travel to a better place!


  1. Wish I could have joined you out on the Rondeau count Allen! I went out on Monday to look for the Dunlin, but no luck! Glad you were able to spot it! =)

    1. Thanks, Tianna.....maybe next year we can get you to join the count, although I can probably assure you there won't be any Bank Swallows to look at.....maybe by then you will be tired of looking at them anyway :-)

  2. Nice write-up, Allen. It was a good day to be on the count.

    1. Hi was indeed a good day. Thanks for your visit!