Great Egret

Great Egret

Monday, 29 December 2014

St. Clair River birding on the Christmas Bird Count

Yesterday, December 29, was the Wallaceburg/Walpole Island Christmas Bird Count. It was a great was easy with no snow, ice or fog to contend with. Heavy overcast and light winds allowed for good viewing as well as hearing birds. In the early afternoon a few ice pellets came down, but not for long. Then it cleared, and the skies became clearer as the day wore on.

My territory included the St. Clair River from just north of Walpole to the closed down Lambton Generating Station. I have a bit of inland territory as well, but the emphasis is on the river.

 The river was completely open. Coupled with the generally mild conditions so far this winter, except for a brief period about a month ago, no ice has come from Lake Huron, and lots of ducks are still farther north in the open areas there or scattered far and wide along the lower lakes and marshes. Consequently, duck numbers and diversity were a little more challenging this year.

Lake freighters were plying the river, going both upstream and down.

This helped finding waterfowl a bit, as the birds floating on the river were stirred up and more visible in flight. A noisy barge travelling upstream along the Michigan side was especially helpful in making the waterfowl take flight; otherwise detecting birds across the river which is at least a kilometre wide at that point would be almost impossible to find.

I ended up with 12 species of waterfowl (although the overall count had a few more). None were what you would call plentiful or abundant, but all it takes is one to add that species to the list, and in some cases it was only one that was seen.

Some even lent themselves for decent photo opportunities. A male Redhead was tucked in close to shore.
One of the highlights was being able to enjoy some excellent looks at Long-tailed Duck (formerly called Oldsquaw). I had a total of 6, but most were well out in the river, and only seen with the aid of binoculars. However right at the outlet of the McKeough Floodway was a beautiful male, busily preening itself and not far out. It was there all day. It is a very striking duck in my opinion.

Outlet of McKeough Floodway

At times it was along the rocks on the far side of the outlet.

I went to the other side and managed to get some even closer photos.

I also had three Bonaparte's Gulls at this outlet. As it turns out, they were the only three on the whole count. They fed briefly, then alighted on the water and floated downstream.

Bonaparte's Gull
Part of my territory is inland from the river. Most woodlots are private and posted, so I was limited to walking along roadways, pishing for birds. The woods were generally quiet, but on occasion my efforts were rewarded. On one occasion I had three White-breasted Nuthatches come to investigate my pishing, while on another occasion, a mixed flock of White-throated Sparrows, Song Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos made themselves visible.

White-breasted Nuthatch
As is the case with many CBCs this year, Snowy Owls are in relative abundance. There were at least two in my territory. This one is habitually seen at the solar farm just east of Sombra.

 It spent most of the day on the roof of this shed, above, but later in the day moved to a fence, below.

Another Snowy spent the entire day on top of this pole. Even at dusk, it was still there. A closer look at this bird showed a small spot of red on its belly feathers.....hopefully it was just a bit of blood from its most recent meal of mouse!

Will we get tired of seeing Snowy Owls? Will some birders be heard to say "Oh, it is just another Snowy Owl over there"?

Checking the river a bit later in the day can be worthwhile, so I spent some time watching to see if anything new showed up flying up or downstream. But not this day.

I usually end up at the McKeough Floodway a bit inland, towards the end of the day. There is a lot of shrubby and grassy area all along the floodway, which can be good for mice, and therefore good for raptors.

It can be a reasonably consistent place to find Short-eared Owls beginning to hunt as dusk arrives. While watching and waiting, I heard my first Great Horned Owl calling from a nearby woodlot, but I didn't see any Short-ears here.

I left shortly after dusk, and on my way south on hwy 40, had a Short-ear flush up along the west side of the road right where there is a wide expanse of prairie vegetation. It was the only one seen on the count.

I ended up with 42 species for the day, a little lower than sometimes due to the absence of some species of waterfowl. The 27 participants overall, however, totalled 81 species.....quite a decent result.


  1. Turned out to be a decent day despite lack of ducks. White birds were most abundant--Tundra Swans and Snowy Owls!