Great Egret

Great Egret

Friday, 12 December 2014

The Christmas Bird Count season is upon us!

Well at least the count period is. Technically the first official day of the Christmas Bird Count season is Dec 14. However since the count period for each count is three days before and three days after the count day, since the Blenheim/Rondeau count day is December 14, that means we can start keeping track of birds in the count circle beginning on December 11.

Christmas Bird Counts began, in a very few places, back in 1900. Prior to that, there had been a tradition to see how many birds and species one could shoot in one day. But some forward thinking people thought it was a waste to kill all these birds....why not just identify and count them instead? And so the CBC phenomenon began.

Each CBC is made up of a circle 24 km in diameter, and as many birders as possible spend the day combing as many habitats as possible looking for birds.While there are lots of good areas within this count circle the largest and main natural system is the greater Rondeau Bay and Rondeau Provincial Park complex and adjacent area. Although the name of this count is officially the Blenheim CBC, without the Rondeau Bay/Park and adjacent areas it would have less spectacular results.

The Rondeau/Blenheim CBC began in 1939, making it one of the longest running counts in Ontario. Some in Ontario began much earlier, however, including the Toronto one which began in either that first year of 1900 or very shortly afterwards.

Since 1939, the Rondeau/Blenheim count has totalled approximately 186 species, including three which have only been seen during the count period but not on the count day. This total includes 34 species of waterfowl, 14 species of shorebirds, 11 species of gulls, and 5 species of warblers, among others.

In the last decade and a half, we have averaged well over 100 species recorded on the day of the count, with a high of 115 achieved three times, This count is regularly in the top three counts in Ontario and except for some counts along the lower BC coast, often ranks in the top 5-6 in all of Canada.

There have been some rarities over that period, not surprisingly. Some of the most unusual species include: Pomarine Jaeger, American Avocet, Western Sandpiper, Purple Sandpiper, Red Phalarope, Barn Owl, Black-backed Woodpecker, Three-toed Woodpecker, Boreal Chickadee, Varied Thrush, Sage Thrasher, Spotted Towhee and Harris's Sparrow.

With that as a setting for the upcoming Blenheim/Rondeau CBC, and with the count period  now here, I spent part of today roaming around parts of the count circle to see what I could see and document, just in case some of those species go missing on the day of the count.

I checked out Erieau. With very little ice and milder temperatures once again, birds are spread out. There are a lot of ducks on the bay. Not a lot out on the lake. The Erieau harbour area had a few, including both scaup, Bufflehead, Redhead, Canvasback, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Merganser, Mallard, Black, Common Goldeneye and Ruddy Duck. I also noted a Horned Grebe, down from the several dozen that have been there in the last few weeks, and a single Double-crested Cormorant.

Greater Scaup

Greater (l) and Lesser (r) Scaup
 The head of the Greater Scaup is lower and more rounded than that of the Lesser Scaup, which also shows a bit more of slight peak on the top of its head.
Horned Grebe

If you look closely at this Redhead you may notice the filament line wrapped around the base of its bill and hanging out the side of its bill. I'm not sure if there is anything in the duck's mouth, but it looks slightly askew, so it may have attempted to swallow something. It appeared active and healthy, but undoubtedly this bird will have challenges feeding, so is likely doomed.

While I was looking across the main slip from the edge, I saw a Snowy Owl on the rocks surrounding the area where the fish tugs moor. I was just getting ready to get a photo when a fish tug came in and the owl moved off. Fortunately it didn't go too far, although it wasn't as obvious a location in which to photograph it. Can you see it in this next photo?

If you look carefully, it is in the centre and partly obscured by a leafless shrub. Fortunately I was able to drive around to where the fish tugs tie up, and was able to get a clear, albeit distant, shot of it perched on the rocks.

There were a few other people that came by while I was watching.

I didn't go into Rondeau. It is the last day of the deer herd reduction, a management process that is necessary to keep the deer population down to the level where it doesn't damage the forest. A few years ago the winter population was about 600 animals, and they were starving. Some just sat down and died in the coldest weather. Since there are no natural predators (historically there would have been black bears, wolves and possibly cougars), unless some kind of control is carried out, the deer population will grow to the point where they will eat themselves out of house and home! Not to mention the damage that is done to the forest. But beginning tomorrow (Saturday, Dec 13), the park will be open again....just in time for the CBC!

I decided to check out Clear Creek Forest, since I hadn't been there for several weeks. There are some big trees there, some of which are leaning, and I was hoping they didn't go down in the wind storm of a few weeks ago.

Fortunately all seemed well. There was the occasional dead ash tree that splintered and broke off, but most of the forest looked good. The winds weren't likely as strong there as they were closer to Chatham where there is no forest cover to break the force of the wind.

 This monster American Beech, in spite of its lean, looked as solid as ever, as did the other trees large and small.
The floodplain and along Clear Creek. The water was running, but most of the creek had a thin layer of ice.

I checked the Ridgetown Sewage Lagoon on the return. It was getting even duller out. The ponds on the south side of the road were frozen and not a bird was seen in them. A flock of about 200 Canada Geese were feeding in the cornfield south of that. The ponds on the north side were partially open, and there were several hundred ducks, mostly Mallard and Black. But no geese of any kind were visible. Hopefully the Snows and Greater White-fronts aren't too far away. The next photo shows three white phase Lesser Snow Geese on the berm of the lagoons, taken a few days ago, while Tundra Swans and Canada Geese are in the water or on the berm.

A bird that we would like to get on this CBC is one that I photographed on the C-K side of the Thames River near Lighthouse Cove a few days ago. Aaron Charbonneau had seen it on Dec 8. I got back from my meeting at Wallaceburg in time to scoot out and photograph it at the end of the next day. It is only the second time I have seen a Great Egret in December.....the first time was a couple of decades ago in my territory near Wheatley for the Pt. Pelee CBC.

This egret is sitting within the count circle for the St. Clair NWA CBC, which I compile, and is scheduled for Jan 1. Maybe if the present weather pattern holds until then, we will record it for that count. Time will tell....

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