Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Barrow's Goldeneye, Snowy Owls, Snow Fleas, etc

These last few days have been gradually warming from the bitter cold not so long ago. And with the sun out and the wind down to a tolerable level, I headed out. The Barrow's Goldeneye that Mike and Josh Bouman saw over the last couple of days clinched it....it was time to take a trip up along the St. Clair River!

It was only a couple of weeks ago when I was doing my route for the local Christmas Bird Count that there was virtually no ice. How times have changed, as the southern half or more of the river was plugged full of ice. The last few lake freighters could only get through with the help of both US and Canadian coast guard ice cutters, and even with that assistance, it took them about 5 days to clear the stalled ships.

The ferries were shut down, of course, and even the usual open water by the Sombra ferry dock was much reduced. It did have a few of the usual Mallard, American Black Duck, Common Goldeneye, Redhead and Canvasback mixed together. Birds were coming and going steadily, so if one sat and watched, there might have been others.

At the Sombra ferry dock

Some seemed to be content just to sit on the ice. Of course maybe this allowed them to keep their feet and legs out of the cold water, using the fluffed up feathers to provide that extra bit of insulation.
Mallards and American Black Ducks


I made it to a bit north of Cathcart Park, where the Barrow's Goldeneye was first reported and subsequently seen over the previous couple of days. Access to the river wasn't the greatest, but I did find an open spot in the trees and shrubs along the river which gave me a good view. There were a couple of open spots in the ice, probably a good 500 metres out. A 'scope was definitely a must! After scanning the mixed flock of ducks, which included most of the species seen at Sombra but also had Common Merganser, Bufflehead and Long-tailed Duck, I saw the Barrow's Goldeneye! A beautiful male.

Barrow's Goldeneye, back centre
Due to the distance, even with a 700 mm telephoto and being heavily cropped after I got home, it isn't a very close shot. But all the salient characteristics are evident: the crescent white patch, the less white on the folded wing, and the dark little spur at the front of the folded wing. I've seen very few of this western species in Ontario, and not for a long time, so that made the trip worth while in itself.

After viewing and photographing this beauty, I continued upstream to check out the conditions in the vicinity of Stag Island at Corunna, where last year there was an abundance of Bald Eagles. There was relatively little ice in the area on this day, and waterfowl were widely scattered. I did get a nice close look at this female Hooded Merganser.

Hooded Merganser
 Note the Mallard below. Most of the time, the head seems distinctly green, but with certain light, one can see an iridescent purple sheen to the head as well.

I saw a single adult Bald Eagle perched in a tree at the north end of Stag Island, but it wasn't on the move at all. A few Long-tailed Ducks were well out in the open water.

On the way back, I stopped in to look at a huge Red Oak tree that I have seen on several occasions. I am very interested in things that appear to be part of an old growth habitat, and this tree definitely fits into that category. Size isn't everything, but it helps.

This tree is within my territory on the local Christmas Bird Count, and I regularly get an Eastern Screech Owl responding to my whistling calls when checking out this woodlot. But I've always been intrigued by this huge tree, so I intentionally took my diameter measuring tape on this trip. Turns out this oak measures 158 cm in diameter.

Not even close to the largest Red Oak in Ontario (I came across a huge one in the back yard of a friend's place in southern Chatham-Kent a few years ago, and it measured 194 cm in diameter; it is the largest one in Ontario), but is still impressive. It is at the edge of the small woodlot, as indicated by its large lower limbs.

I thought that this bright sunny day with little wind would be good for Snowy Owls to be up on poles, rather than taking relative shelter in the middle of a field. Given that most fields are snow-covered, seeing owls is more challenging these days, so a sunny day definitely had some possibilities.

I found four Snowy Owls, and three were along Bear Line. Some were obviously adult birds, given their relative white appearance. This first one was on a pole, but due to the amount of truck traffic, moved off to another pole and then a barn, where it was still there several hours later.





Others were first year birds, with their much darker and more extensive spotting.



Another snowy creature is quite a bit smaller...Snow Fleas. They aren't actually fleas, but are named as such because they are so tiny (only a few mm in length) and have the ability to jump like a flea. They are consumers of mould in the soil, and on sunny days, especially a day that is closer to the freezing temperature, will migrate up through the soil to the snow surface. From a short distance, they can look like specks of dirty soil on the snow, but up close they are definitely insects and surprisingly mobile considering the temperature.




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