Great Egret

Great Egret

Monday, 28 December 2015

CBC rarities and a Snowy Owl oddity

The 30th Wallaceburg/Walpole Island Christmas Bird Count was held yesterday, Dec 27. The weather was not too conducive for finding lots of birds, but the birds made up for it in other ways. Quality, not quantity is one way to describe it.

My territory basically includes the St. Clair River from Walpole Island north to about the now closed Lambton Generating Station, as well as some inland areas east to Hwy 40. There is a lot of area there, but given that most of it is agriculture or private industrial, there is not a lot of inland area that is able to be covered very thoroughly. So the river gets a lot of viewing time, and normally that takes a lot of effort with lots of waterfowl, gulls, etc. Not so this year. I have never seen the river so devoid of birds!

The last couple of winters, albeit a little later in the season than this, looked like this. A huge amount of ice was present, causing large concentrations of ducks, especially Canvasback, Redhead and Common Goldeneye, to be jammed in to the little open water that there was.
This year, of course, all water was completely open, and freighters could go up or downstream uninhibited.

Side note: the day started off with heavy cloud, rain and brisk north wind. It improved somewhat as the day went on, but there was a bit of misty drizzle on and off for most of the day, and certainly not conducive for photography. Hence many of these images were taken under poor light, and I had to ramp the ISO up to 1600 or higher in most cases.
It was only after I got this photo on the computer that I realized a flock of Bufflehead, out of focus but in the lower left hand corner, were passing by. Bufflehead was one of only five waterfowl species I saw on the river this day. (I got two other species inland.) There was quite a current, and freighters going downstream were travelling considerably faster than those struggling to get upstream. With the brisk north wind, there were at times even whitecaps on the river!

With so few waterfowl to count, I even took the occasional photo of other things. A large church across the river in Michigan looked to have a good turnout.
At the Sombra Ferry dock, there is always a group of Mallards, and occasionally something else mixed in. In the last few days, a female Harlequin Duck has been hanging out. When I first saw it this day, it was resting on a post, and was almost underneath the boathouse and therefore in heavy shade. I used a bit of flash for these next two photos.

Harlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck with Mallards
It is considerably smaller than the Mallards it was with. And when the ducks get 'tired' of bouncing around in the water, they have a post or other feature to hang out on.
The day before, there had been some Cackling Geese in amongst the resident Canadas at Cathcart Park, so I stopped there. Not a goose in sight, but there were, to borrow from "The Twelve Days of Christmas" seven swans a-swimming. I couldn't get them all in the same frame...only these four.
Mute Swans
Mute Swans were typically in numbers greater than we like to see, with 77 recorded for the count.

At the north end of the territory, I saw one of the two Peregrine Falcons that had been known to hang out at the Lambton Generating Station.
Peregrine Falcon
Working inland a bit, I came across a Northern Shrike, the first one I have seen all fall/winter so far.

Northern Shrike
Wild Turkeys are usually pretty easy to find on this count, but with the wind, rain and no snow cover they were almost impossible to find this time. I eventually saw a flock of 22, most of which are in this next photo. As it turns out, there was only one other Wild Turkey seen on the count, coming in to a feeder.
Wild Turkeys
I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to see the very cooperative Vermilion Flycatcher that had gotten the attention of birders far and wide these last 10 days. Even though it wasn't in my official territory, I can now add it to my personal Birds seen on a Christmas Bird Count list :-). Larry Cornelis found this bird a few days ago, and it is now the first time this species has been recorded on a Canadian CBC. In 2001, Larry found a Black-necked Stilt that stayed around for that year's CBC and it was the first Canadian record for a CBC. What are you going to find for us next year, Larry?
Vermilion Flycatcher
On my way home at the end of the day, I came across a Snowy Owl along Hwy 40 just south of Wallaceburg. It wasn't a real surprise given that several have been seen in the count circle over the past few days. However since there is never a guarantee, I decided to photograph it in case it was the only one seen. It was almost 5 p.m. and at this time, with the very heavy cloud cover, it was getting quite dark. The only way I could get this photo was setting the ISO to 6400, a number higher than I've ever used before. (Back in the film days, any slide film above 400 ASA/ISO was almost useless.) So I was quite pleased how well this one turned out. The bluish gray sky is an artifact of the heavy gray cloud cover. The image looks much, much brighter than the conditions it was shot under! In taking a closer look at this owl, I couldn't help but note the 'goggle' effect of the feathers around its eyes. Of the four pics I took, they all had this, and I have never noticed this before, although I can't recall ever photographing a Snowy Owl in such dark conditions. Is this something that they regularly look like in the dark? Does it have some kind of benefit to them to hone in on prospective prey? When they are on their breeding grounds, much of the time is in daylight. It was quite breezy from the north when I took this, so does this protect their eyes when they are more fully open to compensate for the dark conditions?
Snowy Owl
Any thoughts???


  1. Intersting Snowy Owl. I am not sure if this is the one Janet and Martha had, but is quite possibly another. I know there is more than one out there.
    A very entertaining blog post!

    1. Yes this is the same Snowy Janet and I saw at 11:30am on Meadowville Line and 40 Hwy only it was on the ground. It took flight and sat on a hydro pole on the intersection of 40 Hwy and Meadowville Line. It was reported still in that area today.

    2. Thanks, Blake, and thank-you Martha for your additional information via email.