Great Egret

Great Egret

Monday, 4 January 2016

CBCs...a great way to start the New Year

January 1, 2016 was our 36th Christmas Bird Count at St. Clair National Wildlife Area. It has its challenges, due in part to the weather but more so because some of the best areas are privately owned hunt clubs. With the waterfowl hunting period extending well into January, we often don't get access to the best areas because hunters are using them. And if the truth be known, a lot of these first class wetlands would not exist if it weren't for hunters. Decades ago, large pieces of the St. Clair Marshes were acquired by well-to-do hunters just to have a place to hunt and do business at. Otherwise they likely would have been drained and turned into agricultural land. But that is perhaps the topic of another post.

With the weather of these last few weeks, there is lots of waterfowl around, so one cannot blame people for wanting to enjoy their hobby of hunting. (Full disclosure: I used to be a hunter, back in my teens, as most of my buddies did as well. But eventually, in my twenties, I put away my gun and began hunting with a camera, and that is perhaps a topic of another post as well sometime).

January 1, 2016 turned out as a windy, cloudy and cold day. Not the worst weather we've had, but not the best either. The winds were a sustained 30+ km/h, with frequent gusts or periods of wind in excess of 60 km/h. It stayed just below freezing, something we've not been used to very much this 'winter' so far.

When I first arrived at SCNWA, it was still quite dark. The swans weren't really headless....they were sleeping! And it was hard to get this photo before 0800h on a dark cloudy day.
Swans a-sleeping

At about 0750h, the huge numbers of waterfowl in the marsh woke up. No...those aren't a multitude of specks of dirt on my camera lens.....the sky was full of winged things, mostly at the far side of the NWA. The telephoto lens I needed to capture them could only capture a small portion of the huge numbers spread across the sky.

While I was there, there were more swans arriving from the north, which I thought was a little unusual. Most of the ones that had been in the area for awhile were resting in the NWA. They typically leave for the surrounding fields to feed in the morning, returning later in the day. Presumably the ones arriving shortly after daybreak were ones that had flown in from the north as the winter weather there was finally driving them here.

A couple of swans were swimming in the open channel along the road.
Another wasn't so fortunate. Even though they are not a hunted species, they cannot all survive. It looks like this one will pass on some energy to some local crows.
In a nearby field were five sub-adult Bald Eagles fighting over something. This next image shows four of them.
 It was a good year for Bald Eagles, as we established a new high count of them at 27. Some were content to hang out at their nests.

Sandhill Cranes were in record numbers this year. We saw them flying into the NWA and also out into the fields.
 A record count of 48 was tallied.
 In with some of the waterbirds including the cranes, one could see some Snow Geese, including 5 blues.
Canada Geese, Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes
Meanwhile out in the wide open landscape of the former Dover Twp, it was Snowy Owl time. We got another record----18 this time, up from the previous high of 15 last year. Many were well out in the field, sometimes half-way between the concessions, so it was difficult to photograph them. And there may have been more. With the windy conditions, they were hunkered down low.
Crows are always a major part of the total number of birds on this count, and this year was no exception. It is getting more difficult to come up with an estimate, as they are widely scattered in huge numbers on all sides of Chatham as they come in to the roost at dusk. A field can be almost full of them, and even after they start moving out of it, it can seem like there is the same number that was there a few minutes earlier. Some staging areas are in fields, sometimes on the rooftops of industrial buildings and some in trees.

And then when it is too dark to photograph any more, they will move in to the final roosting location, which is usually other trees if they don't get scared off by the municipal crow scaring crew.

The official estimate of crows for 2016, and it is only an estimate, is 125,000. Our all time official high count for this CBC is 159,860, made in 2000. Some folks have estimated that in November when they are at their highest, there are as many as 250000-500000 crows in the vicinity of Chatham. But there are usually from 150000-500000 that are documented leaving southwestern Ontario at two of the local hawkwatches (Holiday Beach in Essex and Lake Erie Metropark in Michigan).

For lots more detail on the phenomenon of roosting crows in Chatham, check out one of my previous posts here.

Our final tally for the day was 85 species, our fifth highest count ever, and a little below our all-time high of 92.


  1. happy New Year - with good health to be able to continue with all these wonderful photos you take and share.
    I was interested to see the Blue Cranes.
    When I was living in South Africa, I remember a huge furore when some angry farmer put out poisoned grain to kill the Blue Cranes that were eating all his grain as he planted. He had crop failure repeatedly with each successive planting in one season. He killed about 500! We saw them lying in the fields.A dreadful sight.
    Do they migrate to Canada? Or are they locals there?
    Love and blessings, Paula.

  2. Hi Paula, and Happy New Year back to you!
    The cranes here are Sandhill Cranes and quite a separate species from the Blue Cranes you mention. Sandhills are more common in the mid-western part of this continent, with upwards of half a million migrating through the middle part, and wintering in places like New Mexico in the southwestern US. They breed as far north as the Canadian arctic and Alaska, as well as Siberia. They have been increasing in numbers in Ontario.

    1. Thanks Allen,
      love and blessings, Paula.

  3. An excellent count! I just read the coverage in the Chatham Daily News--very nice!

    1. It was one of our better counts, in terms of species and overall numbers, which is always nice. The reporter from the CDN called up yesterday so I was glad to get some positive coverage and introduce, or remind, some of the C-K residents, how vital this area is for birds. Hopefully they will make the connection that habitat is needed as well, and it might make people a little more sympathetic to the value of a wetland rather than carrot crops.