Great Egret

Great Egret

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Some highlights of the SCNWA CBC

The 37th St. Clair National Wildlife Area Christmas Bird Count is now history. It is always a nice way to start off a new year, although in some years there has been some pretty horrible weather. This year it was almost too nice...sunny all day, very light wind and temperatures starting off a bit below freezing but for most of the day, above freezing.

So what is 'too nice' about it? The snow cover we had was completely gone, so birds were much more spread out to enjoy such great early January weather, making it more challenging for us counters! But that is okay....the birds needed a respite from the early snow and cold.

That being said, it was a successful count not only due to the great weather but overall slightly above average numbers of species.

This count began back in 1981 by staff of the Canadian Wildlife Service who had acquired a core area of this coastal wetland complex a few years earlier. I have only missed one or two years at the most, and have been the compiler since 1988. It has had its challenges. Much of the 24 km (15 mi) diameter count circle is wide open agricultural land, which does nothing to attract much bird diversity. A significant portion of the circle is Lake St. Clair, which is often frozen over. Historically the terrestrial part of the count circle would have been wet prairie or wetland, so woodland never was a dominant vegetation type.
SCNWA at a much warmer time of year

From a bird diversity standpoint, the best areas remaining are the immense wetland area along the shoreline of Lake St. Clair. One of the reasons they still exist and have not been converted to farmland is because decades ago, rich industrial executives liked to hunt ducks, and combined business with pleasure while out hunting. Hence the majority of the wetlands were once owned by well-to-do owners, and duck hunting was a priority. Fortunately many of these wetland owners still believe in the value of conserving wetlands, partly for the tradition of waterfowl hunting but also for the much larger benefit that wetlands provide to a huge diversity of wildlife. As a former hunter myself, I can understand the philosophy of hunting and conserving that go hand in hand.

When this CBC started in the early 1980s, the waterfowl hunting season typically ceased a day or so before Christmas, which meant that holding a count that included these private wetlands after the season ended was possible. A little later it was extended to the end of December, so an early January count was still possible. Currently, hunting continues into early January, and so unless things freeze up and the ducks are mostly gone, some private wetlands are not accessible for our count.

We are fortunate that we still have access to some of the best private wetlands. And of course there is the ~240 hectare (~600 acre) St. Clair NWA available.

My territory typically includes part of SCNWA, as well as a few small places elsewhere in the circle. This year I had the immense pleasure of counting birds in an adjacent private marsh. The marsh manager, whom I've known casually for several decades, allowed me in along with one other person, to view the baited area before the ducks were disturbed by the arrival of the morning's trailer load of corn. Once that arrived, most ducks at the feeding station would move elsewhere within the marsh, to the two or three other locations several hundred metres away where there was open water and lots of ducks.

The marsh manager even suggested that I climb up into a tree stand that partially looked out over the open areas where the ducks would re-locate to. It was a safe enough distance so that the ducks would not be disturbed. So I climbed the tree stand, carrying scope and binoculars, and watched. There were already several thousand ducks swimming in the open water or resting on the ice surrounding the water. By far the most numerous were Mallards, with a few Am Black Ducks and a handful of others, including Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, Hooded Merganser and Lesser Scaup. There were likely others, but they were so jam-packed it was impossible to see them all.

A few ducks and geese in the from last year's CBC
And then I heard a thundering rumble from the direction of the feeding station. In seconds, the sky was almost black with the arrival of several thousand more ducks! When all was said and done, I firmly believe there were upwards of 16000 ducks in that immediate area.

Unfortunately I only have memories of this. With my all of my optical gear, I didn't have my camera with me at this point. I'm not sure that a few frames taken with a still camera could capture the essence of this event anyway. But it is an event that I will likely never forget.

The rest of my day was not anti-climactic, but different from the first part. I travelled along one of the dikes of SCNWA with John, the marsh manager there. An adult Bald Eagle was noted in a tree.

Elsewhere in the trees along the dike were things like Brown Creeper and Downy Woodpecker. Creepers blend in so well at times!

There were lots of waterfowl here too, adjacent to a private marsh. Clearly they were contented geese!

Green-winged Teal in the centre
I did some more inland, non-wetland areas, but birds there were few and far between. There were the usual suspects, including White-breasted Nuthatches and Northern Cardinals.

Somewhat of a surprise, was to find a Tufted Titmouse. I have never had one in my territory before on this count.

A non-bird bit of interest was to come across an opossum out roaming around in broad daylight. It didn't stick around for long and most of my views were of it running away, but managed to get a couple of side view photos.

We had crows, as usual, and by far the most abundant species of bird on this count. It is difficult to get an accurate number, but our best estimates were about 126,000 birds.

Our total for this count was 84 species, a bit higher than our most recent 10 year average of 81 species. There were five count week species, including the Nelson's Sparrow that I wrote about in my previous blog. Blake, Pete, Sue and Don worked hard to try and relocate that bird so we could add it to the count day total, but it was not to be. Our record of 92 species was not in any danger of being broken.....maybe next year.

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