Great Egret

Great Egret

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Delightful, Dashing Dickcissels

Most birders will be aware of a recent influx of Dickcissels into southern Ontario. The Dickcissel is a smallish songbird, most abundantly found on the grassland and shrubby prairies of the mid-western USA. But every once in awhile, they go through an irruption, when a number of them arrive in southwestern Ontario in unusual numbers. The thought has been that during drought in its traditional range, the birds would move farther afield. I'm not sure that is the case this year, as the mid-west seems to be getting a reasonable amount of precipitation this spring.

Up until about a few days ago, the only reliable location to find Dickcissel in southwestern Ontario was to check out a shrubby/grassy field just east of Wheatley in southwestern Chatham-Kent. One or more had been there almost annually for several years.

This past weekend, that changed. Reports started to appear on ebird about one or two here, and another one or two there. Jim Burk was the first to report them along New Scotland Line on Sunday. Once birders started checking other likely spots in the area, the birds were clearly much more widespread.

Chatham-Kent seems to be a hotspot for the species, although there are birds being reported in Middlesex, Lambton, the GTA and even the upper Bruce Peninsula. One wonders if some of the suitable habitat in between might be harbouring a few as well.

I first got out to look around this past Monday, and did indeed find a few Dickcissels. However I was not able to get any photos, and in my previous post, had to rely on some of the photos I had taken several years ago while visiting the prairies of Missouri. Yesterday was quite a different story. The weather was great with lower temperatures and humidity, although it was a bit breezy. I had some fairly cooperative birds at a couple of sites, but the weather conditions or lighting weren't always what I would have liked.

I checked out several likely places, including:
-Dealtown Crown Land prairie
-Blenheim Sewage Lagoons
-Hyland Drive (NE Blenheim)
-Stefina Line Pasture (SW of Blenheim)
-Clear Creek Forest Provincial Park (SE Chatham-Kent)
-New Scotland Line at McKinlay Road (just north of Rondeau Prov Park)
-New Scotland Line (just east of New Scotland)

The Dealtown Crown Land site was wonderful....I had at least 10 birds, 7 of which were males; it is a publicly accessible spot, but not all that easy to find and get to.

Female; the male was very close by
 This female below was building a nest. I took a quick peek after she had left and noted the beginning of a nest well hidden low down in a leafy shrub.

The Blenheim Sewage Lagoons had zero Dickcissels (but some less common ducks, including Ring-necked and Greater Scaup); the grassy area had been recently mowed, with some of the grass raked and already baled, so very few grassland birds were here except for a few Savannah Sparrows.

Hyland Drive had at least one pair (along with several Bobolinks and Savannah Sparrows); the female had a mouth full of nesting material but stayed mostly hidden from the camera.

Stefina Line pasture did not seem to have any, although some of the best habitat is difficult to see from the road;

Clear Creek Forest PP: on the south side of Talbot Trail there is a huge old field/shrubby area, but I only could find one male (not to mention a few Wood Ticks);

New Scotland Line/McKinlay Road had a singing male on a brush pile out in the open pasture area on the SW side of this intersection;

New Scotland Line just east of New Scotland had at least 4 birds, including 3 males. Most of the time they were too far off to attempt a photo, but at one point this male came and sat in a tree right next to the road.

With the other sites reported on by other birders, there are now at least 10 sites in Chatham-Kent with Dickcissels, and given the wide variety of sites they are located in, I know of at least a dozen or more additional sites in C-K where they could be.

Most of the birds reported are males, since they can be located as they perch in a conspicuous place and sing frequently. Presumably there are about as many females which are busy building nests, although the species is polygynous, so there could be more females than males. All in all, there are at least 30-35 birds on the known C-K sites. It is interesting to note that breeding records during the most recent Breeding Bird Atlas (2001-2005) had most of the occupied squares occurring in Chatham-Kent (5). In 2000, there were up to 30 pairs in C-K.

Undoubtedly birders will be out investigating potential sites across a much greater part of southern Ontario to see just how extensive this influx actually is!

Good luck checking the habitat in your area!


  1. It is delightful to see all these Dickcissels!
    I checked that field at Clear Creek on Sunday, but did not detect one. I think many came in overnight on Sunday!

    1. Quite likely, and if that is the case, it makes one wonder how many more are going to arrive? They started the nesting process immediately, so maybe they got ousted from their usual range by weather or something which interrupted their nesting.