Great Kiskadee

Great Kiskadee

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Showy Snowies and other interesting birds

It is clear that this winter is shaping up to be another 'invasion year' of Snowy Owls. It wasn't that long ago that they were relatively scarce, and some years it was hard to find any or at least not with any regularity. These last few years, however, there have been up to a couple of dozen just in Chatham-Kent alone. In the Rondeau-Erieau area, up to 10 were noted on one day, and in the former Dover Township, at least 5 are around, and likely more if one did a thorough search.

If you check the species maps of ebird, it is clear that this autumn they have been seen in southern Essex, in various parts of Lambton, in the greater Long Point area and towards the western end of Lake Ontario. Occasional single birds are scattered elsewhere across southern Ontario. Of course some of the ones on ebird are likely duplicates.

Often they are not very close, at least not as close as the average photographer would like them to be, so good light conditions with a long telephoto lens is required.

Last weekend I was at Erieau, scouting around for the Harlequin Duck that had been seen on occasion. It was not visible, but a Snowy Owl was noted perched at the top of a harbour entrance sign. There were people standing right below, and the bird did not seem to be concerned. This is a photo from below. I would have liked to have been able to get a photo from farther away from the base of the tower, but that would have required me to be treading water in the middle of the channel! As it was, if I had taken one step back, I would have been in the water.
The bird was hardly visible from the lake side of the marker, but after a few minutes it hopped/flew the short distance to the left hand side of the marker.
I moved to the park side of the tower and was able to get much more satisfactory photos, with the brilliant blue sky background.

After leaving this spot, I checked the southern part of Rondeau Bay, visible from behind the village's library/fire hall. A Eurasian Wigeon had been reported there from time to time, including earlier on this day. Fortunately when I got there, the large raft of waterbirds comprised mostly of American Coot, American Wigeon and Gadwall, with a few others in the mix, was fairly close and the water was relatively calm.
 Almost immediately I was able to pick out the male Eurasian Wigeon, and managed to get a few acceptable photos.

A day or so later, I wandered through the former Dover Township, looking for Snowy Owls. I found five altogether, widely scattered and not nearly as close to the road as I was hoping.
This next one was perched on the end of a grain auger behind some farm buildings.

There were other raptors around, including several Northern Harriers. This species is usually very wary of vehicles stopping, and I got this one photo before it took flight.
 Red-tailed Hawks are reliably scattered around the area.
Red-tailed Hawk
I also saw a nice looking Rough-legged Hawk, not very common in the area yet this season. It did not cooperate for the camera.

I often check out the north Mitchell's Bay Lakeshore Trail. Last year a little bit earlier in the season, I had a Nelson's Sparrow, but small birds were almost non-existent on this visit. A Great Blue Heron flew by at a bit of distance, but there were very few ducks out in the bay. Being a hunting day probably had something to do with that.

The most notable sighting at this location was a Trumpeter Swan. I saw this one in close proximity to a Mute Swan, an aggressive non-native species.
Mute Swan (l), Trumpeter Swan (r)

There were at least 40 Mutes a bit north of this, at the southern end of Walpole Island, and there were no Tundra Swans nearby. I immediately thought this bird required a closer look, and I was able to get some photos which were helpful.

Many readers of this blog will quickly pick up on the characteristics of this bird that provide evidence for it being a Trumpeter. But for anyone less familiar with the differences, here is my analysis:
-its large size, similar to that of the Mute is indicative, as Tundras are noticeably smaller;
-it has a long, slender neck, typically longer and more slender than that of a Tundra;
-the back of the Trumpeter is more evenly rounded, less humped than a Tundra, although that isn't always apparent;
-the Trumpeter has, by comparison, a very large, almost massive, all black bill, with the upper edge slope being almost straight. Also the black area immediately in front of the eye is wider, with a less 'pinched' look compared to a Tundra. The bill of a Tundra usually has at least some yellow in it, it is smaller, and the upper edge slope is not straight. Also the feathering at the base of the bill is a bit more curved on a Tundra, especially at the bottom area.

Here is a typical Tundra Swan for comparison.

Behaviour is also a good character to consider. Mute Swans are very aggressive towards most native waterfowl, and their large size makes it easy for them to chase other birds such as Tundra Swans and Canada Geese away. This Trumpeter Swan did not seem to be concerned with the presence of the Mute Swan, and on occasion could actually be seen to be aggressive towards the Mute, behaviour one would hardly ever see a Tundra Swan exhibit.

Trumpeter Swans used to be present in low numbers throughout the southwest a century or more ago, but were wiped out. It was only in the past few decades, when a re-introduction effort of them into central Ontario took place, that the species regained a foothold in southern Ontario. Although they are still much more concentrated in central Ontario, they are gradually spreading out. Even a decade ago, a sighting of a Trumpeter in Chatham-Kent was exceedingly rare, but in the last few years there are several sightings annually. Let's hope they become firmly established, as they will potentially out compete the invasive and aggressive Mute Swan!

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