Marsh Wren

Marsh Wren

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

St. Clair National Wildlife Area CBC preview

Tomorrow, New Year's Day, is the 35th annual St. Clair National Wildlife Area Christmas Bird Count. It has been on various days within the count period over that span of time, but in recent years, January 1 seems to have worked out the best. And it is a great way to start the new year! Although there are challenges with organizing this count, it is still fun and worthwhile. I have been the compiler/organizer for more than 25 years.

Today I went out looking just to see what the conditions were like, and maybe find a few birds. I roamed around the former Dover Twp and noted three Snowy Owls in their usual choice of locations around the Winterline/Mallard Line area. But all were well out in the fields and on the ground. It could be that the windy conditions convinced them it was more comfortable there. I expect that we will have a new record of Snowy Owls recorded tomorrow. Given the recent cold weather, it is likely many other birds have left the area, and Snowy Owls might be the only species that sets a new record....time will tell.

There are still a few Tundra Swans around, but not in the numbers of a few weeks ago, when this next image was taken.

I headed over to the mouth of the Thames River at Lighthouse Cove. All of the moving water was open, but still water was mostly frozen.

Looking upstream from the river mouth

Out to Lake St. Clair
 Certainly the colder weather of the last few days has made a difference. Ice is forming, and being blown across the lake to pile up along the eastern side of the lake. There is a lot of open water farther out, with ducks and gulls visible, but off a long way.

Around the open water were a few things of interest: a Ruddy Duck was cooperative right close to the dock.

On the other side of the dock, was a group of ducks. Most were of the farm yard/hybrid variety.

There are a few good looking Mallards here, but their behaviour indicated that they were used to hand outs. As soon as I arrived, they left their more sheltered area and came right over! The ducks with a lot of white in various patches are hybrids between Mallards and the duck in this next image, a Pekin duck, which is a common domesticated/farm yard species. Of course these are not countable for the CBC.

There was, however, a much shyer duck that is countable: a female Hooded Merganser.

Upstream from the mouth is Jeannette's Creek, and a boat launch there provides great views of the river. It is from here where I've captured some of my favourite sunrise photos of the Thames, which are featured elsewhere on my blog.

 Who knows what might be lurking here, and seen on the count day? Perhaps a heron or two, an egret, a Bald Eagle, or all of the above? So much of this area is relatively inaccessible, unfortunately, but one can always hope.

A bit east of Jeannette's Creek, and also east of the large church on the south side of the river, was a Snowy Owl. Blake featured it in a recent blog, where it was sitting on a fence around a rural residence and quite close to the road. Today, however, the owl (I assume it was the same one) was in the field immediately south of this residence, sitting by a protruding black drainage pipe. And the pipe wasn't the only black thing there.....about 50 crows were in the immediate vicinity. I didn't notice any aggressive interaction between the two species.

Crows are definitely a part of the C-K landscape. Our highest CBC total was almost 160,000 crows back in about 2000. That was when they were relatively easy to count before day break as they left their night time roost. Since then their roosts have been less consistent due to human disruption, so our numbers are not nearly as high, or not likely as accurate either. I expect the same number of crows are around, it is just more difficult to count them and it wasn't exactly easy before.

This is my 90th post for the year, which began last March. Tomorrow starts a new calendar year, so Happy New Year everyone!

Monday, 29 December 2014

St. Clair River birding on the Christmas Bird Count

Yesterday, December 29, was the Wallaceburg/Walpole Island Christmas Bird Count. It was a great was easy with no snow, ice or fog to contend with. Heavy overcast and light winds allowed for good viewing as well as hearing birds. In the early afternoon a few ice pellets came down, but not for long. Then it cleared, and the skies became clearer as the day wore on.

My territory included the St. Clair River from just north of Walpole to the closed down Lambton Generating Station. I have a bit of inland territory as well, but the emphasis is on the river.

 The river was completely open. Coupled with the generally mild conditions so far this winter, except for a brief period about a month ago, no ice has come from Lake Huron, and lots of ducks are still farther north in the open areas there or scattered far and wide along the lower lakes and marshes. Consequently, duck numbers and diversity were a little more challenging this year.

Lake freighters were plying the river, going both upstream and down.

This helped finding waterfowl a bit, as the birds floating on the river were stirred up and more visible in flight. A noisy barge travelling upstream along the Michigan side was especially helpful in making the waterfowl take flight; otherwise detecting birds across the river which is at least a kilometre wide at that point would be almost impossible to find.

I ended up with 12 species of waterfowl (although the overall count had a few more). None were what you would call plentiful or abundant, but all it takes is one to add that species to the list, and in some cases it was only one that was seen.

Some even lent themselves for decent photo opportunities. A male Redhead was tucked in close to shore.
One of the highlights was being able to enjoy some excellent looks at Long-tailed Duck (formerly called Oldsquaw). I had a total of 6, but most were well out in the river, and only seen with the aid of binoculars. However right at the outlet of the McKeough Floodway was a beautiful male, busily preening itself and not far out. It was there all day. It is a very striking duck in my opinion.

Outlet of McKeough Floodway

At times it was along the rocks on the far side of the outlet.

I went to the other side and managed to get some even closer photos.

I also had three Bonaparte's Gulls at this outlet. As it turns out, they were the only three on the whole count. They fed briefly, then alighted on the water and floated downstream.

Bonaparte's Gull
Part of my territory is inland from the river. Most woodlots are private and posted, so I was limited to walking along roadways, pishing for birds. The woods were generally quiet, but on occasion my efforts were rewarded. On one occasion I had three White-breasted Nuthatches come to investigate my pishing, while on another occasion, a mixed flock of White-throated Sparrows, Song Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos made themselves visible.

White-breasted Nuthatch
As is the case with many CBCs this year, Snowy Owls are in relative abundance. There were at least two in my territory. This one is habitually seen at the solar farm just east of Sombra.

 It spent most of the day on the roof of this shed, above, but later in the day moved to a fence, below.

Another Snowy spent the entire day on top of this pole. Even at dusk, it was still there. A closer look at this bird showed a small spot of red on its belly feathers.....hopefully it was just a bit of blood from its most recent meal of mouse!

Will we get tired of seeing Snowy Owls? Will some birders be heard to say "Oh, it is just another Snowy Owl over there"?

Checking the river a bit later in the day can be worthwhile, so I spent some time watching to see if anything new showed up flying up or downstream. But not this day.

I usually end up at the McKeough Floodway a bit inland, towards the end of the day. There is a lot of shrubby and grassy area all along the floodway, which can be good for mice, and therefore good for raptors.

It can be a reasonably consistent place to find Short-eared Owls beginning to hunt as dusk arrives. While watching and waiting, I heard my first Great Horned Owl calling from a nearby woodlot, but I didn't see any Short-ears here.

I left shortly after dusk, and on my way south on hwy 40, had a Short-ear flush up along the west side of the road right where there is a wide expanse of prairie vegetation. It was the only one seen on the count.

I ended up with 42 species for the day, a little lower than sometimes due to the absence of some species of waterfowl. The 27 participants overall, however, totalled 81 species.....quite a decent result.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Catching up with a couple of rare birds

This has been an easy time to get around, unlike what we experienced a year ago. Remember scenes like this?

Just before Christmas, I went to Rondeau to enjoy the solitude. It was one of those overcast days with virtually no wind. At times, a bit of filtered sunlight came through the clouds to brighten things up. And it was much warmer than normal, with temperatures reaching about 8C. Sounds carried well, but the birds were quiet along the South Point Trail. There were hardly any people there at all. But the trails were inviting to experience the multitude of shapes and shadows, and saturated but mostly neutral colours.

This first image shows a very large Tulip Tree, which is about a metre in diameter, and certainly portrays some old growth character. It was off the beaten track, just south of the old south campground, for any readers who remember the south campground which was open until the fall of 1972 (and very briefly in the late summer of 1985, before the damage of several years of high water caused it to be closed permanently). Even the medium-sized American Beech tree to the middle left of the image, with its smooth gray bark, is actually a decent sized diameter, but not as obvious given I was using a very wide angle lens. The wide angle and distance from the lens exaggerates the small size. I liked the brilliance of the large green mossy mound, standing out like a beacon on the otherwise brown forest floor.

The shoreline was quite different than what it has been like on recent visits. The effects of the violence of the recent wave action was still in evidence, but on this visit, the lake was almost calm.

Today I had reason to go to Essex County for a change. I had heard about the Red-throated Loon at Kingsville back on December 4, but did not realize it was lingering in the Kingsville harbour at least up until the Cedar Creek CBC a few days ago. So I checked, and saw it almost immediately.

This species migrates from its high arctic breeding grounds through the extreme southwest of Ontario annually, but often it is in flight passing by and only seen in small numbers . To have one linger for this long at such an approachable location is quite unusual. It seemed to be alert and healthy, diving several times. So maybe it just decided to conserve its energy by not flying to the Atlantic coast for the winter.
While I was in southern Essex County, I decided to look for the Eurasian Collared-Dove which has been just east of Leamington for several months. I hadn't attempted to find it when it was first is not a native species....but it has established itself in small numbers across the central and eastern US. I saw one in Nebraska back in late July of 2006, while attending a North American Prairie Conference at Kearney. A bird was consistently found in the parking lot of the university campus where the conference was held. But this was my first one in Canada. It isn't the greatest of shots due to the very heavy cloud cover. However the lack of black spots on the back part of the wings, the shorter and more squared tail and the black collar at the nape of the neck are characteristics that are evident here, and easily separate it from the abundant Mourning Dove which is often found in similar habitat.

Maybe sometime I will get one for my Rondeau list!

Monday, 22 December 2014

A Snowy White Christmas after all....

Maybe not the kind of white Christmas that some folks are hoping for, but these kinds of snowy white conditions make getting around much more enjoyable!

It is no secret that there has been an irruption of Snowy Owls in southern Ontario again this year. One can go out in some of the better areas and find half a dozen here and there.

Yesterday I was driving along Queen's Line towards Tilbury when I noticed this gorgeous one sitting a top of a pole, and in excellent light.

This morning was looking quite bright and sunny, so I thought I would venture through the former Dover Twp to see what owls I could find there. The first one was sitting on the rooftop of a quite new house, on the west side of Winter Line, and just north of Mallard Line.
It was apparent from looking further along the roof line that this or another owl had been using this vantage point as a look out several times before, judging by the white wash scattered here and there.

While we were looking at this one, it flew to the south and near some farm buildings, and then I noticed three more owls leaving their perch on a steel grain bin. This was along Mallard Line. They left and moved on a bit to this nearby barn roof, but just seconds before I got the camera ready, one left and headed out to the adjacent corn stubble.

Another was perched on a utility pole down the road, but left before I could get there, landing out in the field.

Quite often these owls are most visible out in the fields, but more and more they seem to be content sitting on man made structures. Given that they are at home most on the arctic tundra where nothing is very high off the ground, they prefer lower heights, not the tops of tall trees. A shed, a low barn, a short hedge and such are quite adequate for their perching needs. I found this one on a steel grain bin. I almost missed it! But it allowed me to choose a frame for its photo.

While I was roaming the roads, I also noted a Northern Harrier, a Rough-legged Hawk and two Red-tailed Hawks. At Mitchell's Bay, I realized the ice was all gone. There were very few ducks close to shore, but quite a few well out. Three Ruddy Ducks were not too far out. There were a few hunters out as well. On one of the uninhabited islands, was a tree with an adult Bald Eagle at the top, and not too far away, another Snowy Owl. Altogether I saw 7 Snowy Owls during my travels.

More snowy white birds were seen. There are a few Tundra Swans still around.

While I was watching these swans, an adult Bald Eagle flew by.
To keep with the snowy theme, here is a Snow Bunting. They have been quite uncommon this year so far, as they only show up in any numbers when wintry conditions prevail. This one was along the east beach of Rondeau a few days ago.

Have a great Christmas and safe travels everyone! And I hope you spend a bit of time amidst all the busyness to reflect on the reason for celebrating this time of year.....the birth of Jesus!

Friday, 19 December 2014

A natural gift that lasts through the year

Looking for a last minute gift for someone who appreciates natural areas and things? Consider a calendar depicting various species and landscapes of one of Ontario's most diverse provincial parks.

It is a limited edition 2015 calendar, entitled Rondeau...naturally. A few are still available at the Friends of Rondeau store in the park's Visitor Centre during open hours (10 a.m. - 4 p.m. daily) from December 20, 2014 to January 4, 2015 (except for December 25, 26 and January 1). It is also available at the Park Office when it is open Monday-Friday (or if you happen to catch it open on a weekend).

The cost is $17.70 plus taxes, with proceeds going to support park programs.

Here is a preview. Each photo measures ~ 9" X 12", so when it is open and hanging on the wall it will be ~ 18" X 12". (Please note that the © P. Allen Woodliffe you see in the photos below does not appear on the actual calendar, just here on this blog site.)

Cover photo
January - Ice Shingles

February - Winter Whitetail

March - Great Blue Heron

April - On the Prowl
May - Scarlet Tanager

June - Common Yellowthroat in Song

July - Marsh Magnificence
August - Sunrise over Rondeau Bay

September - Monarch Migration

October - Touch of Autumn

November - Southeast Beach

December - Foggy Morning on Harrison Trail