Marsh Wren

Marsh Wren

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Sandhills, Snowies and Swans in C-K

I wasn't going to go after the Crested Caracara up near Wawa.....congrats to those who took the chance and saw it, of I did something a little more local. I explored the former Dover Twp part of Chatham-Kent, since some Snowy Owls have been seen with a little more regularity in the last few days.

I noted my first of the season on the weekend, a single bird that was well out about half way between the two roads, so photos were challenging. This first shot is of the one I saw, and it is greatly cropped.

Today was a different story. I had heard from a couple of other local birders who had been out yesterday and seen as many as three snowies, so today I ventured out to try and get some better shots, as well as roam more extensively than I had on the weekend.

The one I had seen on the weekend was there, in more or less the same spot. A little farther down the road I came across another one, also well out in the field. A third one was seen along yet another road, but also too far for a useful photo. I checked the area along Meadowvale Line, east of Hwy 40, where several snowies were seen last winter. Due to the fact that most corn stubble had been plowed under, the fields didn't look too appealing, and I didn't see any owls. But near the corner of Baldoon Road and Greenvalley Road, where I took the photo of the snowy at the head of this blog late last winter, I did see another snowy, but again too far out to bother with. (Side note: I have no idea where the name Greenvalley came from......this part of the landscape is as flat as a pancake!)

I was giving up hope of finding a snowy worth photographing, so decided to meander along the north-south Big Pointe Road instead of following the various east-west ones I had been on mostly to this point. At one section that I didn't realize was a dead end since a bridge had been decommissioned, I went to the end and looked for a place to turn around. I was concentrating on the messy road conditions, not wanting to get stuck in such an out of the way place. When I got mid-way through my three point turn, I happened to look out the window and couldn't believe what I was seeing....this is an uncropped image, other than making it square! The Snowy Owl was standing on a concrete slab just across the narrow ditch and was not paying any attention to me.
The light was good, but there were a few shrubs to contend with in order to get the type of photo I wanted. It would have been better if I was on the other side of the break in this road, so I quickly retreated to the main road, went around the block and came back up along Big Pointe Road from the other direction.
The bird was quite cooperative, as snowies sometimes can be. The next image is slightly cropped. The bird decided to move a short distance away to a post in the field which was surrounded by grass, so I left it to its quiet reverie.
My total number of snowies for the trip was five, certainly a good start to the season. It wasn't that long ago that seeing only one or two during the winter was normal, and this would be at least the third season in a row where they seem to be around in greater numbers than what their normal cycle would be. I have some thoughts why this is so, which just may be the subject of a future post.

I made a side trip into Mitchell's Bay, to take a quick look at the lake. The water was very calm, and one could see ducks a long way out. One nice looking male Canvasback was feasting on the aquatic vegetation that had accumulated in the small channel at the end of the road, which enabled me to get this photo from the car. Since it is the duck hunting season, I expect if I had to get out of the car this duck would have been long gone, quite quickly.

Sandhill Cranes are becoming more abundant in recent years, both as migrants as well as the local breeding population. Blake, in his blog and on ebird, refers to his experience of regularly seeing 60-100 or more birds most days just north of Walpole Island, along the St. Clair River. While those numbers don't often occur in west central Chatham-Kent, smaller numbers can be found regularly. A dozen here, a dozen or more there, and they do add up. On the weekend, I came across a flock of seven well out in a field, with five of them close enough together for me to get this distant shot.
On my travels today, I saw ten very close to this same location, but much closer to the road. I couldn't get them all in my field of view, so I settled for these five here.
A little later I was up near the Bear Creek Unit of St. Clair NWA at the north end of Bear Line, and saw 18 leave a field. Presumably these were one of the group of 18 that Irene Woods saw in her travels yesterday. I didn't get photos.

Swans are around in numbers that are building. There are several hundred in the immediate vicinity of St. Clair NWA or part way between there and Pain Court. I expect with the colder weather over the next few days or weeks, there will be several thousand making a din across the landscape!

With Christmas Bird Counts not far off, (the SCNWA count is on Jan 1) I hope that these birds will stick around for a few weeks yet.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Peep conundrum and other late autumn shorebirds

Birders will be aware of the recent conundrum surrounding a small peep seen at the Blenheim Sewage Lagoons in the last couple of weeks. Peeps, for the benefit of non-birders, are those smaller shorebirds of the genus Calidris, and are sometimes difficult to identify to species due to their general similarity as well as their various stages of moult which seem to overlap.

Peeps are fairly rare as the autumn progresses. Certainly by late October and early November, any peep is quite rare in southern Ontario. Indeed, the majority of them have made their way to South America! So the presence of a peep at the sewage lagoon, mixed in with larger, more distinct shorebirds known as Dunlin, was out-of-the-ordinary to say the least.

One of my first shots of this peep, between two Dunlin
Two of the 40+ Dunlin present Nov 18, 2016

Steve Charbonneau was one of the first to notice this peep at the lagoons during his almost daily visits there.
Steve C on the prowl for birds at the Blenheim lagoons

There are a number of useful birding references that we used to attempt to sort out this bird:
-Sibley Guide to Birds (Sibley)
-Advanced Birding (Kaufman)
-The Shorebird Guide (O'Brien, Crossley and Karlson)
-Shorebirds: An Identification Guide (Hayman, Marchant and Prater)

In addition to using these references, other birders got photos of various angles and in various light. Some of these photos were sent off to other birders, most of whom had more experience with these peeps than Steve and I had.

What follows does in no way attempt to consolidate all the detailed information found in these references pertaining to these two species!

Given the subtle differences, and decent but perhaps less than ideal views, it was first called a Semipalmated Sandpiper (SESA). SESA are some of the most abundant smaller shorebirds in eastern North America. Now had some of us, myself included, clued in to the fact that SESA are almost unheard of anywhere on the North American continent this late in the season, we might have given it a bit more careful scrutiny. We certainly had entertained the thought of it being a Western Sandpiper (WESA), which is one the most abundant smaller shorebirds in western North America, but not seen very often in the east. But in spite of our considering WESA, some of the features didn't seem quite right.

For example, WESAs have a longer, finer tipped bill than the shorter, somewhat chunkier bill of a SESA. In addition, the bill tip of a SESA is often slightly enlarged, not finely tipped, and the bill of a WESA usually has a slight droop to the tip.

Peep on the right has a slightly bigger tip?
bill doesn't have much of a drooping tip, if any
Complicating this 'bill' issue is that the bills of females are typically somewhat longer than that of a male, and there is some overlap even between the species. Even at that, the comparative length differences is a matter of millimetres. So using the bill characteristics is not all that reliable.

The shape of the head is marginally different, with some field guides suggesting that a SESA is more rounded compared to a slightly more squarish look to the head of a WESA.

WESA is slightly slimmer and longer looking than a slightly chunkier looking SESA. Of course given the time of year and the relative cold temperatures (it got below freezing on more than one occasion, and ice had formed around the edge of the cells), perhaps the bird was cold and has fluffed up its feathers, given the appearance of being a bit more chunky looking.

Since WESA have slightly longer legs, they are more often found feeding in deeper water, often belly deep, compared to SESA which is more likely to be found in shallower water and closer to the edge. There is some variability, of course. This bird seemed to stay in shallower water than the larger Dunlin, however.

What might have been especially helpful is having one of each species side by side, since the differences are somewhat relative, and this bird was only in the vicinity of the much larger Dunlin.

Dunlin and presumptive WESA
Dunlin and presumptive WESA
Moult is important to consider. The young WESA apparently begin their moult as early as August, even when they are on their breeding ground before they head south, whereas young SESA often do not moult much until they get to their wintering ground in the southern hemisphere.

SESA August 24, 2016
SESA, Sept 4, 2016
And that leads us to the feature that perhaps was the deciding factor in the consensus of this bird being a WESA. Under certain light conditions, especially in close-up views, there is a slight but distinctive rufous colour on their scapular feathering. SESA does not have this rufous colouring this late in the season.
A bit of rufous on the scapulars
So given all of the above, it seems the collective opinion of this bird is that it is a WESA. Some field guides state that distinguishing a winter WESA from a winter SESA is one of the more difficult birding challenges, and that certainly was the case with this bird.

Check out Blake's blog for some additional details as well as some of the November and December records of WESA in Ontario.

When trying to ID this bird, I even spent a bit of time trying to determine if it was one of the other even rarer small Calidrids that are Asiatic in range, but have been recorded in North America on extremely rare occasions. The two closest in appearance would be the Red-necked Stint and the Little Stint. One of the most distinct differences, if it is visible, is that the two latter species do not have any webbing between their toes, whereas WESA and SESA both have some webbing. I noted that one of my photos showed the feet and webbing, so I could not make this into a Calidrid from Asia!

Other shorebird species can linger or even turn up in November. As mentioned earlier, Dunlin are around, and more than 40 were seen accompanying the WESA a few days ago. The colder weather in the last couple of days seems to have encouraged them to move on, as only half a dozen or so were seen earlier today.

One rare but regular shorebird that always attracts attention is the Purple Sandpiper. It is a medium-sized, dark and chunky shorebird that shows up in late fall. I had been looking for them at Erieau on Tuesday of this week, but was not successful in finding any. Yesterday morning, I got word from Jim Burk that one was seen at the pier at Erieau. Unfortunately I had to go off to Burlington and would not have a chance to look for it yesterday. When I got home in the evening, I discovered that several birders were able to get some excellent close photos of this species, and in at least one case, actually captured two of them in one image.

Check these out:
Garry Sadler's ebird list and image here.

Steve Charbonneau's ebird list and images here.

Today, Thursday, I made a point of heading to Erieau. Unfortunately the first couple of hours were unsuccessful in finding this species. There were several other birders in the area looking as well, and we did console ourselves with decent looks through the 'scope of the bright male Harlequin Duck that has been around the rocks on the far side of the breakwall for a few days. The other birders eventually left, but since I didn't have anything pressing, I drove over to where the fish tugs often are moored, as it gives a better angle of view to the rocks on the east side of the breakwall across the main channel. I scanned back and forth for awhile through the 'scope, and all of a sudden a Purple Sandpiper hopped up on a rock in excellent view but only for about three seconds before dropping down, not to be seen again. So no photos this day. This next photo is a scan of a slide that I was able to get of a very cooperative Purple Sandpiper back in my film days. It was taken on the main pier heading out into the lake.

With the relatively mild weather continuing, it is only a matter of time to see if any of these shorebirds are around for the Blenheim/Rondeau Christmas Bird Count less than a month away. Over the years, I have had about 10 species of shorebird in my area, so I am hoping for some shorebird activity!

Saturday, 19 November 2016


Befuddled as to what to get someone for Christmas? How about a calendar featuring photos of Rondeau Provincial Park?

The 2017 Rondeau....naturally calendar is still available, and contains the following photos (note: the © P. Allen Woodliffe is not shown on the actual calendar photos). The calendar measures 21.5 X 28 cm (8.5 X 11 inches), is printed on high gloss paper and is suitable for framing. It was printed locally in Chatham.

The cover photo was taken from the Erieau harbour, looking across Rondeau Bay to the sun rising over the park.

January shows a rare Giant Swallowtail feeding on a Wild Bergamot flower.

February shows a winding path along Tuliptree Trail which crosses over old beach ridges and larger sloughs into the interior of the park.

March shows the effects of a late winter storm at one of the larger sloughs.

April shows a male Leopard Frog 'in song' close by a cluster of eggs recently laid by a nearby female.

May shows an endangered female Prothonotary Warbler. This species was first discovered nesting in Canada at Rondeau in the early 1930s and has been the stronghold for them ever since. Nonetheless their numbers are perilously low here and elsewhere in Canada, with probably on average less than a dozen pairs in the entire country.

June shows a close-up of the fabulous Tuliptree flower.

July shows a striking Michigan Lily.

August shows a beautiful Great Egret, with its translucent backlit wings.

September shows a Midland Painted Turtle, the only species of turtle found in southern Ontario that isn't considered an 'At Risk' species.

October shows an eye-level view of an Eastern Chipmunk.

November features a pair of Sandhill Cranes synchronously lifting off from the Rondeau marsh.

December shows the extremely rare pale yellow colour form of a Red Trillium.

A bonus January 2018 photo is of a White-tailed Deer passing along the grassy beach dunes.

This calendar is available from the Friends Of Rondeau bookstore at the Visitor Centre of Rondeau. The Visitor Centre is open on weekends from 12-4 from now until Christmas. The cost of the calendar is $20, including taxes, with proceeds going to help support the Friend's of Rondeau educational programs.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Reptiles at upcoming free event

Reptiles, and in particular snakes, aren't especially loved creatures by the average citizen. True, they aren't cute and cuddly, but they aren't slimy either. Much of the bad rap they have been given is due to misinformation that has been passed along.

You don't see many reptiles out in the wild these days, as most of them are tucked away for the winter, dreaming of next spring. Okay, I can't say for sure that I know what they are dreaming, or if they are dreaming at all. But I can say that the majority of them are in, or preparing, for hibernation.

Midland Painted Turtle
If you are interested in a free family friendly program happening here in Chatham-Kent, there is a special event being held near St. Clair National Wildlife area this coming Tuesday, November 15, 2016. It is called Reptiles at Risk....On The Road.

The Eastern Fox Snake in this next image is literally on the road.

It is an educational event, where you can see some of Ontario's reptiles up close as you are willing to get....and learn about some of their habits. This is focused primarily on Species At Risk, and many of Ontario's reptiles are at risk to one extent or another. In this area, there is a good diversity of reptiles, although their numbers are decreasing. Some of those rarities include:
Eastern Fox Snake
Musk Turtle
Ribbon Snake
Five-lined Skink
Blanding's Turtle
Snapping Turtle

This family friendly and free event is being held at the Dover Rod and Gun Club, located at 5806 Heron Line, which is the first road north of the entrance to St. Clair NWA. It starts at 6:30 p.m. This event is being hosted by the Dover Rod & Gun Club, and the actual event with all the reptile critters is being presented by Scales Nature Park in partnership with Sciensational Sssnakes, Laurentian University and the Canadian Herpetological Society.

For more information contact Christie at:

Sssee you there!

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

They're baaaack!

It is November, and the crows are whirling around Chatham-Kent like they own it. Just like snowbirds head south for warmer climes in places like Florida, Texas and Arizona, those large black avian creatures have arrived in C-K from points farther north, intending to spend the winter here.

It happens every year. By mid-October hundreds of thousands of American Crows are beginning to pass through southern Ontario. They only go as far south as they think they need to go, and that means C-K is a likely spot to linger. Large numbers of them do continue on eventually, leaving Ontario for places even farther south. For example three years ago, over the course of about a month there were more than half a million documented heading across the Detroit River for Michigan and places beyond.

Driving around Chatham at daybreak or sunset these days, one can see huge numbers of crows in the air, in the fields, in the trees and on the rooftops of office and commercial buildings. This first image is of a small number of crows I saw yesterday. They were in a field of about 15 ha right next to my former office. About half of the field was covered, and more kept pouring in while I watched.
 Almost every tree within about a 4 sq km area had crows in it.

I estimated that there were about 125,000 crows in the area yesterday, at least from what I could see. I expect there were many more elsewhere around the city beyond my view. Some bird experts have estimated that there are often 250,000 or more that are in the Chatham area at this time of year, before tens of thousands move out, leaving us with 'only' 150,000 or so around for the winter.

A peculiar thing about the crows this year is that many may not have even arrived yet. Or maybe haven't left either. In 2013, as mentioned above, about 550,000 crows had been documented leaving Ontario. In 2014, by this date, there had been almost 175,000 of them documented leaving. In 2015, more than 153,000 had been documented leaving.

However in 2016 so far, there has been a mere 36,560 crows recorded leaving.

What is going on, especially this year? Has the population of crows in Ontario dropped? Not likely. Have the crows decided not to leave quite yet, uncertain about the chaotic elections south of the border? Again, not likely. Have those folks counting them at the two hawkwatches in Essex and Michigan been sleeping on the job? Not likely. Have they been distracted by such huge numbers of hawks that they haven't been able to keep track of the crows? Not likely. Have the crows taken a slightly different route to head to the US, at a location beyond the viewing of the two hawkwatches? Perhaps.

My guess is that with the unseasonably mild weather in 2016, crows haven't even arrived this far southwest yet. They are likely stopping at other similar urban/agricultural centres which provide the many benefits to them that C-K does, at least until winter sets in. In looking at the Christmas Bird Count data from counts across southwestern Ontario in the last few years, the numbers of counts  with larger and larger crow numbers are on the rise.

So maybe there are a lot more crows to come, but are waiting for winter to encourage them to move closer. We will have to wait and see.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a fairly extensive blog post on why crows are so enamoured with Chatham-Kent. Rather than repeat a lot of that, you can read about it here.

There are other birds that are around in rather large numbers. The other day I was driving along just east of Mitchell's Bay when I encountered probably the largest single flock of blackbirds I had ever seen. As with any huge, mobile flock of birds, it is difficult to get an accurate estimate, let alone an actual count. But I concluded there had to be about 40,000 birds, and at least 90% of them were Common Grackles, with a few Red-wings, European Starlings and Brown-headed Cowbirds mixed in. These next two images show very small portions of the flock. They were on both sides of the road, in the corn fields, in the trees, in the air and on farm lawns. I was hoping to see a Yellow-headed Blackbird, and undoubtedly there was the odd one, but it was so hard to scan through the entire flock.

At one point when a large section of the flock that was quite close all got up to fly, it sounded like a low rumble of thunder. It was truly an impressive sight and sound.

There are lots of waterfowl around these days as well, a fact well known to many. Chatham-Kent and particularly the Lake St. Clair marshes and adjacent areas have for more than a century and a half, been renowned for their waterfowl hunting opportunities. Hundreds of thousands of ducks, geese and swans pass through each fall.

Some of the geese are smart enough to know that hunting doesn't take place within Chatham. As a result, sometimes a thousand or more can be found within the city limits, either in some of the recently harvested fields, or in the green belt area. The Mud Creek area offers prime viewing. And with the large numbers of Canada Geese, one can find other species. For example a couple of Snow Geese have been seen from time to time. Garry Sadler advised me today of an adult and juvenile bird that had just arrived with a large flock of Canadas, so I headed out to get a few photos.

Adult Snow Goose
Juvenile Snow Goose

I've seen other species of waterfowl at Mud Creek as well, although not frequently. However on occasion one can find a Northern Pintail or Wood Duck joining the gang. These next four photos were all taken at Mud Creek at one time or another.
Northern Pintail
Wood Duck

Cackling Goose looks like a miniature Canada Goose, and can sometimes be found with a bit of effort. They are small, not much larger than the Mallard in the background of this next photo, and definitely smaller than the more common Canada Goose also in the background.

Late this afternoon, I headed for the Mitchell's Bay North Shore Nature Trail, hoping for something of interest. There was a huge number of American estimated 5200 of them in various flocks out in Mitchell's Bay, but too far away to bother with a photo.

It was a beautiful evening, and I spent a bit of time enjoying the sunset. If you didn't catch it from where you were, I hope you can enjoy it vicariously through this last photo.