Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Seasonal solitude

I don't often get a cold, but I guess my time had come. Ever since this past Christmas, I have been battling a persistent cold. Had I been bad this past year? Most people would maybe have received a chunk of coal at Christmas....I received a persistent cold. As a result I have hardly left the house, so am posting a blog that I was originally going to post in early December. Maybe now is a better time, especially since it features a warmer outdoor period than what most of eastern North America has experienced in these last few weeks.

There is a certain appeal to get out in a forest or other natural setting, and not necessarily with birds or butterflies as a primary focus. The joy is just to get out and soak up as much of the natural atmosphere as possible, enjoying the light, the shadows, the muted colours and perhaps most important to my way of thinking, the solitude. Any form of wildlife encountered is a bonus. The latter part of November and early part of December are two of my favourite times for this experience, and the setting at Rondeau is perfect. One can spend several hours on the trails and closed roads, and never see another person.

There is an activity I recently had pointed out to me, called 'forest bathing', where one spends time in a forest, or at least in the vicinity of trees, soaking up the fresh air and the atmosphere, to experience various health benefits including a reduced stress level. According to Wikipedia, forest bathing apparently originated in Japan in the 1980s.

To that I say 'Nonsense'.

I've been doing it since the early 1970s. My dad used to do it from time to time in his early years. While it may not have officially been named 'forest bathing', the reality is that people have been doing this for decades, likely centuries or more. I'm sure that the likes of John Muir in the mid to late 1800s and Ansel Adams in the early 1900s, among others, did a lot of 'forest bathing' when they were out exploring the natural world in their time.

It is usually during these times when I seldom take my camera with a telephoto lens, knowing that a wide angle lens will be more useful to capture what I see.

One can sit in one spot for a time, or one can hike the trails and get the benefits of some cardio exercise, or even away from the trails (but if it is above freezing, be aware of ticks!!). And there is always something to see, especially on warmer, sunny days. I had this Eastern Comma flitting about on a warm sunny day on Nov 29, which according to ebutterfly, was the latest Ontario date for a butterfly added to that database in 2017.

Reptiles may be out, soaking up a last bit of sunshine before going underground for the upcoming winter.
Eastern Gartersnake
Some resident birds are a little more obvious. It seems that Pileated Woodpeckers are more noticeable during these quiet periods.

The leaves have fallen by late November, as have a multitude of seeds. The trails and roadsides are covered, or at least lined along the edges, with a mix of leaves and seeds.

This first photo shows a packed roadside of beech nuts from the American Beech tree, with a few Tuliptree seeds mixed in. It had indeed been a great year for beech nut production, as well as acorns from oaks. While this 'mast' production will go along way towards placating the hunger of deer, Wild Turkeys, Blue Jays, Red-bellied Woodpeckers and mice, one cannot help but wonder if it also means a profusion of ticks that benefit when mice are more prolific. More mice, means more ticks, and the greater the chance of hikers encountering Lyme Disease in the following year.
 This next photo, taken along a section of trail where Tuliptrees are a little more dominant, is made up entirely of Tuliptree seeds. Although Tuliptrees are prolific producers of seeds, only about 1% or so of the seeds are really viable and will germinate. The vast majority of these seeds will be enjoyed by squirrels, mice, etc.

The bright orange-red berries of Climbing Bittersweet are more visible against the muted colours of the forest late in the season.

The lake can be really riled up during sustained windy periods, or it can be quite calm and subdued. The riled up weather that occurred a short time before this photo was taken resulted in significant changes to the dynamic shoreline, such as this new pond area. Will it remain as a breeding pool for the rare Fowler's Toad this coming summer or be a feeding stop for shorebirds? Or will another storm make changes to this, making it only a very temporary feature?

Patterns in the sand are visible, the result of fairly strong winds in previous days.
While it is always nice to see birds and butterflies, etc., they are just a few of the multitude of reasons to get out and enjoy the natural world around us!

Friday, 29 December 2017

St. Clair River birding and an Aythya curiosity

My territory for the recent Wallaceburg Christmas Bird Count, held on the 27th this year, includes several kilometres of the St. Clair River. Some years it is full of ducks, but this year it was not. There was a reasonably diversity, however.

Long-tailed Ducks used to be quite a rarity here, but now it is a rare to not see several dozen, at least, especially the farther north on the river you go. They are often well out in the middle of the river, so not always easy to photograph.

With the ice quickly building up in the river, the protected area by the Sombra ferry dock is a good place to check out the waterfowl. A female Hooded Merganser was hanging around......
 ....and there were a few Common Mergansers.

Both Greater and Lesser Scaup were near the ferry dock, but I only got photos of Greater. Greaters are easily identified by the round head and, when they are at rest, a slight flatness to the head.

There was a duck that at first glance was an easy call as a Ring-necked Duck. I got a few photos, but when I started looking more closely at them on the computer, I had some questions.

Ring-neck (l), Redhead (r)

Certainly the bill pattern the dark back, the brownish sides all fit Ring-neck nicely. But what about that head shape? A 'good' Ring-neck shows a slightly different shape, sometimes being bluntly crested even to the point of being broadly triangular in some respects. This bird shows a round head, especially obvious in the first and third photos. It is more like a Greater Scaup, and the slightly greenish tinge is more indicative of Greater. A Ring-neck head is usually a brownish purple. Does it have some Greater Scaup genes in its background? Both of these species are members of the Aythya genus, and they are close enough that hybrids in this genus are more common than most other duck genera. So it is possible that at some point in this bird's lineage some Greater Scaup genes crept in. I'm certainly not an expert in waterfowl genetics, so if anyone has an opinion, please share it!

There were other birds to find, including this adult Bald Eagle that swooped over some gulls, looking for something to scavenge, I expect.
 While I was watching the gulls and this eagle, I looked across the river at the St. Clair Power Plant. I had seen Peregrine Falcons there in the past, and this is what I was hoping to find on this trip. I got a brief look at this bird through the binoculars, and then reached for the camera. This next photo was taken with a full frame Canon DSLR, a 500mm telephoto and a 1.4X converter. After taking a couple of photos, I reached for the scope, and then the bird was gone. The bird was perched at least one kilometre away, so it was at a difficult distance, and with the bright sun and atmospheric haze, it isn't as sharp as I would like it to get a positive ID. Cropping the photo by about 80% doesn't help either. It looks a little big and chunky for a typical Peregrine. Perhaps it was just fluffed up due to the cold? Or is it possibly something else? Another birder had a very large falcon go by him not too far from here....could it be the same bird? Could it be a Gyrfalcon? One can't tell for sure based on this photo....perhaps it is just a female Peregrine, which are larger than males.

Canada Geese were not very abundant early in the day,  but there were a few around.

 As the afternoon wore on, it was apparent that a late day movement of geese was occurring. Several flocks ranging in size from about 60 to 150 streamed by, quite high and heading straight south. I expect the colder weather much farther north put them to flight.

I spent a bit of time inland, checking out a different part of my territory. There were a few raptors, including at least 3 Northern Harrier.
As they swept low over a field, they would scare up small groups of birds such as Horned Lark, which were widely scattered.

 All in all, it was a great day in spite of the cold. No doubt with the continued cold, bringing lots of ice from Lake Huron, waterfowl will become much more numerous, and will warrant another visit.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Another Rondeau/Blenheim CBC now in the books

The Blenheim/Rondeau Christmas Bird Count has been going ever since 1939, making it one of the oldest continuing counts in Ontario. The most recent one, held yesterday, marks the 79th one.  Over the years we have tallied 190 species. An average count results in around 100 species, with high counts of 115 species achieved on several occasions. Weather, whether it be that of the day or the of the previous week or two, will be deciding factors. In 2017, both were factors, as in spite of the lingering autumn weather, the snow and cold of the last week caused several species of waterfowl, for example, to leave the area. On the day of the count itself, the brisk to strong east winds caused some birds to take cover and it made it difficult to hear the birds chipping in the undergrowth. So we missed some that were likely around, but overall the results were not too bad. We came up just shy of the 100 mark, but we did add a new species. The Townsend's Warbler that was first discovered in the area on Nov 11 remained to be counted marking the first time this western species has been recorded on a Christmas Bird Count in Ontario.
A November shot
The area that I normally cover is at the very south end of the park, including the south beach. This year Josh Pickering came along with me. It is often wild and windy there, with lots of wave action. The brisk easterly winds resulted in waves which not only made hearing birds difficult, it also made the shoreline difficult to walk along, so we had to walk inland a bit, in some cases thrashing our way through Phragmites, shrubbery and even fallen trees.

Josh's much better hearing enabled us to pin point some 'chip' notes from the tangles, which we could then search and come up with an identification of.

By far the most common bird we saw was Red-breasted Merganser.

Out on the ice of the bay and marsh we counted 5 Snowy Owls. It was tempting to go out on the ice to get a closer look at an open spot at the south end of the bay, where geese, swans and gulls were resting, but in spite of the cold weather, the ice was only a few centimetres thick. The snow on the ice kept it from getting thicker, and we broke through readily, nixing that option.

After our south beach trek of about 8 km round trip, we stopped at the Visitor Centre for a rest, a snack and to watch the feeder. An Eastern Towhee put in an appearance, feeding on seeds below the feeders....

 ...or hanging out more photogenically in the shrubbery nearby.
 A Common Grackle was in the vicinity.
 At least one Tufted Titmouse was around. They have definitely become more numerous in the last few years..... have Red-bellied Woodpeckers.
 Tis the Christmas season, so sharing is good.

Unfortunately the Brown Thrasher which was seen in the feeder area the day before, was not noticed on count day.

Fox Sparrows were noted along the roadsides.
Although we didn't see any Pileated Woodpeckers in our area, other people did in theirs. Some years the spot on the tally sheet for this species is blank, so it is nice to have this resident species accounted for.
The Wilson's Snipe is not always a guarantee to be seen, even when we know it is around. Fortunately one group stopped by the appointed location and saw it.

All in all, it was a good day in spite of the weather. Every year is different. At least it wasn't raining, or snowing so hard that visibility was quite limited, both conditions which have been experienced on previous counts.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Scouting for the CBC

This weekend will be full swing for Christmas Bird Counts. The Rondeau/Blenheim count is on the 17th and I have been out scouting around a bit over the last couple of days. The onset of winter in the last few days, earlier than we would like, has caused a lot of water birds to depart as much of the open and still water is now quite still.....frozen solid. However the cold and snow it will concentrate the remaining birds, especially around feeders.

It wasn't all that long ago that the roads and trails of Rondeau looked like this:
But now, of course, they look like this:

Something tells me that we will not break any records for species observed on this count! Just as I was taking the first of these snowy trail scenes, I heard some Sandhill Cranes approaching from behind me. Normally they are vocal enough that you can hear them from quite a distance but this time, when I turned around and starting looking for them, they were almost right overhead, and only about 2-3 times the height of the trees around me. I had the wrong camera/lens combination for bird photos (full frame and wide angle) so I counted them, and came up with 42. I noted on ebird that Steve had this same group flying west over Erieau about 15 minutes later, so likely this group won't be around for the count.

The birds that are still around are making do, with some like this Fox Sparrow finding a bit to eat along the plow-scraped roadside. I found 7 Fox Sparrows today along the road sides.

Not far away, this Mourning Dove was soaking up a bit of sunshine while resting out of the wind, on the ground.
 Feeders are a welcome spot for some birds, such as this White-throated Sparrow. There aren't many of this species around these days.
 White-breasted Nuthatches are year-round residents, and don't seem to have a problem finding food whether it be at a feeder or in the deeper parts of the forest.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are also permanent residents, and can be found at feeders or elsewhere.

Common Grackles were quite abundant a few weeks ago. Nowadays they are not 'common' at all but this one was hanging around the Visitor Centre feeder...... was this American Tree Sparrow, usually a fairly abundant winter species, but not so abundant at the present time.

Needless to say, there weren't too many people lining up for picnics.

The lake is still open, although a bit of ice is building along the shoreline. But a couple thousand Canada Geese seem reluctant to leave the area, and can be seen flying about.

There is a nice wide creek along Stefina Line, a bit southeast of Blenheim, where there is lots of soft mud, and it seldom freezes over. There must be a spring of some sort feeding it. There is a profusion of low vegetation and tufts of grass, and it seems every year a Wilson's Snipe can be found. There is no guarantee, however, as yesterday it wasn't seen but today it was in its usual spot.

 At the end of the day yesterday, I stopped beside an old pasture that has been partially planted in prairie vegetation. It was a wonderful place to find Dickcissels most of last summer. I was hoping to find a Northern Shrike perched on a hawthorn shrub, or a Short-eared Owl flying about at dusk. I didn't see either of them, but this Northern Harrier was quite active. Unfortunately for photography, it wasn't the best of conditions, as the sun had set and holding a 500mm lens while taking a picture at 1/40th of a second even at a fairly high ISO wasn't what I had hoped it would be.