Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Early December action

December has arrived, and that triggers the period for winter birding lists. It also means local birders are out scouring the bushes to see what lingering avian critters might be around for the upcoming Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The Blenheim/Rondeau count is less than two weeks away!

For this count, Rondeau Provincial Park and Erieau are two of the hotspots known to catch the attention of late migrants. A male Eurasian Wigeon has been fairly reliable at the north end of Rondeau, although not often seen close to shore (although I got a text today from Garry Sadler that it was at the edge of the bay under the willow tree closest to the normal viewing point.....a day when I had other commitments and couldn't get out). This first photo, greatly cropped, is one of my more successful attempts.
Eurasian Wigeon on the right
It is often in the company of American Wigeon and Gadwall.
American Wigeon

There has been a handful of less common birds scattered in various place in Rondeau, but they are not always easy to catch up to. One place I often check is the north end of Harrison Trail and also the adjacent campground, which is closed, but has easy access and lots of shrubbery for birds. Yesterday I went for a hike in this area. It was much quieter than I expected. I saw nine Gray Squirrels...

....a feral cat....
...and a mouse before I saw or heard a single bird (full disclosure: my hearing isn't all that great, so it is possible or even likely that there were birds I missed). Eventually I did get some birds for my day's list at this location, including Black-capped Chickadees, American Goldfinches, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Cardinals, Golden-crowned Kinglets, etc.

I know there was a Golden-crowned Kinglet on the branch in this next photo when I pressed the shutter....honest! They never seem to sit still, so in the ensuing millisecond of time, it was gone. (Over the years I have collected a few shots of empty branches.....😏)

There have been some strong winds from the southeast recently, and I wanted to check on the state of erosion along the south and southeast beach areas of the park. The wave action so far didn't seem to do too much damage.
Southeast Beach
South Beach

The Erieau pier and channel has received the brunt of such wave action as well.

Note the uppermost branches of the tallest tree in the previous photo. For those who have spent time over the last couple of years birding the Erieau area, you have undoubtedly noticed the dead Double-crested Cormorant blowing in the wind. It has been there for at least two years, and is a testament to the tough, leathery skin of a desiccated cormorant. Maybe we should start a pool to see who can predict how long it will remain?

These gulls in the next image would normally be out on the pier, but as you can see from the third photo above, it wasn't a popular place to hang out on this day. The birds in this next photo were about to get a shower.

The Rail Trail and the McGeachy Pond trail are two good spots to check out. There has been an interesting assortment of song birds in the last few days, including Wilson's Warbler, Palm Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Blue-headed Vireo, Gray Catbird, American Robin and Bohemian Waxwing, among other more expected species. The density of the shrubbery adjacent to the phragmites as well as the abundance of non-native rose hips makes it attractive to such lingering migrants, but sometimes very challenging for birders! I haven't spent as much time combing the bushes as some others, and so haven't caught up with all of the above. In fact of those listed, I have only seen the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, American Robin and the Bohemian Waxwing. The latter species was probably the most surprising, as they are rarely seen in Chatham-Kent in any year. In fact I have only seen them in C-K about three times in the past four decades. This individual shown below was with a flock of about 125 of the much more common Cedar Waxwings.
American Robin feasting on rose-hips
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher from a different day
Bohemian Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing enjoying fruit of Red Cedar
The Rail Trail is popular for sparrows.
Front to back: Song Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Fox Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
This trail is also a spot to see White-tailed Deer on occasion. This one was only a short distance away, but reluctant to move off. After a few moments of trying to stare me down, it eventually settled back down.

An occasional Great Blue Heron remains in the area, not surprising given all of the open water. This one was taking shelter along the canal adjacent to Lagoon Road.

With the imminent arrival of colder weather, it will be especially interesting to see how many of these species are recorded on the upcoming CBC!

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.