A Three-Grebe Day

American Mink On Easter Sunday I started the day at Sarsaparilla Trail to look for the Pied-billed Grebes that had been reported there.  There wasn’t much activity in the woods – no chickadees came to greet me at the trail entrance, and I didn’t hear or see a single nuthatch – but I could hear plenty of juncos and the occasional Golden-crowned Kinglet singing in the woods beyond the trail.

The large pond at the back of the trail was a different story.  A half-dozen Tree Swallows were hunting over the water, Song Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows and Red-winged Blackbirds were singing in the reeds at the water’s edge, and there were plenty of waterfowl scattered across the pond.  I counted about a dozen Canada Geese, a pair of Hooded Mergansers, a few mallards, one Pied-billed Grebe, and almost 20 Ring-necked Ducks.  Although not an uncommon species at Sarsaparilla Trail, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many.  A male Wood Duck also flew over while I was counting the ducks.

After spending an enjoyable 20 minutes taking in the wildlife of the large pond, I turned to leave with the intention of heading to Shirley’s Bay next.  As I was walking out, I heard a Ruffed Grouse drumming in the woods and noticed that the juncos had moved to an open area next to the trail.  I thought I heard the high-pitched chip note of a Fox Sparrow or a White-throated Sparrow, and took a few moments to study the birds I could see as they foraged on the ground and along fallen tree trunks.  Although I couldn’t find any other sparrows, I heard the lovely song of a cardinal close by, and then the distinctive song of a Purple Finch from overhead!  I managed to spot the singer and confirm his identity for my year list; then I realized a second male Purple Finch was in the same tree.  Even more amazing is that this was almost the exact same spot on this trail where I had seen my first Purple Finch of 2010!  I finally found a Fox Sparrow singing in a tree bordering the open lawn by the parking lot, making this the most productive visit to Sarsaparilla Trail so far this year.

From there it was off to Shirley’s Bay, and I began my walk with a stop at the Hilda Road feeders.  For the first time in a very long time, there were no other cars parked along the road and no other photographers or birders around, and I wondered if the gloomy skies were keeping the photographers away.  Only two feeders were left hanging from the trees, both of which appeared to be empty, but someone had scattered a lot of seed on the ground, the little wooden tables and the large rocks separating the road from the feeder area.  I was surprised to see that a lot of American Tree Sparrows were still in the area, and several were singing.

American Tree Sparrows

Dark-eyed Juncos were also numerous; they and the tree sparrows will be migrating north soon, not to be seen again until next fall. Several Red-winged Blackbirds were feeding from the tables, and at least one grackle and a Brown-headed Cowbird flew in to join them.

Brown-headed Cowbird (male)

I hadn’t been there very long when another vehicle pulled up behind me, and was happy to see Chris Bruce get out of the car.  I got out to talk to him, and told him my plan to head out to the dyke next to look for some of the birds recently reported by Bruce Di Labio.  As we were talking, I noticed a familiar mammal scurrying about, looking for seeds: the melanistic chipmunk! He actually crossed the road and scrambled up on top of one the rocks to gather some seed, allowing me a couple of quick shots.

Melanistic Eastern Chipmunk

This little fellow caused quite a stir when he first showed up last summer.  Although black squirrels are very, very common in Ontario, an entirely black chipmunk is very, very rare.  I was happy to see he had survived the winter and was busily gathering food with the rest of the squirrels and chipmunks.

Melanistic Black Chipmunk

This is one of the many regular chipmunks which calls Hilda Road home:

Eastern Chipmunk

Chris and I drove over to the boat launch parking lot to get ready for our hike out onto the dyke.  From the boat launch we could see a number of scaup, Bufflehead and Common Goldeneye out further in the bay.  Close to the shore, however, were two of our target species: about eight Horned Grebes and two Red-necked Grebes!

Horned Grebe

Grebes are aquatic birds which are more closely related to loons than ducks.  Their bodies are designed for a life on the water – like loons, their legs are set far back under the body, which makes them excellent swimmers; however, unlike loons, their toes are lobed.  Their wings are small, as are their tails, and they are weak fliers, preferring to dive beneath the water than to fly away when threatened.

There are six species of grebe in Canada (Clark’s, Western, Eared, Red-necked, Pied-billed and Horned), all of which obtain their food underwater.  Larger grebes eat mostly fish; the smaller ones generally eat insects, crustaceans, snails and small fish.  Grebes even nest on the water, building floating nests from aquatic vegetation which may either be anchored to emergent water plants or built up from the bottom of a pond or lake. The nests are typically surrounded by water plants, protecting them from waves and predators.

This was the first time I had ever seen the three common eastern grebes all in one day, and the first time I had seen a Red-necked Grebe in the spring.  These two birds alone were worth the trip to Shirley’s Bay.  However, we were eager to explore the woods and the dyke to see what else might be around.  We discovered a pair of blackbirds in the woods singing a song I recognized from my “More Birding by Ear” Peterson Guide, and a look through my scope confirmed their identity as Rusty Blackbirds.  This was the first time I had seen this species in the spring, and the males are a glossy black colour with pale eyes.  Similar in appearance to the more abundant Common Grackles, the proportionately shorter tail helped cinched the identity of these lovely birds.

Out on the dyke, we discovered several Song Sparrows and a couple of Northern Flickers in the trees and a few Tree Swallows skimming the air.  The water level of the bay side of the dyke was very high (the woods were flooded and parts of the first island were almost completely submerged) but there were no ducks in the bay.  They were all much further out, and we saw our first Double-crested Cormorants of the year as well as many of the same species seen on the river side.  We were no closer to the birds here than we had been on the shore, and while Chris took his time scanning the waterfowl I continued to look around.  Suddenly I noticed a small dark mink cross the path only a few feet away and disappear into the rocks.  I called out my sighting to Chris, and he immediately abandoned his search for waterfowl to find the mink.  We spotted him running along the rocks toward the woods and tried to follow.  At one point the mink paused behind a rock, and I managed to take one photo of him peering out to see if I was still there:

American Mink

Eventually he darted out from behind the rock and ran beneath a large tangle of shrubs, so Chris and I gave up on him and continued our walk further out onto the dyke.

We found a Common Loon swimming in the bay between the first and second islands and about a dozen Bohemian Waxwings trilling in the trees of the second island.  We also heard a few more Rusty Blackbirds singing away in the trees.  My last new year bird was an adult Bald Eagle perching on the trees on the furthest side of the bay, too far away to see without binoculars.

It was a great day, with many great sightings.  I felt privileged to see the mink and the black chipmunk again, and the Rusty Blackbirds and three different grebes made this an unforgettable outing.  Of course the sun decided to come out as we were leaving, but I couldn’t imagine a more perfect day.

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