Our last day on the Bruce

Monday was our last day on the Bruce Peninsula. We said good-bye to Port Elgin and drove north toward Southampton and Sauble Beach. In Southampton we stopped at Fairy Lake, which had been advertised as a “nature lover’s oasis”. I was expecting another Mud Lake, or at least a network of trails surrounding the water. Instead, we were disappointed to find that there was only about 20 feet of wooded habitat surrounding the lake with a single gravel path traveling through it; we could easily see the buildings next to the park. The only birds we found were a couple of chickadees and Song Sparrows in the narrow band of trees and a tame Mute Swan and a couple of ducks (one mallard and one domestic-mallard mix) on the lake itself.

Our next stop in Southampton was Denny’s Dam where, according to Mike Pickup’s book “Birding Saugeen Shores”, Bald Eagles and Osprey often soar above the Saugeen River searching for fish and Hooded Mergansers, Green-winged Teals and Blue-winged Teals can be observed in the quiet waters above the dam. We found none of these. We did, however, see a phoebe.

Eastern Phoebe

Denny’s Dam

We continued on our way north to Sauble Beach where we had more luck with the Piping Plovers. The roped-off area at the north end of the beach was easy to see, so we made our way there. Along the way we noticed a pair of Turkey Vultures eating a large dead fish at the water’s edge; when they flew off, the Herring Gulls moved in.

There was a sign at the beach entrance educating people about the plight of this endangered shorebird. The Piping Plover has been assessed as an endangered species by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and is listed under the Species at Risk Act. Most Canadian provinces where the species occurs have also listed the species as endangered.

Piping Plover signage

The chief reasons for this species’ decline are human disturbance, loss of habitat, and predation. Heavy recreational use of beaches by ATVs, swimmers, dog-walkers and beachcombers disturb Piping Plovers, damage their nests and eggs, and interrupt foraging of plover chicks. Plover eggs are vulnerable to gulls, crows, raccoons, foxes, minks, weasels, and skunks searching for an easy meal, and falcons may prey on the adults or young. Loss of breeding areas due to development and the building of dams also contribute to the plover’s population decline.

Fortunately, both the Canadian and U.S. governments are working to maintain or increase the Piping Plover population. Various conservation measures, such as signage, patrols and other forms of monitoring, exclosures to keep predators out, captive releases, the relocation of eggs, surveys, and public education, have been implemented in both countries. It was heartening to see such a large, well-designed sign which lists the threats to this bird and provides identification and general information.

Piping Plover

My mother and I started walking toward the roped-off area to see if we could find the plovers, but I heard one before I saw him: a high, plaintive peeeep which could only belong to a plover. There, walking along the shore outside the fence was a small sand-coloured plover!

It walked along the shore into the fenced-off area. Sometimes running, sometimes probing, it eventually made its way to the fenced-in nesting site where it changed places with a second plover sitting on a nest. Both parents share incubation duties, which last from 26 to 28 days; a clutch typically consists of four eggs.

Piping Plover

When disturbed, adult Piping Plovers will leave the nest and run away from approaching intruders. They may distract potential predators by pretending to be injured in order to lead predators away from the nest. After they hatch, the chicks typically leave the nest a few hours after drying off. They do not return to the nest but instead begin to feed on their own, closely guarded by both parents. If threatened, the plover chicks freeze in a crouched position, their camouflage making them difficult to spot among the sand and gravel.

Piping Plover nest exclosure

We watched the plovers for a while; the one which had just left the nest quickly vanished in the opposite direction. Its mate settled in to keep the eggs warm, protected by a metal cage which keeps large predators out but allows the plovers to enter and exit at will.

From there we drove to Oliphant to look for more shorebirds, but the beaches appeared deserted. A couple of Red-breasted Mergansers and several Double-crested Cormorants were swimming in the lake, and we saw our first Ospreys of the trip nesting on a large platform close to the water. The paired phrases of a Brown Thrasher’s song alerted us to this bird’s presence in the trees by the road, another new bird for our list.

A little further up the road we came to the Oliphant Fen and the parking area for the boardwalk. This boardwalk is short, only a quarter of a kilometer in length, but there was much to see. We saw Leopard and Green Frogs sitting in the shallow water, and heard and saw Common Yellowthroats, Nashville Warblers, a Yellow-rumped Warbler, a Black-throated Green Warbler, a Black-and-white Warbler, and a couple of Northern Waterthrushes singing from the forest at the back of the fen.

Oliphant Fen & Boardwalk

There wasn’t much in bloom yet, but these Pitcher Plants caught my attention.

Pitcher Plant

After leaving the Oliphant Fen we made our way to Isaac Lake, one of the places highlighted in Mike Pickup’s book. We stopped at a few places along the way, encountering our first Warbling Vireo of the trip and another Osprey on a nesting platform.

The road to Isaac Lake proceeded first through farmland and then marsh. We found an Indigo Bunting, Tree Swallows and a Wood Duck along the way. A large bullfrog sitting in the middle of the road had to be gently ushered out of harm’s way.

Bullfrog

Further along the way we found a Great Blue Heron and a Great Egret together. The heron was standing on what appeared to be a Wood Duck nesting box, preening, while the egret hunted for fish in the stream.

The Heron and the Egret

At the lake itself we were disappointed not to find any terns or ducks. A cormorant flew over, and we saw Warbling Vireos, goldfinches, and a single Baltimore Oriole flitting about in the trees lining the shore and that was about it. In the cattails along the water’s edge I heard the brief song of a Marsh Wren. Beyond the parking area was a high, grassy bank and we could hear a Bobolink, a meadowlark and a couple of Savannah Sparrows singing. We looked but couldn’t see any of these birds.

A little disappointed, we soon left the lake and returned to the gravel road. On the way out we came across a pair of Great-crested Flycatchers sitting on the fence right beside the road.

Great Crested Flycatcher

It was early in the afternoon by the time we left, and after that we headed back to the highway and drove southeast toward Cambridge. It was great visiting a part of the province I had never seen before, but again I was struck by how few migrants we had seen (especially ducks and shorebirds). Our drive around the Bruce Peninsula reinforced what I had thought earlier in the trip; namely, that migration was essentially over and the only birds we saw were the breeding species that could be found any time during the summer. I think it would be better to visit in early May or in August to see a greater diversity of species; perhaps some other time, when the weather is more cooperative!

  • Lifer #268 Piping Plover

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