Shorebird Migration at Presqu’ile Provincial Park

On August 27th, five members of the OFNC led by Roy John drove down to Presqu’ile Provincial Park to enjoy a day of birding on the shores of Lake Ontario. Except for a few large banks of fog, the drive was uneventful. We saw one Osprey, two Green Herons in flight, and a couple of Great Blue Herons standing motionlessly in roadside marshes. Although a few more OFNC members met us at the park, I was surprised how few people had signed up given how wonderful Presqu’ile can be this time of year for birds, butterflies and dragonflies. The weather, too, couldn’t have been any better – blue skies and warm sunshine in the morning, followed by cloudy periods in the afternoon to prevent it from becoming too hot.


On our way into Brighton, we were briefly held up by this train. This sign caught my attention, and tickled my sense of humor. I hadn’t seen this sign before and wondered why it was necessary to warn PEDESTRIANS of a second train coming. Surely the gates would still be down, the red lights would still be flashing, and cars would be waiting to cross, which should be a BIG HINT that it isn’t safe to cross!

It was a short drive from there to the boat launch at the foot of Ontario Street where we found one Belted Kingfisher, three Pied-billed Grebes, and a Caspian Tern. After that we drove into the park, where our first stop was the Owen Point Trail. Our first sighting was not a bird, but rather this Viceroy butterfly. It is differentiated from the Monarch by its smaller size and the black band across the hindwings.

Viceroy

We found a good variety of birds along the Owen Point Trail, including a pair of Common Yellowthroats, a group of Cedar Waxwings, and a single Northern Flicker. We saw a few Black Saddlebags patrolling the skies and several darners zipping around, but none landed or came close enough for any photos. The real highlight, however, was all the shorebirds on the beach. There weren’t a lot of them – perhaps a couple hundred in total, compared to the thousands that are sometimes found here – but to my migrant-starved eyes, there were enough and they were CLOSE! By the time we reached the end of Owen Point (which was still roped off as access to Gull Island is forbidden until September 10th), a few were foraging only a couple of feet beyond the ropes!

Least Sandpiper

The majority were Semipalmated Plovers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, and Least Sandpipers, although there were a few Baird’s Sandpipers, Lesser Yellowlegs and Sanderlings mixed in. We had heard that a White-rumped Sandpiper and a couple of Whimbrels had also been seen, but we never found them.

Semipalmated Plover

This is one of the Baird’s Sandpipers that we saw on the beach. It has a pale brown head, long wings which extend past the end of its tail, distinct brown markings on its chest, and a scaly back. The wing length is a key characteristic of this species, shared only with the White-rumped Sandpiper among the species which regularly pass through our area.

Baird’s Sandpiper

On Owen Point itself there were nearly a hundred Caspian Terns loafing. Every now and then one would plunge into the water to catch a fish or fly by with an awful squawking noise.

Caspian Terns

Of all the shorebirds, however, I was most enchanted with the Sanderlings. This is not a species I see very often in Ottawa, so I spent most of my time trying to photograph them.

Sanderling

Another Least Sandpiper. Note the yellowish feet, drooping black bill, and reddish tones of the feathers of its back:

Least Sandpiper

The day was slipping away, so we left Owen Point and headed to some other places in the park. On our way back Roy pointed out a pair of butterflies mating on the path. They flew up to this Phragmites plant where I was able to identify and photograph them. The Common Buckeye is a southern butterfly which is normally only a rare stray in Canada. It sometimes migrates north in large numbers, and in good migrant years temporary colonies can become established, resulting in the Common Buckeye becoming locally common for one season. Our winters are too harsh for them to survive in any form, so any eggs that are laid or caterpillars that try to overwinter here do not survive.

Common Buckeyes

The summer of 2011 proved to be a good year for Common Buckeyes, especially in Presqu’ile Provincial Park and nearby Prince Edward Point. A few even made it to Ottawa, though only two sites have been discovered by local butterfly watchers thus far. This species rarely flies as far north as Ottawa, where it has been documented in only three previous years, according to the Butterflies of Canada website: once in 1966, once in 1996, and in 1981, when a major invasion resulted in the formation of three temporary breeding colonies. Observers recorded Common Buckeyes for several months in an old gravel quarry, where toadflax and gerardia were abundant.

Common Buckeyes

Another southern species which has been common in Presqu’ile Provincial Park and Prince Edward Point this summer is the Giant Swallowail. The Giant Swallowtail is the largest butterfly in Canada and has dark brown wings crossed by a bright yellow diagonal band. The tail is broad with a yellow spot in the centre. It is a resident species in southwestern Ontario, where it can be commonly encountered at Point Pelee and Pelee Island, but strays have made their way to Winnipeg, Montreal, and southern Nova Scotia. I was really hoping to see one on this trip, and got lucky when we stopped for lunch at the day-use area near the shore: one fluttered by in the field of flowers beyond the outhouse. It was too far away to photograph, but large enough to see the diagnostic brown wings with the bright yellow stripe! Monarchs, of course, were common among the goldenrods.

Monarch

In addition to the monarchs, I saw Cabbage Whites, Orange Sulphurs, Clouded Sulphurs, Eastern Tailed Blues, Least Skippers, one Mourning Cloak, Northern Crescents, Common Ringlets, one Red Admiral, and this Great-spangled Fritillary.

Great-spangled Fritillary

I didn’t get any dragonfly photos, but during our outing we saw Eastern Forktails, Common Green Darners, Black Saddlebags, Blue Dashers, Widow Skimmers and Twelve-spotted Skimmers. I would have liked to have identified some of the mosaic darners zipping around, but they all eluded capture. This small, spotted beetle almost made up for my inability to catch and identify any new dragonflies; although it is considered a pest by farmers, I thought it quite pretty.

Spotted Cucumber Beetle

From the day use area we drove over to the lighthouse. As there were so many people there we didn’t see a thing…and certainly none of the warblers, flycatchers and vireos Deb and I found here last year. In fact, our warbler list was still pretty thin, with only the Common Yellowthroats we had seen along the trail to Owen Point. Roy took us to Calf Pasture Cove next, and it was there that our warbler luck changed. We found a small pocket of migrants in the vegetation near the parking lot and tallied Gray Catbird, Northern Parula, Blackburnian Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler and Yellow-rumped Warbler. Roy heard a noise which he thought had been made by a Red-bellied Woodpecker, but the only picid we saw in the vicinity was a Hairy Woodpecker.

I also found this lovely orbweaver in the vegetation near the water and thought that the Purple Loosestrife in the background added a nice touch of colour

Black and Yellow Argiope

It was getting late in the afternoon by then, and the clouds had rolled in. We saw an Osprey fly over the cove as we were discussing where to go next. Roy decided to take us to the Brighton Constructed Wetland, a water-polishing facility that reminded me of the Richmond Lagoons. We didn’t have permits to enter the wetland, but there is an observation area outside the gate that gives a nice view of an open channel of water and not much else. Birds seen here include a couple of Wood Ducks, Mallards, one Hooded Merganser, three Osprey, and one Northern Harrier flying over the marsh. The Osprey breed here – there are two nesting platforms overlooking the water – and so the three birds were likely a family group. We also saw a Common Gallinule (formerly known as Common Moorhen, who probably isn’t aware that its name was changed this past summer by the AOU) trundling across the channel and dozens of Red-winged Blackbirds flying into the marsh.

After that it was time to leave. Although it was a good trip, it seemed too short. We didn’t get into the park until 11:00 (a late start by any account, but especially for a birder) and spent most of our time at Owen Point. We didn’t visit the marsh boardwalk, one of my favourite spots, and didn’t see much in the way of songbirds other than one small flock of warblers. This trip left me thirsting for more; I’m thinking that another trip next month might be in order!

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