En Route to Point Pelee

Pectoral Sandpiper

Pectoral Sandpiper

On Saturday, May 4th, my birding partner, Deb, and I set off on our first road trip and my annual spring visit to southern Ontario. My parents both live in Cambridge, and it has become a tradition for me to spend a week there in the spring, with a three- or four-day trip to Point Pelee and Rondeau Park to enjoy the spring migration. It takes five hours to drive there, but we arrived early enough to spend some time birding the area with my mom. First we visited the square near the Main Street bridge. The Red-tailed Hawk was still using the same stick nest on the same church steeple in the square; we didn’t see any fluffy chicks this time, but an adult was sitting in the nest. This is at least the third time the hawk has nested here in the last four years.

The Cliff Swallows were still nesting under the bridge, and we saw about 20 or 30 of them hawking for insects above the river. A couple of Tree Swallows and several Chimney Swifts were also feeding in the same area.

Cliff Swallows

Cliff Swallows

Next we walked part of the Linear Trail along the Grand River, and it was a delight to hear my first Yellow Warblers and Warbling Vireos of the spring here. We found a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in one of the large trees next to the water; it was a lifer for Deb. The Baltimore Orioles hadn’t returned yet, but we found a White-throated Sparrow, an Eastern Kingbird, several goldfinches, a Brown-headed Cowbird, and several swallows on our walk. Most of them were Northern Rough-winged Swallows, and they were darting in and out of the cavities in the bluff across the river. An Osprey was sitting on the nesting platform across the river as well; at one point we had three different Osprey in sight at the same time.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

After dinner, we drove over to Grass Lake (aka the Paris Cranberry Bog) to look for marsh and grassland birds. This is a neat spot just outside of town with a large expanse of grass on one side of the road and a small marsh on the other. We have had Grasshopper Sparrow and Common Gallinule (formerly Common Moorhen) here before, and I was hoping we would find both again.

The first thing I heard when I got out of the car was the song of an Eastern Meadowlark. One was sitting on the fence within the grassy field, singing its heart out. A Savannah Sparrow sang briefly as well, but we didn’t find any Grasshopper Sparrows. After checking out the field we turned our attention to the marsh. A couple of people were scanning the water from the shoulder, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Sandhill Cranes that nest here. It didn’t take long before I caught a glimpse of the red cap of one of the cranes bobbing among the reeds, and then it walked out into plain view.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane

It stood out in the open for several minutes, calling to another crane hiding somewhere at the back of the marsh. The sound it made seemed prehistoric; it would have fit right in the movie “Jurassic Park”. I found it thrilling to watch the crane in its natural breeding habitat – normally I only see them feeding in the corn fields along Milton Road during fall migration. It spent some time preening, then chased off a pair of Canada Geese which swam too close.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane

We stopped at Bannister Lake on the way home, but there were very few ducks on the water. A single American Wigeon and two Pied-billed Grebes made the stop worthwhile, but I was more intrigued by a couple of shorebirds foraging in a wet field along Spragues Road. When we got out to look, we found a Lesser Yellowlegs and two Killdeer probing the muck for food. Then I noticed a small songbird walking along the water’s edge and was surprised to identify it as an American Pipit! Deb later spotted a second one in the field. I rarely see these birds in the spring, but instead usually find them in agricultural fields outside of Ottawa in the fall.

The next morning we set out early on our drive to Point Pelee. We didn’t intend to visit the park until the next day, so we stopped at a few birding hot-spots along the way. The first was the Blenheim Sewage Lagoons close to Rondeau Provincial Park (a permit is required to enter the lagoons). The last time my mom and I visited the lagoons it had been pouring rain and we didn’t linger long. This time the weather was much nicer and we tallied 27 species.

Purple Martins, Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows and at least one Chimney Swift were skimming the air above the lagoons, while two Pied-billed Grebes, one Blue-winged Teal, several Ruddy Ducks, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, mallards and Canada Geese were swimming in the water. The shorebirds are the main reason I like to visit, and when we reached the sprinkler cells we weren’t disappointed.

The first bird I noticed was a stunning Pectoral Sandpiper standing on one of the pipes that run the length of the cell. This is another bird I see more often in the fall than I do in the spring.

Pectoral Sandpiper

Pectoral Sandpiper

A couple of tiny Least Sandpipers were standing on the same pipe a little further out, and more were foraging in the muck in the cell itself.

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper

The two cells were full of Dunlin, many of which were still transitioning into breeding plumage. Some had the bright rusty-coloured backs and black patch on the stomach, while others were still gray and white and had no or very little black on the belly. They all had the same shape and the same gentle expression, however, and all were feeding in the same manner.

Two Dunlin

Two Dunlin

Dunlin

Dunlin in breeding plumage

A few Killdeer were noisily running along the grass beyond the sprinkler cells, and one Spotted Sandpiper flew up out of the cell toward the one of the other ponds. I tried to find at least one other species among the large flock of Dunlin and was finally rewarded with a male Wilson’s Phalarope! Phalaropes are slender, delicately built shorebirds with a small head and thin, pointed bill. They are unique in that the female in breeding plumage is more brightly coloured than the male. In an unusual role reversal, the females often mate with more than one male, have more than one nest and, after they lay their eggs, abandon their young to the sole care of their mates. The male we saw was a fairly drab bird, mostly gray above and white below, with a hint of brown on its neck and back.

Wilson's Phalarope

Wilson’s Phalarope

There were quite a few other songbirds, present, too. We saw (and heard) several Savannah Sparrows and Bobolinks in the grassy field beyond the sprinkler cells, while Yellow Warblers sang from the shrubs near the road. A Yellow-rumped Warbler flitting among the trees lining the first lagoon was likely a migrant. And, of course, grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds were everywhere.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

From there we drove to Erieau where we found a Mute Swan, a Gadwall, a Northern Shoveler and a single American Coot swimming on McGeachy’s Pond. A flock of about ten Black-bellied Plovers flew over, while a Brown-headed Cowbird squeaked out its song in the tree above us. We didn’t stay long enough to walk around the pond, but instead drove into town. We found our first Chipping Sparrow and Baltimore Oriole of our trip just outside of the Eau Buoy restaurant (the Sunday lunch service was disappointingly slow) and several gulls and terns at the pier. We found Bonaparte’s Gulls, Herring Gulls and Ring-billed Gulls loafing on an island outside the harbour, and all the terns appeared to be Forster’s Terns.

Bonaparte's Gull with Forster's Tern

Bonaparte’s Gull with Forster’s Tern

A Belted Kingfisher perching on a wire above the parking lot was an unusual sight – there were several house-sized mounds of dirt nearby, so perhaps it was thinking of using one of those as a nesting site.

There is a new trail along the marsh just across the road from McGeachy’s Pond, but we didn’t see any interesting marsh birds on our brief walk. A large Snapping Turtle visible from the observation platform was about the only species of interest until we noticed all the Turkey Vultures sitting in the field on the other side of the trail. There were about 18 or 20 altogether, and eventually they took to the air and flew right over our heads in a large kettle.

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture


They began circling above a house close to the entrance to the marsh before moving on. It was quite something to see so many Turkey Vultures in one spot – I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many together in Ottawa!

Turkey Vultures

Turkey Vultures

We reached our motel on the shore of Lake Erie in mid-afternoon and unpacked and ate dinner before driving over to Hillman Marsh. I hadn’t checked my email before leaving, and didn’t see Mike Tate’s email about the discovery of two Black-necked Stilts just outside the conservation area until later. The sight of about 40 birders lined up with their scopes on the bridge over Hillman Creek was the first hint we had that something marvelous had been found, so we parked as close as we could without blocking the road and walked over to see what was happening. We asked the first people we met what they were looking at, and I was taken by surprise when I heard there were two Black-necked Stilts at the back of the mudflats! This large shorebird is unlike anything we see in Ottawa, with long, stilt-like pink legs, a white chin and belly, and a black back. The black extends up the back of the neck to form a cap, with a black circle surrounding the eye, leaving a white supercilium. It breeds along the Gulf coast and up the Atlantic coast as far north as North Carolina. Just like that, I had my first life bird of the trip!

The two stilts were too far away to take any photos, and we were looking into the setting sun at the same time, so we contented ourselves with viewing the two birds through the scopes. While chatting with the other birders I recognized two of my Facebook friends on the bridge – Len and Sarah – both of whom I had met online but had never met in person before. It was just as thrilling to meet them as it was to see the stilts, and a little later when the crowd began to clear I discovered Mike Tate, an Ottawa friend with whom I’d often gone dragonfly-hunting, still watching the birds from the bridge.

After watching the Black-necked Stilts for a bit and checking out a Bald Eagle and a pair of Great Egrets in the vicinity we continued on to Hillman Marsh. There we found a single Caspian Tern among the Forster’s Terns, lots of Dunlin and Black-bellied Plovers, two Greater and two Lesser Yellowlegs, four Mute Swans, and lots of ducks hiding in the back of the shorebird cell, including Redheads (always nice to see), Gadwall, American Wigeon and Blue-winged Teal. Seven American Coots were also lurking at the back of the cell.

Viewing blind at Hillman Marsh

Viewing blind at Hillman Marsh

We ended our first day on a high note, with a couple of life birds for mom and Deb, and one for me. The weather looked promising for the rest of our stay, warm and sunny all through the week; while I was happy we wouldn’t have to worry about getting rained on, I was hoping we would at least get some rain overnight to bring in the migrants. I went to bed hoping that Point Pelee would be equally as amazing as our first day on the road!

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2 thoughts on “En Route to Point Pelee

  1. Sounds like a great day. Congrats on your first Black-Necked Stilts! I find them such comical-looking birds with their oversized legs, trailing behind them when they fly like long pink tails.

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