Hillman Marsh’s Birding Celebration

Orchard Oriole

Orchard Oriole

After we left Blenheim, our next stop was the Hillman Marsh Conservation Area. Situated on the shore of Lake Erie just a few kilometers northeast of Point Pelee Provincial Park, this conservation area is just as popular with birders as Point Pelee. Although it boasts 5 kilometres of walking trails through many diverse habitats, most birders visit solely because of the shorebird cell, which is essentially a flooded field actively managed to provide essential habitat for migrating shorebirds. Because the shorebird cell is entirely natural, with lots of vegetation and small shrubs growing in the water, it usually attracts more than just shorebirds; gulls, terns and ducks can be found in the cell on almost every visit, while the resident Barn and Tree Swallows skim over the water hunting for insects. This cell also attracts shorebirds not typically found at Blenheim, such as Black-bellied Plovers. Over one hundred species of bird have been recorded at Hillman Marsh, including rarities such as the Yellow-headed Blackbird, Willet, Marbled Godwit, Eurasian Wigeon, Glossy Ibis and American Avocet.

We didn’t realize when we arrived that they were in midst of their annual Mother’s Day Shorebird and Songbird Celebration. Although we noticed a few tents and a food truck near the main building, we didn’t stop to check them out but proceeded straight to the shorebird cell where we were presented with this foggy view:

Hillman Marsh in the fog

Hillman Marsh shorebird cell in the fog

Viewing was not particularly great for shorebirds; we only tallied three species, including two Lesser Yellowlegs and three Killdeer which were all close enough to identify through the mist. A little later a group of about 15 Black-bellied Plovers flew in and landed further out, immediately disappearing from view. A male Blue-winged Teal was swimming near the front of the shorebird cell, and I was able to pick out two mallards, a Gadwall, and six Northern Shovelers further out. A few turtles were basking on a log close to the water’s edge, and I stopped to take a couple of pictures when I realized two Blanding’s Turtles were sitting in the middle of a pack of Painted Turtles.

Blanding's Turtles

Blanding’s Turtles

Mom wanted to check out one of the trails to see if the Bald Eagles were present. Although we didn’t find the eagles, we found some other great birds along the way, including Baltimore Orioles, Warbling Vireos, Yellow Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, an Eastern Kingbird, a Great Egret, and an Ovenbird in a small tangle of branches between the path and the pond on the north side of the conservation area. I heard it sing once, and it took a moment for me to recognize the song as (a) it was my first one of the year; and (b) it wasn’t in the typical forest habitat I associate these birds with. Once I realized what it was, I peered into the vegetation and caught a glimpse of the small Ovenbird scurrying around on the ground.

We noticed this boardwalk and I decided to take a look when I heard either a rail or a coot calling from the reeds. I couldn’t spot it, but I did see a muskrat munching on some vegetation. I found a side trail that led right up to the cattails and took a quick look when I heard a couple of Marsh Wrens singing in the marsh. I saw one fly briefly above the cattails before diving back in.

Boardwalk at Hillman Marsh

Boardwalk at Hillman Marsh

The trail took us around the corner to what looked like an outdoor education area. Just as we were passing by, a woman emerged unexpectedly from a small side trail, told us she had five warblers in a mist net, and asked if we would like to see them. Mom and I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to see these tiny birds up close so we followed her down the muddy trail to an area where a large mist net had been set up. This was my first time seeing a bird banding operation in action – the mist net was almost completely invisible to me from a distance, and if it weren’t for the five tiny yellow birds hanging in mid-air I wouldn’t have known it was there. It was strung between two trees like a large volleyball net, except it was all black and the netting was very, very fine.

The woman introduced herself as Carolyn (or perhaps Caroline) and asked if we wanted to help. I said sure. After she untangled each bird from the net she put it in a bag and gave me the bag to hold. The first bird was a Wilson’s Warbler, all shades of yellow and olive except for an inky black cap. The second bird was a brilliant male Blackburnian Warbler, and the last three birds were Yellow Warblers. As she patiently worked at untangling the birds I noticed a Great-crested Flycatcher, a Magnolia Warbler and a Yellow-rumped Warbler in the vicinity, and heard the squeak of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. She asked me to help with another net in which we found two Magnolia Warblers and a young Orchard Oriole. In this area I spotted a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and three Palm Warblers. I was just as amazed by all this songbird activity as I was by the banding operation, as I hadn’t realized this little wooded area existed before – what a great little spot to find small pockets of migrants! After the nets were rolled up, Carolyn and her partner took the birds, my mother, and my step-father back to the tent by the Visitor Centre on their little motorized cart while I walked back on my own.

I arrived in time to see them start the banding process. Here they take all sorts of measurements to age and sex the bird, and put a small silver band marked with a unique number around its leg. This number is recorded in a database so that if anyone ever submits a sighting of that band number in the future (whether by catching the bird in another mist net, photographing the band on its leg, or recovering it after the bird has died), they can look up the band number to find out how old it is and where it was originally banded. This is how we learn where birds winter, what migration routes they take, and how long they live. They asked if anyone wanted to adopt the young Orchard Oriole, and I said sure. The adoption cost $10, and I got to release the oriole. If someone ever sees that particular Orchard Oriole with that particular band number, I will be contacted with the details.

Orchard Oriole

Orchard Oriole

While the banding operation was going on, members of Wild Ontario were displaying some of their fascinating birds as part of its environmental education program. Based at the University of Guelph, this program aims to inspire and teach people about Ontario’s nature and wildlife through raptors which have conditions so severe that they are not able live independently in the wild.

I believe this is Kaila. They have three Red-tailed Hawks, but Kaila has a neurological condition that left her with partial blindness, constantly drooping wings, and a tilt to one side. When she arrived at the university’s Wild Bird Clinic in 1997, it was determined that Kaila had suffered some sort of trauma, likely a collision with a car, that left her with permanent brain damage.

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

This tiny American Kestrel is half the size of the Red-tailed Hawk, but is just as fierce. Apollo was a young bird when he was surrendered to the Toronto Wildlife Centre in 2011. Although the TWC was told that he had been hit by a car, they noticed during the physical exam that his talons were neatly trimmed and that his flight feathers that were all broken off at the same length, something that is usually seen in birds that are kept in a cage that is too small. It also became apparent that Apollo had no fear of people, and had in fact become imprinted on them. This led the people at the TWC to believe that Apollo had been stolen from the wild as an egg or a chick, and raised as someone’s pet. Because of his strong imprinting, he would not likely survived if released into the wild.

American Kestrel (“Apollo”)

Apollo was given some mouse for lunch to eat and seemed entirely comfortable with the crowd of people watching him.

American Kestrel (“Apollo”)

Einstein is a female Great Horned Owl that is also unreleasable because she became imprinted on humans. Her imprinting, however, was completely unintentional; she was delivered to a wildlife rehabilitation centre when a farmer unwittingly cut down the tree which contained the nest in which she and her siblings were born. Although she was taken to the Owl Foundation to be fostered by an adult owl, Einstein was exposed to the staff at the rehab centre for too long, and now believes that she is a person. Although she is apparently smart as an owl, she is not as smart as human being, which is how she received the name “Einstein”.

Great Horned Owl (“Einstein”)

While it was great to see these lovely birds up close, it is the wild birds that hold my heart. We had two additional great birds before we left: an adult Bald Eagle flying over the Visitor’s Center, and a Cape May Warbler singing at the top of a tall conifer next to the barn. I heard its high-pitched song and wasn’t sure at first what it was – I thought perhaps Black-and-white Warbler or Bay-breasted Warbler. It took a few minutes before we got a good look at him weaving in and out of the branches; the dark streaks on the yellow breast and reddish face clearly marked it as a Cape May.

I had never attended the shorebird celebration at Hillman Marsh before, but it turned out to be a wonderful experience even if the shorebirds were lacking (or perhaps just invisible). We had 35 bird species altogether, and more songbird species than I have ever had before (not even counting the Wilson’s Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler and Orchard Oriole in the mist nets). The Ovenbird and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher were completely unexpected, the Bald Eagle was magnificent, and the Cape May Warbler was a great bird to end our visit with!

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