Annual Spring Trip to Point Pelee

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

On Saturday, April 30th I took the train to Kitchener to visit my mother and step-father, and on Sunday, May 1st we drove down to Point Pelee. We weren’t able to check in at the Best Western just outside of the park until the afternoon, so we headed to the Tip as soon as we arrived at 11:00. The weather was not cooperative – it was cold and overcast, with the same north winds I’d experienced in Ottawa. North winds in May are never good for migration; birds trying to fly across the Great Lakes will stay on the south side of the lakes until the winds shift from out of the south, giving them a boost across the water. Of course, north winds could also mean that any birds already in the park would likely stick around before continuing north, but this did not seem to be the case.

The usual Barn Swallows were nesting in the shelter just beyond the tram stop, and we got lucky and saw the Hooded Warbler that had been hanging out near the sign for the 42nd Parallel, but other than the usual Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles, songbirds were difficult to find. I counted only 30 species of birds along the tip, including two Ruby-crowned Kinglets, one Nashville Warbler, one Yellow Warbler, and one Yellow-rumped Warbler. There were no vireos, grosbeaks, woodpeckers, orioles, finches or sparrows. This was the quietest I had ever seen it.

Fortunately the waterfowl helped to make up for the lack of birds – there were two Buffleheads, at least five Red-breasted Mergansers, and at least three Horned Grebes on the lake on the western side of the peninsula. Some of the ducks were diving quite close to shore, including this beautiful Horned Grebe in breeding plumage. Normally when I see them in Ottawa in the spring, they are on the river, quite far out; I have never been this close to one.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

A male Red-breasted Merganser was also diving quite close the shore. This species is more common in Ottawa in the fall, with few reports in the spring, so I usually don’t see males in breeding plumage at home – this gorgeous male diving close to shore was a treat.

Red-breasted Merganser

Red-breasted Merganser

There was no Tip this year; the beach ended abruptly just beyond the boulders where the path ends. As a result, there were no gulls or shorebirds loafing on the sand.

The wind was chilly, so my step-father headed back to the Visitor’s Center before mom and I were ready to go. We took the tram and got off at the stop in between the Tip and the Visitor’s Center; I had heard an Eastern Towhee singing on the way down, and was hoping to catch a glimpse of this bird. We walked back along the road toward the Visitor’s Center, adding a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and a few juncos and White-throated Sparrows to our list. I heard the towhee singing again, and managed to spot it flitting among the branches of a fallen tree. They are quite elusive in Ottawa, so this was the best look at one I’ve had to date.

Eastern Towhee

Eastern Towhee

We left the park and had lunch at Paula’s Fish Place, drinking coffee and hot chocolate to get warm. The restaurant has large windows overlooking a group of feeders in the backyard, and we saw our first White-crowned Sparrow of the trip, as well as several House Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles and a single Brown-headed Cowbird. Three robins foraged for insects on the lawn, ignoring the activity at the feeders.

We went to Hillman Marsh next, which had a good variety of birds. There were a good number of ducks in the shorebird cell, including Northern Shovelers, Blue-winged Teals, Green-winged Teals, Gadwall, one American Wigeon, and even a Bufflehead; the usual Caspian Terns, Forster’s Terns, and Bonaparte’s Gulls were loafing in a mucky spot in the middle of the cell. The Forster’s Terns are tiny compared to the Caspian Terns here, which are about the same size as the Ring-billed Gulls. A pair of Killdeer, one Lesser Yellowlegs, and 30-40 Dunlin were also present.

Ring-billed Gull and Terns

Ring-billed Gull and Terns

In one of the distant ponds we added two Pied-billed Grebes, several Ruddy Ducks, and a Marsh Wren to our list. Songbirds were fairly well represented, with a Rusty Blackbird heard singing in the line of shrubs adjacent to the entrance to the shorebird cell, two Ruby-crowned Kingbirds flitting in the shrubs, and a Chipping Sparrow, Field Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, and two Yellow Warblers present. The Field Sparrow was foraging with the Chipping Sparrow on the lawn beyond the barn, a duo I don’t often see together.

Field Sparrow

Field Sparrow

The next morning we headed out to the Tip at Point Pelee early even though it was another cold, overcast morning. A few more songbirds were present, though not in any great numbers; we did see a Yellow Warbler, a Palm Warbler, four Yellow-rumped Warblers, a couple of White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows, and an Empidonax Flycatcher (probably a Least). On the water the Horned Grebes, Red-breasted Mergansers, and Bufflehead ducks had been joined by a dozens of scaup and about 20 Double-crested Cormorants. Our best sightings, surprisingly, were not of birds at all. The first was a pair of young raccoons ambling along the rocky shore beyond a thin screen of leafless shrubs; the second was an Eastern Fox Snake curled up in a shrub about four feet above the ground. It must have been cold out in the open like that; perhaps it was waiting for the sun to come out and warm it. A female Red-winged Blackbird flew in to check it out but decided to leave it alone.

Eastern Fox Snake

Eastern Fox Snake

From there we headed over to the Woodland Nature Trail, one of the more active trails for warblers that week. We did better there, with about 31 species, but the birds were few and far between and it took almost two hours to reach that total. We found three Wild Turkeys not far from the trail entrance behind the Visitor Center; my step-father gobbled at them, and one gobbled back. We also found a pair of Black-and-white Warblers working on two trees side-by-side, a Brown Creeper, and a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak near the start of the trail. As we made our way through the boardwalk system we found a couple of Northern Waterthrushes, three Blue-headed Vireos, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a Red-bellied Woodpecker (heard only), one Wood Thrush (heard only), three Hermit Thrushes, and Yellow and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Other than the usual robins and blackbirds, I think our most abundant species was the Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

Our first exciting bird was one that was pointed out to us; we never would have seen the Great Horned Owl chick in the nest if another birder hadn’t pointed it out. From below, it looked just like a messy squirrel’s drey except for the fluffy ball of feathers peeping above the nest. We didn’t see the parents, but doubtless they were close by, tucked against the trunk of a tree keeping a careful watch on the nest.

Great Horned Owl chick

Great Horned Owl chick

The only other bird that paused long enough for a photo was a Black-and-white Warbler seen shortly after we left the owl’s nest. It is a male, as evidenced by the black throat and cheek. These nuthatch-like birds can usually be found in any forest or woodlot during migration, but prefer deciduous and mixed forests with trees of varying ages for their breeding habitat. This diversity provides a variety of substrates where they search for tiny insects among the bark and moss, which makes their scientific name – Mniotilta varia – particularly apt, as the genus name means “moss-plucking”. They are the only species found within this genus.

Black-and-white Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler

Another kind birder informed us that a Blue-winged Warbler was foraging relatively low on the seasonal footpath that led from the southernmost part of the trail to back toward the Visitor Center at the north end. My step-father had gone on ahead, so my mother and I walked the narrow trail slowly, looking for a blue and yellow warbler close to the trail. We found quite a few Ruby-crowned Kinglets, their constant fluttering through the vegetation drawing our attention. Then I saw a slightly larger bird, bright yellow instead of greenish-gray, and knew we had found our bird. Amazingly, it was foraging in a vine right beside the trail.

Blue-winged Warbler

Blue-winged Warbler

This was a species I have only seen four times in my life – first at MacGregor Point in 2011, at Point Pelee in 2013, at my Dad’s trailer near Cambridge in 2014, and now again at Point Pelee. It is a southern Ontario species, seldom occurring north of the Canadian shield. Although the Blue-winged Warbler’s range has been expanding toward the northeast, even showing up from time to time in Ottawa, this expansion has been occurring at the expense of the closely-related Golden-winged Warbler with which it sometimes hybridizes.

Blue-winged Warbler

Blue-winged Warbler

Our last stop of the morning at Point Pelee was the DeLaurier Trail, but it was very quiet. The only bird of note was a Brown Thrasher.

Later in the afternoon we headed over to Hillman Marsh. A Black-necked Stilt and a pair of American Avocets were being seen in a large wet area at the end of Mersea Road 1 at the back of Hillman Marsh, so we stopped there first. The two rare species were still there when we arrived, and although the avocets were too far away to photograph, the Black-necked Stilt was nice and close. Three mallards and two Blue-winged Teal were swimming around, and a Killdeer and both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs were also foraging in the small pond.

Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt

The stilts in the genus Himantopus are well-deserving of this name – they have the second-longest legs in proportion to their bodies of any bird. Only the flamingo has a greater leg-to-body proportion.

Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt

While my mother and step-father were watching the shorebirds, I glimpsed a large bird flying down the road and saw an adult Black-crowned Night-heron disappear over the small ridge that separates the shoulder of the road from the long ditch below it. I mentioned the bird to a couple of people, but when we climbed the ridge and looked down the length of the small stream at the bottom of the ditch we couldn’t see it.

We went to the shorebird cell at Hillman Marsh next, where the usual puddle ducks – plus two Northern Pintails – were present. Two Willets were a nice surprise – these large shorebirds have two distinct breeding populations in North America, neither of which occurs in Ontario. Eastern Willets breed along the north Atlantic coast from Nova Scotia southward, while Western Willets breed in the western prairies of the U.S. and Canada. Birds in breeding plumage are mottled brown, while birds in their winter plumage are a uniform gray. In both plumages their wings have bold black and white stripes which help to identify flying Willets even at a distance.

Willet

Willet

Two American Coots tucked up against the vegetation of one the ponds were a nice surprise, as was a Palm Warbler. Then Jean Iron – hosting the OFO’s shorebird evening – called out that a Little Gull had just flown in! It was difficult to pick out among the 30 or so Bonaparte’s Gulls, but eventually I spotted a small black-headed gull that was different and got a good look at it through the scope. The black of its hood extended further down the neck than the hood of a Bonaparte’s Gull, and it lacked the white arcs above and below the eyes. When it flew off the diagnostic dark underwings were clearly visible. It only stayed about 3 or 4 minutes, but that was long enough to claim it as my newest life bird!

The sun finally came out during our last morning. The Blue Heron trail near the marsh boardwalk was largely unproductive, so we tried Tilden’s Woods next. We had better luck there, finding two Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Veery, Hermit Thrush, more Ruby-crowned Kinglets, three Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a couple of House Wrens, a Lincoln’s Sparrow, a Swamp Sparrow, and a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak. The grosbeak was feeding low in a shrub, providing a fantastic opportunity for some photos.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Only three warbler species were present – Yellow, Yellow-rumped, and Common Yellowthroat. We missed a lot of warblers this year, partly because we visited so early in the season (May 1st-3rd) and partly because the strong north winds for the past week or so impeded migration. We also missed both oriole species, Gray Catbird, all but two flycatcher species (the Empid at the Tip and an Eastern Phoebe at the Woodland Nature Trail), and all the vireos except Blue-headed. Still, the baby Great Horned Owl, the lifer Little Gull and the three rare shorebirds – American Avocets, Black-necked Stilt, and Willets – helped to make up for the shortage of songbirds.

On our way back to Kitchener, we stopped in at the Blenheim lagoons, a spot I always enjoy visiting chiefly because of the large number of shorebirds that can be photographed relatively close up. When we crested the hill to check out the first pond, I was surprised to see all the gulls floating on the water – Bonaparte’s Gulls! I scanned them in case any Little Gulls were present, but didn’t see any. Several swallows – mostly Tree Swallows, Purple Martins, and at least one Bank Swallow – were flitting above the water, while on the ponds I saw a dozen Buffleheads, almost as many Northern Shovelers, about 60 Ruddy Ducks, four Blue-winged Teals, and ten Canada Geese.

Bonaparte's Gull

Bonaparte’s Gull

We walked over to the sprinkler cells to check out the shorebird action – something I particularly look forward to when Point Pelee isn’t very birdy. I was quite dismayed when we reached the first sprinkler cell and found it completely dry; instead of seeing hundreds of Dunlin, yellowlegs, Least Sandpipers and the like, they were empty. The cells in the back had some water in them, but the sprinklers were on and only no birds were there, either. The only shorebirds we saw at Blenheim were three Killdeer on the path nearby and two Spotted Sandpipers working their way around the ponds.

We headed out after spending only about 40 minutes there. I noticed several swallows perching on the wires above the road as we were leaving; when I saw a Purple Martin perching next to a Tree Swallow I snapped a quick picture. The Purple Martin is the only Ontario swallow that is entirely dark below. This is true of both males and females, but is especially noticeable in the males which are entirely dark glossy purple.

Tree Swallow with Purple Martin

Tree Swallow with Purple Martin (male)

My last few days of vacation were spent in Kitchener. We did some birding around city, seeing a Spotted Sandpiper at Columbia Lake at the University of Waterloo Environmental Reserve, and a Red-tailed Hawk on a nest at Breithaupt Park.

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

Red-tailed Hawk Nest

Red-tailed Hawk Nest

A Blue-headed Vireo at Breithaupt was the only other bird of interest; the day was warm, and I saw a couple of butterflies, but they were too quick for me to identify.
Spring ephemerals were in bloom, and I enjoyed taking a few pictures of the flowers.

Trout Lily

Trout Lily

Trillium

Trillium

Although my trips to southern Ontario are more about visiting family than chasing birds, it’s always great to visit the birding hotspots along Lake Erie. The birding wasn’t great this year, but that’s always the chance we take when choosing a date a few months in advance. Still, it was worth going, and especially seeing the southern specialties such as Eastern Towhee, Blue-winged Warbler, Black-necked Stilts, Willets, Little Gull, Eastern Fox Snake. The baby Great Horned Owl was also a treat, as was the Red-tailed Hawk’s nest in Kitchener. It’s not always about the rarities, though they certainly help!

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