A visit to Chatham-Kent: Peer’s Wetland

Ring-necked Duck

On Good Friday I traveled to southern Ontario for my annual spring visit with my mom. Last winter she moved from Kitchener to Wallaceburg, which is about 30 minutes northwest of Chatham-Kent near Walpole Island; although situated in a mostly agricultural area, the move to Wallaceburg meant new birding opportunities and a chance to work on my Chatham-Kent county list. My mother and step-father had already visited one of the best birding spots nearby, Peer’s Wetland, which was also an eBird hotspot that looked promising with 159 species; although we ended up visiting quite a few places, Peer’s Wetland ended up being the most interesting, as well as my favourite spot. As it is only a 15-minute drive from my mother’s house, we visited it almost every day.

Peer’s Wetland (Swampy pond near the parking area)

At first glance it doesn’t look like much; when you pull up into the parking lot, a large pond is visible with a small woodlot behind it. During my long weekend I learned that quality woodlots are rare in Chatham, and quickly came to appreciate this one. The woodlot separates the pond in the front from a cattail marsh in the back, and a trail runs around the perimeter, skirting the edge of the woodlot, and around the marshy wetland behind it. On the right-hand side (if you’re walking the trail counterclockwise) a thin screen of shrubs separates the path from Otter Creek that marks the left-hand border of the conservation area. After emerging from the marsh, the trail passes through a small field with small trees planted in rows before returning to the parking lot. The first time we walked the trail we completed the entire loop, but as the path was quite muddy beyond the marsh, we didn’t venture that way on any subsequent visits.

Peer’s Wetland (marsh and trail at the back)

Peer’s Wetland (observation platform near the parking area)

On our first visit, the first thing we noticed were all the diving ducks in the pond. The majority of them were Ring-necked Ducks, but a beautiful male Redhead swimming in the middle of the raft quickly caught my attention. This is not a duck I see often in Ottawa, and when I do it’s usually far out at the Moodie Drive Quarry or Shirley’s Bay. Seeing this one so close was a treat.

Redhead (male)

Upon closer inspection I also identified a female Redhead, a female Ruddy Duck, two Gadwall, a male Bufflehead, and two Pied-billed Grebes among the birds swimming in the water. There were also several Tree Swallows swooping over the water and perching in the trees overhanging the ponds, and I saw three that I couldn’t identify – one that might have been a Barn Swallow, and two brown swallows. A Great Blue Heron flew by overhead, two kingfishers flew back and forth over the pond, a Dark-eyed Junco paused on top of a brush pile in the woodlot, and two Yellow-rumped Warblers were flitting in the screen of trees next to the creek. Unfortunately we got caught in a heavy rain while we were there, so we returned after dinner once the clouds started to break up.

Sunset at Peer’s Wetland

The same ducks were still there, and this time we added a Red-bellied Woodpecker (heard but not seen), and 11 Rusty Blackbirds perching at the top of the trees of the woodlot! I heard the bubbly, grackle-like call first, and stopped to scan the birds flitting in the trees. To me the call sounds like two low, quick “chucks” followed by a long, drawn-out squeal resembling the rusty-gate call of the Common Grackle. When a large group of blackbirds is chattering together (I’m not sure I’d call it singing!), the gurgling, bubbly “chucks” interspersed with the louder, higher-pitched squeals is quite distinctive. I immediately saw a Rusty Blackbird perched about 10 feet off the ground fairly close, but by the time I raised my camera it flew off toward the back of the marsh. I turned my attention to a group of 10 blackbirds perched in the top of the trees at the furthest end of the woodlot and realized they were all Rusty Blackbirds! This was a life bird for my mother, and a bird I am always happy to see as the population of Rusty Blackbirds has declined sharply over the past 50 years. They are fond of wet, swampy wooded areas with standing water, so any large groups of blackbirds in such habitat during the months of April and October are worth checking out.

We also saw two muskrats were swimming in the water; they must have been plentiful in this wetland given all the lodges, called push-ups, that we saw in the marsh. About half a dozen frogs were lurking in the shallow water at the edge of the marsh as well, and I identified both Bullfrogs and Green Frogs.

Bullfrog

Green Frog

We returned again Sunday late in the afternoon, hoping to get some better photos of the ducks, but they were wary of people and started swimming away as soon as we got out of the car. The only changes among the species present were the addition of a male Blue-winged Teal and the absence of the Gadwall. I heard my first Ruby-crowned Kinglet of the year and found it flitting about the cedar trees between the parking area and the creek.

Our last visit occurred on Tuesday morning, the day I flew home. This time the male Bufflehead and Blue-winged Teal were gone, and we saw two Wood Ducks flying around the marsh at the back. We also heard a Northern Flicker and saw five Yellow-rumped Warblers, two American Tree Sparrows, one junco, and one Ruby-crowned Kinglet. The best bird of that visit was a Brown Thrasher which flew up off the grass and landed in the line of shrubs adjacent to the creek. Although we followed it for a while, I never did get close enough for a photo.

Although a relatively small conservation area, I imagine this place will be exceptionally good during migration for water birds, warblers, vireos, thrushes, flycatchers, sparrows, and other songbird migrants looking for a place to stop and refuel among the large swathes of agricultural fields that cover the county. I ended up with 35 species during my visits – not a bad tally for only a couple of hours of birding in total!

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