Point Pelee

Lesser Scaup

Point Pelee National Park is only about a 75-minute drive from my mother’s new house, so on Easter Monday we got up early and made the trip down. We arrived at the Visitor Center at 9:45 am, and as this was the first time we’d ever been there outside of the Festival of Birds, we were unprepared to find that the center did not open till 10:00, which was the same time that the tram to the tip started running. I was also surprised to see that the non-birders (including families, cyclists, and dog-walkers) out-numbered the birders. Although Point Pelee is a year-round destination for bird watching, I suspect that the number of non-birders was so high due to the holiday, the nice weather (finally!), and the fact that entrance to Canada’s National Parks is free in celebration of our nation’s 150th birthday. Fortunately we only had a short wait before we could get to the tip and start our birding day, and although we were still a few weeks away from the peak of songbird migration, we still managed to find some interesting birds.

A Swamp Sparrow foraging on the ground not far from the tram stop was nice to see, as I rarely see them outside of the cattail marshes that they favour.

Swamp Sparrow

We heard, then saw, a Red-bellied Woodpecker in a tree. It was quite active, flying from tree to tree without staying in any one place for very long.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

There weren’t very many songbirds in the woods, and the only migrants we observed were a couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. The gnatcatchers were not very cooperative at all – I only got a fleeting glimpse of one high up in the trees. We heard an Eastern Towhee, but couldn’t spot it; and a White-breasted Nuthatch was apparently new for my Point Pelee list.

Higher water levels than normal meant there wasn’t much of a tip this year, so we didn’t see any gulls or terns loafing on the sand. A flock of gulls did fly by, but we were unable to determine what they were. The only waterfowl of interest we saw were the usual rafts of scaup, Horned Grebes, and Red-breasted Mergansers. A few were close enough to photograph, so my mom and I spent some time taking photos of the birds in between dives.

Red-breasted Merganser

While the male mergansers were quite handsome, the Horned Grebes were my favourites. We rarely see them so close to shore in their breeding plumage in Ottawa, so I spent my time focusing on them.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

I was also able to photograph a couple groups of scaup that were swimming relatively close to shore. I have a difficult time differentiating between Greater and Lesser Scaup, especially as they are rarely seen close enough to evaluate head shape, the most reliable field mark in separating the two. Those that do venture onto small ponds, like the one at Andrew Haydon Park, tend to be Lesser Scaup; the Greater Scaup prefer larger bodies of water and when they are seen in Ottawa, tend to be much further out on the river where it is difficult to get a good look at the head shape. Thankfully I was able to get some good enough photos to capture the shape of the birds, and as it turns out, I’m not as bad at differentiating these birds as I had thought! I forwarded my photos and thoughts to Jon Ruddy, who was kind enough to confirm my tentative IDs.

Lesser Scaup have a head that is tall and narrow with a peak near the back of the head. This is easier to see on birds that are resting, as the Lesser Scaup will show a notch or corner toward the back of the head. That peak is easy to see in this image:

Lesser Scaup

Greater Scaup have a head that is much more rounded, and the highest point of the head is closer to the forehead. Even the nape of the neck seems rounded, so that both the crown of the head and the back of the neck show a round outward bulge.

Greater Scaup

The shape of the head is distinct on both these ducks, even though they are swimming away.

Greater Scaup

I’ve also heard that head colour can be useful in separating the two scaup; both scaup may show green iridescence on the head and neck in the right light, but the Lesser Scaup may also show purple iridescence, which is never seen on the Greater Scaup. Finally, the amount of barring on the back can be a useful field mark. The barring on the back of the Greater Scaup is narrower than that of the Lesser Scaup, rarely extending onto its white flanks. The Lesser Scaup, on the other hand, has a larger area of barring that frequently extends from its back to the white flanks, giving it a “dirtier” appearance.

After we were finished scouring the tip for birds we headed back up to the tram stop, and I was happy to see a few Barn Swallows checking out their old nesting sites under the roof of the building there. A pair of House Sparrows were also investigating one of the Barn Swallow nests, something I’d never seen before.

Barn Swallow

From there we walked over to the Sparrow Field, where we saw two Hermit Thrushes in the woods just before entering the field. We heard another Eastern Towhee singing, and I heard a House Wren, but we could spot neither bird. A Northern Harrier passing over the field was the best bird of our stop there, making the detour worth it.

We took a quick look at the beach on the eastern side of the peninsula, but didn’t see anything of interest.

The Eastern Shore (click to enlarge)

We ended up walking back to the tram stop mid-way between the Visitor Center and the tip via a seasonal path through the woods. Although the woods were quiet, my step-father Doug managed to spot a Brown Creeper, and we heard a Carolina Wren singing somewhere close to the trail. We were able to catch a brief glimpse of it, which especially pleased me as they are rare in Ottawa. At the tram stop we just missed the tram heading back to the Visitor Center, and during our wait we spotted half a dozen Turkey Vultures heading north, a pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and our first Yellow-rumped Warblers of the day.

We stopped for a quick break at the Visitor Center before heading out again along the Woodland Nature Trail. It was warm enough for a few butterflies to be flying, and I spent some time trying to photograph the Red Admirals. There were quite a few of them throughout the park, though they didn’t always pose nicely for me.

Red Admiral

A few of them were nectaring on the Dutchman’s Breeches, which filled the woods with pretty yellow and white flowers.

Red Admiral

Although the Woodland Nature Trail wasn’t particularly birdy, we tallied 17 species altogether, including two Red-bellied Woodpeckers (heard only), several Downy Woodpeckers, lots of Tree Swallows flitting overhead, another Carolina Wren (heard only), a Hermit Thrush that found a shady spot to hide beneath a fallen tree trunk, another Eastern Towhee (heard only), both Golden- and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Dark-eyed Junco, and one Yellow-rumped Warbler. The best bird of that trail was the pair of Rusty Blackbirds we found ambling along a downed tree trunk along the shore of a slough. Mom pointed them out, but they disappeared too quickly for me to photograph. I hadn’t even noticed them, as they weren’t calling!

As it was getting warmer, the butterflies were very much in evidence. In addition to the numerous Red Admirals, we saw one Cabbage White and a couple of Northern Spring Azures. We also saw a couple of anglewings, and whenever they landed I tried to get a photo of them. The first one turned out to be a Question Mark, a migrant species that I don’t see every year in Ottawa. It has an extra black horizontal mark on the forewing.

Question Mark

The next butterfly I photographed was an Eastern Comma. Like the Question Mark, it appears to be in rough shape as it spent the winter hibernating as an adult.

Eastern Comma

This Gray Comma spent a lot of time nectaring on these pretty wildflowers. Although it resembles the Eastern Comma, note that the hindwings have only two black spots at the top instead of three.

Gray Comma

Gray Comma

It was fantastic seeing so many butterflies out and about and to finally have something different to photograph this season.

Although it was still too early in the season to see a lot of migrating birds, we still found a total of 43 bird species – lower than normal, but still a decent number for a single day’s visit in mid-April. Our previous years’ tallies actually weren’t much higher, due to unfavourable weather conditions: 51 in 2016 (May 1-3), 55 in 2015 (May 11 and 13). While I’m still hoping that one of these years we’ll finally hit the right window for a fallout, a trip to Point Pelee is always worthwhile, as the chances of finding some good birds and southern specialities – such as the gnatcatchers and Carolina Wrens – are better than anywhere else.

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