The Wetlands of Southern Ontario

Blanding’s Turtle

We headed out of the park to eat a late lunch in Leamington (nothing along Point Pelee Drive was open on Easter Sunday) and then returned to the marsh boardwalk as our final stop in the park. It was a bit cool out on the water, but it was great to see several Barn and Tree Swallows swooping over the observation platform. As usual, there were lots of Red-winged Blackbirds and grackles, but unlike other years we saw no warblers or small migrants in the trees adjacent to the parking lot. Six Turkey Vultures and one Double-crested Cormorant flew over, and we heard two Song Sparrows and three Swamp Sparrows. We also saw two Herring Gulls land on a small clump of dirt in the marsh – this was the first time I’d seen this species at this location. Common Yellowthroats hadn’t returned yet, so we didn’t hear their rolling “witchity, witchity, witchity” song in the cattails.

Red-winged Blackbirds were the only birds that were willing to pose for our cameras. This one landed on the boardwalk railing in front of us, and kept walking away from us as we kept walking toward it. Eventually it landed in a small shrub next to the boardwalk as we passed.

Red-winged Blackbird

Someone pointed out a Snapping Turtle swimming below the water’s surface next to the boardwalk; we watched it swim back and forth a couple of times, and didn’t even notice the dead fish floating on the water until the turtle decided to make a meal out of it.

Snapping Turtle

Snapping Turtles are omnivorous; their diet includes aquatic plants, fresh carrion, fish, frogs, insects, crustaceans, snakes, small turtles, ducks, other aquatic birds, and any small animals that they can catch. Snapping Turtles swallow small items whole, but use their foreclaws to rip apart larger food while holding it in the mouth. Feeding usually occurs underwater, and rarely on land. As almost 90% of their diet consists of dead animal and plant matter, this species helps keep lakes and wetlands clean by consuming anything edible. Although their vision is poor, they have a keen sense of smell, which probably helps it to locate dead animal matter. After taking a few chunks out of the fish, the Snapping Turtle eventually carried the rest of it deeper into the water to finish it.

Snapping Turtle

A little further along we saw the usual solitary American Coot in the water in the center of the boardwalk loop, and spotted this Red-winged Blackbird on the boardwalk itself. It had a single white tail feather; I wasn’t able to get a photo until it flew down into the marsh.

Red-winged Blackbird

The best sighting at the marsh was this Blanding’s Turtle basking in the sun. I so seldom see this species that any sighting is cause for joy; the bright yellow chin and domed shell give it a unique appearance among Ontario’s turtle species. Unfortunately, like all of Ontario’s turtles except the Painted Turtle, it is considered threatened. One of the reasons why this species is at risk is that females cannot reproduce until they reach their teens or twenties – as very few eggs that are laid develop into mature turtles, the death of any breeding female can be detrimental to the health of the population.

Blanding’s Turtle

Once we reached the northern portion of the boardwalk we saw the extensive burnt area from the fire on March 29th. Although initially believed to be natural, new evidence has led Leamington Fire Services to reclassify the cause as ‘undetermined’ while the investigation continues. The reasons behind the classification change have not been made public, and the investigation could take anywhere from days to months to complete. While fires are usually seen as destructive by us humans, they can be beneficial to ecosystems by burning off a build-up of dead plant matter, promoting new growth, and restoring diversity. Loss of life is always a concern when fires rage out of control; however, this fire occurred early enough in the spring that few birds have returned or started nesting.

Point Pelee Marsh

Altogether 125 hectares were burned, and it was scary to see just how close the fire came to the marsh boardwalk.

Point Pelee Marsh

Although we didn’t see a great variety of birds, we still enjoyed our walk at the marsh boardwalk, mainly because of the turtles. It’s not often we get such great, close-up views of a Snapping Turtle devouring a fish, and it was fascinating to see.

From there we headed over to Hillman Marsh, and although I hadn’t brought my scope, we still managed to see 25 species. A Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs were foraging fairly close to the path, and three Lesser Scaup, a Horned Grebe, and a Ruddy Duck were swimming near the viewing blind. Further out we could see lots of Blue- and Green-winged Teal, Northern Shovelers, Dunlin, Bonaparte’s Gulls, and three Great Egrets. I spied one Forster’s Tern and three Caspian Terns roosting in the marsh, and saw what might have been a Bald Eagle fly over. Several Tree Swallows were flitting through the air, and the dark belly of one bird flying among them could only be a Purple Martin. Two Sandhill Cranes and two Rusty Blackbirds were also heard.

We didn’t spend much time there as we didn’t have a scope to check out the distant ducks and smaller shorebirds, but once again we found ourselves entranced by something other than birds when we heard at least 10 or 15 American Toads giving their shrill, monotonous trills from the edge of the water. With luck we were able to spot several of them with their throats puffed out:

American Toad

American Toad

Although I’ve heard many toads calling in the spring, this was the first time I’d seen them, and I was thrilled that there were so many of them. They were much easier to see than the smaller Chorus Frogs I’ve tried to photograph in vain so many times.

We visited two other wetlands during my time in southern Ontario. Neither was as good as Hillman Marsh, but we still saw some interesting birds.

On April 16, 2017, a cold, overcast and windy day, we drove over to the Saint Clair National Wildlife Area. We had visited it once on a trip several years ago, and I don’t recall anything particularly interesting about it (though it doesn’t help that I wasn’t using eBird back then, either). This time we tallied 22 species, including four Mute Swans, one Ring-necked Duck, three Bufflehead, and at least three Pied-billed Grebes calling from different sections of the marsh.

Mute Swan

I heard a distant American Bittern calling, as well as a Marsh Wren that was much closer. Several Swamp Sparrows were singing, and Red-winged Blackbirds were everywhere. The best birds of our visit were two pairs of Sandhill Cranes calling in the distance and all the American Coots – there were at least 30 that we could see. Most of them were too far away to photograph, but this one was nice and close – until it saw us and started swimming away.

American Coot

The last wetland we visited in Chatham-Kent was the Roberta Steward Wetland near the end of Langstaff Line. This small wetland was converted from farmland to wetland by Ducks Unlimited in 2004, restoring the original marsh habitat that was drained for farm use the mid-1900s. It is a good spot to see shorebirds and gulls when the water levels are low, and work has been ongoing to maintain it as prime habitat for wildlife.

Because it’s so small – a brisk walk around the pond would take all of 15 minutes if one wasn’t stopping to look at wildlife – it appears to be more of a spot to spend half an hour before heading somewhere more exciting. There were a few large trees north of the pond that looked promising for migrating kinglets and warblers, and the catttail-lined Snye River that separates mainland Ontario from Walpole Island seemed prime habitat for marsh birds. We saw neither, tallying only 14 species on our first visit there after spending 45 minutes walking around and taking in the sights. The first bird we noticed was a Mute Swan sitting on a nest on the island. Later, a second swan flew in and switched places with the one on the nest so that the first swan could feed.

Mute Swan

A pair of Forster’s Terns flew over, and about 10 Ring-billed Gulls were walking along the mucky edges or flying over to Walpole Island. We only saw two species of shorebirds, a Killdeer and a Spotted Sandpiper. eBird marked the Spotted Sandpiper as rare, so I’m guessing this is still early for them. The only other water birds we saw were three Blue-winged Teals and a Double-crested Cormorant flying over.

Blue-winged Teal

We didn’t see any interesting songbirds, but it was fun to watch more than a dozen Tree Swallows swarming over the water.

We returned on Tuesday so my mother could get a picture of the swan on the nest. Both Mute Swans were still there, and this time we saw an American Wigeon, a mallard, a Green-winged Teal, three Greater Yellowlegs, and one Lesser Yellowlegs. A Bonaparte’s Gull sitting on the island was a nice surprise.

Bonaparte’s Gull

We didn’t stay long as it was cold and windy, and there appeared to be no new songbird migrants around.

Wetlands in southern Ontario have become increasingly rare in the latter half of the 20th century as most have been filled and developed for human use, but it is great to see so many areas being conserved. Although we were there a bit too early to see many marsh birds, I enjoyed the ones we did see. Hillman Marsh is always a fantastic place to visit, and was definitely my favourite wetland of the visit.


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