The St. Clair River connects the upper and lower Great Lakes and separates Ontario from Michigan. There are numerous small parks and lookouts along the river that can be used for picnicking, camping, or river-watching. Although most of the parks consist of manicured lawns with a few trees here and there, the chief attraction here for birders is the thousands of ducks, gulls and other migratory waterfowl that congregate here in the winter and during migration, in particular Common Goldeneyes, Redheads, and Canvasbacks. We took a drive from Port Lambton up past Sombra on my first morning in southern Ontario, crossing over into Lambton County as we stopped at some of these parks and giving me the opportunity to fill in one more county on my eBird profile page.
There weren’t very many waterfowl species at our first stop – just three Canada Geese, a Mute Swan, and 10 Bufflehead ducks. The Buffleheads – unlike those on the Ottawa River – were relatively close to shore.
There were, however, several gulls and terns flying around the dock, and we were captivated by the Forster’s Terns there. Eight of them were perching on the posts or actively hunting for fish close to the shore; I spent about 20 minutes trying to photograph them.
Terns can be difficult to identify. Fortunately, we had two good clues as to their identity even before we started delving into plumage details. The first was their voice: the short, harsh, and snappy calls of the Forster’s Terns sound a lot like a Bonaparte’s Gulls, while Common Terns frequently give a long, descending “keeee-yaaaaar” call. The second was the time of year: Forster’s Terns arrive slightly earlier than Common Terns, and are much more common in April than Common Terns; as such, eBird listed Common Terns as “rare”.
Bill colour is often used to help differentiate Common Terns from Forster’s Terns – the former has a darker, reddish-orange bill while the latter has a lighter orange bill. This was difficult to discern in the gray, overcast light, so the next feature to look at is the colour of the wing feathers. The Common Tern has much darker primary feathers than the Forster’s Tern, whose wings appear a paler shade of gray.
Another difference between these two species is the leg length. Common Terns have shorter legs than Forster’s Terns, though this is somewhat subjective and is best used when comparing mixed flocks of roosting terns.
Finally, the tail is also a useful field mark: the outer tail feathers of Common Tern are partially black, compared to the pure white tail feathers of the Forster’s Tern; this is something that is most easily seen in birds in flight. In addition, Forster’s Terns have tails that extend beyond the wingtips, while in Common Terns the wingtips extend beyond the shorter tail.
After taking my fill of photos of the terns, I turned my attention to a brown swallow that was resting on the railing, taking a few photos to confirm its identity. The all-brown face and smudgy brown breast indicate that it is a Northern Rough-winged Swallow, another first of the year!
It later flew to an overhead wire where I was able to get closer (though the overcast sky didn’t make for the nicest of backgrounds).
A Bonaparte’s Gull flew in and landed on a post, looking handsome with its crisp black hood. In Ottawa, we usually see these gulls late in the summer along the Ottawa River during post-breeding dispersal, though most of them are immature birds that lack the black hood.
While I was snapping photos of the gulls a Forster’s Tern flew in and decided that the gull was in its spot. The gull didn’t want to give it up that easily.
Our next stop wasn’t as productive, although we did see a Common Loon, two Bufflehead, and a flock of 16 Red-breasted Mergansers. Two mature males and one sub-adult male were bobbing their heads and bowing low in the water to try to impress the ladies – however, the females were having none of it, and ignored the males as they took turns diving for fish.
A little further up the road we came across two Double-crested Cormorants and a trio of Ruddy Ducks – there wasn’t a park here, so we pulled over to the side of the road to watch them. Just beyond that was Cathcart Park, perhaps our most interesting stop. It was a larger park, and in half an hour we tallied 22 species, including a single Canvasback (a great sight given how uncommon they are in Ottawa), two Common Goldeneyes, 40 Red-breasted Mergansers, five Common Mergansers, two Forster’s Terns, an Eastern Phoebe, two White-breasted Nuthatches, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler. That was also our last stop along the river as it was past lunch time and we were famished. I really wanted a photo of the Canvasback, but it was really too far out.
The sun came out on my last day in Wallaceburg, so after checking eBird and the Sydenham Field Naturalists’ website, I suggested that we try the McKeough Dam and Diversion Conservation Area. It certainly sounded promising for woodland birds: “Near the dam are woodlots providing nesting and feeding sites for a wide variety of birds. Some nesting birds include chickadees, thrashers, hawks, owls and woodpeckers.” The main conservation area consisted of a large grassy floodway channel that protects the town of Wallaceburg. We found the trailhead at the end of the parking lot, heading away from the dam; the first bird I heard when I got out of the car was a Field Sparrow, which was not surprising given all the open fields in the area. Although the grass channel and treed berms were described as “excellent wildlife habitat” we actually didn’t see much there.
A pair of Red-tailed Hawks flew over, and at least ten Turkey Vultures were taking advantage of the gorgeous day to fly north. We saw three Northern Flickers, a Brown-headed Cowbird, and heard an Eastern Towhee singing across the wide grassy channel.
We didn’t see the woodlot until the trail circled back to the road. The road cuts through the forest, but we didn’t see any trails leading in. We heard a Tufted Titmouse singing and saw a Hermit Thrush just inside the woods, as well as all kinds of Bloodroot growing at the edge of the woods.
When we returned to the entrance to the conservation area we found two Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet; at the parking lot itself we found three chickadees, which are apparently uncommon in this part of province (I didn’t see any in Chatham-Kent, and these were the only ones I saw in Lambton County except for the one at our next stop). A second-year Bald Eagle flying over the dam was the most exciting bird of our visit.
On our way home we passed yet another conservation area, the Reid Conservation Area. One of the newest conservation areas in the region, the description sounded promising: a 170-acre property consisting of deciduous forest with almost 4 km of Sydenham River shoreline and a wetland contained within an ancient oxbow valley. Unfortunately the trails were full of deep, muddy puddles and we weren’t able to get too far without boots. The woods were very quiet, and we only tallied four species altogether: Turkey Vulture, Black-capped Chickadee, Song Sparrow, and Red-winged Blackbird. I was hoping for more, but perhaps it was too early in the migration season and too late in the day for much to be around. It definitely seems like a place worth checking during migration for warblers, thrushes, flycatchers, orioles and more!
Altogether I tallied 44 species in Lambton County. The birding along the St. Clair River was my favourite part, though I imagine that the time of year makes all the difference. It was great to see all the ducks and terns and even the Mute Swans on the water, and the woodlots show great promise. I would like to return again, perhaps in the summer or during migration, and seeing what else Lambton County has to offer.
My trip to southern Ontario lasted three days and incorporated three counties, and during that time we saw or heard 83 different species. My favourites were the Sandhill Cranes, though we didn’t see any, as well as the Carolina Wren, Northern Harriers, Rusty Blackbirds, Redheads, Canvasback, Bald Eagle, American Coots, and Tufted Titmouse. Still, by the end of the trip I found myself missing the mixed deciduous-coniferous forests of Ottawa, and couldn’t wait to get back home to see what migration had brought in.