Shorebirding at Presqu’ile Provincial Park

Baird’s Sandpiper

On August 26th I joined Eastern Ontario Birding’s trip to Presqu’ile Provincial Park. The owner of EOB, Jon, is a friend of mine and got more than he bargained for when he agreed to pick me up at 5:30 am – as soon as he pulled up in front of my house a police car pulled up beside him to ask if he knew anything about a complaint that had been called in. Jon told the officer he was there to pick up a friend to go birding, and the police officer told him that he believed him (the eBird sticker on his car probably hadn’t gone unnoticed, and lent credibility to his statement). The police car drove off just as I was heading out the door, but we saw it stop with two other cruisers on Grassy Plains. Emerald Meadows is a quiet neighbourhood, and I certainly didn’t hear anything at 4:30 in the morning, but it made for a strange start to the day.

The rest of the trip was nice and quiet. We picked up one other person before taking Highway 7 down to Belleville, which was a much more relaxed and scenic drive than the busy Highway 401. Jon said that this route takes 50 km off the trip, with only about 10 or 15 minutes added due to the slower speed limit and the necessity of passing through towns such as Tweed and Kaladar. However, this gave us more places to stop than the limited On Route gas and restaurant mega-stations for coffee and bathroom breaks. We saw one Green Heron, several Great Blue Herons, one Red-tailed Hawk, and a flyby cuckoo on the way. We also stopped to check out a dead juvenile Broad-winged Hawk on the side of the road. Too many birds and animals lose their lives to vehicle collisions – the large number of dead squirrels, skunks, and unrecognizable squished things I saw on the trip was heart-breaking.

We arrived in the park at about 9:00 and met three other people for a total of six people in our group. Our targets were mostly shorebirds, including the large flock of 30+ Baird’s Sandpipers and a Red Knot that had been seen the day before, so we started the day off at the beaches.

Lake Ontario

Our first stop at the main public beach, which I had always bypassed on my previous trips. At that early hour only a single park worker was present, though he had just finished grooming the beach and was driving off as we arrived. Despite the sterile, pristine appearance of the large swath of sand reserved for public use, a large flock of gulls was roosting together in a tight group. The flock was composed mostly of Herring and Ring-billed Gulls, and among them we found about 10 Caspian Terns and a single juvenile Bonaparte’s Gull. The longer we watched, the more birds flew in, aided by the strong southwesterly wind that was ushering in threatening-looking clouds. More Caspian Terns and a single Common Tern were among these new arrivals.

Ring-billed Gull

We drove to the next beach lookout, number three, which is not for public use, and is roped off to prevent people from disturbing the birds. There is nothing preventing people from walking up the beach, however, and indeed two separate groups of people started walking from the public beach toward Owen Point. Fortunately they climbed over the rope barrier to use the main public trail within the woods, rather than disturbing the birds further, but not before the second group startled the birds foraging in front of us.

The lookout area was very small – only three people using scopes could fit comfortably in front of the rope. I knelt down to use my binoculars and camera, as did the only other female member of our group. Right away we saw a Spotted Sandpiper foraging along the water’s edge. A small group of shorebirds was working their way toward us, and Jon was excited to count 10 Baird’s Sandpipers comprising a single flock. In Ottawa, Baird’s Sandpipers aren’t common, and are usually found as single individuals in a mixed flock of other “peeps”. It is highly uncommon to see a flock of these birds with no other species mixed in. We had fantastic views of the fresh-looking juveniles, and then another group of shorebirds flew in, increasing the number of Baird’s Sandpiers to 20! A single Least Sandpiper and a Semipalmated Plover were also present, and it was a treat to see the Least Sandpiper (our smallest shorebird) side-by-side with the Baird’s Sandpipers.

Baird’s Sandpiper

Baird’s Sandpiper

After the flock flushed, we didn’t have to wait long before more groups flew in from further along the beach. The newest arrivals included Sanderlings and a Ruddy Turnstone still in full adult plumage! These birds are quite unique in appearance, and really stand out among a large group of birds. They are also larger than the peeps, making them easy to spot in a crowd.

Sanderling

We spent a long time there before walking up to Owen Point, noticing a couple of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds flying out over the water while waiting for the shorebirds to move closer. The walk produced very few songbirds, but the number of sandpipers at Owen Point more than made up for the lack of passerines. The sheer number and variety of shorebirds was astounding, though the majority of the flock was made up of Semipalmated Sandpipers. A good number of Baird’s and Least Sandpipers also were present, as were Semipalmated Plovers, a smaller relative of the Killdeer (we saw no Killdeer on the beach, as they prefer a different sort of habitat).

Semipalmated Plover

The Red Knot reported yesterday was still there, hanging out on the point with a Spotted Sandpiper, a few Sanderlings, another Ruddy Turnstone, and a Black-bellied Plover. A White-rumped Sandpiper was busy foraging in a small natural lagoon, noticeable because of its larger size and grayer appearance.

Red Knot

Red Knot and Ruddy Turnstone

Black-bellied Plover

A few of the birds were attempting to sleep on the gravel surface, but most were actively foraging in the water while small waves rolled in beneath them – a few of them appeared to be gleaning food from the water’s surface. The Semipalmated Sandpipers in particular were an antagonistic group, bowing close to the ground with their tails pointed up in the air in an aggressive display whenever another bird got too close – and indeed, the birds that ignored this warning posture were chased away from the area.

Then Jon called out that he thought he had a Western Sandpiper, a small peep that looks like a Semipalmated Sandpiper but breeds along the northwestern Alaska coast. It winters along both the eastern and western coasts of the United States, so small numbers often migrate across the North American continent and turn up as vagrants along the shores of lakes and rivers of eastern Canada. It can be differentiated from the Semipalmated Sandpiper by its longer, tapered bill and a rusty red patch on the scapular feathers. Indeed, both features were highly visible as the Western Sandpiper worked its way toward us. Of course it was just coming into range of my camera’s 60x zoom when a pair of Peregrine Falcons flew over, causing almost the entire flock to flush. Some of the birds flew over to Gull Island, while the others circled around before landing again. We were not able to relocate the bird, and as our stomachs were growling, we decided it was time for lunch.

Western Sandpiper

The Western Sandpiper was a lifer for me, bringing my life list up to 509 species. I wasn’t expecting it, but was thrilled with the find. It was one of the highlights of the trip, particularly since our afternoon tour of the park turned up few migrating passerine species. I have never gone to the lighthouse area without finding flocks of warblers and vireos in the trees there, but it was very quiet that afternoon…perhaps it was a little too windy. We tried pishing for a Carolina Wren that had been reported there previously to no avail.

A short walk followed by a drive over to the Calf Pasture produced two small flocks of migrants, including Blackburnian, Nashville, Yellow and Yellow-rumped Warblers. I also heard a single Common Yellowthroat chipping from the vegetation near the Calf Pasture parking area. In the open fields of the pasture itself Jon found a couple of flycatchers, including three Olive-sided Flycatchers! They must be having a good year for I’ve now seen about half a dozen of them altogether, when I usually don’t see any.

Altogether the shorebirding was excellent, producing more species than I usually see in one day in Ottawa, though the passerines were tough to find. I was sad to leave the park, as it truly is a fantastic place in the late summer. However, one of our best sightings occurred outside of the park. Just outside of Tweed we saw our first flock Common Nighthawks swirling high above a field as they hunted for insects in the late afternoon. There were about a dozen of them, and as we continued east on Highway 7 we saw several additional flocks, including one of at least 20 individual birds! Common Nighthawks, like most of our aerial insectivores, are declining in population – possibly because insect numbers are also decreasing. It was a real treat to see so many of them on our drive; we estimate at least 75 individuals between Tweed and Carleton Place.

We also saw some fantastic insects during our trip, but those will follow in my next post!

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