Usually the first two weeks of April are a slog to get through – it still looks and feels like March, cold north winds and long spells of rain manage to out-compete the longed-for southerly winds and warm, sunny days, and although migration should be well under way, it takes forever for the next spate of migrants to arrive. Then one day it happens: you realize the snow is finally all gone, the ponds are ice-free, the buds on the trees look ready to burst open, and your neighbourhood Chipping Sparrows are back and singing right outside your window. The temperatures are finally reaching double-digits on a daily basis, and there are new birds moving in! The second half (well, the last third, really) of April is when the birding really picks up and it really begins to feel like spring. This truly is the beginning of my favourite time of year; here are a few of the things that make birding in late April so wonderful.
Wallaceburg is in Chatham-Kent, but Lambton County is just a ten-minute drive away from my mother’s house. I didn’t realize this when Mom suggested we go birding north along the St. Clair River; although I am not a huge county lister, the new eBird profile pages are great incentive for birding across county lines. The profile pages provide you with a coloured map of all the countries, provinces, states and counties where you have birded, the colours shading from yellow to red depending on the number of species seen, and there is something about seeing all those empty white spaces (much like a Sudoku puzzle) that creates a festering need to fill them in.
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.
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.
I haven’t been blogging as much this winter for a simple reason: I haven’t been going out as much. It’s been a strange winter since January ended, with warm rainy spells interspersed with snowstorms and bitterly cold temperatures. The weather on the weekends hasn’t been conducive for getting out; this is the second weekend in a row that morning temperatures have started in the double negative digits with a windchill bringing the temperature below -20°C. I am so sick and tired of the winter that I just can’t do the cold any more. And if it isn’t the cold, it’s the snow, or else I haven’t been feeling well.
I’ve never been to Nova Scotia in the fall before, but as my fiancé Doran was planning on driving down to attend the Hal-Con Sci Fi convention in Halifax from November 4-6 I decided to join him. We left on Wednesday, November 2nd and spent the night in Edmunston as usual; I didn’t see anything really interesting until the next day while we were somewhere between Moncton and the Nova Scotia border. We were driving past a watery, marshy area next to the road when I spotted a couple of shorebirds, including what looked like a yellowlegs in flight, and a red fox slinking along the ground! Between the Nova Scotia border and Truro we saw a dark hawk with a white tail and white wing-tips hovering above the grassy shoulder of the highway. My best guess is dark morph Rough-legged Hawk, though it’s difficult to really process any field marks when driving at 115km/h. Doran noticed the Ring-necked Pheasant on the side of the road; that was the only other good bird we saw on the drive to the city.
My goal was to do some local birding while Doran attended Hal-Con – he has his own booth promoting his company, Whitefire Comics, and normally attends ComicCon in Ottawa every year but wanted to do something different this year. On Friday morning after helping set up his booth I went for a walk around the downtown area. First I checked out the waterfront area, which has its own eBird hotspot, though only 47 species have been recorded there. I thought I might see some loons, mergansers, or Common Eiders and was disappointed – the only birds I saw on the water were gulls. However, I did get Ring-billed Gull for my Nova Scotia list, so at least the visit was productive. The only other birds present were Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, and European Starlings.
Although migration continues to progress, I haven’t seen as many late-season migrants as I had hoped. Still, there have been a few highlights during the last week of the month, including the arrival of some of our winter birds.
I headed out to Shirley’s Bay on Sunday, October 23rd, but the wind was so cold and blustery that I didn’t spend much time there. I saw a Merlin perching in a tree along Rifle Road and found my first Snow Buntings of the fall picking their way along the shore. There were only two of them, and they flushed when a couple of photographers got too close – I don’t think they even realized they were there. They may have been trying to get close to a Common Loon swimming fairly close to shore, unremarkable in its gray winter plumage.
Waterfowl are starting to move through our area in good numbers now, so on Saturday afternoon I headed out for a walk around the storm water ponds to see if anything new was around. I chose a late afternoon visit to check on the geese there – they are usually heading out to the corn fields by the time I get there in the morning, so I was hoping to catch them returning for the night – bringing with them, I hoped, some other interesting species. I’ve had both Snow Goose and Cackling Goose there in the past, and I didn’t think it was out of the question for a Greater White-fronted Goose to stop in. It was a warm but windy afternoon, so I was also hoping to see a few late-season butterflies.