Weather in April can be described in only one way: changeable. It can turn from spring to summer to winter in the matter of hours, making it difficult to know how to dress any given day – you may need a hat and gloves in the morning, then be wearing shorts in the afternoon. Even the weather toward the end of the month can be variable. Last Thursday (April 27th) Ottawa’s temperature reached a sunny, humid high of 26°C; yesterday (April 30th) the rain clouds moved in and temperatures barely reached 5°C.
Migrants have been returning in large numbers despite the inconstant weather. On Friday I woke up to see two White-crowned Sparrows on my backyard, and they were there again Sunday morning. This was a year bird for me, and the earliest date I’ve recorded them in my yard; normally they arrive during the first week of May, with my previous early date being May 4th.
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.
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.
On Saturday, April 30th I took the train to Kitchener to visit my mother and step-father, and on Sunday, May 1st we drove down to Point Pelee. We weren’t able to check in at the Best Western just outside of the park until the afternoon, so we headed to the Tip as soon as we arrived at 11:00. The weather was not cooperative – it was cold and overcast, with the same north winds I’d experienced in Ottawa. North winds in May are never good for migration; birds trying to fly across the Great Lakes will stay on the south side of the lakes until the winds shift from out of the south, giving them a boost across the water. Of course, north winds could also mean that any birds already in the park would likely stick around before continuing north, but this did not seem to be the case.
We got up early on Monday, May 11th for our day at Point Pelee. While we were paying at the kiosk we were told there were two good birds present: a Prothonotary Warbler and a Kirtland’s Warbler. I had seen the rare bird alert for the Kirtland’s Warbler the day before, and was happy to hear it was still around. I had never seen one before (unlike the Prothonotary Warbler) so it would be a lifer for me if I found it. Fortunately, this was easy to do. We took the tram to the Tip and after we had gotten off the shuttle, I came across a group of people who said it was being seen along the footpath that parallels the western beach. I told my mother and step-father and off we went. After about a 10 minute hike with numerous people coming the other way assuring us “it was still there – just look for the crowd of people”, we found a huge throng of people gathered in a tight group. At the center of all the attention, no more than six feet away from the edge of the path, was the female Kirtland’s Warbler.
The marsh that runs west from Moodie Drive to the area behind the Nortel campus is usually productive for a variety of breeding birds in the warmer months of the year. I visited the area again on the morning of June 22nd, still hoping to see or hear the Sedge Wrens that had taken up residence there. Two Savannah Sparrows were singing in the field south of the parking area, and a number of Tree and Barn Swallows were flying overhead as I made my way down the path that skirts the edge of the marsh. I saw a Northern Flicker, two Purple Finches, an American Redstart, and heard several Warbling Vireos, Song Sparrows, and a single Willow Flycatcher.
Now that June has arrived migration is dwindling to a close and the breeding season has begun in earnest. I spent some time at Hurdman Park at lunch on both Monday and Friday, eager to see what new birds have arrived and whether any migrants were still moving through. On Monday, June 2nd I found the first Yellow Warblers, American Redstarts, Gray Catbirds and Red-eyed Vireos singing on territory. At least five Warbling Vireos, a Least Flycatcher and Eastern Kingbird were also present, and I heard an Eastern Wood-pewee singing in the woods close to Highway 417….the first one I’ve ever heard at Hurdman. It was likely a migrant, as pewees prefer wooded areas that are not adjacent to human habitation, and the woods at Hurdman are a small forest oasis in the middle of a bustling city. Not surprisingly, I didn’t hear the pewee on my visit on Friday or any other subsequent visit.