The number of herons hunting at the ponds has also increased lately, which is typical this time of year as the birds disperse from their breeding grounds to look for good feeding areas. At least two Great Blue Herons, two Great Egrets, and three Black-crowned Night Herons are around; I haven’t seen any Green Herons yet so far, but expect they will show up shortly. Because there are so many herons here, and because they perch and feed out in the open, they make excellent targets of study; I shouldn’t be surprised that they are starting to draw the attention of local photographers. I ran into one this weekend specifically to photograph the egrets and herons; doubtless there are others.
By late May songbird migration has just passed its peak, and while most of the expected species have arrived back in our region, there is still a possibility of seeing something new. I headed out to the Eagleson Storm Water Ponds early on the morning of Saturday, May 26, hoping for something just as awesome as the Olive-sided Flycatcher or the Blackburnian Warbler I’d seen on May 21, but not really expecting much. Indeed, there were fewer songbirds than I was hoping for, with only three warbler species (Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, and Yellow Warbler), a singing Purple Finch, and a singing Red-eyed Vireo, all of which are common local breeders in our region. There were no unexpected flycatchers, grosbeaks, tanagers, wrens, mimids or other migrating species stopping over briefly at the ponds before continuing their journey elsewhere.
I wasn’t expecting any new shorebirds to show up, but when I arrived at the central pond and scanned the edges, I was shocked to hear the plaintive whistle of a plover and see a group of black and white birds on the far side of the channel. I got as close as I could and counted eight Black-bellied Plovers scattered in the muck – four males in near-pristine breeding plumage, three presumed females whose juvenile appearance was belied by the darkening bellies and faces, and one indeterminate bird in non-breeding plumage.
This is only the second time I’ve seen this species at the ponds – the first time was on September 18, 2016, when I’d watched a juvenile bird fly in and land on the mudflats shortly before a flock of 39 (!!!) Killdeer flew in and immediately engulfed the plover. Spring sightings, however, are much less common, as water levels in our region are generally still too high to provide the extensive mudflats that attract most plovers and shorebirds. Conditions at the ponds have been good, however, as water levels are controlled less by runoff from melting snow and more by the amount of rainfall our area receives – we’ve only had one day of rainfall over 20 mm since the beginning of April, and a handful of days where the rainfall totaled more than 10 mm. As a result, the mucky pond edges and developing mudflats have attracted a good number shorebirds this spring, including Least Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers, Greater Yellowlegs, and the usual Killdeer and Spotted Sandpipers.
I took a few photos, but the distance and overcast conditions didn’t do these birds justice. I was surprised by how frequently they called, until I realized that they seemed bothered by the number of people walking along the trail above them. Whenever someone jogged past, they hustled off just a little further away, giving their whistled calls. I guess the amount of human activity proved to be too much, for they were gone by the time I circled back.
The Black-bellied Plover is one of my favourite shorebirds, and one that I don’t see too often. It is the largest of the North American plovers, and with its black face and belly, white headdress, and sharp black-and-white checkerboard pattern on its back, definitely one of our most striking. As it breeds in the Arctic tundra, migration is the only time we see this species; look for Black-bellied Plovers on mudflats, beaches, or in plowed fields.