Jun 022016
 

When we debarked from the shuttle that takes birders out to the tip of Point Pelee National Park, it was clear that something was up. Hundreds of people lined the trail along the west beach, fully engrossed by the activity around them. Birds were everywhere – on the ground, flitting about in trees and shrubs, and even perched out in the open. I had never seen so many smiling faces in my life. Decades ago, birders would say that there are days at Pelee when the birds are “dripping from the trees”. Now, for the first time ever, we were witnessing one of these days ourselves.

In addition to large numbers of white-crowned and white-throated sparrows, most of the migrants were warblers, a group highly coveted by birders in the spring. The variety of species and sheer number of individuals was overwhelming. Just in our section of the trail, there were dozens each of Cape May, black-throated green, northern parula, American redstart, chestnut-sided, palm and blackburnian – just to name the most abundant. It was a veritable feast for the eyes. The majority were males, adorned in the stunning yellows, oranges and reds of spring plumage. Many of the birds moved through in waves, sometimes making their way northward up the tip but then changing direction and heading back out towards the lake. At times, it was hard to know where to look, especially since people were continually yelling out rare species. I could simply focus my binoculars on a given branch only metres away and the birds would move through my field of vision. They paid no attention to the awe-struck crowd, but were strictly focused on gorging themselves on the midges that swarmed in and around the vegetation. When we turned our attention skyward, other species streamed by overhead. The oohs and awes were loudest when a red-headed woodpecker, followed by six eastern bluebirds, flew by.

All I could hear were superlatives: “The best morning in decades!” ….”This is amazing!” …”C’est incroyable!” Everywhere, there was a constant  clicking of cameras. I can only imagine some of the stellar images that must have been captured. Despite the excitement, there was no pushing or shoving, even as people rushed by to catch a glimpse of a rarity like a Cerulean or Canada warbler. As birders always do, people helped each other locate and identify the birds. After three hours of uninterrupted action and suddenly aware of our aching necks and shoulders, we finally headed back to the visitor centre, thrilled with having tallied no less than 20 warbler species, not to mention numerous flycatchers, kinglets, gnatcatchers and others.

Prothonotary Warbler - Greg Piasetzki

Prothonotary Warbler – Greg Piasetzki

Over coffee and muffins provided by the Friends of Point Pelee, people shared theories as to why this amazing “fallout” of birds had occurred. Up until that morning, birding had been quite slow. So, what had changed? It seems that winds from the south had materialized the evening before, allowing a huge backlog of birds on the Ohio side of Lake Erie to finally head northward. Sometime in the early morning hours, however, the winds had changed to the northeast and, not able to fly against the strong headwind, the thousands of migrants descended en masse on the first land available – the tip of Point Pelee.

Over the four days at Pelee and one day at Rondeau Provincial Park, we tallied no less than 140 species, ranging from the warblers described above to large numbers of avian gems like scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, black-bellied plovers, and both Baltimore and orchard orioles. We were also treated to a great horned owl nest containing three very inquisitive owlets. Close-up views of more than 100 short-billed dowitchers were a real treat, as well.

Short-billed Dowitchers - Blenheim Sewage Lagoon - May 12, 2016 Drew Monkman

Short-billed Dowitchers – Blenheim Sewage Lagoon near Rondeau Provincial Park – May 12, 2016 Drew Monkman

Bearing witness each year to the wonder of spring migration provides a tangible sense of the change of season and a profound feeling of reverence. How can you not be amazed at tiny songbirds that have used solar and magnetic orienteering to fly from the rainforests of Central and South America all the way to Canada? It is no less than an affirmation of life itself and the wonder of evolution.

 Baxter Creek

You don’t have to travel all the way to southwestern Ontario to enjoy the birds of spring. The Kawarthas offers numerous locations to enjoy rich birdlife. Upon my return, a friend and I spent an especially pleasant morning walking the Baxter Creek Trail, which is part of the Millbrook Valley Trails system, located on the edge of Millbrook. The first birds we saw were arctic-bound lesser yellowlegs and pectoral sandpipers that were feeding in the shallows of the millpond. As we watched, we could hear the shrill whistles of an Osprey soaring overhead and the clattering rattle of a belted kingfisher.

Osprey - June 18-19, 2016 - Lower Buckhorn Lake - Robin Blake

Osprey – June 18-19, 2016 – Lower Buckhorn Lake – Robin Blake

Black-throated green warblers, winter wrens and a wood thrush were singing in the deeply shaded cedar forest at the trailhead. Together with the rays of sunlight streaming through gaps in the canopy, the songs created a cathedral-like ambience. An exquisite patch of red trilliums in full bloom enhanced the feeling of connection with the natural world. The trail then winds through rich wetland where the voices of yellow warblers and common yellowthroats competed with beautiful marsh marigolds for our attention. We also had great views of a male rose-breasted grosbeak pouring out its robin-like phrases from the top of a giant black willow. Some birders remember the song as “a robin that has taken voice lessons.” As crazy as it sounds, memory aids like this really work. Other birds of note heard or seen along the trail that morning included great crested flycatcher, black-and-white warbler and eastern kingbird. Spring azure butterflies were also quite common. Shaded pools along the creek make a great place to sit and simply soak in the tranquility of the area. After the walk, we stopped for a great lunch at the Pastry Peddler on King Street in the village.

Algonquin Park

Savoring the rich diversity of May nature is not complete without a trip to Algonquin Park. I fell in love with the park on my very first visit in September of 1964 when my father took me on three-day canoe trip. I still remember the stunning leaves at peak colour and the schools of brook trout in the Crow River. Doug Sadler, a well-known local naturalist, writer and mentor to many young birders in the Peterborough area, also came along and helped me to identify my first-ever gray jay – a huge thrill for a twelve year-old.

So, when our friends Mike and Sonja Barker invited Michelle and I up to their campsite at the Lake of Two Rivers Campground last week, we jumped at the opportunity. Their site overlooked a wetland that was alive with bird and beaver activity. Algonquin’s signature sound – the high clear whistle of the white-throated sparrow (“Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada”) – was everywhere. The highlight of the visit, however, was riding the Old Railway Bike Trail from Lake of Two Rivers to Cache Lake. The trail follows the abandoned bed of the historic Ottawa, Arnprior, and Parry Sound Railway and winds through a variety of different habitats such as open field, coniferous forest and wetland. Only metres down the trail, the strangely gentle tapping of a woodpecker caught my attention. Sure enough, a beautiful male black-backed woodpecker was flaking bark off a red pine, only a couple of metres above our heads. The all-black back and alluring yellow crown make it quite different from any other woodpecker.

White-throated Sparrow - Karl Egressy

White-throated Sparrow – Karl Egressy

Riding along the trail through thick stands of fragrant balsam fir, we stopped to take pictures of a remnant block of ice, hidden away in a rocky crag. Our attention was also drawn to numerous patches of trailing arbutus, which was still in bloom and smelled wonderful. At least 10 species of warblers were singing along the trail including the Tennessee, a bird of the boreal forest that reaches the southern edge of its breeding range in Algonquin Park. Another highlight was an olive-sided flycatcher that Mike heard calling (“quick, three beers!”) from a huge marsh we passed through. The trail crosses the scenic Madawaska River in several locations where we stopped to admire the many shades of green on the distant hills. Because Algonquin Park is so much higher in elevation than the Kawarthas, most of the trees were just coming into leaf. Some, like bigtooth aspen were still leafless. The trail is flat along its entire length and has numerous interpretive signs. There are even washrooms at the Cache Lake end.

The next day, we walked the Beaver Pond Trail, which is an easy two kilometre loop offering excellent views of two beaver ponds and a classic beaver dam. The free guidebook at the trailhead provides an introduction to Algonquin’s fascinating beaver pond ecology. Before leaving the Park, we also stopped by the Visitor Centre, which has one of the best nature bookstores in all of Canada. There are also interactive exhibits on the Park’s human and natural history.

View from lookout on Beaver Pond Trail - Drew Monkman

View from lookout on Beaver Pond Trail – Drew Monkman

I feel so fortunate this year to have been able to get out and enjoy so much of what May has to offer. Although it’s hard to talk of a favourite month, for anyone who takes pleasure in watching the seasons unfold, May has no equal. And, by the way, June is pretty good too!

May 222014
 

 

There are few better places to enjoy the beauty of a southern Ontario spring than the woodland trails of Rondeau Provincial Park. Winding through Carolinian forests blanketed with ferns and spring wildflowers, the trails routinely provide close-up views of some of our most spectacular birds. This year, the honours went to the Prothonotary Warbler. On two different occasions, we watched this rare Ontario species only metres away as it searched for food on the flooded forest floor of the Tulip Tree Trail. Its brilliant orange-yellow head and blue-gray wings produced a non-stop chorus of oohs and awes from the appreciative birders. Photographers had a field day as they clicked off one stunning picture after another.

Prothonotary Warbler - Greg Piasetzki

Prothonotary Warbler – Greg Piasetzki

Last week, Jim Cashmore, Mitch Brownstein, Greg Piasetzki and I made our annual pilgrimage to the southern Ontario birding meccas of Rondeau Provincial Park and Point Pelee National Park. These two wooded peninsulas that jut out into Lake Erie concentrate thousands of migrant birds in the spring. For anyone wanting to see North America’s most spectacular spring migrants – Scarlet Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles, Red-breasted Grosbeaks and more than two dozen species of warbler – a trip, Rondeau and Pelee is a must.

The birding this year was good with an almost constant parade of interesting species to be seen. Cool temperatures and winds from the north meant that many migrants lingered in the parks for several days instead of immediately pursuing their journey northward. The cool weather also meant that the leaves were not yet out, so seeing the birds was easier than it is some years. Thrushes and flycatchers were present in especially good numbers, as were Scarlet Tanagers. There was also an ample selection of warblers, ranging from early migrants like Yellow-rumped and Palm to species that tend to arrive later such as the Canada and Mourning warblers. By week’s end, we had managed to find about 130 different kinds of birds, 25 of which were warblers.

For many birders, spring birding is very much about sound. By focusing your attention on bird song, you get an almost instantaneous picture of the diversity of species around you as well as the number of individual birds. This past week, the dominant voices included Baltimore Orioles, Yellow Warblers, House Wrens and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. Not quite as common, but calling at least every couple of minutes were Least Flycatchers, Eastern Wood‑pewees, Eastern Towhees, Tree Swallows, Wood Thrushes, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Magnolia Warblers. The challenge, however, is to coax your brain to push these more common sounds into the background, so that the voices of less common species can be detected.

Many iconic bird sounds belong to the night. Just after sunset one evening, we drove over to a field across from the Rondeau visitors centre. As we rolled down the car windows, the peenting calls of American Woodcocks stood out clearly against a background chorus of Spring Peepers. Almost immediately, we saw one of several woodcocks launch itself into the air, its wings producing a quivering sound as it gained altitude. Soon, we could see its silhouette against the pale pink light of the darkening sky – an iconic image of spring nights that I never tire of seeing. But that wasn’t all. Moments later, a Common Nighthawk flew by, coursing over the field like a giant moth and making a rasping nasal buzz. Finally, the quintessential species of spring and summer nights added its voice to the mix as we drove down to the South Point Trail. Even with the car windows up, it was impossible to miss the loud, repetitive call of the Whip-poor-will.

Ovenbird - Greg Piasetzki

Ovenbird – Greg Piasetzki

 

Point Pelee

On Wednesday morning, we decided to make the one-hour drive west to Point Pelee. Like Rondeau, Pelee is home to Ontario’s Carolinian forest, a habitat type that has almost disappeared from the province. The Pelee woods are dominated by Hackberry Trees and vines such as Wild Grape, Virginia Creeper and Poison Ivy. In May, the forest floor is a carpet of Sweet Cicely, Wild Columbine and Wild Geranium. As you can imagine, the air smells wonderful.

Having four pairs of eyes proved to be very handy this particular morning. Even at the parking lot, a constant parade of thrushes, orioles, warblers and tanagers moved past us, flying quickly from tree to tree and often at eye level. We eventually made our way out to the tip area and joined the throng of birders already there. Standing shoulder to shoulder on the boardwalk, we were immersed in a see of binoculars, scopes and colossal cameras. The somewhat crowded conditions were soon forgotten, however, thanks to the constant bird activity. Over the next couple of hours, we added a variety of new warblers such as the Blackpoll and Cape May, the Philadelphia Vireo and both Black-billed and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. We also ran into two other Peterborough birders, namely Jerry Ball and Clayton Vardy. Jerry had been at Pelee for two weeks and had seen no less than 208 species, while Clayton was already up to 24 warbler species for the day!

Wood Thrush - Greg Piasetzki

Wood Thrush – Greg Piasetzki

After taking a break at the park visitors centre – there are naturalists on hand to answer questions, a great bookstore and the Friends of Point Pelee provide a delicious hot lunch – we walked the Tilden’s Woods trail and a section of the park where a Kentucky Warbler had been seen. Although we didn’t find the Kentucky, large numbers of other warblers made up for its absence, including one flock with at least four Northern Parulas. We wrapped up the day with a trip north of Point Pelee to Hillman Marsh to see ducks, gulls and shorebirds. The highlights there were a Red-necked Phalarope and a Willet.

Despite the rather crowded conditions on some of the trails at Pelee, respect for the birds and courtesy for fellow birders are always very noticeable. Rarely do people speak in a loud voice or push their way past others. Most birders are ready to help beginners with identification problems, as well, and to share the location of sought-after species. However, it is hard not to notice that there are very few young people. The vast majority of birders we see each year are probably 60 or older. Because birders ‑ and naturalists in general ‑ are usually committed conservationists who represent a strong voice for the protection of species and wild spaces , one cannot help but wonder what the lack of younger people means for the future.

Thursday was cold and wet, so rather than spending the day at Rondeau, we drove north to Mitchell’s Bay on Lake St. Clair. The marsh here is well known for a small colony of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, a species usually not found in Ontario. For a photographer like Greg, this outrageously coloured blackbird made for a delightful subject. The six males we found were anything but shy, as they focused all of their attention on courting the half-hidden females. The raucous wail the males made could only be described as something between a braying donkey and a piercing chainsaw. On our way back to the Park, we stopped at the Blenheim sewage lagoon, where we were greeted by the remarkable sight of thousands of swallows coursing over the lagoons and nearby fields as they snatched up tiny flies called midges. The lagoons also offered up Ruddy Ducks, Bobolinks, Savannah Sparrows and Eastern Meadowlarks, all of which are hard to find in this part of the province.

Yellow-headed Blackbird - Greg Piasetzki

Yellow-headed Blackbird – Greg Piasetzki

By week’s end, the greater number of female warblers – females migrate later than males – and the arrival of late migrants such as the Eastern Wood-pewee and Mourning Warbler were signs that spring’s passage of northbound birds is drawing to a close. The season of migration is now giving way to the season of nesting. However, the change of season holds the promise of bountiful young birds that will commence their own journey – southward this time – in just a few short months.