The pandemic has been an opportunity to enjoy spring migration at some of our great local birding destinations

The news that all of Ontario’s parks, both provincial and national, would be closed this spring came as a big disappointment. A birding trip to Point Pelee and Rondeau has been a personal rite of spring for more years than I care to remember. The upside, however, has been the challenge of trying to see almost all the same species from close to home. I have not been disappointed.

               Our own backyard trees and feeders have provided uninterrupted entertainment all spring long. At last count, 38 species have shown up since the official start of spring. May 11 was particularly memorable. No fewer than four rose-breasted grosbeaks and two Baltimore orioles arrived and stayed for several days. The grosbeaks gorged themselves on sunflower seeds, while the orioles dined on oranges I’d cut in half and skewered to the metal arms of my feeder pole. They were stunning to watch as the orange of the fruit perfectly matched the plumage of the birds themselves. 

Local hotspots

               I have also made a special effort to visit some of our local birding “hotspots”. On April 18, I checked out Fairbairn Street Wetland, located on the west side of Fairbairn, just north of County Road 19 (Line Road 3). This is always a great spot for marsh birds, and this particular cold spring morning was no exception. Wilson’s snipes were constantly flying high overhead performing their courtship flight display, known as “winnowing”. The outer tail feathers produce a low, pulsing whistle. At the same time, two species of rails – small, almost chicken-like marsh birds – were calling. At least two Virginia rails grunted from the cattails, while a quail-sized sora rail gave its high, squealing “whinny” call.  

               Just the day before, a new bird for Peterborough County had turned up on Preston Road, just west of the city. Initially found by Jalynn Riches, birders from all over southern Ontario flocked to the area to see a spectacular yellow-crowned night-heron – a species that rarely ventures this far north. I headed out to see it on April 19 and, despite less than perfect views, was enthralled by the bird’s rich yellow crown, bold head pattern, and long white plume.

On May 4, I made a quick trip to Mervin Line near the Peterborough Airport where another southern species, the blue-gray gnatcatcher, has been turning up in recent years. Their nasal calls from the silver maples at the Otonabee River end of the road immediately alerted me to their presence. Gnatcatchers are a fixture of both Point Pelee and Rondeau Provincial Park. It was quite something to see them locally.

May 14 took me to Loggerhead Marsh, located on the north side of the corner of Ireland Drive and Denure. This Provincially Significant Wetland is always a good spot for both marsh and upland birds. The reward on this particular day was hearing the subtle “coo-coo-coo” calls of the least bittern, a threatened species in Ontario. Scanning the marsh with my binoculars, I also found a pair of hooded mergansers. A couple of weeks earlier, I had seen green-winged teal here as well as a pair of northern shovelers in an adjacent retention pond.

April and early May sightings, however, are only the warm-up act. Birders wait for the first real warmth of the second and third weeks of May for the main show. Winds from the south and temperatures in the high teens finally arrived last Friday, promising dozens of new migrants returning from their wintering grounds in Latin America and the Caribbean. I decided to check out the Rotary-Greenway Trail between East Bank Drive at Trent University and the 9th Line of Douro. This is one of the most bird-rich destinations in our area thanks to the variety of habitat. A couple of early morning hours on the trail produced no fewer than 49 species, including a pair of green herons and 11 different warblers. If there’s one group of birds that exemplify the wonder and beauty of spring migration, it’s the warblers. Alerted by their songs and then doing my best to get them in the binoculars, I enjoyed first-of-the-year sightings of common yellowthroats, black-and-white, black-throated blue, yellow, and chestnut-sided warblers. Pine warblers sang from the tops of the white pines at Promise Rock, while the loud, emphatic song of a northern waterthrush poured out of the marsh.

Saturday morning took me to Camp Kawartha. Located at 1010 Birchview Road, north of Lakefield, the Camp has a large network of trails on the west side of the road, which wind through open, alvar-like habitat, wetland, and deciduous forest. My two walks along the trails this spring were rewarded by 40 species each time, including numerous field sparrows, Nashville warblers, ruffed grouse, and no fewer than eight eastern towhees. The boisterous “drink-your-teeee” song of the towhee is one of the most distinctive and easily-memorized vocalizations of any bird. Towhees don’t make any attempt to stay hidden, either. Detailed trail interpretive guides can be found on the Camp Kawartha website. If you go, call ahead, or check in first at the camp office.   

Meadowvale Park

Although the birding the two previous mornings had been good, the amount of song was still somewhat limited. This all changed on Sunday morning. Leaving the house at 6:45 am, I headed over to Meadowvale Park, located just to the west of the Rotary Greenway Trail opposite the corner of Frances Stewart Road and Ashdale Crescent. As soon as I got out of the car, the huge increase in song was immediately apparent. The air, too, smelled richer with strong notes of balsam poplar. I spent the first half-hour simply standing near the small bridge over Thompson Creek. I focused my attention on the bare branches of the black locust trees, where a parade of north-bound warblers kept me busy. With the sun behind me, the birds were perfectly illuminated and glowed in their spring finery. Moving constantly as they grabbed an insect here and there were blackburnians, black-throated greens, American redstarts, northern parulas, Tennessee, and yellow warblers. The rising, buzzy song of the parulas never stopped the entire time I was there.

 Moving a little slower than the warblers and coming down low for good views, two blue-headed vireos also caught my attention, showing off their conspicuous eye-ring and bright wing bars. At the same time, “chebek-chebek” notes alerted me to the presence of a nearby least flycatcher. All around me, a wall of song filled the air as orioles, catbirds, robins, song sparrows, warbling vireos, and cardinals added their own voices.

Finally moving on, I followed the well-traveled path westward towards the Otonabee River. Vying for my attention were a northern flicker foraging for ants, cedar waxwings beautifully posed in a high-bush cranberry, gray catbirds and brown thrashers singing their similar songs from exposed perches, and eastern kingbirds calling as they flew low overhead. I couldn’t help but wonder if – just maybe – some of these were the same kingbirds I’d seen in mid-March in Costa Rica where their northward migration had already started. When I got to the river, I was also rewarded by a pair of Caspian terns, their heavy red bills shimmering in the sunlight.

Arriving at a stand of willows where Thompson Creek flows into the Otonabee, more warblers awaited. Willows always seem to attract more than their share of these birds in spring. A beautiful male Cape May with its bright yellow and orange head flitted among the branches with at least a dozen yellow-rumped warblers. The contrasting white, black, and yellow of the male yellow-rumps is such a welcome sight every spring. To top things off, a palm warbler also flew in, pumping its tail in typical fashion.

I completed my loop by heading back over to the rail-trail where the songs of redstarts and yellow warblers seemed to be everywhere. I couldn’t help but wonder if the many joggers, cyclists, and dog walkers had any idea of the plethora of beautiful spring birds that surrounded them. This section of the trail – more or less behind Thomas A. Stewart Secondary School – is always particularly rich in bird life in May and June, as is the entire Rotary-Greenway Trail from London Street up to Lakefield. Two hours and 45 species later, Meadowvale Park was yet another reminder of how good spring birding can be right here in Peterborough.   

Wrapping up the long weekend on Monday, I was also able to find several purple martins and a pair of red-headed woodpeckers on Duncan Line near Keene, and even an orchard oriole at a feeder on Indian Road. These birds of southern Ontario affinity brought my total to 121 species for the spring – each a unique expression of the rich bird diversity we enjoy in the Kawarthas and close to the number you might expect after several days at Pelee and Rondeau. To enjoy spring birding to the fullest, get out early and use your ears as much as your eyes. I also recommend subscribing to where the Resources page will help you get started. 

Climate Crisis News

As the extent of the economic damage caused by COVID-19 becomes clear, a new Canadian task force has been established whose goal is to help seize a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to pursue a green recovery. The 14 members include people like Mitchell Davidson, the former director of policy for Premier Doug Ford. The group wants to focus on projects that can start quickly and fit within larger goals like reducing emissions. Areas for potential action include retrofitting homes and buildings, expanding the production of hydrogen (particularly in Alberta), and providing more federal funding of electric buses.

Drew Monkman

I am a retired teacher, naturalist and writer with a love for all aspects of the natural world, especially as they relate to seasonal change.