Friday, 27 March 2020

Visit to Long Point, ON

25 March 2020

     COVID-19 is presenting many challenges to all of us and the degree to which we are affected is predicated somewhat on our lifestyle. If the most important part of your social life is going to movies and getting together with friends at your local restaurant, it is clear that your routine will be negatively impacted in a major way.
     For birders it is not (at least not yet) quite so dire.
     We are lovers of open spaces, and for us areas little affected by humans are cherished places. It is easy to continue doing what we love best, from our own backyard, on a local trail, or further afield to favourite destinations
     The area around Port Rowan/Long Point in Norfolk County, Ontario is the site of one of Canada's oldest bird observatories, and a major hot spot during spring and fall migration. It is significantly positioned for the passage of birds, situated as it is on the north shore of Lake Erie, constituting a magnet for waterfowl, in addition to having substantial forest cover for returning passerines. Long Point proper is in fact a World Biosphere Reserve.

     Miriam and I checked the weather forecast on Tuesday, and with a favourable augury for the following day, decided that an outing to Long Point was in the cards for us.
     Highway 401, going from Windsor on the international border with Detroit, Michigan to the border of Québec and Ontario, is Canada's busiest highway. Under normal condition there is a steady hum of traffic twenty-four hours a day. We have all been reading of lowered pollution levels around the world during the current crisis, with consequent improved air quality, as fewer vehicles are on the road, and international air traffic is virtually at a halt. Witness Canada's busiest artery during a pandemic.

     There was barely a car on the road! Most of the traffic we did see comprised trucks delivering vital commodities across the province and beyond.
     As is our custom, we first checked the harbour at Port Rowan where the most numerous species by far was Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis).

     A couple of pairs were very considerate and came in fairly close to shore to give us at least a chance for a few decent pictures.
     Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) was the most common gull, as is to be expected at this time of the year, and this individual struck a nice pose for the camera.

    Several smaller Bonaparte's Gulls (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) were also present, some beginning to acquire their nuptial hood, but they darted and flitted like agitated dragonflies and photographs were out of the question.
     That most endearing overlord of the marsh, the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoniceus), was present with males singing in defence of territory, warning off all rivals and preparing for the arrival of females.  As a matter of fact, at our next stop we would see our first female of the season.

     The headquarters of Bird Studies Canada (recently renamed simply Birds Canada) is at Port Rowan and there is a viewing area and several trails, always meriting a stop.

     Under normal circumstances it is also provides a welcome washroom opportunity, but under the draconian Coronavirus régime entry to the building was barred and staff were working from home. Miriam was relieved that the icy winds of winter were not blowing!
     The pond at Birds Canada contained a very pleasing array of ducks, but there is a considerable barrier of reeds between the viewing platform and the water, and it is difficult to take photographs. It is also a little beyond the desirable range for suitable picture-taking.The Gadwall (Mareca strepera) below is the best we could do.

     A pair of House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) on the rail presented much better opportunities.

     Just before leaving we spotted this pair again, up on the roof, and they were carrying nesting material. Their pair bond is obviously formed for the season.
     Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) is a hardy species (in fact some individuals stay for the winter) but migrants are among the earliest of species to return, and a male singing from atop a high, visible perch is an iconic feature of spring.

     We moved on to Lee Brown Waterfowl Management Area where the concentration of geese and ducks was impressive, including the presence of a Eurasian Wigeon (Mareca penelope). Again conditions were far from ideal for photography without a large lens, and we had to be content with a few images of birds on land, mainly Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) and American Wigeon.

     In the picture below you can see that a Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) has come to join the others on the emerging grass.

     It was time for lunch and we pulled off a little farther down the road.

     Public access is not permitted to this area but there is a small fenced section where a half dozen or so cars could park. No one joined us today!
     We had a clear line of sight on a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) nest and through the scope could clearly see a bird sitting on it. The picture is far from satisfactory, but you can see the adult on the nest.

     Ironically it was here that one of the best photographic opportunities presented itself when a Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris) perched close by in the open, but by the time Miriam put down her sandwich and reached for her camera, it was gone!
     Driving along the causeway numerous species were in evidence, with Lesser Scaup again predominant. 

     The American Beaver (Castor canadensis) has been justifiably called nature's engineer; it is not intimidated by size!

     Many Redheads (Aythya americana) dotted the water, disappearing from view as they dove for fresh water mussels and other delicacies. In the image below you can see a female Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis) off to the left.

     To assign the definition "song" to the doleful call of the Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) is perhaps a stretch, but effectively that's what it is. Many seemed to have formed pairs and I have little doubt that early nesting is already underway.

     At Old Cut, home to the bird banding station at the Long Point Bird Observatory, careful attention has to be paid to inattentive wildlife.

     Phragmites (European Common Reed) is an invasive species in Ontario that has been wreaking havoc on native ecosystems for decades. It is unknown how it was  first introduced here, but it has spread exponentially. Phragmites australis is aggressive,  and out-competes native plants for water and nutrients. Toxins from the roots are released into the soil, retarding the growth of and killing native vegetation. It is extremely difficult to eliminate, but at Long Point a very serious attempt is being made to eradicate this alien pest.

     I was pleased to note that the University of Waterloo is one of the agencies involved in the eradication project.
     American Coot (Fulica americana) was quite plentiful in a couple of areas.

     A couple of Bald Eagles were spotted nearby and the presence of the coots was doubtless not unknown to them. The coots had better beware lest one or two of them becomes eagle prey.
     Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) were spotted here and there, but this individual was the closest to shore.

     Before leaving we revisited the pond at Birds Canada, approaching it from the rear, but all the ducks there during our morning visit had departed.  We managed a farewell shot of the headquarters, however.

     As was the case on the way down, the return journey along Highway 401 was eerily devoid of traffic. 

     This may be my most enduring memory of COVID-19!

All species: Canada Goose, Mute Swan, Tundra Swan, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Eurasian Wigeon, American Wigeon, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Canvasback, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Hooded Merganser, Common Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Turkey Vulture, Northern Harrier, Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, American Coot, Sandhill Crane, Killdeer, Bonaparte's Gull, Ring-billed Gull, American Herring Gull, Mourning Dove, American Kestrel, Blue Jay, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, Horned Lark, Common Starling, American Robin, House Sparrow, House Finch, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, Song Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, Northern Cardinal.  Total: 45 species.

Saturday, 21 March 2020

Red-winged Blackbird in the manner of Arthur Cleveland Bent

     A while ago I wrote a piece (here) drawing on the very pleasing, whimsical style of Arthur Cleveland Bent, and I thought that I would try it again. It is fun to do!

Red-winged Blackbird

     A male Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) is a jaunty, handsome fellow, full of confidence and bravado.

     His attire is splendid glossy black, with crimson epaulettes bordered with creamy yellow. A sharply conical bill is diagnostic in this species.
     As soon as he arrives back at the marshes in spring he immediately establishes a territory which he vigorously defends against all comers, both physically and vocally, his robust burble-eee song, resonating across the cattails. He is awaiting the arrival of the females, the objects of his ardour, to which he will become consort to several if the fates are kind.
     She is beautiful in her own way, with bold stripes and hints of suffused colour like delicate blush applied judiciously.

     Oh how anxiously he awaits her arrival!
     He postures and displays, showing his finery, all the while cajoling with his voice, hoping to incite her to a mating frenzy immediately she lights upon the scene.

     She does not remain immune to these entreaties and succumbs readily to his charms.

     Does she realize, however, that he is a charlatan, a veritable Casanova, bent on seducing others also? 

     She throws caution to the wind and accepts his tryst, brief though it is, and whether imbued with ecstasy or not we will never know.

     Males who are especially fit may enjoy intimate association with as many as fifteen other females, most of whom will receive no parental assistance from these ostentatious philanderers, and will be left to their own devices to raise their young. Sadly some of them will be incapable of dealing with single parenthood and will be unsuccessful, sometimes abandoning their nestlings.

     Many females, however, will deem turnabout to be fair play and solicit copulations from other males, especially strong, virile individuals able to furnish superior genes for the next generation. 
     The world of Red-winged Blackbirds is a steamy affair - not unlike human activity for that matter. Do not be confused by the demure demeanour of the female - whether bird or human!

     If all goes well the female will construct a nest, woven into cattail stalks, with little or no assistance from the male, especially if she is a subordinate female, and three or four eggs will be laid.

      The male, all the while engaged in amorous adventures with other females, will defend the territory of his harem against all comers, not fearing to attack intruders such as crows, hawks, or humans who stray too close.
     The female alone incubates the eggs for up to thirteen days following which the young hatch.

     This signals a very busy time for the maternal parent who provisions the young herself and may be constantly observed ferrying food back to the nest. While the food of adult birds consists primarily of seeds, grain and fruit, the young require protein and fat so caterpillars, spiders and arthropods are on the menu.

     Hungry mouths are clamouring to be fed; are these voracious children never  satiated?

          A mother's work is never done!

     Once the breeding season is over Red-winged Blackbirds join together in flocks, roosting at night in cattail marshes. Then numerous flocks join together, especially on their winter quarters following migration, sometimes numbering in the millions, and often including Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula), Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) and Common Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). 
     The Red-winged Blackbird has been studied at length, being the most abundant passerine in North America. For many its arrival on its breeding territory marks the true beginning of spring. For me that is certainly so. To hear the first one is to rejoice in being alive. Long may they grace our wetlands.

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Visit to Algonquin Provincial Park - 14, 15 March 2020

Leader: David Gascoigne

Participants: Miriam Bauman, Franc Gorenc, Carol Gorenc, Judy Wyatt, Jim Huffman, Francine Gilbert, Andrew Cudmore, Caroline Cudmore, Steve West, Anne Godlewski

Saturday 14 March 2020

     Last year for one reason or another we missed having our weekend in Algonquin and I know that both Miriam and I regretted not having enjoyed our late winter getaway there. And so it was that I organized a venture north this year.
     Originally we were sixteen people, but Kayla and Jonah cancelled due to concerns associated with the Coronavirus, Andrew and Lorraine had issues with their dog that prevented them from coming, and Mary simply decided not to join us.
    Irene Pobojewski at Spring Lake Resort was, as always, the model of friendly cooperation and even though her season does not normally start until May, she opened up rooms for us, and permitted us to use the dining room for our pot luck dinner. Part of the pleasure of this venture is to see her friendly face and enjoy her welcoming attitude.

     Those of us arriving from southwestern Ontario met at Spring Lakes Resort to check in and get our room keys (other than for Anne and Steve who inexplicably were just leaving home in Woodstock when we were almost at our destination), and Caroline and Andrew met us at the Spruce Bog Trail at the eastern end of the park, since they were arriving from Ottawa.
     The temperature was mild for the time of year, hovering around zero and at times nudging above that mark.

     The sky looked a little threatening at one point, but the dark clouds blew over and the day was benign and quite splendid.

     Three species are normally prone to feed from the hand - Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis), Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) and Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis), and I was hopeful!

     An American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) wasted no time taking advantage of a free breakfast set out on the rail. 

     The Spruce Bog Trail was not especially productive and we moved over to the Visitor Centre. 

     Unfortunately, the Visitor Centre had closed just the day before our arrival due to the dreaded COVID-19 virus.

     We were disappointed since it is always a great spot to eat lunch and have access to the facilities, in addition to enjoying the activity at the bird feeders; so we had to content ourselves with eating in our vehicles in the parking lot. It's just around that bend, past the snow!

     Fortified by lunch we walked around to the back of the Visitor Centre, where several Evening Grosbeaks (Hesperiphona vespertina) were to be found.

     A few Two-barred (White-winged) Crossbills (Loxia leucoptera) were also present and this female even remained in one spot long enough for Miriam to get a picture.

     Our next stop was at the Opeongo Road, which over the fifty or so years I have been visiting the park, has been my most productive area. Our group was primed and ready for action!

     Chickadees were all around, displaying a gentle curiosity, knowing that friendly humans bring food. Caroline was happy to have this one land on her hand.

     It was not long before Canada Jays (recently renamed from Grey Jay - yippee!) were all around us, elegantly landing in trees and shrubs, eyeing outstretched hands for the best snack.

     The Algonquin population is the most studied cohort of Canada Jays anywhere and the coloured leg bands permit tracking of individual birds. 
     They really are entrancing creatures.

     To hand feed one is a pleasure not to be missed.

     Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) were also plentiful although none were as confiding as the Canada Jays.

     As we drove back along the Opeongo Road we noticed evidence of a spring thaw in several locations.

     Our final stop for the day was at the Logging Museum near to the east gate.

     A Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) had been wandering around in this location during our last visit, but none was seen this time.
     Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) had been hard at work.

      As was true everywhere Black-capped Chickadees were our constant, and very agreeable, companions.

     For the first time ever I did the whole circuit at the logging museum and found it very interesting. Tom Thompson a renowned Canadian artist, met an untimely death by drowning at the age of thirty-nine on Canoe Lake, just before the vaunted Group of Seven was formed. Some of his works covered the logging activities of the day and reproductions are featured on one of the exhibits.

     As we were meandering back to our vehicles we were joined by Anne and Steve, but our explorations were over for the day and we had a forty-five minute drive back to Spring Lakes to get ready for dinner.
     We had a wonderful selection of food, most of which is not visible in the only picture we have, but I can assure you that no one left the table hungry, nor less than delighted with the great variety.

     By way of introduction, on the left side of the table - Anne, Caroline, Judy, Carol, Andrew, Miriam at the end, then coming back along the right side, Franc, Jim and Steve.
     I have no doubt that everyone slept well; I know that Miriam and I did. It had been a great day in the outdoors, a fine birding experience and good company. You can't really ask for much better than that.

Sunday 15 March 2020

     We all gathered in Judy's room where she had prepared breakfast for everyone. There was all the hot coffee you could drink, cinnamon buns and the best Morning Glory muffins anywhere. Caroline brought a fresh fruit salad and Anne had some of her outstanding homemade cheese, so we all left well fortified. We are indebted to Judy for taking on this task.
     It was quite a bit colder than the previous day, with the temperature at minus eleven when we left Spring Lake Resort, but it was sunny, we were deep into the rugged Canadian Shield, frozen lakes sparkled in the sun, and it was nothing short of glorious. It was a time to feel thankful to live where we do. For me, there is nothing quite as satisfying, that sense of truly belonging to a place, a sense of identity, a wellspring of appreciation.

Spring Lake at Sunrise

     As we meandered down the road crossbills and Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus) were flying around with some feeding on grit and minerals at the side of the road, managing to fly up before being hit by oncoming traffic.     

Pine Siskin

      One of the species we always hope to see at Algonquin is Spruce Grouse (Falcipennis canadensis), an uncommon breeding resident, never easy to find, and on our previous three trips as a group we have not been successful. 
     Thanks to Franc, today was the exception. Not only was a bird feeding high above us, it was a splendid male. 

     It is redundant to say that everyone was delighted with this sighting; for most of the group it was their first encounter ever.
     Hairy Woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus) seemed to be in a particularly friendly mood, and both male and female were observed at close range.

     A Red-breasted Nuthatch was pretty cooperative too.

     It looks like some are huddled against the cold.

     A female Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) came to feed in the same area as the Hairy Woodpeckers, enabling everyone to see the difference in size between the two species.

     And yet another male Hairy Woodpecker put in an appearance.

     Miriam decided to rest for a moment, and is either giving the royal wave or dismissing us all out of hand!

     The trail meandered through the wooded area, where our boots crunched on the snow.

     Finally it was out onto the wide expanse of the spruce bog and back into the forest at the other side. Within a couple of months we will be looking for Moose (Alces alces) at this location.

     A stop at the Visitor Centre yielded a Red Crossbill drinking with a small group of Pine Siskins.

     At the rear we saw the same species we had seen the previous day, but Anne and Steve had not been with us then, so it gave them the opportunity to catch up.
     A final visit to Opeongo Road resulted in another extravaganza with the Canada Jays, every bit as enjoyable as before.

    And yet another Hairy Woodpecker put on a show for us.

    By now it was time to head for home and we all bade each other farewell, happy to have enjoyed a great weekend in Ontario's near north. I am sure we will do it again next year. Surely by then COVID-19 will be but a distant memory!