Friday, May 31, 2013

Pelee Island Part 2

Please read part 1 first:

Pelee Island is unique in Ontario due to the fact that it has not one but two peninsulas to concentrate migrant birds, one each facing north and south. During our time on the island we found two notably rare birds, one at each location.

At the southwestern corner of the island is one of the coolest spots I've been in Ontario: Fish Point. A rich dense forest carpeted with wildflowers like the Appendaged Waterleaf in the picture above extends south until it abruptly ends at a bare sand spit over a kilometre long. When taking the picture above I was most likely the southernmost person on land in Canada!

Large numbers of shorebirds, gulls, terns, cormorants and herons can often be found roosting on the spit. We did not find much scanning these flocks multiple times each day, but Short-billed Dowitcher and Ruddy Turnstone were present.

Given the nice weather and late date we were present, it was not surprising that the woods at Fish Point were essentially devoid of migrant landbirds. Still, we saw quite a few birds at the point due to the phenomenon of reverse migration. Reverse migration involves a large variety of birds, mainly migrant songbirds, flying south off the tip of places like Point Pelee and Fish Point on spring mornings. As far as I know this seemingly counter-productive behavior has not been fully explained, but that does not stop many birders from enjoying it! We did not experience any major reverse migration events, but still ended up with a few hundred birds flying south, mainly blackbirds, European Starlings, Indigo Buntings, Eastern Kingbirds, Cedar Waxwings, Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles.

On our second morning, I noticed a small group of kingbirds flying out of the southernmost group of trees and over our heads. I put my binoculars up and shouted "That one's a Western!!". The looks weren't great however, and we weren't able to confirm anything more than a Western/Cassin's Kingbird, although both are very rare birds. Luckily, about half an hour later it came back and we were able to get great looks as it flew out over the lake again. This Western Kingbird was the bird of the trip and of the spring for both of us!

In stark contrast, Lighthouse Point on the northeastern corner of the island was alive with migrants, mainly Blackpoll Warblers, Red-eyed Vireos and all 5 species of Empidonax flycatcher including the Yellow-bellied above. While picking through a great flock of warblers at the extreme north end of the point out popped this beauty:

Although not nearly as rare as a Western Kingbird, this female Summer Tanager was still a very exciting find.

We also saw a number of interesting birds apparently on territory, including a Prothonotary Warbler, a Hooded Warbler, a White-eyed Vireo and 2 probable Yellow-breasted Chat heard. Pelee Island is the southernmost part of Canada and it shows, with all these species being very exciting even as far south as Toronto.

We spent much of our time in habitat like the above, and were amazed at the number of cuckoos around. I wish now that I had kept track of exact numbers, but I estimate we heard 20 Black-billed and 15 Yellow-billed on our final day and over 60 cuckoos in total for the whole trip. Still, cuckoos are very secretive birds and we only saw a single individual of each species.

This Common Grackle was kind enough to clean up after us at the campsite.

There are no Gray Squirrels on Pelee Island and the Fox Squirrels introduced from further south fulfill the same role. It doesn't take long to get blasé about these large, colourful squirrels.

This is the end of what I want to share from Pelee Island. It was an incredible trip, probably the best few days I've had in Ontario!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Pelee Island Part 1

At the western end of Lake Erie is an archipelago of islands, and the biggest and only accessible island on the Canadian side is Pelee Island. Due to its location, the island is probably the most unique spot in Ontario for flora and fauna. This, combined with with its excellent location and topography as a stopover for migrant birds make it an extremely attractive destination.

After I was done at Rondeau on May 20, I drove to Leamington and picked up Peter Mills, my friend and coworker from Algonquin Park, for nearly 3 full days of hardcore nature geeking on the island. We had an incredible time. Here are some of the highlights, photographic and otherwise. I'm splitting the trip into two posts in a rather arbitrary fashion, although this post is mostly snakes and butterflies while the next will mainly involve birds (including a couple nice rarities, so stay tuned!)

Eastern Fox Snakes are reasonably common on the island, and we were happy to find this medium sized individual on the rocks along the shore. This was the first snake of any species we found after arriving, and one of 4 Fox Snakes we would see. 

The rocky shorelines favoured by this species also seemed to be a favourite of three species of Swallowtail butterflies that were drinking from the puddles.

This is a Giant Swallowtail, Ontario's largest butterfly.

Along with the Swallowtails, this American Snout was the highlight of the butterflies seen. The caterpillars of both these species feed on trees much more widespread in extreme Southwestern Ontario (Hackberry for the Snout and Hop Tree and Prickly Ash for the Swallowtail), and so are found in limited numbers farther north.

In my 21 days in Southwestern Ontario I did not see a single Monarch butterfly. There have been incredibly few sightings so far this month despite good weather, with only 3 I've heard of in Ontario. A stormy fall migration and logging on the Monarch's wintering grounds in Mexico seem to be to blame for the low numbers. Hopefully it's just a short term trend. I'll certainly be appreciating Monarchs a lot more this summer.

I want to skip back to snakes now, and for good reason. The first Europeans to visit the area called the archipelago something like "The Snake Islands" due to the abundance of the reptiles (I read this in the Island Museum and can't remember the exact name). Although development has greatly reduced numbers and diversity, the abundance of snakes on Pelee Island is still very impressive.

The most frequently seen snake is the Lake Erie Water Snake. This species has an extremely limited range but reaches impressive densities in this area where we regularly had five or more in view at once basking on shoreline rocks or sticking their heads out of the water like miniature Loch Ness Monsters. 

At one point as we walked along the shoreline we startled a Water Snake that was holding onto this Round Goby, which it immediately released as it escaped into the water. This introduced fish is exceedingly abundant in the Great Lakes and now constitutes over 90% of Lake Erie Water Snake diets.

The rock shorelines preferred by the water snakes were also favoured by a number of shorebirds including Sanderling. Although this aptly named little sandpiper is usually found on sandy beaches, a few were picking at whatever the waves were washing up on the rock. This picture depicts this species' characteristic constant movement.

That's it for this post but there's much more to come both from Pelee Island and Rondeau!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Rondeau Rewards

I have rather limited time and internet access, but I wanted to put up a quick post about what I've been doing. Only a couple photos, but I'll post more in the weeks to come.

Quality over quantity has been the theme for birding recently. Migration has been incredibly slow until the past couple days, and now the hot weather is making finding anything hard work after about 9:00 am. Still, there have been plenty of cool birds around, including Western Kingbird, Acadian Flycatcher, Summer Tanager, Yellow-throated, Worm-eating, Cerulean and Golden-winged Warbler and Yellow-breasted Chat. I can only call it a highlight now that the weather has warmed up, but thousands of swallows struggling in strong winds and near-freezing temperatures at Blenheim Sewage Lagoons was interesting.

The wildflowers are absolutely spectacular in the park. The diversity and density is far in excess of anywhere else I've seen and they certainly provide some diversion on the slow afternoons. I've rarely spent much time with the spring wildflowers that coincide with peak bird migration, so the slow birding isn't totally a bad thing.

Insects have been slow to emerge with the unseasonably cold weather, but I've had a number of butterflies including an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. No dragonflies besides the migratory Green Darner yet, but I'm hoping to find the first local emergences this afternoon.

That's all I can do for right now but here's a couple shots of some incredibly confiding Dunlin at Blenheim Sewage Lagoons.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Loving the Lifer Life

My time in Southwestern Ontario is certainly paying off. Despite very limited numbers of migrant songbirds and warm weather keeping the birds from being very active, I have had seven lifers in the past five days. Lifer is a term used by birders to refer to a species they have never seen before, although I extend the definition to well-defined hybrids and subspecies as well as mammals, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies and odonates. So, in no particular order, here is some background on my seven lifers.

Golden-winged and Blue-winged Warblers frequently hybridise and create fertile hybrids. Occasionally, certain combinations of hybrids and backcrosses will show both the yellow body of Blue-winged and the chickadee-like face pattern of Golden-winged to create the rare and stunning Lawrence’s warbler. One was reported on the 4th, and as I had never seen one, I soon headed over to the spot. Within about 10 minutes I spotted the exquisite male Lawrence’s feeding low beside the path. Everybody present soon had excellent looks as it fed in plain view, including hopping on the road for a little bit, although I only got this one poor photo. 

Saturday evening just about half an hour before dusk I headed over to an opening in the forest with some brush piles. I ended up spending an hour there in perfect still conditions and warm temperatures. It was one of those perfect moments - there was nowhere else I'd rather be and nothing else I'd rather be doing. 

My lifer Red Bat started flying around soon after I got there with just enough light to identify it. A male Hooded Warbler foraged in the brush right in front of me as Wood Thrushes sang from several locations. As the sky darkened Spring Peepers started to call and American Woodcocks displayed overhead. To top it off, my first Whip-poor-will of the year sang a few times. 

I did not get any pictures of the Red Bat then, but today someone pointed one out roosting in a small bush right beside a trail! This is probably my favourite sighting so far this month.

It's slightly embarrassing, but I'd never actually seen a Five-lined Skink before. A friend who is doing research in the park showed me some spots for them, and we ended up seeing five, including a nice bright juvenile. 

Two beautiful shorebirds were lifers for me this week. Wilson's Phalarope are quite regular at the right spots in Ontario, but I have never been to the right spot at the right time, so I was very excited to get great looks at a pair at Blenheim Sewage Lagoons. This species is interesting in that, unlike nearly all birds, the female are much brighter than the males, and the males take on the roles of incubating and raising young. This pattern is found in a few other shorebirds including the common Spotted Sandpiper.

Female on left

The other shorebird lifer is much rarer. Yesterday afternoon 3 Black-necked Stilts were reported at Hillman Marsh near Point Pelee. I had no plans that evening and there were very few birds around Rondeau so I decided to drive down and see them. When I got there, the stilts had not been seen recently, but soon 2 were found and the many birders on site got great looks, although you can't tell from the pictures I got.

Here is what they are supposed to look like. I believe this is the 17th record for Ontario. On the way back from Hillman I had a European Hare run across the road. This species has been introduced into Ontario for hunting. A lifer, but hardly a very exciting one.

My final lifer (last for this blog post, but actually seen within hours of my arrival at the park) was much more exciting. I was inside the visitor centre at Rondeau when somebody came in to say that there was a rare butterfly outside. When I stepped out Blake Mann was looking at a White-M Hairstreak! This was not something I expected whatsoever. I was able to see the incredibly iridescent blue upperside of this rare butterfly when it flew after sitting on a fence post for about five minutes. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet attempted to snag it out of the air, but the butterfly seemingly escaped unscathed. Unfortunately I did not have a memory card in my camera, but Blake will probably post some photos on his blog

Certainly a great few days after an excessively long winter!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

May Day

It's the first day of May, and the start of a month of great birding and five months of great natural activity. Tomorrow I head to Rondeau Provincial Park where I'll be leading birding hikes for much of May, and I'm very excited! For now, here's a few recent sightings from Mississauga and Etobicoke:

This Red-tailed Hawk was not happy about the American Crow dive-bombing it shortly after dawn this morning. Although crows mobbing hawks is a common sight, I've never seen a hawk quite so agitated.

Unlike the rest of our tiger beetles, Six-spotted Tiger Beetle is common in a diverse array of habitats, including open woods and this suburban lawn. 

 I've now seen nine species of warblers this spring, including two individuals of the distinctly un-warbler-like Ovenbird. Unlike many songbirds, the Ovenbird walks instead of hops along the ground.

 Mourning Cloaks are still the only butterfly I've seen this year, but a number of other species should be present soon if they aren't already.

The forest floor is now covered in the blooms of wildflowers, including the White Trout Lily, much less common in Ontario than the Yellow Trout Lily.

Many insects, including this wasp, have been enjoying the flowers of Marsh Marigold.