Thursday, March 21, 2013

Waterfowl Weekend 2013

We still have snow in southern Ontario and winter doesn't seem to want to end, but the spring migration is upon us. The red-winged blackbirds are back and singing next to the pond in my backyard. The geese are flying and there seems to be a lot more birds around. Some of the earliest birds to return to our area (or pass through anyway) are waterfowl. Hence, "Waterfowl Weekend"  was being held at Presqu'ile Provincial Park this past week.

The park is reported to be a major staging area for waterfowl headed north and hundreds, if not thousands, of ducks, geese, and swans sometimes gather there in mid-March. This sounded like something I had to see but I really didn't want to go down to Lake Ontario all by myself (as my kids and wife are still sojourning in Montreal). I decided it was time for a lab "field trip" and recruited three somewhat interested members of my lab: Charlotte, Keunyea, and Beth. I should mention the initial reluctance of Keunyea to go on the daytrip because she claims to be quite fearful of birds, so I assured her it would be okay as the birds would be well out on the lake and there would be no chance of any close encounters. 

We all met up at my house early Saturday morning to drive down to the park and headed off to see what birds we would find. While this was sold as a "field trip", it was actually a bird watching adventure and I suggested we keep track of all of the bird species we would see over the course of the day. Leaving my house, we immediately saw a red-winged blackbird (#1) and then quickly saw an American crow (#2), starling (#3), Canada goose (#4) and mourning dove (#5), and common grackle (#6) on our drive. Nothing exciting, but a good start!

Presqu'ile is about a 45 minute drive from my place and it's through the rolling countryside mixed with woods. The park sits on the lake shore and encompasses a peninsula such that it covers several diverse environments including a long beach, a rocky shore line, and a large wetland/marsh complex. A great place to see birds in general especially during the spring migration. The excitement was quite tangible as we drove into the park. 

Our first stop was the beach where you can take a trail out to see Owen Point and Gull Island. There was a sighting of a [something apparently Paul has forgotten] and then we followed the trail to the lake's edge. Gulls were flying around and through the binoculars you could see that Gull Island is appropriately named (at least at this time of year) as there were probably 500-1000 gulls covering its shore.

Gulls on Gull Island. Photo by Charlotte.
Of course, they were a bit too distant to identify but we could conclude that most were ring-billed gulls (#8). On the way back to the car, we saw a black-capped chickadee (#9), which turned out to be a new life-bird for Keunyea, which I mention primarily to highlight how new looking for birds was for her. It also doesn't help that she is originally from Korea (they apparently have different birds there), lived in Florida for a while (they have different birds there too) and that she really doesn't care for birds. We all agreed though that the BCC was a cute little bird before it flitted away. We briefly saw a cardinal (#10) here too. 

Rocky shore of Lake Ontario where we saw some ducks. Photo by Beth.
We continued on our way and next stopped briefly at the rocky shoreline where we saw long-tailed ducks (#11) and buffleheads (#12) frolicking in the surf. We got a good look and then headed to the visitor's center where we saw nice examples of the waterfowl really up close and personnel. 

Keunyea nearly touches a dead duck. Photo by Charlotte.
Our next stop was the lighthouse where there were volunteers manning spotting scopes. Most of these ducks were well offshore and, with the waves and all, it was difficult to really get good looks. Some goldeneyes (#13), common mergansers (#14), more buffleheads and long-tailed ducks AND a new bird for me: white-winged scoters (#15). It was quite cold there on the point with the brisk north wind bearing down on us and with no new birds in sight we moved on. I think this is also where Charlotte saw an American robin (#16).

Me scoping the diving ducks of Lake Ontario. Photo by Charlotte.
The next stop sounded really promising- Calf's Pasture (I can only assume that once in the past cows used to roam around the park?). There was sign explaining waterfowl staging, a lookout onto the protected marsh area, and a lot of ducks. The non-frozen part of the open water was a sea of black and simply was crawling with ducks. Who were these fellows? Redheads (#17), greater scaups (#18), long-tailed ducks, goldeneyes, and common mergansers. Throw in an American coot (#19) and mute swans (#20) off to the left on the ice. And then, a report of an American wigeon (#21), which were actually quite hard to see in the mass of all of the other birds. This was a different and unusual moment; I couldn't identify birds because all of the other birds were in the way. I should mention there were more volunteers at this spot who, quite kindly and patiently, explained the different waterfowl in the marsh and helped us to see them through the scopes. 

Sign explaining waterfowl staging at Presqu'ile Provincial Park.
After that we left Presqu'ile and had a nice lunch at Coburg. One our walk back to the car we saw house sparrows (#22); unremarkable, I know. We then took a short detour to the harbor (where I had seen a lot of birds the previous week) to see if there were any new birds there. Not really, but there were lots of Canada geese, mallards (#23), long-tailed ducks, rock doves (#24), seagulls, hooded mergansers (#25), and red breasted mergansers (#26). Some of these were quite close and after the long-distance viewing at the park, it was nice to be a bit closer.
Mallards waiting for a boat to dock at Coburg Harbor. Photo by Beth.
With that Waterfowl Weekend was over. It was a nice trip and we ended up seeing 26 bird species in under 4 hours. It was a lot of fun and I really appreciate Beth, Keunyea, and Charlotte coming along. Perhaps we should have more 'birdwatching outings' disguised as 'lab field trips'.

Charlotte's nice photo of an American robin. 

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