Friday, March 8, 2013

Winter Birding at the Experimental Lakes Area

After enjoying a week of warm weather and birds in Louisiana, I headed off to the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) in northwestern corner of Ontario. Usually ELA is a place to visit in the summer when its not under three feet of snow and ice, but this year we decided that a winter sampling trip was in order. I packed my long-johns, wool socks, and extra-warm gloves and caught a flight to Winnipeg last Sunday.

I was met in Winnipeg by my friends Bruce and Nicole, who were kind enough to give me a bed for the night and, more importantly, promised to take me birding. It doesn't get any better than that! They picked me up at the airport and we headed off into the frozen tundra that is Winnipeg in the middle of February. After a brief stop at their place in Warren, we drove over to Oak Hammond Marsh. This is a birding paradise during much of the year. The extensive area of restored marsh is usually full of waterfowl, raptors, and an assortment of wading birds.

We didn't actually see any birds at Oak Hammond.

You must understand, three feet of snow and ice on the marsh tends to discourage wading birds from hanging around the marsh. I guess I will have to return when the birds are actually there. All was not lost, however, because we got to spend rest of the day seeing crows (boo!) and enjoying a nice Indian dinner (yay!).

The next morning, my student and I were picked up by a colleague in downtown Winnipeg and we headed off to Experimental Lakes Area. We were somewhere between Winnipeg and the Ontario border when a black-billed magpie (bird #52) flew across highway in front of us. After a quick trip to the grocery store for provisions, we drove the 30 km snowy road into camp and were greeted by a gray jay (birds #53).

Gray Jay at the Experimental Lakes Area
My winter sampling and bird watching adventure had started! Besides drilling holes in the ice to water sample, this was a great opportunity to see birds that are rare or absent from southern Ontario. Perhaps I would see a spruce grouse? A boreal chickadee? Or maybe a black-backed woodpecker? These were all possibilities.

It turns out that seeing birds at the Experimental Lakes Area in the middle of February is not easy at all. There are, of course, the grey jays and ravens that fly over camp, but where are the other birds? Perhaps I should take a short-hike into the bush... through the 3 feet of snow? Perhaps a quick trip on the snowmobile.. at 30 mph hurdling down a snowy camp road or across a barren frozen lake? Ok, after the first day I decided I would be lucky to pick up 2 or 3 birds on this trip. I spent my days sampling water and filtering it in the lab. 

Paul adds ZnCl to a water sample collected on Lake 240 at the ELA

Snowshoeing across Lake 221.
Our rides waiting for us on Lake 224.
As much fun as this may look, it really was a lot of work. One day I drove the skidoo down a narrow, steep, snowy trail on a slush covered Lake 114. Immediately I was stuck in the slush and it took 4 of us to extract the machine from the slush and to get it back up the hill. Another day, it was cold enough that ice started to form on the top of the tubes almost as soon as I filled them up, which made putting the cap onto them difficult and one tube shattered in my hand. It didn't hurt immediately, but the bleeding from my thumb would not stop. I figured that would mean that it would be a good idea to drive to the emergency room in Kenora. On the way in, I saw a lynx (although not 'technically' a bird) and a ruffed grouse (bird #54), so the trip was totally worth it. Of course I had to have two pieces of glass (or 'large foreign bodies' as the doctor called them) extracted from my thumb.

While loading the truck on the last morning, I heard the characteristic woodpecker peck-peck. I saw it fly over to a tree and moved in for a closer look. It was an American three-toed woodpecker (bird #55). What a great way to end my trip to the Experimental Lakes Area.

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