December 1, 2020
What a whirlwind the past couple of months have been for birding.
Just imagine, starting in mid to late April, and through the month of May, a huge number of birds fly into Canada on their northbound migration, and many of them funnel through our little area in Southwestern Ontario as they hunt for food and a place to mate and bring up their young. Thousands of people from around the world come here to observe this spectacle. Sadly this year was a no-go for the visitors, but the birds still came anyway.
The outbound migration is usually not as frantic for either birds or people, and takes a lot longer to happen.
The annual Raptor Count started at the beginning of September and ran right through until the end of November. During these 3 months there is a person on the top of the Holiday Beach Hawk Tower every day, keeping a count on all of the different raptors that fly by our area. Usually there are a good number of people helping out, but unfortunately with Covid-19 screwing everything up this year, only 3 people at a time were allowed on the tower, and that was restricted to the official counter and observers. To make matters worse, the Conservation Authority had blocked off physical access to the tower, so we had to climb over the barrier any time we wanted to go up or down. This was very difficult for my lady to do, so she would often stay at the bottom, or wander the park looking for the smaller birds. Fortunately, I was allowed up as one of the observers, so I spent quite a few hours helping out.
September was an amazing time for birdwatching this year.
My Lady and I got an alert about 2 Swallowtail Kites hanging out near Point Pelee National Park, and within minutes we were in the car and on our way. Once we got there and one of our friends told us where it was, we were entertained by 1 of them for 45 minutes as it flew back and forth over the fields looking for insects to eat.
One morning I was up the Hawk Tower helping to count the Raptors going by, when all of a sudden the young lady doing the official count got very excited and asked me to take some photos of one particular hawk. We were able to confirm that it was a Swainson’s Hawk, which is normally found in the prairies, and is considered a Provincial Rarity here. We were extremely lucky to see it, and I was even luckier to have gotten a few good photos of it.
The Broadwing Hawks made their grand exit over a few days mid-September. Initially we only had a few going by either by itself or with a few extras, then the next day it was as if a switch had been turned on and great kettles of the birds were forming over our area, and streaming out across the marsh on their way out. At times it was difficult to count with so many at one time. Over 44,000 Broadwings passed from September 11 to the 19th. I left the counting to the professionals and for the most part I just stood there in awe, and taking a few photos along the way.
A Woodcock made an appearance right at the base of the tower one morning while I was there. It had been spotted the day before, and this time it had startled a lady walking along the path. It was much easier to get a good photo this time, than the ones I took in the spring
I guess the Blue Jays had a good year, because over the course of 4 or 5 weeks, they created steady streams in the sky as they flew out of the east and onward towards the USA. They had the counters on the tower working furiously with their clickers, with a final count of well over 1 million Jays. And this was only the ones we could see during the counting hours. It’s amazing to see the sky filled with birds like this.
Near the end of the September we had a couple of friends visit the area, giving us a chance to show them around. While we wandered through Holiday Beach we observed more Jays flocking through, along with a number of warblers and a pair of Green Heron. We were lucky enough to watch one of the herons catch and eat a fish from the marsh.
The warblers are also outbound during September through November, but sadly their colouring is much duller than in the spring. This makes it harder for the untrained eye to be able to determine what bird it is. I was snapping photos, but could only identify a few of them.
Not to be outdone by the birds, September is also when the Monarch Butterflies start their journey down to Mexico, with a short stop at Point Pelee. One evening over 4500 butterflies were resting on a single tree right near the tip. We got there in time to see them, but it was too dark to get a photo, so we came back in the morning to observe them leaving, but by the time we arrived most had already taken off.
And a bit of good news, the Ospreys on their communication tower successfully raised their young, and they fledged during September. Mom and Dad stuck around to teach them about life all through October.
Into October the Starlings begin to gather in large numbers and make wonderful patterns as they fly over the fields. Eventually they too make their way past the counters on the tower, but are not included in the counting. Often many other birds fly at the same time as the Starlings, such as Red Wing Blackbirds, Cedar Waxwings, Rusty Blackbirds, and Crows. It all becomes an Avian Frenzy.
The Turkey Vultures come through in October. It’s cool to watch them slowly rise over the trees to the east of the tower, and as they find the lifting thermals, they circle higher and gather into large kettles before one decides to peel off and head west, and the remainder follow.
October finds the Golden Eagles making their appearance, usually just beyond camera range, but this year we had a few fly close enough to be able to get reasonable photos with a long enough lens. Although we have a number of Bald Eagles in the area, everyone loves to see the Goldens, and there are often a number of people hanging around the tower watching for them. Unfortunately this year the restrictions forced most people to watch for them from the bottom of the tower.
Red Wing Hawks and Red Shoulder Hawks came by in good numbers, along with Kestrels, Merlins, Coopers Hawks, Peregrine Falcons, Sharp-Shinned Hawks and Northern Harriers. Each has a different shape and flight style. It takes a while to learn how to tell them apart, and I often get them confused (Good thing I am an Observer and not a Counter).
Things seem to settle a bit come November, so we began visiting Point Pelee more often.
This year we had some Pelicans in the area, and we even saw them a couple of times but never had the chance to photograph them, until one morning in early November when we had gone to the Tip to see a Cave Swallow (missed it). One of our birding friends had seen the Pelican just off the east side, so we trudged over and as we were looking he texted me with a simple “Look Up”, and sure enough, it was passing directly overhead. We are very thankful to have great birding friends.
As we wandered one of the trails I noticed some birds at the top of a tree. Took a few photos and once I chimped the shot I saw that they were the Evening Grosbeaks that we had been trying to see for a couple of weeks. I pointed them out to my Lady and she was very happy to see them. Within a few moments, they all took off, and we haven’t seen them since.
Another evening we were settling down to watch some television and got an alert about a Frigate Bird hanging out near Leamington. Within the hour we were standing with a number of birders watching this bird that must have been blown up from the Caribbean or southern US by one of the hurricanes. After an hour or so, it was getting dark, so we decided to leave, only to find out that a few minutes later it flew off its perch and headed south to Point Pelee, and was not seen again.
The ducks are starting to show up on the lake and waters in the area. We had a visit from a Ross’s Goose at Jack Miners near Kingsville. Not usually found in this area.
Another thing found at Jack Miners was a small group of Cackling Geese hanging out with the Canada Geese. Up until last year we might have just thought they were young Canada Geese, but thanks again to our friends, we have learned there are some differences between the Cackling and Canada Geese, with the Cackling being much smaller, with a shorter neck and smaller bill. I wonder if we have seen these in Toronto, and never took notice of them before.
We have had a few female Long Tailed Ducks off the Point Pelee tip. Haven’t heard of any males around, but the last time we saw them they were a bit north in Sarnia. Maybe we’ll get lucky this year to have both hang out this far south.
At the end of November My Lady and I were out for a drive near Point Pelee and as we went up one of the small roads to the east we had a very close encounter with an adult male Northern Harrier, also known as a Grey Ghost. It flew past us going the other way, hunting low and slow over the ditch by the road, so I swung the car around and buzzed past it to get ahead, parked the car, jumped out and grabbed the camera and started trying to get photos. Thankfully it somewhat cooperated and gave us enough of a show that I was able to get a few worthwhile shots. It eventually wandered up another road and we lost sight of it shortly after.
Finally wrapping up the Hawk Count on November 30, I went up the tower again to help out and wish our counter a safe drive back home. We spent a few hours looking into a grey sky filled with wind driven snow and sleet, with not a single raptor flying.
What started off with such a blur of activity, ended as it should, a dwindling down to shorter days, colder winds, snow, and the satisfaction of a job well done. Overall, the official count was over 115,000 raptors, taking 4th place for the highest season.
Not sure if I will have another post this year, seeing as how it’s been a few months since the last time.
I will leave you with a bunch more photos and wish you a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year. May 2021 bring us all better times.
Till next time, stay safe and healthy.