Autumn Birding with Some Surprises!

The summer weather has given way to the windier, cooler weather of autumn and the bird migration south is well under way. It gives us an incentive to get out and see what birds are in their regular haunts as well as what new places we can find some wayward migrant. The first ones we see that give us the hint of cooler weather are the Snow geese and as usual a few stop by the local pond that we regularly visit

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The Snow goose that is most common in this area is the Lesser Snow goose and comes in white and blue phases. Both of these phases are shown in the above photo but the blue phase can be much darker than in this photo. Greater Snow geese live farther north and east and the blue phase of the Greater Snow geese are seldom seen. The only other species of white goose found in North America is the Ross’ goose, which is much smaller and does not have the ‘grin’ patch on the side of the bill. In a previous blog we covered the Ross’ geese that we saw not far from where we live. In the last 50 years as the range and numbers of each species has increased there has been more hybrids between these species so sizes of geese you see might vary quite a bit.

While out looking for birds a flock of about 18 birds swirled past me and after stopping the car and grabbing my camera I managed to get a few quick photos of these American Golden plovers before they landed over a knoll far away in a field. These ‘shorebirds’ that generally forage more in the fields are on the way south and often can be seen flying in these small flocks or foraging in a field, possibly with some Black-bellied plovers or Killdeer

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Other migrating birds such as this White-crowned sparrow were showing up in the yard as well as along many of the fence lines that are still around. These fence lines and small trees are disappearing at an alarming rate as agriculture clears them away in favour or larger cleared fields. Habitat loss is giving many birds fewer places to stop and forage on their way to their southern homes. While driving along a fence line that has several small

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trees its hard to get close enough to these birds for a photo as they move along ahead of the vehicle. This one was in the yard eating seeds and couldn’t see me on the other side of the window. Generally if you are in a house or in your car the birds aren’t as concerned about you but as soon as you exit the house or vehicle away they go heading for cover and usually far, far away!

On hearing of a Rock wren being seen at the Bruce Peninsula National Park we ventured up the peninsula hoping to see this western wren. Much to our disappointment the park was full and no more vehicles were allowed into the area that the wren had been seen. We headed back home but stopped along the way a few times where our passenger Kiah had often seen some interesting birds. One spot didn’t disappoint us as we got good views

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of American pipits, White-crowned sparrows, Palm warblers and a Rusty blackbird. The pipits did give us some good photo ops although they were constantly on the move to find something more to eat.

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We did try one more day to get a view of the Rock wren in the national park but it had moved to another location and had not been seen again. Due to the many visitors to the park that weekend wildlife was very hard to find but a late Eastern comma butterfly did land on a tree ahead to splash some colour on the trunk of the tree.

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On the way home we passed a local gathering area for migrating Sandhill cranes and saw over 100 on the ground as well as a few flying out to feed.

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These large cranes have made an amazing comeback in the past 50 years and can be seen in several places in North America in the thousands as they migrate south. Many don’t migrate too far south and many that live in the south don’t migrate too far north so you can get a variety of local populations as you travel North America. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs these birds have changed little in over 2.5 million years. Hopefully they can multiply and stay around for a few more million years as their trumpeting sound is a sound that you will always remember once you hear it.

As most of the Red-winged blackbirds, Common grackles and Rusty blackbirds head south this single Common grackle showed up in the yard to eat a few seeds and compete with the Blue jays and Northern cardinals for ownership of the platform feeder. The grackle was the winner in this round and when it was on the feeder no other larger birds were allowed to challenge it for the feed.

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These birds in their numbers can be quite a nuisance in the summer but with only one in the yard we enjoyed watching the interaction of the yard birds as they battled for food.

Another bird that creates quite a challenge this time of year is the Cackling goose. These more northern and western birds show up in small numbers with migrating Canada geese and can be quite a challenge to pick out as a flock of geese feed.

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Their size and head shape are what usually set them apart from their larger cousins but due to the fact, again covered in a previous blog, that there are several subspecies of Cackling and Canada geese, identifying them can be a challenge.

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In these photos the differences are reasonably noticeable but a small Canada goose can be about the same size as a large Cackling goose and again these species can interbreed making things even more difficult.

Shorebirds feeding in a muddy area of a pond can blend in amazingly well. Even bright brown striped Wilsons snipe can be hard to pick out as they forage in the mud.

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These birds are usually fairly secretive and often freeze in position if being observed but can be seen anywhere there is a bit of wetland. Often if you stop by the side of a ditch you with flush out a snipe that has been foraging in the ditch.

Another later migrant of the shorebird family is the Dunlin. These birds have changed from their black/brown/grey colour from spring breeding to a more nondescript gray that blends in with their surroundings nicely for them. Along any wetland or puddles edge you might find a few of these probing for food.

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This one was on its own at Baie du Dore and didn’t mind us being close as we were inside the car. These birds can be seen in large flocks on their migration routes but usually show up in quite lower numbers around our area. They have black legs, and a black bill with a slight downturn in the bill.

On one of our Bruce Birding Club outings a Ruffed grouse gave us a good look before blasting across the road in a flurry of feathers to disappear into the woods.

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These birds usually show up on a Christmas Bird Count but can certainly blend in with their forest surrounding to be almost invisible if standing still. This is the only grouse that is common to this area but a bit to the north Sharp-tailed and Spruce grouse may be found.

Baie du Dore also gave us a good view of a Horned Lark as it foraged along the edge of the roadway. Usually these are seen more in cultivated fields and can be almost invisible

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unless they fly to another part of a field. In the winter if you get an overall blanket of fresh snow you can often see these larks in fairly large numbers foraging along the sides of roadways as their normal spots have been covered in snow.

The loon migration to the south gives us an opportunity to observe several of these birds as they dive and look for food a bit offshore. They are often quite far out in the lake but fortunately these two Red-throated loons decided to come close enough to shore for a

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photo or two. These loons have shorter, thinner and more upturned bills than the Common loon that migrates through in fairly large numbers. Unfortunately again we’re off the path of the shortest route from the north to the shores of the oceans that these loons spend their winters in. In the Barrie area at Kempenfelt Bay you can often see hundreds of Common loons as well as a few Red-throated and Pacific loons during migration.

Since we travel to Barrie to visit with family we often take a few minutes to stop at Kempenfelt Bay and scope the area out. This fall a Pacific loon stayed around long enough for me to see it but it was too far out in the bay for a photo. One reasonably rare bird that did cruise by for a photo was a Little gull (smallest of all the gulls and native to Europe). These birds are now breeding a bit more in northern Canada so we regularly see a few in the company of Bonaparte gulls as they dive for fish. Two gave me a nice chance to photograph their distinctive features as they worked the waters close to shore.

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This immature bird doesn’t have the full black under wing of the adult bird but it was past the age of having a lot of black on the upper wing. The other one was an adult

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with light grey on the top of the wings with a white trailing edge to the wing. The Bonaparte gulls have white leading edges to their wings and black on the wing tips. These birds look very similar on the water so the best time to differentiate them is in flight.

Back home the Bonaparte gulls are showing up in numbers and the Great Black-backed gulls (largest gulls in the world) are showing up more regularly as they patrol the shore. Baie du Dore is a great place to see the Great Black-backed as they check out the outflow from the power plant for fish that get stirred up in the turbulent water.

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These large adults have very black upper wings and pink feet where the less common Lesser Black-backed gulls have dark grey upper wings and yellow feet and are more the size of the smaller Herring gull. As the schools of minnows work along through the water the Red-breasted mergansers follow them and following the mergansers are the Bonaparte gulls by the hundreds. Whenever we see small gulls swarming out over the lake we know that the fish schools are moving through. As the mergansers surface with their fish to eat the gulls try to get them to drop the fish so they can gulp down a few of their own.

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If you watch these groups of small gulls carefully you might also see that dark under wing of one or two Little gulls in the flock. These Bonapartes above show a variety of colourings due to their age. The juveniles have the black on their upper wings and the adults only have grey. These smaller gulls take two years to mature where the Ring-billed gulls take three years and the larger gulls can take 4 years to reach their fully mature colours. It’s quite a challenge identifying the gulls as per their species and various ages.

As the month came to a close we were treated to another fairly rare bird to this area but that’s a story for a different day ! Keep tuned and we’ll be back with the birds of November as the fall migration continues.

Happy Birding from The Bruce!

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