Canada, Point Pelee and Algonquin Trip Report, May 2018

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04-15 MAY 2018

By Lev Frid and Jared Clarke

 

Detailed Report 

Day 1, 4 May 2018.

The night before our trip was a memorable one. High winds blasted through Toronto, ripping apart infrastructure, causing havoc on the roads, and delaying flights. Thankfully everybody eventually got to our hotel in Toronto in time for the trip – although we discovered that Giancarlo’s luggage didn’t make it off the plane! For the folks that made it in on time we discussed the game plan for the coming days – it was going to be interesting!

Day 2, 5 May 2018.

After an early breakfast at our hotel, not wasting any time, we went to a local hotspot in Toronto – Colonel Sam Smith Park. Like a miniature Point Pelee, this park is a peninsula jutting out into Lake Ontario and often attracts good numbers of migrants.

As soon as we’d arrived we knew that a significant movement of birds had occurred overnight. White-crowned Sparrows were singing right from the parking lot, and one of the first birds we saw together was Lincoln’s Sparrow. We were enjoying great looks at this shy sparrow, some Common Grackles, Red-winged Blackbird, Tree Swallow, American Goldfinch, and other common eastern birds when Jared found a wren sneaking around some dogwoods. It was a Marsh Wren, and with some patience everyone had good looks at this skulker. Common and Caspian Terns were flying overhead, and while I was making sure Giancarlo’s luggage was accounted for, Jared took the group to the marina, where they had beautiful views of singing and displaying Red-necked Grebes.

Our first wood warblers of the trip came in the form of American Yellow Warbler, which we were to see hundreds and hundreds of later on – but the first are always exciting. Myrtle, Palm, and Nashville Warblers joined it for a good introduction to the season’s common warblers, as well as some vocal Baltimore Orioles. Scoping the lake provided views of Long-tailed Duck, Horned Grebe, Bufflehead, Red-breasted Merganser, and more Red-necked Grebes.

While we were observing a Northern Flicker excavating a cavity, a very kind birder came over and excitedly told us that a Yellow-breasted Chat was being seen down the trail! We followed her to the location, and there it was, climbing up the willows and eating midges in a manner like I’d never seen a chat do before. These are usually very skulky and difficult to see and are very rare breeders in Ontario – so it was an exceptional sighting on the first day. Everyone was very pleased!

En route to Niagara Falls we stopped at Port Dalhousie – the best place in Canada to see Fish Crows. As we were pulling up to the marina, however, we noticed that there was a demonstration of motorcyclists going on! There were apparently over 100 bikers there, but they were friendly and showed us where we could park amidst the chaos. We were worried that, as they began to depart, it would be difficult to hear the distinctive “uh-uh” of the Fish Crows that live at the marina, but in a few minutes we saw six of them flying around and sporadically calling – whew! After the bikers departed we went to the lovely Pier 61 Restaurant at the port for a great lunch along the lake.

It was only about a half hour to get to Niagara Falls, where we enjoyed some beautiful weather and views of the Horseshoe and American Falls, as well as the abundance of Ring-billed and European Herring Gulls nesting on the rocks below. After we’d had our fill we packed up and prepared ourselves for the long drive to Point Pelee National Park.

There wasn’t much excitement on the drive, but when we finally arrived in Leamington we had a late dinner at Freddy’s (home of the best Yellow Perch in Ontario, in various different forms), and it was a welcome end to a long day.

Day 3, 6 May 2018.

We had an early breakfast at the Days Inn, which comfortably caters to birders wanting to eat as early as 4:00 a.m., and headed out for our first exciting morning in the park. As we walked toward the tip it looked as if it was a good night for bird migration, as many birds were flying down toward the tip in a “reverse” migration. The sky was filled with blackbirds, Blue Jays, and American Yellow Warblers. The first excitement came when we saw a female Golden-winged Warbler making her way southward, but she did not stay in view for long. I heard the harsh call of Red-headed Woodpecker, and before long we had two flying over and perching for great views. Palm Warblers and Blue-grey Gnatcatchers were also quite common, and at many times it was hard to know where to look! 

When the reverse migration became quiet we went into the interior to seek the birds there.  I was hoping that the Blackburnian Warbler I had seen earlier high in the sky would have turned around … fortunately it had and was hanging out with some Nashville and Myrtle Warblers in the woods. Everyone got great looks at this beautiful treetop warbler as it foraged in a cedar. We heard news of a Hooded Warbler being seen down the trail and quickly found the crowd surrounding it. The bird was a female without a pronounced hood – still, an uncommon species in Ontario and always a good one to see.

We headed further north towards Sparrow Field – a clearing that often attracts migrants. We were not disappointed – a beautiful Cape May Warbler was foraging in a cedar tree and gave great views. We then headed back to the tram stop to catch a ride to the Visitor Centre.

We had heard that several goodies were being seen on the Woodland Trail and decided to hike it before lunch. It wasn’t particularly action-packed, owing to the time of day and the temperature, but we did see many nice Chestnut-sided Warblers and a female Black-throated Blue Warbler. A Solitary Sandpiper foraged in one of the sloughs. I went ahead with some members of the group, while Jared stayed behind to look at a House Wren with others. Suddenly I received a phone call from Jared – he was looking at a Prothonotary Warbler back down the trail! We raced back, and the bird was showboating at our feet, searching for food among tree roots below eye-level for many minutes. It even followed us for a while down the trail! The still water in the sloughs and the bird being so close to the edge gave great “reflection” photo opportunities, and the photographers in the group were ecstatic. Well worth a late lunch!

Although lunch was pretty simple, it saved us from leaving the park, and because it was a weekend, the parking was backed up many kilometers from the Visitor Centre! The weather was beginning to look a little ominous, so we started our way north and stopped at a picnic area to look for a reported Worm-eating Warbler. As we started walking down the short seasonal trail, the first bird we saw fly across it and start feeding on a cluster of dead leaves was the Worm-eating Warbler! Unfortunately it did not stick around for very long – though a Magnolia Warbler further down the trail was more confiding and provided us with great views.

We headed back to the hotel as it began to rain to take a bit of a break. The rain really started coming down, and we changed our game plan for the afternoon to include some car birding before dinner. We had some intel on a pretty special bird that was hanging out in the town of Essex. As we drove to the spot the rain cleared up and we found what we were looking for sitting atop a lamppost just outside of town – a Snowy Owl! The past winter had been very good for Snowy Owls in Ontario, and some were lingering much later than usual. We got great looks through the scope, and even the local police came over and asked what we were looking at. An excellent addition to our list! We celebrated with another great dinner at Freddy’s.

Day 4, 7 May 2018.

The next day it was business as usual, back at the tip to watch for any birds making their way there. It wasn’t as busy as the previous day, but we did have nice view of several swallow species as well as Chimney Swift near the tram stop. Just outside the bathroom a Tricolored Bat was roosting on the building! This is Ontario’s smallest bat.

We walked the Tilden Woods Trail and encountered several warbler flocks, including two new warbler species for the list – Tennessee Warbler and a lovely male Northern Parula. We had fantastic views of other stunning warblers we’d already seen, including Black-throated Green, Blackburnian, and Black-throated Blue Warblers. The vireos were more prominent and cooperative today, and we had much better views of Blue-headed and Red-eyed Vireos than before, as well as a fantastic look at the uncommon Yellow-throated Vireo.

We had a picnic lunch today at the Pioneer Picnic Area – a very birdy spot, where we watched orioles and grosbeaks, including Rose-breasted Grosbeak, as we enjoyed our sandwiches. We took a short walk down the seasonal footpath there, encountered a male Hooded Warbler, and were later informed of a roosting Great Horned Owl! We were able to get great views of the entire bird through the scope.

After lunch we headed to Hillman Marsh. Unfortunately for us the weather was too good (!), and there were not many shorebirds stopping over at the marsh. We did see many Grey Plovers and a nice selection of waterfowl that included Northern Shoveler, Ruddy Duck, Gadwall, and both Teals, Green-winged and Blue-winged. We walked all the way around the marsh, and Jared spotted the Endangered (IUCN) Blanding’s Turtle basking on a mound far in the marsh, along with a couple of American Coots. Tired from a great day, we didn’t mind taking a bit of a break at the hotel before dinner, which we had at a family-owned Italian restaurant across the road from the hotel. We toasted Giancarlo because his luggage had finally made it in! 

Day 5, 8 May 2018.

The next morning we were back at the tip for our last day at Point Pelee. There was a sizeable movement of birds on this day, and we watched many orioles, warblers. and even woodpeckers flying down the tip. A Marsh Wren stopped right at the rocks and posed for several minutes to the delight of the photographers.

After the action died down a tad we took the tram back to the Visitor Centre, where we learned there was a Prairie Warbler being seen on the Tilden Woods Trail. We searched to no avail; even though we heard it once it did not feel like coming out. As a consolation prize we finally got great views of a beautiful male Hooded Warbler as well as Blue-winged Warbler and many of the other warblers from previous days. We decided to walk a little bit into the Woodland Trail just before lunch, and Jared found us another new Warbler – an Orange-crowned. On the way back, I suddenly noticed that there was a White-eyed Vireo foraging right beside the path!

These vireos are usually very skulky, but this one was giving fantastic views. Luckily we were the ones who found it and were first on the scene, as a large crowd was quickly gathering to look at this rare breeding bird in Canada. A Blue-headed Vireo appeared as well, vying for the attention of the numerous onlookers. Tony got excellent photos of both of the vireos with prey!

After another lunch in the field and a short walk down a seasonal footpath we had learned that there were two American Avocets at Hillman Marsh.  Since it was time for us to get going to our next birding destination – Rondeau, and as Hillman was on the way, we stopped and had scope views of the two marvelous breeding-plumaged American Avocets in the marsh before starting the drive to Ridgetown.

We got to the famous (infamous?) Ridgetown Inn early enough to take a short break before dinner. It was a bit “rough around the edges” – though one of us (Deb) got to enjoy the luxurious “honeymoon suite” – but it was close to the birds and that’s what is most important. We had dinner at a nice local restaurant in Ridgetown that made up for its lack of beer with an active Purple Martin colony right outside. 

Day 6, 9 May 2018.

The next morning we had a pleasantly large breakfast at a restaurant close to the inn and set off to Rondeau. Rondeau is larger and much more forested than Point Pelee, and less busy with birders. As we pulled up to the Marsh Trail I heard a Scarlet Tanager singing – this was a special bird for Bill, who had been trying to see one for a long time – a “nemesis” of sorts. Unfortunately it flew away right after we got out of the car! We tried to follow it down the road to no avail, but then spotted a Summer Tanager – a rare spring overshoot – sitting on a cottage roof!

The road and Marsh Trail were busy with birds and birders, but not anything new for us except a Philadelphia Vireo close to the parking lot. We moved on to the Maintenance Loop and quickly discovered that it was busy with birds. We slowly walked down the road, picking up several warblers including Cape May, Blackburnian, and Blue-winged Warblers and more – as well as two close White-eyed Vireos. A cooperative Eastern Towhee gave us our best looks of the trip.

Suddenly I noticed a yellow warbler with a black mask and pink legs crawling up a tree – a Kentucky Warbler! This is a rare spring overshoot to Ontario and usually a furtive “ground crawler” that requires a titanic effort to see, and most of us got to see it very well as it sat up above eye-level. Unfortunately it departed before the rest of the group could catch up. We waited for it for a while – but it did not show again.

We had lunch outside of the park and headed over to Blenheim to visit the sewage lagoons. These lagoons have held many rarities in their years, but even when there isn’t anything rare around it’s always nice to see some of the shorebirds close up.

As we started walking on the berm, admiring Northern Shovelers and Ruddy Ducks, Jared spotted an odd shorebird standing on the berm – a female Wilson’s Phalarope. It was in full breeding plumage and spectacularly beautiful, and posed well in the scope for everyone.  A great start!

In the sprinkler cell we got close views of Least Sandpiper and Dunlin, along with great comparisons of Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs side by side. While we stood and watched the shorebirds, the farm field behind had several singing Bobolinks flying around, and a pile of sand had a few pairs of Northern Rough-winged Swallows attending their burrows. It was a very idyllic afternoon – especially for being at a sewage lagoon! After Blenheim we packed up and headed to Simcoe; Long Point was on our itinerary for the next two days.

Day 7, 10 May 2018.

After a quick breakfast at Tim Horton’s (a requirement for at least one day on every Canadian tour) we drove to Old Cut Field Station, where we met Mark Conboy, who worked for Bird Studies Canada as the Program Coordinator for the Long Point Bird Observatory and is also a tour leader. Mark talked to us a little bit about the research that goes on here at Long Point, explained to us the importance of bird banding, and showed us some birds in the hand and how the staff at the bird observatory can determine their age and sex.

We went for a short walk around the very birdy grounds of the field station, which were teeming with warblers. We added one more to the growing list of warblers for the trip – the large and impressive Bay-breasted Warbler, a late migrant. We were also told earlier that there had been an Acadian Flycatcher spotted in the woods, and then it flew and perched right over our heads and called! Another rare breeder and late migrant – it was definitely evident today that migration was progressing.

Afterwards we met Jody Allair – who also works for Bird Studies Canada and is a tour leader for some birding here in his neck of the woods. He’d heard of a Prairie Warbler that had been seen in the new Long Point Provincial Park, so we set forth with a brisk pace and found the bird singing in some cedars close to the road.  It even sat in the scope for a while for great views.

Jody was keen to take us to a special spot for another one of our target species, so we drove to a beautiful patch of Carolinian forest with a clear stream running through a ravine. We paused every few minutes to listen until Jody heard what we were seeking – the rare and localized (in Canada) Louisiana Waterthrush. Before long we were getting spectacular views of the male singing away in this beautiful forest. A huge thanks to Jody for helping us add yet another rare warbler to our list!

We had lunch at the slick and modern Bird Studies Canada headquarters with a beautiful view of a meadow and a pond. After saying our goodbyes to Jody we headed to the Port Rowan Wetlands. Here we added Common Gallinule to our list, saw a few Bald Eagles flying around, and watched a couple of Muskrats gathering food. We elected to go to the hotel early and take a bit of a break before dinner and an optional night excursion to look for owls.

We went to a nice forested road in hopes of finding Eastern Screech Owl – which proved to be elusive. It was a bit windy and not ideal for owling, but we did hear a couple of American Woodcocks and saw one flying over briefly, as well as some Big Brown Bats that had just emerged to hunt. 

Day 8, 11 May 2018.

The next morning we had another quick Tim’s breakfast and were off to Backus Woods, an old-growth woodland owned by the Nature Conservancy and one of the largest remaining patches of Carolinian forest in Ontario. A friendly Hooded Warbler greeted us in the parking lot, and we got nice views of it before heading into the woods.

I heard a Scarlet Tanager and got everyone to get ready, and eventually it flew right over and sat above our heads – much to Bill’s delight! It would be the first of several that we would see in this lovely woodland.  We continued through the woods, picking up Veery, Wood Thrush, and Great Crested Flycatcher before getting to the road, where we saw a mixed flock of Warblers that contained another Hooded as well as a flaming male Blackburnian. We admired another male Prothonotary Warbler near a pond on the trail before heading back to Long Point for lunch.

Before departing we visited a local marsh, where we enjoyed great looks at a family of Sandhill Cranes, Trumpeter Swans, and even a cooperative Meadow Vole.

The rest of the afternoon was required for our long drive north. Unfortunately it was a Friday and everyone else in the Greater Toronto area had the same plans, so we were mired in traffic for a couple of hours – but worth it to see Jared’s face once we got through it! I imagine it’s not something you see in Newfoundland very often. We ate a quick dinner at East Side Mario’s and settled into our hotel in Orillia. 

Day 9, 12 May 2018.

Our first stop in the famous Carden Alvar Provincial Park was Sedge Wren Marsh. Here we watched the namesake Sedge Wren gathering nesting material and had nice scope views of the very secretive American Bittern “singing” its bizarre, gulping song.  We then had an excellent time picking up birds along Wylie Road that included Eastern Meadowlark, Bobolink, Brown Thrasher, Wilson’s Snipe, Eastern Bluebird, Grasshopper Sparrow, and a very distant look at Eastern Loggerhead Shrike – one of the very few left in Ontario. We drove to another site a bit further down the road and quickly found another shrike that was much closer and had excellent views through the scope. It was quickly getting hot, and bird activity was waning, but several beautiful Olympia Marbles (butterflies) had emerged and made for a nice distraction.

As we drove to Kirkfield for lunch we took another road that ran through good habitat in hopes of finding another specialty bird – the Upland Sandpiper. I saw one fly across the road and land in the field, but by the time all of us got out of the vehicle it had settled into the long grass. Another flew over at a distance against the light. We desired better views, but at least we knew where to look after lunch.

We had lunch at the lovely Kirkfield Restaurant and, thanks to their fast service, were quickly back out in the field. We went back to the place we had seen the Upland Sandpiper and, after stopping briefly to look at a Blanding’s Turtle, once again had brief and disappointing views of the Upland Sandpiper until Gerald spotted one sitting right in the open in the field! This one was much more cooperative, and we got lengthy views in the scope before departing to Prospect Marsh.

Prospect Marsh is a large cattail marsh, and here we wanted to get some views of the more furtive marsh birds such as Sora and Virginia Rail. While we heard lots of both, only the Virginia Rail came out and gave everyone a good performance before retreating back into the cattails.

After this fitting end to the Carden chapter of the trip we packed and headed to Algonquin – but not before stopping to admire a North American Porcupine sleeping in a tree.

We arrived in Huntsville in the evening and ate downtown at the Mill on Main. It felt nice to be in my hometown, and everyone enjoyed the food and was excited about our upcoming days in Algonquin Provincial Park. We then drove the short distance to Dwight and settled in our hotel. 

Day 10, 13 May 2018.

We had an early breakfast that Jared and I set up to get us out into the field as early as possible to catch some of the height of activity. We drove down the Arowhon Road and hiked to what is normally one of the best sites to see boreal specialties – but we were not so lucky today, except for a small flock of Two-barred Crossbills spotted by Jared. In fact it was a very quiet day in terms of birds – but the scenery was beautiful and it was dead calm on the water.

We did encounter a very big surprise on the trail on the way back – two Moose! At first it seemed as if they were going to walk right past us as they came very close, but then they decided to go back into the bush. A truly Algonquin experience – and much better than seeing them with the crowds along the highway!

After having brunch at the Portage Store on Canoe Lake we were once again out in search of birds – although the quietness of the morning continued into the afternoon. The Visitor Centre only had a couple of female Purple Finches and some Pine Siskins, and we saw no Spruce Grouse despite walking the seasonal trails around the Spruce Bog Boardwalk. We drove back to the hotel to take a short break before going to dinner.

We had an early dinner at Muskoka on the Rocks, a cozy little restaurant in Hillside just down the road, before returning to the hotel and – for those that wanted to – going on an evening excursion to view displaying American Woodcock.

A fleet of us assembled to look for woodcocks, and we drove back into the park to a site very close to the western boundary. We walked a little bit into the woods, but as it got darker we settled at the edge of a clearing. It did not take long before an American Woodcock began calling – but it was hidden in some alders, just having woken up. I told everyone to be very quiet, and we made our way to a picnic table in the clearing. To everyone’s delight the woodcock flew right out into the open and began doing his ground display only a few feet from us. It was still daylight, and we didn’t even need binoculars to study the intricate patterns on this secretive woodland shorebird. He wasn’t afraid of flash, and the photographers got frame-filling shots – one of the best shows I’ve ever seen by this species here. He also did some aerial displays for us before it got too dark to see and we left him in peace. For some this was the highlight of the entire trip!

Day 11, 14 May 2018.

The next morning we once again had an early breakfast and headed back into the park. It was a tough decision about where to go after our very slow day yesterday, but we decided to try the same site as the previous day. As we arrived and I opened the van door I immediately heard Boreal Chickadee. Our luck had changed! Before long we had a pair essentially at our feet, giving amazing views of this normally shy species. What a difference a day makes – after trying for several hours the previous day, we today found them almost immediately. A flock of Red Crossbills settled into some spruce trees above us for scope views – another species we had missed the previous day.

We had barely made it 500 meters down the trail when a male Spruce Grouse flew directly onto the path in front of us! I could hardly believe it. They are usually very tame once found, and we had close views of the bird after it had perched in a tree – we could walk right below it. Not wanting to waste time we got back to the vans after being satisfied with the grouse and headed to another spot to try for Black-backed Woodpecker.

The woodpecker proved elusive, but we did see a Sharp-shinned Hawk carrying an unfortunate songbird to its nest. Our next stop was the Visitor Centre. Devoid of birdlife the previous day, Evening Grosbeaks greeted us as soon as we got out of the vans. Several birds were flying around the parking lot and the viewing deck, joined by several Purple Finches (including males this time) and Pine Siskins.

We then tried at both the Opeongo Road and the Algonquin Logging Museum for Grey Jay, which were unfortunately not cooperative, but we did see more Red Crossbills.

It was a hot afternoon, and the birds had quieted down, so we elected to have an early lunch at the Mad Musher in Whitney and try and beat the traffic back to Toronto – which we were largely successful in doing.

We had our final dinner at the hotel in Toronto, enjoying some wine and recounting our favorite parts of the trip that had taken us all across southern Ontario – from the swamplands of the Carolinian forest to the boreal bogs of Algonquin Provincial Park. We toasted the remarkable diversity of birds we had encountered, with 188 species seen and an additional 4 heard only. It was indeed an amazing selection – one would be hard-pressed to find birds like Snowy Owl, Loggerhead Shrike, Boreal Chickadee, Prothonotary Warbler, Summer Tanager, Upland Sandpiper, and Fish Crow in a single tour!

We said our final goodbyes and hoped that someday we’d be back at the tip of Point Pelee, watching the reverse migration, or on the trails of Algonquin, looking for Spruce Grouse deep in a bog.

 

Please see the downloadable PDF above with the full species lists included.

 

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