Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Golden Day on Big Creek

For the last three years Jean and I have attended the OFO trip at Long Point to observe migrating waterfowl and cranes. This year, we joined our fellow Peninsula Field Naturalists and the Niagara Falls Nature Club for a Sunday drive to Norfolk County in search of our main target species the Sandhill Crane. If an adult male Smew just happened to get in the field of view of our spotting scope, well I guess that would make the list too.

The previous day was the OFO trip and a total of 62 species were observed. Highlights included, Little Gull, Great Horned Owl, Eastern Meadowlark, and White-winged Crossbill. A lucky few spotted a Golden Eagle. The Smew (first observed by Ron Ridout on March 8) was not seen.

The next morning, a parking lot in Fonthill was abuzz with talk of the most recent Smew sighting. The adult male was seen in flight with mergansers, scaup and buffleheads by Josh Vandermeulen shortly after 8:00 am.

We left Fonthill behind and had Carol and Arlene along for the ride. All the better to spot firsts of the year during the 2 hour drive to the Long Point area. Just south of Simcoe, on Regional Road 24, we ticked a FOY Turkey Vulture. Approaching Port Rowan, the skies were empty. The large white blobs with wings seen in a clear blue sky during our first trip were absent.

After a pick-me-up coffee and toast with marmalade, I stood in the parking lot of the restaurant and looked south towards the Causeway and the point. Somewhere out there, either in the inner bay to the east or Big Creek National Wildlife Area to the west, was a male Smew.

From the Causeway we observed a small flock of Tundra Swans in the creek. Surprisingly, this was the only observation of Cygnus columbianus while birding the Long Point area.

Standing on the viewing platform, we had a broad view of Big Creek National Wildlife Area.

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There were a few Mute Swans spotted in the channels but if there were any large flocks of waterfowl they were well hidden by the cattails and Phragmites.  In the distance, we spotted an immature Bald Eagle following the route of County Road 42. Another large raptor appeared and circled high above the wildlife area.

We studied the bird as it continued to soar. This one was different. A birder sharing the platform indicated this one was a Golden Eagle. There was white patch at the base of the tail. Our lifer Golden Eagle (#314) was a juvenile. It suddenly dived and spiraled as it plummeted towards the ground. As it disappeared behind the golden-coloured grasses, a large mass of ducks flew up in every direction. It was like the eagle had dived into a pool of waterfowl. The juvenile raptor reappeared and flew low towards a mound of earth. There it sat to dine on an undetermined species of duck. This attracted the attention of a juvenile Bald Eagle and we watched the standoff through the scope. The Bald Eagle was unsuccessful in its attempts to steal some brunch.

While on the platform I heard the calls of Sandhill Cranes (FOY) and though some were able to view them (including Jean) I never did see the long, grayish-red bodies flying across the horizon. No worries. I would see them when we stopped at Lee Brown. Right?

A bit further down the road, our group stopped at the viewing platform that looks out onto Long Point Inner Bay. This time, I was able to watch a Sandhill Crane in flight. It was flying in a northwesterly direction, perhaps heading to the fields near the Lee Brown WMA. I would meet up with this bird later. Based on the last three visits, the cranes would be there.

We then birded the forested area surrounding the Old Cut Field Station. Ticked a first of the year Golden Crowned Kinglet, followed by finding a lifer Black-legged Tick (seen at the right on the Lyme Disease widget) on my sock while having lunch in the parking area of the Old Cut. Not sure where I picked up the sesame seed-sized arachnid but its appearance suddenly increased the numbers of times I scratched an imaginary itch.

We moved back to the mainland and stopped at Lee Brown WMA.

Scoping the small, artificial pond, we found geese, Gadwall, Ring-necked Duck and American Wigeon (FOY). Despite the fact that cranes breed in the marshes to the south, none were found in the surrounding corn fields. If not for the brief observations while out on the point, we just might have gone home without a crane tick.

We moved further inland and stopped at two locations in the Big Creek valley.

Our stroll along the 'A Road' was pretty quiet. The Wood Duck boxes did not produce an Eastern Screech Owl tick.

North of the A Concession Road, we stopped at another popular birding spot on Big Creek. The field south of the First Concession Road floods in the spring and with the recent creation of a wetland habitat, migrating waterfowl can be easily observed from the roadside.

Waterfowl found this sunny afternoon included, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Redhead, Ring-necked DuckLesser Scaup (pair) and Hooded Merganser (pair). Hidden in the grasses and dabbling frequently, were a few male Northern Shovelers (another target species ticked for the day).

The trip concluded when the sewage lagoons came up empty but there was one last stop for Jean, Carol, Arlene and I. The marina at Port Rowan. Unlike previous years, there was no ice in the harbour or any snow on the ground. There were quite a few waterfowl in the inlet west of the park but back lighting from the sun made identification difficult. An exceptionally close, immature Bald Eagle fly-by was well worth the stop. Sightings of an American Coot and a couple of Bonaparte's Gulls concluded the day's observations.

Overall, Jean and I observed 32 species and ticked 6 firsts of the year while in Norfolk County. The Smew refused to cooperate for our group but the lifer Golden Eagle tick, well, that was somewhat inspirational. Considering the juvenile eagle was too far away to capture a reasonable digiscoped image, Jean did the next best thing to mark the ticking of lifer #314.

Can't wait to see how she recreates a day at the Niagara Peninsula Hawkwatch.


  1. Long Point is always a good trip. I worked at a boat place on the west side of Port Rowan one fall and got to know the good birding spots.

  2. Yes, I hope to return in April or May. With Ron Ridout's guide in hand, I'm sure to tick some good birds.

  3. Sounds like an awesome trip! I wish I could have been there.