Last weekend’s trip to Ontario turned out to be excellent for seeing both grandparents and new life birds. Although we only had a short time to catch up with family in each location, the need to drive from place to place was well-suited for nipping off the road and catching sight of Ontario’s winter migrants.
Our first birding detour was to Rondeau Provincial Park. As we drove the 401 I was seeing flocks of little brown and white birds flying up and circling around the farm fields. There was something about their flight that was different from sparrows, and my inability to identify them en route was driving me to distraction when, lo and behold, we saw a sign directing us to the park. Just off the 401, I was able to pull over and get a good look at a flock of little-brown-birds. It turned out to be a mixed group of Horned Larks and American Tree Sparrows, neither of which I’d ever seen before and both of which are common in southern Ontario in February (according to the birding list we picked up at Point Pelee last summer).
Buoyed by this early success, we continued on to the park. I suspect we were the only visitors, although there were locals coming and going so we did see other humans during our stay. Following the advice of the person at the front gate, I decided to try the woods behind the visitors’ center in my quest for winter guests. Thankfully someone—no doubt a local—had hiked the trail since the last snowfall, otherwise we might have had the embarrassing experience of becoming lost trying to follow the not-at-all-visible trail. The woods were pretty empty, it being the dead of winter, but we did see a few familiar birds: Downy Woodpeckers, White-Breasted Nuthatches, a Carolina Wren, and Northern Cardinals. Once we got reached the middle of the woods—an area that we guessed would be rather swampy in the summer, as it was criss-crossed with boardwalk-style bridges—we flushed a small group of little chattering birds from the brush. Based on my experience with little chattering birds at our local pond, I figured they were kinglets or vireos or flycatchers of some sort. I was able to pish them to me, which allowed me to identify mostly gray bodies, shortish tails and plump light bellies. Their flightiness, my inexperience, and the gray light of a winter afternoon in Ontario woods combined to make that the best I could do visually. However, all was not lost, as in the course of pishing I successfully noted their call (I’m learning!). Once back
at the ranch in the car, we concluded that they were Golden-Crowned Kinglets, with the zeee-zeee-zeee call being the deciding factor. I think this marks the first time that I conclusively identified a bird using sound, which in itself may clinch my rise to intermediate status in this bizarre hobby.
Back at the visitors’ center, we hung around the (mostly empty) feeders and I caught sight of a Common Redpoll, a bird that also doesn’t venture south. There were flocks of little-brown-birds around the center, and a nice Red-Tailed Hawk hunting them, but the light was fading too quickly for me to firmly identify anything new in the sparrows. It’s possible that there were Field Sparrows mixed in with the Tree Sparrows, but nothing sat still long enough or close enough for me to be able to tell for sure. We also weren’t able to see anything interesting on the lake itself, as the edge was frozen to about 30 feet from shore, creating an effective gulf between us and the birds on the water. The person to whom final decisions regarding such questions of judgment as venturing out onto partially frozen lakes in order to get a closer look at seagulls are delegated—a person who is not me, for reasons which should be obvious—voted nay on that plan, so we called it a day.
The next leg of our trip took us to London, where we visited Springbank Park in the hopes of seeing some wintering waterfowl from the far north. The day we chose to explore was bitterly cold, but that did not deter me. The very first birds I saw on the river in among the Canada Geese and Mallards were three female Common Mergansers and a male Hooded Merganser, all of which were new to me. Further down the river we spotted a couple of male Common Mergansers. Seeing them made me realize how few black-and-white birds we get now that we live in the south, and I was glad we made the effort to see the winter waterfowl when we were up north. The only other unusual birds were foursome of what were likely escaped domestic geese: two Greylags and two mottled white crossbreeds, neither with the black tail feathers of Ross’s or Snow Geese. At that point my companion made the judgment call — another of the sort that is not left to me — that it was time to return to the car as he could no longer feel his toes, fingers, or nose. We returned the next day on our way out of town, but saw nothing more besides an escaped Domestic Mallard.
The next new life bird was sighted entirely by chance on the 402 as we drove toward Sarnia. During a break in the rain and clouds we drove right under a hovering Rough-Legged Hawk and got a perfect look at its white underside and black elbow patches. Unless it was an incredibly confused Osprey, there was no doubt about its identification. Our final bird-related stop in Ontario was in Sarnia, where we drove down to the park under the bridge so I could search for birds at the mouth of the lake. I spotted a whole group of Buffleheads, and was able to get good looks at both male and female birds. I’d seen females in Tillamook, OR, but the males were a first. I also saw a small group of Common Goldeneyes, another black-and-white bird that just doesn’t go as far south as we are. With a little patience and the willingness to tromp through slush to a decent vantage point I could watch them quite easily. It’s possible that I also saw a couple of White-Winged Scoters, but the light was fading quickly and they were too far away for me to get a decent look at their beaks. They appeared to be entirely black birds with white wing bars and they flew like ducks, which narrows the choices considerably; with the light as it was, though, any more nuanced changes of color or body markings were lost.