Wednesday 27 April 2022

The Perfect Storm

If you've been keeping your finger on the pulse of Ontario birding, you'll know that earlier this week we saw some of the best migration of the year to date. Ontario saw a massive influx of early migrants, and localities along Lake Erie recorded 20+ species of warblers (including such gems as multiple Yellow-throated, Kentucky, Prairie, Golden-winged, and Worm-eating), multiple species of flycatchers, tanagers (all three!), orioles, and lots of special sparrows. 

Back at the beginning of April I was planning out my work schedule, and decided to take Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday (April 24-26) off, and then hope for the best. Well, I guess I know how to pick time off, as these days perfectly coincided with the "best" days for bird action! Three days off, good weather for birding...any birder in their right mind would make a beeline for Point Pelee or Rondeau, but I opted for something much closer—the Old Airfield in Algonquin Park. 

There were lots of birds in the air Saturday night heading into Sunday, and I could barely sleep just thinking of what was going to be found the next day. Still, my alarm seemed to go off much too soon. After some stumbling around and throwing a couple of sandwiches together (see Mom? I'm feeding myself), I was out the door and in my car heading towards the best birding location Highway 60 has to offer. I soon met up with Jeff and Angela Skevington, and we spent the day birding together.

One of my first birds of the day was a new one for the year, a Palm Warbler. A good sign.

As we continued to walk around the airfield, we flushed up a pretty exciting bird: a Vesper Sparrow! This is the second one reported in the Park this spring, but I had missed the first one. It was a new park bird for me, ending a dry spell of a couple weeks. This is a very uncommon bird in Algonquin Park, and appears to be on the decline. 

After that nice little flurry of activity, we set up shop in the east end of the airfield and waited to see what would fly by us. I wish I could tell stories of flyover Red-bellied Woodpeckers and House Sparrows, but alas, it was fairly quiet overall. We did, however, see one very good bird...a Cooper's Hawk! It was pretty distant, but unmistakeable. This is another rarity in Algonquin Park, and a new one for my list. 

In terms of year birds, the first Chipping Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows were seen. Another large flight of 3330 Common Redpolls was observed. Why these birds are moving in such large numbers, and why this movement is really only being seen in Algonquin Park, is unknown. We ended up with just over 50 species for the day at the airfield, my first time breaking that threshold this season. You can see the eBird checklist here.

We spent the rest of the day birding around the Hwy 60 corridor. We found the first Barn Swallow of the year at the Opeongo Docks, and then some more of them at East Gate. It was a great day.

Now, while Sunday was a great day, looking at the forecast, I was sure that Monday would be not quite as good. Sure, the winds were south, but rain was going to hit during the night, shutting down migration, and the temperatures were going to drop. Oh boy, I was wrong.

I actually got a slightly later start at the airfield than usual (I wouldn't see much, I told myself). I opted to do my usual loop backwards to get to the marsh/river mouth first, just in case the rain grounded any ducks (a fairly rare occurrence in Algonquin Park). As I approached, in the distance I saw a group of three American Wigeon flying with some Mallards over Lake of Two Rivers. Nice, I thought, but I was half expecting the species (which is very uncommon in the Park) today with the rain. I continued on my way, and spotted a male Blue-winged Teal in the distance all by his lonesome. Huh, things were getting good. I then rounded the corner and nearly dropped to my knees as I spotted as many as ninety Ring-necked Ducks all huddled together in the river mouth. By far the most I have seen along Hwy 60, this could only mean one thing: fallout. I scanned that group of Ring-necks, and came up with several more Blue-winged Teal, as well as some Northern Pintails. A few flocks of ducks started flying around, and I got on some more pintails and wigeon and teal. There actually seemed to be too many birds! I couldn't get on all of them, and it haunts me thinking about what I could have missed.

Northern Pintails

As the fog lifted, I spotted something even crazier: a large raft of scaup in the middle of Lake of Two Rivers. I would later count as many as sixty Lesser Scaup, a very high count (if not a new high count) for the spring in Algonquin. The duck raft was a bit too far to see all of it from the airfield, so I made the decision to pry myself away and go over to the picnic area, which would hopefully get me closer. 

I arrived at the picnic area beach, and soon was sorting through the flock. Unfortunately, nothing super crazy (I wanted a Redhead), but a small group of Red-breasted Mergansers was nice. As I scanned, I spotted a Pied-billed Grebe, which was a new (and slightly overdue) park bird for me. What a day it was turning into. 14 species of ducks for the day already by this point. 

Pied-billed Grebe

I returned to the Old Airfield and carried on with the rest of my day. Birds were in constant motion, despite the rain. My best birds of the day was a pure flock of eight Cackling Geese that flew by, another rarity in Algonquin Park. I ended with 64 species of birds at the airfield. I had other places I wanted to check, so I decided to leave around 3pm. You can see the eBird checklist here.

I had gotten word of some ducks down on Smoke Lake, so I went over that way to investigate. Along the way, I noticed a few ducks flying out of Cache Lake, so I quickly turned into there. Right from the parking lot, I found two pretty nice birds—a pair of Long-tailed Ducks and my park bird Horned Grebe. Nobody quite likes the rain like an Algonquin Park birder! 

Long-tailed Duck

The ducks were gone off Smoke by the time I got there, so I turned back around and headed east. I checked the PLE Pond near East Gate before calling it a day. I was dead tired, but had seen nearly 80 species of birds, including three park birds. It was the kind of day that I have long dreamed about having, and is right up there with the most fun and rewarding birding days that I have ever had.

Tuesday I figured would be a bit more subdued, and I was right to a degree. Because the rain continued into the night, many of the waterfowl lingered into the next day (which is fairly unusual), so that bolstered the day list. As the weather cleared, many had left by mid-morning. Because of the rain, very few new birds arrived overnight, and I got the impression that many of the same birds I had seen the day before were still around.

American Wigeon getting outta there

I spent the whole day in the airfield, and had a few highlights.

As I sat in my chair freezing my butt off, I noticed a bird come flying out of the small trees on the north side of the airfield. It took me a second, but...

"HOLY [I'll let you fill in the blank, be imaginative]!!!"

I was looking at a Short-eared Owl. Sure, not the rarest of rare birds, but for Algonquin Park, this is a very, very tricky bird to nail down, and not a ton of people have seen one in the park before. This is subject to revision, but I believe this is around the 20th record for Algonquin Park. As is typical of Algonquin Short-eared Owls, it continued on its way, never to be seen again. Lucky for me, I managed to get off one good record shot in my excitement/panic. 

Well, hard to top that, and it was only 8:30 am. I spent a good chunk of the rest of the day telling myself "just another little bit" fighting off the uncomfortable cold. The next most interesting thing to happen was spotting some grebes on the lake, both Red-necked and Horned. I had seen one Red-necked in the park prior, but it was certainly still nice to see. 

Red-necked Grebe

Horned Grebes

Other than that, I wouldn't say there was really anything else to write home about, so I'll just let the eBird checklist do the talking. I ended with 72 species, which I thought was pretty cool. I probably could have turned up a few more if I had put a bit more effort in seeking out certain species earlier in the day (I would've had I known I'd tally so many!).

In all, over my three days off I tallied 94 species, including 15 year birds and six new birds for my park list. I would chalk that up to being a success! Sure, we didn't get anything super flashy like Point Pelee or Rondeau or Long Point, but hey, it's early yet ;) 

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