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08 September 2010 @ 08:54 pm
The Magic of Shirley's Bay  

After a long weekend like this one, I start to think that I actually prefer fall migration to spring migration. In the fall, although many birds are in non-breeding or juvenile plumage, there seems to be a lot more of them, and they aren't in as much of a hurry. Birds tend to linger, providing more opportunities to view and photograph them. The weather is usually warmer, and the fall scenery is spectacular.

Two of my favourite types of birds are warblers and shorebirds. Unfortunately, both groups lose their beautiful, often colourful, breeding plumage in the fall: the Dunlin loses its rusty tones and black belly, the Blackpoll Warblers loses its crisp black and white plumage, and it becomes difficult to differentiate many similar-looking species. Still, trying to identify warblers and shorebirds in the fall is more interesting and less frustrating than trying to identify gulls, for example. And neither shorebirds nor warblers fly off as soon as they catch you looking at them as hawks do.

Blackpoll Warbler

Any day where I can watch both warblers and shorebirds is a wonderful day indeed. And the one place which offered both types of birds in abundance is Shirley's Bay. I headed there on Labour Day Monday, stopping quickly at the Rideau Trail on my way. This proved to be an excellent decision, for there was plenty of activity along the boardwalk, including a couple of new migrants. Robins were quite numerous, for there are lots of berries along the trail, and I saw one Swainson's Thrush among them. I also saw my first Winter Wrens of the fall, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Cedar Waxwings, a Nashville Warbler, and at least three Blue-headed Vireos, one of which was actually singing. In the parking lot area I added Palm Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, White-throated Sparrow and Red-eyed Vireo to the list.

At Shirley's Bay one of the first birds I saw was a Red-tailed Hawk soaring overhead. I had another wonderful warbler experience in the woods, finding six species and one vireo: Northern Parula, American Redstart, Wilson's Warbler, Ovenbird, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler and a Philadelphia Vireo.

On the dyke itself, a number of photographers were busy shooting the shorebirds. I found myself watching the warblers in the trees instead. With some soft pishing I was able to catch the attention of a Yellow-rumped Warbler, and bring it in closer.

Yellow-rumped Warbler responding to my attempts at "pishing"

A Yellow Warbler foraging in the same tree also became curious, though it didn't come any closer. It looked up as though alarmed, then went back to looking for insects.

Yellow Warbler

The third warbler species I photographed was a fall-plumaged Blackpoll Warbler. In the spring it has beautiful black and white streaking on its body, like a Black-and-white Warbler, with white cheeks and a black crown, like a chickadee. In the fall, however, the Blackpoll Warbler becomes a drab yellowish olive-green, streaked with black. It keeps its pale eye-stripe and two white wingbars. One characteristic which helps to identify this warbler in the fall is the orange-yellow coloured feet. I found this fellow foraging in a tree branch hanging above the water.

Blackpoll Warbler

The last warbler I photographed was this Palm Warbler. This species is the one most likely in our region to be found feeding on the ground. It also nests on the ground, building a cup-shaped nest of weed stalks, grass, rootlets, and ferns in sphagnum moss at the base of a tree. A resident of Canada's northern bogs, open boreal coniferous forest, and areas near water with heavy undergrowth, it winters primarily in the southern United States and northern Caribbean.

Palm Warbler

While I was watching the warblers, I noticed several Barn and Tree Swallows hawking for insects above the bay and a few small damselflies hovering near the vegetation. Eastern Forktails are abundant along the dyke, and have a long flight season from early May through early October. It was no surprise to see them flying on such a fine early autumn day, and I managed to photograph a pair in a mating wheel.

Eastern Forktails

I turned my attention to the birds feeding in the bay after that. Both species of yellowlegs, a couple of Baird's Sandpipers, a single Dunlin, and a group of Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers dominated the mudflats. A group of the latter "peeps" were preening on a log near the dyke, so I joined the other photographers and took a few pictures.

Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers

Least Sandpipers

A few Lesser Yellowlegs were feeding next to the dyke as well.

Lesser Yellowlegs

I was surprised to see an American Pipit further out in the bay, sitting on the ground near a large rock near the Dunlin. Having had my fill of the dyke, I was about to leave when Chris Lewis arrived. We chatted about what we had seen, and she mentioned that a Common Nighthawk was sleeping in a tree next to the road on Shirley Boulevard! She gave me directions, so I set off in search of it. As I was leaving the woods, however, a large darner perching on a branch at eye level caught my attention. It was a Shadow Darner, and I managed to pick him up and photograph him. In this picture you can see the thick thoracic stripe shaped like a walking cane with a handle at the top; it is not notched like the Lance-tipped or Canada Darners.

Shadow Darner

I had trouble finding the nighthawk. After 20 minutes of looking, however, Chris came along and pointed me to the spot. Unfortunately the clouds had moved in by that time, covering up the sun and casting the nighthawk in shade.

Common Nighthawk

Related to the Whip-poor-will, the Common Nighthawk is a member of the nightjar family and is sometimes referred to as a goatsucker in reference to the myth that this bird, with its large mouth, suckled goats. They are more often seeing foraging for insects above city lights at night than perching on a branch or rock, so seeing this one at rest was a real treat.

Not only did Chris point out the nighthawk, she also told me that a Ruddy Turnstone had flown in to the bay. As it has been two years since I'd last seen this species, I turned around and headed back to the dyke. Although I didn't find the turnstone, I saw a Black-and-white Warbler and a Brown Creeper in the woods, an American Kestrel perching in a tree overlooking the bay, and a Northern Harrier flying low over the marsh. It started raining lightly then, and it was way past lunch time, so I turned around again and headed back to my car.

With such an amazing variety of birds, Shirley's Bay has been fantastic so far this fall migration. I think the kestrel and the nighthawk were my favourite birds on this outing, simply because neither one was expected and each made the day a magical one.