Birds, Toads and Raccoons
I love being able to go to places where I get a chance to see animals and landscapes that are rare or do not occur in my home province of Alberta. I had that opportunity recently when I spent a week in Southern Ontario, staying at my friend’s cottage: Toads Harbour – this may someday be HQ for Marcy’s consulting business, but for now it’s a nice little home away from home.
Nestled on the southern shore of Lake Erie, the patio opens up to an expansive view of the enormous lake. May is migration time, so in the mornings we were treated to a view of Double-Crested Cormorants skimming over the water in flocks as large as thousands at a time. Twenty minutes east of Toads Harbour is Canada’s top birding destination: Point Peelee. It is aptly named as the peninsula comes to a literal point on its southern edge. How ‘pronounced’ the point is will change from year to year, depending on the weather, water conditions, etc. The southern proximity makes it a bird’s paradise, especially in spring when song-birds and warblers are migrating. They travel over the water at night, and stop to rest and feed on insects and vegetation at the conveniently located most southern land-based point of Canada. Peelee island, located further south of the point and only accessible by ferry, is Canada’s most southern island point.
We visited the point a few times and took part in a guided bird walk. Our guide said bird traffic was a little slow that day, but I was pretty happy with all we saw: Robins, Cardinals, Grackles, Red-winged Black Birds, Brown Cowbirds, Great Egret, Red-breasted Mergansers, Horned Grebe, Gray Gnat-catchers, Blue-headed Vireo, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Yellow Warbler, Tennesse Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Palm Warbler, Eastern Phoebe, Brown Creeper, Clay-coloured Sparrow, American Gold-finch, Wild Turkeys, Cormorants and various gulls and terns. I’m probably missing at least a few. It was a pretty productive two hours in my humble opinion 😉
Peelee was only a small portion of the various wildlife I got to see on the trip. It started with our 3000 kilometer drive to get to the cottage. Marcy wanted to leave her extra car at the cottage for future use, so we decided to drive there and fly back. I knew we could not take my usual, leisurely driving pace, stopping for every sign of movement, or the 2.5 days of driving could easily turn into 2.5 weeks. However, I asked Marcy if we could stop for Sandhill Cranes if we saw any along the way, and she said ‘yes, I’ll give you 20 minutes.’ This is migration time, and I thought maybe we’d get lucky and happen upon a flock of Sandhills in the fields in Alberta or Saskatchewan. However, no Sandhills were seen by the time we reached the U.S border.
We took the faster route of driving through the U.S., and in terms of wildlife, I hadn’t given much thought to what I could see beyond the Canadian border. I know new areas provide new opportunities, but I just didn’t know what to expect. So when we were driving through Northern Michigan, I was shocked to see a Sandhill crane right on the side of the road. ‘Can we go back!?’ I exclaimed, and of course Marcy pulled over and swung around. We got a nice view of what actually turned out to be two cranes grazing in the long reeds. I was ecstatic! Shortly after – or maybe hours after? – we drove by another Sandhill.
This one was in much better light, and we got to watch him graze for a bit, then fly off, trumpeting his annoyance at us as he flew over the road. I got some even better images of this crane, including a couple of nice flight shots.
What an experience to get so close to this beautiful, massive bird! I had only seen Sandhills on three occasions before in Alberta, and they were either way off or flying over. I googled ‘Sandhill Cranes in Michigan’ later and discovered this region is a nesting spot for them. I hope to get back to that area to do some more exploring some day.
Ojibway Nature Centre in Windsor was another unexpected surprise. We found out about this area on our first trip to Peelee the day before. When I was researching Peelee before the trip, I happened upon an image of a Red-faced Eastern Screech owl in the park. So I asked the lady at the interpretive centre – what are the chances that I could spot one on our scheduled bird walk? She said they are around at Peelee, but difficult to see this time of year (or in general actually), but there are some nesting boxes for these owls at Ojibway. Once again, Marcy was happy to oblige my birding fancies. We had planned to head into Windsor the next morning for Dim Sum anyway, so we left a couple hours early to check out Ojibway. No luck with the owls – we saw the boxes but there was no activity. However, I saw a couple of other new birds for me: a Tufted Titmouse and a Red-bellied Woodpecker. Those sightings enticed me enough to come back the next day to do some more exploring of the park on my own. I still didn’t see the owls on my second trip, but I had an amazing encounter with some mating American Toads. I will expand on that in my next blog post: Love is in the air...
There was also an abundance of creatures (that we don’t generally see in Alberta) beyond of the parks. Great Egrets congregated in the swampy areas on the sides of the roads. These pure-white, heron-like birds are beautiful, and very rare in Alberta. I’ve already mentioned the Double-crested Cormorants, which we do get in Alberta, but not in the same volume. I also saw several Wild Turkeys, which are also not common in Alberta.
And of course – the raccoon. Raccons are very common in Ontario. I believe they live in Alberta as well, but are certainly not common. However, they are night creatures, so I was worried I might not get a chance to see one during the day. I caught a few glimpses here and there throughout the week, but on the last day, the odds of capturing a decent ‘day light raccoon’ shot were not looking good.
Luck was on my side when I was driving my rental car back to Marcy’s cottage from a brief road trip to visit a friend in Mississauga. The GPS led me to a side road off the main highway, and I drove by what appeared to be a furry clump in a tree. A sleeping raccoon! So I turned around to grab a few shots. The raccoon had his eyes open and was watching me, but it did not move at all as I positioned myself below the tree and fired of a few frames. I was very happy to have raccoon success on my last day in Ontario.
Needless to say, I had such a great time on this trip. Spring migration is a great time to visit for birding, but I think next time I would like to go in the fall when the leaves turn colors. It is supposed to be a magnificent sight! Thanks to Marcy for inviting me to stay at her cottage and indulging all my critter-based whims 🙂