Frontenac Bird Studies – The 2013 Season

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Our fifth straight season of avian monitoring and research in the Frontenac Arch was a success and is now officially wrapped up! A substantial amount of data was collected in 2013 and has now finally been proofed, entered, sorted and examined. Here’s a quick recap of the major highlights from 2013  – the season of the survey….

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Point Counts Abound

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Surveying along Canoe Lake Road, June, 2013

This past year we conducted a lot of point count surveys – 258 in all, to be exact. Many of these (164) were repeat surveys at fixed stations that were first sampled in 2009. Overall, the effort required >40 kms of walking in Frontenac Provincial Park and stops every 500m along 56km of roadways throughout the study area. Over time, the data enables us to monitor changes in breeding bird populations in a broad array of landscape conditions. Overall, we observed a small decline since 2009 (-3.9%). Minor changes in abundance, positive or negative, are evident for most species, however some have shifted more markedly in recent years. Yellow-throated Vireos, for example, increased in abundance on point counts by a whopping 250% in 2013!

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Cerulean Warblers in the Frontenac Arch

In 2013, we collaborated with Bird Studies Canada and Canadian Wildlife Service as part of a project to survey Cerulean Warblers. The study looked at populations across a 300 km extent from Georgian Bay to the Frontenac Arch. Results from this project and our own studies strongly support the value of Frontenac Provincial Park forests to Cerulean Warbler populations in Canada. Perhaps North America’s fastest declining wood-warbler, the Cerulean Warbler has been assessed as Endangered in Canada and Threatened in Ontario.

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Monitoring Avian Productivity & Survivorship (MAPS): 2009-2013

Our fifth consecutive MAPS season came to a close on August 4, 2013. After the bumper 2009 season, a substantial decline in population diversity and abundance was detected, reaching a five-year low in 2011. This past season saw the first signs of a rebound with an overall record-high productivity index and also three-year high capture rates for many species. The program is a key component of our breeding bird monitoring objectives by providing annual assessments of forest bird demographics. We are pleased to report that “Mr.33”, a male Veery banded at MABO as a hatch-year in 2009 has returned each year since, including 2013! His travels from the Frontenac Arch to Brazil amount to >56,000 km over eight migrations. This distance is equivalent to one and a half trips around the globe – incredible!

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Veery nest at MABO in 2009

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These are just a few of many stories from the 2013 season of Frontenac Bird Studies. Our program exists through the assistance of many wonderfully supportive individuals and organizations. The Migration Research Foundation thanks the following for their contribution to FBS in 2013!

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Funding

The John Hackney Foundation for the Noosphere
Frontenac Avian Atlas Day sponsors

Volunteers

Chris Dunn
Steve Gillis
Seabrooke Leckie

Project Support

Corina Brdar
Ontario Parks

Peter Dawson
Ontario Parks

Bert Korporaal
Ontario Parks

Chris Robinson
Ontario Parks

Ken and Vera Shepherd

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The Big Picture: Point Counts Then and Now

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Point Count on Canoe Lake Road – June, 2013

For us, 2013 will be remembered as the year of the point count. We’ve now finished up the last of a whopping 260 stations. This includes our own established suite of 164 on and offroad stations but also a new set conducted for our collaborative assessment of Cerulean Warblers with Bird Studies Canada. We’ve yet to enter and mine the data but a few things are clear: a) an overall decline in forest bird abundance has occurred; b) trends are positive for some species but negative for more; and c) You can almost always count on a Red-eyed Vireo or two to liven up a survey!

From 260 Point Count surveys this summer, a total of 576 Red-eyed Vireos were tallied. So often we tend to focus on less prodigious species and those showing signs of decline. However, the stability and ubiquity of the Red-eyed Vireo in the Americas is compelling and worth appreciating. Here at home in the Frontenac Arch they seem to be thriving in forests where others have thinned out if not vanished altogether. This round of surveys struck a note – these are prolific, feisty, robust survivors serving an important ecological role in hardwood forests. They are also the current record-holder amongst world bird species for most songs in a day – 20,000!

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Sugar Maple – Red Oak Stand near Birch Lake

I’m beginning to let go of the notion of “normal” with respect to weather. We’re now in the middle of our fifth spring/summer season and we’ve yet to have a complete season without at least one extended period of extreme conditions. This year has been “abnormally” wet. In fact, water levels have never been so high since we began our studies in 2009. This boom and bust weather must take something of a toll on breeding bird productivity. Cerulean Warblers are clearly down from levels detected in 2009 and we’ve talked at length in the past in a similar vein regarding Louisiana Waterthrush and Prairie Warbler. However, the picture isn’t quite so gloomy across the board. A number of species are actually up from previous years including Blackburnian Warbler and Brown Creeper. It will be very interesting to dive into the data in the coming months to get a better handle on what’s happening – stay tuned for more details in the future.

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Sugar Maple – Ash – Ironwood Stand near Big Salmon
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Arkon Lake

Surveying the Mixed Forests

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Eastern White Pines

This past week I finished up the remaining point count routes, which included a route through coastal mixed forests along the extreme eastern edge of Frontenac Provincial Park. I accessed the habitat via a lengthy stretch of the Cataraqui Trail. Weather was perfect for surveying and it was fabulous to get and see this area of the park. Dominant species encountered during the morning were Yellow-rumped Warbler, Pine Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Black-and-white Warbler and Red-eyed Vireo with a few “goodies” mixed in here and there.

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Atop a ridge looking to Buck Lake

The survey route passed through a wide variety of habitats but the main target was mature mixed forest occurring along shorelines of large lakes in the area. Most lakes around here are steep in slope along the perimeter and lined with a high percentage of Eastern White Pine and Eastern White Cedar but I wanted a route that could be accessed relatively easily on foot.

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Waterfall near Slide Lake

I was impressed with the high number of clear, gravel bottomed, moving streams in this area of the park. Since early June I’ve been logging locations of suitable stream habitat for breeding Louisiana Waterthrushes with the intention of returning in May, 2009 to inventory populations of this species in Frontenac Park. This particular stream was quite a torrent along its length, ending with a flourishing waterfall as it emptied into South Bay of Buck Lake.

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Prairie Warbler habitat

The most significant finding of the morning was of a small colony of Prairie Warblers along the sloped and scrub-bearing banks of Slide Lake!

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Prairie Warbler habitat

This is fairly typical habitat for this rare warbler in Ontario-rocky shorelines of lakes with a large component of successional scrub habitat.

I recorded this video with my ancient Canon A70 point and shoot camera to try and capture some audio of the singing males. A male flew into the small tree directly behind where I sat for a break at the end of the day and sang repeatedly at close range. I wish I’d had my HD camera as this particular male remained very close for about 10-20 minutes.

Surveying the pine barrens

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1st panamoric shot of wetland/pine barren habitat

The first of two point count survey routes through rock barren environs in Frontenac Park was completed this past week. It has been tough going for scheduling and conducting surveys this season as the weather has been largely uncooperative for both roadside and off-road surveys of breeding birds. Cool temperatures, high winds and precipitation limit bird activity, which greatly reduces the validity of the data being gathered. This is the main reason why these surveys have yet to finish, however they should be wrapped up by the weekend (fingers crossed).

106 point count stations are now “in the books”, the last batch of which were drawn from rock barren habitat in Frontenac Provincial Park on June 20th, 2009. It was a long day of hiking, spanning over 12 kilometers through the deep interior of the park’s southeastern portion. The habitat was stunning and full of birds and other wildlife, which made for yet another exhilarating day of field studies on the Frontenac Arch. This particular section of the park is HEAVILY laden with irregularly sized and shaped wetlands ranging from beaver ponds, lakes, swamps and sloughs. More than once I was forced to wade through the water waist high in order to stay on course-there was simply no way of getting through it without a long and wasteful detour. I don’t normally object to getting a bit wet as needed but these wetlands are very soft-mud bottomed types with imperceptible footing and a great deal of mushy unpleasantness-not to mention saturated with unseen snapping turtles! In the end though, my way was found and I took in the ordeal with a balanced sense of bemusement and humour.

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blueberry season arriving

Blueberry, probably Vaccinium corymbosum or High-bush Blueberry, was a dominant ground cover species in areas with enough moisure (i.e. everywhere). The fruit is just starting to mature and should be edible soon. I have yet to associate any particular bird species with this plant but I can imagine that Nashville Warblers would find it an appropriately dense-low growing cover for their shallow cup nests. Blueberry is common throughout the park but is particularly abundant in rock barren areas running in a gradually narrowing band from the park’s south end through to Big Clear Lake in the northeast.

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Prairie Warbler turf

The very first survey of the day yielded Virginia Rail, multiple pairs of Wilson’s Snipe and a distant Prairie Warbler-not a bad start! The next station, some 330m away, got me closer to the Prairie Warbler territory, which is pictured above. The male was constantly singing from the the dense shrubs lining a wet draw astride a rock wall. I had no time to investigate this particular territory any further but I’ve been pleased enough overall with having mapped several territories of this species in interior and atypical habitat associations. Prairie Warbler is a rare breeder in Canada with a very patchy and sparse distribution along the southern shield ecotone in Ontario.

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Mixed-forest habitat near Slide Lake (FPP)

The route carried through a habitat I hadn’t yet sampled this season, mixed-forest dominated by Eastern White Pine and Red Pine. This area was “loaded” with Yellow-rumped and Pine Warblers, Chipping and White-throated Sparrows and lesser numbers of Blue-headed Vireo. The highlight of the birding was an adult Great Horned Owl with a fluffy youngster within 75m during a survey. Great Horned Owl is considerably less common than Barred Owl in this region.

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Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida)

The best non-avian find of the day was of a mixed stand of pine, which included some Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida), a species endemic to the Frontenac Arch and 1000 Island regions in Canada. This pine species is the primary species of the well known New Jersey Pine Barrens, although it is found in small quantities south to Georgia. Interestingly, this is the only native conifer to sprout shoots (epicormic sprouts) from its trunk in response to damage, an adaptation to surviving forest fires.

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More Pitch Pine

Pitch Pines are a scraggy looking conifer species, a trait that probably drew my initial attention to it. All of the plants in the stand were roughly of this size and shape, no more than perhaps 10m tall.

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Distinctive needles

This is a closeup of the needles and cones of the Pitch Pine with its characteristically long, flat and twisted needles in bunches of three. The Pitch Pine is not listed as a species known to reside in Frontenac Provincial Park so I hope I haven’t botched the ID as I’ve now gone into some irreversible length about this subject:)

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panoramic shot of pine barren habitat

This is the last of the panoramic shots I took of the area during the day. I was hoping that the widescreen view might help in providing a sense of scale and depth of the habitat. Vegetation in the area is quite stunted, reflective of shallow till and extensive rock outcrops. This park “ecozone” is a stark contrast to the mature woodland featured earlier, with its abundant Cerulean Warblers and towering century old ash, maple and oaks. Just a few kilometres away, Wilson’s Snipe, Eastern Towhee, Field Sparrows and Common Nighthawks, among others, inhabit vast expanses of moss and lichen covered rock with ripening blueberry shrub and stunted pines. These contrasts are a defining feature of the Frontenac Arch, an undulated, ever-changing landscape of immense diversity.

Point counting begins in Frontenac Park

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The Point Count is a standard method for gathering data on the relative abundance of breeding birds. This method typically involves a 3, 5 or 10 minute count of all birds detected from a fixed position and is conducted year-after-year from the exact same spot. Annual replicates of point count surveys enable the calculation of population trends and can also infer correlations of temporal changes in relative abundance to specific habitats and many other parameters dictated by survey design. For the Frontenac Breeding Birds project, we will be completing 80 off-road point count stations within Frontenac Provincial Park as well as 120 roadside counts along secondary and tertiary road systems in the study area. This is a big undertaking but will provide a sound baseline assessment of the avian communities in the area. At least for now our point counts will be focused on terrestrial habitats, primarily of the forested kind.

I emerged from the house at dawn on June 8th to begin the first morning of point counts in mature deciduous forest habitat in the park. I heard a Winter Wren singing mightily from the opposite shore of our dock and wondered if I might have a chance to investigate later in the day after the surveys were done. I was about to enter some of the oldest forests in the region and didn’t have any time for dawdling so I carried on to the first station after a short boat trip across Kingsford Lake.

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These forests are quite diverse with tree species but the main representatives are Red and White Oak, White Ash and Sugar Maple. The light diffusing through the canopy was quite spectacular and I was pleased to write down a singing male Cerulean Warbler at MH1, the first station of the day! Ceruleans are quintessential canopy dwellers, rarely descending to heights that would afford even a decent glimpse, although they do occur in less mature forests at Queen’s Biological Station.

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This is one of the grandparent trees in the forest, easily a century old White Ash that pierced through the upper canopy. My jets hat was used to give a better sense of scale of this monster!

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This is a view straight up to the canopy along the trunk of the ash and the Ceruleans like to hang out up near the top somewhere. Fortunately, I’ve been finding that their buzzy songs carry a decent distance through the forest and they are frequent songsters, even well into mid-afternoon.

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This particular point count route was about 4 kilometres long in total with twelve stations spaced evenly by 330 metres. The route carried me nearly the full length of Kingsford Lake to the north end of the park and Devil Lake. There was much more than just birds to look at during the trip including this abandoned mica mine, which was established in 1844 and terminated in 1949. The mine shaft was fenced off and all that remained of the operation were piles of mica shards and a heap of old equipment and furniture as seen in the photo below.  Mica is abundant in the area, glowing in the soil and exposed rock on sunny days.

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The undulating landscape of ridges and valleys is a hallmark of the Frontenac Arch where the Canadian Shield rears up dramatically at its furthest position south. The valleys often contain ephemeral pools and wetlands, which create ideal growing conditions for these ferns that were over a metre and a half tall. Northern Waterthrushes thrive in these areas of the park.

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Back to the birds. After completing the first route through mature forest on the 8th, today I finished up the first of three routes to be conducted in younger hardwood forest of the park. An obvious highlight of the two survey routes was the abundance of Cerulean Warblers detected. This little wet clearing in a relatively young hardwood stand contained three males that sang from the confines of their respective territories at the edge of the clearing.

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This is a photo of one of my survey forms from this morning, which records no less than three counter-singing Cerulean Warblers! The inner circle has a 50 metre radius and the outer extends from 50-75 metres. This grid is used to keep track of who is where while you are working as it can become quite confusing when there are a lot of birds in your immediate area. The hashmarked lines connecting CERW and SOSP indicate countersinging birds, which helps to confirm that individuals aren’t being double-counted. Birds with small dots were detected in the first three minutes and those with stars and triangles were recorded between 3-5 and 5-10 respectively. There were twelve species within 75 metres at this particular station, including a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (YBCU) and a Scarlet Tanager (SCTA) among the Ceruleans (CERW), American Redstarts (AMRE) and Red-eyed Vireos (REVI). Also present were Northern Flicker (NOFL), American Robin (AMRO), Song Sparrow (SOSP), Great Crested Flycatcher (GCFL), Chipping Sparrow (CHSP) and White-breasted Nuthatch (WBNU).

The first day of point counts finished off nicely with a Louisiana Waterthrush near Crab Lake at the last count and in the last minute! In all a total of 14 Cerulean Warblers were detected along the route through mature deciduous forest. Another 15 were recorded this morning in younger hardwood forests near Birch Lake to the south of Kingsford for a total of 29 singing males in two mornings of point count surveys in Frontenac Provincial Park! The 24 surveys completed so far are at best a slice of what is there and I still have two more routes of twelve counts each in the younger hardwood forests.

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Lastly, after walking back the four kilometres from Crab Lake on Monday, I checked in on that singing Winter Wren I’d heard singing about seven hours before. After about 60 minutes of quietly watching the male and female in their territory, I was able to locate their nest underneath this mossy old stump. It was pitch black under there and I had to basically lie down in the swamp with my flashlight and pocket mirror to find what is effectively a hidden hole in the ceiling of the stump about the size of a two dollar coin! The nest contains three very small chicks and with any luck you will notice the tips of their bills in the photo below.

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