Waterfront homes at Hemlock Lake

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Forest floor of regenerating coniferous forest

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Returned to the Hemlock Lake site yesterday to begin searching for mistnet locations and to get a better picture of the breeding bird community for our study. The visit was considerably more comfortable than my last when black flies were particularly menacing! This latest visit was cool with very few biting insects, which afforded me a great opportunity to get to know the site a bit better. What a difference a couple of weeks can make in the late spring! The emerging foliage was substantially further along, which created a much different looking landscape. Site visits in winter and early spring gave me a solid understanding of the scale, topography and structure of the site but I knew that it wouldn’t be possible to even consider positoning net locations until the canopy and understory had matured.

Upon entry to the site, I heard Eastern Towhee, Scarlet Tanager, Nashville Warbler and a concert of voice-battling Ovenbirds. Further along to where the forest turns from deciduous to mixed-coniferous, I encountered Black-and-white, Magnolia, Black-throated Blue and Blackburnian Warblers, all species we were expecting at the site. Also of interest were at least two territories of Winter Wren, one of the most vocally adept species on the planet! I was able to record a few seconds of one of our talented males holding territory in the site along with one of the unavoidable male Ovenbirds (click play to listen).

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Evidence of active nesting by many species included alarm calls, adults carrying nesting material and territorial disputes. I didn’t find a great number of nests but I did mark locations where a nest was suspected. I will have to return in a few days to a week to confirm presumed nest sites of Ovenbird, Black-and-white Warbler and Eastern Towhee among others.

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However, I did manage to find the nest of a Brown Creeper, which was discovered by patiently watching movements and behaviour of a pair in the standing dead timber at the edge of Hemlock Lake.  After sitting quietly for about 45 minutes, I was finally rewarded with the observation of an adult entering a tree with nesting material. The Brown Creeper places its nest almost exclusively in dead trees, between a loose flap of bark and the trunk. They build a hammock shaped nest of sticks and fibres, which is secured to the bark with insect-egg casings and spider silk. The nest will now be monitored with the goal of deriving a nest outcome. The information will be important to our demographic studies of breeding birds in the FBS study area and will be submitted to the Ontario Nest Records Scheme and Project Nestwatch for province-wide monitoring efforts. A closer view of the nest site is provided below.

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Brown Creeper nest site

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The most exciting discovery of the day led to this short video of a waterthrush carrying material to a nest in roots of an upturned tree along a clear moving stream. Northern Waterthrushes were quite vocal in the vicinity but this particular pair were all but silent except for some occassional contact calls between male and female. The calls were diagnostic of Louisiana Waterthrush but I will have to confirm identify of the nest owners at a later date. Northern Waterthrush are very similar in appearance with some subtle differences. It is best to distinguish the two by song, which are distinct. The Louisiana Waterthrush is a Species At Risk and a specialty of the Frontenac Arch region where an abundance of mature forest and clear moving streams provide suitable nesting habitat. The video is of less than ideal quality but one can clearly see an adult entering the roots about halfway up the screen to the left of the small tree trunk. The bird is more clearly seen at the end of the clip as it cryptically runs through the stream and out of the frame. Click here for HD version of this video clip.

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The Hemlock Lake MAPS station will begin operating in early June and continue with one visit per ten-day block through the final visit in late July. We will also be conducting a standardized nest monitoring study at this and the other two MAPS stations in the FBS study area. The site is turning out to be a terrific find and hopefully a long-term home for our research and monitoring programs.

Notable Species at Hemlock Lake (May 18,2009)

Great Blue Heron
Red-shouldered Hawk
Eastern Kingbird
Brown Creeper
Winter Wren
Wood Thrush
Swainson’s Thrush (migrant)
Northern Parula (migrant)
Nashville Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Cerulean Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
Ovenbird
Northern Waterthrush
Louisiana Waterthrush
Common Yellowthroat
Scarlet Tanager
Eastern Towhee
Field Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Baltimore Oriole

Scouting for M.A.P.S- Hemlock Lake

Hemlock Lake MAPS Site
Hemlock Lake MAPS Site

All of the needed permits and agreements are now in place to move forward with more detailed planning for the installation of three Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) stations in our study area. With the study area being over 15,000 hectares in size, it has been a big project just to develop a basic framework for maximizing the utility of the MAPS program for the purposes of our Frontenac Breeding Birds initiative. From the beginning it was clear that one station would be good, two would be better and that three could be a powerfully instructive network of stations that could calculate and monitor avian demographics for an area of approximately 22,000 hectares (not bad for 21 days of fieldwork!). This initiative also represents the first major expansion of the MAPS program in Ontario since 1995 when a total of six stations were simultaneously initiated in 1995 at Kakabeka Falls in Northwestern Ontario, all of which closed in 1998 (there have been a few isolated stations added in the province since that time). It is our intention to continue adding stations in strategic areas as we move forward. However, establishing these first three will be important to understand appropriate criteria for future expansion and to test feasibility of specific landscape components for the MAPS program in this region.

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Young hardwood forest swamp

Selecting suitable sites for MAPS is a slightly tricky business as many factors have to be considered including access, habitat components, species assemblage as well as proximity of infrastructure, development and agricultural activity. In developing our MAPS network we were careful to consider sites that could be accessed relatively comfortably and that were fairly consistent in degree and type of anthropogenic pressure, habitat maturity and habitat structure. However, a hallmark of the Frontenac Axis is its heterogeneity, and it is true that something quite different can be found at any turn. All three of our sites are similar but will have distinct characteristics of slope, vegetation, hydrology and representative bird species. This will allow us to sample a broad array of breeding bird species and also provide the opportunity to study some species shared by all three stations that are occurring in differing landscape contexts.

The panoramic image above was taken from our new Hemlock Lake (codename HELA) site, which is a site that I’ve been very keen on since my first visit in January, 2009. The site is a spectacular example of the Frontenac Axis with shield-like features and characteristically southern forest elements. The 20ha site is focused around a small lake with hundreds of flooded snags. The perimeter of this lake is very rocky with meandering creeks and small wetlands. The habitat is predominantly successional coniferous forest with young hardwood communities, however mature mixed-forest and juniper-rock barrens are also abundant in the area. A visit to the site yesterday was very buggy to say the least but I did find an impressive community of birds, which seemed to be on territory within the site. A shortlist of the species mix is provided below. We will return to this site once the Black Flies have relented to set up for our first banding day in early June, 2009. It is going to be an absolute pleasure to spend seven summer mornings with the birds at Hemlock Lake!

Hemlock Lake (HELA) Species on May 7, 2009

Black-throated Green Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Northern Waterthrush
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Ovenbird
Brown Creeper
Hermit Thrush
Winter Wren
Pileated Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Yellow-throated Vireo
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Eastern Towhee
White-throated Sparrow
Red-shouldered Hawk

Scouting for M.A.P.S

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2009 MAPS Habitat?

I spent the better part of yesterday afternoon scouting possible sites for our intended MAPS stations in the FBS study area. Frontenac Breeding Birds is the flagship program of Frontenac Bird Studies set for launch in mid-May, 2009. This program is being developed for the purpose of long-term inventory, monitoring and research of the region’s breeding bird populations. The Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas (OBBA) and North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) are two excellent sources of data that reveal long-term changes in population size and distribution of breeding birds. Across the continent, state/provincial atlas programs and BBS survey routes are extensive in coverage, providing an important foundation for monitoring bird populations. You may be thinking “why bother establishing Frontenac Breeding Birds?”

Both the OBBA and the BBS programs are devoted to monitoring bird populations at a broad scale, such as a province, state, country and/or continent. These programs are therefore “extensive” in their focus rather than “intensive”. Used in conjunction, these programs are a critical barometer of population trends that pinpoint regions or species of particular concern for conservation. The recently published 2nd edition of the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas clearly indicated a marked association of the Frontenac Arch ecotone as a sort of “stronghold” for many of Ontario’s bird species, including a high number of Species at Risk. The goal of our Frontenac Breeding Birds program is to take this important direction and further the understanding and awareness of bird populations in the Frontenac region by way of increased effort, an integrated approach to monitoring and by initiating more specific studies. Observational survey methods used by the OBBA and BBS were designed to index population size and range for North American bird species. Having this knowledge is a critical first step in the process of establishing priorities for conservation and research. The Frontenac Breeding Birds program represents an intensified and more comprehensive monitoring regime for breeding birds in the Frontenac Arch, a region of high conservation concern. Our approach will include annual monitoring of breeding bird demographics through the installation of a network of Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) stations.

Modeled after the Constant Effort Ringing scheme in the United Kingdom, the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) program was initiated in 1989 to provide long-term demographic data for North American landbirds. After a four-year pilot study, the MAPS program was endorsed by Partners in Flight, U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicating that MAPS was “the most important project in the nongame bird monitoring arena since the creation of the Breeding Bird Survey”. Over 1000 MAPS stations have been activated in the United States since 1989 contributing heavily to research, land management and conservation strategies. So far, Ontario has lagged behind in having less than 10 active MAPS stations in total. A MAPS network in the FBS study area will procure the first-ever index of demographics for local breeding bird populations and with subsequent annual monitoring, will serve as a barometer of the health and vitality of associated habitats. At the local and regional level, the incorporation of a MAPS network is a cost-efficient strategy for evaluating ecological stability in the landscape as a single station alone can yield vital rate statistics for an area up to 12,000 hectares from the centre of each station (due to post-fledging dispersal). This MAPS network would provide a valuable tool to evaluate management actions and various magnitudes and types of environmental and anthropogenic influence. We are also hoping to promote the MAPS program across southern and central Ontario where increased effort and participation could be of considerable ornithological and conservation value.

The majority of the FBS study area is privately-owned, which presents a challenge to find sites of a suitable nature and where permission to do the work can be obtained. Fortunately, the region has a good selection of protected land owned by the crown and municipal government. We are still in the process of selecting sites for MAPS but we are intending to install two or more stations in 2009 that will sample representative species and habitats of the region. The following is a sneak preview of some of these potential sites.

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Frontenac Provincial Park (near Dipper Bay, Birch Lake)

Mature deciduous forest interspersed with lakes, beaver ponds and ephemeral creeks is a dominant habitat type in the area. Valleys often contain a denser shrub layer, vernal pools and flooded forest. Ridges typically have characteristic upland oak-juniper savannah. Charactertistic tree species include Oak, Maple, Ash, Birch, Beech and lesser quantities of Ironwood, Basswood and Shagbark hickory to name a few. Barred Owl, Red-shouldered Hawk and Cerulean Warbler are common to these forests.

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Large Beaver Pond in hemlock forest type

This is an example of a large pond created by beavers in another tract to the north of Frontenac Provincial Park. This habitat is mixed-coniferous with cedar and hemlock being dominant tree species. These areas are characteristically wet with a dense understory of coniferous saplings and herbaceous plants. Wetlands occur throughout and include some bog environments. Typical bird species of this forest type should be Winter Wren, White-throated Sparrow, Magnolia Warbler and Hermit Thrush to name a few. The picture above is classic of the Frontenac Arch where the landscape transitions to Canadian Shield.

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Dan's eye-view of the forest interior

Here is a closer view of this habitat type. This will certainly be the most difficult terrain to navigate due to the dense growth and preponderance of wet and mossy dead snags and stumps. However, we will happily sacrifice our shins for the opportunity to learn more about this fascinating habitat and its inhabitants!

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Bog environment near Devil Lake Road

I visited this bog habitat in another tract to the east. This wetland already contains Swamp Sparrow and Wood Ducks and various woodpecker species (and a varied cast of vocal amphibians!). The number of wetlands of various kinds in the area is quite remarkable, which provides an interesting and ever changing blend of aquatic and terrestrial birds on any given hike. There are also acidic tamarack-spruce bogs in the area, which consist of carniverous plants and other truly northern specialties (more on these spruce bogs later).

The MAPS stations will begin operating in late May-early June, which gives us some time to finalize our site plans, order equipment and look forward to many early mornings with birds in summer 2009! Stay tuned for more details……