The Red-headeds are here!

May 30th was probably one of my top 5 most enjoyable days of fieldwork since Frontenac Bird Studies began. The weather was perfect, the biting insects were oddly subdued and I could scarcely walk 100m before needing to georeference some exciting critter. I saw many butterflies, moths, snakes and plants of note but the centerpiece was a wetland that Steve Gillis and I explored during our first biothon in July 2010. Below are two panoramic views of the swamp from the south and east respectively (click to enlarge).


The wetland is fairly large by frontenac standards, about 9 acres in total area. It is distinctive in having a small raised island of live trees (mostly pine) surrounded by a flooded lowland dotted with snags and fallen trees. Surrounding the wetland is mid-successional oak-maple forest with scattered mature trees, an open understorey and with ground cover dominated by grass. The area was absolutely teeming with cavity nesters – Northern Flickers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Great Crested Flycatchers and White-breasted Nuthatches mostly. Apparently the area is so irresistible to Common Grackles that they were also nesting in cavities 10-15m above the water – an unusual choice for them (1.8% of nests reported to Ontario Nest Records Scheme n=2652).

At the far north end of the swamp were two large platform nesting species – Osprey (1 nest) and Great Blue Heron (3 nests). These and the all the cavity dwellers put on quite a show! The bordering woodland was also active with Cerulean Warblers, Red-shouldered Hawks, Yellow-throated Vireos and a single Olive-sided Flycatcher being the most noteworthy. The Olive-sided is the first I’ve seen in the region and probably a migrant, although suitable is available north of the park closer to highway 7. You can hear it singing in the video clip above (quick-three-beers) along with the odd Cerulean Warbler.

The birding at this site in July of last year was less memorable, probably due to the fact that it was during a mid-afternoon in July. However we did spot a pair of Red-headed Woodpeckers that day (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) – a rapidly declining species (Threatened status) in Ontario. It turns out that the species has been retracting from many parts of its range but heavily in Eastern Ontario. Our observation was the second of only two documented breeding records for Frontenac Provincial Park, although breeding evidence was not officially obtained in 2010. I bookmarked this as a target for 2011 and am pleased to report that it took me less than 30 minutes to confirm an active nest site this past Monday!

Adult Red-headed Woodpecker near cavity
RHWO Nest Site (near top of snag just underneath foliage)

Their active behaviour and brilliant high contrast of their plumage made them easy to track and observe within the open wetland. An adult called repeatedly from the west end of the swamp but rarely approached the nest (the male?). The other adult, presumed to be the female, made frequent trips to a cavity near the top of a 14m tall snag close to the southeast shoreline. The video at the beginning of this post highlights some of the activity at the nest site, which seemed to be exclusively short incubation sessions as no excavation or food carrying were noted. We will return to this site again in the next week or two to check on its progress.

The Red-headed Woodpecker is an extraordinary bird for many reasons. This post is already running long so I’ll have to return to this topic at a later date to highlight its unique ecology and relationship with human settlement. Below are two instructive breeding evidence maps from the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas, which visualize the widespread decline of this species in Southern Ontario. For further intormation, The Birds of North America account (subscription needed) is essential reading for this species but the Cornell account hits some key points too.

1st Atlas (Source: Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario)
2nd Atlas (Source: Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario)
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2010 Frontenac Biothon Report

Eastern Forktail (Seabrooke Leckie)

Our first annual Frontenac Biothon was held this past weekend in Frontenac Provincial Park. The weather was excellent – clear skies and seasonal temperatures. We had originally planned the biothon to take place on June 10-11 but we had to postpone due to expected thunderstorms and heavy rain. The disadvantage of running it in mid-July was that the birds were MUCH harder to find. On the upside, plants and insects were far more diverse and abundant. Overall, the biothon went very well and all participants had an enjoyable time. Also, as this was our first biothon experience, we’ve learned a lot about what will and won’t work for future editions. We set a goal of identifying 500 species and came oh-so-close to that number, falling just short, with a total of 441! Despite missing our goal, a rather arbitrary figure, our results were fantastic and some truly wonderful species were recorded!

Seabrooke Leckie looking for bugs

The biothon “MVP award” has to go to both Seabrooke Leckie and Julia Marko Dunn who demonstrated superb knowledge of insects and plants respectively. Myself, Steve Gillis and Chris Dunn spent much of our time covering ground in search for elusive birds and ended the biothon with just 64 bird species – well short of what could have been found earlier in the season. However, we have experience outside of birds, as well, and managed to add bits and pieces to the throng of plants and bugs found by the girls.

Tents at Cluster 13

We camped at cluster 13 on Big Clear Lake, which was a good location for the biothon. This area of the park is known for its rugged topography – steep ridges along lakes dominated by Eastern White Pine. Of particular note at this site was the evening serenade provided by the Coyotes, two or three Whip-poor-wills and a couple of Common Nighthawks!

Red-headed Woodpecker habitat (Derbyshire)

A personal/FBS highlight was the discovery of a pair of Red-headed Woodpeckers observed in an open swamp near Hardwood Bay, Devil Lake, on Saturday afternoon! My records indicate that the last breeding record for the park dates from over ten years ago near Gibson’s Lake to the northwest. I’m not clear on the historical status of this species in the area but I do know that they have declined sharply in the Kingston region and the province as a whole. This was our first encounter with the Red-headed Woodpecker since the project began in 2009 and it was a thrill to observe these stunning birds sally for insects from the many snags in this swamp. I never would have seen these birds had it not been for Steve who found the swamp and called me over to investigate (thanks Steve!). I will have to go back to this swamp in 2011 to confirm nesting. The Red-headed Woodpecker is a provincial and federally listed Species at Risk with a designation of Threatened.

The woodpeckers were just one of many notable sightings from the weekend – too many to list here unfortunately. We visited lakes, fens, bogs, beaver ponds, deciduous and mixed forests and successional rock barrens in the 24 hour blitz. I’m sure that each participant would describe their biothons differently but it is safe to say that a lot of fun was had and that our stay was much too short!

On behalf of the Migration Research Foundation I wish to extend our grateful thanks to this year’s many sponsors and to Ontario Parks for their support of the biothon. And finally, the whole event would not have been possible without the efforts of our dedicated volunteer biothoners; Chris Dunn, Julia Marko Dunn, Karina Dykstra, Steve Gillis and Seabrooke Leckie (clap clap clap!)

Below is a small selection of the species encountered during the 2010 Frontenac Biothon – hope you enjoy!

Graphocephala teliformis (Seabrooke Leckie)
Spatulate-leaved Sundew (Julia Marko Dunn)
Poison Sumac (Derbyshire)
Big Water Crayfish (Seabrooke Leckie)
Pitcher Plant (Julia Marko Dunn)
Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle