Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Birding on the other side of the pond - Carden Plain, Ontario - May 2014

After spending the weekend back in Oakville, with no birding to speak of (or blog about), my next excursion was on Monday 26th May when I headed north to The Carden Plain. This is an area that I had never visited before, but had been advised was a truly exceptional birding site. The Carden Plain is situated approximately a two and a half hour drive north from Oakville, west of the town of Orillia. The site is predominantly private but is bisected by non-residential unmade roads, which you bird from. Birding can be frustrating at times since you are not permitted to stray from the roads, except in some areas with advance permission or on designated trails. It is important to respect the owners wishes and not to trespass on their land.
The Carden Plain Information Sign

The Carden Plain is designated an Important Bird Area due to the assemblage of species it supports, including the declining and rare Loggerhead Shrike, Grasshopper Sparrow and Eastern Bluebirds. The area also contains a rare habitat type known as the Alvar, which occurs where flat limestone bedrock is bare, or covered with a thin layer of soil. In such cases a distinctive flora and fauna is present.

View across part of Carden Plain

There were essentially two reasons for me wanting to visit the area, the birds and the habitat. Bird wise I was hoping to see the rare Loggerhead Shrike, a new species for me, and also Upland Sandpipers, which breed here in good numbers. I had not really considered much else, but when I looked into the area in more detail I realised that there were a few other species that I had not previously seen, Grasshopper Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow and Eastern Whip-poor-will.

I arrived in Orillia around midday on 26th May and planned to stay until the morning of 28th May, this in theory would give me plenty of time to bird the area. On my first visit I headed straight to the area via Concession Road 11, but after that accessed Wylie Road off Highway 46. Concession 11 is an unmade road which passes through some open habitat that looked suitable for some of the speciality species. Other than the common Red-winged Blackbird the most numerous species was Eastern Kingbird and Common Starling. The new species for the trip were five Bobolinks, all of which were in one field, and two Eastern Meadowlarks. After a short stint on Concession Road 11 I joined Highway 6 (Kirkfield Road) and continued east. Just past the southern tip of Lake Dalrymple I headed north along Lake Dalrymple Drive, before heading east again along Alvar Road. A pair of nesting Ospreys on a low pylon by the side of the road were the highlight, and I was fortunate to arrive just as the adults were swapping over incubation duties.

Ospreys - changing maternity duties

Alvar Road was not what I expected habitat wise since it consisted of predominantly secondary woodland, either side of the road. The vegetation was dense and there was little to see from the car so I pressed onto the the intersection with Wylie Road. I had been advised by a friend that this was the best place to bird but had found it difficult to gain information on the area, and when asking local birders at Pelee and Rondeau, they appeared not to have heard of Carden Plain.

The vegetation at the northern end of Wylie Road is more mature, with some dense patches of woodland but as you head south the habitat opens up and it was at this end that I spent most of the time. Scattered along the road numerous nest boxes are present and these are occupied by either Eastern Bluebirds or Tree Swallows. I estimated there were around six pairs of Eastern Bluebirds, most of which appeared to have chicks since they were either bringing in prey or removing faecal sacs.

Female Eastern Bluebird - with a cricket species
Female Eastern Bluebird 

Towards the southern end of Wylie Road there was an open expanse of plain, with scattered scrub and trees, and a sign which says The Windmill Ranch. There is an Eastern Bluebird box numbered 10 at this location, a small hide and a pull in so it can be easily found. I found this place to be the most reliable place to see Loggerhead Shrike and I stopped here on three occasions and each time I saw birds. On an evening visit to Wylie Road I saw three birds here, two to the north of the road and one to the south, which would suggest up to two breeding pairs being present. I noted that two of the birds were colour-ringed but in the heat haze I could not get the combinations.

Loggerhead Shrike - one of three seen

As well as the shrikes there were Eastern Meadowlarks, Wild Turkeys, Song Sparrow, Eastern Phoebe, American Kestrel, Brown Thrasher, and on an evening visit amazing views of displaying Common Nighthawks. Be very careful in his area though, as the roadside verges can be dominated with poison ivy.

Brown Thrasher

Upland Sandpipers could be heard calling along Wylie Road but the best views I had were midway between The Windmill Ranch and another Ranch known as Art’s Ranch to the north. At this point birds would come into a very large puddle on the road to bathe. The vegetation in the field immediately adjacent and to the south of the road was short and close views could be had. Of course scanning any field, especially the rocks would often produce a bird, but these were more distant.

Upland Sandpiper
Upland Sandpiper
Upland Sandpiper

Whilst watching the sandpiper’s a Red-headed Woodpecker appeared. This bird was feeding low down on the trunk of a small roadside tree and gave excellent views. Apparently this species in now rare in the area, but I saw the species on two occasions in the area, and also an Eastern Towhee which was an unexpected bonus.

Red-headed Woodpecker - a rare bird on Carden Plain

Art’s Ranch is also apparently known as the sparrow field by the local birders since it lacks trees and therefore is the best place to see them. Grasshopper Sparrow is one of the specialities to be seen here, and can be readily seen singing from a favoured song post, usually one of the road side fence posts. I only saw the one male bird, but true to form he sang from the same song perch every time and gave excellent views.

Grasshopper Sparrow
Grasshopper Sparrow

Other sparrow species recorded were Savannah, Song and Field, the latter being another difficult species to connect with these days apparently.

Field Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow

Sedge Wren Marsh Trail is one of the areas where you can venture off the road. I walked part of the trail on two occasions, once during the day when the highlights I recorded were Red-eyed Vireo, American Redstart, Common Yellowthroat and Cedar Waxwing, and once at dusk when I recorded Common Nighthawk and at least three Eastern Whip-poor-wills. Unfortunately I did not see the whip-poor-will but could hear its distinctive song further along the trail.

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