Birding in Ontario

Strange Places Bring Big Returns

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An early spring - in places the warmest, driest, April on record, brings the first waves of migrating birds surging northwards.  Our Big Year list surged too - by an amazing 46 new species during the month.  Even though we had most of our waterfowl already, the steady stream of blackbirds, sparrows, woodpeckers and hawks added to our list, and the first few warblers, thrushes, and shorebirds helped out too.
Choosing where to focus your attention in April can be a challenge.  Of course, we spent some of our birding time scanning fields and wetlands, and canvassing forest trails.  But April is also the first of the peak months for birders to haunt one of our stranger hang-outs - sewage lagoons!  During the month, we visited five sewage lagoons, and if time permitted, we would have loved to add several more with good birds.
Why do birders go to the often-fragrant facilities used to treat human wastes?
  Because of the birds, of course - especially the ducks and geese and shorebirds that stop there during migration.  And why are these birds so fond of sewage lagoons?  Not just because of the shallow water; more importantly because the abundant nutrients we humans so kindly deposit there support bumper crops of invertebrates to feed the visiting birds.
Not every municipality has sewage lagoons - cities and even larger towns use more sophisticated treatment plants that leave little room for birds.  But most rural towns still have lagoons - so much so that Clive Goodwin's classic Bird-Finding Guide to Ontario is colloquially dubbed A Guide to the Sewage Lagoons of Ontario!
The relationship between birders and the municipal operators of sewage lagoons has evolved over the years.  At first, there were so few birders that no one paid much heed.  But as the number of potential visitors increased along with municipal concerns about liability, No Trespassing signs proliferated.  Now, largely as the result of some great public relations work by birders, those restrictions are gradually loosening again.
The range of municipal lagoons on our list are typical of this more progressive attitude.  The Embrum lagoons in eastern Ontario, where we saw Shovelers (a type of duck with an impressive beak) and our first Yellowlegs of the spring, still have their weathered No Trespassing signs, but our group leaders assured us that the municipality is fine with visiting birders.  At the Alfred lagoons, where we witnessed the spectacle of about 1000 Snow Geese on the dykes, a fenced corridor leads visitors to a two-story viewing platform that provides panoramic views.
Other lagoons require visitors to have a permit from the municipality.  The Town of Blenheim, down near Chatham, issues its permits over the Internet, free of charge.
  You can order your permit for the Brighton facilities by mail, with a $5 fee.  But if you want to visit the Port Perry lagoons, you have to pick up your $10 permit in person, during normal working hours, at a municipal office.
The Brighton example is an interesting case, and hopefully an example that will be followed in many other places.  Several years ago, the town added a specially designed "polishing lagoon" to its treatment facilities, to help reduce the residual wastes going into Lake Ontario.  Since this lagoon was adjacent to a County road, they included in their design a small parking area and a nice covered viewing platform.  At first, the viewing was spectacular - all kinds of ducks, Moorhens with their bright red faceplates, Pied-billed Grebes and Great Blue Herons and other wading birds.  And birds who prefer their insects on the wing flocked there too - one memorable evening we observed all five species of Ontario swallows lined up together on the roadside hydro wires.
But as the cattails and other marsh vegetation that do the polishing (by removing nutrients from the water) became taller and thicker, the birds became harder to see from on e spot.  Led by local volunteers and a super-enthusiastic town employee known as "Tiny" Lee, the Town agreed to allow in guided tours along the grassy dykes, and this year went one big step further, allowing visitors with permits to go on the dykes by themselves.
So with the help of our friendly sewage lagoons, our total currently stands at 162 species.  Our best bird of the month?  Maybe those Snow Geese, which migrate over eastern Ontario by the tens of thousands, but seldom show up further west where we might spot them.  Or maybe the Eurasian Widgeon seen by Ron at the Port Perry Lagoons right at dusk one evening, but not by Janet early the next morning, much to her frustration!  Or perhaps the gorgeous male Spruce Grouse displaying for his potential mate on the Spruce Bog Trail in Algonquin, far from the nearest sewage lagoon.
Now that May is here, every morning seems to bring something new - Rosebreasted Grosbeak one  day, Green Heron the next, Yellow Warbler the next.  We are heading for a week in and around Point Pelee, Ontario's migration hotspot, and already drooling at the reports of all those species yet to be seen.  And who knows, maybe we will also find time to drop by the Blenheim sewage lagoons to see if that Wilson's Phalarope is still there!