After the birdy days of May and June, the hot and sultry days of July seem unnaturally quiet. We know the families of young birds are still here, but the adults have largely stopped singing, and in general songbirds are much harder to find. And of course, with our Big Year count already at 264 species, there are very few common birds left to find.
So our focus this month shifted to two themes - the vagrant rarities that just show up somewhere within reach, and the first of the migrating shorebirds returning from their northern breeding grounds. The two biggest rarities of the month presented us with a dilemma - each was about a three-hour drive away, but one to the east and one to the west, and of course they both appeared at the same time! With our time limited by the need to work, we chose east, and drove one Sunday to Prince Edward County near the east end of Lake Ontario. Our route took us south through Picton, south again through Cherry Valley, and southeast again through Milford. And there, on the side of a mucky watering pond in an ordinary cattle pasture, our elegant quarry awaited - a fully plumaged Black-bellied Whistling Duck. If you have never heard of this species, that's not surprising, for it usually hangs out in coastal Mexico, or maybe a little further north into Texas. Somehow this wanderer found his way to southern Ontario, where he has stayed in the same pond with a family of young Mallards for over a month. But this is no Mallard look-alike - his long neck is almost goose-like, but a coral-red bill and startling pink feet seem more in keeping with his tropical origins. As his name suggests, his belly is jet-black, but his chest a contrasting rusty colour. Elegant indeed, though perhaps a little gaudy in comparison to our usual Ontario waterfowl fare.
On our way home, we made a stop at the Brighton constructed wetlands to quickly twitch one of our "nemesis" birds - a Moorhen. This wetland on the eastern edge of Brighton was built a few years ago to polish the waste water coming from the Town's sewage lagoons, and it has quickly become a favourite spot for marsh birds, including about a dozen pairs of nesting Moorhens, who weave their way among the cattails. We knew Moorhens were present in several marshes much closer to home, but they always had evaded us. Of course, once we had added them to our list, a week later a Moorhen and her chick walked onto the road in front of us at Prospect Marsh, one of our favourite local stops. C'est-la vie! Our second rarity quest was for a Dickcissel, a southern field bird that looks like a miniature Meadowlark. A pair of Dickcissels were reported breeding in a shrubby field not far south of Port Elgin near the Lake Huron shore, so we ventured out on another weekend drive. We knew we were getting late in the season, but the birds had been seen there on the weekend before, and regularly for several weeks. Alas, we were indeed too late - several hours of watching at the designated spot turned up not a trace of Dickcissels, meaning that the young had fledged and dispersed somewhere. Neither of us have ever seen a Dickcissel, a state of affairs that unfortunately remains true. On the same trip, we stopped by another recently-constructed water polishing wetland, this one at the little town of Mitchell. It offered great shorebird habitat, with dozens of Yellowlegs, Semipalmated and White-rumped Sandpipers, and more. But after counting 8 species of shorebirds, we had to conclude there was nothing new for our Big Year just yet. So a long drive on a lovely day, with great scenery and quite a few birds, but a bust for the Big Year project. So that was it for the month - a grand total of 2 new species to bring our total to 266. August beckons with the prospect of a greater variety of shorebirds, and we have three months yet to inch up our final list. But it's beginning to feel like an uphill climb - so thanks for the messages of support and encouragement we have received, and the additional pledges that continue to trickle in. We are still focused on the importance of acquiring the Wolf Run Alvar property, so your support is as important as ever.