Like many naturalists that reside in northern climes, I become somewhat restless as late winter drags on with spring just around the corner. I constantly review the weather forecast and I frequently look for any sign of spring that I can find - whether it is the first songs of House Finches and Northern Cardinals on a sunny February morning, or discovering a few crisp Northern Pintails, surely spring migrants, resting in a flooded field. Perhaps it is the first crocuses poking through the earth in a sheltered, sunny corner of a garden in my neighbourhood. Each day grows progressively longer (today is 2 minutes and 57 seconds longer than yesterday!) and new signs of spring become easier and easier to find.
We received our first good bout of warm spring weather over the past few days and Laura and I were determined to make the most of it. Wednesday had forecast temperatures of 15 degrees throughout much of southern Ontario, along with sunny skies. A perfect excuse to visit Long Point! As I have several tours scheduled in the Long Point region to take in early spring migration, this visit would double as a scouting mission.
The drive from Niagara to Long Point passes mostly through farm country, with small towns scattered along at regular intervals. Recent spring arrivals were very much in evidence - mixed flocks of Common Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds and Brown-headed Cowbirds fed in the fields, the plaintive calls of Killdeers caught our ears through the window, opened a crack as we drove, and distant flocks of geese passed by in the distance. Ah, spring!
Our first stop was "Woodlot C3", a managed forest west of Simcoe that had been frequented by Red Crossbills in recent moths. Our visit failed to turn up any crossbills until the very end, when one unseen individual vocalized from the top of one of the pines. But standing in the sunshine, as the sound of melting snow trickled in the background, felt amazing. We flushed up our first American Woodcock of the year as well. Soon, the distinctive "peent" calls of displaying birds will fill the night sky across southern Ontario.
Before leaving Woodlot C3, Laura spotted this firefly resting on a stump, exposed to the sun. This species is Ellychnia corrusca, the Winter Firefly. This particular species of firefly does not light up, I would assume because it is a diurnal species.
We drove along quiet country roads, taking in the sights and sounds. Hundreds of Sandhill Cranes and Tundra Swans were on the fields and in the sky. The south winds were a boon for migrating birds and the action was constant, all day long.
Horned Larks sang from almost every field and we stopped at one point to take in some close views of one pair. Laura even managed some great digiscoped photos. In my photo below, the horns are quite evident! For any GoT fans, this Horned Lark's horns were reminiscent of the Night King's crown, at least to our eyes.
Waterfowl are easily found in the Long Point area and we scoped through thousands of individuals, counting 19 species of ducks without trying too hard. I was happy to see my first Northern Shovelers and Green-winged Teals of the spring. The causeway along Long Point was absolutely loaded with diving ducks - overwintering Canvasbacks and Redheads, mostly, but with every other expected species tallied as well.
A mid-day walk in Long Point Provincial Park provided the day's highlight. As we explored we noticed the scolding calls of Black-capped Chickadees off the path. We listened for a while and the calls did not abate and so I hypothesized that the chickadees had discovered an owl. We carefully headed in that direction, keeping a watchful eye out for the object of the chickadees' concern.
Laura was the first to spot it - a gorgeous Northern Saw-whet Owl!
We thanked the chickadees for their service in alerting us to the owl. Laura and I moved slowly and were careful not to approach too closely, to minimize any stress we might cause the owl. We are entering the peak period of Northern Saw-whet Owl migration and so the owls need every opportunity they can to rest, without needless harassment. I don't think the chickadees received that message, though!
We enjoyed our few minutes with the owl and then slowly retraced our steps back out to the road. Any day with an owl encounter is a good day.
Laura and I took our time in the late afternoon while we drove back to Niagara. We made a few more stops along the way, scouting out some locations, and pushing our bird list for the day over 60 species. If we had started earlier in the morning and tried for a big list, 70 or even 80 species would have been attainable. Ah, spring!
That evening the temperature was still resting comfortably in the high teens, only forecast to drop to 12 degrees by the wee hours of the morning. With an extra spring in my step, I was feeling optimistic that I could find my first moths of the year. And so I drove down to Short Hills Provincial Park and set up my moth sheet.
What a good decision that was! Despite moderate to high winds, the first few moths of the season appeared at the sheet. The first two were tortricid moths that were too beat up to assign a definitive identification.
Some "non-moths" showed up to the party, including some unidentified midges, a Nursery Web Spider, several wolf spider sp., and a fruit fly called Tephritis pura.
A slightly larger moth was next to appear, and this one looked in much better condition. It was my first ever Half-Wing (Phigalia titea). As I have never mothed in the springtime before, many of the early spring fliers will be new for me this year.
Check out its camouflage in the next photo.
My last moth of the evening was this Goat Sallow (Homoglaea hircina), a type of noctuid moth. Some of the noctuids including pinions and sallows fly very late in the autumn, overwinter as adults, and fly again for a brief time in early spring. The best way to encounter these species is to place bait on the trunks of trees, since the moths will visit the bait to obtain a nutrient boost. I am looking forward to baiting some trees on subsequent mothing excursions this spring.
I called it a night and packed up my gear, just as a Great Horned Owl began hooting it up somewhere in the distance. It had been a fantastic spring day! I am really excited to see what else will be in store as we move into the most wonderful time of the year.