September 6th 2017. Morgan’s Point, Ontario. My calendar was open and invited me to squander a day in aimless birding. Well not quite aimless, I had some ideas where good birding was to be found so made my way to the shores of Lake Erie. At this time of year there’s a reasonable chance of finding gatherings of southbound shorebirds; conditions have to be right.
What makes Lake Erie most productive for birds and birders is a spell of churning stormy weather to drive swaths of loose aquatic vegetation ashore. Then allow a week or so for rank decay to begin and you have an odiferous feast of invertebrates for hungry birds. Understandably these are conditions that shoreline property owners hate and believe that ‘they’ (government at some level) should do something about it. It was that way at the end of August four years ago when I had a marvellous day studying and photographing yellowlegs, sandpipers and plovers. But today was the sort of day made for beach-strolls and sunbathers but not much good for birds and birders. Inland was a little different though.
It’s an hour’s drive to Lake Erie and I took back roads as much as possible. A couple of open fields held distant clusters of what I assumed were Killdeers, but they were too far away to invest a lot of time studying. Much better were a pair of Sandhill Cranes seen gleaning a recently harvested wheat field. I pulled to the shade of a Burr Oak and watched them for a while thinking of the Grey Crowned Cranes of Uganda I had admired for the same reasons six months ago. Stately would be the right adjective for cranes. What would it be like, I wondered, to be a crane, stalking fields with precisely chosen strides, hunting late summer grasshoppers, tidying up grain spills and unafraid; at that size and with a dangerous looking spear of a beak you would think cranes are pretty well unassailable. I know that in some mid-western farmlands crane populations have become a nuisance and many are shot, whether a ‘harvest’ is really warranted or whether it’s itchy trigger fingers I don’t know; I hope they taste good.
I was sure these Sandhill Cranes would be my Birds of the Day but it was still early and exploring the shores of Lake Erie was yet to come. I stopped for a while at a wooded lakeside park, it was unexciting and I didn’t see much except for this delightfully subtle Swainson’s Thrush, it stopped me in my tracks; my Bird of the Day.
It’s hard to put my finger on just what it is about these reclusive birds, all of our thrushes: Swainsons, Grey-cheeked, Hermit and Wood Thrushes and their Veery cousins are generally soft brown, cream or buff; hardly showy. But they are songsters that lay down ethereal and fluting songs in the spring forests, sounds that always make birders stop and listen.
I wrapped up my day gazing at a scattering of shorebirds working the shallow stretches of a flooded and now abandoned quarry. There were several Greater Yellowlegs and to my surprise two Black-bellied Plovers, one adult and one juvenile. It’s been a few years since I last saw this species and they always make for a satisfying sighting. I wouldn’t call them stocky or stolid but they are well-proportioned and handsome, typically plover-ish like their Killdeer cousins, only better. Killdeers are inclined to act a little hysterically, like street performers and so are hard to take very seriously. Black-bellied Plovers on the other hand conduct themselves with an air of solemnity, more ringmaster than juggler.
The shot below shows Black-bellied Plovers in spring, at their most handsome, surrounded by a mass of Short-billed Dowitchers.