Local science and nature, compiled by Bob Bowles 0
GREBES NESTING IN ONTARIO
The grebe family is a group of birds not well known to most people in our area. There are five species that have been recorded as being observed in Ontario, but with the split of the western grebe in 1985 into two distinct species, western grebe and Clark's grebe, this gives us six species of grebes possible in Ontario.
However, these two species are western species, rare in the east and do not nest in Ontario. Therefore, it is possible to find four species of grebes nesting in Ontario.
The most common of these in our area and in Ontario is the pied-billed grebe, which nests in marshes dominated by cattails and bulrushes as well as beaver ponds surrounded by shrubs and emergent vegetation.
You can hear the mating and territorial calls at this time of year when visiting these habitats.
I have often found pied-billed grebe nests during my Ontario wetland evaluation surveys I have completed over the years.
The horned grebe is often observed in our area during spring and fall migration, but only nests in Ontario in very few locations in shallow freshwater ponds in the northwest near the Manitoba border.
The main nesting area for this species is in Northwestern Canada. The eared grebe is a very rare and recent breeder in Ontario.
Less than five pairs breed each year in Ontario, which is the eastern extent of its breeding range.
It was first recorded in Ontario in April 1948 in Hamilton Bay and first confirmed as breeding in 1996 in the Rainy River area.
There was only one confirmed nesting location in southern Ontario, at Thedford sewage lagoons in Lambton, during the second Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas (2001-2005).
This week, there are observation reports from Point Pelee and Blenheim lagoons near Rondeau, both on Lake Erie.
The last species of grebe for Ontario, the red-necked grebe, is a familiar migrant in our area.
I have counted as many as 100 birds on Lake Simcoe in one day, usually around the Kempenfelt Bay area just before the ice moves into the shoreline bays in autumn.
"However, this species is infrequently seen on its breeding range since most nesting occurs in the sparsely populated north-w estern part of Ontario" ( Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas [2001-5]).
There are only 10 nesting records in southern Ontario and nesting is sparse and scattered in Ontario.
Six of these records are on the west end of Lake Ontario, three on Manitoulin Island and one near Sudbury.
There are a few historic nesting records with even one in Simcoe County in 1902.
The core nesting area for rednecked grebes in Ontario is in the northwest, between Thunder Bay and the Manitoba border, on shallow lakes and bays in emergent plant species like bul-rushes, cattails, sedges and wild rice.
They arrive to their breeding ground from mid-April to early May and go through loud and conspicuous territorial displays.
Nesting begins soon afterward with pairs building a floating platform from aquatic vegetation in shallow water in wind-sheltered locations.
In all my time birding, even in the Rainy River area one summer, I had never observed the courtship display of the rednecked grebe until last week.
I would never drive 3,500 kilo-metres return from Orillia to witness red-necked grebes on the breeding territories in late April.
However, I happened to be in Dryden last week taking my son up to his summer job and after getting him set up for the summer, I had a few hours to explore the area for birds.
A walk in the early morning of April 26 on the nature trails on the shores of Wabigoon Lake tallied only 15 species of birds since there was still snow in the bush in many places.
I was surprised to find hermit thrushes had returned this early that far north and saw a pair of black-billed magpies.
I later observed several other pairs of magpies and even was lucky enough to find a magpie nest in a low tree.
The following day, I was invited to observe the territorial displays of red-necked grebes on Eagle River near Vermillion Bay, west of Dryden.
We observed six pairs of grebes on a small bay on one lake at very close range.
I could hear the chuckling sounds the pairs made to each other between the loud calls on their territories.
One pair would move over to an unmarked line on the bay before being challenged by other pairs.
Each pair seemed to know exactly where their territories started and ended.
We then observed four more pairs on another nearby lake. What a beautiful sight to watch these displays and the bright red colours of the throat of the male as the feathers glistened in the sunshine.
I hope to return this summer to these lakes to watch as the young grebes leave their nests and join their parents on the lake.
MORE SIGNS OF SPRING
I mentioned new early records this year in previous columns due to a very early spring.
This week, we have records of the first ruby-throated hummingbirds returning to feeders near Orillia April 25 as well as the first Canada geese goslings hatching the same day.
The first American robins hatched the same day and mourning doves had hatched two weeks ago.
Many young birds had hatched this year before May 1.
Watch for common loon migration with birds flying over in the early morning hours for the next few weeks.
I observed a common loon at Long Lac April 28, which seems early for this species that far north.
The first chimney swifts should return to Simcoe County this week.
Early recent records were May 1, 2010, and May 5, 2011. Please report any swifts observed. American kestrels arrived in mass the last week of April, not only in Simcoe County, but across Ontario. As I crossed from west of Thunder Bay, east through Nipigon, Geraldton, Hearst and Cochrane, they could be observed on roadside wires. Several sandhill cranes were observed along the highway between Long Lac and Hearst and several adult bald eagles soaring overhead. Gray jays were seen in the early morning nippy air sitting on the tops of black spruce trees trying to warm up. But the bird in the northern forests is still the northern raven and several were doing aerial courtship flights last week.