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Thirty-eight people gathered on a cold Sunday morning in February to enjoy the many waterfowl that visit the St. Clair River during the winter months.  Our first stop was at the Bluewater Bridge where we were treated to a good view of the peregrine falcon that flew past and landed on the bridge.  Our scopes came in handy and some of the participants had great success with “digiscoping” (using your camera/cellphone to take a photo through the scope).  We saw a pair of cackling geese which was the highlight of this first stop!

Can you spot the pair of peregrines like likes to hangout at one of Sarnia’s most iconic spots?

Can you pick out the pair of cackling geese from Canada geese in this flock?

Here’s a closer look. Hint: Cackling geese can be distinguished from their Canada counterpart by their smaller size.

I think the funniest event at this stop was when two walkers stopped to ask our large group, with scopes and binoculars pointed out toward the lake, “What is coming?”  My response was met with the most incredulous look I have ever witnessed … as my response was “we are looking at ducks”.  At this point he paused and said “What?”  I said again “we are looking at ducks … and geese.”  He replied with a chuckle and said “Well, there are lots here.” And continued his walk.  I guess it takes some getting used to the idea that a group of people are willing to brave the cold wind to stand and look at ducks and geese!

Further down the river we stopped at Guthrie park to observe the dabbling and diving ducks around the warm water outflows, the ice-taxiing gulls, and eagles staging their hunt at the head of Stag Island. Then, without warning, thousands of birds took to the air from their water rafts to put on an aerial orchestra. Was it an eagle or a boat that caused the commotion? We weren’t sure, but the fleeting moment was spectacular!

The flocks were estimated to contain over 8,000 birds.

Here’s a portion of the flock. Can you identify any by their shape?

We continued to enjoy the day with several stops along the river, ending at a great little restaurant in Sombra.  Although we saw bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, swans, and lots of waterfowl I think from the reactions of the participants I would have to say the highlight of the day was the lesser black-backed gulls!

Can you identify the different gulls in this picture?

 A big thanks to Paul Carter for leading the group and making sure everyone had the opportunity to see the different birds and explaining what to look for when identifying different species.

Here is a partial list of bird species we enjoyed throughout the morning:

  • Peregrine Falcons
  • Cackling Geese
  • Hundreds of Long-tailed Ducks
  • Mallards
  • Buffleheads
  • Herring Gulls
  • Crows
  • Starlings
  • Northern Cardinals
  • Canada Geese
  • Hooded Mergansers
  • Bald Eagle
  • Common Goldeneye
  • Common Merganser
  • Lesser Black-backed Gulls
  • Greater Black-backed gulls
  • Red-tailed hawks
  • Canvasbacks
  • Redheads
  • Mute Swans
  • American Black Ducks
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Late summer or early fall is a great time to take a canoe for a relaxing paddle on the Sydenham River. This meandering waterway has very little current, no rapids or other canoeing challenges, and offers a chance to see a variety of wildlife. One key attraction of the Sydenham is its proximity to most parts of Lambton County. From Sarnia, you can drive there in 25 minutes. We normally put in near the village of Wilkesport, just a few hundred meters west of the Kimball Side Road on Wilkesport Line.

A decent river access is provided on the south side of the road, with plenty of room to park your vehicle. Your first choice when heading out from this point is whether to go east and under the first bridge, or west and south towards the Darcy McKeough Floodway. Either way, you will find the river a pleasant and surprisingly isolated place in a landscape typically dominated by agriculture. For various reasons, local landowners have left the shores of the river unmolested, so while you paddle your way along, trees and vegetation hide most of the evidence that this area of Lambton is almost exclusively dedicated to cash crop farming. We like the fact that only novice canoeing skills are required, and we’ve never seen a power boat in the years we’ve used the river.

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Perfect spot to put in the canoe.

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Canoe on the boat ramp, ready to go.

Last week we chose to head east under the bridge, then the river bends to the north where there is a fork. Choosing the left branch keeps you on the Sydenham while the right branch is known as Black Creek. Both tributaries are roughly the same width. The Sydenham meanders around passing under the Kimball Side Road three times. We did find a few trees fallen across the river in some spots, the last one requiring some portaging to circumvent. Typically we decide how many hours we want our outing to take and head out for half the duration and then turn back. The slow current isn’t much of a factor in travel time at this time of year. It’s surprising how the hours can slip by unnoticed as you leisurely enjoy the serenity of this river.

On this particular trip we spotted a colorful Green Heron soon after we started out.

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Green Heron on a tree.

It helps to keep your voices to a minimum to allow getting as close to wildlife as possible. Great Blue Herons are always present and will often fly to get ahead of you, only to emerge at the next bend in the river. Turtles are often sunning themselves on the numerous logs that are scattered on the river, we saw a Map Turtle on this trip.

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Map Turtle

Overhead a Red-tailed Hawk soared and called out with its unique cry. Other birds we saw included: Wood Ducks, Catbirds, Red-bellied woodpeckers, Flycatchers, Downy Woodpeckers, plus many others.

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Female Wood Duck

Later we watched another Hawk land in a tree carrying a small snake in its beak.

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Red-tailed Hawk in a tree with a snake.

On the Sydenham, after passing under the second bridge heading northeast, there is frequently a Great Horned Owl to be seen on one of the trees along the river. If you are lucky (and quiet) it’s possible to get a good a look at him (but no photo this time!) Dragonflies, Butterflies and Damselflies abound on the river, and you may see large carp near the surface, or often breaching the surface.

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A type of Bluet damselfly.

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A type of Hairstreak butterfly.

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Gorgeous Dragonfly

We observed a water snake but didn’t get near enough to identify it. Along the shores deer and wild turkey can be seen, and last year we saw adult and baby beavers. Unfortunately it appears that last winter’s ice has destroyed the beaver lodge and we have yet to find where they rebuilt. There is always something interesting to see along the river.

When you are looking for something different to do this summer I would like to suggest an evening paddle along the old Ausable River channel in Pinery Provincial Park. It is one of the most enchanting and peaceful places in Southern Ontario. A river which is now only fed by springs, it slowly flows out to the “Cut”, an artificially constructed river channel which travels to Lake Huron.

As the sun begins to set, the calmness of the afternoon slowly changes as the river comes alive with animals and birds which have been resting during the day. Actually this is one of the best times to observe wildlife in the Pinery. Just as most people are preparing to enjoy an evening campfire, many birds and animals are attracted to the river to feed. (more…)