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NATURE NOTES: High water detrimental to some species, a boon to others

By Elizabeth Kellogg, For Northumberland Today

A Common Black-headed Gull is one of the rare gulls to have been spotted at Cobourg beach this summer.
Photo courtesy roblonsberryphotography.com

A Common Black-headed Gull is one of the rare gulls to have been spotted at Cobourg beach this summer. Photo courtesy roblonsberryphotography.com

High water levels along Lake Ontario have flooded beaches and washed out my favourite walking trail.

Farmers are having difficulty both planting and harvesting crops because of wet fields. Boats are unable to use Port Hope’s harbour facilities.

But how has the wet spring and summer affected birds?

Last year at this time, I was writing very excited columns about Piping Plovers, an endangered species, nesting for the first time in 100 years at Presqu’ile Provincial Park. This spring, the male that nested there last year came back in May. Since he was colour banded, he could be identified.

Instead of a wide sand beach, he was faced with a swampy area. What had been dry sand last year was covered with water right up to the vegetation behind the “beach.” He stayed around for about a month, but the water didn’t recede, so he left for places unknown. There was no place for a bird which required a sandy beach on which to nest.

A pair did nest in Prince Edward County at North Beach Provincial Park, not far from Presqu’ile as the plover flies. This pair laid four eggs, which hatched. However, at last report, none of the chicks were still alive. One of them was seen being taken by a gull.

There were four nesting attempts at Darlington Provincial Park in Oshawa. It is uncertain whether these were all by the same birds. Three attempts were unsuccessful because they were washed away by storms after eggs had been laid. The fourth attempt laid four eggs of which three hatched. At this writing, the male and two chicks remain. The female has left the beach, which is normal behaviour for this species.

With the population of Piping Plovers so low on the Great Lakes, loss of any nest is really bad news for the species survival.

Other birds that nest on marshes have not had a good breeding year either. I have noticed many fewer Canada Goose goslings around town than in most years. Although I didn’t see it, I suspect that many of these nests were destroyed by the high water. The same probably goes for many duck nests and Mute Swans. Geese and swans nest on mounds of vegetation, such as an old muskrat lodges in marshes. These nests would have been very prone to flooding.

Other marsh birds, such as rails, gallinules and bitterns have also had trouble finding dry enough spots to nest. A friend who lives near Presqu’ile marsh has had as many as five American Bitterns hanging around his property. This property is usually a dry grassy field. This year, it is an extension of the marsh.

Although the high water levels have been bad for some species, returning shorebirds have found that the flooded beaches provide good foraging. By July, many Arctic nesting shorebirds are already moving south again. At Presqu’ile, they didn’t find a beach. Instead, there is a low ridge of sand at the water’s edge and behind this ridge is a series of shallow ponds. These provide abundant invertebrates on which the shorebirds feed.

Among the species using these ponds were Wilson’s Phalarope, Stilt Sandpiper, Sanderling, Lesser Yellowlegs, Semipalmated Plover and Pectoral Sandpiper.

These shorebirds aren’t being disturbed very much by humans because rubber boots are required to access the area.

Earlier in the summer, huge number of gulls lingered at Cobourg because of the flooded beach and sandbars. Among the usual species were several rare ones such as Little Gull, Common Black-headed Gull, Laughing Gull and Black-legged Kittiwake.

While the high water was detrimental to some species, it was a boon to others.

ekrf@eagle.ca