The Baillie Birdathon: My Biggest Day of Birding Ever

The Baillie Birdathon yesterday was an excellent adventure. The birds, as always, presented some surprises. Some of my favourite sightings were black terns and a green heron. At Monticello Wetland a provincially rare Le Conte’s sparrow perched upon the observation mound and observed me observing him. I had not set a species number goal. I did not think it reasonable for one modestly experienced birder observing alone in Wellington County to reach 100 species, but hopefully I could get well over 80.

Luther Marsh main entrance (52 species)

Green Heron by Ken Schneider
I had my best look ever at a green heron. Photo by kenschneiderusa at

I arrived at the main entrance to Luther Marsh Conservation Area and started birding at 5 a.m., just as the sky was starting to lighten. A good beginning is essential because birds are most active within a couple hours of sunrise. The weather was partly cloudy, a little cool and breezy. From the parking lot I edged my way past the dam and the north edge of the lake.

From a hedgerow came a bright fluty song I could not place. Several of these birds were singing within a short distance. I edged closer to the thicket and the stranger offered one glimpse of plumage. It was enough: an orchard oriole. All my previous sightings of the species occurred at the Erie lakefront property where I grew up or nearby Point Pelee. I was delighted to find it established in breeding habitat here.

I observed about 12 wild turkeys. Several males puffed up, fanned their tails and jockeyed for position. When they noticed me, the males suddenly became half their size and the whole flock ran into the woods.

I did not walk as far around the north end of the lake as during my dry run because all the species I was likely to find could be found elsewhere. I wanted to conserve some walking energy for different sites. By the time I returned to the main entrance parking lot at 8:15, I already had 52 species, listed here in order of observation. I doubt many habitats could provide such an excellent start to a big day.

American robin, chipping sparrow, grey catbird, tundra swan, Canada goose, common yellowthroat, song sparrow, orchard oriole, common crow, common loon, mallard, veery, white-throated sparrow, warbling vireo, tree swallow, black-capped chickadee, red-winged blackbird, mute swan, belted kingfisher, yellow warbler, least flycatcher, rose-breasted grosbeak, indigo bunting, great blue heron, pine warbler, European starling, northern cardinal, osprey, mourning warbler, blue jay, ruffed grouse, wood thrush, red-eyed vireo, common grackle, eastern wood-pewee, American goldfinch, ovenbird, great-crested flycatcher, wild turkey, bobolink, gadwall, eastern kingbird, sandhill crane, golden-crowned kinglet, American redstart, cedar waxwing, northern flicker, eastern towhee, white-breasted nuthatch, eastern phoebe, killdeer, yellow-rumped warbler

Mallard Pond (10)

During my reconnaisance mission, Mallard Pond looked like a dud. We hardly saw anything, and what few new species we encountered showed up later at better sites. However, instinct urged me to return and explore the entire trail circling the large pond. This was one of my wisest decisions of the day. It turned out to be the best site for duck species. I had my best view ever of a green heron.

During our recent vacation, Danny and I visited Sandbanks Provincial Park. We learned black terns are declining in Ontario. Loss of habitat seems to be the problem, but despite adequate conditions at Sandbanks, the species has vanished there. Apparently Luther Marsh is one of the few places they continue nest, so I was pleased to observe a resident family on Mallard Pond.

hooded merganser, palm warbler, blue-winged teal, black tern, green heron, swamp sparrow, ring-necked duck, willow flycatcher, ring-billed gull, barn swallow

Monticello (5)

After Mallard Pond, the rate of new species began to slow down. Other than the Le Conte’s sparrow, there was little else to see at Monticello Wetland at 10:15. West of the village and north on West Luther East Luther Townline, Jaye and I had found several shorebird species in a constructed wetland bordering a tamarack swamp, but all I found there was a wood duck.

Le Conte’s sparrow, brown thrasher, mourning dove, wood duck, yellow-bellied sapsucker

Northwest Corner (9)

Le Conte's sparrow
Le Conte's sparrow is rare in Ontario but known to breed at Luther Marsh. Photo by USFWS Headquarters at

Shortly before noon I reached the northwest access point to Luther Marsh. The day had turned sunny and warm. The southward path from a T junction leads to a view of nesting sites for herons and cranes, but a reader had told me the northward path can also be good. I heard an American bittern and another wetland birdcall I did not know, which had already made its presence known several times that morning. Fortunately it was easy to remember, and I later identified it as pied-billed grebe.

On several occasions I found myself enclosed in clouds of dragonflies so dense my ears hummed. Their wings were silent except for the occasional soft click. However, the air resonated with their flight, like the movement inside a simmering pot.

Near the observation point I heard what sounded like a Baltimore oriole, but the dialect was slightly unfamiliar. The stand of aspens seemed the right habitat. Concerned that it might be another orchard oriole, which I had already observed, I wandered off the trail. I got my bird, but instead of returning the way I had come, I tried a shortcut and got lost for a few minutes in a marsh area. That was the stupidest thing I did all day. By the time I reached the trail my shoes were waterlogged. By the end of the day I would learn a painful lesson about walking long distances in wet footwear.

A little further south I stopped at the east end of Damascus Reservoir in hopes of finding more ducks. There was little activity on the water, but I heard a downy woodpecker in the woods nearby. I took my leave of the Luther Marsh area at 12:30 p.m. with 76 species.

red-breasted nuthatch, American bittern, pied-billed grebe, Baltimore oriole, double-crested cormorant, marsh wren, turkey vulture, savannah sparrow, downy woodpecker

Slowing Down (9)

Arthur Sewage Lagoons proved less interesting than on my previous visit. A flight of dunlin would be my only interesting shorebirds for the day.

Returning to the Guelph area around 3 p.m. I stopped at Guelph Lake Conservation Area. I have found bluebirds there before, but paid the $5.50 entrance fee and walked 45 minutes for the benefit of hearing merely a field sparrow and a house finch. By then my feet were in such discomfort I began to consider stopping for the day.

I parked at Guelph Lake Sports Fields at the extreme east end of Woodlawn Road, but could not hear anything interesting from the car. I did not want to waste my feet without a good reason. All the city species had already presented themselves except one. Downtown I stopped at a good place for observing chimney swifts (which will remain nameless because their habitats are threatened). One flew overhead as soon as I got out of the car.

house sparrow, eastern meadowlark, dunlin, northern shoveller, least sandpiper, rock dove, field sparrow, house finch, chimney swift

Little Tract (5)

scarlet tanager
The scarlet tanager needs extensive, deep forest to breed and is threatened by habitat fragmentation. Photo by mitchmcc at

I had my second wind, but my feet were killing me. I kept pushing myself to one more location.

Little Tract was an easy choice. Many years ago when my children were small I lived within walking distance, so I have sentiment about the place. Heading south I paused at Neibauer’s Marsh but could see nothing except Canada geese, so I stayed in the car.

Little Tract is an agreement forest held by Grand River Conservation Authority. What that means for its future, I do not know, but it contains some of the best mature woodland in Wellington County. As afternoon light turned to gold, I hoped it would provide some species that had not turned up elsewhere. I was not disappointed. Several forest lovers, which would be hard-pressed to find decent nesting habitat elsewhere, gave voice.

One overall highlight of the day: I counted all six woodpeckers that occur in the county. This helped make up for the paucity of raptors and shortage of duck species.

hermit thrush, pileated woodpecker, scarlet tanager, red-bellied woodpecker, hairy woodpecker

Pushing for 90

My feet were too painful to walk as deep into the trails as I would have liked. At one point I stopped, removed my soggy shoes and socks and eliminated as many tiny irritants as possible, which made the going a little easier. By the time I hobbled back to the car, it was 6 p.m. and I had been birding for 13 hours.

According to my running tally I had 89 species, counting the one unidentified call. Just one more would be worth the pain. A hawk would do it.

I decided to try one more site: the south side of Puslinch Lake. I used to hike there years ago. Unfortunately the roads around the area have changed so much, I could not find an access point I recognized. Having lost my ability to wander aimlessly, I headed home. Along the way I scoured skies and wires for raptors, to no avail. My feet would not hold up for the possibility of evening owl calling. Instead I showered, slathered them in lotion and pulled on clean socks.

Today going over my records I discovered I had 90 species after all. What a thrill! It was my best big day ever.

I participated in the Baillie Birdathon to raise funds for bird conservation. It is not too late to sponsor me by visiting my fundraising page.



5 thoughts on “The Baillie Birdathon: My Biggest Day of Birding Ever

  1. I stand in awe of anyone who could pick out that many bird species, even with the aid of birding books (or manuals or field guides or whatever you call them). And to traipse around for 13 hours doing it is fantastic. Thanks for a really interesting post. Loved the photos.

    Michelle Rafter

    1. Thanks Michelle. I am amazed myself. A good weekend at some of the best migratory sites in Ontario can turn up 100 or so species; it is a lot more surprising to find such diversity once birds have settled into their nesting territories, as they have now. It was a day I’ll never forget.

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