A Bird in the Hand? Rare Birds in Tiny
By Tim Tully

In his article in Issue #27 of The Tiny Cottager Bill Johnson noted the wonderful sight of a mature Bald Eagle in front of his cottage on the western shore of Tiny north of Concession Road 20. And, in fact, Bald Eagle populations in Ontario are rebounding from the adverse impacts of DDT used between 1940 and 1972, which caused Bald Eagles to be listed as “endangered” nationally (1978-1984) and remain so in Ontario.

In the early 1900s, a healthy 200 breeding pairs of Bald Eagle were documented for the province. By the 1970s no birds were fledged from nests on Lake Erie and Superior. The banning of DDT and reductions in dioxin pollution coupled with aggressive conservation efforts led to a slow increase in Bald Eagle populations in the 1980s. There were 31 active nests in the whole Great Lakes basin in 2004, but just 10 of the known eagle nests were on the Canadian side of Lake Huron.

Bald Eagles nest in quiet forested sites of one to three square kilometres in size, typically choosing the tallest trees for their nests. Local nest records exist for the federal tank range at Meaford and on the mainland northeast of Waubaushene. An active nest was reported in the spring of 2007 in the southern portion of the 30,000 Islands.

Eagles have been sighted periodically at Awenda and areas east of the park during recent winters; this past December, two mature adults and an immature bird were spotted scavenging a deer carcass on the park’s shoreline. Bald Eagles were also seen near the 5th Concession of Tiny in two of the last three annual Audubon Christmas Bird Counts.

Will we see these birds establishing nesting territories within Tiny? It is unlikely for a couple of different reasons: eagle populations in Georgian Bay were never particularly high, since they require such huge foraging territories; secondly, suitable undisturbed shoreline habitat in southern Georgian Bay is limited at best. Hopefully, the recent spate of sightings is an indication that existing nests are productive and the Lake Huron population is growing.

In his article Bill mentioned the Hooded Warbler, which he was hoping to see in the Township. The Hooded Warbler is a small sparrow-sized, neo-tropical migrant that typically breeds in extreme southern Ontario. Males are bright yellow with a distinctive black hood. Sporting this stylish black ‘balaclava’, it looks like it is ready for the snowmobile season! The Hooded Warbler is often associated with mature upland deciduous or mixed forest where gaps in the canopy have created low, dense shrubby vegetation, which the birds favour as nesting territories.

Hooded Warblers are classified as “threatened” in Canada with fewer than 200-300 breeding pairs, all located in Ontario. In Tiny, a breeding pair was found in Awenda in 1987. Since that time the species was encountered at Cedar Point in 1995 (Concession 20) with 2-3 singing males in the lowland mixed forest of what is now the Cedar Ridge development. Most recently (summer 2006), a singing male was observed in the forest below the Nipissing bluff at the Robitaille farm on the 17th Concession by the consulting biologist evaluating bird species and impacts associated with a potential wind farm.

By now, habitat fragmentation has likely led to the disappearance of the Cedar Point birds. If the wind farm proceeds it will also alter the forest composition making it unlikely that Hooded Warblers would persist at that location. No Hooded Warblers sightings have occurred within Awenda’s 6000 mainland acres since the original report in 1987.

What other rare species could we reasonably expect to encounter in Tiny? A species of “special concern” on the national endangered list is the Cerulean Warbler. The male is a delicate powder or cerulean blue with white underbelly and a dark blue band line across the throat. In Awenda, an estimated 10-20 pairs occupied various relatively undisturbed forest locations during the 1990s. In a 2005 survey no singing males were located. The birds had mysteriously disappeared. Sadly, Cerulean Warbler populations have declined faster than any other migratory warbler in North America since the 1960s. They are an ‘area sensitive’ species and the degradation of private woodlots beyond officially protected areas impacts their population.

a Cerulean Warbler

Along the sand dunes of Nottawasaga Bay keep an eye out for the Piping Plover, one of the most critically endangered species in the country. It was known to breed at Wasaga Beach in the 1930s and on Giant’s Tomb Island as recently as the 1950s. Historically, the Great Lakes breeding population was estimated to be between 644 and 802 pairs but by 1989 only 16 pairs remained in the entire Great Lakes basin. Two banded Michigan birds set up a breeding territory at Wasaga Beach in 2005, with a single male bird returning briefly in the spring of 2006. Unfortunately no breeding success was observed. Nonetheless this endangered species may yet return to Tiny as quality dune habitat continues to develop around Nottawasaga Bay between the two historic breeding locations.

Perhaps one of the best kept secrets for Ontario birdwatchers is the Tiny Marsh Provincial Wildlife Area, a 1000 ha Class 1 wetland on the southern boundary of the Township west of County Road 6 which boasts a number of rare species.

It is home to one of the largest colonies of Black Terns in the province and also has a small number of breeding pairs of Least Bittern. Caspian Terns are commonly encountered as they forage for fish. You can sometimes hear or see Sandhill Cranes at Tiny Marsh in the early spring. In the spring of 2005, a male Prothonotary Warbler was seen for a period of a week along the banks of the stream in front of the Visitor Centre.

Other species not formally listed as endangered provincially or nationally sometimes constitute a rare sighting in the Township. A few species that have recently moved into the Township and are now relatively common are the Common Raven, typically found breeding further to the north, and the Red-bellied Woodpecker from the south. The Greater Black-backed Gull will soon be a fixture in the waters surrounding Tiny, as populations continue to climb around the Great Lakes.

a Red-bellied Woodpecker

A few more species worth mentioning are: Peregrine Falcon, Golden Eagle, Red-headed Woodpecker, Great Egret, King Rail, Yellow Rail, Little Gull, Orchard Oriole, Blue Grosbeak, Summer Tanager, Louisiana Waterthrush, Northern Parula (a warbler), Carolina Wren, Short-eared Owl, Long-eared Owl, and Henslow’s Sparrow. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but rather a wish list for the serious birdwatcher!

Species will always come and go in accordance with current ecological conditions and of course, man-made changes. Most of Tiny south of Concession 17, except for much of the Nipissing bluff and lowlands was cleared for agriculture. Marginal lands were logged selectively dating from the White Pine lumber boom of the 1880s. In comparison to the 1950s when agriculture was at its local peak, forests and consequently bird populations have likely made a significant comeback.

The last decade, however, has seen a sharp reversal of this trend as large remaining forest tracts have been converted to subdivisions and the quality of private woodlands has been degraded by poor logging practices. Southern Ontario is knocking at the Township’s door.

The provincial forest bird monitoring statistics (1987-2003) reflect these ecological stresses and reveal statistically significant declines in numbers for Blackburnian, Nashville and Magnolia Warblers, Ovenbird, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Winter Wren. The birds that do well in less specialized conditions are thriving in comparison. These include Pine Warbler, American Redstart, Northern Cardinal, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, American Goldfinch, Mourning Dove and Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

In years past I often said that Tiny Township was one of the best kept birdwatching secrets in the province. Today, a cautionary asterisk may be necessary. We will always ‘see’ a great diversity of species in Tiny from a birdwatcher’s perspective. The relevant and more challenging ecological question is: do the Township’s birds still find enough quality habitat to maintain successful breeding populations?

I believe we are now at an important ecological crossroads in the Township of Tiny. Rather than seeing breeding bird populations simply go down the drain, it is now time for us to act to conserve the Township’s wildlife. A positive force for local conservation could be the formation of a local land trust or conservancy similar to the Orillia area’s Couchiching Conservancy. The goal would be to work with private and public landowners to establish a more comprehensive form of stewardship at the level of the landscape. I would be interested to hear from individuals who share this interest with the goal of working toward the formation of a non-profit organization in the coming year. Look for a meeting to be organized in the fall of 2007 to explore the idea further.

In the meantime, when you are out birdwatching this spring or summer, it might be worthwhile to turn an old adage on its ear: a bird in the hand (or field glasses!) is NOT worth the two (breeding) in the bush! Congratulations on your Bald Eagle sighting Bill, and best of luck with the quest for the Hooded Warbler! It would be nice to know the Township still has a breeding population.

Good birdwatching all!