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Science & NatureWhat is That?What is that ... Early Arrival?

What is that … Early Arrival?


Well first of all … us!  We managed to fit in a couple of overnight stays at the cottage near the chilly end of April, and were well rewarded for putting up with the lack of running water, and having to haul wood from the woodshed for the woodstove.

Our greatest reward was the glimpse of a duck species that migrates through White Lake in April, resting on Three Mile Bay and other parts of the lake for a few days before the next leg of its journey.  Buffleheads spend their winters south of Ontario where lakes do not freeze during the winter.  They summer and breed in northern Ontario.  Buffleheads break up their long flights north with rest stops on open water where they can dive for crustaceans, mollusks, and aquatic invertebrates such as dragonfly larvae.  White Lake serves their needs well.  Buffleheads are shy and do not let kayakers come very close, but this heavily cropped, far distant shot, which includes a male and two females, satisfies our need to remember we saw them.

Seeing trumpeter swans as they transit to their breeding areas is another matter.  When we first saw trumpeter swans a few years ago, we assumed they too were heading north.  We know now, though, that a pair raised three cygnets last summer nearby Three Mile Bay.  The swans we saw in April this year may have been searching for a place to build this year’s nest in the Lanark Highlands.

After being hunted almost to extinction early in the 20th century, trumpeter swans have been re-introduced in Ontario.  The Ontario Trumpeter Swan Restoration Group (OTSRG) has been working to restore trumpeter swans to Ontario for more than 30 years, and to our non-expert eyes they seem to be making progress.  We hope that this photo we took at a distance is a sign of more cygnets to come.

While at the cottage in April, we saw several other spring returnees, including Canada geese, great blue herons, common and hooded mergansers, mallards, chipping sparrows, eastern phoebes, and loons, but we will talk here about only three of these early arrivals.

Hooded mergansers are small, strikingly patterned diving birds that arrive within a few short days of the lake ice melting.  Open water gives them access to the small fish, aquatic insects, crayfish, amphibians, vegetation, and mollusks upon which they dine.  Adult males are black above, with a white breast and rich chestnut flanks. The black head has a large white patch that varies in size when the male’s crest is raised or lowered.  In this photograph one male’s interest in the female is marked by the raised, white patch, while the other, fiercely defending her honour, is a male whose crest is less visible.

Another early migrant to White Lake is the chipping sparrow.  It is one of our favourite sparrows because … we have learned to identify it.  The breeding adult has a rusty or chestnut-coloured crown, black eyeline, and grayish belly.  While their main food is seeds, during breeding season they add protein-rich insects to their diet … another reason to love them.  This lovely chipping sparrow was catching a few rays before the day warmed up, the chilly morning of April 24th.

Again this year, a pair of eastern phoebes began to build their nest near their habitual location under the cottage porch.  They prefer sites that protect the nests from the weather and predators.  All summer we will be able to watch them as they dart out from under the porch to snap up the flying insects they prefer.  The energetic snapping of their bills is quite audible, and always makes us smile in appreciation of their hard work saving us from mosquitoes and black flies.

Some of the early arrivals we cherish seeing are just passing through but most summer around White Lake, enriching our bird watching throughout cottage season.

For this article we checked details on, a website built and maintained by The Cornell Lab.  It is a website we value greatly.  More can be learned about the OTSRG at or at the Ontario Trumpeter Swans Facebook page.




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