This is the time of the year we look for overnight lows above freezing so we can move to our three-season cottage on White Lake. We especially look forward to re-acquainting ourselves with the diverse wildlife and migrating birds that we see at the cottage in May. Alas, this year the pandemic and resulting state of emergency in Ontario have placed the start of our cottage season in limbo. Since it may be a while before we can move to the cottage, we find our housebound bodies turning our thoughts to some of the more interesting birds we usually get to see and photograph at the cottage in early May. We take solace from looking back at our cottage photographs from last May, and wanted to console fellow would-be cottagers by sharing pictures of a few of the birds we will miss seeing early this spring.
The largest raptor we commonly see at the cottage is the bald eagle. Adults can weigh up to 4,300 grams. While we see mature adults from time to time, we most frequently see juvenile birds perched in trees or eating fish they have caught. There is a white pine they especially like. The first time we spotted and photographed one of these magnificent birds, a juvenile, we made the common mistake of thinking it was a golden eagle. After we reviewed our pictures and did some research we concluded that these all-brown birds with some white speckles were not golden eagles, which are not common in our region, but juvenile bald eagles. Juveniles do not develop the characteristic white head and tail of adults until they are four to five years old.
For us, the quintessential cottage bird is the common loon. Nothing speaks more strongly of the cottage experience than the distinctive calls of the loon, and watching them dive underwater to catch fish. Spring is especially exciting for us when loons return from their southern over-wintering areas. For the last five years we have been entertained by successful breeding pairs of loons near our cottage. Is it too much to hope we will be able to move to the cottage in time to see them carrying two newly-hatched chicks on their backs? Usually, we start to see loon families in early June, when they swim into our bay where both parents feed the chicks and teach them how to fish. This May photograph may be of expectant parents.
This graceful flying bird is not known for its graceful ‘song’, its vocalization being more reminiscent of a loud squawk. Nonetheless, we miss hearing the ‘song’ of the Great Blue Heron as it takes flight from fishing along the shoreline, when it sees us approach in our kayaks or canoe. These birds are easily distinguished when in flight from other members of the heron family as they fly with their necks kinked in an ‘S’ curve with their long legs trailing well past their tail feathers. These large birds, which can weigh up to 2,400 grams, arrive at White Lake in early spring and remain until late fall. On a positive note, it will be a while before we will need to swab our floating dock to clean-up their excrement.
We have enjoyed many years of spotting, photographing and learning about birds, animals, insects and plants at the cottage but it was just last May that we finally saw and photographed the dainty Palm Warbler. These very small birds, which weigh up to 10 grams, can be found hunting for insects and seeds among shrubs and ground cover. This foraging habitat makes them difficult to spot even though they can be seen constantly bobbing or wag their tail up and down while feeding. We were hoping for additional sightings this season … but our first sighting last year was in May and they may not wait around the cottage for our return.
Another ‘bobbing’ bird we see in early May, and throughout the cottage season, is the Spotted Sandpiper. This usually solitary shoreline feeder bobs its entire body as it runs along searching for insects, worms and crustaceans at the water’s edge. Breeding adults have bold spots on their white breast while juveniles and non-breeding adults have a solid white breast. They are small birds, weighing only 40 grams when full grown.
These are just a few of the many birds we look forward to reacquainting ourselves with when we move to White Lake for the cottage season. We look forward to re-familiarizing ourselves with the local wildlife this year but await (impatiently) indications from provincial public health officials before deciding when our cottage season can begin.
We relied on two information sources for preparing this article, David Allen Sibley’s The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America and Jeffrey C. Domm’s Lorimer Field Guide to 225 Ontario Birds.