Earlier this year, I wrote a short article for OFO News about birding the St. Clair River.
For those that are not OFO members, here is the text:
Gulls and waterfowl from the north concentrate here on the river as the lakes freeze over. Late December to late February is the best time, with January prime. Colder years tend to be more productive when there is an abundance of ice, while the outflows of various power plants and industries will prevent total freezing of the river. This article will describe good vantage points along the river, types of birds seen during winter and will make mention of birds seen in the lower stretches of the river in early summer.
Long ago before industrial outflows contributed to a warmer water temperature, the river often froze over entirely creating a smooth surface. Winters were consistently colder then and vehicles could traverse the frozen river at border crossings on routes that were marked with Christmas trees. Fleets of ice boats could be seen racing down the icy surface. In those days, few ducks and gulls would be seen in the dead of winter.
In my time, the river has never frozen smooth and brash ice can build up very high. However, some open areas of water will hold large rafts of ducks. Canvasback and Redhead are the primary species that can be seen numbering in the tens of thousands in good years. Many other species are mixed in and it is fun to try and pick out something that may be unusual.
Regarding gulls, colder years with lots of ice appear to attract a larger number. More recently as in January 2013, an impressive number of gulls made use of the St. Clair River. As expected, Herring Gulls topped the list, but Great Black-backed, and Ring-billed were in good numbers. (Ring-billed is usually rare on the river during the winter months and Bonaparte’s almost non-existent). A few Lesser Black-backed, Thayer’s and Iceland Gulls were found as well as an astounding number of Glaucous. In fact, 2013 was the best year ever experienced for Glaucous as I found out one morning in early February where I personally counted at least 60 of various ages from Sombra to Sarnia!
Besides waterfowl, a wide variety of species can be seen. Wintering Common Loons, Double-crested Cormorants, American Coots, Horned and Red-necked Grebes are sometimes picked out.
In recent years, Bald Eagles have increased numbers and can be found searching for fish. The winter of 2013-2014 saw record numbers of Bald Eagles on the river, especially at Corunna. Close to 30 were counted one day!
A few selected highlights from the past not already mentioned, include Tufted Duck at Sombra (winter 1994), Red-throated Loon (early December 2005) near Seager Park, Western Grebe (13 January 2013) at Sombra
The Ontario side of the river has many excellent viewing spots unlike its Michigan counterpart. There are several parks maintained by St. Clair Township, and the St. Clair Parkway follows the river’s edge for most of its length affording endless viewing opportunities.
One of the better locations for birds is at the Sombra and Fawn Island area. For some reason waterfowl favour congregating in the vicinity of the island. Good viewing spots are at the McKeough Floodway Outlet Park and Reagan Park at the very south end of Sombra village.
The Sombra ferry dock area is worth checking as the downstream side of the causeway almost never freezes. Ducks are fed here by the local residents and many species can be seen. Back in 2000, a Harlequin Duck spent a couple of weeks here.
At the north end of the village, there is Sombra Bay where ducks will gather in the shallows. Farther up is Branton-Cundick Park, a wider point in the river where one can scope for birds.
Continuing north, there is Cathcart Park which is one of the premier spots for checking ducks and gulls. Cathcart actually used to be a provincial park dating back to the 1940’s. The water depth is shallow here at the mouth of Clay Creek. That, coupled with the industrial outflow from just upriver, keeps the water fairly open.
The next little park is called Seager. Although not a lot will congregate here, it is a cozy spot to look and is noteworthy for the fact that it was the location that I found the Ivory Gull 23 December 1995. This perhaps was one of the rarest birds on the river in recent times. It stayed for three days and attracted hundreds of birders. The Ivory Gull was subsequently seen off the outflow of the fertilizer plant just north of Stanley Line where the water is almost always open to attract many birds.
Willow Park, just upriver from Seager, is in front of Lambton Generating Station. This location used to be a prime viewing spot with the warm water outflow, but recently the power plant was shut down and ice now readily forms. Ducks and gulls were attracted to the abundance of small fish such as Shad that took advantage of the warm water.
Every winter large rafts of ducks are found mid-river off Courtright. The village’s park, complete with dock is a good spot to scope the rafts for less common species. White-winged Scoters, rather uncommon for the river, are often found there.
Guthrie Park and the Shell Refinery outlow at Talfourd Creek always attract a large number of birds. This is found at the north end of Corunna opposite the head of Stag Island. One can sit here for hours if there are lots of ducks and gulls! Large numbers of Long-tailed Ducks, Common Goldeneye and Bufflehead will be seen.
Within the city of Sarnia, Sarnia Bay and harbour are always a must for birders. When the bay is not frozen in early winter, gulls and ducks congregate here in good variety and numbers. White-winged gulls are almost a guarantee. The harbour (Government Dock area) beside the grain elevator is often open and is worth a look. It is here that Dennis Rupert found the Ross’s Gull in 21 February 1992.
Under the Bluewater Bridges, ducks drift in the swift current from Lake Huron. Every so often a Harlequin Duck or two is found working the edge, usually on the Michigan side.
In the harsh winter of 2013-2014, a build-up of Long-tailed Ducks was noted early on. Numbers continued to grow while most bodies of water in the province froze solid. However, the St. Clair River in this area remained relatively open, and by the week of February 10 tens of thousands of this species were present. I made a concerted effort on February 16 to count Long-tailed Ducks from the mouth of Lake Huron to downtown Sarnia/Port Huron where I estimated over 35,000! This was an unprecedented number to experience in this part of Ontario.
Each winter is different and certainly the quality of birding is dependent on weather. As I mentioned colder years are better but there is the odd year that very little is seen on the river.
In summer, there is very little to be seen as one would expect. Boat traffic is high, but it is more interesting in the “flats” or delta area of the river from Walpole Island south. Most of this is only accessible by boat on the Ontario side, but marsh birds and aerial foragers can be found. Redhead ducks breed in the St. Clair River delta area and are often seen in the lower stretches of the river beside Squirrel and Bassett Islands. If one is lucky, Canvasback may also make an appearance.
Forster’s and Black Terns nest in the delta area and even the odd summering Caspian Tern can be found. Numbers have dwindled drastically in recent years however, especially for the Black Tern.
Common Loons have even been seen in early summer where the river meets Lake St. Clair.
Birding the St. Clair River is always an interesting experience!