Sunday, January 29, 2023

An End of January Update

 Been sticking close to home lately, but with lots of time on my hands.  I am not working now, but will only go in for work if the shop needs an extra hand.  It is the slow time of year, so there is not much to see, especially on this "slow" winter for birds.

This past week, a couple of Greater White-fronted Geese showed up at Ridgetown lagoons, so I went there on a rare, clear and sunny day.  This species is not a "problem" anymore for listing, but there was not much else to do this day.  One had to take advantage of this clear sunny day!

When I first started birding, Greater White-fronted Goose was a very rare bird and indeed a write-up for the OBRC.  I recall going to see my first ones near Grande Pointe in the old Dover Township 2 January 1993.  They had been reported on the St. Clair NWA CBC a couple of days previous.

After visiting Ridgetown, I drove through the countryside and ended up taking a walk at Clear Creek Nature Reserve.  There are never many birds here, but it is a beautiful place to walk on a sunny winter day.  Clear Creek meanders through the woods creating a scenic view.  "Old growth" trees enhance the scenery.

I have made a couple of trips to Rondeau Park, just to do some walking.  Birds are sparse, but you never know what may show when one is out and about.

An Eastern Screech-owl in its cumfy hole, is almost always a guarantee along Bennett.  It has used this hole for years!

I started out in freezing rain this morning.  I looked around Wilkesport.  Three Eastern Bluebirds are still being seen, and the Long-eared Owl was still content in its favourite tree.

The St. Clair River is very disappointing this year, and as mentioned previously, probably the quietest I have ever seen it for ducks and gulls.

The male Ring-necked X Redhead duck seems to be hanging around Sombra consistently.  I saw it again today in some less-desirable weather.  At least there is something of interest.

I had hoped to spend more time out there this morning, but the weather got nasty.  I went out the door with freezing rain falling, but it later turned to snow.  Roads got worse the farther north I went, so I turned back at Bickford Line and highway 40. A lone Common Grackle was at this corner.  I did not stop to take a photo though.  It comes up rare on eBird in Lambton, but that should be changed since there are always some to be found in winter at some point.

The last few days, Horned Larks and Snow Buntings have made a big appearance in southern Ontario.  Hundreds everywhere!  Some Lapland Longspur are mixed in as well, and you never know, a Smith's Longspur could be out there!

The Chenal Ecarte along Walpole Island north has held some waterfowl.  Yesterday I noticed three American Coots among them, which seemed to just have appeared from somewhere.  I tried some "distant" photos, but I am not at all proud of them.

The usual birds are coming to the feeder.  More than the last couple of winters, but nothing new.  

The other day, I noticed a female Cardinal with a bad leg.  Seems to be useless, but the leg is not well seen in this photo.  Taken at distance through a window.

Today I managed a better photo and noticed its right eye is no good. Obviously it had some kind of mishap.

With mild spells, more waterfowl is around and we have to keep looking out for oddities.  A Ross's Goose was at Sarnia yesterday.  Perhaps I would have gone that far today, but the weather turned me back.

Soon, things will pick up I am sure!

Sunday, January 22, 2023

This Week's Finds

 Last Wednesday I needed a long walk, so ventured out Rondeau's marsh trail.  Since it is a very quiet winter for birds, I did not expect to see much, but the exercise was needed!

With the unseasonable (or unreasonable?) mild weather there was open water everywhere.  Some ducks were hanging around in the marsh, and even Sandhill Cranes were taking advantage of the unfrozen marsh.

Farther out, a Northern Shrike was working the area.  Seems there is one out there every winter!  It was rather distant though.

There are no Marsh Wrens or Common Yellowthroats around this winter, at least in any numbers like some years.  If there were, they probably died in that storm around Christmas!  There are still lots of thick drifts in some areas, and indeed out marsh trail.

I have been looking at the St. Clair River a bit lately, despite lack of gulls and ducks.  The other day I found a small raft of Redhead at Sombra.  Looking a little closer, I noticed that one of our hybrids is back.  A male Ring-necked X Redhead was trying to hide in the group!  Lighting was horrible due to the crappy weather (again) and it was a bit distant.

We get at least one, and often two or three of these each year on the river.  Here are some photos from the past.  Perhaps  one of these is the same bird as this year's.

Other hybrids have been seen such as Ring-necked X scaup (probably both scaup species).  This one had a greenish sheen to the head.

We have also seen Redhead X Canvasback, and last year that weird one found by Mike Bouman at Corunna, an apparent Canvasback X Ruddy Duck.

Friday was yet another gloomy day (seems like the gloomiest winter on record!), and I roamed around aimlessly.  I managed to come across one of the wintering Golden Eagles at Skunk's Misery.  I failed to get a decent photo though.  Crappy weather did not help.  They probably wander quite a bit, some some are east of Newbury, and north of Newbury, among other places.  Sometimes they can be found right away, while you can wander around for hours and not see one!

Here is photo of one I found along Smith's Falls Road a couple of winters ago.  Somewhat similar to the one I saw the other day.

There has been a Common Loon hanging around Sombra lately.  Yesterday it was in fairly close.

It was there again today, but I did not spend much time out and about as more crappy weather came in.  Snow got fairly heavy at one point.

Maybe one of these days we see some sun, assuming it still exists.....

Friday, January 20, 2023

Tale From the Flats

It has been a slow winter birdwise, and not too much of interest for me lately.  As I sometimes do on this forum, I write about some local history.  I found something of interest after going through some of my grandfather's writings.  It concerns the St. Clair River delta area and the old ship canal.

It is an interesting area that I have spent much time boating and birding.  Good for looking for birds!

Redhead breeds in the islands area

There is a myriad of islands and channels in the massive St. Clair River delta, much of which is called the St. Clair Flats.  Ships travelling from the lower Great Lakes to the upper Great Lakes (or vice versa) had to pass through this area.  There were three main channels, the North, Middle and South that are deep until one gets to the more southerly reaches near Lake St. Clair.

In the old days, ships were small, but used the North Channel and then out the Middle Channel.  In more modern times, the route was through the "south channel" which divides Harsens Island and Walpole Island (and its associated islands).  This forms the international boundary today.

The original route followed the natural river course at its south end, but that was quite shallow.  Ships became larger and a better channel was needed.

A modern chart shows the area.  You can see the original river course that was used before the canal just south of Muscamoot Bay.  The ship channel was built to straighten the course.  Later, the St. Clair Cutoff Channel was built to even further straighten the course.

In 1859, lighthouses with range lights were constructed at the entrance to the channel.  They still stand precariously today.

Back in the 1860's, it was decided to build a canal at the original river outlet where we now see the west side of Seaway Island.  (Seaway island was created in the 1950's from dredgings of the new channel).

passing Seaway Island (Lake St. Clair in distance)

International boundaries were a little vague in those days, and the dredging of this canal created some serious constroversy.  The story is presented in a number of publications, but I copied the paper found in my grandfather's writings word for word (except I made corrections for grammer, spelling, syntax, etc.).


Have you ever heard of the time, back in 1870 that Captain Hiram Little of Wallaceburg was arrested for smuggling and before his case was settled, got Washington, London (England), and Ottawa all in a dither? 

Down where the river St. Clair main channel now enters into Lake St. Clair, there was a canal built and maintained by the American Government.  When it was decided to build this canal about 1867, the American engineers surveyed and sounded the proposed channel and in due course, tenders were called for.  A Canadian, John Brown, who had gained much experience building the Welland Canal, tendered on the job and being the lowest bidder, was accepted.  When they found that he was a Canadian, they were a bit put out, and so demanded that he put up American  bonds as security for the performance of the contract.  This he was able to do but in addition he had to pay duty on his dredging equipment.  This made everything legal, and in 1868 he began operations.

The dredges and tugs handling the scows all burned wood, so the first requirement was a reliable supply of cordwood.  Hiram Little of Wallaceburg tendered for this and received the subcontract and put the steamer Reindeer and the barge Campbell into service, hauling wood from the upper Sydenham.  In addition, he had the contract for groceries and meat.  Once or twice a week they would butcher a steer, load the carcass on top of the wood and off they would go down the Sydenham, out into the St. Clair River and down to the mouth where the canal was being built.

On Monday June 27, Hiram's son William, made the usual trip, and on his arrival at the canal works, two United States revenue officers stepped aboard and declared the boats and crew under arrest for smuggling.  Having arrested the boats, and stopped the unloading, they went on down to the office of the book keeper, reported arrest and demanded a statement of all the wood and supplies delivered since the canal was begun.  William Little returned to Wallaceburg on another tug and reported to his father, who was mystified.  Hiram returned with his son to the canal the next morning and he too, was arrested.

He suggested going to Algonac, a matter of ten miles upriver, and having the boats bonded, as he had several friends in Algonac who would likely assist him. 

The officers declined and insisted that he go to Detroit, so the Reindeer, the Campbell along with the cordwood and Captain Little all went to Detroit.  Here he was taken before Mr. Jerome, the collector of customs, who looked at him with a reproving eye and said, “I am surprised at the you, Captain Little a man of your standing and experience and knowledge of the law, being arrested for smuggling”.  To this Little replied “I have not smuggled anything as I have been delivering wood to Mr. Brown, who is building the canal for two years and I have never been out of Canadian waters”.  The collector of customs said “Little, that is ridiculous, do you think that the government of the United States would spend a quarter million dollars building a canal in Canadian waters?”

Captain Little replied “that is what they are doing; your engineers have made a mistake.  That canal is all over in Canadian waters”.

Jerome suggested that the boats be bonded for $3000.00 of which $2500.00 was calculated as the value of the boats and $500.00 for costs.  While Captain Little was trying to raise the bond, a ship-keeper was placed on board by the customs officer.

A friend of the captain, Mr. Tinker, who ran a wholesale grocery in Detroit, went on his bond, and they released the boats and allowed Little to return to Wallaceburg without and bond for his own appearance.  The news soon spread in Wallaceburg and many of his friends were very indignant at his treatment.  He immediately went to see Rufus Stephenson, the parliament member for Kent, at Chatham, who at once grasped the seriousness of the case.  He took a statement from Little, obtained a copy of a chart and sent them both off the State Department at Ottawa, urging immediate action.  If Captain Little’s defence was sound, and the canal was being built by the American Government in Canadian waters at a cost of upwards of a quarter million dollars, it had serious implications.  The boats had been seized the bonds were posted, the whole case hinged on where was the exact international boundary line at this point.  This led to a close perusal of the Treaty of Ghent (December 24, 1814), particularly Article Six, which provided that commissioners be appointed to a prepare a report on the exact boundaries through the Great Lakes and connecting rivers.  This article provided that the international boundary should be set “in the spirit of the Treaty of 1783”.

The defence was that the commissioners had set the boundary as a line “through the middle of the said Lake St. Clair in a direction to enter that mouth of channel of the River St. Clair which is usually denominated as the Old Ship Channel”.  The first thing to do was determine, “What was the Old Ship Channel”.  Captain James Hackett of Amherstburg was appealed to, as an old and experienced sailor, for an opinion.  He deposed that he commenced sailing in 1817 which was prior to the survey conducted by the commissioners in 1822 and remembered the channels very well.  The gist of his evidence was that the Old Ship Channel was about a mile to the west of where the canal was being built.  In conjunction with their written report on the boundary, the commissioners had prepared charts, showing the boundary line, but the learned counsel of the various State Departments read very closely that the charts could not be accepted as evidence as the preamble to the report specified that a “written report” on the position of the boundary was to be the basis of agreement.

They found charts that showed the boundary line, entering the Old Ship Channel, then found charts showing it a mile or so to the east of that point.  There was only one thing to do look at the charts prepared by the commissioners in 1822.  Since there was no copy in Canada, they wrote to England, via the Governor-General, and the secretary of state for the colonies.  It would take a fortnight to prepare a copy, and it was suggested that they might like to have copies of all the charts showing the boundary.  This, the Canadian government thought would be a good idea, although it would cost them many pounds sterling to have them made.

In the meantime they got an eminent surveyor, Frederick L. Foster of Windsor, to come from Boston to make a survey.  They chartered a small yacht in November 1870 and started for Windsor, but they found the yacht unsafe.  They returned out of the storm and obtained the use of the yacht Undine.  They spent three miserable, wet and cold days at the Flats.  On the only clear night, they got a good shot of the Pole Star and made a plan.  This showed about 95% of the new canal in Canadian waters. 

In the meantime, the American newspapers were making good copy out of the yarn and were convinced that Captain Little was right.  “The charges of the Canadian journals respecting the alleged illegal arrest of certain men and vessels by the American authorities, at the new ship canal being built on the St. Clair Flats, seem to have some foundation in fact, and it is not unlikely that not only are the American authorities wrong in the seizures, but the canal itself may be entirely in Canadian waters".  A grand dead loss to the American people, after a great deal of money has been expended upon it.

It was a ticklish situation.  The charts arrived from England and they found slight errors on them, but pinning their faith on the written report and the clear evidence that the line has to enter the Old Ship Channel, they decided that the canal was practically all in Canadian waters.  What to do?

The Lake of the Woods boundary question was to the fore and a commission had to be appointed to go into that, so it was suggested that they might as well settle the New Ship Canal problem too.  It was decided that the canal was really in Canadian waters, so Captain Little was released form his bonds and the charges dropped.  In the meantime he had lost his contract for the cordwood, as he had been debarred from making deliveries while the ships were under arrest.

The final settlement was made, by moving the international line over so the canal was just within the United States.  Canadian ships were to have the free use of the canal without any tolls.

The moving of the international line between the United States and Canada, from the North Channel to the St. Clair River, in front of Walpole Island, gave all the islands in Canada to the United States, including Harsens and Russell, and all the adjoining territory stretching to Lake St. Clair.  This was the penalty Canada had to pay for use of the Ship Canal.  This change upset the Canadian people living on those islands, so it meant that they had to come under the rule of the United States, or move off.

Many of the families moved to Wallaceburg, and became our early settlers.  This is the story that has puzzled people for many years, when years ago they would insist that Harsens and Russell Island were at one time Canadian. 


Light at head of Seaway Island

So, you now see that some of the islands presently in the United States, were once part of Canada!

Monday, January 16, 2023

Prowls and Owls

Been doing lots of prowling around lately.  Normally I would spend time along the St. Clair River, but there is virtually nothing out there to see.  In the 35 years I have been looking at the river, it is the deadist for birds I have ever seen it!  Everything is still out on the lakes, as there is no reason to leave the lakes.

A few days ago I travelled along Lake St. Clair to Belle River.  The Belle River pier and marina area is always a good spot in winter for gulls and waterfowl.  Better though, when we have a "normal" winter!

A pair of Ross's Geese had been hanging around along the beach in recent days, but I struck out on this occasion!  Things are quite fluid there, and obviously I picked the wrong day.....again.

A number of Ruddy Ducks, among others have been sticking around here.

On the way back home, I checked geese near St. Clair NWA.  About twenty Snow Geese were present in a a field, but no Ross's.

Some Snowy Owls finally came in!  Three were close together along Winter Line, while another was not far away.  Two seemed content on a rooftop.

Every winter, one Snowy Owl seems to feel safe  in a fenced-in area!

I also walked the south shore trail at Mitchell's Bay.  Lots of Tundra Swans were on the ice (what little ice there was!).

Saturday was a very nice day with clear skies.  Something we have seen little of since November, and certainly a rarity on a weekend!  I went for a walk at Rondeau Park.  It was quiet for birds, but just nice to see the sun.

Several Pileated Woodpeckers were out and about doing their thing.

Lots of American Tree Sparrows seem to be around this winter, if nothing else.

In the afternoon I went for a walk north of Wallaceburg and popped in to check on the Long-eared Owl.

Sunday was another fine day, but try and find some birds!  It is indeed a quiet winter for birds in the countryside, and I ended up doing too much driving, not finding anything.

The Ross's Geese were reported at Belle River again, so there was no choice but to try for them.  I could only find one (distant) upon arrival, walking around on the ice, then eventually resting.

There were oodles of Canada geese along the beaches, but no other types of geese.