Friday 22 November 2013

A dramatic tern of events

Wow, what an insane bird to show up on the Niagara River. I thought the Brown Booby was unexpected and would be unparalleled in 2013, but an Elegant Tern is just as big as a rarity; one that I certainly did not have on my radar.

Sure, this tropical Pacific species has been exhibiting vagrancy in recent decades. Almost all of the handful of east coast records have been in the last decade. But this is a coastal species that rarely is seen inland.

That is the magic of the Great Lakes for you! Coastal species that somehow find themselves lost over the giant landmass of North America may eventually pass over the Great Lakes. It is not ideal, but it kind of looks like the ocean, and it sure as hell beats landing in a cornfield in Iowa or something.

And so Ontario's first Elegant Tern was seen this way! The Niagara River is an amazing spot to catch rarities. Waterbirds lost on Lake Erie may wander the shoreline and at some point approach the mouth of the Niagara River. There are many birds there but most importantly there are a lot of fish! Emerald Shiners make up an important level on this trophic pyramid and are the main food source of the thousands of gulls and other waterbirds that end up on the river.

At 9:23 AM the message came across the Genesee Birds (Buffalo area) listserv - the bird was present. At 10:48 AM an Ontbirds post mentioned that the bird was being seen well by birders in Ontario, viewing it sitting on a pier on the New York side. My main concern was alleviated - that the distance would be too great along the river to see the tern from Ontario.

I tied up a few loose ends at work, told the other biologist that I was working with that I had to go (he understands my crazy bird obsession), and by 12:05 I was on the road. No time to stop at home to grab my camera, passport, or warm weather gear. Luckily I always have my spotting scope and binoculars in the car. The drive seemed agonizingly long, as is often the case when chasing a rarity, even without any traffic between Aurora and Niagara Falls! But eventually I arrived and Glenn Coady had the bird in his scope for me when I arrived.

I enjoyed the rest of the afternoon and evening (if you can even call it an evening when the sun is set by 5:00 PM) studying the bird as it mainly rested on the pier with a flock of Bonaparte's Gulls. At times it would fly off the pier when all the gulls spooked for some unknown reason but it was always the first bird back on the pier.

Alan Wormington soon showed up to see the bird and it was just him and I watching it until dusk. We were hoping to see it fly somewhere to roost and presumably pass into Ontario waters. While it did get up and fish continuously (and rather successfully) for about 20 minutes, it never appeared to fly into Ontario waters, despite the border appearing to be closer to the New York shoreline. It may have at one point but it was impossible to be sure. Apparently some birders earlier in the day definitely observed the bird pass into Ontario, so it will likely be accepted as a new bird for the Ontario list! Oh, those political boundaries....

Unfortunately no photos of the bird from me, but several birders on the NY side captured excellent shots. Check out Jim Pawlicki's photostream...   

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