Sunday 7 December 2014

Niagara to Oakville - December 5, 2014

Dave Szmyr and I both took Friday off from our respective jobs and met up for a fine day of birding. He was at my place in Aurora by 5:00 AM, and the early hour afforded easy driving through the GTA and Hamilton. It was shortly after seven when we arrived at a residential address along the Niagara Parkway, just south of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Eventually as dawn arrived the first few birds attended the feeders - mostly Northern Cardinals and Dark-eyed Juncos, but a few other species mixed in. A Bluebird and a handful of Pine Siskins flew overhead, while a Cooper's Hawk made a brief appearance. Eventually a small flock of House Sparrows arrived and I spotted the target bird sitting on the roof.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow - Niagara-on-the-Lake
The long-staying Eurasian Tree Sparrow fed with the group of House Sparrows a handful of times over the course of half an hour. As usual the group was quite skittish, and combined with the dull morning light it was difficult obtaining sharp photos that weren't too grainy. Even still, I has happy to finally take my first photos of this species, and Dave was thrilled to finally lay eyes on his 300th species for Ontario.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow - Niagara-on-the-Lake

We checked a few other locations along the Niagara River, including Adam Beck and the overlook above Queenston. We birded the Fort Erie waterfront as well, making it as far west as Kraft Road.

Here there was a large group (250+) of Tundra Swans and a few hundred Canada Geese with no other goose species mixed in. Offshore was a large flock of Redhead, Greater Scaup, and two Canvasbacks. Some Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrows were calling from some shrubs along the shoreline so I pished to try to attract them closer into view. One of the juncos that responded to the pishing stood out - it was overall somewhat pale with some light brown on its flanks and a sharply contrasting black hood. It was an adult male "Oregon" Dark-eyed Junco and stuck out noticeably from the nearby local "Slate-colored" birds!  This  form of Dark-eyed Junco includes seven subspecies found throughout western North America. Dave and I went back for our cameras and saw the bird a few more times, but were unable to grab photos as the flock was moving quickly and mostly staying out of view.

This was the first Oregon Junco that either Dave or I had seen in Ontario. Perhaps a dozen or more are reported each year in southern Ontario, though some of these are females/immatures that can be very similar to some "Slate-colored" or "Cassiar" Juncos.

We checked a few more locations along the Niagara River before deciding to drive to Oakville for the last hour and a half before dusk. Sedgewick Park was our destination as all six species of warblers were still hanging on, almost a week into December.

We arrived and met up with Tyler Hoar who had quickly seen all six species in the minutes before our arrival. Despite the fading afternoon light we had no trouble finding all the warblers within about 15 minutes.

The Northern Parula was perhaps the "tamest" of all of them. When birds are struggling to survive in places they really shouldn't be, such as a Northern Parula in southern Ontario in December, the need to find food takes precedence over just about anything else. The risk of foraging right next to potential predators was worth it, if it meant finding food. The parula appeared to be quite successful catching little centipedes and spiders in the leaf litter along the chain link fence.

Northern Parula - Oakville

Northern Parula - Oakville

The other warblers also made short forays to the fence line or to the edge of the open sewage treatment plant. The Wilson's Warbler was the skulkiest of them all, preferring to move slowly through the undergrowth. Two Orange-crowned Warblers were present, as was a single Nashville Warbler. Sedgewick has now held the latter two species into early winter in each of the last three winters.

The Tennessee perched in the open for an extended period of time about half an hour before dusk. The low light made things difficult but I cranked my ISO and hoped for the best. Even at ISO 2000, a shutter speed of 1/50 was about the bust I could manage.

Tennessee Warbler - Oakville

Tennessee Warbler - Oakville

While the warblers are holding on for now, the clock is ticking and it is likely only a matter of time until they perish. While they are finding things to eat now, a good cold snap could put their fragile bodies over the edge. The Yellow-rumped Warblers stand the best chance of overwintering, followed by the Orange-crowned Warblers and maybe the Nashville, but the odds are certainly stacked against them. Most Northern Parulas, Wilson's Warblers and Tennessee Warblers are in Central and South America right now, not struggling to survive freezing temperatures each and every night..

We made one more stop before nightfall, going across the street to Coronation Park to look for a reported Brant, a species Dave had not seen yet this year. The bird was right where it was supposed to be, on the grass feeding with some Canada Geese.

We finished the day with close to 70 species including some great winter birds.

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