Friday, 5 May 2017

Storm birding at Port Weller

It is the most wonderful time of year! Every birder in this part of North America loves early May The days are longer, the temperatures are showing a warming trend, the flowers are blooming and nearly every species in on the move migrating, somewhere. The wood-warblers are some of the more coveted migrants by many birders and over the next two weeks it shouldn't be too difficult to come up with 20 or 25 species  in your local patch, wherever that may be. Down at Point Pelee likely 37 or 38 warbler species will be seen, with at least 20-25 species observed daily. And of course, crowd pleasers like Indigo Buntings, Scarlet Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are easily seen as they migrate through or arrive on breeding territories in the area. The chances of coming across a rarity are higher in the next few weeks than they are at any other time of the year.

But, blink and you miss it! Just when you start getting used to the phenomenon of seeing new species nearly every day as waves of migrants pass through, the migration begins to taper off. By the middle to the end of May, birding is a little more difficult as the mostly silent females make up the majority of the songbird migrants, the thick green foliage makes spotting them harder, and the species diversity begins to drop off. But that is still a few weeks off and we are currently in the peak of spring migration for many Neotropical species.

Cape May Warbler - Port Weller, Niagara Region

I was "stuck" in Niagara this week as I do occasionally have to work, but I made the most of my opportunities and birded the Port Weller area each of the last three days for some time in the afternoon. Despite the rain and wind, the birding was just spectacular! I tallied over 110 species in my three excursions; a pretty solid total given that I was birding a pier jutting out in Lake Ontario.

May 1 was just unbelievably amazing, and a great way to kick off the month. Immediately after beginning my walk at Port Weller, it was evident that a huge surge of new birds had arrived - flocks of warblers were everywhere! It took only 10 minutes before I was in the double digits with warbler species and at the end of my hike I had tallied 16 species - more than what was reported at Pelee that day. It was easily the best day of birding I had ever had at Port Weller and definitely the first "fallout" I had experienced in Niagara Region.

Yellow-rumped Warbler - Port Weller, Niagara Region

The new birds just kept coming as I slowly walked the pier in the light rain, keeping an eye on the radar which showed a huge foreboding colourful patch heading my way - the rain was coming. But the birding was just too good to turn around and head back to the safety of the car. Indigo Bunting. Baltimore Oriole. Veery. Least Flycatcher. Cape May Warbler. Great Crested Flycatcher. I soaked up the views of these brightly coloured, if not a little wet, songbirds that I hadn't witnessed all winter, while at the same time trying to move on quickly from each bird so that I could look at the next. There were just so many birds to see, and not enough time to to thoroughly view each one!

Pine Warbler - Port Weller, Niagara Region

Black-throated Blue Warbler - Port Weller, Niagara Region

As I approached the end of the pier, my phone (and the darkening sky behind me) indicated that a huge storm would be overhead in only a few minutes. I kept birding, and new species kept appearing - Blue-headed Vireo. Common Yellowthroat. American Redstart. Brown Thrasher. Eventually I decided I would attempt to take cover behind the lighthouse at the east end of the pier, knowing full well that I was likely going to get soaked. But I was ok with those prospects - there is something special about being able to watch a massive storm as it approaches and batters the landscape around you.

Cape May Warbler - Port Weller, Niagara Region

This turned out to be an awesome plan as I came across one of the rarer birds I have seen on Port Weller. As I was standing beside the lighthouse, rain streaming down while the wind whipped all around me, I noticed a few Dunlins flush from the rocks lining the edge of the pier. Cool - not a species I see out there too often. A few minutes later, another Dunlin-sized shorebird flushed from the rocks and flew out over the water before returning. It seemed a bit strange at first, but its identification did not click until the bird landed at my feet, about 10 feet away. It was a Purple Sandpiper!

While Purple Sandpipers pass through southern Ontario in very small numbers each autumn, and Port Weller is one of the better places in the region to seek this species out (though I had never seen one there), Ontario only has a handful of spring records. Since I have been birding, I can recall five or six records, though there have been a few more over the years. One of the strangest records was a bird that was found in Sudbury among the snow and ice; this bird was eventually predated.

Do you see it?

Since I had left my camera behind due to the rain, I was stuck with just my cell phone and binoculars to try to document the bird. The Purple Sandpiper was more than happy to sit on the rocks and wait out the rain, and after about 5 minutes of trying I was finally able to obtain some identifiable photos! Not my finest work, I know, but better than nothing...

Purple Sandpiper - Port Weller, Niagara Region

After 10 minutes of watching the sandpiper I decided to head back to civilization. The rain had slightly diminished, though I was still soaked through the bone! The walk back was awesome for birding and I continued adding species, including an early Magnolia Warbler. The highlight however was a vocal Louisiana Waterthrush chipping away near the base of the pier in a flooded section of woods. While Northern Waterthrush is a common migrant through the region, Louisiana is very scarce - in fact it was my first for Niagara.

I finished the walk with 74 species, an excellent total given the location! With a bit of free time remaining before I had to leave to complete an amphibian survey in Hamilton for work, I decided to walk around Malcomson Eco-Park for an hour. Malcomson is a decent sized park that was created at the base of the Port Weller west pier, and the tall trees and shrubby undergrowth attract migrant songbirds. Boots were an absolute must as the trails were flooded due to all of the recent rain.

Malcomson Eco-Park, Niagara Region

Among the highlights during my evening walk were Solitary Sandpiper, Lincoln's Sparrow, Peregrine Falcon, Wood Thrush and 9 species of warblers.

Solitary Sandpiper - Malcomson Eco-Park, Niagara Region

The following day I birded Port Weller for a couple hours in the afternoon. The songbird numbers had diminished slightly, but there was still a good variety of warblers to pick through!

Pine Warbler - Port Weller, Niagara Region

Palm Warbler - Port Weller, Niagara Region

A few mergansers were close to shore at one point, providing a neat opportunity to photograph the males in nearly the same pose.

male Common Merganser - Port Weller, Niagara Region

male Red-breasted Merganser - Port Weller, Niagara Region

In a span of five minutes I came across three good birds for Port Weller, with each of them being new species for my local patch. The first was a Wilson's Snipe that flushed from the grassy knoll, flew around for a minute and then dropped back down somewhere out of sight. The second was a whinnying Sora from the small pond at the north end of the pier, and the third was a pair of Marsh Wrens rattling away in the small pond!

Wilson's Snipe - Port Weller, Niagara Region

Big numbers of swallows had invaded the area over the last two days. I was pleased to pick out my first few Cliff Swallows of the year on May 2.

Cliff Swallow - Port Weller, Niagara Region

On May 3, Laura and I decided to go for a walk at Port Weller once she finished work for the day. It was late in the evening when we arrived, giving us only a couple of hours of light, but we made the most of it! Among seven warbler species was a gorgeous Cape May, while both Baltimore and Orchard Orioles made appearances. The Orchard (a nice male) was my first for Port Weller. On our return walk along the pier I was surprised to hear the distinctive calls of Rusty Blackbirds. This declining species isn't too common in Niagara Region during migration and I thought that I had likely missed it after not encountering any in April.

It's now May 5 and every day brings new surprises. Get out there and bird!


  1. Nice photos Josh!! It's definitely a great time of year to be out and about.

    Looks to me like your one warbler above that is labelled as a pine, looks like a yellow-rumped.

    1. Whoops, i must have made a mistake when copying and pasting. Thanks!

  2. Great stuff...some great birding can be had during 'bad' just got to be willing to put up with some amount of discomfort, but the payoff can be great!