Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Rare warblers and other spring sights in Niagara

I haven't posted much lately, but that can be blamed mainly on the calendar month. We are into what is obviously the most wonderful time of year and as a result the ratio of time spent outside versus on the computer has dramatically increased for me. Between field surveys for work, weekends at Point Pelee and birding locally in Niagara there is barely enough time to edit photos in the evening, let alone work up the energy to create a blog post.

Warbling Vireo - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

Yesterday I took off from work and birded some of my favorite hotspots in Niagara. After sleeping for a combined fifteen hours over three nights this past weekend (I was at, you guessed it, Point Pelee), I slept in until 7:45 AM. Feeling refreshed and with the sunny morning holding untold amounts of promise, I drove down to the Port Weller east pier. This was a good choice since I experienced one of my better birding days along the pier.

House Wren - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

House Wren - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

It started with a Hooded Warbler that was calling near the start of the trail in some thick undergrowth. I wasn't able to obtain a visual but Hooded Warblers have one of the most distinctive call notes among wood-warblers. While I would have loved to have viewed the bird, hearing it was enough to count as my 200th species that I have encountered at Port Weller. It only took 72 visits to get there!

The birding continued to be excellent and I picked up many species. The only wind was a light breeze coming in off of the lake, and the air temperatures were ideal, beginning in the low teens and finishing around twenty degrees. Just perfect conditions to be on the trails looking at birds.

Great Crested Flycatcher - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

The next bird that caused a bit of excitement was a gorgeous male Scarlet Tanager flitting in the trees flanking then north edge of the big pond. While much of the pier is vegetated with scrub and young trees, some larger trees around the pond create the best habitat on the pier for Scarlet Tanagers during migration. This forest species is at home in large woodlands and I had never seen one on the pier before. It is a species that I always enjoy observing, especially if the tanager is down low and in good light. The red just glows! While watching  the tanager, a Northern Waterthrush produced its emphatic song from somewhere unseen along the edge of the pond. My first Least Flycatcher of the spring in Niagara also flitted nearby.

Scarlet Tanager - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

Moving along I was surprised to hear a Marsh Wren chattering away continuously from the reeds along the north edge of the small pond. This species is an infrequent migrant on the pier - in fact it was only the second one I had viewed there. It was too furtive for photos, but I did enjoy taking some photos of an attractive Northern Parula which was nearby. This species passes through Niagara to reach the breeding grounds and is always a treat to find.

Northern Parula - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

Northern Parula - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

Northern Parula - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

I ran into a quartet of local birders near the small pond, including John Black, Kayo Roy, Philip Downey and Brian Ahara, and we exchanged sightings before going our separate ways. Luck was on my side and I kept running into pockets of birds - Veery, Cape May Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, a flyover Indigo Bunting even a singing Brown Thrasher. Each of these species are only seen as transients on Port Weller.

Brown Thrasher - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

While walking down the centre path I stopped dead in my tracks after hearing a Golden-winged Warbler sing! It continued to vocalize on and off over the next half hours, though try as I might I just could not get a visual on the bird, which would be helpful to rule out any hybrids with Blue-winged Warbler. Below is a video of the bird singing - it sings at 0:03 and 0:19 of the video. I only have one previous record of Golden-winged Warbler in Niagara, a bird I found in migration at Wainfleet Bog in May of 2011.



By the time I finished at Port Weller almost 4.5 hours had passed and I had 81 species under my belt. This was my highest single day total ever at the pier, besting my previous high of 71. The numbers of birds were not overwhelming but diversity was high and birds were continuously found all along.

Eastern Cottontail - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

Eastern Cottontail - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

Eastern Cottontail - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

In the afternoon I decided to try the Lake Erie shoreline. My favorite spot on the north shore of Lake Erie in Niagara is Morgan's Point Conservation Area, which is located just west of Port Colborne. The mature trees, dunes, and scrub habitats are attractive to migrant songbirds with many notable birds having been found there over the years. This area also receives less foot traffic than some of the other migrant traps along the shoreline including Waverly Beach in Fort Erie, and the quietness and tranquility add to my enjoyment of the area. As I drove down Morgan's Point Road with my car windows open, a blast of birdsong met my ears. It was mostly American Goldfinches, House Finches, Yellow Warblers and House Wrens but one interesting song grabbed my attention as I drove past. Could it have been a Cerulean Warbler? Several species have songs that can approach that of Cerulean, including Northern Parula and Black-throated Blue Warbler, but this sounded really interesting. After parking I grabbed my camera and immediately marched back to the spot. It took a few minutes but then the bird sang again. The sun was in the wrong spot but after waiting patiently I spotted the bird tucked in against a branch in a nearby tree. It was in fact a male Cerulean!

Cerulean Warbler - Morgan's Point CA, Niagara Region

The next 30 minutes were pure bliss as I watched the rare songster belt out his distinctive song and forage among the trees and sumacs. A Fish Crow and Red-headed Woodpecker calling frequently from somewhere behind me but I paid them no heed.

Cerulean Warbler - Morgan's Point CA, Niagara Region

Cerulean Warbler - Morgan's Point CA, Niagara Region

Cerulean Warbler is one of my favorite warblers due to their dapper plumage, interesting song, rarity in southern Ontario, and penchant for beatiful maple-beech-oak forests. While the species was formerly a fairly common breeder in high quality Carolinian woodlands, in recent decades the populations have plummeted in most areas. For instance even here in Niagara, located squarely within the Carolinian zone, the Cerulean Warbler appears to be extirpated. Populations in Ontario are still hanging on in the Frontenac Axis area, near Georgian Bay and scattered additional localities in southwestern Ontario, but it is a species that has become quite rare, sadly.

Cerulean Warbler - Morgan's Point CA, Niagara Region

On the breeding grounds Cerulean Warblers are often found way up in the canopy, proving to be difficult to observe as they may be obscured by foliage. It was such a treat to experience an individual as cooperative as this one. He sang and foraged in the same general area for the half an hour I watched him, moving lower and lower in the trees until he was at eye level on several occasions. It was an incredible experience and I came away with a few decent photos as well.

Cerulean Warbler - Morgan's Point CA, Niagara Region

After walking away from the Cerulean I spotted a few more things as I wandered through the park under the towering spruces and oaks. The relatively late arrival to the spring season has helped to delay the growth of warbler-obscuring leaves on all of the trees. Normally by now leaf-out is occurring, making it a bit trickier to find birds high up in the trees. I guess the endless winter did have one side benefit. In my wanders I found a male Orchard Oriole singing, a handful of warblers including a male Blue-winged, more sightings of the Fish Crow and a skulking Brown Thrasher. At one point I watched a standoff between two male Northern Flickers. Hormones run high during the spring.

Northern Flicker - Morgan's Point CA, Niagara Region

During migration periods birds are occasionally seen in places where they are not expected. Marsh Wrens are normally at home deep within cattail marshes, though in migration they occasional turn up in less ideal habitat types. I was caught a bit off guard hearing this Marsh Wren singing from a brush pile in the woods, not far from where the Cerulean was.With a bit of patience I was able to snap off a few photographs.

Marsh Wren - Morgan's Point CA, Niagara Region

Returning home after my successful outing, I picked up Laura and we drove to Niagara Shores Conservation Area west of Niagara-on-the-Lake for an evening stroll. The evening was perfectly calm, the air was cool but comfortable, and we even saw a few warblers in our wanderings. I did not take my camera with me, but some of the highlights from our walk were five species of thrush, great looks at Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Black-throated Blue Warbler, and the beautiful sunset. It had been a great day!

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