Thursday, 9 August 2018

Parking lot jaeger

Jaegers are some of my favourite birds that we see in southern Ontario. The falcons of the gull world, jaegers are well known for kleptoparasitism, and they frequently chase down gulls in an attempt to force the gull to give up whatever food item they are carrying or had just eaten. These arctic thieves are fast, powerful birds and it can be positively thrilling watching a high-speed attack by a Parasitic Jaeger on a Ring-billed Gull.

The three species of jaegers we are fortunate to occasionally see in southern Ontario include Parasitic (by far the most numerous) as well as Long-tailed and Pomarine. Due to migration routes, spring records of jaegers are quite scarce, yet every autumn, low numbers pass through the province, almost entirely sticking to large bodies of water such as the Great Lakes, on their way from their Arctic breeding grounds to their wintering areas on the open oceans. Van Wagner's Beach in Hamilton is a prime location to search for jaegers, due to its location at the west end of Lake Ontario. Migrant jaegers stop over on Lake Ontario in the autumn, and east winds can cause some individuals to drift to the west end of the lake where they are identified (or attempted to be identified) by patient birders straining through their scopes. 

Typical view of a distant Parastic Jaeger at Van Wagner's Beach (September 10, 2011)

Jaegers are a lot of fun for many birders due to the difficulties in identifying them. While adults in breeding plumage of each of the three species are fairly distinctive, the vast majority of jaegers that we see are young birds, often with confusing plumage. They take several years to reach maturity and to complicate matters, each of the three species can occur in several different morphs, along a continuum from light to dark. 

Long-tailed Jaeger is the earliest jaeger to appear in Ontario, with most records occurring from mid August to late September. It used to be an infrequent enough visitor to southern Ontario that it was on the Ontario Bird Record Committee's review lists for the province. But due to a function of a population increase, or simply more birders with better optics being aware of jaegers, sightings in southern Ontario are frequent enough that it was removed from the southern Ontario review list in 2007. Even still, usually a dozen or fewer individuals are seen in Ontario each year, with the vast majority of records coming from Van Wagner's Beach in Hamilton during north or east winds. These birds are usually only seen in flight as they pass by offshore. 

I was quite surprised to hear that an adult Long-tailed Jaeger was found at Van Wagner's Beach by Geri Shemilt on July 31, since the date was still rather early for a Long-tailed Jaeger in Ontario. Throughout the following week the bird was seen occasionally along the lakeshore, and on August 7, the bird was found sitting on shore at Confederation Park! Sightings continued throughout the day, and then again yesterday, August 8. For many of the sightings, the bird was on land, either on the shoreline or standing in the parking lot at Confederation Park. I temporarily pushed aside my work responsibilities and drove down to Hamilton yesterday morning. It is not often that one has a chance to observe a jaeger on land in southern Ontario, let alone an adult Long-tailed with full tail streamers! 

When I arrived the Long-tailed Jaeger was still at the parking lot of Confederation Park, waiting out the rain.

Long-tailed Jaeger - Confederation Park, Hamilton

Eventually it preened its feathers and took flight, circling around the parking lot several times before settling in on the far side of the lot. A few Ring-billed Gulls were scrounging for food among the McDonald's wrappers and other garbage, and the Long-tailed Jaeger joined right in. 

Long-tailed Jaeger - Confederation Park, Hamilton

Long-tailed Jaeger - Confederation Park, Hamilton

Long-tailed Jaeger - Confederation Park, Hamilton

 Eventually one of the young Ring-billed Gulls decided to let the jaeger know who was boss, and chased it off of the delicious scraps.

Long-tailed Jaeger and Ring-billed Gull - Confederation Park, Hamilton

Long-tailed Jaeger and Ring-billed Gull - Confederation Park, Hamilton

I continued to watch and photograph the jaeger over the better part of an hour, while also chatting with the handful of other birders that were present to take in the spectacle. All the while the Long-tailed Jaeger remained in the parking lot, walking around and acting just like a Ring-billed Gull, for the most part.

Long-tailed Jaeger - Confederation Park, Hamilton

Long-tailed Jaeger - Confederation Park, Hamilton

Occasionally it took flight to do a few circles of the parking lot. The lighting was tough and I was having troubles with my focusing but I eventually took a few distant photos of the bird in flight, showing off its long tail feathers.

Long-tailed Jaeger - Confederation Park, Hamilton

It was an unforgettable hour with a species that I don't have a chance to enjoy too often. The jaeger is still present today so hopefully many others are able to get down to Confederation Park or Van Wagner's Beach to observe this beaut!

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