Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Early winter birding in Niagara and beyond

Over the last few weeks I have gone searching for birds on a few occasions. While most excursions have been without a camera, I have snapped a few photos here and there!

Back in early December Richard Poort found a Slaty-backed Gull at Mohawk Lake in Brantford. The bird hung around and was being seen by birders at the lake as well as at the nearby landfill. A few days later a second Slaty-backed Gull made an appearance; some lucky birders even managed to take photos of the two birds near each other. Never one to turn down an opportunity to study a Slaty-backed, I made plans to visit the area with Dan Riley on December 15.

At that time the landfill was letting birders in to look at the gulls, so we signed in at the scale house and proceeded to find the massive gull flock near the active dumping location. We ran into Nathan Miller and enjoyed scoping out the gulls with him. In short order, we had studied a variety of species: Herring, Ring-billed, Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed (at least 2), and multiple Glaucous Gulls and Iceland Gulls, including a Thayer's Gull. One of the two Slaty-backed Gulls was present and easy to pick out, partly due to its super broad white tertial crescent (the white feathers between the dark grey mantle, and the black and white wingtips when at rest).

Slaty-backed Gull - Brantford landfill

Slaty-backed Gull is a resident of coastal areas in northeastern Asia. They regularly appear in western Alaska and in recent decades have occasionally been noted elsewhere in North America. Ontario sees its fair share of the species; perhaps due to the numerous, excellent gull-watching locales, but also likely due to the number of keen larophiles (gull-lovers!) that regularly bird in Ontario. Prior to 2018, Ontario had 16 accepted records of Slaty-backed Gull.

Slaty-backed Gull is roughly the same size as Herring Gull but can be easily told from apart from that species by its much darker mantle (back and wing feathers). The mantle shade is similar to Lesser Black-backed Gull and a touch lighter than Great Black-backed Gull. A combination of features is used to distinguish a Slaty-backed Gull from those species as well as from certain hybrid combinations that can look surprisingly similar. Some of the key features of a "good" adult-plumaged Slaty-backed include:

-broad white tertial crescent
-leg colour between flesh-colored and bright pink
-extensive streaking on head and neck, with a concentration of streaks around the eye
-white tips to the outer primary feathers (subterminal spots), which can usually be seen in flight. Note that this feature isn't as obvious as it seems and I have observed several times a birder mistakenly point out the "string of pearls" on a bird they mis-identified as a Slaty-backed

Slaty-backed Gull - Brantford landfill

Following our time at the landfill, Dan and I went our separate ways. Before driving home I dropped in at Sedgewick Forest in Oakville. As is an annual event now, there are usually several warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets that attempt to overwinter by the open water of the nearby sewage treatment plant. Over the last few years I have observed ten warbler species at Sedgewick during the month of December. This year, a Hooded Warbler was present, along with two Orange-crowned Warblers, a Nashville Warbler and a Yellow-rumped Warbler. Back in November there had been Pine Warbler, Palm Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Northern Parula and Cape May Warbler there as well, but they were long gone.

Within a few minutes of arrival at Sedgewick, I came across a little party of birds. The Hooded was chipping regularly and flashing its white outer tail feathers, and the other warblers all appeared within a minute or so.

Hooded Warbler - Sedgewick Park, Oakville, Halton Region

One of the Orange-crowned Warblers was much more cooperative than the other, though it was moving constantly and hard to photograph well.

Orange-crowned Warbler - Sedgewick Park, Oakville, Halton Region

Golden-crowned Kinglet - Sedgewick Park, Oakville, Halton Region

Nashville Warbler - Sedgewick Park, Oakville, Halton Region

Speaking of rare winter warblers, back on December 30 Laura and I were at my parent's house in south Cambridge when she called me over to the kitchen window since a warbler had landed there. I was shocked to see it was an Ovenbird walking around on the window ledge, and looking back at us with curiosity. Eventually it flew to the cedar hedge in the backyard and I saw it again (briefly), about an hour later. Presumably it had been surviving on the suet feeder. It will be interesting to see if starts making regular appearances at my parent's bird feeders. Ovenbirds are rare in the winter in Ontario; prior to this year, four out of the past eleven winters had an Ovenbird record in Ontario. This was the first winter Ovenbird that I had ever seen.

On December 27 I completed a section of the Niagara Falls Christmas Bird Count. John Black had retired from his area, which includes the shoreline of Lake Ontario from the Welland Canal east to Niagara-on-the-Lake. I was more than happy to take over this area since it is one of the better areas in the count circle and also included my favourite Niagara birding location - the Port Weller east pier. Joining me for the 2018 iteration of the Christmas Bird Count was Todd Hagedorn, Roy Sorgenfrei and Phil Downey.

Our day started at Port Weller east where we enjoyed a long walk out to the end of the pier and back, totalling around 42 species. We had quite a few highlights out on the pier, including at least 15 Red-throated Loons, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, some unexpected ducks (Ring-necked, Redhead, Hooded Merganser), and a Ring-necked Pheasant. I was completely surprised to see the pheasant, a male, as it stood in some grasses at the north end of the small pond. Lucky Todd had his camera ready and managed a few record photos which he added to our eBird checklist. Phil and Roy had each encountered a pheasant out on the pier before, but it was my first in about 90 visits.

Back at our cars, we drove around beside the Welland Canal and found a Merlin. I had my camera with me this time and took a few photos of this unusual species in Niagara during the winter.

Merlin - Port Weller, Niagara Region

Merlin - Port Weller, Niagara Region

We then began working our way east, periodically scanning Lake Ontario from some of the sideroads that terminate near the shoreline. We slowly added new species to the day list, including Bald Eagle, Cooper's Hawk, Surf Scoter and House Finch. Near the end of Irvine Road we came across our "best" birds of the day - a pair of Harlequin Ducks actively feeding near a flock of Greater Scaup. These are likely the same birds that were discovered by Judy Robins back on December 8.

We finished up at Four Mile Pond where we added the final species to our day list, finishing with 58 species. Highlights here included a flock of Common Redpolls, a vocalizing Winter Wren, a Northern Mockingbird and a Great Blue Heron. We were all very happy with our total of 58 species - it had been a great day!

On January 4th, I was very surprised to see a text from Jean Farnan that came accompanied with a photo of a dark-phase Gyrfalcon. Jean and Blayne Farnan had discovered the bird in a field north of Port Colborne and were pretty convinced that it was in fact a Gyrfalcon. Of course I immediately hopped in my car and made a bee-line for the area!

Fully expecting the gyr to have vanished by the time I arrived, I was very happy to see a number of local birders on the scene with the bird squarely in the scope. Over the next two hours several others came and went, but the gyr was quite content to sit in the field near a flock of Tundra Swans. It was very distant, making identifiable photos almost impossible. It eventually flew much closer to the road, giving us all face-melting views of this rare Arctic visitor (though it was still a little far for good photos).

Gyrfalcon - Port Colborne, Niagara Region

Almost all of my previous experience with Gyrfalcon has been along the shores of James Bay where I have observed around nine individuals in eight weeks of observation. It was definitely a little weird to be watching one close to home in Niagara Region but no less satisfying! Gyrfalcons are the world's largest falcon species, preying mostly on ptarmigan in their Arctic habitats, though they will also take waterfowl, hares, and other similar sized bird or mammal prey. Interestingly, the Gyrfalcon's range almost perfectly mirrors that of Rock Ptarmigan, one of their main prey items.

Gyrfalcon - Port Colborne, Niagara Region

At around 4:45 PM the Gyrfalcon took off and flew over the tree-line to the south, and subsequent searches for the bird came up empty. I felt pretty fortunate to be living close enough to Port Colborne to have a chance to observe the Gyrfalcon.

On January 5 I went for a day of "twitching", hoping to see several of the unusual species that are wintering in southern Ontario. My day was very successful and included searching for a Townsend's Solitaire in Kitchener, the unusual wintering warblers at Sedgewick Park, the Eurasian Collared-Doves in Hamilton, and a Barrow's Goldeneye in Stoney Creek. The Barrow's Goldeneye was a very pleasant surprise as it had been found by Rob Dobos only half an hour before I was planning on driving past that area! While photo opportunities were not in great supply that day, I did take a few mediocre shots of the Townsend's Solitaire in Kitchener, teed up on top of a spruce.

Townsend's Solitaire - Kitchener, Waterloo Region

The female's Barrow's Goldeneye was even trickier as it was diving constantly, the light wasn't great, and it was too distant to photograph with my main camera. These phone-scoped photos, while terrible, do show some of the distinctive features of this species. Compared to a Common Goldeneye, a female Barrow's Goldeneye has a much steeper forehead, a shorter bill (that is often all or mostly yellow), a darker brown head, and a more gradually sloping nape. Barrow's Goldneyes used to be much more common in the west end of Lake Ontario but in the last decade or so they have been practically non-existent. The only other one I had seen on Lake Ontario was a young male at the Leslie Street spit in Toronto a few years ago.

female Barrow's Goldeneye - Stoney Creek, Hamilton

1 comment:

Nathan Miller said...

It was great gull watching with you guys too!

Those are some great winter birds!