Tuesday 4 November 2014

A day in Hamilton and Niagara

This past Saturday I joined several friends that I met while studying at the University of Guelph - Todd Hagedorn, Reuven Martin, and Mark Dorriesfield - for a day of birding in the Hamilton and Niagara areas. The weather was forecast to be cold with a strong north wind. We debated going hawk watching, but ultimately made what turned out to be the right call and did a little lake watching instead.

We carpooled south of Guelph and continued on down Highway 6. Approaching the lift bridge over Hamilton Harbour, we stopped in at Canada Centre for Inland Waters to give the lake a very quick scan. As per usual, not much was there on first glance. Some Green-winged Teal and Hooded Mergansers, a few other random ducks out in the lake, and a few Horned Grebes. One of the grebes looked a little funny with a duskier cheek and peaked head.

grebes - Burlington

We went back for our scopes and had much better looks as the grebes approached more closely. The interesting one was definitely an Eared Grebe, a western species that occasionally strays to Ontario. Maybe a dozen or so are reported each year, though most are during the spring when they have a striking black and chestnut plumage with yellow cheek plumes, such as this bird from a few years back.

Eared Grebe - Point Pelee National Park (April 30, 2012)

In basic (winter) plumage, Eared Grebes still show the characteristic small, peaked head, smaller bill, and slimmer neck when compared to a Horned Grebe. They often sit a little higher on the water than Horned Grebes and overall have a daintier appearance.

Eared Grebe - Burlington

After that great start to the day we continued on to Van Wagner's Beach where the winds were blowing in from the north. Len Manning was there and Brandon was sending him updates from his condo, located just down the shore towards Stoney Creek. Several distant jaegers had been seen as well as a single Brant. We watched for an hour or so without much to show for our efforts, so we abandoned the lake watch as we still had a lot of ground still to cover.

We drove to Niagara-on-the-Lake and pulled in to Queen's Royal Park near the mouth of the Niagara River. Almost immediately a group of 25 or so Brant flew past us, heading upriver for a few hundred metres before turning around and continuing on to the east into New York waters. We ended up watching the rolling swells with the wind pounding in our faces for a good hour or so. A second flock of 80 Brant flew by at one point. I was having trouble focusing my lens and botched the photos...

Brant - Niagara-on-the-Lake

Brant are a rare autumn migrant on Lake Ontario and during certain weather they are sometimes pushed past the west end of the lake. It is a brief but annual event - as long as the weather co-operates. These Brant likely had flown off James Bay the previous day. When Alan Wormington and I were on the coast in late October 2012, a few days of steady north winds caused a mass migration of many waterfowl species including Brant. On October 29 a total of 24100 flew past Netitishi Point, no doubt headed south over southeastern Ontario.

We continued on, making a stop at the Queenston docks where we watched an adult Little Gull and a 1st winter tern feeding with the Bonaparte's. The tern was a good study as it was quite faded showing minimal wing markings. After watching it for a while though it started to look more and more like a Common Tern.

Few gulls were at Adam Beck or the roosting rocks so we continued upriver towards the falls. We parked at Dufferin Islands and walked down to the touristy area right at the falls. Looking down one could see a few hundred Bonaparte's Gulls circling at the base of the Horseshoe Falls. With the bonies were two very striking juvenile Sabine's Gulls!

Bonaparte's Gulls and Sabine's Gull - Niagara Falls

The Sabine's could be watched with the naked eye - that pattern is hard to miss. It was an awesome rare look for this scarce species, usually seen at a distance out over open water and never from above like this! Sabine's Gulls mostly migrate well offshore over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans en route to the southern hemisphere from their Arctic breeding grounds. A few migrate over the Great Lakes however and can sometimes be seen with onshore winds. I thought that I would miss this species for the year since most pass through in late August through September and only occasionally do any linger into November.

juvenile Sabine's Gull - Niagara Falls

Juveniles have a white face and brownish nape and back contrasting with the strong black and white wing and tail pattern. Adults have gray instead of brown along with a black head in breeding plumage, but have the same wing pattern. The vast majority of Sabine's Gulls seen on the Great Lakes are juveniles such as these birds.

juvenile Sabine's Gull - Niagara Falls

WIth the overcast skies, the light began fading by this point and we headed back. It was an awesome day of birding during one of the best times of the year. I'm sure a few really interesting birds will be found throughout the rest of the month in Ontario - I think we are due for something epic.


Len Manning said...

Excellent photos of the Sabines. Well done!

Machinery Blog said...

Great photos! As a local photographer in Durham Region I'm surprised at the variation of wildlife in the area.

I think it's time for me to head West and see what's happening their