Sunday, 13 September 2015

A new local patch!

After completing two and a half years of penance living north of Toronto in Schomberg and Aurora, I have finally decided to make a change. In a couple of weeks I will be packing up and moving to a place that is a little bit better for finding birds...Niagara-on-the-Lake!

I am fortunate in that I have an employer who is very accommodating with allowing me to switch offices. I am trading Aurora for St. Catherines and recently found a place to live in Niagara-on-the-Lake. This is very exciting for me as I now will have several excellent birding areas within a few minutes of home or the office, something that I have never experienced before.

I grew up in south Cambridge, and while there are quite a few interesting natural areas in the vicinity, it is still a 40 minute drive from Lake Ontario, and there are no really killer spots to watch migrants. After that I moved to Guelph, which is even further from the lakes, a place that was featured on Brandon's top 10 list of disappointing birding locations in Ontario.

From Guelph if was to Schomberg for a year, and then Aurora for the last 16 months. Each of those places is about 45 minutes to an hour from good birding (Lake Simcoe, or Toronto waterfront)!

The above photo shows Niagara-on-the-Lake at the top right, and Port Weller jutting into Lake Ontario at the left. My place is located right in Niagara-on-the-Lake, approximately 1 km from Queen's Royal Park at the mouth of the Niagara River. This is the location where David Bell and I re-found a Razorbill in November, 2011, only the 10th record accepted by the OBRC. Three of the previous nine records come from Niagara-on-the-Lake as well! There is a long track record of rarities from Niagara-on-the-Lake - last winter a Eurasian Tree Sparrow patronized a bird feeder for several months. A quick look at OBRC records show reports of Black-throated Gray Warbler, Western Grebe, Northern Gannet, Pacific Loon and Great Cormorant from NOTL. Fort Niagara, literally across the mouth of the river in New York, has seen Leach's Storm-Petrel as well as most of the above rarities. The mouth of the Niagara River is a fantastic spot to look for birds. Often loons, grebes and ducks will be feeding and resting, while certain winds can cause jaegers to terrorize the waterbirds and gulls at the mouth of the river, Brant and "pelagic" species can make appearances in certain conditions, and big flocks of cormorants provide the chance of picking out a Neotropic or Great. The river corridor is used by gulls each morning as they fly up river as well as each evening as they head out on the lake to roost. Little Gulls are often seen in this "flyby", as are other rare species of small gulls that may be on the river. I've seen Franklin's Gull here and can recall reports of Laughing Gull, Sabine's Gull, Black-headed Gull and Black-legged Kittiwake. Needless to say I will be checking this location nearly every day during autumn through to spring!

Port Weller is one of the better birding locations on this side of Lake Ontario, if I may be so bold! It has a pair of vegetated piers sticking way out into the lake, though I believe only the east pier can be easily accessed. Somewhat mature trees and a ton of shrubs/scrubby habitat provide ample cover for songbirds on the piers. Several ponds on the east pier can attract waterbirds and songbirds - this is the location where I successfully chased a Purple Gallinule in October, 2011.

Purple Gallinule - Port Weller

There are excellent lake-watching opportunities from the pier as well, while occasionally rare ducks can be seen in the canal or close to the pier, such as Harlequin Duck, King Eider, or even Tufted Duck. On good days during migration, the trees can be "dripping" with songbirds, and the chances of coming across something unusual are much higher at a location like Port Weller, due to its unique geography as well as positioning on Lake Ontario.

Below is a list of some of the rarities that have been found at Port Weller:

Ancient Murrelet
California Gull
3(!) Ross's Gulls
Great Cormorant
Mew Gull
Rock Wren
Sage Thrasher
Tricolored Heron
Tufted Duck
Fish Crow
Western Kingbird

Mew Gull (from Sault Ste. Marie)

Port Weller will also be about 15 minutes from home, easily accessible even during those days that I am at the office. I am really looking forward to having a few close locations to home that I can check for songbirds during good migration days, as well as ample opportunities for ducks, gulls, and large numbers of waterbirds.

The following is the area that I will consider my "local patch". It is a 13 km radius centered south of Niagara-on-the-Lake. To be precise it is centered on the intersection of Concession 6 Road and Queenston Road. Included within the circle is Niagara-on-the Lake, west along the shore of Lake Ontario to Port Dalhousie (including Port Weller),  and up the Niagara River to above the falls. This includes many hotspots along the Niagara River including the Adam Beck power plant, the roosting rocks, Queenston, Niagara Falls, Dufferin Islands, and the Control Gates above the falls. I've also placed the circle to cover downtown St. Catherines, where I will work. Areas just outside the circle include Charles Daley Park and Jordan harbour to the west, most of Short Hills Provincial Park to the southwest, the town of Chippawa to the south, and Grand Island along the Niagara River to the southwest. I would have loved to include these areas but felt that the circle was large enough already. And even if I had stretched the circle an additional km or two, there will always be other good areas suddenly close to the edge. I will always be inside the circle when having a typical day at home/the office, and it is only an approximately 20 minute drive from one side of the circle to the other. The circle includes parts of New York state, though I don't anticipate birding there too often and I placed the circle in an attempt to cover off the best sites on the Ontario side. However, I will likely chase a rarity if its close by on the New York side.

Local birding patch

My "patch list" is sitting at a meager 151 currently with many easy ones to pick up. However, I've already seen Greater White-fronted Goose,  Brant, King Eider, Harlequin Duck, American White Pelican, Razorbill, Black Vulture, Purple Gallinule, Eurasian Tree Sparrow and 16 species of gulls (Mew, Slaty-backed, Black-headed, Franklin's, Sabine's) in the circle.

Compared to the rest of Ontario: I will be perhaps slightly closer to Point Pelee, Rondeau and southwestern Ontario and should be able to avoid Toronto traffic more frequently. Most of the good parts of the Hamilton Study Area are within 30-45 minutes. However, chasing rarities in eastern Ontario and the GTA will be a little more difficult. It's a trade off I am more than willing to make. The Niagara region is relatively underbirded in the spring and summer compared to Hamilton, the GTA, and other birding hotspots, though the river is quite popular in autumn and winter with gull /waterbird watchers. Overall I will be living in a relatively underbirded, awesome location with a long track record of rarities.

a lighthouse at Port Weller


  1. Now you have no reason to come to Point Pelee any more!

    1. Haha, you might see me around here and there.

  2. Dayumn... Looking forward to what you get. Exciting news! Congrats

  3. Good for you! I hope your list grows by leaps and bounds!

  4. Ok Sunshine, you have set the bar high. We the Ontario birding community expect one good rarity per week and one **RARE** per month and one **MEGA** per season. Also a warm place with cold beer to dry off/warm up in..
    Seriously enjoy the feast after living in the famine.

    1. Geez, that's setting the bar guarantee on the rarities but I can definitely provide the warm place with cold beer after a day of gulling!