Saturday 21 November 2015

Local birding in Niagara

I have been based out of Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) for the last month and a bit, and have been trying to get out here and there. Living in NOTL has some advantages over my previous place of residence, Aurora. For one, I can actually see quantities of birds without having to drive an hour or more, as both the shore of Lake Ontario and the Niagara River are just minutes away. Secondly, it is possible to do at least a little bit of birding most days, even with these wickedly short days that we are currently experiencing (and to think it will continue getting worse until December 22). If I can escape the office by 4:00 PM or so, it gives me enough time to check the mouth of the Niagara River before dusk.

I have been doing this regularly, usually 2-3 times a week. The main reason for this is to observe the flight of Bonaparte's Gulls that stream down the river to eventually roost on Lake Ontario for the night. This is a phenomenon that has been noted for many years, and two good publications are the following:

Kirk, D. A., G. Bellerby,  R.W. Brooks,  D.V.C. Weseloh and P.J. Ewins. 2008. Assessing seasonal variation in counts and movements of Bonaparte's Gulls Larus philadelphia on the Niagara River, Ontario. Waterbirds 31:193-202.

Bellerby, G., D.A. Kirk and D.V.C. Weseloh. 2000. Staging Little Gulls, (Larus minutus), on the Niagara River, Ontario: 1987-1996. Canadian Field-Naturalist 114(4): 584-590.

The flypast (as we call it) begins around an hour before sunset, more of less, and usually is at its peak right around sunset. Cloud cover and wind can have an impact on the numbers of birds, timing and duration of the event. Even once it is too dark to confidently view the gulls, groups are often still streaming past; undoubtedly many pass by once it is too dark to view them. I have counted between 1,500 and 10,200 Bonaparte's per evening, and between 0 and 4 Little Gulls with them. For a few weeks a fully hooded Bonaparte's Gull has been around, but I haven't seen it in about two weeks. The biggest highlight so far has been an adult Black-headed Gull that flew out with a tight group of Bonaparte's Gull shortly after sunset on November 9, my first of the year and only the third I've seen in Ontario. This is a species that has really dropped off in recent years; now there are often fewer than 5 annually in the province. I fully expect to see Black-headed Gull occasionally at the flypast if I do it regularly and in fact this might be the most fruitful way of observing a Black-headed Gull in Ontario, as uncommon as they are. Nowhere else is it possible to see high numbers of Bonaparte's Gulls every single day from October through to December/January, and from March through April. Of course I have my sights on even loftier goals - perhaps one day I'll be lucky enough to get a Ross's Gull! It might be a while before that happens, but you never know unless you get out and look.

Back on October 25 I traveled to the Port Burwell area to do some hawk-watching with Todd Hagedorn and Mark Dorriesfield. A Cattle Egret was reported near St. Anne's in Niagara Region so I made a little detour to check it out on my way home. I arrived right around dusk, but the egret was still where it was supposed to be, keeping an eye out for insects that the cow was kicking up. Cattle Egret does not breed in Ontario, but almost every October and November a few show up in the south of the province.

Cattle Egret - St. Anne's

Several weather systems have passed through southern Ontario in recent weeks, causing strong southwest winds on Lake Erie. Naturally Fort Erie is the place to be as, in theory, the rare species will end up coasting along until they end up at the source of the Niagara River. I have made it out to lake-watch on several occasions this autumn, with some days being more successful than others. The most productive was on October 29. Brandon Holden was already there when I arrived, and I was joined by Ken Burrell for the rest of the morning as well as Andrew Keaveney and David Pryor for a few hours. Unfortunately I could only stay for the morning, but we had some nice birds including one or more Red Phalarope, two Parasitic Jaegers, 19 species of waterfowl, lots of loons (both species observed) and four Red-necked Grebes (uncommon on Lake Erie). It really picked up in the afternoon after I left - check out Brandon's blog post about the day. November 1 was also a pretty good day, and in the few hours I watched I had a Black-legged Kittiwake and Parasitic Jaeger (but somehow missed the Sabine's Gull seen on the Buffalo side of the river!). The most recent wind "event", from November 12, had very strong winds but little to show for it. Again, check out Brandon's blog for the deets...I missed the weird leucistic cormorant, but did catch up with it the next day!

I have been periodically checking the Niagara River as well, though this is getting more difficult to do as the amount of daylight makes week days off limits. Gull numbers are finally starting to build a little though I haven't seen many white-winged gulls.I have seen a lot of Little Gulls however, and the first white-winged gulls of the season today with a handful of Kumlien`s Iceland Gulls. Today, while birding the river with the University of Guelph Wildlife Club, the best bird was a crisp juvenile Thayer's Gull that we watched for some time at the Adam Beck power plant.

This Ovenbird, seen from where we view the "roosting rocks" near Adam Beck on October 14 was rather late.

Ovenbird - near Adam Beck power plant, Niagara Region

Finally, I have hit up Port Weller a few times with mixed results. It is, however, a nice walk along the pier that juts out into Lake Ontario, slow birding or not! I haven't been carrying my camera or scope with me out here, but maybe I will occasionally now that duck and gull numbers are starting to build. And the place has a lot of potential. My best birds at Port Weller so far this autumn include a late Clay-colored Sparrow on October 22 and a Brant on November 3. There are very few songbirds at Port Weller at the moment, but perhaps cold weather later this autumn may cause a few to end up there.

That's all for now!


Alan Wormington said...

Maybe you should work the night shift, that way you will have more daylight for birding LOL.

nishiki_85 said...

Welcome to Niagara Josh! Good seeing you at Adam Beck on Saturday. Looking forward to more of your Niagara posts and another challenger for the Niagara eBird list. It's time I started posting again.