Saturday 14 January 2017

January 5 - a great day along the river

January 5 was a pretty solid day of birding along the Niagara River, a place I still can't believe I live right next to. After making the arduous three minute drive from my house to the Whirlpool, I met up with the Rileys, while Dave Pryor, Bonnie Kinder, Joanne Redwood and Nathan Miller were also here. Fortunately I was able to re-find the Black-headed Gull in its usual spot - flying in a big loop along the river just above the rapids signalling the start of the Whirlpool. We were able to get Joanne Redwood and Bonnie Kinder on the bird, a lifer for both of them. 

Dan and I headed downriver to Locust Grove Park to search for Black Vultures. Despite their range nearly reaching Ontario's borders, the Queenston area of Niagara is still the only place in the province where this species can regularly be found. While waiting for them to show, we contented ourselves by watching a pair of Red-tailed Hawks perching very close to each other and flying up and down the river occasionally. It is that time of year - Red-tailed Hawks can be frequently seen in pairs now. 

Red-tailed Hawk - Queenston

Numerous vultures were present, including over 20 Turkey Vultures. Most were roosting on a church on the American side of the river, but several gave us close flybys. Eventually however we were able to pick out a single Black Vulture, and later watched it fly so that we could be 100% sure of the identification. Roosting vultures at 2-3 km can be a little difficult to ID at times, but in flight the diagnostic flat-winged, short-tailed shape of Black Vulture with quite direct flight can easily be separated by the lilting flight of a Turkey Vulture, holding its wings in a slight dihedral, and exhibiting a long-tailed profile. The silvery "wingtips" of Black Vultures can be seen at extreme distances as well, while Turkey Vultures show the silver on the flight feathers from underneath.

Turkey Vulture - Queenston

Dan and I finished at Queenston and drove to the Control Gates, where we were planning on meeting back up with David Pryor and Dan's parents. The goal was, of course, to try to spot the elusive Slaty-backed Gull which had only been seen by a lucky few at this point.

Unfortunately the Slaty-backed did not show, but there was a good variety of other gull species present including Kumlien's, Glaucous, and Lesser Black-backed among dozens of Great Black-backed and hundreds/thousands of Herring and Ring-billed Gulls.

Moving downriver, a check of the Upper Falls was quite productive. An adult Little Gull was flying near the lip of the falls along with several hundred Bonaparte's Gulls, always a species that is nice to come across. We also caught sight of the continuing four male Harlequin Ducks swimming and diving constantly near the old barge. It took a few minutes due to their erratic behaviour but eventually everyone was able to get on them. Despite always being present, I see the Harlequins on less than half of my visits to this part of the river. There are just too many places for them to hide.

Dufferin Islands actually ended up being one of the highlights of the day. Bonnie and Joanne had brought some seeds and the titmice were going nuts...I think we had six or seven in view at one time! Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatch were also present, while Blue Jay, Northern Cardinal and Red-bellied Woodpecker were colorful photo subjects. At one point I looked up and was surprised to see a bright yellow bird above Joanne's head - the male Pine Warbler! It landed on the ground for a few seconds, scrounging for whatever morsels it could find. Luckily I had my camera ready and cracked off a few shots - the first time I have been able to photograph this individual.

Pine Warbler - Dufferin Islands, Niagara Falls

The titmice were quite accommodating and I was happy getting my first usable photos of this species, even if these are some of the most photographed Tufted Titmice in the world. On most visits to Dufferin Islands there are a few camo-clad photographers with fake perch setups taking photos of the titmice and chickadees. Surprisingly, despite none of us wearing any camo these titmice came right in.

Tufted Titmouse - Dufferin Islands, Niagara Falls

I said my goodbyes to Garth, Nancy, and Dan, and continued on my way upriver past Chippawa and towards Fort Erie. I scanned through quite a few ducks and Tundra Swans on my way, without seeing too much of consequence. There has to be a Barrow's Goldeneye along this stretch of the river somewhere! On a nice calm day I will have to spend some time carefully scrutinizing all of the waterfowl.

I stopped at the rail bridge in Fort Erie and began walking south towards Catherine Street, in hopes of turning up the King Eider that had been found earlier in the morning by Reuven Martin, Todd Hagedorn and Mark Dorriesfield. It took quite a bit of searching, but finally the duck floated into my scope's view. Success!

I was also surprised to hear the double-note of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and despite tracking it down to some thick tangles over the embankment, the bird would not show! It is only on rare occasions that this species attempts to overwinter in the province, as opposed to Golden-crowned Kinglets which are a common winter bird across much of southern Ontario. A Red-throated Loon was also along the river here, providing great looks. Not a bad location!

King Eider - Fort Erie

My final stop was a concession southwest of Niagara Falls where Sandhill Cranes had been seen recently. Kayo Roy had let me know about these birds, normally a difficult species to find in Niagara. He had up to 17 birds earlier in the day, an exceptional winter count for Niagara. I arrived in the failing light but managed to come across 11 of the birds in the corn stubble. The last 15 minutes of light during the day were spent watching the cranes as the snow gently fell. A fitting end to a great day in Niagara.

Sandhill Cranes - Niagara Falls

Sandhill Crane - Niagara Falls

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