Wednesday 23 August 2017

Niagara big year?

This year has been a particularly great year for birding in Niagara Region. As is an annual tradition with several of the region's birders, I am participating in an informal year list competition. It is all in good fun and no one is suppressing any birds from anyone else (yet!), but it is a great way to add in a bit of friendly competition.

Magnolia Warbler - Port Weller, St. Catharines, Niagara Region (May 16, 2017)

The Niagara big year record was set by Marcie Jacklin in 1993 when she counted 251 bird species. To put that number in perspective - some years there are not even 251 species cumulatively observed throughout the region! It is interesting to look at the differences between her list and the avifauna of Niagara today. Marcie had nine finch species in 1993, only missing Red Crossbill out of the ten regular Ontario finches, while so far this year I have seen but three species. Several other species made it onto Marcie's 1993 list that one would be hard-pressed to find in Niagara today, such as Northern Bobwhite, Ruffed Grouse, White-eyed Vireo, Prothonotary Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, Prairie Warbler and Brewer's Blackbird. But on the other hand Trumpeter Swan, Snow Goose, Peregrine Falcon, Common Raven, Fish Crow and Black Vulture are missing from Marcie's 1993 list, species which are nearly guaranteed these days.

Fish Crow - Port Dalhousie, St Catharines, Niagara Region (March 20, 2017)

Currently my total for this year in Niagara is 237; that includes Thayer's Gull which can still be counted in 2017, according to the ABA Big Year rules. As of next year though, this (former) species can no longer be counted. Marcie is right behind me at 233, and Jean and Blayne Farnan are at around 230.

As a "fun" way to visualize my progress throughout the year I created a coding system to categorize each of the potential species that I might encounter based on their perceived rarity in Niagara, much like how I did for my 2012 Ontario big year. Code 1 includes the guaranteed birds, such as Gadwall, Chimney Swift, Tufted Titmouse and Nashville Warbler. Code 2 are the tricky species that should all be possible during a Niagara big year, for example Rough-legged Hawk, White-rumped Sandpiper, Marsh Wren and Orchard Oriole. Code 3 includes all the species which can be really hit and miss, including Ross's Goose, Pomarine Jaeger, Long-eared Owl and Golden-winged Warbler. And finally, Code 4 includes all of the rarities; in general, species which are less than annual in Niagara. Some of the more likely Code 4 species are Cattle Egret and Black-headed Gull, while some of the more unlikely species include Yellow-billed Loon, Wandering Tattler, Prairie Falcon and Green-tailed Towhee.

Clay-colored Sparrow - Niagara Falls, Niagara Region (May 26, 2017)

If all 159 Code 1 species and 58 Code 2 species are observed, that leaves the observer with 217 species, with 34 more species required to tie the record. There are only 36 possible Code 3 species, leaving a very slim margin of error. However, for every Code 4 rarity that is observed, one of the "regular" species can be missed.  Below, here is how my list is shaping up in 2017:

Code 1: 158/159
Code 2: 52/58
Code 3: 17/36
Code 4: 10 species
Total: 237 species

Below, I've listed the ten "rarities" I have seen so far this year in chronological order.

Year list #
Black-headed Gull
January 3, 2017
Slaty-backed Gull
January 13, 2017
Barred Owl
January 24, 2017
Louisiana Waterthrush
May 1, 2017
Cattle Egret
May 17, 2017
Brown Pelican
May 29, 2017
Yellow-breasted Chat
May 31, 2017
June 16, 2017
Sedge Wren
July 17, 2017
Long-billed Dowitcher
July 18, 2017

In addition to those species, several other rarities have been reported by others this year in Niagara Region which I have not seen. These include Eurasian Wigeon, Swainson's Hawk, American Avocet, Western Sandpiper and Eurasian Collared-Dove.

Slaty-backed Gull - Thorold, Niagara Region (January 13, 2017)

The following are the species I am most likely to still add to my Niagara year list. I have listed their Code in brackets.

Broad-winged Hawk (1): For some reason I missed this species when thousands migrated through the Region in the spring. Though I was at Point Pelee for about half of the time when Broad-winged Hawks migrate through, that is no excuse for having missed it! Broad-winged Hawks take a different route during fall migration so I may have my work cut out for me over the next five weeks. This is shaping up to be an embarrassing miss...

American Golden-Plover (2), Buff-breasted Sandpiper (3): Both of these shorebirds migrate through in small numbers each autumn, with American Golden-Plover usually being seen in greater numbers than Buff-breasted. Any day now either of these species should make an appearance on one of the sod farms or ploughed fields in the Region!

American Pipit (2), Snow Bunting (2), Lapland Longspur (2). Each of these three open-country passerines are fairly common autumn migrants that I should catch up with, though the latter two species may be a little tricky.

Parasitic Jaeger (2), Pomarine Jaeger (3), Long-tailed Jaeger (4): I am fully expecting to see two out of the three possible jaeger species, but if I am really lucky all three are possible.

Black-legged Kittiwake (3), Sabine's Gull (3): Both of these highly-desired gulls are seen each autumn during lakewatches; it is just a matter of putting in the time. Maybe one individual will spend some time below the Falls, as occasionally these species are known to do.

Common Redpoll (2), Red Crossbill (3), White-winged Crossbill (3): Many finches are quite nomadic, moving around based on the availability of their preferred cone crops. Each of these three species may migrate into or through Niagara this autumn and winter, while Evening Grosbeak and Hoary Redpoll are also theoretically possible. If I am lucky I may add two more finch species before the year is over.

Greater White-fronted Goose (3), Ross's Goose (3), Brant (3): October through December is a great time to find the rarer geese species and I expect to add one of these three (two if I am lucky).

Wilson's Phalarope (3), Red-necked Phalarope (3), Red Phalarope (3): Wilson's Phalarope is a scarce but fairly regular fall migrant in Niagara. With individuals showing up all around Niagara, it is just a matter of time until one is discovered locally. The latter two species of phalaropes are more easily seen during lakewatches, and hopefully I will luck into two species before the end of the year.

Long-eared Owl (3), Northern Saw-whet Owl (3): I put in some time and effort unsuccessfully searching for these species in the early part of the year. Both of these owls migrate through and some will overwinter, but roosting owls aren't exactly easy to find (if you are me).

Franklin's Gull (4), California Gull (4). Niagara has the well-earned reputation as the gull capital of Ontario, and while both these species are rarities, they are seen nearly every year in the autumn and early winter; however, California Gull has been absent the last four winters.

Golden-winged Warbler (3), White-eyed Vireo (3). While I had these species listed as Code 3 due to the potential that they may still breed in the Region, no birds on territory were discovered this year. One individual of each was observed by others during the spring but I doubt either will make an appearance this fall. There is still time, but my hopes aren't too high.

Golden Eagle (3), Northern Goshawk (3): Both of these raptors are scarce migrants that are not reported each fall. Geography has a big part to play, limited autumn raptor migration in Niagara.

Whimbrel (3): Very few were observed during the spring, and its not a species I often see in the autumn. I don't have very high hopes...

Scarlet Tanager - St. Catharines, Niagara Region (May 9, 2016)

So there you have looks like it will probably come right down to the wire. Of course, there are a couple things which will prevent me from maxing out my species total throughout the rest of the year. In particular, I will be heading to Asia for most of October, the time of year when most of the remaining species are the easiest. This will likely give Marcie and Blayne/Jean an opportunity to squeeze past. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the year plays out!

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