Wednesday 25 April 2018

More spring sightings in Niagara

Last week was a bit of a write-off for me as I came down with a nasty stomach bug that knocked me out of commission on Tuesday and Wednesday. Thursday and Friday morning were busy as I tried to catch up on all my work but by Friday afternoon I was free, with a serious urge to get down to the lakefront and look for birds.

Port Weller was my destination as it so often is, and it was a good choice. While my species total was relatively modest (42), there were a few new migrants in. While the Golden-crowned Kinglets had disappeared I was happy to see my first migrant Winter Wren of the spring, numerous Horned Grebes (many in pristine breeding plumage), and a few Purple Martins mixed in with all the Tree Swallows.

Purple Martin - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

The "best" bird of the day was a total surprise, as they often are. I had approached "the big pond" along the east side of the pier and quickly scanned the ducks that dotted its surface; Northern Shovelers, Ring-necked Ducks, Buffleheads, etc. Suddenly I noticed a small dark bird swimming away from me; it had evidently been out of view in the aquatic vegetation along the near shore. A Common Gallinule!

Common Gallinule - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

While Common Gallinules are an uncommon but regular marsh bird that breeds in large wetlands in southern Ontario, they are unusual in Niagara with only a few reliable places, such as Mud Lake Conservation Area, hosting breeding individuals. Occasionally they are seen in migration and they have occurred at Port Weller in the past (according to ebird the last individual was in 2004). This was my second gallinule species for the big pond, after "twitching" the Purple Gallinule back in 2011, a bird which is much rarer in Ontario!

Common Gallinule - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

The lighting on the Common Gallinule was absolutely terrible but I was able to take some poor quality record shots to document the find. The Common Gallinule was my 196th species for the Port Weller pier.

Later on in the walk I encountered one of the Eastern Cottontails that frequent the pier.

Eastern Cottontail - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

On Saturday Laura and I took advantage of the sunny, warm conditions (finally!!) and drove down to Wainfleet Bog. The temperatures could have been a few degrees higher to entice a greater amount of reptile activity; though we still had some success.

Laura and I at Wainfleet Bog, Niagara Region

It felt great to be wearing the waders, exploring one of the few natural gems remaining in Niagara Region, even though Wainfleet Bog is just a shell of its former glory due to extensive peat farming that had taken place. Several Mourning Cloaks and Eastern Commas flitted on by, a sight for sore eyes after a long winter. From all around us the calls of Spring Peepers and Western Chorus Frogs emanated from the wetlands, with the low snore of Northern Leopard Frogs and the chuckles of Wood Frogs providing the bass and tenor notes. Egg masses had already began to appear - these frogs don't waste any time - and I snapped a few photos of a Western Chorus Frog egg mass.

Western Chorus Frog eggs - Wainfleet Bog, Niagara Region

Laura and I set off to a part of the bog that I had not been to in years, crossing several deep canals to reach the area. Evidently it had been a while since people had been down that way since we had two excellent bird sightings. The first was an American Bittern that we inadvertently flushed. It circled around us once, providing a spectacular view before settling down in a distant part of the bog. American Bittern is surprisingly rare in Niagara; this was only the second I had ever seen.

The second great bird was a Long-eared Owl that we surprised in an alder stand in the middle of the bog without a tree in sight. It settled in a different bush at a same distance from us, allowing us to soak in the views. I only had my macro lens with me and there were many branches in the way, but at least I managed an identifiable photo. I am not sure why the owl was in such a location that does not seem "typical" for the species. My guess is that the owl was hunting frogs - the buffet has quite the spread at this time of year with many different flavors.

Long-eared Owl - Wainfleet Bog, Niagara Region

Other recent arrivals that we encountered on our walk included Eastern Towhee, Field Sparrow, Tree Swallow and Swamp Sparrow.

The temperatures were in double digits but a bit of cloud cover and a light breeze hampered reptile activity. The only snake species we could find was Eastern Gartersnake. Despite its abundance, Eastern Gartersnake is one of my favorite species due to its variability and the frequency in which I encounter them. The individuals at Wainfleet Bog often are browner than normal, possibly due to the tannins from the peat staining their skin.

Eastern Gartersnake - Wainfleet Bog, Niagara Region

Eastern Gartersnake - Wainfleet Bog, Niagara Region

Eastern Gartersnake - Wainfleet Bog, Niagara Region

With a few hours to kill on Sunday I took advantage of the beautiful day and explored a new area in Niagara for me - Niagara Shores Conservation Area. Located on the Lake Ontario shoreline just west of Niagara-on-the-Lake, the park consists of some mature Carolinian Woodland (with some really nice, mature examples of Sassafras and Tulip Tree), some scrubby areas, and Four Mile Pond along the western boundary. The potential for migrant birds is excellent and I look forward to visiting throughout the spring!

During my cursory walk on Sunday I found over 40 species, several which I photographed for the first time in Niagara (Fox Sparrow, Hermit Thrush, Pine Siskin). Two pairs of Belted Kingfishers were present. They likely nest in the embankment along the shoreline.

Pine Siskin - Niagara Shores CA, Niagara Region

Belted Kingfisher - Niagara Shores CA, Niagara Region

Belted Kingfisher - Niagara Shores CA, Niagara Region

While the duck diversity has decreased in recent weeks with the onset of more seasonal weather, several species are still commonly seen (for now). The Long-tailed Ducks are in their spiffy spring plumage, looking quite different than a few short weeks ago. Red-breasted Mergansers are still frequently noted as well, but they too will be heading up north in a few weeks.

Red-breasted Merganser - Niagara Shores CA, Niagara Region

While walking along Four Mile Pond I spotted two Snapping Turtle "in the act". Unfortunately they noticed me too and sunk back into the water!

Snapping Turtle - Niagara Shores CA, Niagara Region

A third Snapping Turtle was catching some rays in a sheltered corner of the wetland. This is a common sight in April, but by the time the warm weather is here to stay in late May, Snapping Turtles are rarely seen basking.
Snapping Turtle - Niagara Shores CA, Niagara Region

Hermit Thrushes rarely cooperate for photos for me. This one did, though of course it was on a shaded branch with a backlit background!

Hermit Thrush - Niagara Shores CA, Niagara Region

And a photo of a Cooper's Hawk that was intently keeping an eye on some sparrows flitting at the edge of the marsh.

Cooper's Hawk - Niagara Shores CA, Niagara Region

On Monday I returned to Port Weller, hoping that the continued warm weather had pushed a few new birds onto the pier. I was also hoping to catch up with the Virginia Rails that Ryan Griffiths had found on Sunday in the small pond near the end of the pier.

Fox Sparrow - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

Monday ended up being one of the better days I have had on the pier in recent days. Sparrows in particular stole the show. Field, Fox, Song, Swamp, White-throated, Dark-eyed Junco, American Tree, Chipping, and Savannah Sparrows were all accounted for and I enjoyed sifting through a few flocks. The Savannah Sparrows (3 in total) were actually new Port Weller birds for me, number 197. Savannah Sparrow was definitely a low hanging fruit but it was nice to finally see some at Port Weller! Some of the other "easy" species I need for my Port Weller list include Green Heron, Great Egret, Broad-winged Hawk, Sora, Solitary Sandpiper, American Woodcock, Great Horned Owl, Eastern Screech -Owl, Common Nighthawk, Horned Lark, Eastern Bluebird, Blue-winged Warbler, Scarlet Tanager and Bobolink. Later in the walk I heard one of the Virginia Rails ticking away - number 198.

Savannah Sparrow - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

One of the bigger surprises of the day was a Common Raven that flew over the parking lot as I arrived. This was only my second ever sighting of Common Raven at Port Weller. The species appears to be expanding in Niagara Region; now three black corvids are possible anywhere in the region (Common Raven, American Crow, Fish Crow). The Common Raven was a little distant when I finally got my camera on it.

Common Raven - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

It was a very birdy walk. Good numbers of both kinglet species were in, while Hermit Thrush, Eastern Phoebe, Winter Wren, Brown Creeper and Yellow-rumped Warbler numbers had increased significantly. I finished with 56 species; a solid showing for the date.

Eastern Phoebe - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

We are now into the best time of year as far as I am concerned and I am excited for what the next few weeks have in store. Spring is always over much too quickly so make the most of every day!

1 comment:

Andrew Bradshaw said...

Birder friend of mine says that his best spot for roosting Long-eared Owls is a willow swamp (in northern Illinois). I suspect Long-eared Owls are more abundant in swamps than most people think!