Thursday, 10 May 2018

Port Weller pulls through in a big way

Despite strong winds and periods of rain in the forecast, I decided to drive down to Port Weller to walk the east pier once again. I had been putting in my time at the pier this spring and in general had been quite impressed with the variety and numbers of migrant bird species. We are right in the heart of spring migration and every day brings surprises, so I was excited to see what new species had dropped in. I had a full day ahead of me with no commitments and big plans to bird many of the migrant traps I frequently visit in Niagara.

Black-throated Green Warbler - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

My first stop was the Avondale (Parmalat) ponds, located off of Stewart Road and west of the Niagara-on-the-Lake airport. During the previous morning, local St. Catharine's birder Philip Downey discovered a Cattle Egret around the ponds. It had continued to be seen on and off during the day; though I dipped on my 3:00 PM check. My 7:00 AM check this morning was also fruitless, apart from some great looks at Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, and this Northern Mockingbird.

Northern Mockingbird - Avondale ponds, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara Region

Even before arriving at the pier it was clear that moderate to high numbers of songbirds were around. In a few minutes of roadside birding at a woodlot flanking the Welland Canal I quickly began ticking off warbler species, followed by Warbling Vireos, Baltimore Orioles and an Indigo Bunting, glistening after the light rain a few minutes earlier. A Bay-breasted Warbler was a feast for the eyes, as were sharp-looking Blackburnian and Black-throated Blue Warblers, but especially a male Scarlet Tanager.

Scarlet Tanager - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

Continuing up the pier it was clear that it would be a good day of birding; the songs of warblers pierced through the southwest breeze, which was blowing the storm clouds past. All along the trail I encountered birds, including two Orchard Orioles, a Red-eyed Vireo, some Least Flycatchers, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird and a Magnolia Warbler - all of which were Niagara year birds. The warbler tally crept up as I added Black-throated Green, American Redstart, Blue-winged, Chestnut-sided and Northern Parula, and even a Fish Crow flew over for good measure. The pier was hopping!

Chestnut-sided Warbler - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

I cut across to the east trail running along the shoreline, and as I walked I heard a snippet of a different bird song through the dominant tones of the American Goldfinches, Yellow Warblers and House Wrens which were constantly singing. Immediately I thought it sounded like a Bell's Vireo but it had been just a fragment of song and I thought I might have been hearing things. The bird sang a few more times at which point I was pretty confident that a Bell's Vireo was involved and I started to get excited. I frantically pulled out my phone to begin recording a video, though by the time that I hit Play, the bird had stopped singing. It chattered out a few more rounds of its song about five minutes later, at which point I changed my position to obtain a better angle. Finally on the third round of singing I spotted a drab greenish-yellow bird low in a shrub, only 30 cm or so off the ground. I believe I said out loud "That's a f****** Bell's Vireo!" to myself and rapidly tried to take some photos, though in the excitement it was difficult to have a steady hand. After my camera struggled for a moment I locked onto the bird and fired off six frames; each frame nearly identical and showing the same features on the bird, though unfortunately it was looking away from the camera.

Bell's Vireo - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

The bird dropped back down into the undergrowth after a few seconds, but was still visible, partially obscured in the vegetation.  I took a good long look through my binoculars for the next 30 seconds, soaking up the views, until I lost the bird skulking deep within a tangle. Some of the main features used to identify this bird include:

-a small and slim vireo, acting skulky
-overall greenish-olive in color, with yellow along the flanks
-grayish head with weak spectacles
-a bold lower wingbar, and a weak upper wingbar
-distinctive song: a very fast scratchy song that goes up and down in rapid succession - like taking a Sharpie marker and moving it quickly on a whiteboard

Bell's Vireo - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

I tried to get the word out as quickly as possible while trying to stay on the bird, but unfortunately it refused to sing anymore and I could not detect any movement in the shrubbery where it had last been seen. Soon birders started arriving. Some local birders first, followed by several Hamilton and GTA birders, but none of us had any luck. Eventually I continued onward up the pier as I was itching to see what else had come in.

Another brilliant male Scarlet Tanager appeared on the trail, a Bobolink was singing in the field south of the Big Pond (my first for the pier!), while by the Big Pond I inadvertently flushed a roosting Black-crowned Night-Heron. Even an American Pipit flew over, my first of the year. The new birds for the day kept coming - Swamp Sparrow, Redhead, Cape May Warbler, Brown Thrasher. It was birding at its finest!

Bay-breasted Warbler - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

Brown Thrasher - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

I returned to the scene of the crime, meeting up with Frank Pinilla and Judy Robins along the way when we had a Fish Crow fly over us (ho hum). Frank and I continued to walk back to the spot and we had barely arrived when the Bell's Vireo belted out its characteristic song twice. Again, that was all he would give us - despite frantically waving over the other birders, the vireo would not sing again.

Eventually I left the pier, as my phone was dead, my stomach was growling and the time of day was approaching 2:00 PM. In my six hours I had tallied 88 total bird species on the pier, smashing my previous personal best of 81 (from Tuesday). A morning of birding at Port Weller during the peak of migration can rival Point Pelee with the number and diversity of birds, just on a smaller scale. But I seem to have fewer "slow days" on Port Weller than what I experience at Point Pelee- though of course because of Point Pelee's coverage, there are usually a couple of rare species around worth chasing. The great reverse migrations that occur some mornings at Point Pelee as well as nearby Hillman Marsh, the onion fields and Wheatley harbour add greatly to Point Pelee's appeal. But as far as "bush birding" goes, Port Weller is often excellent during the peak of migration.

Chestnut-sided Warbler - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

On the way out I ran into Josh Mandell and Dave Szmyr, hoping to bag the Bell's before their Point Pelee weekend. I later heard from them that they were successful along with Judy Robins, as the bird popped back out and gave brief views.

Bell's Vireo is a rare vagrant to Ontario with 18 OBRC accepted records as of the end of 2017. The vast majority of these records are of spring overshoots in late April and May: in fact 16 of the 18 records fall between the dates of April 21 and May 27. Bell's Vireo has appeared more frequently in recent years with seven accepted records from the last seven years. Bell's Vireo has occurred in Niagara Region once before - one of the two autumn records for Ontario - a bird found by Rob Dobos at Fifty Point Conservation Area in Grimsby on 18 October 1994. Pending acceptance by the OBRC this will be a second record for Niagara Region.

Chimney Swift - Morgan's Point CA, Niagara Region

I made a quick stop at the Avondale Ponds near the airport at Niagara-on-the-Lake for my third visit in 24 hours to see if I could turn up the Cattle Egret. I was finally in luck, as the bird was present in the cow paddock at the farm to the north, and viewable from the ponds. I also made stops at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Outlet Collection Ponds off of Glendale Avenue, and also birded Morgan's Point Conservation Area for an hour and a half. The Cerulean Warbler from two days ago was not present, and it must have taken all of its fellow warblers with him since the park was pretty quiet (the increasing cloud cover did not help). It was an enjoyable spin through the woods, highlighted by watching a quartet of Orchard Orioles, as well as point-blank looks at a Rose-breasted Grosbeak deep in the understorey.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

It appears that some birders this evening were successful in observing the Bell's Vireo, as Mark Field posted with good news around 6:00 PM. Good luck to anybody else looking for the bird!

I will be back at the pier tomorrow morning and will update if the bird is still present.


  1. A nice surprise for you with the Bell's! Congrats.

  2. Great write up and during this time of migration of birds we expect to see a lot of birds. This the time to have a lifer, Yesterday we had a very fruitful World Migratory Bird Day celebration where we had a chance to see many species along the river. Once again it's time to create awareness on this important event in the life of birds

  3. Fantastic! What a great bird! I was suffering from the same symptoms of shock as I saw my Bell's Vireo, could hardly focus the camera as it dawned on me what I was probably looking at, and just like yours, the bird was very difficult to photograph, always seeming to prefer the dense tangles, tough work for my autofocus point and shoot!

    1. Congrats on your Bell's Vireo, Nate! Such an awesome bird, and pretty cool that two showed up on the same day in Ontario! You definitely managed better photos than me!