Friday 19 April 2019

Early spring exploration in Niagara

April is one of my favourite months of the year. After a long Canadian winter (relatively speaking, given my location in the "banana belt of Ontario"), the month of March arrives, usually more frustrating than hopeful as winter and spring trade blows. But usually by early April spring seems to have arrived for good, and any lingering bouts of winter are short-lived. New migrant bird species begin arriving daily, wildflowers emerge, first on the south facing slopes but soon they carpet the entire floor of woodlands, and the trills and peeps of Western Chorus Frogs and Spring Peepers reverberate from their ephemeral wetland habitats. With so much life all happening at once I try to spend as much of the month of April outside as I can.

Over the last few weeks I have explored several areas, all relatively close to home here in Niagara Region. My favourite location to visit during the spring is the Port Weller east pier. This vegetated, man made peninsula is an excellent location to see a variety of birds. As I have detailed in the past, Port Weller also functions as an excellent "vagrant trap" due to its geography (I'm talking about birds, not people). Port Weller has a long history of rare birds, including the likes of Ancient Murrelet, Dovekie, Tricolored Heron, Ross's Gulls, Mew Gull, California Gull, Tufted Duck, Sage Thrasher, Western Kingbird, Rock Wren, Great Cormorant, Northern Gannet, Purple Gallinule, Bell's Vireo and Lark Sparrow.

My first spring visit to Port Weller this year was on April 8. The sun was shining, the chorus frogs were singing and a nice variety of birds were present up and down the pier. I was happy to see my first Fox Sparrows of the year, though as is typical with this species they were not too cooperative for photos.

Fox Sparrow - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

A few Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were in as well. They seem to move through quickly here in Niagara and it is not hard to completely miss the species during spring migration!

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

But the day really belonged to Eastern Phoebes. While Port Weller is a fantastic vagrant trap, it is rare to see high numbers of migrant songbirds out on the pier. The nine Eastern Phoebes on this day was by far the most I had ever seen out there. Most of them were along the sheltered east side of the pier.

Eastern Phoebe - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

Ducks are a big feature of any birding at Port Weller from August through April. The mix right now is pretty typical of western Lake Ontario - lots of Red-breasted Mergansers, Common Goldeneyes, Buffleheads and Long-tailed Ducks, with a smattering of other species mixed in. The dabbling duck scene changes daily but often includes Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, American Wigeon, Gadwall and sometimes Wood Duck. The Long-tailed Ducks in particular are an enjoyable study in April, as they make the surprising transformation from their paler winter plumages to their striking breeding plumages. Soon, these Long-tailed Ducks will be back in the Arctic wetlands that are their home for a few short months.

Long-tailed Ducks - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

Long-tailed Ducks - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

White-winged Scoters are the only regular scoter at Port Weller and most sightings are of individuals way offshore. This one next to the pier was a treat to watch.

White-winged Scoter - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

As I continued north up the pier, the calls of Western Chorus Frogs emanating from the small pond were just deafening! It was pandemonium, and I could hardly hear myself think due to the volume. I went into "stealth mode" and ten minutes later had a male teed up for photos. Western Chorus Frogs can be really hard to actually see, and these were the first ones I had a chance to photograph in a half dozen years at least!

Western Chorus Frog - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

It is amazing how many of these Western Chorus Frogs congregate in April in this wetland, when I have never once seen one at any other time of the year at Port Weller.

Western Chorus Frog - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

Western Chorus Frog - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

Strong, south winds can make the visible raptor migration at the south end of the pier quite excellent. Recently, the theme has been Sharp-shinned Hawks, Turkey Vultures and Red-tailed Hawks, but I have seen a few other species mixed in here and there including Merlin, American Kestrel and Northern Harrier.

American Kestrel - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

Northern Harrier - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

On April 12 I returned to the pier for another walk. It is always an exciting location to visit during the spring as the mix of birds changes daily. Songbird numbers were a bit lower on this date, but new arrivals included Eastern Towhee, lots of kinglets and a flock of Brown Creepers.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

Larids stole the show on this date, however. An Iceland Gull was flying around with the Herring Gulls, Caspian Terns were in, a surprise Forster's Tern appeared (they are perhaps annual at Port Weller, usually in mid-April), and a Little Gull was doing laps with Bonaparte's Gulls at the end of the pier.  Bonaparte's Gull numbers are steady in mid-April as they migrate through and I was hoping to eventually get a Little Gull with them.

Little Gull - Port Weller east pier, Niagara Region

April 13 was another great day at Port Weller, with a new mix of birds once again. Highlights on this date were my first Fish Crows of the spring (finally!), an early House Wren, a Glaucous Gull and a nice variety of migrating raptors. Speaking of Fish Crows, they are back in my neighbourhood, showing up right on time (it is usually mid to late April when they become regular here). A pair of Merlins have been checking out some old nests in the area, and being very vocal. Fingers crossed that they stick around!

Last weekend I went for a walk-around at Wainfleet Bog with Laura as well as our friends Dan and Nikki who were visiting for the weekend. A fair bit of bush-whacking was required to access some of the areas due to high water levels, but we managed! The Eastern Gartersnake at Wainfleet have a unique colouration, likely caused from staining due to the tannins in the bog.

Eastern Gartersnake - Wainfleet Bog, Niagara Region

Eastern Gartersnake - Wainfleet Bog, Niagara Region

We discovered our first Northern Redbelly Snake of the year as well! This species comes in both brown and slate-gray colour morphs. I seem to see the brown morph maybe 2/3 of the time in my travels.

Northern Redbellied Snake - Wainfleet Bog, Niagara Region

Tick checks are mandatory following any of our visits to Wainfleet, for good reason...

Blacklegged Tick - Wainfleet Bog, Niagara Region

Easily the biggest surprise during our visit to Wainfleet was this flock of eight Sandhill Cranes that flew in, circled around, and continued west. Sandhill Cranes have bred in the area in the past, though its status in Niagara is still relatively unknown. I am usually lucky to have two or three sightings a year in Niagara, and I've never seen eight at once before!

Sandhill Cranes - Wainfleet Bog, Niagara Region

Sandhill Crane - Wainfleet Bog, Niagara Region

Rusty Blackbird was formerly an abundant species but the global population has crashed in the last few decades to just a shadow of what it formerly was. For me, sightings of this enigmatic species in Niagara are cause for celebration. There is something about hearing their distinctive gurgle song that puts a smile on my face! A quartet of Rusties were hanging around in one of the flooded swamps at Wainfleet.

Rusty Blackbird - Wainfleet Bog, Niagara Region

The next post will include more sightings from Port Weller as well as from Morgan's Point near Port Colborne.

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