It is finally here. May is, without a doubt, my favourite time of year to be a naturalist in Ontario. Signs of life are everywhere, but the main draw for me is the rush of bird migration. The spring of 2021 has turned out much differently than I had planned. Originally, I was scheduled to spend much of the month on Pelee Island, in the Point Pelee area, and in Prince Edward County leading bird tours, with plenty of time built into my schedule for some non-tour birding (and mothing!) as well.
But, like just about every other plan that I have made in the last fifteen months, it fell through. The timing of Ontario's latest lockdown has coincided exactly with the peak of spring bird migration, and I haven't been able to lead any tours due to the current restrictions in place.
Unfortunately, Point Pelee is not in the cards for me this spring as I have been staying closer to home. Laura and I are currently residing in Fonthill, located in about the exact middle of the Niagara Peninsula, and great birding areas can be found just a short drive away.
One of the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic is that many people are taking advantages of parks and other green spaces, since indoor recreational activities are off limits for now. Here in Niagara Region we have a scarcity of parks and forests. This is not a problem limited to Niagara, but something that afflicts all of southwestern Ontario. The few natural areas and green spaces that remain in Niagara are almost always jammed full of people these days. The Port Weller east pier, a longtime favourite birding location of mine, is so overrun with people on most days that I do not even bother birding it (unless there is rain in the forecast, clearing out the place). Many of my other favourite migration hotspots in Niagara are experiencing the same problem.
As a result, I have been birding predominately at Rock Point Provincial Park in Haldimand County, a short thirty minute drive away, to great success. The population density in Haldimand is less than Niagara and I seem to run into fewer people over there. Of course, the birding has been fantastic and I haven't missed my Niagara spots like I thought I might.
I have left my camera behind on some of my walks at Rock Point but on a couple of occasions I have snapped some photos. A big highlight on May 2 was this crisp Hooded Warbler that Laura and I found in some shrubbery behind one of the campsites. While Hooded Warbler numbers have been steadily increasing in southwestern Ontario, it still provides a jolt of excitement when one is found during migration. Luckily, the Hooded Warbler hung around for another day which allowed some other birders (including my friends Mike and Terri) to see it as well.
The following day, May 4, was the birdiest day that I have experienced this spring (so far). Rock Point produced over 90 species including nineteen warblers, which was on par with all of Point Pelee that day. Highlights for me included Golden-winged, Brewster's, the continuing Hooded, and an early Canada Warbler. I found an Evening Grosbeak just outside of the park and I enjoyed sifting through good numbers of birds all throughout the campground.
The weather over the last week has been pretty dismal for bird migration. Temperatures well below the seasonal norms combined with northwest winds do not create a good recipe for bird migration. That being said, it IS May and every day brings surprises, though you have to work hard for them.
One of the most exciting bird finds I have had this spring occurred on May 8. The warblering had been a little slow at Rock Point (though the Golden-winged was still present) and so I fetched my scope and enjoyed a prolonged lakewatch from the wooden lookout platform. At one point I picked up two loons in my scope heading directly towards me from the lake. One loon looked smaller than the other, piquing my interest. Common Loon is, well, common during migration along the Haldimand County lakeshore. Red-throated Loon, the other regular species we have in southern Ontario, is surprisingly scarce in Haldimand. The loons kept approaching and the small one wasn't giving me Red-throated vibes at all. It was rather stocky and it did not fly with the characteristic head-bobbing flight of a Red-throated. I had suspicions that it may be a Pacific Loon; these suspicions were confirmed as the loons approached closer. Eventually when they were perhaps 200-300 m from shore, they turned to the right and continued eastward. When viewed broad-side, the silvery white nape of the Pacific Loon glistened in the sunlight, providing surprisingly good views given the moderate distance.
Another rare bird highlight from near Rock Point this spring was the presence of a flock of Glossy Ibises. These nine birds were first found by Sheri Lewis late in the afternoon of May 5, then seen a little while later flying towards the Grand River by another observer. Despite several people looking, they were not found again that day, nor were they seen during the morning of May 6.
Following a few hours of birding at Rock Point with Laura on May 6, we drove past the field where Sheri had found the ibises the day before. As we approached the spot, a group of distinctive birds flapped across the field. They settled alongside a muddy puddle as I brought the car to a stop. The ibises! We counted seven of them and marvelled at our luck.
This was the first time that I had observed more than one Glossy Ibis at a time in Ontario, and it was a new Ontario species for Laura. The birds were not far off the road, allowing great scope views. The only problem was that heat haze obscured the birds.
Glossy and White-faced Ibises can be surprisingly tricky to differentiate at times, but adults in their breeding finery are relatively straightforward. The bluish facial skin with a thin white outline, as well as darker legs, points to these birds being Glossy.
The ibises remained in the general area for another 24 hours, delighting many of the birders who drove down to see them.
As I write this on May 11, a break in the poor weather is on its way and we should be inundated with a new surge of migrant birds soon. I am looking forward to more birding at Rock Point since there are a lot of birds still to come!