May 2021 has been, generally, a poor one from the perspective of a birder in southern Ontario. Days with large numbers of migrant songbirds have been few and far between, to put it generously, and we have not experienced any epic days with warblers "dripping from the trees", as they say. I have heard concerns from several birders that this may be an indictment on the poor state of our bird populations, because they have not seen many migrants in their local patches this month. While there are many valid reasons to be concerned about bird populations (which have been plummeting around the world - hardly a surprise given our burgeoning human population and excessive consumption of resources), the fact is there is another reason why we have not seen birds in numbers that we may have been accustomed to from previous years.
That, of course, is weather. There are billions of migrant songbirds that fly to the boreal forest each spring and only a fraction of them stop over in the relatively small land mass of southwestern Ontario. Cooler weather and persistent northwest winds continued into early May this year, holding up the first pulses of Neotropic migrants (though, it must be noted, that the birding was great around April 27-28, and May 2-4 of this year). Finally, the dam burst around the 12th of May or so. The winds shifted to the south and we received a string of days and nights with warm temperatures and light winds with a south component - essentially, ideal migrating conditions. The birds took advantage and winged their way north, quickly making up for lost time. With no rain or weather fronts to knock them down, we just did not observe large concentrations of birds, an effect that can be especially noticeable at lakefront parks. Each night, the radar was lit up with the signals of migrating birds. But each morning, one's local patch held average or below average numbers of migrants.
That being said, even a slow or average day in May (without fallouts) can lead to phenomenal birding. As I detailed in my most recent post, I had been spending most of my time at Rock Point Provincial Park for several reasons; chief among them being the high quality birding and the lack of people. I continued birding Rock Point regularly throughout the last couple of weeks.
May 15th was one of the better mornings at Rock Point. Things started off well with a singing Golden-winged Warbler, a different bird than the one which spent close to a week at Rock Point earlier in May. When I tracked down the new Golden-winged, it looked mostly pure, though it showed a tinge of yellow on the upper breast. Golden-winged and Blue-winged Warblers hybridize extensively and even pure looking birds often share DNA from the other species.
Not long after finding the Golden-winged Warbler, a rustle in the undergrowth caught my attention. It was in the exact location where I had spotted a Marsh Wren the previous day with Laura. Expecting it to be the wren again, or perhaps a sparrow or catbird, I was surprised by the identify of the culprit. It was a Short-tailed Weasel, also known as an Ermine. The mustelid seemed quite curious of me, especially so once I started to make squeaking noises at it. Short-tailed Weasels are voracious predators and are easily attracted to squeaking (which may imitate the sound of a rodent). Despite its curiousity, the weasel was quite skittish and it took quite some time before I was able to crack off a few photos. The cutest killing machines ever!
That day also appeared to be a good one for sparrow migration. Hundreds of White-throated and dozens of both White-crowned and Chipping were on the lawns of the campsites, while Swamp and Lincoln's Sparrows were present in good numbers.
While walking through the campground, I chanced upon a Clay-coloured Sparrow with a few Chipping Sparrows. It did not hang around long though, and I was lucky to manage a couple of poor, mostly out-of-focus photos. Clay-coloured Sparrows breed in small numbers in southern Ontario but they are always a treat to encounter during migration.
Later that morning, a Canada Warbler posed long enough in the understorey to allow me to snap a few photos.
May 16 was another great day of birding at Rock Point. By far the biggest surprise was a female Pileated Woodpecker which appeared to be doing laps of the "tip" of Rock Point. It flew over my head at least four times, and it was calling frequently. Its plumage also seemed a bit worn. Pileated Woodpeckers are rarely reported from Rock Point. I am not sure where this one came from!
That morning produced my first (and only) Orange-crowned Warbler of the year so far, as well as some nice photo opportunities of a few other warblers.
The Port Weller east pier is another location that I have visited on a few occasions. That being said, the large number of people that now frequent the pier, along with an abnormally large midge hatch, have prevented me from patrolling Port Weller recently. On May 11, I woke early to avoid the crowds and enjoyed a stellar morning on the pier, even if the birding was a little slow. Only six species of warblers appeared! At least the resident Yellow Warblers were quite accommodating for photos.
The biggest highlight from that Port Weller excursion was an Evening Grosbeak, a female, that flew over heading west just after dawn. It perched in one of the tall cottonwoods for a minute or so, prompting me to go back to the car for the camera (I had originally planned on completing the walk without the burden of a camera over my shoulder). Of course, the grosbeak had left upon my return, but I made the most of having my camera with me for a change. Evening Grosbeaks have been passing through southern Ontario in small numbers this May, following their mega-flight last autumn. I have run into a few odd individuals here and there. Most have been detected calling in flight, a distinctive vocalization that can be easily learned (but beware of weird sounding House Sparrows!)
The muddy edge of the big pond at Port Weller often produces one or two Solitary Sandpipers during migration. Other shorebirds had been rather scarce this spring, so far at least.
A late Rusty Blackbird was nice to see. I rarely encounter them in Niagara away from Wainfleet Bog and other areas containing swamp ecotypes.
A male Yellow-headed Blackbird was discovered on the lawn of a house in Niagara Falls on May 7. This is a bird of the prairies, but small numbers nest in southwestern Ontario (Lake St. Clair area) and individuals occasionally appear elsewhere in southern Ontario, usually during migration. I had never seen a Yellow-headed Blackbird in Niagara before and there are, surprisingly, only a few recent records for the region. This Yellow-headed Blackbird was a "one-day wonder", being a no-show for birders searching the next morning.
On May 19, I ventured outside of the Niagara Peninsula to chase a Snowy Egret that had been seen by many over the previous few days in Burlington. It was at LaSalle Marina on the 19th and it did not take me too long to find it. I even had the bird to myself for the entire time, a rarity these days. Snowy Egrets show up occasionally in Ontario, though they are still a species that can't ever be expected.
The egret was having a lot of success catching small fish in the shallows.
This post is coming to a close, but first I wanted to touch on a recent visit to Rock Point - yesterday, to be exact. It had been another excellent night of migration and my hopes were high as I drove to the park after dropping Laura off at work. One of the first birds that I saw as I drove to the entrance was an Olive-sided Flycatcher perched beside Downey Road. A great start!
From June through August, Olive-sided Flycatchers are a bird of boreal bogs. I usually only see a couple of migrant Olive-sided Flycatchers each spring; they are much easier to find on their wintering grounds in the Andes, as well as on their breeding grounds across the boreal forest. This one would be making just a brief pitstop at Rock Point before continuing on to its designated bog in the north.
I have been checking the rocky flats at Rock Point religiously on each visit, hoping to come across an unusual shorebird or gull. The precedent is there, and mid May is a great time to find those types of rare birds. Unfortunately, the flats haven't produced yet, but the flocks of Bonaparte's Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, and occasionally Dunlins and Least Sandpipers are fun to sift through. A medley of first and second summer gulls spend much of their day loafing here as well, and yesterday I spotted a fugly Lesser Black-backed Gull among their ranks.
This adult Herring Gull was looking pretty sharp.
Canada Warblers in particular were present in good numbers; I counted at least 16 individuals. Many of the other later warbler types were present including Wilson's, Blackpoll and Mourning Warblers. Thrushes put in a good showing and I was pleased to see a few Gray-cheeked Thrushes among the many Swainson's Thrushes.
Late May is flycatcher season. The Olive-sided was the day's highlight but I also noted Least, Yellow-bellied, Willow, Alder and Great Crested Flycatchers.
Apart from a few Spotted Turtle searches (one excursion was successful), I have not really done any dedicated herping this spring. Most of the herps that I have seen have been by-catch during birding and mothing expeditions. As I was leaving Rock Point, this gorgeous Eastern Milksnake appeared on the road.
And with that, I will wrap up this blog post. I will be moving to Cambridge tomorrow and starting a work contract for a consulting company to conduct breeding bird surveys and other wildlife inventories for the summer. Spring migration birding will be coming to a close for me, but I am excited for what the summer has in store.