The last six days (May 4 to 9) have brought Spring sharply into focus with a constant stream of new species arriving almost daily. Even though inclement weather (heavy rain or strong winds) precluded banding in three of these days, we have been busy watching and enjoying the return of the prodigal sons and daughters of the northern climes.
The strong South wind of May 5 was expected to bring us FOY joy, but we were also surprised by a Snowy Owl flying over the bay (detected by Mathieu)! They are still around, it seems. The delicate Northern Parula ,and somewhat subdued Orange-crowned Warbler, were more in line with our expectations as FOY at this time of year, as with the easily-overlooked Least Flycatcher. These were the only FOY joy moments on that day, but the South wind also brought an impressive movement of Common Loons over Georgian Bay (80 birds counted), as well as Ring-billed and Herring Gulls. There was good diversity and numbers of raptors too: the Bruce Peninsula tends to act as a funnel in Spring for soaring raptors, being loathe to cross over big expanses of water. They get concentrated, pushed to the shoreline, and form large “kettles”: dozens of Broad-winged Hawks together, mixed with Turkey Vultures, some Sharp-shinned Hawks, and the occasional Northern Harrier and Osprey.
May 6 started out quiet and cool, with an East wind picking up in the early morning, and increasing cloudiness. There wasn’t much bird activity for the first three hours, when suddenly, it seemed that birds were falling from the sky! Warblers, the vast majority Yellow-rumped (or Myrtle) Warblers, were everywhere and rapidly filled our nets. In just an hour, from 9:50 to 10:50, we banded 62 birds (of which 41 were Myrtle Warblers!), compared to the 22 birds in the previous three hours combined. Yes, it was a fall-out of some sort. A “fall-out” is the result of severe weather preventing birds from continuing their migratory flight and having to drop to the ground to rest, take shelter, and feed. They are a highlight for many birders, given the diversity of species that typically descend at once. The approaching light rain forced birds to the ground in this case, although it couldn’t be considered a major fall-out. In the end, we banded 108 birds of 19 species, the second highest total of the season. Of these, there were 44 Myrtle Warblers, more in that one day than in season totals in nine of the past 16 Springs. We had our FOY Ovenbird and Chestnut-sided Warbler in a net and observed a FOY Northern Waterthrush on top of a birch! The latter is usually a secretive bird of wet undergrowth, more detected through its loud voice, so I was shocked to see one so high up! But it is migration season; everything is possible!
Warblers kept coming and feeding low all afternoon, under the light rain, with lots of Nashville Warblers, FOY Cape May and Blackburnian Warblers, as well as some Palm and Myrtle Warblers. These observations were for “fun”, as they were done outside the normal monitoring period. They brought the tally for the day to 10 species of warbler.
May 7 promised clear skies, rising temperatures and light wind. It was a lovely day with perfect conditions for birds to migrate: no need to hunker down and get caught by pesky nets. However, we did capture quite a few kinglets. In sharp contrast from the previous day only one Nashville Warbler was banded, although we detected about 100 Myrtle Warblers. Birds were flying high and it was a challenge to detect and identify them: the FOY Eastern Kingbird flew by almost incognito, as did the FOY Rusty Blackbirds.
And then it was time for another windstorm: strong South winds were blowing before dawn on May 8. No nets could be opened that day, but our eyes and ears certainly were. However, despite our best effort, there was not a lot of bird activity while the winds howled. I did manage to glimpse the FOY American Redstart; a beautiful adult male. This species is quite consistent in its timing of arrival at Cabot Head: in 13 of 17 Springs of monitoring, the FOY has been between May 8 and 10! The rest of the morning came and went with no additional excitement, save the Peregrine Falcon, very far and high over Georgian Bay. It was more a black speck really (scientific name, Blackus speckus); the kind only a raptor lover would enjoy. Of course, I am one, so I was happy.
In the afternoon of May 8, the action resumed when we watched a swimming Bald Eagle struggling to get back to shore. It was dragging a big sucker (it is a fish!) and proceeded to enjoy its sushi delight sitting on the shoreline. Crows and ravens appeared quite quickly, almost magically one is tempted to say. How do they know? They must be always on the lookout for the fortune of others. The eagle enjoyed a good meal but was rapidly full and left a good chunk of fish behind, much to the merriment of its corvid followers. There was a distinct hierarchy, a pecking order you might say, as ravens easily displace the much smaller crows at the feast, while the wise gulls waiting calmly on the water. I idly followed the Bald Eagle in its flight and discovered that it was interacting with a young Golden Eagle! Soon, the Golden Eagle flew away and landed in the scree slope of Middle Bluff, where it seemed to find some food. It was difficult to see through the afternoon haze but we watched it feed for a while, while Turkey Vultures arrived in the sky. These too must be constantly on the lookout for opportunities to get in on a meal!
As we were enjoying the spectacle of these big birds (a Sandhill Crane decided to fly by, to show that it’s a big bird too), a tiny speck of a jewel zoomed by: our FOY Ruby-throated Hummingbird! That afternoon was shaping up to be a good one. When the Golden Eagle finally flew away, we did too. Still bound by gravity, though, we went for a walk along the Georgian Bay shoreline (where we heard and saw our FOY Blue-gray Gnatcatcher). In this same spot is where we saw, perched on a rock on the beach, near Boiler Beach, a Snowy Owl! A big, black striped female! Perched motionless, except for her swiveling head, she looked at the world with large yellow eyes. We looked at her in astonishment with large eyes too! What was a Snowy Owl doing at Cabot Head on the 8th of May, the fifth of the season? We sat a respectful distance from her for almost an hour, watching the owl and pondering the collection of species for the day: Bald and Golden Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, Snowy Owl, American Redstart, Ruby-throated Hummingbird… The Green Darners dancing around the panting Snowy Owls were also mesmerizing in the incongruity of it all!
All 15 nets were finally open again on the morning of May 9. The massive snowbank across the net lane of C13 was reduced enough to string the net. Yes, there is still snow on the ground in the shady, cold spots of Cabot Head. An unusual squawking sound made us search our mental sound bank, when the culprit flew across Wingfield Basin in front of us: a Green heron, a species only occasionally seen at Cabot Head (ten previous observations in 16 Spring seasons). It was an auspicious start to the day! Indeed, there were numerous FOYs during the day, as well a large number of birds in general. A pair of Northern Shoveler flew over the basin; the third occurrence ever of this species at Cabot Head. Speaking of birds that are infrequently observed, I heard the distinctive call of the Tundra Swan and rushed to see six birds flying away over Georgian Bay (they have previously only been observed once in the Fall of 2014 and once in the Spring of 2016). More frequent, though still uncommon, we captured a female Red-bellied Woodpecker that morning. Besides these rare species, we were busy watching and banding a good “crop” of more typical Spring migrants. On that day, it was Palm Warblers which took the honor of being the most abundant species, both observed and banded. There were many other warbler species too, with FOY Common Yellowthroat (singing while hidden in low bushes) and Black-throated Blue Warbler (a mix of age and sex classes). In all, we tallied 15 species of warblers for that day: many Myrtle Warblers, several beautiful male Blackburnian, Black-throated Green, and Yellow Warblers, a handful of Nashville, the monochrome Black-and-white, and one or two individuals of Pine, Orange-crowned, and Chestnut-sided Warblers, as well as Northern Parula. A high-flying bird was our FOY Scarlet Tanager: it was a female, yellow and green, which means we most likely missed the real FOY (as males always come back first in Spring). A single Northern Rough-winged Swallow announced its arrival with its characteristic call, as did the American Pipit.
So, there was a bit of everything for everyone on May 9, as we ended up with 80 species during the official seven hours of observation, a high tally indeed! The afternoon brought a couple more species: Field Sparrow and the FOY Magnolia Warbler. It is worth noting than in the previous 16 years of monitoring, there has been only 18 days with daily total of 80 species or more (less than 2% of days with monitoring).