And a bear ran through it!
The arrival of hummingbirds (May 7 this spring) heralds for me a new phase of spring, which could be dubbed the “warm spring”: it is when warmth indeed returns (albeit tentatively sometime), when flowers bloom and trees leaf out, and when the long-distance migrants are returning in earnest! These migrants are coming back from their wintering grounds in Central or South America or the West Indies, arriving later in spring and leaving earlier in fall to take advantage of the (short) burst of life of the northern latitudes. Among them are the warblers, the brightly coloured “forest gems” eagerly awaited by many birders: mid-May is the best time for observing them in large number and diversity, sporting their fresh and brilliant breeding plumage. One may develop a severe case of “warbler neck”, though, looking up, up, up in trees to find them.
That was the case on May 13 when we witnessed the first real push of long-distance migrants at Cabot Head with a total of 16 species of warblers. The most numerous among them were Palm Warblers, followed by Yellow-rumped and Black-and-white Warblers. The first American Redstarts were finally detected, May 13th being the latest date ever (tied with 2002): they were eager to arrive and must have been somehow blocked (by bad weather?) because it was not one but nine birds that we detected. Very often, the First of Year bird is singular, like the FOY Magnolia Warbler seen on that same day. Two FOY Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were also heard and seen, just to contest the theory of the single FOY. A high-flying and high-calling Evening Grosbeak was another highlight of that May 13!
May 14 dawned clear and calm. There was less bird activity throughout the morning, although 17 species of warblers were counted, with the FOY COYE (Common Yellowthroat) at the very end of the count period. Indigo Bunting and Baltimore Oriole were the other FOY of the day. The following day, May 15, was also clear and calm but it got busier: a cool 77 birds of 24 species were banded. We managed to put on some good observations too, despite being occupied at the nets: 17 species of warblers were again detected with FOY Chestnut-sided and Bay-breasted Warblers. Palm Warblers were again the most numerous species of warblers.
For a third day in a row, there was no wind nor clouds on May 16: that does not happen often along the shore of Georgian bay. It was almost a repeat of the previous day, with 62 birds banded of an impressive 28 species and 18 species of warblers (FOY Tennessee Warbler). However, numbers observed were not as high. A nice little “flock” of six Baltimore Orioles together was great fun to see.
The wind came back with a vengeance on May 17, furiously blowing from the south and precluding the opening of most nets. Numbers of birds were low overall but diversity quite high, with 74 species (FOY Gray Catbird and Swainson’s Thrush), including 19 of warblers. A lone White-winged Crossbill uttering its characteristic call attracted our delighted ears and eyes to its bouncing flight.
The strong south wind kept at it throughout the day and unto the night. It was still blowing at dawn on May 18 but died suddenly shortly after sunrise, allowing us to re-open all the nets. Banding was scarce, though, on that day, with only 16 birds captured. However, birds in trees, on water, or in the sky, kept us very busy, with many FOY (Eastern Wood Pewee, Great crested Flycatcher, Red-eyed Vireo, Blackpoll and Canada Warblers, and Scarlet Tanager). In total, we detected a spectacular 86 species during the 7 hours of monitoring, including 22 species of warblers! Among them, there was a booming American Bittern, a vociferous Eastern Whip-poor-will, a cooing Mourning Dove, a raspy Caspian Tern, an echoing Black-billed Cuckoo. Also, a little flotilla of over 30 Red-breasted Mergansers on the now smooth waters of Georgian Bay, with several Common Loons scattered about. A lingering Rough-legged Hawk was seen flying low over the Pine Barrens but no Red-tailed or Broad-winged Hawks. Odd how some species can be missed during these high diversity days: no Catbird meowed, no thrushes sang, no White-throated Sparrows, no Lincoln’s or Swamp Sparrows (both secretive species seen – seen! the previous day). We always want more, more, more: it would have been fun to break the 90-species limit! But achieving 80 species or more in a day is already quite rare: only 19 days as such in the previous 19 spring seasons.
As if to illustrate that point, “only” 62 species were detected on May 19 (including Lincoln’s Sparrow! Why, oh, why?). A FOY Wilson’s Warbler was caught in the nets, a SOY (Second-of-the-Year) was seen later in the morning (sans ring).
All throughout the past week, Blue Jays have been building in numbers, with their noisy flocks now up to 75 or even 100 birds.
The merry month of May also brings the return of nightjars, these crepuscular large-mouthed cryptic moth hunters. At dusk on May 17, I heard the call of the Eastern Whip-poor-will, one of my favourite sounds of the woods. And yes, even when one decides to “sing” right outside my bedroom at 4am! On May 18, after a truly warm day, I lingered on the porch in the evening, waiting for a familiar “peent”: I heard it at precisely 8:45pm, the telltale call of the Common Nighthawk. After some searching, it was a pleasure to the eye to watch the dark silhouette fluttering against an orange sky. I found two of them in the western horizon and enjoyed their return.
With Common Nighthawks in our skies, the warm spring has most definitely arrived!
But what about the bear? I almost forget that one morning while checking the nets we suddenly heard crashing through the trees. A big beast on which we never laid eye, it walked right through a net, tearing it apart: these nets may catch birds but obviously cannot stop a walking bear.
Please follow BPBO on Instagram at @brucepeninsulabirds for pictures of banding, sunrise, Middle Bluff, and more.
At first kisses of warmth on the skin, / the body shivered, eyes wide in sudden / recognition of pleasures long denied. / Shrugging off the languid torpor of winter, / we rejoice in the new green of fluttering leaves, / brushed by the gentle breeze of summer promises.