The leaves are now displaying a rich array of gold, red, orange, yellow, and even some lingering green here and there, bringing a pure brilliance to the forest that surrounds us. The days are markedly shorter, with a lazy sun rising past 7:30am and setting less than 12 hours later, around 7pm. Fall is definitively here, but the temperatures are stubbornly staying summer-like, with daily highs routinely of 16°, 18°, even 24°C!
Now, like any good Canadian, I soak in warmth as much as I can, knowing all too well that Jack Frost will be nipping at our toes very soon. But, even as I bask like a lizard on the porch of Wingfield Cottage, a part of me feels uneasy at these unseasonable and, some might say, unreasonable temperatures. The year 2016 is shaping up to be the warmest on record, following an almost unbroken string of warmest years in the last decade.
The last week of banding was not as busy as the previous one: there were still fair numbers of kinglets and sparrows, some creepers and thrushes, but it felt like the bulk of migrants had moved through.
On Tim’s last day, Friday the 14th, he was lucky enough to band three new species (for his non-existent banding list): a Purple Finch, whose beak impressed him greatly; an American Tree Sparrow, with its long and soft body feathers; and a dazzling Red-bellied Woodpecker, the second captured this fall, and only the 6th in all our fall records!
On that day, October 14, we were treated with great views of a young Northern Shrike, perching briefly around the station. This species breeds in northern habitats of muskeg and open spruce woodlands from Alaska to Labrador. Its breeding range in Ontario is not well know, given the remoteness of it, but includes most of the Hudson Bay Lowlands, from Pen Islands at the border of Manitoba to the southern tip of James Bay near Moosonee. That means that for most of us in Ontario, it is a bird of winter, when it flies south to over-winter in southern Ontario (its winter range is a broad band from the northwest coast to the Maritimes). Northern Shrikes have been seen only in one Spring at Cabot Head (on April 30, 2011), as they tend to migrate back north early. However, they are much more commonly observed in the fall: from 2002 to 2015, the species has been seen in ten seasons (out of 14), always after mid-October, with the earliest date on October 16, 2007. That said, this year breaks the earliest record! The young shrike was also observed the following day, on the 15th.
A Red-bellied Woodpecker was also observed on October 15, most likely the same bird from the previous day. As it was flying over Wingfield Basin, a Merlin suddenly appeared behind it at high speed! A short, but intense, chase followed: the woodpecker made a quick turn toward the nearest shoreline with the young merlin hot on its tail. As the merlin lost speed and the woodpecker closed in towards the trees, a second merlin appeared from nowhere at high speed, zeroing on the woodpecker. They both disappeared behind the trees, where the woodpecker might have had a better chance eluding its pursuers. The second merlin was also a young bird, but larger, indicating a female. I doubt the merlins succeeded but it was an incredible sight to watch.
I was also delighted to watch another “nature drama”. A Herring Gull flying by swooped down over Wingfield Basin and caught a dead fish (maybe a perch?). The fish was big, as long as the gull body, so the bird struggled carrying it in its bill as it flew over the basin. It was such a challenge that the gull had to land on the water, where it endeavoured to swallow the fish whole. Again, the fish was much too big for the gull. Suddenly, and always seemingly out of nowhere, another gull flew over, calling and getting one answering call from the first gull. As I watched through the scope, transfixed, as the gull continued to struggle with the fish, when it suddenly took off. I wondered why it had left so much food behind but got my answer quickly: a Bald Eagle swooped down and grabbed the fish with fierce talons (on its second pass), then flew off to a big rock on the shore where it proceeded to tear into it with a much bigger, sharper, hooked bill that any gull could provide. I thought that it might not be a complete loss for the gulls, since the eagle will likely leave bits and pieces behind and the fish was too big whole for the gulls anyway. However, coming back from a net check, I looked on the eagle and got to see two eagles for the same price: it looks like the eagle got joined by its partner and that they cleaned the whole fish in concert. Nothing left for the gulls after all.
As I am writing these lines, I am watching the tail end of a giant thunderstorm, slowly losing power, after an amazing three hours of thunder and lightning and heavy rain and wind. There is always something interesting to watch here at Cabot Head!