Riding the tailwinds in droves!

It is another morning of inclement weather at Cabot Head: pouring rain and strong East wind preclude us from opening the nets but not from observing in the dry confines of the porch (more on that later). It has been a good week, with the typical boom and bust of bird migration. 

On April 22, we banded 101 birds of 10 species (about 75% kinglets), the second-highest total so far of the season: a busy day indeed. And a rare one! Banding more than 100 birds in one day happens between two to eight times in any spring season. Luckily, Danielle, an experienced returning volunteer, was here to help me safely and efficiently retrieve and band all these birds. The following days were much quieter for banding (with totals of 19 and 7 birds banded, for example), a usual pattern in spring migration. We had fun though, watching our local Wild Turkeys prancing around. Although not a migratory bird, I enjoy watching them nonetheless: the iridescence of their feathers is simply magnificent, bringing glitters of copper and bronze in the black and brown plumage. 

On April 23, yelling gulls at the rocky point attracted our attention. A Snowy Owl was being dive-bombed by the gulls! The owl was sitting at the tip, annoyed at the harassing gulls, but otherwise not moving. The gulls finally went away but not the Snowy Owl: it stayed all day long at the tip, offering us great views. It is only the third spring with observations of that species. What a treat!

A fierce West wind and snow squalls in the morning of April 25 prevented banding but not observations, especially over Georgian Bay where a strong movement of waterfowl was underway. Many flocks of Long-tailed Ducks were seen, for a total of 86 birds. A few White-winged Scoters flew by as well, an all-black duck except for striking white secondaries. Two Surf Scoters, a few Greater Scaups and a fun mix of American Widgeon and Blue-winged Teals were also observed. The three species of Mergansers were detected, with Red-breasted the most abundant. Horned and Red-necked Grebes were seen flying low over the water. It was much quieter on land except for one large flock of kinglets.

Nicer weather returned the following day, clear and calm but cold. That day, April 26, was mostly uneventful but for a large group of 24 Common Ravens playing in the sky. Things were about to change abruptly as strong south winds blowing without a pause from Texas were forecast.

And sure enough they blew like only winds coming from Texas can! On April 27, the windstorm made us close nets quickly in the most exposed locations, and after a few more hours, all of them eventually as the wind intensified in mid-morning. Free from banding we focused our eyes and binoculars on the immense stream of birds flowing through Cabot Head like a feathered river in spring flood. A total of 53 species, the highest of the season so far, were detected including five species of warblers (the forest gems), with many species in incredible numbers. American Robins for example, were seen milling in flocks of up to 150 birds, with a morning estimate of over 700 birds. The most abundant bird though was the Yellow-rumped Warbler: we estimated over 900 birds moved through Cabot Head. It was impossible to have a precise count of course, but I am confident that this number gives an accurate “picture” of the migration. Yellow-rumps were everywhere, feeding voraciously on the ground (where a dozen could be seen in a tiny patch, for example) or in the shrubs and trees, or suddenly aloft in loose flocks streaming through the air against the wind.

Pine Warblers were also quite frequent with a record high of 50 birds counted. Even if it is only a fraction of the Yellow-rump number, it is the highest daily total ever for Pine Warblers in 20 years of spring monitoring. On April 30, 2010 46 were counted but days with more than ten Pine Warblers are very rare. In fact, between spring 2002 and 2020, there were only ten days with double-digit observations, less than 2% of the 559 days with sightings of Pine Warbler. 

Besides Pine Warblers, there were a few Palm (15 birds), the first Black-throated Green (9 total with one banded bird) and the first Black-and-white Warblers (5 birds) of the season. The White-throated Sparrows have also arrived on that day. Another FOY joy was one Blue-headed Vireo. Purple Finches put on a show too, adorning the bare branches of trees with their rich red, singing as if spring was here, and all in all being in record high numbers! Just like Pine Warblers, they broke the previous one-day record of 83 birds on April 24, 2016: 91 Purple Finches were counted on April 27 this spring, a remarkable number. It is actually the fourth day across the springs with double-digit total! Quite often during the morning, one would see 3 or 4 male Purple Finches perched in the same tree, or little flocks flying over the canopy. 

Even after 16 seasons at Cabot Head, I am still in awe and delighted by these mornings of intense migration, when the Earth herself seems to pulse with birds. The magic kept happening, as I discovered a Cape May Warbler feeding in a tall spruce in late afternoon of that fantastic April 27. An early bird, it beats the previous early date by two days.

The morning of April 28, as I wrote in the introduction, was wet and windy. Nonetheless, observations from the porch in early morning were good, with – once again – big numbers of Yellow-rumped Warblers (130 birds), Pine Warblers (35 birds), one Cape May Warbler, and the First of Year Northern Parula. This exquisite and delicate warbler showed itself in clear view for a little while, unaware of making history by being the first Northern Parula seen in the month of April at Cabot Head! (Earliest date: May 2, 2013). A FOY Swamp Sparrow was also observed feeding on the ground, looking quite wet. After some activity, birds seem to have dispersed and disappeared: with quiet woods, we can catch our breaths and happily wait for another boom!

3 Comments on “Riding the tailwinds in droves!

  1. A great account Stephane. Wonderful that you and Danielle are there and able to observe the spectacle of bird migration at its best, Not surprised that this you breaks early date records.

  2. Exciting times! Saw my first black and white warbler today! Lots of yellow rumps and kinglets! Also saw an American bittern today. Nice to see tree and barn swallows back too!

  3. I love reading your observations and comments about your experience at the observatory! It fills me with awe hearing of the birds passing through. Thank you- always gives me hope when numbers are up.

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