Season of extremes!
The last ten days or so have been a study in contrast, with wild swings in the weather and correlated bird movements. Spring is always a season of change; with extreme fluctuations, blowing hot one day and blowing cold the next. But it seems that this Spring is particularly “weird” in the new age of Anthropocene. On April 28, it was snowing; a light dusting that added to the still-deep snow drifts preventing any cars or trucks from navigating the winding road to Cabot Head. And then, on May 1 & 2, we had two days of hot weather; the mercury inching very close to 20°C. At least the lighthouse road is now free of snow, allowing passage to large motorized vehicles. It certainly helps with logistics, such as bringing in food, but we should not forget that two good legs are all that we humans need to walk the Earth. It is perhaps best demonstrated by Paul Salopek, who has been doing just that; walking the Earth slowly, in his “Out of Eden walk”. It remains one of my favourite blogs out there, a ground-level, slow journalism, full of humanity, compassion, and poetry. (check it out at: https://www.nationalgeographic.org/projects/out-of-eden-walk/)
But I digress – let’s return to what really matters: birds! Like a mirrored image of the meteorological happenings, bird migration reflects the general weather pattern on a given day. On days with a cold, northerly-wind there is very little movement of birds and they can be difficult to see. Yet when Spring breathes from the South and the temperatures and winds are warm, birds take their cue and hop on the tailwind to continue their northward journey. Hence, on April 27, with a light South wind and ahead of the depression that followed, we recorded a seasonal high of 58 species. There were barely any new arrivals, though: two Ospreys were seen at the same time; and two American Widgeons (a duck species rarely noted) flew into Wingfield Basin.
The following two days brought North winds, cold, and more snow. Only 15 species of birds were seen on April 28, a sharp drop in diversity! The next day was slightly better once again, but with very few aerial insectivores around: for example, only one Tree Swallow was seen briefly, compared to six swallows two days prior.
But then, to our delight, May 1 was a day of arrival! With a strong and warm South wind (precluding banding), we detected six FOY species: one Least Flycatcher; two Barn Swallows (it is the first time since 2002 that this species has not been first detected in April, certainly a consequence of the cold late-April but also, sadly, another indication of a rapidly declining population); one Brown Thrasher; one male Nashville Warbler, stunning in its yellow and green outfit; one bright male Black-throated Green Warbler; and two adult Peregrine Falcon.
As always, though, the unexpected was to be expected. Later that day, as I was counting several Common Loons flying strongly North over Georgian Bay, I caught a glimpse of a very white bird flying over the Bay. My first reaction was to assume it was a Glaucous Gull (a species with no black wing tips and very white overall) especially in the harsh sunlight. But, immediately, the shape and flight pattern were not right for a gull. Broad, round wings flapping quickly but mostly gliding, a short tail, a large body and head: it was a Snowy Owl, on active migration, making its way over the water of Georgian Bay as nonchalantly as if it was the vast tree-less expanse of the tundra! [I want to add another dozen exclamation marks, to – as the name indicates – mark my exclamations!] It is only the second-ever recorded Snowy Owl at Cabot Head, even though this species is a regular denizen of the Bruce Peninsula in winter (and well into the Spring), notably on the Ferndale Flats. It is also the first time that I have experienced the sight of a Snowy Owl on active migration. In case you were wondering, the first Snowy Owl at Cabot Head was seen on the shoreline of Cabot Head on May 4, 2006.
Later in the afternoon of May 1, 2018, Mathieu Landry, freshly arrived from Quebec, got to see the third ever Snowy Owl at Cabot Head. He was exploring the surrounding area and watched the owl coming from the Bay and perching shortly at the tip near him, panting strongly, before flying off to the East. “His” owl was a female, showing the telltale black stripes, whereas “mine” over the Bay was almost all white.
This winter has indeed seen an “invasion” of Snowy Owl across the “southern” latitudes (relative to their breeding Arctic grounds) and so it makes sense, in a way, that we are seeing Snowy Owls at Cabot Head. For example, on May 2, I watched another Snowy Owl on the fringe of the flooded pasture along Dyers Bay road (as the snow-covered road cleared enough that I was finally reunited with my car and went for some fresh supplies). However, it’s important to remember there is always some degree of luck required. In both cases, it could have been easy to miss these Arctic-bound creatures.
It is now the morning of May 3, with cooler temperatures back once again, an overcast, grey sky, and rain threatening. Nonetheless, we rose early and opened the nets at dawn. Then, as we were walking back to the station, arriving near the banding lab, we spooked… you guessed it, a Snowy Owl, who was perched in a birch! It flew away over Georgian Bay along the shoreline and quickly disappeared from view around a bend. It was the fourth ever Snowy Owl seen at Cabot Head. However, truth to be told, we didn’t have a very good view of this particular owl and it could have been the female observed two days prior. To sum up, one Snowy Owl was seen from 2002 to 2017. And now, three have been observed in the span of a few days. Shall I attach some exclamation marks to this point?
Given the somewhat gloomy weather on May 3, few birds were detected or noted to be moving. We did have some FOY joy, though: the Eastern Whip-poor-will made its presence well known before dawn, “vociferating” its name-sake calls. We are happy to hear him back: another declining species, although the Northern Bruce Peninsula may be a stronghold for this species. BPBO is currently doing a special project on Will! (More on that project later)
The other FOY joy was an afternoon Spotted Sandpiper. I should also mention the FOY joy of May 2 which was two warbler species: Black-and-white Warbler and Yellow Warbler, which brought the day (and season) total to seven species of warblers.
The burst of warmth also brought the first Green Darners (on May 1, with many more on May 2) and opened Mountain-ash buds; the first deciduous leaves to appear here along the cold shoreline. Spring is such a time of renewal and excitement. That said, I recommend that everyone should: 1) go outside, 2) slow down, 3) open your senses!