A glimpse of winter! – corrected

We are now entering the last week – even days – of monitoring with the end date being October 31st , which completes 78 days of uninterrupted monitoring. The warm days of summer are long behind us, nights are now firmly longer than days, leaves of all the deciduous trees have changed their colours, with many already fallen to the ground. Even tamaracks are now slowly turning golden, with a nice gradation from green to yellow among the trees lining Wingfield Basin. It is the only coniferous species, the so-called “evergreen”, to shed all its needles come winter. We even got our first snow falling on October 25.

This is usually a time of year when migration slows down, both in terms of numbers and diversity. However, some birds are just getting under way, notably waterfowl like Common Goldeneyes and Bufflehead (first observed on October 25 at Cabot Head) or Long-tailed Ducks (heavy movement on October 25 with more 120 birds counted).

This past week, we banded an unusual number of Golden-crowned Kinglets, with a high daily total of 53 birds on October 26, which is a record total for this time of year. After October 20th, daily totals are usually between a few to about 30 birds, with a previous high of 57 kinglets on October 24, 2009. 

We also got several surprises. A Swainson’s thrush was captured on October 22nd, the latest record ever, a full 7 days later than the previous latest date of October 15th, in 2016. On October 22nd we still detected four species of warblers: Orange-crowned, Nashville, Yellow-rumped, and Black-throated Green Warblers. The first three species are not unusual in October, even late October. The Black-throated Green Warbler, though, was extremely late. This species had never been observed after October 10th at Cabot Head in the 18 previous fall seasons. After the gold medals of the latest records, time for the silver medals of the second-latest records. On October 26th, a Pine Warbler and a Red-eyed Vireo were captured and duly banded. And yes, they are both the second latest record for their respective species.

Another sign that winter is coming, whether we like it or not, is the sudden appearance of little flocks of Common redpolls, with the first ones detected on October 24. On that day, October 24th, the first Snow Buntings were heard and seen flying over the station. They became a common sight and sound afterwards. The next day, a Fox Sparrow, the second biggest sparrow in North America, let me admire its striking reddish plumage and large bicoloured bill for a quick moment before flying away and across the basin, the first of the season. A flock of about 20 Bohemian Waxwings were briefly seen on October 26th, the only third time in 19 years of monitoring. Bohemian Waxwings, as the name implies, are irregular visitors and when they do it is it tends to be after the end of monitoring.

On that same day, we got another surprise, with a young Northern Shrike caught in a net. The aptly nicknamed butcher bird used expertly its hooked and sharp bill to defend itself from grasping hands. A few bloody fingers later, we put a band on the 12th Northern Shrike banded at Cabot Head, and the first since 2014. It is not a frequent occurrence in our nets, to say the least, although it is observed more regularly.

And, finally, the last surprise (for now) was on October 27th when we caught two Pine Grosbeaks, one young and one adult female. This boreal species had been previously detected during 8 fall seasons at Cabot Head but banded only in 2005, 2007, 2012, and 2014.

Does the arrival of all these northern species indicate an early and cold winter? Maybe, maybe not! Some of these species, like Snow Buntings and Fox Sparrows, are expected to arrive at this time of year; others may respond more to food availability and move accordingly. Regardless of their weather forecast capacities, they certainly enlivened our days and made monitoring exciting and interesting to the very end! Which will be this Saturday, October 31st! Stay tuned for at least one more dispatch from Cabot Head.