A Spring of Shorebirds! And settling into territory 

May 29, 2024

Setting out into the pre-dawn to open nets, we enter the liminal space between night and day. It is in this transition time that sometimes we hear the last songs and calls of nocturnal birds: on May 26, we were indeed treated to a potpourri from Eastern Whip-poor-will, Common Nighthawk, and American Bittern. Our opening time is also just before the explosion of the dawn chorus: this morning, for example (May 29), it was in a hushed silence that we opened the first few nets, quickly followed by the territorial declaration of many loud American Redstarts filling the forest with their songs. So many that they seem to come from all directions. After barely half an hour of asserting their claims, their song lost its urgency and frequency, and birds started to busy themselves with other tasks (feeding, nest building, incubating, courtship).

We have indeed entered a time of settling into territory, shifting into breeding mode for many species. For example, American Redstarts, to name our most locally abundant breeding species at Cabot Head, have been busy establishing their breeding territories again in this small patch of wood after their long Spring migration from the Caribbean and other tropical locales. We have been getting interesting recaptures of Redstarts banded in seasons past, a sure indication of them returning to their breeding territory. Other birds, though, are still migrating through for points further North.

In the past week, Blue Jays, notably, were seen in large flocks of up to a few hundred birds. This species is not thought of as a migratory bird but the northern birds are indeed migratory and move through in late May – early June at Cabot Head. 

On May 23, with the help of a strong tail wind, we observed a few flocks of Canada Goose (for a total of 106 birds precisely): at this time of year, it is a moult migration, that is, a migration undertaken by non- or failed breeders to northern locations offering abundant food and less predators (like large lakes in the boreal forest), where geese can moult safely. Since they lose all their wing feathers at once and become flightless for a short period, safety is worth a long flight.

This last week, there were two days of rain and heavy fog and both brought us unexpected visitors. On May 25, two large white birds emerged from the mist, honking softly: Trumpeter Swans! They circled around the basin before disappearing below the tree line. It is the first sighting for this species in Spring at Cabot Head, with previous records only in Falls of 2007 and 2010. Recent breeding evidence of Trumpeter Swans on the Bruce peninsula have been collected during the current Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas.

On May 26, it was another day of rain and very heavy fog. Birds do get disoriented or at least grounded during these weather conditions, even shorebirds, the Wind Birds, who thread the globe with their immense journeys on their small wings. On that morning, we were delighted by a little flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers (21 birds), alighting on the rocks of the tip after a few circles over the basin. In Spring, this species was detected only once on May 25, 2004, with one bird, but detections occurred in six Fall seasons, mostly in August. At the same time that morning, a lone Black-bellied Plover (in winter plumage) was also resting on the rocks, barely moving, next to a gaggle of gulls. There are only four years with observation of Black-bellied Plover at Cabot Head: 2002 (both in Spring and Fall), 2004 in Fall, and 2005 and 2022 in Spring. In the afternoon of May 26, with fog still obscuring the land, we returned to the point and it was a lone Semipalmated Plover that took the place of the morning shorebirds. We were very grateful for the bad weather: it brought us birds that would not care to stop otherwise! We have been blessed with a remarkable numbers of shorebird observations this Spring with a total of 12 species detected. In the previous 22 Spring seasons, only four to seven species of shorebirds have been detected per season, for a total of 13 species. This Spring, we are missing only Upland Sandpiper and Whimbrel, having added Ruddy Turnstone to the Spring list.

The rest of the week experienced more agreeable weather, with lots of sun and clear sky, albeit with cool temperatures. Banding was relatively slow but we got some interesting recaptures. A Red-eyed Vireo recaptured on May 28 was initially banded on 9 September 2018 as a hatch-year bird, indicating that it now has reached the ripe age of six years, having survived six round trips to the Amazon. It certainly finds the area of Cabot Head to its liking, because it has been recaptured in the Fall of 2019, the Spring of 2021, the Spring of 2022, the Spring of 2023, and now, the Spring of 2024! We certainly wish him/her to live as long as our record holder, a Red-eyed Vireo that was at least 10 years old when it was recaptured (for the first and only time after its initial capture).