And a River of Crossbills ran through it…

The morning of October 29 dawned overcast and windy, conditions that did not change over the course of the day. The strong East wind blew relentlessly all day whipping Georgian Bay in a frothy fury. As in the previous days, a few flocks of White-winged Crossbills appeared at first light, however it quickly became clear that October 29 was going to be different. Soon we were witnessing in amazement a near constant stream of low, fast-flying flocks of chattering White-winged Crossbills, all heading East against the strong wind, barely clearing the tree tops, occasionally stopping for a very short time. The River of Crossbills was at its highest flow between 8:30 and 10:00am when a befuddled but delighted team counted over 1500 of them as flocks after flocks flew over Cabot Head. The total for the day was 2500 White-winged Crossbills, an estimate of course, but one we felt was a conservative one. All the flocks were flying against the wind and none were seen going the other way. I have never seen anything like it in 16 years at Cabot Head. To think that a few days ago we were impressed with a total of 130 White-winged Crossbills! The following day, October 30, we counted about 400 White-winged Crossbills, a very respectable number but one that felt anticlimactic after the previous amazing show. On the last day of the fall migration monitoring, October 31, one small group of 20 White-winged Crossbills was seen. We wonder where all these birds came from and where they were headed.

The week had started with two consecutive “weather days”, October 25 and 26, days when the strong winds prevented opening nets but not census and observation. We notably watched a little flock of 12 Snow Buntings explore the shipwreck (the part above water of course!). During the entire fall season, all 78 days of it, we lost only 5 days of banding. At the other end of the spectrum, we had 47 days with full coverage (that is, the 15 nets open for 6 hours), the highest total across the fall seasons (tied with fall 2009). Even on our last day we managed to have all the nets open during the entire morning, when we banded a total of 36 birds of 7 species including Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrows both with 11 birds. Despite missing two days, 133 birds were banded in this last week of monitoring, including one very last Yellow-rumped Warbler on October 30.

At the end of October 29, when the River of Crossbills was finally running dry, we heard and glimpsed a few Bohemian Waxwings and captured a young Northern Shrike at closing time! These fearsome predators come south from their northern boreal forests for the winter but are not anywhere abundant. Only 12 Northern Shrikes have been banded in the previous 19 fall seasons, mostly in the first years. It is always a treat to catch this species, except for one’s fingers! (See pictures on IG and FB)

A male Bufflehead and a Rough-Legged Hawk, both late migrants, were seen on the last day of monitoring, October 31, just in time to be included in the season’s observations!

A total of 2311 birds of 69 species were banded this fall, the second-highest total ever. It was a very successful and rewarding season. Now the nets have already been taken down and stored away until next April when the cycle will start anew with birds returning from their wintering grounds in sparkling breeding plumage. We will be ready for them! Have a wonderful winter!

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