Another season begins 

On April 15th, as dictated by protocol, a new spring bird migration monitoring began once more at the Cabot Head Research Station, the 22nd since the first year in 2002 – the 18th season for your humble bander and blog writer. It was a beautiful day of sunshine and blue sky, with unseasonal temperatures of 20C, continuing a string of a few very balmy days for mid-April. As a consequence, only a few patches of snow were left in very sheltered spots and all 15 mist nets could be opened for the regular daily 6 hours, starting 30 minutes before sunrise. 

With experienced help from two volunteers from Québec, we banded a decent first day total of 48 birds of 11 species and, overall, detected 46 species. As expected, Golden-crowned Kinglets were the most abundant in our nets, with 16 birds, with a good haul of Brown Creepers as well (8 birds). Both species migrate squarely in April, with the first part of their movement taking place early in the month. There was a good movement of Northern Flickers, with almost 100 birds counted. A few large flocks of Canada Goose streaked the sky in their unmistakable formation, always a sure sign of migration on the way.

Very early on April 16th, an Eastern Whip-poor-will was briefly heard: the earliest detection at Cabot Head, 9 days before the previous early date of April 25, in 2019. That day was as warm and sunny as the one before with a larger movement of migrants: many flocks of Common Grackle and a spattering of Red-winged and Rusty blackbirds, American Robins, and Northern Flickers. There were quite a few raptors as well: a total of 45 Sharp-shinned Hawks, the first Broad-winged Hawks of the season (12 birds), some Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks, and as many as 20 Turkey Vultures.

A large twittering group of about 40 Black-capped Chickadees was around the station and eventually 20 were caught all at once in a net: that kept us busy for a while. We also caught a total of 11 Hermit Thrush after the first one of the previous day. Relatively speaking, very few kinglets of both species were around. However, we detected three species of warblers: Yellow-rumped, Palm, and Pine warblers.

To be honest, we certainly were enjoying the warm and sunny days, even though they were not quite right for this time of year. They didn’t last: on April 17th, the weather returned to more typical April patterns with a thick cover of clouds and temperatures barely above the freezing point. An increasingly strong South wind was not bringing any warmth nor birds: it was a very slow day both at the nets and in the woods. The action was up in the sky with countless blackbirds (although we still counted them and got about 400 of them), a steady albeit small passage of flickers again, and a good diversity of raptors, including a pair of Peregrine Falcon cruising the shoreline early in the day.

Temperatures kept plunging: we were treated with snow showers on April 18th pushed by a relentless cold and strong West wind. No banding was done that day and very few birds were active and/or visible. The wood stove was finally lit for the first time this spring while we certainly enjoyed the new windows put in last fall. Maybe a little break was in order given what was awaiting us the following day…

April 19th dawned cold and grey under a strong North wind. The wind decreased rapidly, however, allowing the nets to be open an hour later than usual. As we were opening nets, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher flew in one: the third ever to be banded after one in spring 2002 and one in fall 2019. Shortly afterward, the nets started to be filled by hordes of little green puffballs, aka kinglets: the rush was on! Most of the morning was spent by Alex and Ivar extracting as fast and safely as possible while I was in the banding lab processing all these birds with the intensity of a factory worker, circa 1920: no coffee break, no union-mandated lunch hour, nothing but band, band, band. When all the nets were finally closed and all the birds safely banded and returned to the woods, the tally stood at the third highest daily total ever in the 22 spring seasons with 267 birds of 12 species, including 99 Golden-crowned Kinglets and 120 Ruby-crowned Kinglets. A distant bronze medal is awarded to Yellow-rumped Warbler with 18 birds banded. The total of 120 Ruby-crowned Kinglet is the highest daily total (both for spring and fall) and is higher than 10 previous SEASON totals! Interestingly, 6 Pine Warblers were also banded on that day. This species is only ever detected in small numbers at Cabot Head, even though it breeds here as well. 

The following day was thankfully not as intense. Temperatures were only slightly above zero and the strong East wind did not help. Overall diversity was low with very few visible movements of larger birds like Icterids (the so-called Blackbirds), flickers, or raptors. The total of 80 birds of 8 species in the nets was evenly divided into new captures and recaptures. A quite remarkable 40 birds were indeed already banded, 30 of them kinglets from the previous day(s)! It is a sure indication that not many birds migrated the previous night. However, the biggest surprise was the 9 Pine Warblers banded and 4 recaptures. Banding totals for Pine Warbler typically vary between 1 and 5 birds per year, except in 2017 with 10 birds and 2021 with 24 birds, and no captures at all in 4 spring seasons. The highest daily total was 14 on April 29, 2021. Several Pine Warblers were seen foraging on the ground during the cold day of April 20 this spring.

On April 21st, to end the first week of monitoring, we had rain and wind most of the morning. Only 5 nets were open for 2 hours, capturing a grand total of one Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Nonetheless, we observed several small flocks of kinglets and Yellow-rumped Warblers (and a few Pine Warblers). We also saw the first Barn Swallow, with the first Tree Swallows having been seen on April 15th. There was a small movement over Georgian Bay of Common Loons, Long-tailed Ducks (total of about 100 birds), Red-breasted Mergansers, and a few Horned and Red-necked Grebes. Several Northern Harriers moved through as well. But the most exciting bird of the day was undoubtedly the Short-eared Owl that both Ivar and I watched coming low over the basin towards us until it disappeared behind trees and the high banks of Wingfield Basin. A frenetic search ensued but we never saw it again! Previously, one Short-eared Owl was seen flying over Georgian Bay on October 18, 2017. A rare sight at Cabot Head indeed!

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