Banding in June – And… a ‘shorebird’ in the woods! 

Under a heavy sky that darkened the morning woods, a surprise was awaiting me on the first net round: an American Woodcock was caught in a net! The long-billed, long-legged, plump, cinnamon-coloured bird was carefully and quickly removed from the net and “bagged” (although to be banded and released swiftly, not plucked and cooked!). It is only the seventh to be banded at Cabot Head, with previously three in Spring (last one in 2014) and three in Fall (last ones in 2009: two were banded that year): such a rare treat! It is a member of the ‘shorebird’ group, but one that decided long ago to make their home in the woods! Its cryptic plumage and secretive habits make the woodcock a discrete presence in woodlots and farms across the eastern half of the continent… except in their time of courtship, as early as April, when they peent and flutter in the evening sky. It is not for us that they perform their “sky dance” (as famously and eloquently described by Aldo Leopold in his ‘Sand County Almanac’) but if we’re quiet enough and know where to sit, we can be as entranced as any female woodcock by the males’ show. Leopold ends his short discussion on the woodcock by declaring that “the woodcock is a living refutation of the theory that the utility of a game bird is to serve as a target or to pose gracefully on a slice of toast”. Learning of the sky dance, this lifelong keen hunter made sure to say that ‘bagging’ one or two birds was enough because he “must be sure that, come April, there be no dearth of dancers in the sunset sky”. A spectacle free for all of us to share and enjoy.

Why do we still band birds in June when it seems that breeding season is here, with birds busily defending territories or sitting on eggs? A quick answer would be the banding result of June 4, when 32 birds were caught, of them ten were Yellow-bellied Flycatchers and five Traill’s Flycatchers (likely Alder)! Both species are late migrants, the former inhabiting mostly the boreal forest, with, in Ontario, a tiny breeding population on the Bruce Peninsula. Yellow-bellied Flycatchers not only arrive late but depart very early as well, resulting in one of the shortest residence times of any neotropical migrants in Ontario; barely over two months! The June 4 total of ten Yellow-bellied Flycatchers is the highest one-day total of any Spring season: in the past, there have been a few days with seven birds banded, one with eight, and one with nine. Well, June 5 this year was not as busy as the day before, but another eight Yellow-bellied Flycatchers were banded, another strong indication of a migration still happening. And propelling the Spring 2024 total for this species into first place.

Migration is certainly still happening but at a reduced intensity and volume, of course. What else was new and exciting in the past week, you might wonder? On May 30 and 31, on the morning census, the keen ears and eyes of Émilie detected a Red Crossbill, a species with previous Spring records only in 2013 and 2021; a Cackling Goose was in one of the many flocks of migrating Canada Geese on June 1, a day of strong South wind that helped propel hundreds of geese to points North. Speaking of hundreds, Blue Jays are still being seen in huge numbers almost every day, with sometime flocks of up to 200 individuals.

On June 3, a heavy fog blanketed the land all through the morning. Many a time, I went to check the tip, hoping for a replay of a shorebird landfall… to no avail. But, in a short-lived clearing, in a patch of blue sky, a small “kettle” of 19 Broad-winged Hawks were seen milling about, one adult and 18 immatures. At this time of year, it is mostly the young ones who are still migrating. On June 5, it was a bigger flock of 40 Broad-winged Hawks, but against the glare of a midday sky, it was not possible to determine the birds’ age.

There are now only five days left of Spring Migration Monitoring. A week from now, I will be busy working on the Spring report, compiling and analysing data, trying to make sense of another (wonderful) season at Cabot Head… (every season is wonderful here!) I will endeavour to write a last post for the Spring season too; a little recap or a warm farewell. Stay tuned.

American Woodcock 2024