Let’s talk about the weather!

On our third day of continuous rain (May 2), I believe that a post on the weather is in order. As you probably know, when it rains, there is no banding, as it would be too dangerous for the birds. However, we can still observe and do our daily census, although there is not much to see and hear in pouring rain. So, we try to stay busy by sleeping (!), cleaning, cooking, entering data and writing blog entries. But life is easy when your roof is sturdy and there is food in the fridge.

It is a different story for birds, and all non-human animals, for that matter. They still need to find food and shelter, even during inclement weather. In Spring, some birds solve the problem with a reverse migration, flying back south to better climes. How far and for how long is still a mystery, one that might be slowly teased apart by marking birds with nanotags. These tags, worn by birds like small backpacks, are tiny, lightweight radio transmitters, which emit a signal that can be picked by an array of towers (http://www.bsc-eoc.org/research/motus/index.jsp?lang=EN) across the breeding and wintering ranges. Once picked up on the towers they pass, their movements would be revealed in greater detail than ever before. Swallows, for example, seem to be very good at reverse migration, flying away during bouts of rain, when the aerial insects they feed upon disappear, and returning when better weather has returned.

Other birds choose to stick it out, hunkering down during downpours and hoping for breaks to be able to feed. This is what a bright, (FOY), male, Yellow Warbler did on May 1st, when we watched it hungrily feeding on bugs on the Gargantua during the brief appearance of the sun in the evening.

As a matter of fact, it is fair to say that weather influences almost all aspects of a bird’s life. During migration, wind has the most direct influence, its strength and direction literally dictating when birds migrate. No sane bird will try to fly into a head-wind but will jump at the chance to get push from a moderately strong tail-wind. Rain puts a damper on all activities.

At breeding time, it all comes down to being able to feed and protect your eggs/young. For example, a prolonged drought could diminish food availability, while a long episode of rain can also directly and indirectly affect birds. A few years ago, for example, there was a brood of Canada Geese growing up around the station. And then it rained for a couple of days on end: we could only watch helplessly as mother Goose try to protect her goslings under her broad wings as the rain fell hard from the heavens. A few goslings must have been very hungry, as they would always escape to feed, exposed to the elements and getting soaked in the process. Sadly, when the rain stopped, we found the listless body of a gosling who had evidently become victim to the onslaught of rain and cold…

Before the rain started three days ago at Cabot Head, there indeed were birds to see! We got to see the Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher again on the morning of April 28, still wheezing in its joyous way. A Cape May Warbler, flashy in its Spring plumage, was seen during census on that day too, smashing the earliest record of documentation at Cabot Head by several days given that the previous earliest record was May 2, 2012. The fifth species of warbler detected this April was an Ovenbird, caught in our nets, again on April 28! A Savannah Sparrow on April 29 was another FOY.

And then, from Sunday, April 30 to Tuesday, May 2, the sky opened up and unleashed a deluge of biblical proportions. Fighting the early onslaught of cabin fever, the whole international crew now hopes for a change in the weather. It must be said, however, that even in the case of prolonged rain, exciting observations can be made. On our return drive from the Annual General Meeting on Sunday April 30, we got to see the very faithful, but also very wet, Snowy Owl of the Ferndale Flats. This very white (so, potentially, adult male) individual has been seen around the Flats for more than two months now. Delphine (from Belgium) and Orlando (from Nicaragua) were delighted to see their first Snowy Owl. It was also a treat for Brandan (from Long Point) and yours truly (from Cabot Head). Who can have too much of a Snowy Owl?