Rare visitors at Cabot Head!
This past week, we were delighted to host two very rare visitors. Their visit was brief but enjoyed by everyone at Cabot Head. Often, these guests are shy and not very prone to showing off, making the encounter particularly fortuitous.
On the afternoon of May 21, I took advantage of fair and sunny weather (a seemingly rare treat in itself this Spring) to go for a little paddle in my kayak. As I rounded the tip at the entrance of the channel, a Spotted Sandpiper made it clear that it was not happy to be disturbed, calling loudly, becoming agitated, and, finally, flying away. Its’ behaviour attracted my attention to two other shorebirds, which seemed not to be as perturbed by my presence. Getting as close as I could without harassing them, I could see that they were Short-billed Dowitchers! They were still there on my return back to the station a while later, and I was able to snap a quick picture from my boat. Shortly after, the whole crew went down the tip and enjoyed the birds from a respectful distance through a spotting scope (through which I took more pictures; the quality of the images was not amazing but it is a good documentation of their visit).
This species is indeed a rare visitor at Cabot Head (like most shorebirds): it has been detected only on three occasions in the previous 17 years: one bird on August 23, 2002, one bird on August 17, 2005, and an amazing flock of 18 birds on May 21, 2008.
A few days later in the week, on May 23, under strong wind and showers that were on and off throughout the morning, there was a lot of bird activity. Sadly, we could not open the nets but did spend the whole morning birdwatching. Among the many, many warblers (a total of 20 species were detected that day), there was one female Prairie Warbler, almost plain looking in her neat little dress of yellow and green. The constant bobbing of her tail, the small black streaks on the flanks, and the green half moon under the eye (black in a male), were telltale signs of her identity. This species, like the Dowitcher, has been detected only on three previous occasions: on May 10, 2007, and August 24 of that same year, with one bird each, and on May 13, 2016, with one male (singing) and a female. It is a rare bird at the provincial level too, occurring at the northern end of its breeding range. The Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas (2001-2005) estimates the Ontario population at around 320 pairs, quite low for a songbird indeed.
On May 24, after the monitoring period, we were enjoying some warmth on the porch, when I heard a very unique song: sure enough, it was a male Praire Warbler, singing its little heart out in the low shrubs close to the station. This bird has more obvious markings: the chestnut stripes on its back, the heavy black eyeliner and half-moon under the eye on a yellow face, the black streaking on the flanks of the yellow underparts. A beauty that everyone got to see up close and personal.
Other notable sightings of the week were a Red-headed Woodpecker on May 21, a Green Heron on May 23, and a few FOY: Canada Warbler on May 23, Blackpoll Warbler and Alder Flycatcher both on May 24.
These last two species are a clear sign that migration is entering its last stage, with the late migrants starting to appear. Indeed, there are only two weeks left of the official Spring migration monitoring. It will be very interesting to see how things wind down, after such an interesting spring of fall-outs!
The two Short-billed Dowitchers at the tip