The boom and bust of migration!

Wind is still a major force in our lives here at Cabot Head: in the last six days (as of this writing on October 17), it has prevented banding for three days, and forced us to close nets two hours early on one additional day! But over two days, October 13 & 14, we got our nets up-and-running for a feast of banding. There must have been a major push of migrants on the previous nights, as birds filled the nets first thing in the morning of the 13th. We quickly had our hands full and we spent all morning extracting and banding. By the end of the day, we tallied 135 birds banded (16 species), and 16 birds recaptured (six species). It was the busiest day of the season, and is quite likely to remain so. The highlights of the day were the two species of kinglets (golden- and ruby-crowned) and the Dark-eyed Juncos, with Yellow-rumped Warblers arriving a distant four.

On that same day we also banded our first Fox Sparrow of the season; a northern breeder that always arrives towards the end of the migration season. This Fall, its arrival was juxtaposed with the observation of a very late American Redstart; a rare event indeed! Even though there is the possibility for these two species to overlap, detection of them both on the same day has happened only twice previously; on October 13 and 14, 2009. The earliest arrival of a Fox Sparrow is September 28 (in 2012). From that date onwards, there has been only 20 American Redstarts observed in seven years between 2002 and 2017, representing 0.08% of total observation of that species. All that to say, the odds are against an overlap of these species. The latest American Redstart ever observed was on October 25, 2008.

The night of October 13 started out being clear and bright, good conditions for migrants to continue their journey South. However, the following morning was still busy, albeit not quite as hectic. We ended up banding a very respectable 53 birds of 11 species, with 12 recaptures of six species. It is likely that birds took advantage of the small window of good weather to migrate, bringing large numbers to our nets and surrounding forests during this time. We also watched the first small flock of seven Long-tailed Ducks flying over the bay, pushed by a quickening wind from the South. Yes, these ducks were going in the wrong direction (North). Maybe they could tell that windstorms were about to rage again and were headed to more sheltered waters.

Indeed, on October 15, winds had returned with a vengeance, bringing heavy rain with them. Despite the closed nets, we ventured out for census and observation, seeing very little both in terms of numbers and diversity. Of course, even on days like this, surprises are possible! Assisted by a gale-force West wind, a Red-throated Loon flew over the bay like a missile. Luckily, it flew relatively close, allowing a short look at its droopy, smaller head, slimmer wings, and overall small size.

Banding resumed on October 16, at least for four hours, before – you guessed it! – winds forced us to close again, and likewise for the full day on the 17th.  However, in the late-afternoon of October 16, we observed two first-winter Bonaparte’s Gulls flying into Wingfield Basin, struggling against the wind. Much to my delight, these delicate gulls were still present on the morning of October 17, gracing the Basin with their buoyant flight and exquisite features. It is a species rarely seen at Cabot Head, with only a few observations in the Falls of 2002, 2003, and 2005, and only once in the Spring (of 2009). Given their abundance along the Niagara River in winter, it is possible that they fly over Georgian Bay far from shore, depriving us of their beauty. Yes, gulls are beautiful! Beauty is in the eyes of the bins holder, anyway.


Addendum: Another gale is blowing on the morning of October 19 at Cabot Head! The surprises of the day are: an adult male American Redstart and an Aeschne dragonfly!