The dog days of summer

On a warm and humid afternoon at the Cabot Head Research Station, it is difficult to think that fall migration has begun! It would be more accurate, and feel more appropriate, to talk of a post-breeding migration, which implies that birds are returning to their wintering grounds after their season of giving life and producing a new generation, as is the case.

Regardless of terminology, we have now returned to Cabot Head for a new season of migration monitoring, from August 15 to October 31; 78 consecutive days. With long-term volunteer Catherine (from the Montréal area) and board member Tania, we had a great start to the season, operating the 15 nets for the daily six hours on the first two days and catching approximately 40 birds each day. At this time of year, it could be difficult to distinguish birds who have begun their migration from ones who spent their Spring and Summer in the Cabot Head area. Most of the birds captured were species that are locally abundant, so very likely not quite in migration yet: Red-eyed Vireo, American Redstart, Black-throated Green Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Black-and-white Warbler…

However, we did get a handful of Cape May Warblers, which do not breed on the Bruce Peninsula: evidence that some birds are indeed on the move even in mid-August!

The following two days were battered by strong winds, first from the South, then the North (accompanied with heavy drizzle – or should I say light rain?), which almost completely shut down the banding. Monitoring continued through the census (the standardized one-hour route) and so-called casual observations, revealing very little bird activities, especially on the colder and rainy August 18.

Reinforced by Al, a BPBO friend from the early years (and long-time good personal friend) and by Miriam, another board member, we were ready for the return of more action as the fair weather returned. Indeed, the rest of this first week was enjoyably busy with many birds flying naively into our nets (Ah! Youth!), notably large numbers of Red-eyed Vireos with brown eyes. These are birds born this year who will acquire the namesake red eyes during the winter: as such, when in hand they are easily aged by their eye colour (their plumage showing little differentiation from that of an adult). For other species, many young at this time of year display very fresh plumage in comparison to adult birds. The latter are in the process of moulting their “old” feathers, notably the wing and tail long feathers that went through a lot of use and abuse during the year (singular) of existence. After raising their broods and before embarking on their long migratory flights, adults have finally a little ‘me time’ for self-care, growing brand new feathers in lieu of the worn and faded plumage. 

On Monday August 21, a small group of Youth Rangers was visiting. Our nets are open 30 minutes before sunrise, 6am these days. So, arriving around 9am, they missed about half the banding day. However, in an ironic twist of “the early watcher gets the bird”, that day, we captured eight birds in the first three hours and… 69 in the second three hours! The Young Rangers were treated to a show of serious banding with a good diversity of 16 species, including the record of the day of 17 Red-eyed Vireos! Of note: the first Wilson’s Warbler of the season, and the first Chestnut-sided Warbler banded, among the 11 species of warblers. 

It would be out of character to not mention birds of prey (my first love!) in this blog. “Our” Bald Eagle pair are the proud parents of a young eaglet, very healthy and capable of flying, but still quite dependent on food provided by Mom and Pop, with persistent teenager whining if they are not fast enough in doing so. A young Cooper’s Hawk is being quite the show-off from time-to-time (see pics on Facebook and Instagram). Early on August 21, a young Peregrine Falcon was flying back and forth around Wingfield Basin, harassing bigger birds (Bald Eagle and Great Blue Heron)!

A Great Horned Owl often was seen perched on the same branch of the same tree on the shore of Wingfield Basin, a perch it might not have left for the whole day, unless a potential prey enticed it. As such, we watched it take off and fly toward a Kingfisher, who escaped easily with a laughing chatter. Not so lucky was the mink we saw listless in the owl talons another morning. The owl flew off into the woods to consume its meal in peace. 

Another crepuscular/nocturnal bird was seen in broad daylight: a Common Nighthawk was flying over Wingfield Basin near noon on August 16; a fun observation!

There will undoubtedly be much more to come and enjoy at beautiful Cabot Head!