Friday, December 3, 2010

Red Morph Surprise

On Sunday November 28, Jean and I were present for the annual Ontario Field Ornithologists (OFO) Niagara River Gull Watch, a trip we have attended since 2007. During previous OFO gull watches we have walked through knee deep snow, endured bone chilling winds and enjoyed the warmth of a late November sun. This year there were no worries of snow plows delaying Jean and I as we drove along the 405 and though the temperature was cooler than last year, standing at the Adam Beck overlook was bearable. Our only setback, no digital camera to capture images every time we added a species to the year list. I'm not the first blogger to forget a camera and I will not be the last so you will have to take my word for it when I tell of the surprise bird found at the Whirlpool. An even bigger surprise, it was not a gull.

Jean and I arrived at Adam Beck shortly after 8:00 AM. It is best to arrive early to obtain a prime viewing spot at the overlook. Arriving closer to the start time of 9:00 AM will limit your choices for the best gull viewing.

Trip leaders this year included Algonquin birder Ron Tozer and New York State birders, Willie D'Anna and Betsy Potter. Jean Iron was leading a tour in French Polynesia so Willie and Betsy willingly accepted to co-lead this year's trip with Ron. Ron was his usual witty self, jesting that he was there for the logistics of the trip. Willie and Betsy would identify the gulls.

View of the Niagara River and the Robert Moses hydroelectric generating station from the Adam Beck overlook, November 29, 2009.

As usual at this time of year, hundreds of Herring Gulls were flying above the Niagara River. Finding another species with similar field markings would not be easy. It was still early and there was plenty of elbow room. Jean and I observed the smaller Bonaparte's Gulls flying up river. Some heading for the Whirlpool while others would continue on to the rapids above the Falls. A lone adult Great Black-backed Gull stood on the concrete wall. A perch he would return to a number of times during the two hours we stood at the overlook. Jean started looking for gulls lacking black wing tips. Patience paid off and she found an Iceland Gull standing with the Herring Gulls by the edge of the river.

As we continued to scan the Herring Gulls for our target species, more birders arrived. To my right, a fellow that drove to Kincardine to observe a recently reported Painted Bunting and next to him Willie D'Anna.

At the official start of the trip, Ron announced the day's itinerary and then introduced John Black and Kayo Roy. The co-editors of Niagara Birds were selling copies of their book. Is there anyone that does not have a copy of this fabulous text yet?

Betsy spotted an adult California Gull in the air and then described its flight path so all could find the bird as it flew around the area in front of the Robert Moses hydroelectric generating station. Last year, we observed a juvenile California Gull (lifer #290) The adult California Gull was #202 for the year list. Our next target species was also found flying above the Niagara River. This time, Willie described the flight path of #203 for the year, a juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull.

Our last gull species observed at the overlook was a Thayer's Gull (1 juvenile and 1 adult). Jean and I ticked this species earlier this year during the Duck Count.

My wife and I left the overlook for a Tim Horton's run and managed to reach the next stop before the majority of the group despite being delayed by a slow moving vehicle. Unlike the two cars in front, I chose not to pass on a double yellow line. Sitting directly behind the vehicle I could see that it was a brand new Hyundai. In the rear window, printed in scrawl on a piece of paper, "NEW". Was it referring to the driving skills of the driver or the car? Based on what Jean and I observed, I would say it was both. Luckily, I did not have to follow the car to my destination.

Returning to the Niagara Parkway, we entered the parking area for the Spanish Aero Car at the Whirlpool, unaware we passed the surprise bird of the day.

As we waited for the OFO group to arrive, we observed a Common Loon in the Whirlpool. As a group, we scanned the Bonaparte's Gulls for Little Gull. Searching for the distinguishing black underneath of the wings can take a fair amount of time. While there are hundreds of Bonaparte's Gulls at this section of the Niagara River, there are usually only 1 to 2 Little Gulls. On this trip, there were 2. Though Betsy was to my right and calling out the gull's flight path, I could not get on it. Jean spotted a Little Gull for a short period of time but I still could not get one in my field of view. No worries. We both observed 3 during a fly by on the BOS April count.

Our next stop was the feeders in Chippawa. Some of the group chose to bird the river above the Falls with Willie and Betsy while the rest followed Ron to Chippawa. Jean and I arrived at the feeders early. The rest of the group were having lunch at, you guessed it, Tim Horton's. With two other OFO members we spotted a Pine Siskin at one of the feeders. This species would not be seen again when Ron and those interested in viewing Tufted Titmouse arrived. Other birds observed here included Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, House Finch, White-breasted Nuthatch and of course the star of Chippawa, Tufted Titmouse (2).

It was not until later that evening that I realized we had a second surprise of the day. Don't worry, the first will soon be revealed. I thought that Pine Siskin was ticked earlier in the year but upon completing my entries on eBird Canada, I discovered it was #204 for 2010.

#205 was the surprise at the Whirlpool. At the feeders, Ron announced that Betsy had discovered a red morph Eastern Screech Owl in a tree back at the Whirlpool. A number of birders left before she spied the owl sitting in a Red Cedar near the parking area for the Spanish Aerocar. Screech Owl! A few of us returned to the Whirlpool to view the elusive species. Returning to the Whirlpool, time seemed to stand still. I am so glad there were no vehicles with "NEW" stuck to the rear window blocking our way this time.

Even though Ron described the tree that the owl was roosting in, it was not easy to spot the bird. That was some damn good spotting by Betsy. Jean was first to pick out the owl sitting on a branch at eye level. It was snuggled up against the trunk of the cedar but we still had a full view of the owl as it stared back at us with one eye opened. Our lifer (#251), a gray morph, was tucked into a knot hole of a tree. From the comments that were made, including Ron's and Kayo's, the red morph was a treat. "I can't remember the last time I saw one." I haven't seen one of those in years." A rare treat indeed.

Exhibit A. We returned Monday with a glimmer of hope for a screech owl photo op. The tourists must have thought us mad when we were searching the trees for the red morph.

After lunch, Jean and I rejoined the OFO group near the engineerium above the Horseshoe Falls. No new gull species. With the trip concluded and my target gulls added to the year list, Jean and I travelled to Fort Erie to search for a reported Cackling Goose.

At Baker's Creek, we observed 75 Tundra Swan. Come winter, many waterfowl can be found on the Niagara River.

Reaching Fort Erie, we scanned a few groups of Canada Geese for the smaller Branta hutchinsii. We found the Cackling Goose, #206 for the year, near the Peace Bridge. Though it resembles a Canada Goose, this species is smaller with a rounder head and stubbier bill. Easy to pick out of a flock of Canada Geese as long as it is not blocked from view by one or more of the larger Branta canadensis. I missed the Cackling Goose the first time we slowly drove by the flock.

I could not have asked for a better day of birding. Thayer's and California Gull observed as well as a successful search for the reported Cackling Goose. Adding Pine Siskin and the bird of the day, the Eastern Screech Owl, to the year list was fulfilling. If the year was to end now, I would be happy with 206 species for 2010 but I certainly would not mind adding a Brant or Red-throated Loon before year end. 210 in 2010 has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?


  1. Screech owls have my favorite bird call- the bouncing ball!

  2. oh- 200 wish seems like a distant memory now, doesn't it- congrats on the great year- and it's not over yet!