Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Avoiding a Dip in the Lake

In less than a week, there was another rarity reported in the Niagara Region. On Tuesday November 8, a Razorbill, an alcid that nests on rocky cliffs of the north Atlantic, was spotted at the mouth of the Niagara River. This was a special one. Even more enthralling than the Franklin's Gull Jean and I observed the previous weekend. There are only three records of Razorbill in the Niagara Region.

We have never travelled to eastern Canada since taking up the rush of adding bird species to a list. If we were lucky enough to observe the Razorbill, it would be a lifer. Like most birders my age, chasing a bird during the work week can be rather difficult. On Thursday November 10, I attended the STAO conference. The last time I was representing my company at the annual conference in Toronto, a rarity was entertaining Ontario birders in a subdivision in Brampton. Do I sense another trend? The Razorbill would have to wait until the weekend. 

Jean and I arrived in Niagara-on-the-Lake around noon on Saturday and set up our scope in Queens Royal Park, an excellent spot for viewing waterfowl and loons during the winter months. We scanned the waters of Lake Ontario ( I was asked by a tourist what the large lake in front of us was called) between Fort Niagara and the green buoy, a distance of approximately 1 kilometre.

New York state birders were positioned at the west wall of the fort. Well worth the $10.00 U.S. entry fee if they spot the Razorbill.

There were many Horned Grebes, 3 Red-throated Loons (FOY #206) and 1 Common Loon spotted while we scanned the lake for the Razorbill, but the reported bird did not make an appearance during the 90 minutes we stood in the public park. A couple we talked to had seen it west of the NOTL golf course earlier in the day so we would try two more public accesses along the Lake Ontario shoreline. Gulls and waterfowl were observed, but no lifer on Saturday. We left with an addition to year list and a plan to return Sunday morning.

The lack of reported sightings in the inbox of our e-mail Sunday morning did not discourage Jean and I from loading the car for another attempt to tick the Razorbill. After crossing the Garden City Skyway and exiting the QEW, any thoughts of a positive outcome suddenly vanished when our car stalled and failed to restart. Was this how it would end? Do not pass Go. Do not tick that Razorbill.

I called CAA and Jean contacted her mum. I doubted there would be room in the cab of the tow truck for two disenchanted birders and their spotting scope (and there certainly was not). Jean's mum arrived first and took Jean and the scope back to St Kitts while I waited for the arrival of a tow truck to transport our disabled vehicle to a garage for repairs. The delay was not long and with a simple reorganization of our schedule, we were once again heading to the mouth of the Niagara River. My mother-in-law offered the use of her car until our vehicle was repaired. I checked the reports. The Razorbill was present and seen by many in the morning (with the exception of Bob & Jean). I really did not need to see that, but it was reassuring.

Upon joining a small group of birders in Queens Royal Park, we were informed the Razorbill was still in the area and was observed fairly recently. Despite the morning hindrance, Jean and I still had a chance.

Using the scope, I scanned the lake for the Razorbill and spotted the black underwings of a Little Gull as it flew amongst a small flock of Bonaparte's. A Common Loon was floating near the fort on the U.S. side of the river, but the Red-throated Loons seen the previous day were absent Sunday afternoon.

Barry Cherriere called out that the bird was up and flying eastward, but it quickly landed and dove before we could get on it.

The Razorbill continued to tease those that had not seen it yet. It was up one moment, then gone the next and when a birder announced it had resurfaced, I did my best to locate the patch of water described by the spotter.

After a brief period of anxious waiting and searching, we were finally able to observe the stout, black and white bird with a distinctive large bill. When diving, the large auk would spread its wings and the tail would point skyward before it disappeared beneath the surface for moments at a time. Jean and I continued to observe the Razorbill each time it resurfaced. This was one awe-inspiring birding moment for Jean and I. Sharing the view with other birders and assisting those in their search after being helped ourselves made the tick all the better. Though the last Razorbill to visit Niagara remained for 50 consecutive days (Black and Roy, 2010) there was no guarantee that this one would stay for an extended length of time. I am forever grateful that my mother-in-law permitted us to borrow her car the same day. If not for the substitute vehicle, we just might have had our biggest dip ever. Our car now has a new fuel pump and is eager to transport us to tick #208 and beyond.

Image Courtesy of Dave Van de Laar


  1. Great story! Lots of tension-- I'm so glad it worked out for you; congratulations on the lifer. Wish me luck-- my plan is to try myself in a few days. Wish it could be sooner.

  2. Thanks Stuart. It appears that it will stick around for a while. Good luck in your hunt.