Monday, December 5, 2011

OFO Niagara Gull Trip: Dance of the Black-legged Kittiwake

Sunday morning was sunny and though it was only 7:30, the temperature was a balmy 9 degrees as we drove along the General Brock Parkway (Hwy. 405). This was odd. Jean and I were heading to the Adam Beck overlook to meet fellow OFO members for the annual Niagara River Gull trip. Where was the freezing cold? The knee-deep snow? Yes, during our first gull trip in 2007, a large amount of snow fell on the Niagara Region overnight and we were stuck behind a snow plow on the 405. The slow-moving plow delayed our arrival and we missed some good gulls that were found early. Since then, we always arrive an hour before the planned start time. 

Jean Iron (co-trip leader) was unloading her scope and there were a few eager birders already searching the river below when we arrived at Adam Beck. Jean and I started surveying the many Herring and Bonaparte's Gulls. We were looking for our first of the year (FOY) Thayer's and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Both had been regularly observed at this location (except the last time we were there) recently and it seemed the ticks would likely happen on this day.

Our first tick was a brownish bird that Jean spotted flying directly into the mass of Herring Gulls.  The bird was a juvenile Pomarine Jaeger! A lifer tick (#311)! While viewing the jaeger, we observed it harassing the gulls periodically as it flew above the turbulent waters. I had viewed video of this jaeger from last Sunday, but I was not expecting to observe this species during the gull watch. After the more than satisfactory views of the juvenile Pomarine Jaeger (and Jean bringing me to the realization that it was indeed a lifer), Jean and I commenced our search for a Lesser Black-backed Gull observed by some in the group. We found the first winter Lesser Black-backed milling about the wall of the Robert Moses power station.

The next gull was a "Kumlien's" Iceland spotted by Jean Iron. Our 5th gull species of the day was an adult Great Black-backed Gull. It was standing on a rock further down river. There are a few rocks on the U.S. side of the river, near the wall of the U.S. power generating station, that should be scanned when standing at the Adam Beck overlook. Jean Iron found a gull sitting on the water near this rocky point that she suspected was a Thayer's Gull. The brown streaking on the head and neck was extensive (also found on Herring Gulls),but it was the dark eye that confirmed our next FOY (#212).

The next stop for the group was the Whirlpool. Prior to the day of the trip, I was afraid we would not have time to continue on. Jean's mum had purchased tickets to a matinee performance of The Nutcracker at Brock University. I thought we would be birding at Adam Beck until 10:00 am, leaving little time for the Whirlpool, but due to the fact we started earlier in the morning and the group spotted the birds we wanted to see, we were done at Adam Beck shortly after 9:00 am. There was time for another shot at spotting the Black-legged Kittiwake.

The viewing platform at the Spanish Aero Car was 2 to 3 birders deep. Even a tall birder would have had trouble spotting a gull at the bottom of the Niagara Gorge from behind this wall of birders. Though they were viewing the kittiwake quite easily from the platform, it was difficult to get on the gull when standing away from the ledge.

Patience was required and when a spot opened up for both Jean and I, we squeezed in and started scanning the Bonaparte's Gulls flying above the Class 6 rapids.

This time, we got on the first winter Black-legged Kittiwake, lifer #312 (FOY #213) without a hitch.

The group moved on with trip leaders Jean Iron and Ron Tozer in search of a Slaty-backed Gull at the control gates above the Falls. Jean Iron captured images of the rare visitor (that was spotted by Kevin McLaughlin) the day before the trip.

We observed the kittiwake a little longer before heading back to Queenston Heights for a try at spotting some Black Vultures. While at Adam Beck, Jean Iron received a call from Willie D'Anna confirming the presence of Black Vultures over Lewiston, N.Y. so the tick was possible.

With General Brock's statue pointing in the right direction, we looked for another FOY species from two locations across from Queenston Heights.

Though we had the assistance of John Black and Kevin McLaughlin, the Black Vultures were nowhere in sight. A Red-tailed Hawk was the only raptor to drift by the spot that was new to all of us.

In the afternoon, while OFO birders were rejoicing their views of Harlequin Ducks; a very distant Slaty-backed Gull (possible sighting); and yes, of course, our nemesis bird (Purple Sandpiper), I watched my first live performance of The Nutcracker. It was a Canadian-inspired Nutcracker. The ballet was connected to the director's favourite pastimes, canoeing in Algonquin Park.

Algonquin Park? Hmmm. We' re on vacation this week. There may be some time spent birding the upper Niagara and after some inspiration from the Group of Seven painting backdrops used in the ballet, a planned visit to Algonquin Provincial Park seemed all the more reasonable. This birding year is turning out to be better than I thought it would be. And the year is not over yet!

1 comment:

  1. Ahh, you finally saw the kittiwake!
    Sounded like a good weekend at Niagara.