The day after Boxing Day, we found ourselves in the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) assisting John with his section of the Niagara Falls birding circle. Our group searched an array of habitats.
The residential yards south-west of the tourist-laden drag of the old town were quiet in the early morning as were the feeders. Due to the holiday, waterfowl were viewed and counted through a locked gate at the local sewage lagoons. Along with the usual ducks we spotted 2 Green-winged Teal.
At a local vineyard, we searched the property along 4 Mile Creek. A Belted Kingfisher boisterously announced its displeasure each time we disturbed it from its perch and we found 3 species of woodpecker (Downy, Hairy, and Northern Flicker). The only thing louder than the kingfisher at this location were the bird-bangers. Yup, they were still in operation. The weather had not been cold enough to harvest the grapes for ice wine so walking by the scare-away cannons was a chance we had to take. The things we do to get a good bird.
A quick look at another section of the creek that was frozen during last year's count....
....before moving on to Four Mile Pond. We were looking for Swamp Sparrow and this year, a little pishing resulted in a quick look at 1 Melospiza georgiana.
Niagara Shores is one of my favourite spots in NOTL and we had a great find in this lakeside conservation area. A male Eastern Towhee was observed with 10 White-throated Sparrows. We watched this bird for a few minutes before moving on. The resident Belted Kingfisher was heard and a Northern Flicker was observed while walking along the fence-line on the east side of the park (a great spot for spotting migrants in the Spring).
More Northern Flickers at the historic Butler's Burial Grounds. A total of 5 and all observed in the same tree, raising the total in our section to an amazing 7.
We viewed Lake Ontario from the gazebo (a fixture in Queens Royal Park since the making of the film The Dead Zone) and kept species counted separate from our section. The Lake Ontario shoreline from Port Weller to the Niagara River would be covered by John and Denys (covering an absence) after lunch and Jean and I with Roy searched areas east of the old town. Not much activity in the afternoon. It was not until it was just Jean and I when we came across a species we were hoping to find. At a spot on the Niagara Parkway, across from Fort George and near a bench with a picturesque view of the Niagara River, someone had thrown seed on the ground. It was attracting a number of birds from the brush across the road. Perched on a tree branch above the seed was a Tufted Titmouse. I soon spotted a second, then we found a third Titmouse. I'll have to remember this spot for next year. The seed had also attracted a number of juncos, and chickadees. Scanning the brush to our right, we found Northern Cardinal (2), a White-breasted Nuthatch and 2 Golden-crowned Kinglets. A species we could not find in the conifers at Niagara Shores.
The small pocket of birds on the parkway was a nice way to end our count.
A new year and our third and final CBC for the season. Traditionally, volunteers arrive at an assigned meeting place to pick up maps and checklists for the Port Colborne CBC. Veterans have the prime sections and the compiler asked me if we would like to do the same area we did for last year's count. Covering a section of Christmas Bird Count on your own feels pretty good (sections are hard to come by in many CBC's across North America) and with the previous experience of birding rural roads in the Township of Wainfleet, we knew exactly where we could pick up some decent ticks for the count.
Upon seeing a Wild Turkey, I began to think it could turn out to be a good day. The sun was shining and it was a balmy 6 degrees Celsius. The first residential feeder was nearby and I was expecting results similar to last year. Quite the opposite once we arrived and scanned the feeders. Even if the orange tabby was not sitting close by, I still think the spot would have been devoid of avian activity. Though they are filled with seed, feeders this CBC season lack any regular visitors. At least the ones we have monitored.
As we approached the northern boundary of our section, we could see several large white birds in flight. Trees obscured our view of the small flock and it soon disappeared of off our birding radar. We reached an intersection and luckily the turn, the only turn we could do to stay within Section 9, lead us to a rather large flock of Tundra Swans in a field.
If the swans (120 in total) were on the north side of the road, we would not have been able to count them for our section.
We moved on and found some good birds, Tufted Titmouse in a woodlot, Eastern Bluebirds by the roadside at two spots, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, a striking Northern Shrike and a male Red-winged Blackbird.
In a field slightly north of the southern edge of our section, we found a group of gulls. We stopped and I obtained the scope to start counting the Ring-billed Gulls.
As I panned to the right, hey there's a Great Black-backed! Moving further to the right. Hey! One, two, three. Three more Great Black-backed Gulls. In total, we found 6 Great Black-backed in the open field.
After completing our section and a short chat with our fellow Niagara birders, Jean and I headed back to St. Kitts with two more ticks on our mind. Snowy Owl and King Eider.
Both these species were seen in Port Weller (St. Kitts) on the east pier. Walking the 2.5 kilometres to the far beacon would be worth it if we found the eider. We hiked along the Seaway Haulage Road and stopped to view the private marina through the trees and chain-link fence. This was the spot where the Snowy Owl was last seen. Nothing. Two women (one wearing binoculars) were heading towards us and indicated they had viewed the male King Eider at the far end of the spit. Yes, we would have to walk all the way in order to get the FOY tick. They had not seen the owl though.
Jean and I continued on and left the gravel road in favour of the footpath on the bay side of the pier. We went past the pond that contained the Purple Gallinule in October and we were greeted by a full rainbow when we reached the lake view. Was the eider at the other end of the rainbow? If it had been a double-rainbow, well I just might not have continued our search for the large duck with the strikingly coloured head. The spit continues eastward for another 200 metres. At the end is the red and white striped beacon. Beyond that, there should be a King Eider. While standing beside the beacon, strong winds blew from the south-west which would have tipped the scope over if I did not hold it steady. We stood on the narrow peninsula and looked in every direction for the eider. There were many Red-breasted Mergansers and a few Bufflehead and Common Goldeneye. Though it had been viewed less than an hour ago, we failed to spot the King Eider.
We walked back towards the Welland Canal with hopes that the eider had decided to seek shelter within the calmer waters of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Again, no eider. All was not wasted. It was only the first day of 2012 and we added two species of loon to the year list. Views of Common and Red-throated Loon were a satisfactory consolation.
The hunt for unusual ticks continued the next day. A few species of warbler (including a western one that should be wintering in southern Mexico and northern Central America at this time of year) were causing a stir at a lakeside park in Hamilton. A Black-throated Gray was being seen and reported along the Waterfront Trail near Bayfront Park. Though some have been successful in their quest, we and other birders met this day went home without the tick. The blowing snow certainly put an end to continuing the search.
Another miss with another consolation. Jean was first to spot a juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron standing on some rocks by the viewing platform. Prior to this observation, the earliest we had observed Black-crowned Night-Heron was in late March.
Our next full day of birding would take us along the Lake Ontario shoreline from Grimsby to Vineland for the MNR waterfowl count. Were we in for a surprise. We were barely over a week into the new year and January 8 just might have been the best day of birding in 2012.