Our week-long stay at this migration hot-spot was perfectly timed to coincide with one of the best weeks for migrants and local breeding birds. Despite the unseasonably cold weather conditions in the first few days we encountered numerous birds, including some good falls of migrants and a range of scarcer species such as Blue-winged and Cerulean Warblers, Harris's and Grasshopper Sparrows, and so on. And it is hard to top the bright colours of breeding-plumaged Indigo Bunting, Scarlet Tanager and the American wood warblers, of which we saw more than 20 species. The tour was a great success, with a total of 163 species exceeding the expected tally for the trip, and was made all the more enjoyable thanks to the pleasant company, the good food and accommodation and the friendliness of the Canadian people.
Our first Canadian birds included kettles of Turkey Vultures, a perched Osprey, Red-tailed Hawk, Killdeer and Ring-billed Gull near Toronto airport, where we landed mid-afternoon following our flight from Heathrow. After a stop for a substantial supper we continued on the smaller regional roads to Port Rowan, arriving at dusk and seeing many Mourning Doves, Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles and American Robins along the way.
A pre-breakfast excursion began at the Port Rowan guest house with Tree Swallow and Chimney Swift and continued at Big Creek, where we found Wood Ducks, singing Common Yellowthroats, American Black and Forster's Terns, Barn and Tree Swallows and a fly-by Common Loon. The very strong wind encouraged us to adjourn to the more sheltered environs of the Port Rowan Cemetery, and this proved to be a good move as the area yielded American Goldfinch, Killdeer and a pair of Warbling Vireos before we'd even shut the car doors. Progress along the track was slow since new birds came thick and fast, and these included Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Baltimore Oriole, Chipping and Song Sparrows, White-breasted Nuthatch, Northern Rough-winged Swallow and House Wren.
After breakfast we headed straight for Long Point Bird Observatory's Old Cut Field Station, making a couple of impromptu stops en route to see a Cooper's Hawk in Port Rowan and four Double-crested Cormorants at the end of the causeway. The bird feeders by the parking lot attracted House Finch, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay and many White-crowned Sparrows, but we were quickly whisked along a trail by one of the 'obs' volunteers to see a roosting Common Nighthawk which had recently been discovered, and which showed beautifully as it perched on a horizontal branch of an old pine tree. In the woods nearby we found Great Crested Flycatcher, Black-and-white Warbler, many Yellow Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Red-bellied Woodpecker and a smart Blue-headed Vireo, while a scan across the adjacent marshes produced a subadult Bald Eagle flying past.
A stroll up to Long Point Provincial Park failed to locate the vagrant Harris's Sparrow which had been present there recently, but we did see a number of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Least Flycatcher, Blackburnian Warbler, several Caspian Terns, seven Sandhill Cranes in the distance and clouds of hirundines hawking insects all around us.
Back at Old Cut a wander down Lighthouse Boulevard resulted in Red-headed Woodpecker and Pine Siskin joining the list, and right back where we started there was a rush of warblers, including several Black-throated Green, Palm and at least three Chestnut-sided, along with plenty of the very common Yellow. A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird performed well perched low in a bush, while an Empidonax flycatcher which landed on my telescope as we were all standing right next to it failed to vocalise and thus remained unidentified - it was either Alder or Willow.
Back at the causeway we added Northern Harrier, Great Blue Heron, Purple Martin and Spotted Sandpiper to the trip list. A few miles east along the bay, feeders at Booth's Harbour produced a lingering wintering American Tree Sparrow plus great views of Blue Jay, Northern Cardinal, Baltimore Oriole, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Ruby-throated Hummingbird and many more species. We ended up on the shore at Booth's Harbour, where Redhead, Lesser Scaup, Cliff Swallow and Northern Flicker were added to the trip list and a spectacular fly-past by an adult Bald Eagle provided a fitting end to a memorable day.
The unusually cold conditions meant that songbird activity at Rowanwood Sanctuary was very subdued. We heard a couple of Red-eyed Vireos, had brief glimpses of Red-breasted Nuthatch and Wood Thrush and saw several Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. A Pileated Woodpecker was more obliging, though, and performed a double fly-past.
Just along the road we found a sheltered sun-trap on the edge of some weedy fields where there was consequently much more bird activity. Sparrows predominated, with Field, Song and Chipping all showing well and the normally skulking Grasshopper Sparrow performing brilliantly by singing from the fence right in front of us and then scurrying mouse-like through the brush. A singing Vesper Sparrow gave prolonged but rather distant views. Other species included a pair of Grey Catbirds which showed beautifully at close range. A flock of Eastern Kingbirds fed on nearby cultivated fields and then came and perched in bushes close by. Just along the road a male Eastern Bluebird wowed us with its colours and an Eastern Phoebe showed briefly.
At Big Creek we added Swamp Sparrow to our ever-increasing sparrow list, and also had great views of Sandhill Crane and a brief sighting of a Merlin as it dashed low across the reedbed. The cold wind made us all very hungry. Many local eateries are closed on Mondays, so we eventually found lunch at a cafe run by a former welder called Alice, who makes a mean asparagus omlette!
Port Rowan Sewage Lagoons were being worked on in the afternoon and were therefore birdless aside from a Red-tailed Hawk carrying prey, so we continued to Old Cut. Many of the same species as yesterday showed well again, but we added a number of new ones, notably Magnolia and Nashville Warblers, a pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches and several White-throated Sparrows.
An unprepossessing field near Port Rowan was our first stop of the day, yet it produced a fine array of birds, including several new species. Half a dozen Bobolinks, three Eastern Meadowlarks, at least four Savannah Sparrows and four Horned Larks were singing and displaying, while a Northern Harrier flew past.
Down at Old Cut there had been a big 'fall' of migrants overnight and the trees and bushes were heaving with warblers. American Redstart, Nashville, Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, Black-and-white, Black-throated Green and Yellow were all present in numbers, while several Ovenbirds strolled around the leaf litter. We also found Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Blue, Cape May, Tennessee, Bay-breasted and Blackburnian Warblers and Northern Parula. Other good finds included a pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches at a nest hole, Hermit and Swainson's Thrushes, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Grey Catbird, Pine Siskin and White-throated Sparrow.
It proved to be third time lucky in terms of seeing the vagrant Harris's Sparrow, and we eventually found this rarity on the lighthouse lawn, hopping around beside a White-crowned Sparrow. It flew towards its favoured location of the provincial park waste dump, so we had a look there and relocated it in a bush, enjoying better and closer views. A Lincoln's Sparrow in an adjacent clump provided an added bonus.
A brief stop at bird feeders in Booth's Harbour produced an American Tree Sparrow and excellent views of the likes of Downy Woodpecker, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Baltimore Oriole and American Goldfinch. Next we watched a pair of Red-tailed Hawks, several Wood Ducks and large flocks of hirundines while eating lunch at Turkey Point Overlook.
The forest at Normandale Fish Hatchery was quiet due to the unseasonably cold conditions, although we did find Common Yellowthroat, Black-and-white and Blackburnian Warblers, Warbling Vireo and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. An adult Bald Eagle sailed past windswept Turkey Point, which was our final stop of the day. Careful searching of the beach and sea here revealed Least Sandpiper, Dunlin, Ruddy Turnstone, Blue-winged Teal, Lesser Scaup, American Black, Forster's and Caspian Terns and Ring-billed, American Herring and Bonaparte's Gulls.
There was an amazing transformation in the weather today, with temperatures above 20°C contrasting sharply with the cold conditions of the past three days. No birding tour would be complete without a visit to some sewage lagoons, so Port Rowan's was where we began the day. And the site turned up trumps with several Killdeers, three or four Spotted Sandpipers, three Lesser Yellowlegs and at least 30 Least Sandpipers and 50 Short-billed Dowitchers, plus a Common Loon flying over.
We discovered that there had been a fresh fall of birds at Old Cut, with Hooded and Canada Warblers on show together with many of the same species as yesterday, including Ovenbird, American Redstart and Black-throated Blue and Yellow-rumped Warblers. A Broad-winged Hawk and a Sharp-shinned Hawk passed overhead together, scattering the mixed flocks of hirundines in the lighthouse garden.
A short drive down to Hahn Marshes produced a roadside Eastern Meadowlark and a number of Warbling Vireos. Feeders on a private property just inland from St Williams attracted Red-bellied Woodpecker, Baltimore Oriole and Field Sparrow, while we watched a prolonged tussle between an Eastern Bluebird and a Tree Swallow, with the latter incensed that the former had perched on its nestbox. The pair rolled around on the ground locked in combat for several minutes.
A stroll round the extensive grounds here was very productive, with a pair of Eastern Phoebes nesting in a shed, Eastern Towhee, Blue-winged Warbler and a pair of Black-billed Cuckoos huddled together on the same branch among the highlights, while Broad-winged and Red-tailed Hawks were seen flying overhead.
Back at Old Cut for our second visit of the day we added Swainson's Thrush and Bay-breasted Warbler to the day list, while a walk down to Long Point Provincial Park produced a Grey Plover and three Hudsonian Whimbrel on the beach. Just along the road a small campground proved to be a real hot-spot, with Brown Thrasher, Grey-cheeked and Swainson's Thrushes and a fine male Indigo Bunting. A short stop at Big Creek was well worthwhile for very close views of Marsh Wren.
After dinner we visited a private property near Rowanwood Sanctuary where several close but elusive American Woodcock were performing their display flights and several Eastern Whip-poor-wills were heard in the woods. En route here excellent views of a Striped Skunk on the outskirts of Port Rowan had made a strong contender for 'critter of the trip'. Nearby at the Wilson Tract we ended the day with a calling Barred Owl.
Scarlet Tanagers - a luminous orange-red male accompanied by a green female - provided a perfect start to the day at Backus Woods, where we also added Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Eastern Wood-pewee to the trip list and saw Blackburnian and Black-and-white Warblers, American Redstart, Ovenbird and White-breasted Nuthatch.
At Old Cut it was another good morning for migrants with Red-eyed Vireo, Bay-breasted, Magnolia, Black-throated Green and Black-throated Blue Warblers, a pair of Scarlet Tanagers, an Eastern Wood-pewee and a Willow Flycatcher.
After lunch we drove to Townsend Sewage Lagoons, where the wader and wildfowl lists were bolstered by the addition of Bufflehead, Ring-necked, Ruddy and American Black Ducks, American Wigeon, Green-winged and Blue-winged Teals, Canvasback, Wilson's Phalarope and Semipalmated and White-rumped Sandpipers. Other good birds here included Lesser Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher, Savannah Sparrow and Bobolink.
On the way back to Port Rowan we made stops to add Clay-coloured Sparrow and Hairy Woodpecker to the list. A dusk visit to Big Creek was worthwhile for good views of Common Nighthawk, Sandhill Crane, Marsh Wren and Muskrat, and the sound of a 'booming' American Bittern, not to mention a memorable sunset.
It was back to Backus Woods for an early start this morning, and it proved to be well worth the effort because we had views of two or possibly three Cerulean Warblers along the ridge there.
Exploration of Long Point Provincial Park produced a fine Yellow-throated Vireo, several Red-eyed and Warbling Vireos, Canada, Palm and several Yellow-rumped Warblers, Swainson's Thrush, a pair of Eastern Bluebirds and a Sandhill Crane flying past. Several Least Flycatchers were seen and a Great Crested Flycatcher showed well.
Bird Studies Canada's reserve in Port Rowan produced our first Green Heron of the tour as we ate lunch (another of Alice the former welder's delicious sandwiches), and a walk to the bay viewpoint revealed about 100 American Coot, 100 Lesser Scaup, male Canvasback, two male and one female redhead, drake Common Goldeneye and several Pied-billed Grebes.
A couple of roadside stops at and around Turkey Point Overlook proved productive, with Northern Harrier, Bald Eagle, Broad-winged Hawk, Osprey, Wood Duck and a pair of Sandhill Cranes with two small chicks among the highlights. Migrants had clearly filtered inland here as a single tree held American Redstart, Bay-breasted, Magnolia, Black-and-white and four Yellow-rumped Warblers and an Eastern Phoebe.
We ended the day by watching the comings and goings at a feeding station in Booth's Harbour, where Red-bellied, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, Baltimore Oriole, Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Great Crested Flycatcher gave excellent views, a recently fledged American Robin bumbled into a bush and Purple Finch was a new addition to the trip list.
There was just time for a final early morning visit to Old Cut before we departed. Swainson's Thrush, Veery, American Redstart, Chestnut-sided, Hooded and Black-and-white Warblers and Ovenbird were among the highlights. A quick stop at Port Rowan Cemetery produced Swamp Sparrow, Marsh Wren, Green Heron (at first flying low over the reeds and then perched high in a tall tree), Eastern Kingbird, singing Willow Flycatcher and 'booming' American Bittern.
After breakfast we set off for Niagara Falls, passing mainly through cultivated land with not that many birds apparent, although we did note Bald Eagle and Red-tailed and Broad-winged Hawks among others.
The falls were spectacular and we were fortunate to be able to enjoy them in beautiful warm and sunny conditions. We also added four new birds to our tour list - Black-crowned Night Heron, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Tern and Great Black-backed Gull. In addition there were thousands of Ring-billed Gulls and hundreds of Double-crested Cormorants, while we had excellent close views of Red-winged Blackbird and Northern Rough-winged and Cliff Swallows.
After lunch we headed back to Toronto airport to conclude a very productive and enjoyable tour.
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