Sunday, November 24, 2013

Another Fort Erie mega-rarity

On November 23rd, the University of Guelph Wildlife Club headed down to the Niagara River for some end of fall bird action. The Niagara River is an incredible magnet for waterbirds in fall. In just the past few years, a very impressive list of rarities of shown up, including Razorbill, American White Pelican, Slaty-backed among a host of other gulls, Black Vulture, Fish Crow, Brown Booby and most recently the rarest of all - an Elegant Tern.

Elegant Tern is a species of the Pacific Coast from California to South America, and is an even more unlikely bird than the Brown Booby that appeared just a couple of kilometres away in October. Our first stop of the day was not a hard decision, and within five minutes of arriving, the Elegant Tern was visible sitting on its typical pier across the river in Buffalo.

The tern really isn't identifiable in this photo, but you can barely see the black nape, long orange bill and slightly larger size compared to the Bonaparte's Gull on the left. 

Looks were really very poor as it sat on the pier, but it flew around in the mass of Bonaparte's Gulls just off the tip of the pier for a bit, and allowed very satisfying looks. It never crossed into Canadian waters while we were there, but has been seen to enter Canada on several occasions by other observers.

None of our group spotted the Franklin's Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake or Red-throated Loon seen nearby over the course of the day, but several late Common Terns were nearby allowing comparisons with the Elegant, and a trip a bit upriver resulted in an impressive spectacle of ducks - mainly Red-breasted Mergansers and more Buffleheads than I've ever seen in one spot before, with small numbers of Long-tailed Duck and Common Goldeneye.

 A tiny fraction of the duck flocks

From Fort Erie we headed downriver to Niagara Falls - the gull capital of Ontario! Large numbers of Bonaparte's Gulls were present along the way, but no matter how many we looked at we could not pick out any of the other species of small gull sometimes present - primarily Little, Franklin's, Black-headed or Sabine's Gull or Black-legged Kittiwake.

At the control gates above the falls, large numbers of large gulls (Larus sp.) gather on the exposed rocks and concrete. Among the huge numbers of Herring and moderate numbers of Ring-billed Gulls we were able to pick out a number of interesting finds - about 20 Great Black-backed, 4 Lesser Black-backed, 2 Glaucous, 1 Thayer's, 2 Kumlien's Iceland, and 1 probable Lesser Black-backed x Herring hybrid.

 Kumlien's Iceland Gull with Herring Gull. Note the smaller bill, rounder head and very limited grey on the wingtips of the Kumlien's. It seems likely that Kumlien's is a stable hybrid population between the Iceland Gull proper of Greenland and Thayer's Gull of the western arctic, with all three species possibly best treated as conspecific. That decision is for better birders and scientists than I, but I can still enjoy the variety of gulls as they come south in winter.

There was some excitement here among some more experienced "gullers" with a bird showing many features of Yellow-legged Gull - resident in Southern Europe and the Canaries and Azores islands of the North Atlantic. It is a regular occurance in Newfoundland, but has never been seen in Ontario. The identification is still extremely unclear, although it doesn't seem quite right for a Yellow-legged. Josh Vandermeulen has a write-up on the bird here.

The rest of the afternoon was slow to say the least. Adam Beck, normally a mecca for Herring Gulls, was dominated by Bonaparte's Gulls, and the only other species present were Ring-billed, Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls and a single immature Lesser Black-backed.

Similarly, the flypast at Niagara-on-the-lake, where large number of Bonaparte's Gulls with other species mixed in typically leave the river to roost on the lake overnight, was a complete bust due to the strong northerly winds. Ring-billed Gulls were being blown backwards as they attempted to enter the lake!

In the end, no day with a bird as rare as Elegant Tern is bad, and I was very happy to get great close looks at adult Kumlien's and Thayer's Gulls and to see the always impressive gatherings of ducks and gulls.

I'm very busy with school right now, which explain the sparse posts, but hopefully I'll be able to get out a bit more next week and especially in mid-December onwards. To finish off, here's a shot of what will likely be my last herp of the year (unless I spend time flipping logs for Red-backed Salamanders), an Eastern Garter Snake in the University of Guelph Arboretum on the rather late date of November 15.

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