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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Niagara River trip

Curtis Dykstra, Sean Fitzgerald and I visited the Niagara Falls area on 14-15 December. This gull "mecca" has long been a favorite birding destination of mine, and it never seems to disappoint. Best bird for me was my long-awaited life Black-headed Gull, the longstanding bird at Fort Erie, Ontario. We arrived to find a flock of 4,000-5,000 Bonaparte's Gulls sitting there, and miraculously within 3 minutes I noticed a lone bird in flight which turned out to be our target! When the birds were on the water with heads tucked (the majority of our visit), this bird is very difficult to pick out. This was a typical look (note the paler nape and mantle, while any size difference was barely evident).
Once it lifted its head things got a little easier:Mid-day we stopped at the Sir Adam Beck HydroPlant overlook, where we had at least 7 Iceland Gulls at the same time, which included 1 Thayer's adult on the 14th. Here are three of them together (1st winter left of center, 2 adults above and right of center). No California Gull was present at this spot, despite a predictable bird from the last few years.
Amazingly, we dipped on Glaucous Gull both days (!), and so only had nine gull species for the trip. This is the same number I've had on every Niagara trip so I seemed to have reached a celing of sorts. Long-tailed Ducks were very evident along the river, including right next to shore:
The entire Lake Ontario system just has a different feel than that which I am used to on Lake Michigan. Not only did we get King Eider at Stoney Creek (no photos, unfortunately), but diving ducks were numerous right near shore, unlike what I am used to in the shallower waters of Lakes Michigan and Erie. At Queenston dock we had our only Little Gulls of the trip, a 2nd winter and an adult winter. Here is a video clip of the latter. If it looks like the clip isn't there, it IS. Hit the button with the small triangle below and it will appear.

Queenston also turned out to be great for wintering passerines, as there was a small ditch with moving, unfrozen water and plenty of cover. In addition to Golden-crowned Kinglet, 2 Yellow-rumped Warblers, Tufted Titmouse, Song Sparrow, American Robin, Black-capped Chikadee, and Carolina Wren, we also had this cold Northern Mockingbird.On the 14th, we went to the evening "flypast" at Niagara-on-the-Lake. We were treated to a large flight of at least 4,500 Bonaparte's Gulls heading out to Lake Ontario for the night. I counted them by tens and I believe this to be a fairly accurate count. We were unable to pick out any rarities, but interestingly, we did have one of only 3 (yes, that's right, THREE) immature Bonaparte's Gulls during the entire trip! What this may mean is not yet clear to me, but perhaps productivity was very poor this year, or perhaps youngsters winter at different latitudes or different sites (seems unlikely to me...), but it was very striking how absent they seemed. There were also a few nice waterbirds at Niagara-on-the-Lake including this Red-throated Loon.Lastly, we of course had heard about the remarkable Northern Hawk Owl southeast of Hamilton, Ontario, found last week. This location is about the same latitude as my hometown of Grand Rapids, MI. For reference, this species just doesn't show up closer than a 3-4 hour drive north of us (exception: once one was in Manistee, about 2 hours north of us) . Anyway, we showed up and walked NW down the train tracks to get where this bird was being seen. It turned out to be the most cooperative Hawk Owl I've ever seen, as evidenced by this photo showing it no more than 10m from several photographers. (For the record, we first stood at a distance and *the bird flew closer* to us, not the other way around.) Unbelievable! And here is undoubtedly the best digiscoped photo I've ever taken of this species, and a video clip showing it preening.

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