Birds on the Move in St. Catharines

In this instalment of our bird photography blog, we visit some of our favourite birding spots in St. Catharines for a look at some early spring migrants.

Bird Photography in St. Catharines: Early Spring

Wow, what a whirlwind of weather the last few days here in Niagara. Two solid days of non-stop rain, a full day of snow to start the weekend turning into clear skies, sunshine and a high of 20 degrees on Sunday.

Bird found in St. Catharines Ontario

Given the circumstances, we wanted to make sure we took advantage of the nice weather on the weekend, but it was also a great chance to get out birding to see early migration at work.

Watch Our Video Vlog: Bird Photography in Early Spring

Glenridge Quarry Naturalization Site

We started our Saturday morning at Glenridge Naturalization Site, in its

current state, is a large, open public space that sustains wildlife, provides habitat while providing opportunities for recreation use, and environmental education.

Glenridge Naturalization Site in Niagara Region

Prior to the site redevelopment, it operated as a municipal landfill site from 1976 to 2001. In the 1990s it was decided that a naturalization site with a trail system would replace the landfill once it closed on Jan. 1, 2002.

We make use of the site on a weekly basis, mostly because it is a great place to walk our dog Rudy – it is his favourite place to visit. During our walks, it doubles as a good location to scope out some birds during the spring and fall months. While we were there on Saturday, we were surprised to have not yet heard a Killdeer, as the open fields and short grassland are likely habitats for these Shorebirds.

Birding Tip: Noting the type of habitat you are in can assist you to gauge the types of species you are most likely to see. This can be helpful in situations where you are unable to identify a certain species and can be helpful when looking through your field guide to determine your sighting. This tip can help you to narrow down your choices for identification or species options.

As if on key, we heard the call on the Killdeer and saw him scurry across the gravel path, pausing to bob up and down and size us up.

Killdeer in flight

As we continued to scan the open, flat lands we noticed a silhouette on one of the bird boxes perched in the field. As we stared at the box, Trevor made the identification from a distance- Eastern Bluebird. This was big, A) we love Bluebirds (I mean who doesn’t with their beautiful blue colour and their rusty chest) and B) we had never seen one at this location before. Now that we know, come early April we can look for them again.

Eastern Bluebird
Eastern Bluebird

In the late afternoon, we ventured out again, this time without Rudy. The plan was to hit one additional location before heading to the Port Weller East trail. First up, Green Ribbon Trail, a 529-metre trail that passes through the Barnsdale Marsh (which I didn’t know there was a name until writing this post). The surrounding area is considered an environmentally sensitive – Class 1 wetland.

Green Ribbon Trail, St. Catharines

We love visiting this spot. It typically produces at least a few songbirds to photograph and the usual suspects such as; Great Blue Heron.

Great Blue Heron wading in water
Great Blue Heron

Nerd fact – we had our engagement photos taken here, and yes, they were bird themed.

This time of year, the spot is loaded with Canada geese sitting on their eggs and soon there will be hissing Geese and goslings everywhere. This trip produced the Great Blue Heron, fairly close to the main path and was nicely backlit by the sunlight. Both of us wanted to get some video footage but we were forced to improvise without a tripod. First Trev tried using a tree, I tried sitting on the ground and using my bent knee, mediocre results. Then Trev came over to where I was sitting and put his lens on my shoulder for stability, not bad.

The Great Blue Heron seems to hunt for fish in the early evening, as we have visited this spot and witnessed the slow wading and curious glances until they stab their bill into the water at top speed. This day was no exception and while Trevor is using my shoulder for stability, I couldn’t help but lift my camera and lens with my other hand, haphazardly looking through the eyepiece to try and get some shots of this activity.

The rest of the walk along the trail was pretty low key, mostly hearing species but seeing a little movement.

  • Black-capped Chickadees
  • Red-wing Blackbird
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Mallards
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Mute Swan

Caspian Terns

We were hoping to see some Caspian Terns, they are typically at this location later in the month so perhaps we were too early. They come to these shallow waters to fish, circling above and plunging into the water, it is a great chance to get some action shots. On first glance, they can be confused with a Common Tern, which is much smaller in overall size with a much smaller bill. The challenge when photographing a Tern is choosing which one to follow and anticipate when they are going to plunge into the water. We will have to try again near the end of April.

Caspian Tern in flight
Caspian Tern

Since we were close, we threw in another spot before heading to our main destination, Port Dalhousie.

Port Dalhousie Harbour

Port Dalhousie, a historic community known for its waterfront, is a great chance to check out some waterfowl. Most of the time you will find tonnes of Mallards, Rock Pigeons, and Canada geese; however, there can be some pleasant surprises so we like to make a quick stop in to check. This stop proved to be fairly unsuccessful, our only takeaway photo, a Double-crested Cormorant sitting low in the water.

Double-crested Cormorant in Lake Ontario
Double-crested Cormorant

We wrapped things up quickly at Port and we drove to our third and final location, the pond at Port Weller East.

Port Weller East Trail

The pond was featured in our first vlog featuring the Buffalo Ornithological Survey Bird Count, where we saw the Peregrine Falcon. We save this location for last today because it is great in the late evening as the sun is low in the sky and set in the West, shining the ‘golden light’ on whatever waterfowl might be in that pond. The East Trail is a great spot for migration in the spring and fall.

On the way to the pond, we saw:

  • Northern Flicker
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Song Sparrow
  • Tree Swallow
  • European Starling

We had some great photo opportunities on our way to the pond with some Golden-crown Kinglets and a Downy Woodpecker.

You have the ability to view the pond from either side. When entering from the main trail, it is necessary to sneak, and I mean sneak through the brush ducking down behind the small shrubs along the shore in order for the waterfowl to not see you and fly away. We creep in as quietly as possible, but once you get through the brush and into the open it is harder to remain incognito.

Golden-crowned Kinglet
Golden-crowned Kinglet

Partway through, I take a look through my lens to identify what we are seeing. Our hope was to see a Northern Shoveler, as they use this spot as a stopover on their migration route and sure enough, there they were, a male and female Shoveler looking a little leery. After moving to get a clear shot, we were able to fire off a few quick shots, before they decided to leave.

A flock of Green-winged Teals in flight
Green-winged Teal in flight

At this point, all the other waterfowl have moved to the other end of the pond and we have a seat on a few rocks and analyze the pond to see what else is out there: Buffleheads, and Mallards. The trick is to sit somewhat hidden and wait to see if they will think we are gone and come back to our side of the pond. This is a tactic we have used in the past and has proven successful in the past with a Blue-winged Teal.

Green-winged Teal during migration
Green-winged Teal

As we sit and wait, we notice a flock of birds dipping and gliding through the air, landing to our right. Our line of sight was blocked by branches and at first glance, the green iridescent patch on his head lead us to believe we are looking at an American Wigeon until we get back to the car and look in our ID guide. After matching up the green colouring on his head, the black bill and flank colouring, we ID’d the bird as a Green-winged Teal – a lifer for us.

Again, this group of Teals did not stick around very long. Not even two minutes and they were off, but wow, it was great to see them.

It is safe to say that migrants are on the move and, overall we had a successful day out birding. It was great to see that this location and pond continue to deliver these early migrants. Perhaps you have a location like this of your own, where the more you visit, the more you begin to understand the species and timing of their visits.

To learn more about the cameras we use for bird photography, please have a look at our gear page. We hope you are observing some interesting migrating birds in your area – happy birding!

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