Photographing the Migrating Birds of Ontario

We couldn’t be more excited about the arrival of the migrating birds of Ontario. From colorful songbirds like the Yellow warbler to elusive waterfowl like the Blue-winged teal, Ontario enjoys a wide variety of amazing birds passing through during the spring. As amateur bird photography enthusiasts, our primary interest is to capture the natural behavior of these incredible animals.

Common yellowthroat
A common yellowthroat in Ontario

Because of the brief and sudden influx of new birds, we must move quickly to catch as many different species as possible. This often means long days of photography walks using our highly portable and capable camera gear. Our efforts are rewarded when we capture a new-and-improved photo of an existing bird, or better yet, a lifer.  Feel free to have a look at our photo gallery to enjoy some of our best shots of Ontario birds.

Birds of Ontario

We are located in the Niagara Region (St. Catharines), which puts us in close proximity to the Great Lakes, and the Niagara River. Both of these geographic features mean that we are fortunate to experience a considerable variety of bird species right here at home.  The Ontario Bird Records Committee (OBRC) lists 495 species of recorded birds in our province. Click here for a complete list of birds sighted in Ontario.

Lake Ontario Winter
Birding on Lake Ontario in the winter

In the winter, we experience a number of diving ducks and waterfowl. Long-tailed ducks, Surf Scoters, and even King Eider’s visit Lake Ontario. These species arrive as early as November and can stick around until as late as early May. These photography sessions can be extremely cold, as the wind blowing off of the frozen lake intensifies the experience.

On land, we are blessed with visits from majestic creatures such as the Snowy Owl and Great Grey Owl. These two raptors alone make months of sub-zero temperatures worth it.  On a frigid Saturday morning in January, die-hard Canadian birders can be found parked at the side of the road at the last known location of a resident Snowy Owl.

Bufflehead
A male Bufflehead duck

With so many different birds close to home, you’d think our life list would be huge (Current Ontario list is hovering around 230 or so). The truth is, Our own records do not even come close to reaching the total number of species located here, so we’ve got some work to do!

Bird Photography during Spring Migration

Every year in early spring we begin to see some of the beautiful species that are only here for a short time. The colorful songbirds like the Scarlet tanager, Hooded Warbler, and Blackburnian warbler are some of our absolute favorites. Warblers are one of the most challenging birds to photograph, but well worth the effort. Aside from the songbirds, there are many other species of birds we like to observe the migration patterns of as well.

Ontario bird list
A Baltimore Oriole at Point Pelee National Park

Some of the first migrating birds in Ontario that we notice are the waterfowl that visit the Northern tip of St. Catharines in Lake Ontario. There is a pond located in the Port Weller area that has attracted a number of migrating waterfowl over the years and provides us with some incredible photo opportunities! Some of these migrant birds are only present for a short 1 or 2-week window, so we mark our calendars to return year after year.

Blue-winged Teal and Northern Shoveler in Niagara
Blue-winged teal and a Northern Shoveler

The Blue-winged teal and Northern shoveler ducks seen above are examples of some of the brilliant migrating waterfowl birds to see in mid to late March. Some other notable migrating waterfowl in Ontario are the American widgeon, Greater scaup, and Common loon. The longer days and golden sunlight in the evenings make the photography opportunities that much better.

The best shots seem to happen when shooting late in the day with the sun at our backs, so the bird’s plumage is well-lit and catchlight in the bird’s eyes. No matter which species you choose, a portrait under the evening sun is sure to be a stunner.

The golden hour

Early spring migrating birds

Most of our favorite songbirds show up at Point Pelee National Park in early May, but many interesting species show up right here in the city as early as late March and early April. Because we have been birding in Southern Ontario for a few years now, we have found some spots that we can count on seeing the same species year after year. When you have an idea of when to expect a migrating bird year after year, you can better plan your photography shoots. This is one of the many ways that bird photography gets more enjoyable and rewarding as time goes on.

Caspian Tern in Niagara region
Caspian Tern

The Caspian terns and Common terns show up near Martindale pond in St. Catharines every April. They put on an impressive diving show for fish! They will hover in mid-air, and then dive into the water like a spear to catch their dinner. It is an amazing example of the beauty of nature all around us. For the photo above, we used a number of techniques for photographing a bird in flight.

It is unfortunate that humans are spoiling their habitat in this area with garbage including old fishing lures and fishing lines in the trees. If Martindale pond continues to be overrun with fisherman and the trail of garbage they leave behind, these birds will surely lose a key portion of their natural habitat, and be forced to move elsewhere. I hope that we can reverse some of the damage that has been done in our generation.

Northern Flicker
Northern Flicker

The Northern flicker is another welcome visitor to Ontario in April. This Ontario woodpecker can be seen and heard in an old dead tree or foraging in the grass for ants and beetles. These woodpeckers are quite large and colorful. The bright yellow undersides of their wings are unmistakable in flight. A clear shot of a Northern Flicker with its bright yellow wings extended is on our wishlist for the future.

Eastern Bluebirds

Last year, we spotted our first Eastern Bluebird of the year in the Port Weller area of St. Catharines. It was a vibrant blue male, foraging for food in the shrubs and tall grass. He gave us quite the photo opp, as he seemed to be very tolerant of our presence. This is a bird that we have always admired and was extremely happy to finally capture the true beauty of this species.

Eastern Bluebird in during spring migration
Eastern Bluebird

Where to find Eastern bluebirds in Ontario

Bluebirds are somewhat common in the Niagara region if you know where to look. Learning the bird’s song and call will help you identify the bird and hopefully spot one. They are often seen sitting on a telephone wire in an open country area or meadow. Nest boxes are helping this bird continue to survive in this area and compete with its non-native species competitors such as the European starling and House sparrow.

We’ve had the most success finding Bluebirds driving through the countryside on the outskirts of towns. They prefer farmland environments over the city. You might need to double check that bird on the powerline you thought was a Robin! The rounded shape of an Eastern bluebird’s head helps to identify them from a distance. When in doubt, wait and listen to its song, it’s quite unique and beautiful!

A great way to find a particular species in your area a is to use the eBird recent sightings map. We regularly visit this webpage to discover what others have recently reported in our vicinity. We don’t always find the species at hand, but it’s a helpful head start!

Where to find Eastern Bluebirds
An Eastern bluebird on a powerline

Early migrants in Ontario

The arrival of the Chipping sparrow is a sure sign of spring. They are one of the early migrant birds to appear in Ontario. Their distinctive “chipping” call is the best way to find a Chipping sparrow in a tree for a photo opportunity. The photo above was taken last spring at Jaycee Gardens Park in St. Catharines. During April, look for Chipping sparrows in open woodlands and parks with a grassy clearing. They often hop on the ground searching for seeds as well.

Chipping Sparrow singing
Chipping Sparrow

Here are some other migrating Ontario birds that signal that spring has truly arrived:

  • Song Sparrow
  • Killdeer
  • Northern Flicker
  • Tree Swallow
  • Carolina Wren
  • White-crowned sparrow
  • Blue-grey gnatcatcher
  • Eastern meadowlark
  • Horned Grebe
  • Ring-necked duck
  • American widgeon
  • Yellow warbler

This is just a small sampling of the amazing birds we have the pleasure of seeing in Ontario. The exact timing for each species will vary from year to year, and some areas receive many more visitors than others. How many birds is it possible to see in Ontario?  Have a look at the Ontario birds checklist.

For a better idea of the actual numbers you can expect, you can find useful Ontario bird migration reports here: Migration Information (Friends of Point Pelee)

Our Ontario Birding Trip is Booked!

We have booked our trip to Point Pelee for 2016 to see the remarkable annual bird migration! We have chosen to arrive at Point Pelee National Park on Thursday, May 5th, and we will stay until Sunday, May 8th. This is our big bird photography trip for the year as we observe and photograph over 150 species of Ontario birds in just a few days.

Blue-winged warbler
A Blue-winged warbler during spring migration in Ontario

We have once again chosen to stay at Sturgeon Woods Campground, less than 10 minutes away from the park. We have always had a wonderful time at this park, so we booked the same cabin we stayed in last year! Many of the guests at the park are there for the very same reason we are, the birds:)

As we approach the busy season for birding, we will continue to update our blog with any exciting species we photograph. We hope that you are able to explore your local area for the beautiful nature and animals that live there. This planet is home to so many amazing creatures that live honorable and incredible lives, and we hope that you can respect and appreciate the beauty that is all around us.

Barn swallow
Barn swallow

Helpful Resources:

Checklist of Birds in the Hamilton Area

Ontario Birds

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