Thursday, 5 April 2012

Black Is The In Colour for This Spring - Part 1

Our warm March has certainly kick-started the spring bird migration through the Niagara Peninsula and the city of Hamilton. Something exciting is happening with the colour black in birds in 2012.

Birdwatchers are seeing some new species and in new ways in the Hamilton area. This spring for the first time ever on March 22, two Black Vultures were seen migrating together at Beamer Memorial Conservation Area. And better still, a renowned nature photographer, Mr. Tom Thomas, was there to record the event of the two birds at Beamer flying overhead. Now to add to those excitement just days earlier another Black Vulture was seen migrating towards Hamilton on March 16. 

Between the years 1961 - 2000 only 15 Black Vultures have been seen in the Hamilton area as noted in Bob Curry’s book, Birds of Hamilton. In the past decade a Black Vulture has been seen only every couple of years in the Hamilton area. To have three of these magnificent birds in less than a week is just phenomenal to the birding world. 

© Nick Chill
In Hamilton we are used to seeing Turkey Vultures flying through our skies from March until November. Over 10,000 vultures, migrate in the spring alone. It was not that long ago when Turkey Vultures were rare. They started to nest in the Kelso area on the Niagara Escarpment in the 1940’s. In 1975 only 53 were recorded in the spring migration at Beamer. In 2011 there were over 6700 recorded by the Niagara Peninsula Hawkwatch at Beamer. To the end of March of this year there have been 3400 Turkey vultures seen already. This is an increase of 72% over the 1980 vultures seen to the end of March in 2011. WOW!

 In the fall migration of an estimated 100,000 Turkey Vultures leave Ontario on their southward migration each year. Not bad for a bird that was almost nonexistent here 70 years ago.
Tom Thomas

Now to most of us a vulture is a vulture. The difference is that Turkey Vultures have red heads, are a little larger than Black Vultures and the back half of their wing is light gray along the entire length. They seldom flap their wings. They just seem to float through the air. 

© Gerrit Vyn
The Black Vulture has a black head and light gray wingtips. It flaps its wings more often and with its short tail the flight is very reminiscent of a bat in flight. And have legs and feet that are almost white.

In the Eastern United States there are thousands and thousands of Black Vultures from Southern Pennsylvania south to Florida and Central America but they are not as migratory as the Turkey Vulture

Birders had high hopes for these sightings of Black Vultures this spring for there were five Black Vultures wintering along the Niagara River around Lewiston N.Y. last winter. This has not happened before either. We have no way of telling whether or not the three migrating  birds seen at Beamer were part of the wintering five. Remember the mild winter. It was the likely reason that that these Blacks survived the winter along the Niagara River area.

This is not the first time some new bird species have shown up in Southern Ontario and stayed. The Cardinal did not appear in Hamilton area until 1923. Now it is in every neighbourhood and across all of
© Jim Paris
Southern Ontario. The now common Red-bellied Woodpecker did not show up in the Hamilton area in any number until the mid 1960’s. The same kind of story goes for the Mockingbird and the Carolina Wren as well.
Remember the Turkey Vulture was not a bird our parents saw. It has recently set up camp and is now in the thousands in migration.

So is it climate change? Maybe. Is it is habitat change? Maybe.  Every  species of bird seems to have a few adventurous members that are always exploring where the species has not gone before and some may find a new area suitable for their life. 

The changes in these birds do one thing for sure and that is wonderful for those of us who enjoy nature. They are providing us with new wonderments every day. No year is the same.

So look very carefully at the next big black bird you see. It could be your brand new neighbour.

Bruce Mackenzie
Manager Customer Service and Operations
Hamilton Conservation Authority


  1. Dear Mr. Mackenzie - thank you for such a highly informative post on the most impressive gatherings of vultures in the Hamilton area. Having just recently taken up lodgings in this city, I too am interested in the reasons my avian cousins have chosen this place to reside. Climate change? Habitat change? These are strong possibilities for the movement of species. But I wonder, is there something else about this city and its citizens that would be of particular interest to these vultures? Curious. -Professor William Starling

  2. I saw the two black vultures today on the Kenilworth access

  3. Dear Mr. Mackenzie - I have just witnessed a startling and admirable display of aggressive persistance by a pair of common crows in a well treed suburban backyard in Dundas. These newly settled pair of corvids were successful in driving away a rather well established large flock of Turkey Vultures from the ring of pines in said yard. The vultures number in the 30s but persistent hectoring by the corvid couple has paid off and they now have clear title to their new domain. Fascinating.

    With kind regards, Professor William Starling, Itinerant Avian Scholar