McMaster Forest Birding Report


About McMaster Forest

McMaster Forest is a 50 hectare former potato farm, located at the centre of the range of the Dundas Valley & Dundas Marsh Important Bird Area (IBA #ON005), just west of the intersection of Lower Lion’s Club Road and Wilson Street of Ancaster, Ontario. Since the 1960s the property has remained largely untouched until surveys and a tallgrass prairie restoration effort began in 2013 after McMaster University decided to utilize the space as a natural research facility.

The property constitutes the southern end of the new McMaster Conservation Corridor which is bounded in the north by “McMarsh”, also known as the former RBG Coldspring Valley Sanctuary. The two properties are connected via the Ancaster/Coldwater Creek ravine, containing properties owned by both the municipality and local conservation authority.

McMaster Forest is designated as “use at own risk”, however low-impact recreational activities such as birding and hiking are welcomed. There is ample parking along the new fence on the north side of Lower Lion’s Club Road.

About this report

This report includes bird species observation data from 1 January 2014 through 31 December 2014 inclusive, with the exception of the “Winter Species” section which follows the period 1 December 2013 through 28 February 2014 inclusive, in order to line up with the traditional “winter birding” season.

Gray Catbird, a common breeding species at the property.

All record data was submitted to eBird by a handful of observers, most of which were submitted by the compiler of this report (Rob Porter).

Currently no formal university projects exist at the property involving birds — this is purely a non-institutional citizen science project at this time.

Prior to 2013 almost no records are known for this location, and due to the previous obscurity of the location, not many records are likely to exist.

Purpose of bird species surveys

While no current university projects on the site directly study bird species, the tallgrass prairie restoration project may have positive impacts on grassland bird species that are “at risk” and in decline, including species such as the Eastern Meadowlark and the Bobolink. Also, the open space may attract wintering species such as the Snow Bunting.

These surveys will track bird species over the next few years as the restoration efforts move forward.

Eastern Meadowlark, a species that breeds in tallgrass prairies which currently only visits McMaster Forest during migration.

Scope of surveys

Utilizing eBird’s bar graphs as a standard measure, efforts began in April 2014 to survey for bird species once each “quarter” of a month, at a minimum. By April of 2015 there will be no gaps in the eBird bar graph data for this location, and a pre-restoration “snapshot” of species will be complete. While all the habitats present on the property are surveyed when time allows, at a minimum the tallgrass restoration site is always surveyed.

Eastern Phoebe, a less common breeding species at McMaster Forest.

Anyone is welcomed to contribute data via eBird. You are also welcomed to share your eBird lists at this site with the account named “mccforest”, as this best helps us manage the data. If you do not use eBird, you may email with your observations which will be added to eBird with our site-specific data account. If you observe what you believe to be an unusual or rare species, please also pass along written documentation and/or photos or other media of the encounter.

Autumn colours at McMaster Forest.

Compiler’s Comments

When I first began the effort to survey McMaster Forest, it was in part an effort to demonstrate that any site that may appear to be lacking in bird species can prove more interesting upon more detailed study. I expected not to garner more than a few dozen species over the year, but once spring began I quickly found the location to be of great importance for a large quantity of breeding bird species.

In this first year of surveys at McMaster Forest, the space has transformed greatly. In the 2013–14 winter, the removal of the invasive buckthorn colony was completed, opening up the ground in this former potato field for the first time since the 1960s. This was quickly followed with what I hope to be a sign of the future, as a group of migrating Eastern Meadowlarks were observed (and photographed) enjoying this newly opened field in March. While their stay was short, this species did return in October on their return migration.

Over the course of months many of the piles of dead buckthorn have been burned, with a few remaining as brush-piles that birds often use as shelter—including a number of Palm Warblers throughout autumn migration season. In November, puddles accumulated at the front of the prairie, attracting a group of migrant American Pipits at one point.

A Merlin falcon, a migrant that has been observed hunting the prairie at McMaster Forest.

Seeding of the prairie began in early December, which included a number of native grasses and wildflowers. There are also now plans for improving the perimeter trails for accessibility, and potentially introducing some bird boxes.

During surveys I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the bird species diversity present at McMaster Forest. The highest single count was 38 species on one sweep, but outside of breeding season species counts are generally from one to two dozen. The greatest diversity appears to be the number of species seen over the course of a year, not all at one time. This year there have been 117 observed bird species on the property.

Birders should feel free to come and bird the space at any time — the species counts aren’t particularly abundant outside of peak breeding season (May-July), but the habitat is diverse and there are many great panoramic views of the escarpment as well. And, when you contribute reports you’ll be helping make the data for this space even better.

A fledgeling Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

In 2014 I’ve hosted a couple birding trips through that were low on species counts due to poor weather conditions, but I look forward to giving it a try again during the 2015 breeding season. This is tentatively scheduled for Wednesday May 20th (check the Hamilton Naturalists’ Club calendar for details).

Additionally, a restoration program has initiated in recent months downstream at the “McMarsh” end of the McMaster Conservation Corridor. In 2015, I hope to at least survey for breeding birds in that location, though regular weekly surveys are not currently planned.

I’m looking forward to what the first proper growth year for the tallgrass prairie brings.


Map of the property, with pre-restoration habitat labelled. The tallgrass prairie will be in the large southern central “Buckthorn Deciduous Shrub Thicket” section.

Data Summary — Year 2014

Total Species Observed: 117

Ontario “At Risk” Species: 6

Confirmed Breeding: 35
Probable Breeding: 12
Possible Breeding: 12
Parasitized Breeding Species: 3
Total Potential Breeding: 59

Winter Species Observed: 20

OBRC Review Species Observed: 1

Total eBird Checklists Submitted: 113

A graph of the full 2014 data can be seen at the eBird website.

Ontario “At Risk” Species Observed

Bald Eagle
Common Nighthawk
Chimney Swift
Barn Swallow*
Louisiana Waterthrush
Eastern Meadowlark

*Breeding nearby, and feeding at the prairie.

Ontario’s “Species at Risk” bird list can be seen on the Ontario Ministry of the Environment website.

OBRC Review Species

When truly “rare birds” are observed, the observer(s) are encouraged to submit a record for review by the Ontario Bird Records Committee (OBRC).

Plegadis sp. (Glossy or White-faced Ibis)

Either a Glossy or White-faced Ibis, observed and photographed flying over McMaster Forest.

On Friday 5 September 2014, a lone Plegadis ibis was observed and photographed flying over McMaster Forest. It was flying due NE ahead of an oncoming thunderstorm, along with a number of Ring-billed Gulls, a couple Herring Gulls, and a handful of Common Nighthawks. Its destination was presumably Cootes Paradise or Valley Inn. These observations were submitted to the OBRC as both Plegadis ibis species are on the Southern Ontario review list.

Due to historical data for both Plegadis ibises in the region, and the near impossibility to differentiate the two from this distance, it is not possible to be certain which of the two species this individual belonged to.

Confirmed Breeding Species (35)

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
American Robin
Gray Catbird
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Blue-winged Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Yellow Warbler
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Scarlet Tanager
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Baltimore Oriole
American Goldfinch

Criteria for “Confirmed Breeding”:

For a species to be “confirmed” breeding, direct evidence of breeding must be observed. This includes but is not limited to: finding nests, observing young, witnessing distraction displays, and adults carrying food.

Probable Breeding Species (12)

Wild Turkey
American Woodcock
Mourning Dove
Black-billed Cuckoo
Pileated Woodpecker
American Kestrel
Barn Swallow*
House Wren
Carolina Wren
Clay-colored Sparrow
House Finch
House Sparrow

*Barn Swallows, an Ontario Species at-risk, were frequently seen, but not confirmed to be nesting on-site. They were however, fly-catching on the wing above the prairie site.

Criteria for “Probable Breeding”:

For a species to be listed as “probable” for breeding, indirect evidence of breeding was observed. This could include but is not limited to: observing a pair in a suitable habitat, nest-building, courtship displays, copulation, and sustained territorial behaviours.

Possible Breeding Species (12)

Ruffed Grouse
Red-tailed Hawk
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Great Horned Owl
Belted Kingfisher
Willow Flycatcher
Warbling Vireo
Tree Swallow
Eastern Bluebird
Wood Thrush
Louisiana Waterthrush

Criteria for “Possible Breeding”:

For a species to be listed as “possible” for breeding, no evidence of breeding was found, however the species was observed in the appropriate habitat for breeding, or a male song was heard.

Confirmed Parasitized Species (3)

Field Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Common Grackle

About Cowbird “Parasitism”:

Brown-headed Cowbirds “parasitize” other bird species by laying their eggs in the nests of other species. This leads to cowbird young always being raised by foster parents who are not of their species.

Winter Species (20)

(Dec ‘13 through Feb ’14 inclusive)

Canada Goose*
Red-tailed Hawk
Ring-billed Gull*
Herring Gull*
Great Horned Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Golden-crowned Kinglet
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
House Sparrow

*Non-resident species, which were only observed flying over.

Traditionally the “winter birding season” is the first of December to the last day of February. Thus, this winter species list dips into December of 2013. As regular surveys did not begin until April of 2014, this dataset is less complete than it will be in future years.

Notable Absent Species

Physical remains of Yellow-bellied Sapsucker “traps” have been found along a trail on the property, and are unlikely to have been made within the past year. This species has been observed within the region primarily during migrations, and has not been a species known to breed locally in quite some time.

On 8 May 2013, a pair of Grasshopper Sparrows were observed. They were not observed in 2014.


Thanks to those who helped by submitting data, or otherwise supported this project:

Dilia Narduzzi, Sebastian Irazuzta, Dr. Susan Dudley, Dr. Jim Quinn, Len Manning, Lisa Teskey, Paul D. Smith, R. W. Bullock.

Comments, questions, and suggestions regarding this report or the surveys are welcomed.


McMaster Forest website:
eBird Hotspot:
Ontario Bird Records Committee:
Hamilton Naturalists’ Club:
IBA Programme:

Like what you read? Give Rob Porter a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.