The weather has warmed up over the past week and the migrants have been pouring in. Since my last blog post on April 21st I’ve added nine new species to my year list, and seen my first butterflies and amphibians of the year.
I spent two lunch hours at Hurdman last week, and found some amazing birds each time. On Monday, a couple of American Tree Sparrows were feeding in the grass near the entrance to the woods; these are the first ones I’ve seen there this year, and were probably just stopping in on their way north to their breeding grounds. Also new for the year were a pair of Hooded Mergansers sleeping in a quiet bay along the river and at least three Ruby-crowned Kinglets singing energetically. In the woods, several Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows were singing as they foraged in the leaf litter.
At this time of year Ottawa receives just under nine hours of daylight each day and the days are still getting shorter. There is barely any light in the sky when I leave home at 7:30 in the morning or work at 4:30 in the afternoon, and there have been more overcast days this month than sunny ones. With only a few days of sun so far this December, it is literally the darkest time of the year.
A little bit of snow and freezing rain earlier this week has laid down a thin, white, icy crust on the lawns and woodland trails that bears little resemblance to the “winter wonderland” of song. Enough grass is visible on some streets that it doesn’t even look like winter, although with the temperature today rising to only -6°C, it sure feels like it.
It’s that time of year again! The official winter listing period began on December 1st, and once again I am keeping a list of all of the birds I find in the Ottawa area during the months of December, January and February. While a winter list of 90 species or more in the Ottawa study area (a 50 kilometre radius centered on the Peace Tower downtown) is considered excellent, during the past five years I have only averaged 60 species per winter. My best season was last winter, when I tallied 70 species altogether!
If you want to go waterfowl watching in Ottawa, October is the month to do it. Our region is a major staging area for waterfowl each fall, and hundreds of thousands of birds consisting of more than 30 species can be found on local ponds, sewage lagoons, wetlands and major rivers.
The best place in Ottawa to see the greatest variety is the stretch of the Ottawa River known as Lac Deschênes. Located between Deschênes Rapids to the east and Innis Point (Ontario) and Baie Alexandria (Québec) to the west, Lac Deschênes is located wholly within the Ottawa River and reaches about three kilometres at its widest point. Because it is one of the larger bodies of water in the region, and because significant numbers of water birds stop here to rest and refuel during spring and fall migration, Lac Deschênes is recognized as a globally significant Important Bird Area (IBA). It isn’t surprising that the two life birds I got this month are both water birds, and that the most unexpected of the two was found on Lac Deschênes.
I took the day after Thanksgiving off work, and the bright sunshine and clear blue skies enticed me to go out and look for a couple of birds I hadn’t seen yet this fall. The first was the Orange-crowned Warbler, a drab species which rarely shows its orange crown and migrates later than most warblers. They are less common in the east than in the west, and I usually manage to pick up one each year in the fall – never in the spring. This year I haven’t seen any. The second was the Fox Sparrow, also a bird that is typically found in October. I normally find them in the woods of Stony Swamp, foraging on the ground with flocks of White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. It was a beautiful morning for a walk in the woods, and I headed over to Sarsaparilla Trail first.
Most people are surprised when I tell them that “fall” migration generally lasts from July through December in Ottawa. First come the shorebirds, although the ones we see passing through in July are not leaving their Arctic breeding grounds because of a change in season, but because they were unable to find mates or because their nests failed, usually due to predation, severe weather, flooding, etc. Many of these non-breeders are first- or second-year birds that have completed the full journey to their breeding grounds only once or twice. Adult shorebirds which did manage to breed successfully follow next. They are quick to leave the north once their young have become fully independent; the young, migrating for the first time, follow at a more leisurely pace. Because different species leave at different times, and because birds migrating south do so at a slower pace, it is possible to find migrant shorebirds from July through November, when the cold-tolerant Purple Sandpipers – generally the last of the shorebirds to head south – move through Ontario.
The second weekend of July was hot and sunny. Ottawa has had barely any rain in several weeks now, and is experiencing a Level One drought – the least severe of three levels – according to the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority. In fact, Environment Canada has said that the past 12 months have been the driest on record in the National Capital Region, and that there would be no relief until after Labour Day. A lot of the vegetation is beginning to look brown and wilted, and water levels everywhere are below normal. The forecast calls for no rain in the coming days.
I haven’t felt like going out much because of the heat. I stayed home on Saturday, then decided to spend Sunday morning along the river, first at Andrew Haydon Park and then at Shirleys Bay.
Even though I’d been up late mothing the night before, I still went out early on Saturday morning. I hadn’t been to the marsh south of the Nortel buildings yet this year, and was hoping to add Willow Flycatcher to my year list before they stopped singing. The usual Warbling Vireos, Red-eyed Vireos, Gray Catbirds, Song Sparrows, Yellow Warblers and American Redstarts were singing along the tree-lined path to the marsh; I saw a Great Blue Heron fly over the path and several Tree Swallows feeding their young in the trees overhead. In the marsh itself, I saw a Swamp Sparrow and a Common Yellowthroat in the vegetation next to the trail and heard others singing from the reeds. I didn’t hear or see any flycatchers or rails at all in the marsh, which was disappointing. A Green Heron flying over, however, made up for the lack of these birds as I still needed one for my year list.
At long last, the Easter long weekend had arrived. Good Friday dawned sunny and bright, just as the weatherman had promised; however, I wasn’t prepared for the cold north wind blowing straight from the Arctic. It was not as nice and warm as it looked, as I quickly found out during my visit to Sarsaparilla Trail. To my further disappointment, no new migrants had shown up. I was hoping for White-throated Sparrows and Pied-billed Grebes, but found only the same species (Golden-crowned Kinglets, Ring-necked Ducks, Purple Finch, juncos, etc.) I had seen on previous visits. Even the local Great Blue Herons hadn’t yet arrived.
The sun came out for the Family Day long weekend, and as luck would have it, I was sick. The scratchy throat that plagued me on Friday turned into a full-blown sinus cold by Sunday, but that didn’t prevent me from going out birding for a few hours each day. There are only two weekends left in February, and with my winter list standing at 66 species – my highest total ever – I decided to follow up on a few reports to see if I could reach 70.
My first target was the Northern Pintail spending the winter on the Rideau River in Manotick. On the way I stopped by Rushmore Road, where I encountered two Horned Larks – one of which was singing – and about two dozen Snow Buntings. There were no birds at the Moodie Drive quarry, and only the usual suspects along Trail Road. I checked the informal feeder area at the dump to see what was around, but the tree beneath which people used to scatter seed had been chopped down. A single Blue Jay was the only bird around.