It’s April 21st, and the weather still hasn’t returned to seasonal. Although it was about 22°C on Friday, gray clouds, high winds, and the odd shower made it an unpleasant day to be outdoors. Yesterday a cold front moved in, with more gray skies, intermittent snow/rain showers, ice pellets, and a high of only 6°C. I was cooped up indoors both days with an injured foot; walking had become so painful that I took Friday off so I could rest it. After spending two days on the couch with an ice pack and lots of Advil, the pain was only a shadow of itself when I got up this morning, so I decided to go out and do some “lite” birding.
Although the snow has been melting rapidly over the past couple of weeks, the temperature has still been below seasonal and it seems as though we’ve been poised on the threshold of spring for some time now. Winter has been slow to leave, migration has been slow to get under way, and I’ve still needed my winter coat and hat for the mornings when it has only been 0°C.
Despite the winter storm today that has coated everything with a new layer of ice and snow, the past week has given me hope that we have finally turned the corner. American Robins, Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles have been back in large numbers for a couple of weeks now, and I see many of each species on my 1.2 km walk to the bus stop each morning. Since April 4th I’ve managed to add five new species to my year list: Song Sparrow, Great Blue Heron, Wood Duck, Golden-crowned Kinglet and Fox Sparrow.
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.
The sight of a Turkey Vulture gliding effortlessly above the ground always fills me with a sense of awe. These birds are very large with a wingspan of almost two metres; in eastern North America, only eagles are larger. The masters of soaring flight, Turkey Vultures are easily recognized by the shallow “V-shaped” wings and their teetering flight with very few wingbeats. Although they appear black from a distance, up close they are dark brown with a featherless red head and pale bill. The trailing edge and wingtips are silvery white below, giving them a two-toned appearance. Doran and I drove to Cambridge last weekend to spend Thanksgiving with my family, and we saw several vultures soaring above the fields along Highway 401 on our way down. On our return trip yesterday, we saw many more, and I estimate we saw at least 100 of them riding the thermals. These birds weren’t just hunting for food – they were migrating.
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.
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.
Temperatures returned to seasonal during the week after my trip to Algonquin with Deb. I stopped by Hurdman twice during the week, and picked up two new year birds: a pair of Hooded Mergansers on Monday and a single Song Sparrow on Friday. On Saturday the warm weather returned. The temperature reached an unseasonal high of almost 20°C, and the days have gotten progressively warmer ever since.
I decided to visit Sarsaparilla Trail first thing Saturday morning, despite the gray fog that blanketed the area. Several new birds had arrived, including Red-winged Blackbirds, a single Song Sparrow, three Hooded Mergansers, Canada Geese, and Common Grackles. I could only see the edge of the pond closest to the boardwalk; I couldn’t tell if any Great Blue Herons were lurking around the edges of the marsh. At one point a male Purple Finch landed on a tree overlooking the marsh and began singing. This was one of the highlights of my trip, along with two Eastern Chipmunks scurrying about in the woods.
On Thursday I saw my first Red-winged Blackbird along the transitway while taking the bus to work. The following day I saw two more in the large cattail marsh on Richmond Road. Although the temperature dropped on Saturday to a chilly -1°C, I couldn’t wait to get out and look for these and other newly arrived migrants. I started off with a quick tour of the back roads in between Kanata and Richmond but found only a couple of Horned Larks – there were no Lapland Longspurs, no blackbirds, and no hawks. A couple of Canada Geese flying over were the only sign that migration was under way.
On Wednesday the temperature shot up to 10°C. The air didn’t just feel mild – it was actually warm. I headed to Billings Bridge at lunch, hoping to find the first Red-winged Blackbirds and Ring-billed Gulls of the season and maybe a mammal or two. Although the Red-wings hadn’t yet arrived, I had better luck with my other two targets. Ring-billed Gulls were plentiful, both loafing on the ice and flying overhead. I also noticed my first groundhog of the year sticking his head out of the snow. It was such a heart-warming sight that I waited several minutes to see if he would come out of his burrow; he didn’t, but I got plenty of pictures of him surrounded by a blanket of snow.
Excited by all the warblers and shorebirds observed at Presqu’ile on Saturday, I couldn’t wait to get out on Sunday and look for more migrants at one of Ottawa’s most famous birding spots, Shirley’s Bay. I didn’t get any photos, but I saw lots of birds; when I saw my first Magnolia Warbler in the woods, I knew fall migration had finally begun! Altogether I tallied 33 species at Shirley’s Bay, the best birds being three Red-necked Phalaropes, two distant Bald Eagles, one Great Black-backed Gull, two Bonaparte’s Gulls, a Cape May Warbler, and a Northern Waterthrush walking down the trail in the woods first thing in the morning, wagging its tail from time to time. At the dyke, I noticed 7 Great Egrets and counted 35(!!!) Great Blue Herons in the reeds on the far side of the bay.