Southern Ontario has Point Pelee, Ottawa has….Mud Lake. Officially known as the Britannia Conservation Area, this 79-hectare conservation area consists of woodland, riparian, wetland and upland habitats surrounding a large eutrophic (nutrient-rich) pond known as Mud Lake. This large greenspace is bordered by the Ottawa River to the north and by residential and shopping districts to the south, which makes it an attractive place for migrating birds to stop and rest and one of the largest migrant traps within the city. As a result, Mud Lake has become one of Ottawa’s premier birding spots and the best year-round birding hotspot in Ottawa. About 250 bird species have been seen in this conservation area, or approximately 75% of all species recorded in the OFNC study area (a 50-kilometer radius centered on the Peace Tower). From warblers in the spring to herons in the summer, waterfowl in the fall and raptors year-round, Mud Lake is especially known for its songbird migration in the spring and fall when hundreds of swallows, flycatchers, vireos, thrushes, mimids, sparrows, blackbirds, finches, waxwings, grosbeaks, wrens and, of course, warblers descend on the conservation area. It’s had more than its fair share of rarities, too, including Eurasian Wigeon, Harlequin Duck, Little Blue Heron, Forster’s Tern, Gray Kingbird, Connecticut Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Yellow-breasted Chat (none of which, I might add, were seen by me).
March has arrived, and this year it came in like a lion. On Saturday the same weather system that triggered a number of tornadoes in the United States moved through Ottawa; 70 km/h wind gusts made birding virtually impossible, though the mild, 4°C temperature made it tempting! Birding in such conditions can often be rewarding, as sometimes birds carried on stormy weather systems end up far beyond their normal range. Indeed, one intrepid birder visiting Britannia Point on the Ottawa River discovered Ottawa’s first Heermann’s Gull roosting on the ice with several other gulls. This dark species breeds on the western coast of Mexico and ventures north to the United States after the breeding season; it is very rare in eastern North America. When the alert went out I joined the group of birders watching the gulls hunkered down on the ice. The wind was vicious and rattled my scope, but I did get a few good looks at a dark bird (gray both above and below) with a white head. The bird was too far away and the lighting too bad for me to discern any other features such as the characteristic red bill. The Heermann’s Gull settled in with the other gulls at dusk but has not been seen since.
This winter has been a good one for seeing robins and, more recently, waxwings. These birds are hardy enough to survive our Canadian winters as long as they have shelter, open water, and food in the form of berries; Mud Lake, Shirley’s Bay, the Fletcher Wildlife Garden/Arboretum, and Hurdman Park have all three in abundance and usually host small flocks of these birds each winter.
I returned to Hurdman last week to see if the Cedar Waxwings were still there and to look for a smaller group of Bohemian Waxwings that had also been reported. I was surprised when I found over a dozen House Finches in the area – these birds have been absent from Hurdman this winter, likely because there are no feeders this year. I also found a couple of robins, European Starlings, and about two dozen Cedar Waxwings.
This strategy didn’t pay off. Even though there were few people on the trail, I didn’t see any mammals other than squirrels. There were lots of deer tracks and even some Snowshoe Hare tracks, but no sign of the animals themselves. The diversity of birds was better: one Mourning Dove, a Downy Woodpecker, and two male Cardinals were all in the vicinity of the OFNC feeder; along the trail I encountered about four Blue Jays, both nuthatches, and a pair of juncos.
On Saturday I went out by myself to follow up on a few sightings in the west end. I started off with a tour of the back roads near Richmond, hoping to find some Horned Larks to add to my Ottawa year list; however, these birds, as well as the Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs they often associate with, were absent. On Rushmore Road I noticed a canine standing at the back of a snow-covered field, so I pulled over to check it out. It wasn’t a domestic dog as I had first thought but a coyote! He just stood there looking at me, and I just stood there looking at him, and neither of us made any move. Then he lay down in the snow, still watching me, so I got out my scope for a better look. I was surprised he didn’t turn his tail and run away!
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.
On one Sunday in mid-July Chris Lewis, Mike Tate and I went to Mud Lake to look for dragonflies. It was a beautiful warm morning, and we were hoping to catch up with the Blue Dasher and Halloween Pennant that Mike had found there earlier in the week. Both of these dragonflies were new for the Britannia list, and I was especially hoping to find the Halloween Pennant as it would be a lifer for me.
When I first arrived I noticed a large dragonfly zipping above the road near the top of the trees. When it landed in one of the dead trees I pointed it out to Chris and Mike. I could see the dark spots on the wings which identified it as a Prince Baskettail, one of my few sightings of this species.
In Ottawa, Canada Day usually means festivities on Parliament Hill, music, parades, throngs of people and fireworks. I celebrate Canada Day a different way: by going out and appreciating the natural beauty of our great country. This is a great way to escape the crowds and enjoy the other things that Canada has to offer: the land, the wildlife, the richness of its biodiversity.
I spent the morning at Mud Lake, hoping to find some interesting dragonflies and perhaps an unexpected bird or two (such as the Veery I saw last July) if post-breeding dispersal has begun to take place.