After one of the wettest Aprils on record, both the Ottawa and Gatineau Rivers have burst their banks, causing extensive flooding that has affected hundreds of homes on both sides of the provincial border. A combination of snow melt flowing into the Ottawa River through its various tributaries and the high volume of rainfall this spring caused the water to rise faster than could be controlled by engineers at the various dams along the river. The Ottawa River is the highest it has been in decades, and neither I nor the long-time birders here have seen anything like it.
This month alone (now only seven days old) has seen over 100 mm of rain, with 45mm rain on May 1st, 40mm on Friday, and 20 mm yesterday. In the 24-hour period between Saturday afternoon and Sunday afternoon, the Ottawa River rose 17cm, and, according to the Ottawa River Regulation Planning Board, is expected to rise a further 5cm before its peak on Monday. A state of emergency has been declared in Gatineau, where the Canadian Forces was on hand to help police reach difficult to access areas. On the Ontario side, Cumberland and Constance Bay were the two areas affected most, followed by Britannia, Dunrobin, Fitzroy Harbour and MacLarens Landing.
May is here, which means we’ve entered the peak of spring migration! I usually see more bird species in May than in any other month (except perhaps September), though this month has been off to a slow start. Not only did May 1st fall on a Monday this year, but the weather has been terrible – it’s been cloudy and rainy for most of the week, with some mornings still cold enough to require gloves. As such, I’ve been doing most of my birding around home, but even so I’ve managed to pick up a few good birds.
Weather in April can be described in only one way: changeable. It can turn from spring to summer to winter in the matter of hours, making it difficult to know how to dress any given day – you may need a hat and gloves in the morning, then be wearing shorts in the afternoon. Even the weather toward the end of the month can be variable. Last Thursday (April 27th) Ottawa’s temperature reached a sunny, humid high of 26°C; yesterday (April 30th) the rain clouds moved in and temperatures barely reached 5°C.
Migrants have been returning in large numbers despite the inconstant weather. On Friday I woke up to see two White-crowned Sparrows on my backyard, and they were there again Sunday morning. This was a year bird for me, and the earliest date I’ve recorded them in my yard; normally they arrive during the first week of May, with my previous early date being May 4th.
Usually the first two weeks of April are a slog to get through – it still looks and feels like March, cold north winds and long spells of rain manage to out-compete the longed-for southerly winds and warm, sunny days, and although migration should be well under way, it takes forever for the next spate of migrants to arrive. Then one day it happens: you realize the snow is finally all gone, the ponds are ice-free, the buds on the trees look ready to burst open, and your neighbourhood Chipping Sparrows are back and singing right outside your window. The temperatures are finally reaching double-digits on a daily basis, and there are new birds moving in! The second half (well, the last third, really) of April is when the birding really picks up and it really begins to feel like spring. This truly is the beginning of my favourite time of year; here are a few of the things that make birding in late April so wonderful.
After returning from my vacation to southern Ontario I had two days off, but with no car I wasn’t able to go birdwatching anywhere exciting. On April 19th I headed out to the storm water ponds well before the rain was supposed to start around noon, but got caught in a light shower just as soon as I arrived. I decided to continue my walk anyway, as a few new species had been seen there while I was away: Sophie added Northern Harrier (!), Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, and Peregrine Falcon (!!) all on April 16th, and Peter Blancher added Fox Sparrow on April 17th. I wasn’t sure whether any of these birds would stick around for very long, but thought it would be great to see what was new.
I found a couple of White-throated Sparrows, two Barn Swallows, and two Tree Swallows almost right away. Ten Hooded Mergansers were still making use of the pond, though most of the geese had left. Only five Mallards were present.
Wallaceburg is in Chatham-Kent, but Lambton County is just a ten-minute drive away from my mother’s house. I didn’t realize this when Mom suggested we go birding north along the St. Clair River; although I am not a huge county lister, the new eBird profile pages are great incentive for birding across county lines. The profile pages provide you with a coloured map of all the countries, provinces, states and counties where you have birded, the colours shading from yellow to red depending on the number of species seen, and there is something about seeing all those empty white spaces (much like a Sudoku puzzle) that creates a festering need to fill them in.
The St. Clair River connects the upper and lower Great Lakes and separates Ontario from Michigan. There are numerous small parks and lookouts along the river that can be used for picnicking, camping, or river-watching. Although most of the parks consist of manicured lawns with a few trees here and there, the chief attraction here for birders is the thousands of ducks, gulls and other migratory waterfowl that congregate here in the winter and during migration, in particular Common Goldeneyes, Redheads, and Canvasbacks. We took a drive from Port Lambton up past Sombra on my first morning in southern Ontario, crossing over into Lambton County as we stopped at some of these parks and giving me the opportunity to fill in one more county on my eBird profile page.
We headed out of the park to eat a late lunch in Leamington (nothing along Point Pelee Drive was open on Easter Sunday) and then returned to the marsh boardwalk as our final stop in the park. It was a bit cool out on the water, but it was great to see several Barn and Tree Swallows swooping over the observation platform. As usual, there were lots of Red-winged Blackbirds and grackles, but unlike other years we saw no warblers or small migrants in the trees adjacent to the parking lot. Six Turkey Vultures and one Double-crested Cormorant flew over, and we heard two Song Sparrows and three Swamp Sparrows. We also saw two Herring Gulls land on a small clump of dirt in the marsh – this was the first time I’d seen this species at this location. Common Yellowthroats hadn’t returned yet, so we didn’t hear their rolling “witchity, witchity, witchity” song in the cattails.