Spring Butterflies at Nortel

Hooded Merganser (male)

Hooded Merganser (male)

Sunday was another gorgeous day so after lunch I went out to look for butterflies. I started off my walk at the Rideau Trail, but after seeing very little I decided to head over to the former Nortel campus instead. The woods here are a traditional spot to find overwintering butterflies on the first warm days of spring, and I’ve had luck finding Mourning Cloaks and Eastern Commas here in the past. I also wanted to check on a few spots where I’d heard Western Chorus Frogs calling in previous years.

The woods were quiet when I arrived – there weren’t many birds around, though a few chickadees flew up to me looking for handouts. It didn’t take long to find a couple of Mourning Cloaks circling each other as they flew up into the trees. As I was still watching them, a third landed on a tree in front of me.

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A Flood of Migrants

Osprey

Osprey

Spring is here! Not only are the birds flooding back, but temperatures have finally reached the double-digits! The snow is virtually gone, and the Ottawa River is flowing again (although some icy parts remain near the shores, particularly between Woodroffe and Dominion Station). Since April 9th I have added 10 new birds to my year list, seen a few more butterflies, and – best of all – I have finally ditched the winter coat.

I’ve been meaning to get to Billings Bridge for a while now, and finally had the chance last Thursday. It was overcast and cold (only 4°C at lunch time). I still managed to tally 16 species including one Common Goldeneye, 3 Wood Ducks, 8 Hooded Mergansers, 3 Common Mergansers (all males), a couple of Red-winged Blackbirds and a Song Sparrow.

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Easter Migrants

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

Birders love it when the Easter long weekend falls in April. The weather is usually nice, and the early migrants have already begun to arrive. If it’s warm enough, the first frogs, butterflies and snakes will have emerged. Easter fell on the first weekend of April this year, and although winter and spring are still battling for supremacy, I was still able to find plenty of birds for my year list.

I started Good Friday with a walk at the Beaver Trail where I unknowingly flushed six ducks hidden in the marsh at the back, at least two of which were Wood Ducks. A few more Red-winged Blackbirds had arrived, and I heard a single Common Grackle call near the Wild Bird Care Centre. Blackbirds flew over several times while I was there, but the day was overcast and I didn’t get a good look at them. The best bird was a pair of Golden-crowned Kinglets in the woods near the meadow – this species was a year bird for me.

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Spring’s Progress

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

The weather for the past few weeks has remained mostly below seasonable. It has been slow to reach the freezing mark during the day, but I think we’ve finally reached the point where the daily high is now above 0°C. The Ottawa River is still frozen except for the rapids at Mud Lake and Bate Island, and a couple of centimeters of frozen snow still blanket the woods. At least the Rideau River has finally begun to open up on both sides of the 417 bridge. The City usually starts blasting the river open in March to prevent flooding, and although I read that the City would be blasting the ice throughout the month of March, as of the last time I visited Hurdman Park (March 31st) there was no evidence of any workers on the river in that area.

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Woodpeckers with Three Toes

Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpecker

Most birds have four toes. The toes of most perching birds, shorebirds, and gallinaceous (game) birds are arranged in an anisodactyl arrangement – that is, three of the toes point forward while the first toe, called the hallux, points backward. This arrangement is evident in the tracks of a Ruffed Grouse in the snow, or the tracks of a sandpiper or crow on the mudflats of your favourite river or beach. Woodpeckers, Osprey, owls and cuckoos, on the other hand, have a zygodactyl arrangement of toes: the first and fourth toes point backward while the two middle toes point forward.

However, three woodpecker species exist which have only three toes. Two (the Black-backed Woodpecker and the American Three-toed Woodpecker) are found in North America, while the third (the Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker) is found in the Boreal regions of Europe and Asia. These species all inhabit coniferous forests where they feed chiefly on wood-boring beetle larvae. The American Three-toed Woodpecker has the northern-most breeding range in North America, while the Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker has the northern-most breeding range in Eurasia. These two species were considered one species until 2003, when they were split because of differences in voice and in mitochondrial DNA sequences. All are believed to have a common ancestor which lost the first toe, the hallux, over time.

The fourth toe is not fixed in a backwards direction, but is able to rotate sideways or even forwards as the woodpecker moves up and down a tree. It is thought that woodpeckers with four toes only use three toes to grip the tree trunk, while the fourth is kept beneath the leg or extends out to the side, thus limiting the amount of force a woodpecker is able to deliver while hammering on a tree trunk. Woodpeckers with three toes do not need to accommodate this extra toe and are able to extend their body back further from the tree when it strikes.

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Farewell to February

American Robin

American Robin

February 28th fell on a Saturday this year. This is traditionally the last day of the winter birding season for birders, and the last day to record any birds for one’s winter list. I stopped keeping a winter list when I realized I no longer enjoyed driving well out of my way in miserably cold and/or snowy weather to see birds other people had found, especially unusual wintering birds that are otherwise quite common later in the year. Why make a special effort to chase after a Song Sparrow or a Hooded Merganser reported somewhere across the city when I knew I would see these birds much closer to home in the spring? Of course, if a REALLY good bird shows up – like the Gyrfalcon at the Lafleche Dump – I’m happy to go and add it to my life list or my year list, but otherwise I’m just as happy to stick close to home and go to the places I enjoy most.

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Mouse Rescue!

My office building downtown doesn’t provide many opportunities for encounters of the natural kind. In the warmer months, coworkers sometimes call me to their office to ask about the Turkey Vultures flying by our 26th-floor windows. Once, on a fall morning several years ago, someone noticed a bat sleeping on the side of the building through his office window, and boy did I wish I had brought my camera with me that day! On another occasion, I was walking back to the office after lunch and watched as a Merlin landed on the roof of the building next to ours, and spent some time watching it through my binoculars when I got back up to my floor. Other than that, I am pretty much limited to watching the crows, pigeons, Ring-billed Gulls and occasional ravens fly by as they live their own lives in downtown Ottawa.

On Wednesday, though, as soon as I entered my building my attention was attracted by two men looking down at something on the ground asking, “Is it a mouse? Or maybe some kind of vole?”

I glanced down and was surprised (and more than a bit thrilled) to see a small mouse scurrying along the wall looking for cover. It was either a White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) or a Deer Mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus), two species that look quite similar but can only be identified in the hand by taking measurements. I immediately began to worry that someone not as tolerant of rodents as I am would see it and kill it before it could get into the hidden spaces of the building.

Peromyscus sp.

Peromyscus sp.

I quickly walked over to Green Rebel, the closest food vendor, and asked for a cup with a lid. They were happy to oblige, so I set about catching the mouse before it could come to harm. This wasn’t as hard as I expected; the mouse actually paused in front of me to investigate a bit of food on the floor, and so I quickly brought the cup down over top of it and scooped it up. I then began carrying it outside.

And then I realized I had my camera with me.

Peromyscus sp.

Peromyscus sp.

I rarely see these mice, and when I do it’s usually after dark when it’s impossible to photograph them. There I was, actually carrying one in my hand, so of course I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a few photos! Now, if only I had had a taxonomic key with me (and some time to review it) I might have actually been able to identify this fellow to the species level instead of calling it a “Peromyscus sp.”

As I did have a job I needed to get to, I took the wee fellow across the street and released him beneath some shrubs where I hoped he would find ample cover until nightfall.

Later that day I went to Green Rebel for lunch and told the guy who had given me the cup about the mouse rescue. He actually thanked me for not killing it, and for that I am giving him a shout-out here – it always surprises me when I meet someone not affiliated with any of my nature groups who agrees with my view that all creatures, no matter how small or inconvenient to humans, are important to the ecosystem in which they live – even one as urban as the one in which I work.

The whole mouse rescue really brightened my morning, and made me glad I had brought my camera to work that morning. You just never know when something interesting might cross your path!