A Green Comma in Stony Swamp

Green Comma (Old Quarry Trail, June 2019)

Once again I’m behind in my blogging – it seems once spring arrives, I end up with too many photos and too many stories I want to tell, and not enough time to do any actual blogging! I’m so far behind on my blog that I haven’t even finished all my posts from 2019 – so much for getting caught up over the winter, then during the early weeks of the pandemic – and I’m even behind on sorting my photos from last year.

I could try to write less and post more photos, but I don’t want this to turn into the type of blog that says “I went here and I saw this, and this and this”. I like to research a bit about the species I’ve photographed, and find something interesting to say about them. My feeling about nature photography is that a picture is rarely worth a thousand words; it shows one species or one scene in just one moment in time. It rarely says anything about that creature’s life cycle, its distribution, how common it is, whether its population is booming or declining, its relationship to other species, and any other “fun facts” that make that creature worth getting to know. This is why I stay away from social media sites that focus on pure photography and look for the ones that get into identification or discussion.
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Spring at the Richmond Lagoons

Sora

The Richmond Sewage Lagoons (formally known as the Richmond Conservation Area) is one of the few places in Ottawa that did not close its parking lots during the COVID-19 pandemic, and as such, it is one of the few birding spots I visited regularly during the months of April and May. The habitat is unique: there are three cells left from the former sewage lagoons, each containing its own mini-ecosystem. The first cell as one approaches from the parking lot on Eagleson (the southernmost cell), has deep water and extensive cattails, making it great for Pied-billed Grebes, rails, bitterns, Swamp Sparrows and waterfowl, mainly geese and dabbling ducks. The middle cell has deeper water and very little cattails, making it a better spot to see diving ducks. The third cell used to be almost entirely choked with cattails interspersed with small patches of open water, making it the best spot to watch and listen for rails. This spring when I arrived on my first visit I was dismayed to see that not only had the cattails been chopped down, but so had some of the tall trees bordering the cell. The cell looked like a soup of water and what was left of the churned up marsh bottom and vegetation, although a deep puddle ringed with a few cattails remained.
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Snippets from Migration

Common Yellowthroat

Migration has been strange this year. Because of the lengthy cold spell at the beginning of May it seemed as if migration had stalled; for so long I felt as though I were waiting for it to begin, then things happened so quickly that now I wonder whether it has passed me by. The White-crowned Sparrows that usually show up in my backyard every year between May 3rd and 5th didn’t arrive until the 14th; the Common Terns that arrive at the Eagleson Ponds between May 10th and May 14th didn’t arrive until May 19th. Neither species stayed long, either. The terns were only there for one day before moving on, instead of spending two or three days. It is harder to know if the White-crowned Sparrow I saw over the course of a few days was the same one or a different one, as many have been singing in our area in the middle of the month.

The warblers came, and the warblers went. I’ve had several Black-throated Blue Warblers this year, and many repeat sightings of local breeding species – but of the ones that only pass through, I’ve sometimes only been lucky to get one: one Cape May Warbler, one Blackburnian Warbler, one Tennessee Warbler, one Bay-breasted Warbler. Again, is this a reflection of my spending time mainly in Kanata south, rather than heading for the migrant traps along the river? There have been excellent reports from the usual spots (Mud Lake, Andrew Haydon Park), but even as the city parks reopened on May 6th and the NCC parking lots reopened on May 22nd as a result of declining Covid-19 cases in the city, I’ve been reluctant to go to the normal spring hotspots to avoid the crowds that tend to gather there, both birding and non-birding alike. This has less to do with any fear of the coronavirus than my preference for quiet birding experiences, away from the loud chatter and narrow, crowded trails that both increase exponentially as the spring wears on and weather warms up.

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Butterflies of Early Spring

Spring Azures

Butterflies emerge in late winter or early spring as soon as the first warm, sunny days arrive and the temperatures reach about 13-15°C. This could happen as early as mid-March here in Ottawa, although the butterflies usually don’t stay out for very long – the nights are still cold in late March and early April, and they may not become fully active until the weather warms up to a consistent 15°C in late April. The first butterflies that emerge are those that spent the winter in their adult form, hibernating in mixed or deciduous woodlands beneath the bark of trees, in brush piles, or in other nooks and crannies where they are protected from the wind and biting cold Arctic air. Only a few species hibernate as adults; others overwinter as caterpillars, eggs, or pupae contained within their protective chrysalises. Still others are unable to tolerate Canadian winters in any form, and migrate south to warmer regions – the Monarch is the most familiar of these.

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Spring Arrives in midst of the Pandemic

Mourning Cloak

It’s been another slow spring; although the snow was quick to melt this year without any flooding, it took until the last week of April before temperatures reached a daily high of more than 10°C, and not once did Ottawa reach 20°C – in fact our highest temperature last month was 16.8°C (normally the highest temperature falls in between 20.7°C and 28.5°C). This is only the eighth time since records began in 1870 that April temperatures stayed below 17°C. Migrants have been slow to trickle in, however, this may be a reflection of the greatly reduced number of trails and habitats I visit rather than the actual number of birds passing through, as eBird sightings have been steady despite the cooler temperatures and persistent north winds. Despite the weather and the smaller area in which I’ve been birding, I’ve had some good mammal sightings in the past few weeks, and have seen my first butterflies of the season.

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Early Morning Fogbow

A fogbow is something I’ve heard of, but have never seen before – until now. This morning I went for an early morning walk at the Eagleson Ponds, and was dismayed at first to see how foggy it was. It was only a couple of degrees above zero, with a low fog and an otherwise bright blue sky. I started walking south along the shoreline, and when I looked across the water, I saw it – a bright white patch resting on the water with a thin, pale arc reaching toward the sky like half of a rainbow. There was no colour within the arc – it appeared the same ghostly white colour as the mist.

I followed the direction of the arc with my eyes, and found another bright white patch of fog shining just at the water’s surface of the central pond, with a second arc curving toward the first. It was not a complete “bow”, but I knew what it must be – a fogbow.

Fogbows are created much in the same way as rainbows, with sunlight shining through the fog droplets and causing the light to refract at predictable angles. Fogbows can be found anywhere provided the conditions are right: thin fog and fairly bright sunshine. In addition, the the sun must be fairly low in the sky – less than 30-40° above the horizon unless you are on a hill or a ship where the mist and fogbow can be viewed from above. This is why they are most commonly seen from hills, mountains and on ships sailing through the sea mist. In fact, sea or river fog is an excellent source of fogbows. This fog forms quite frequently when warm air comes in contact with the cooler water and is chilled.

The smaller water droplets within the fog diffract light much more extensively than the rain droplets that create rainbows. Because of this, fogbows are usually white with faint reds on the outside and blues inside. They may also contain a glory at their center – a small, bright patch of colour containing the colours of the rainbow. Glories form directly opposite the sun whenever the mist or fog is below the observer, and are often photographed by mountain climbers.

I did not see a glory, and the fogbow itself was very faint. Some fogbows have very low contrast, so they are best found by looking for small bright patches in the misty background – this type of bow is brightest at the two points where it appears to meet the sea or ground. This is exactly how I managed to find it.

It didn’t last long, and disappeared as the sun climbed higher and the mist faded. I was happy to see it and add a new type of atmospheric phenomenon to my list.

Planning the Garden in the time of COVID-19

I’ve been thinking about my garden for a few weeks now – ever since the shutdown of essential services I’ve wondered if I would be able to get to the nursery in the spring to buy flowers. Usually each year I try to add a few more perennials and fill in the gaps – as well as my containers – with annuals for immediate colour. I came to the conclusion that it would be best to buy some seeds and start them indoors, which would not only give me something to do while stuck at home, but would also make the yard more enjoyable in the summer if the nurseries should be closed and this lockdown should last so long.

Today I was delighted to find some seeds at the Independent Grocery Store at Hazeldean Mall while trying to pick up some groceries (which was horrible – I couldn’t get a cart or basket, and was only able to buy what I could carry) and selected a few that I thought would add some colour. Normally I try to buy flowers that will attract hummingbirds and butterflies, but beggars can’t be choosers, and it is getting a little late to order online or wait until my next essential grocery run to see what another store may have. Still, I managed to get some flowers that should benefit the wildlife in my backyard.

Bachelor’s Buttons – I’d had luck growing these in the past, though I’d purchased them so that the birds could feed on the seeds long before I became interested in butterflies and other pollinators. It turns out that their flowers are attractive to pollinators, too!

Cosmos – this is another flower I’d tried in the past, again to provide seed for birds in the fall. If I recall correctly, I did find goldfinches feeding on them and the Bachelor’s Buttons! Apparently their open flowers provide easy access to nectar and pollen for pollinators as well.

Nasturtium – I might have tried this in the garden before, but if so I don’t remember how it performed or whether it attracted any beneficial insects. I chose this mainly for the bright orange flowers, as all my other choices were blue, pink and purple, however, it does appear that they will attract long-tongued bumblebees, butterflies, hummingbirds…and aphids. Well, maybe now the aphids will leave my viburnum alone.

Sweet Pea – this is a new flower for the garden and one that can climb. It sounds as though it is beneficial to pollinators, but does not seem to be on anyone’s top ten list.

Wild Flax – the only perennial on my list, I chose it for its pretty blue flowers with yellow centers. It too sounds as though it is beneficial to pollinators, though not as strongly recommended as other flowers.

Flower Time for seedlings to emerge Earliest Date
Bachelor’s Buttons 12-21 days April 23, 2020
Cosmos 7-10 days April 18, 2020
Nasturtium 10-14 days April 21, 2020
Sweet Pea 10-14 days April 21, 2020
Wild Flax 10-21 days April 21, 2020

I’ve had mixed results growing plants from seeds in the past, with slightly more successes than failures. Hopefully these seeds will be successful and provide plenty of flowers for the flower flies, bees, beetles and butterflies to enjoy this summer – stay tuned for updates!

Frogwatching in the time of the Coronavirus

Boreal Chorus Frog

The day after I published my post “Birding in the Time of the Coronavirus”, one of my fears came to pass: the NCC announced it would be closing vehicle access to the Greenbelt as of 9 pm on Friday, March 27th until further notice. This meant that all parking lots at trailheads would be closed, and that trails such as Jack Pine Trail, Sarsaparilla Trail, Mer Bleue Bog and others would be inaccessible to those driving in. However, the trails themselves would be open for people who live nearby and can access the entrances on foot. On April 3rd the NCC website clarified that people can still walk through some of the NCC recreational sites, provided that they are not closed (i.e. Gatineau Park), they can be accessed locally, and people respect public health recommendations, including physical distancing of two metres. That same day our local rare bird alert coordinators decided to ban any alerts from being posted to our local RBA Whatsapp channel; this decision was made in conjunction with other southern Ontario RBA coordinators to prevent large groups of people gathering at rare birds sites. In addition, Parks Canada announced that all national parks and historic sites would be closed as of March 25th until further notice, with no vehicular access permitted. Ontario Parks had already closed all provincial parks as of March 19th.
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Birding in the Time of the Coronavirus

Blue-winged Teal (male)

The COVID-19 pandemic caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is going to be the largest global crisis in modern times. The outbreak started in Wuhan, Hubei, China, in December 2019, and was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020. Coincidentally, Ottawa’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 was identified on March 11, 2020 when a Ciena employee returning from a trip overseas fell ill immediately after returning home. A second case also related to travel was made public on March 12, 2020, and our Prime Minister’s wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau was confirmed to have a mild case the same day. As a precaution Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also went into a 14-day isolation at home, and as he never developed any symptoms, that isolation ended today. By March 13, 2020, the Canadian Tire Center had cancelled all events, the City of Ottawa had closed all of its facilities, a new screening center had been set up at Brewer Arena, and post-secondary schools had moved to online classes. March Break was just beginning for elementary and secondary schools, though they’d been advised that they, too, would be shutting down for a few weeks afterward.
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Unusual Overwintering Birds

Although it’s been a quiet winter for Boreal finches, Black-backed Woodpeckers, American Three-toed Woodpeckers, and other vagrant or irruptive birds here in Ottawa, we’ve still had a few interesting species overwintering here. A Red-shouldered Hawk was discovered at the Trail Road Landfill on January 25, 2020 and has remained in the area ever since – while most fly south in the fall, this species has been known to stay the winter here on occasion. In fact, my lifer Red-shouldered Hawk was an overwintering bird hanging around near Huntmar and Old Carp Roads in the winter of 2007-08. Their winter diet depends on mostly small mammals, although they may occasionally eat smaller birds such as sparrows, starlings, and doves. This would make the landfill an excellent place for a Red-shouldered Hawk to spend the winter; there are enough mice and small mammals to keep several Red-tailed Hawks well-fed, as well as a huge flock of starlings that spend the colder months here feeding on the remains of the sumac berries and landfill refuse. This winter several sparrows have been seen along the tree-line to the east of the dump, including the usual American Tree Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and two overwintering Song Sparrows.

I tried for the Red-shouldered Hawk twice after my return from Las Vegas, both on February 15th: I had no luck in the morning, so I returned later in the afternoon and spotted a car parked along the edge of the road. When I pulled over I scanned the area and noticed it perching on a post inside in the dump. This was the best view of a perching Red-shouldered Hawk I’ve had yet; it would be the best photo I’ve ever taken of one, except for the fence in the way – the snow banks were too deep for me to get close enough to put my camera against an opening in the chain link fence.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Although I’ve tried a few times to see it since, I never did find it again. They breed in the Ottawa area, returning in late March from their winter territories, although they are difficult to find. Stony Swamp is a repeat site for these small hawks; I’ve found an occupied nest once, and have seen birds flying over the pond at Sarsparilla Trail multiple times.

Carolina Wrens, on the other hand, are at the extreme northern limit of their range here in Ottawa. This species has been attempting to move further and further north, but often succumb to the harsh Canadian winters without making any real progress. Mud Lake is a repeat spot for this species, and indeed it is where I saw my life bird back in October 2011. One has been overwintering at Mud Lake again this winter; it was seen in the woods until late November 2019, went unreported for a month, and then was re-found on January 1, 2020. I was one of the people who saw it on New Year’s Day; the loud chattering sound caught my attention and I was eventually able to see this tiny dynamo perching out in the open. It has been present up until now, surviving a winter that has seen a lot of snow but very few really cold days (the dreaded Polar Vortex was noticeably absent this winter and was not missed). On February 23rd I caught up with it again in the same general area of the woods on the west side, which is where I’ve had all my Carolina Wrens now that I think about it. Once again I heard it before I saw it, and when it popped up on a tree stump to announce its general annoyance with the world I snapped a quick picture.

Carolina Wren

Just as quickly it flew across the trail and landed next to a huge fallen tree where it weaved in and out of its shadow before disappearing beneath a cluster of branches near the crown.

Birds like these have helped keep the winter boredom at bay. While they may not be able to compete with the birds seen at a tropical destination in the south, they are often difficult to see in the Ottawa area any time of year, and it’s great to get them for my year list now – and to get such great views!