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!

In Memory of Phaedra (2001-2020)

Phaedra (2013)

Today I mourn the loss of my old girl Phaedra.

She came into our lives on August 4, 2001 when Doran and I visited the Humane Society in the hope of adopting a pet. I had never had a gray cat before and was enchanted by the thought of getting one; I had my eye on one in a cage in the cat room at the OHS but Doran saw Phaedra (then called “Muffin” by the Humane Society) rubbing herself against the bars of the cage on a higher shelf, wanting out, but almost purring and looking content. She was a beautiful tortoiseshell colour, all blacks and browns with cream mixed in. The Humane Society worker let us hold her, and right from the start she seemed to be a happy, affectionate cat. She won our hearts immediately, and we took her home in a cardboard pet box in our old ’89 Ford Taurus that day. I remember how she chaffed at being in there so I opened the top; she jumped out and hid under the seat. I had to pull her out in order to bring her to our apartment on Iris Street. When we put her down on the floor she immediately ran to hide beneath a computer desk. Doran had to run to Walmart to get food and a litter box and pet supplies while I tried to coax her out.
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Winter Finches at Algonquin Park

Barred Owl

On Family Day I accompanied Jon Ruddy’s Eastern Ontario Birding trip to Algonquin Park to look for winter finches and other Boreal specialties. As predicted in Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast back in September, the winter of 2019-2020 was not an irruption year; most finch species stayed up north in the Boreal Forest given the abundance of mountain-ash berries, spruce cones and birch seed crops there. This meant that while berry-eaters such as Pine Grosbeak and Bohemian Waxwings remained on their breeding territories in the far north, Pine Siskins, Evening Grosbeaks, and both crossbill species were widespread across central Ontario – including the traditional winter finch hotspot, Algonquin Park.
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Red Rock Canyon

Variegated Meadowhawk

On our last full day in Las Vegas Doran and I went to the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area to spend some time in the desert. We returned to the Pine Creek Canyon trail, the place where our last trip to Las Vegas began. We got a late start, and were dismayed to see two long lines of vehicles waiting to enter the park. In addition, the price had risen to $15 per vehicle – on our last trip in December 2017 it had only been $7. As long as the money goes toward preserving the area or public education (the Visitor Center has some wonderful exhibits) I’m happy to pay an entrance fee, but the increase was a bit of shock.

We started our visit at the Visitor’s Center. As it was quite crowded we stayed away from the center itself, and walked around the parking lot looking for Cactus Wrens. This was my favourite bird from my last visit here, and I was disappointed when none appeared. We did see a White-tailed Antelope Squirrel scurrying across the parking lot, and I was worried that it would be hit by a car.

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Chasing the Vermilion Flycatcher

Cinnamon Teal

Thursday turned out to be just as sunny as the previous days, with the temperature rising even higher. I had checked eBird the night before to see if any interesting birds were being seen at the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve or Red Rock Canyon, and when I saw that a Vermilion Flycatcher had been present at Henderson for the past month, I immediately knew this was Thursday’s destination. Males are bright red with black wings, a black back, and a black mask, and if I had chosen a most-wanted bird of the south this would be it. Unfortunately the photos showed that the bird was a female, which is much drabber and looks more like a Say’s Phoebe, but would still be a life bird. Doran and I headed out to the Henderson Preserve early in the morning, and this time we only drove two blocks past the entrance before figuring out we had missed it (my map application had improved since our last visit, but not by much).
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Chasing the Varied Thrush

Phainopepla

The cold front that arrived late on Sunday brought high winds as well as cold temperatures. Monday morning was so chilly and so gusty that we didn’t do any birding, and when we went to our first show that night (La Reve by Cirque du Soleil) the nighttime temperature had fallen to 0°C. I had hoped that the wind would abate on Tuesday, but it was still blowing strong and not much warmer. That was the only free day of our trip, so I was hoping to do some serious birding, but we stayed inside instead – wind is my least favourite condition for birding, as it makes it hard to hear any calls or chip notes, and most birds are hunkered down themselves.

The weather improved on Wednesday, so Doran and I made plans to go to Sunset Park to look for a Varied Thrush that has been hanging around. This is a rare bird in Las Vegas in the winter, and I had heard about it from Justin Streit, who was also kind enough to send me a map showing its exact location in the park. It was most often seen foraging on the ground near a line of dense shrubs east of the pond, often feeding with doves and blackbirds.

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