The year 2010 was proclaimed the International Year of Biodiversity, and, keeping in with this theme, it was a fantastic one for seeing a variety of wildlife. I added new amphibians, birds, butterflies, dragonflies and mammals to my life lists and encountered many other wonderful creatures in my travels.
I wasn’t able to get out as often as I had hoped, and fell short of my goal of reaching 200 bird species in the in the Ottawa area. When I did go out, I usually stayed pretty close to home, visiting favourite west end trails and parks such as Jack Pine Trail, Mud Lake, Andrew Haydon Park, Shirley’s Bay, and the Richmond Lagoons. I never made it to Petrie Island or the Baxter Conservation Area at all in the warmer months of the year, and visited the airport twice and the Cedar Grove Nature Trail in Marlborough Forest only once.
I tallied 191 bird species in total for 2010, and only 175 in the Ottawa area. A few notable misses include Snow Goose, Surf Scoter, Sharp-shinned Hawk (due to my inability to distinguish accipiters from a distance; I did see a number of these woodland hawks during the course of the year which I couldn’t identify), Northern Shrike, Tennessee Warbler, Northern Waterthrush and Rusty Blackbird. As well, the winter of 2009-2010 was not a good one for visiting winter species such as owls and finches. My attempts to keep year lists for other types of wildlife met with failure, and one of my goals for 2011 is to keep better lists of mammals, amphibians, insects, etc. that I see during the year.
Nevertheless, I had many amazing encounters in the past year. In fact, I couldn’t limit myself to my favourite ten or twelve moments of the year, so instead I am listing my top 20 favourite moments.
Here, then, are my top 20 favourite moments of 2010…
1. A Two-Owl day at the Arboretum
Deb and I went to the Arboretum in mid-January to track down a Great Horned Owl which had been roosting in the same area for a few days. Not long after we arrived, the resident crows began cawing and squawking in outraged agitation, and when we located the crows we found the Great Horned Owl sitting among them! This was our first owl of the year, and we were thrilled with this sighting.
We then went to the Fletcher Wildlife Garden next door, and after walking around for a while we heard another mob of crows sending up a raucous chorus. This time it wasn’t a Great Horned Owl, but a Barred Owl they were attacking. This was even more thrilling for me, as I was able to take my first good photos of this species. It was also only the second time in Ottawa where I’d seen two owl species in one day, so finding the unexpected Barred Owl was definitely a treat!
2. Hand-feeding the Deer at the Old Quarry Trail
The Old Quarry Trail is one of the best places to find tame White-tailed Deer, so I decided to spend a morning there in mid-February. Mammals were less difficult to find than birds, for a change, and I encountered three live porcupines and a number of deer along the trail.
The deer were just as tame as I had heard, for a couple of them began feeding on seed tossed on the ground for the chickadees only a few feet from where I stood. One doe in particular was very bold. I had pulled my baggie out of my pocket so I could give them the rest of the seed, but she didn’t seem to want to wait and began sniffing at the baggie! So I thought, why not just leave the seed in my hand and see if she will take it? I was amazed and elated when she did, and fed her the rest of the seeds from my hand. It was one of the most fantastic experiences I’ve had with these beautiful creatures, and I felt awed and privileged to have earned this doe’s trust.
3. Walking among frogs
On an unseasonably warm day in early April, I met Chris Bruce at the Nortel Woods near Carling and Moodie. We had a fun walk together, encountering not only garter snakes and chipmunks, but also my first butterfly (a Mourning Cloak) of the year.
The goal of our trip was a large wet area with about a foot of standing water; here a large number of Chorus Frogs had begun their courtship displays and were calling in a deafening chorus. Although Chris was wearing rubber boots, I was not, and I watched enviously as he waded into the water to try and see the tiny Chorus Frogs up close. As the day was quite warm, I figured it would be worth getting wet to see a Chorus Frog for the first time, so I took off my socks and rolled up my pants and waded in. Although the frogs stopped calling when we entered the water, they eventually began calling again a few minutes later, tentatively at first, and then gustily as more and more joined in. Then they became visible only because of the constant swelling and collapsing of the vocal sac beneath the chin. I was thrilled to witness this wonderful display, and spent about half an hour watching and photographing these marvelous little frogs.
Western Chorus Frog
4. The first life-bird of 2010
Late in the winter of 2010, an Eastern Screech Owl was discovered at Mud Lake. As it was frequently seen roosting at the entrance of the same tree cavity, news of its presence spread. These owls, while not very common in Ottawa, are very difficult to see because they blend in so well with the tree bark when perched. It took me three attempts to find it, and on the third attempt it was the presence of about five or six photographers clustered in front of the tree that alerted me to the bird’s presence. Sure enough, he was sitting sleepily at the entrance to the hole, looking around from time to time, but not really interested in the people gathered below. I was happy to have finally caught a glimpse of this small owl, as it is the only Ontario owl I hadn’t yet seen….and definitely the cutest!
Eastern Screech Owl
5. The invasion of the Red Admirals
In early May an unusually large number of Red Admirals began passing through the Ottawa region. I saw about 10 on May 2nd, which is ten times the number I’d seen in all of 2009. I later learned that I wasn’t the only one who had seen great numbers of Red Admirals that afternoon. Other members of the OFNC butterfly group reported seeing as many as 30 or 50 Red Admirals in various areas around the Greenbelt, and Ross Layberry, one of the co-authors of “The Butterflies of Canada”, stated that this mass migration of Red Admirals we were apparently experiencing is a very unusual event. I could see why a week later, when driving from Cambridge to Point Pelee – hundreds of these beautiful migratory butterflies were flying in a northerly direction. This phenomenon lasted at least one full month, and I saw Red Admirals on most of my outings during the rest of the summer.
6. A rare Ibis
A trip to southern Ontario in mid-May netted me only four life birds, the best of which was definitely the regionally rare White-faced Ibis. This spectacular member of the heron family had been hanging around Big Creek in Amherstburg for a couple of weeks, is perhaps the easiest rarity I’ve ever chased – the place was easy to find, and the ibis was standing in the water not more than ten feet from the shore! Smaller than the Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets in the area, he had a long, downward curving bill, and was a beautiful sight with all of his iridescent hues of rusty chestnut, purple, green and bronze. I was awed to see this resident of the southwest – the White-faced Ibis breeds in Utah, Nevada, and California and may also be found in coastal Texas and western Louisiana all year round – though I hoped he would safely make his way back home.
7. A close encounter with a pair of Trumpeters
While in southern Ontario my mother and I visited the Luther Marsh Wildlife Management Area about 20 km west of Orangeville. As we were walking along the trail, we noticed two large white birds sleeping next to the path a small distance ahead. When I realized they were swans, I was quite thrilled, never having encountered wild swans so close before. Slowly we walked closer and closer to them, expecting them to take flight at any moment. They knew we were there – occasionally one or the other would raise its head to look at us, then tuck its bill back into its feathers and resume its nap. They showed no inclination to leave, and suddenly I wasn’t worried about disturbing them and causing them to fly away, but whether or not we could safely pass them to continue along the trail. There was water on both sides of the trail now, and even walking at the farthest edge we were still within ten or twelve feet of these large, magnificent birds. To our surprise, the swans allowed us to pass without any fuss or comment, perhaps because they were more interested in dozing beneath the warmth of the sun than in confrontation.
8. Insect Night at Stony Swamp
On May 22, 2010 the OFNC held a night-time insect collecting outing at the Beaver Trail in Stony Swamp. The weather was perfect – warm, calm, and slightly humid. Three sheets were set up in different spots along the wooded trail, each with its own battery-powered black (UV) light to attract the moths and other insects. A few insects, mostly crane flies and a couple of click beetles, began to appear even before the sun had fully set. The most intriguing and colourful moths, on the other hand, arrived later, and we spent the next two hours walking from sheet to sheet to see what the lights had attracted. Some of my favourites included the small green moths known as emeralds, the Close-banded Yellowhorn moths with their bluish tones, white spots, and yellow antennae, the Lappet Moth, the Cattail Borer, the White Slant-Line, and the huge Polyphemus Moth with its distinctive blue and yellow eyespots. This was the first time I had gone mothing at night, and would love to repeat the experience!
Lappet Moth (Phyllodesma americana)
9. The Nortel Woods in late spring
On a hot day at the end of May I revisited the Nortel Woods with my insect net in hand. As I was looking primarily for insects, I didn’t leave home until about noon. I saw my first interesting odonate, an Ebony Jewelwing, less than two minutes after I left the parking lot. Further along the trail, near the open area where I had seen the chorus frogs in April, I found a number of dragonflies patrolling the area. Two of these, the Stream Cruiser and the Midland Clubtail, were lifers for me.
My best find that day was not an insect, however, but a salamander. While walking through the woods back to the parking lot, I noticed a fair-sized piece of wood on the ground. It was such a likely-looking place for a snake or a salamander that I couldn’t resist turning it over….and was wonderfully surprised when, in fact, I did see a dark salamander hiding beneath! I was thrilled to find a Blue-spotted Salamander, as it is a species I’d been wanting to see ever since I saw photos of one.
10. A rare dragonfly
In early June I took part in the Larose Forest BioBlitz, the purpose of which was to find and identify as many different flora and fauna species as possible in one defined area. Professional naturalists and amateur nature enthusiasts may either focus on a particular taxonomic group of interest (for example, just moths or just lichens) or may simply list everything they can identify (which is what I do when I go out birding and butterflying anyway). Almost as soon as I stepped out of the car my attention was snared by a large dragonfly hanging from the plant vegetation in the ditch. At first I thought it was a darner, but once I saw the pattern on its abdomen I knew it was something entirely different, and something which I had never seen before. After checking my field guide, I identified it as an Arrowhead Spiketail. This species is not only rare in the Ottawa area, but also the first record for Larose Forest!
11. The Cedar Grove Nature Trail
I spent a memorable morning at the Cedar Grove Nature Trail in Marlborough Forest late in June. This wonderful place is home to a number of species which are not easily found elsewhere in Ottawa, and among these Marlborough “specialties” I found a pair of Silvery Checkerspots, a Brush-tipped Emerald, a beautiful male Ebony Jewelwing, Mink Frogs, a Dusky Clubtail, and many Frosted and Belted Whitefaces. I also saw a couple of new species, including a pair of Calico Pennants locked in a mating wheel and a Red Eft (the terrestrial form of the Eastern Newt) under a discarded mattress. It was probably the most memorable day of the early summer; I can’t wait to return there next June!
12. Purple Martin Banding
I happened to visit Dick Bell Park one Saturday in July when the banding of this year’s young was taking place. Although the day was unbearably hot and humid, it was amazing to watch the bander take the young nestlings from the martin house and place the narrow bands around their legs. It was also great to watch the adults return to the area with food in their mouths, waiting to feed their offspring; as a result, I got some great photos not just of the nestlings, but also of the adults!
Purple Martin (male)
13. The beaver family
An unusual evening trip to Mud Lake with Deb resulted in an unusual mammal sighting…a family of four beavers actively swimming and eating near a large lodge at the side of the lake. At first only two adults were visible, bringing several large sticks to the lodge. We then realized we could hear muffled cries coming from within the lodge and, shortly after, two baby beavers appeared in the water close to Mom and Dad! We spent an enjoyable half hour watching the two babies feed on the sticks brought by their parents; even though we were pretty close to where they were swimming, they didn’t seem to care that we were there watching them.
14. Common Eiders in Nova Scotia
In early August my fiancé and I spent a week in Nova Scotia. This time we were there chiefly to visit friends and family, so I wasn’t able to get out birding as much as I’d like. However, as we had rented a cottage on the Bay of Fundy I was able to spend a lot of time watching the resident Common Eiders in the mouth of the harbour. During our last evening there, I was surprised to see two eiders swimming right in the harbour, just paddling along and occasionally diving for food. This was the closest I’d ever been to these beautiful sea ducks, and I was thrilled with the excellent views and the chance to finally take some decent photos of this species….especially since they were the only Nova Scotia specialty that I saw during the trip!
15. The melanistic chipmunk
A rare melanistic chipmunk was discovered at the Hilda Road feeders near Shirley’s Bay in mid-July, and shortly after hearing about it I set out to find him. Melanism occurs as a result of an increased amount of dark pigmentation in the skin, feathers, hair or fur of an organism. The chipmunk seen at Shirley’s Bay was completely black, with no stripes or other markings. I was thrilled when I found the chipmunk being fed by a local photographer and sat down to watch. At first glance the chipmunk looked like a tiny black squirrel. However, the body shape and the thin black tail were definitely that of a chipmunk. Although melanism is common in Eastern Gray Squirrels, it is rare in chipmunks and seeing an all-black chipmunk is a once in a lifetime event.
16. Sanderlings at Andrew Haydon Park
Shorebird migration in the fall was generally excellent; however, a lot of good birds didn’t stick around for too long, which meant you had to be in the right place at the right time to see them. One morning when I stopped by Andrew Haydon Park, I didn’t see any shorebirds at first. Then a small flock flew in and began scuttling along the water’s edge. There were seven of them, all very pale, and I was thrilled when I recognize them as Sanderlings. This was only the second time I’d seen Sanderlings in Ottawa, and the first time I’d photographed them here. It was fun to wait about six feet back from the edge of the water, wait for them to run by as they foraged at the water’s edge, and then take as many pictures as possible. They are cute little birds, and I hope to them again next fall.
17. Presqu’ile Provincial Park
Deb and I traveled to Presqu’ile in mid-September for a fabulous day’s birding. We started off the morning at the Marsh Boardwalk trail, where our first bird was a Northern Harrier. I had two insect lifers that day – an Orange Sulphur and a Black Saddlebags – and the warbler and songbird viewing near the Lighthouse was excellent. At the Calf Pasture we saw a juvenile Osprey eating lunch, a couple of butterflies, and a couple of Pied-billed Grebes. The walk to Owen Point was the highlight of the day, with several Monarch butterflies and a couple of Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers. From there we crossed a narrow channel in Lake Ontario to get to Gull Island, where we found more peeps, a pipit, and our only life bird of the day – and one of the main reasons for our trip – a Whimbrel! The weather couldn’t have been any better for watching the birds and insects, and we were so impressed with the migration that we are thinking of making the trip an annual event!
18. Redheads at Andrew Haydon Park
Late in September a pair of Redhead ducks arrived at Andrew Haydon Park and inhabited the man-made ponds for a couple of days. This was the only species of interest to show up in the ponds that fall, and, never having seen these ducks up close, I stopped by one morning to see them. I found them in the eastern pond, where they were fairly easy to spot, being so different from the other ducks present. Although the male was not in its crisp, beautiful breeding plumage, his head still had a rusty sheen that immediately separated him from all the other ducks. I watched them diving in the middle of the pond, and then as they swam close to the shore. The two Redheads were very accommodating, and it was great to finally see this species up close and to take my first photos of them.
19. A Blue-headed Vireo
On a rainy weekend at the end of September, bored with staying indoors, I headed out to Sarsaparilla Trail to see what was around. While I was feeding the chickadees and nuthatches, I was surprised to hear the thin, wiry song of a Blue-headed Vireo. I tracked the singer down in a tree near the outhouse and was further surprised to see a Magnolia Warbler darting among the branches as well! I started pishing to see if either the warbler or the vireo would come closer, and was delighted when the Blue-headed Vireo responded. He came down to the lowest branch of the tree to check me out. These are the best photos I have taken of this species yet, and one of the best views I’ve had of this dynamic little bird to date. I’d never really noticed how beautiful and colourful these vireos really are until that rainy day at Sarsaparilla.
A Blue-headed Vireo
20. American Coots
In mid-October, three American Coots showed up in the marshy bay at the west end of Andrew Haydon Park and stayed for over four weeks. Although I saw them several times, it was my visit with Deb in mid-November which was the most memorable. We walked down into the marsh where we found the juvenile foraging by himself. It was amusing to watch him dive beneath the water and then pop right back up like a cork with a mouthful of vegetation. We then sat at the edge of the marsh for about twenty minutes, taking picture after picture while the coots completely ignored us. The light was beautiful, the coots were cooperative, and it was great just to spend time watching them before they continued on their journey south.
Adult American Coots
The year 2010 was amazing in so many ways. Just as I find it difficult to pick a favourite bird or butterfly, it was difficult for me to pick a favourite moment as I came away from 2010 with so many treasured memories. I was sad to see the International Year of Biodiversity come to an end, but am very much looking forward to seeing what 2011 – The International Year of Forests – brings!
HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYONE!