The Phalarope and the Jaeger

I had taken Monday off work for personal reasons, and after taking care of a few things at home that morning, I went to Ottawa Beach and Andrew Haydon Park to try and catch up with Ottawa’s latest rare bird: a juvenile Parasitic Jaeger. This bird had been discovered at Shirley’s Bay on September 7, 2011 but has been regularly seen on the Ottawa River between the Britannia Yacht Club and Dick Bell Park this past weekend. An approachable, long-staying Red-necked Phalarope and a small flock of Black-bellied Plovers at Ottawa Beach tempted me to brave the bus to see whether I could find any of these birds.

Because I walked from the Bayshore transit station along Holly Acres Road to the park, I started my visit at the east end of Andrew Haydon Park. I followed Graham Creek to its mouth, checking the shrubs for warblers and migrants, and finding very little. I went down to the sandy shoreline but saw no shorebirds on the west side of the creek; however, a couple of people with spotting scopes on Ottawa Beach sparked my curiosity, so I tried to see if I could find a way across the creek without having to walk all the way back to the bridge.

Although there were a couple of “islands” in the middle of the creek, I could only make my way out to the first one using a make-shift bridge of tree limbs. I noticed a blackbird probing the muck at the water’s edge, and paused to identify it; it was a male Rusty Blackbird!

Rusty Blackbird

Winter-plumage male Rusty Blackbirds have pale yellow eyes and a buffy eyebrow. The feather tips of the head, breast and back are rusty and are darker than winter-plumage females. Females are gray-brown and also have rusty feather edges, pale eyes and a bold eyebrow.

A second bird was also probing the shoreline; this one was a shorebird, not a blackbird, and its white eye-ring and long greenish legs identified it as a Solitary Sandpiper.

Solitary Sandpiper

As there was no way across to the other side of the creek from the island where I was watching the sandpiper and the Rusty Blackbird, I turned around and headed back the way I came. I noticed a large darner fly past me and land on a shrub; the “walking cane” shaped thoracic stripe confirms its identity as a Shadow Darner.

Shadow Darner

To my surprise, the Rusty Blackbird flew over to my side of the creek and began walking along the water’s edge. I slowly followed him as he foraged along the shore, and twice he chased a large grasshopper that flew out from beneath him, though he had no success with either.

Rusty Blackbird

The Rusty Blackbird is one of North America’s most rapidly declining species. The population has plunged an estimated 85-99 percent over the past forty years, but scientists have not yet discovered the cause of this decline. They breed in wooded swamps in the boreal forest and spend the winter in swamps, wet woodlands, and pond edges in the eastern U.S., gathering together in small flocks. This fellow, however, was all alone.

Like most members of the blackbird family, the Rusty Blackbird undergoes only one molt per year in the late summer when it develops its rusty colouration. In the spring, the rust-colored feather tips of its “winter plumage” wear, off leaving behind the smooth black or gray “breeding plumage”.

Also similar to other blackbirds, the Rusty Blackbird forages on ground, often in flocks. It wades in water, as this one was doing, and flips over leaves and twigs to look for insects hiding beneath. While it dines mostly on insects and plant matter, it sometimes attacks and eats other birds. This species has been documented feeding on sparrows, robins, and snipe, among others.

Eventually the blackbird flew up into the trees, so I continued on my way across the shoreline and back up to Andrew Haydon Park. I found a small flock of warblers – mostly Yellow-rumps – flitting about in a group of conifers, and this large groundhog watched me warily as I crossed the lawn.

Groundhog

Near the bridge across Graham Creek I heard a crow making a peculiar noise. I walked up to the tree in which he was perching to find out what he was complaining about, and noticed a Cooper’s Hawk sitting on the same branch about four feet away! When the hawk saw me, it flew to another, larger tree and landed in what sounded like a patch of dead leaves. When I followed it, I realized he was going after a couple of squirrels, which fled the nest of twigs and dead leaves and scurried away to safety.

After that encounter I walked across the bridge and out onto the mudflats of Ottawa Beach. I met Bruce Di Labio and his son on their way to look for the jaeger, and almost immediately he picked up the brownish bird in his scope, bobbing on the river almost too far to see with the naked eye. He also pointed out the Red-necked Phalarope, a cute little bird busily feeding in the small “bay”. The small stripes on his back and the thin, needle-like bill help to identify this small shorebird.

Red-necked Phalarope

A Semipalmated Plover was resting on the mudflats out at the “tip”, and a small Least Sandpiper flew in and then quickly flew out again. These were the only other shorebirds that I saw.

Semipalmated Plover

Meanwhile, the phalarope was delightful to watch. It scurried through the water, chasing after bugs and flies on the water’s surface, sometimes vanishing beneath the surface to grab some tasty morsel on the bottom, sometimes feeding with its bill open beneath the water like a shoveler.

Red-necked Phalarope

Bruce had left when the jaeger decided to harass a group of Ring-billed Gulls. It chased one along the river, and then followed the gull when it flew toward us and right over our heads! I got a really great look at the jaeger as it passed over us, noticing its warm, brownish plumage and the white “panels” in its wings. This is the last jaeger I needed for my life list, and is the one I got the best look at. It’s always satisfying to see a life bird close up, for more than a few seconds, and this one did not disappoint!

  • Lifer #272 Parasitic Jaeger
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