It’s a brand new year: 2012 is here, and 2011 is just a memory. Not an entirely unpleasant memory, for I ended up with 13 life birds in Ontario this past year and experienced a rather spectacular fall migration in Ottawa. A trip to MacGregor Point Provincial Park with my mother in May, two trips to Presqu’ile Provincial Park in the fall, and a day trip to Algonquin Park in October were about the extent of my birding travels in 2011; this does not include a camping trip to Algonquin with my fiancé and my father in July. It was a decent summer for butterflies and dragonflies, too, and I saw more minks this year than I could have imagined.
My first life bird of the year came on January 1st: an adult Northern Goshawk at Jack Pine Trail. He was sitting in the middle of the trail eating a bird when I startled him; fortunately, when he flew off he landed on a branch close enough for me to identify him. Last winter was a good winter for Common Redpolls but few other northern finches or owls. A trip to the Casselman area with my birding partner, Deb, proved unsuccessful for Snowy Owls, although a large flock of about 200 Snow Buntings, at least one Horned Lark, and about half a dozen Lapland Longspurs (a species which can be difficult to find here in Ottawa) was worth the trip. My favourite birds from the month, however, were a pair of owls: a Northern Hawk Owl spending the winter in Low, Quebec and a Barred Owl in the woods behind the former Nortel campus.
Northern Hawk Owl
In February, a male Barrow’s Goldeneye and an overwintering Hermit Thrush were regularly seen at Hurdman Park. Mammal highlights include a coyote along Milton Road in the east end (the only one I saw all year) and several tame deer at the Old Quarry Trail. An unusual winter visit to the Bill Mason Center was notable only for a single Ruffed Grouse and a Northern Shrike; I had expected more variety but was disappointed. The best birds seen this month were a male Northern Pintail and a female American Wigeon at an open section of the Rideau River in Manotick, two species which do not typically overwinter in Ottawa.
In March I saw my first mink of the year, running in the ditch along Shea Road. I managed to take two photos before it disappeared; they were good enough to confirm my first mink sighting ever! Deb and I found our first Eastern Bluebird of the year at the parking lot of the Mer Bleue boardwalk, and later that same day we saw a pair of Ross’s Geese near Twin Elm thanks to an Ontbirds report!
Waterfowl and shorebird migration, which typically start in March as soon as the snow melts, seemed to have skipped Ottawa this past spring; there were no flooded fields for them to congregate in, and the Ottawa River was unusually high.
Just as spring was returning to North America, my brother found out his bone marrow transplant had failed. He died of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia on April 11, 2011, just eight days before his 24th birthday. I found solace in nature, and began spending as much time outdoors as possible.
An unusually early Black-crowned Night-heron turned up at Mud Lake on April 3rd. Other species arrived as expected, although a trip to Shirley’s Bay late in the month proved memorable – not only did I see another mink and my first Horned Grebe, Red-necked Grebe, Rusty Blackbird and Bald Eagle of the year, this was the first time I’d ever had Rusty Blackbird in the spring and heard one singing! The highlight of the month, however, belongs to the April 30th outing at Constance Bay. Jeff Skevington led an OFNC nature outing there, and we saw a lot of spring firsts, including my first Upland Sandpiper and Red-shouldered Hawk in a couple of years. We also saw an Olympia Marble butterfly, my first butterfly lifer of the year.
May was an incredible month. The 1st fell on a weekend, and I tallied 49 species on that day alone. Mud Lake proved to be fantastic for warblers, and one day I counted 12 species alone, including Common Yellowthroat, a singing Tennessee Warbler and a Cape May Warbler. A rainy-day outing to Monaghan Forest proved memorable when I found a Blue-spotted Salamander and a group of warblers including my first ever male Bay-breasted Warbler in spring plumage.
I didn’t see any odonates until May 21st when I visited Roger’s Pond; it was finally warm enough for several bluets, emeralds and skimmers to be flying. A trip to Mer Bleue the following day resulted in a new dragonfly (Ebony Boghaunter) and butterfly (Brown Elfin) for my life lists.
During the last weekend in May my mother and I attended the Huron Fringe Birding Festival at MacGregor Point Provincial Park. We saw several new flowers, a dragonfly emerging from its exuvia, four water snakes, a new butterfly (Hoary Elfin) and two life birds: Mourning Warbler and Blue-winged Warbler. I also heard my first Least Bittern along the Tower Trail, though we couldn’t see him. Other highlights from our trip included a visit to Chantry Island where we saw nesting egrets, Great Blue Herons, cormorants and Herring Gulls; and a trip to Sauble Beach where we saw the nesting Piping Plovers.
Herring Gull chick
The highlight of the month was unquestionably the trip two fellow OFNC members and I took to Quebec to look for butterflies and dragonflies. We started the day at Monty’s Bog where we found our target butterfly, the rare and local Bog Fritillary. Monty’s Bog is the only known location in the Ottawa District where this butterfly can be found. We also saw several Elfin Skimmers, the smallest North American dragonfly, and a Pickerel Frog.
We stopped at Chemin Sincennes in Gatineau Park where I added Atlantis Fritillary to my butterfly life list and saw a Broad-winged Hawk soaring overhead. A meadow along the Equestrian Trail near Luskville Falls proved much more productive with a Silver-spotted Skipper (a lifer!) and Baltimore Checkerspot being the most interesting butterflies, and male Crimson-ringed and Hudsonian Whitefaces being the most interesting dragonflies. We also saw a Midland Clubtail and both River and Ebony Jewelwings. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect for our insect outing!
Insects again were the highlight of the month. I spent both July 2nd and 3rd at Petrie Island, where I made two startling discoveries: the first was that a colony of Blue Dashers, a species only seen in the Ottawa area once before, had established itself here; and the second was a Unicorn Clubtail which I photographed along the trail – the first record of this species in Ottawa! Other species seen at Petrie Island included a mink running along the path, Hackberry Emperor, Hickory and Acadian Hairstreaks, Crossline Skipper, Elegant Spreadwing and Slaty Skimmer.
Female Blue Dasher
A visit to the Burnt Lands alvar near Panmure was also productive. I found one new dragonfly, a Black-tipped Darner, and two new butterflies: Peck’s Skipper and Meadow Fritillary. Many other butterfly species were present as well, making this the second-best butterfly outing of the summer.
Finally, my fiancé and I spent four days at Algonquin Park at the end of the July. We heard a Hermit Thrush and Winter Wren singing almost every morning, and saw a couple of butterflies (Compton Tortoiseshell and Green Comma) in our campsite. The Whiskey Rapids Trail was a terrific place to find dragonflies, and I saw three lifers there: Zebra Clubtail, Rusty Snaketail, and Swift River Cruiser.
August was a good month for shorebirds. Extremely low water levels along the Ottawa River meant that there was plenty of habitat at Shirley’s Bay and Ottawa Beach. On August 6th I went to Shirley’s Bay and saw one Caspian Tern, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Least Sandpipers, one Semipalmated Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpipers, Killdeer, one Semipalmated Plover, Solitary Sandpipers, Spotted Sandpipers, a Short-billed Dowitcher, a White-rumped Sandpiper and three Wilson’s Snipe. I also got two life birds that day. One was an American Woodcock in the woods which flushed when we walked right by it; the other was (finally!!!) three adorable Sora chicks on the grassy spit. Although I’ve heard this bird many times, this was the first time I’d actually seen one. Interestingly, I also saw about 7 Blue Dashers along the dyke as well.
Later in the month I made my second trip to the Morris Island Conservation Area west of Ottawa. There are some really neat dragonflies here, and I added two new ones to my life list – Black-shouldered Spinyleg and Halloween Pennant. I also saw a couple of new butterflies at the Bill Mason Center: Common Buckeye, which is rare in Ottawa, and Leonard’s Skipper.
September was a fabulous month for warblers. On some days I tallied a dozen species, although the highlight for me was not one, but two different Canada Warblers singing in two different conservation areas on the same day! Blackburnian Warblers, Tennessee Warblers, and Black-throated Blue Warblers were also good finds in places like Mud Lake and Stony Swamp.
Deb and I spent a day at Presqu’ile. We didn’t see a lot of species of birds, but we had an incredible time watching the shorebirds along Owen Point. The insects were more memorable. Deb saw her first Common Buckeye, and I saw my first Fiery Skipper. I also got my first photos of the Black Saddlebags dragonfly – a tough dragon to capture given that it spends most of its time in the air.
That month the first of many rarities showed up along the Ottawa river – first a Parasitic Jaeger, then a juvenile Sabine’s Gull. Both were lifers for me.
Juvenile Sabine’s Gull
Deb and I spent October 1st at Algonquin Park. We only saw three Boreal species – Gray Jay, Spruce Grouse, and Boreal Chickadee – and they were the highlight of our trip. More rarities arrived in Ottawa, notably large flocks of Hudsonian Godwits, several Nelson’s Sparrows, and Ottawa’s first-ever Razorbill, all of which were life birds for me. I also added a new dragonfly to my life list – Elusive Clubtail – which I wasn’t expecting. Late in the month I discovered a flock of about 200 Snow Geese near the Moodie Drive quarry pond; these birds stayed well into December.
On October 23rd, my Ottawa year list reached 200 with the addition of a female Long-tailed Duck. This was the first time I had ever reached 200 species in Ottawa in a single year, and I was quite happy with this record!
In November I spent a lot of time at Andrew Haydon Park. Early in the month a number of different species of waterfowl began visiting the ponds, including Brant, Lesser Scaup, Green-winged Teal, and Red-breasted Merganser. A Barred Owl at the Old Quarry Trail was another highlight for me, and a Purple Sandpiper at Andrew Haydon Park was my last life bird of the year.
The month of December was relatively mild, but even so the last lingering migrants began to disappear. A Glaucous Gull at Ottawa Beach and a Snowy Owl at Dick Bell Park were great finds; a male Canvasback near Petrie Island and an American Coot at Billings Bridge were the last two year birds for 2011. I was also happy to discover two beavers at Billings Bridge, as I hadn’t seen any in Ottawa all year.
A Barred Owl at Sarsaparilla Trail on December 31st was a terrific way to end the year; this was the first owl I’d ever seen at this trail before.
Although I didn’t keep track of the number of butterflies or odonates I saw all year, I finally updated my life lists for these insects. My butterfly life list now stands at 70 species; my damselfly life list now stands at 25 species; and my dragonfly life list now stands at 50 species.
Altogether I saw a total of 207 birds in the Ottawa-Gatineau area last year, my highest total ever. I finished the year with 221 species, all of them except the Northern Hawk Owl seen in Ontario. I missed some notable birds, including Ottawa’s first-ever White-faced Ibis, a Western Meadowlark, and my new nemesis, the Greater White-fronted Goose. Easy misses included Great Horned Owl, Iceland Gull, Bank and Cliff Swallows, and Redhead.
My life list now stands at 277 species; with a trip to Jasper, Alberta planned for July 2012, perhaps the addition of some western birds will help me reach 300!