Andrew Haydon Park is located in the city’s west end on a wide section of the Ottawa River known as Lac Deschênes. It is accessed via two entrances on Carling Avenue. The western entrance leads to a heavily-used recreational park dominated by manicured lawns, a bandshell for outdoor concerts, a picnic area, and two artificial ponds. A man-made waterfall adds to its charm, and Stillwater Creek flows into a small marsh at its western boundary. The area accessed by the eastern entrance is smaller and more heavily treed. While there are some picnic tables and a playground close to the parking area, this half of the park is more secluded, more sheltered, and is much better for songbirds. An unofficial path leads to the mouth of Graham Creek and the area known to birders as Ottawa Beach.
If you are looking for water birds, Ottawa Beach – and the western half of Andrew Haydon Park, to a lesser extent – is THE place to go.
Unlike the trails of Stony Swamp which I’ve written about previously, Andrew Haydon Park is best visited when the water of the Ottawa River is free of ice. Indeed, the parking lots are closed off during the winter with barricades, preventing access to the park. While spring migration can be good for early waterfowl returning, late summer and fall provide the most spectacular birding. Not only do lower water levels attract shorebirds and other species which prefer mudflats and shallow marshes, a large number of waterfowl stage here in the fall, lingering for days or weeks while they fatten up for the journey south. However, once the cold weather arrives sometime in December and the river freezes over, the birds all depart – as do the birders.
Of all the 106 bird species I’ve recorded at Andrew Haydon Park, almost 25% are ducks, geese and other waterfowl. Lac Deschênes, which is a little more than two miles wide at its widest point, attracts a good number of diving species. Bring your scope – you will need it to see the Long-tailed Ducks, all three scoter species, Common Goldeneyes, Common Loons, Horned Grebes and Red-necked Grebes that can be found here in October and November. Closer to shore, often in the area between the marsh at the mouth of Stillwater Creek and the entrance to the Nepean Sailing Club marina, one can find Bufflehead, all three mergansers, Greater and Lesser Scaup, and Ring-necked Ducks.
Dabbling ducks also gather here in the fall. Some, such as mallards, American Black Ducks and Wood Ducks can be found in the ponds and along the shore throughout the summer, while American Wigeon, Northern Pintails, Blue-winged Teal and Green-winged Teal only show up in the late summer and fall. The ponds sometimes provide excellent views of many of these migrants and summer breeders, and have hosted pintails, both teals, Bufflehead, Lesser Scaup, all three mergansers, Double-crested Cormorants, and once even a pair of Redheads!
Six species of goose regularly pass through Ottawa, and of these only Ross’s Goose has not been seen at Andrew Haydon Park. Greater White-fronted Goose is the rarest and the only one I haven’t seen at this park (indeed, I still need this species for my life list). Canada Geese breed here, and small, yellow goslings can often be found swimming on the ponds or following their parents across the lawns. In the fall, Snow Geese and Cackling Geese are occasionally seen among the thousands of Canada Geese which stage here. It is an amazing sight to see so many birds carpeting the water of the Ottawa River from Stillwater Creek all the way to Lakeside Gardens.
Brant pass through in the spring but are more reliable in the fall. Large flocks gather on the river, usually much further out than the Canada Geese. A few individuals can sometimes be found grazing on the manicured lawns of Andrew Haydon Park or Dick Bell Park next door.
By August, low water levels along the Ottawa river create vast expanses of mudflats at Ottawa Beach and in the marsh at the mouth of Stillwater Creek. Shorebird migration occurs from July through November, with peak numbers occurring in late August and September. Killdeer, Semipalmated Plovers, Semipalmated Sandpipers and Least Sandpipers are common on the mudflats and along the river’s edge during the fall, and both yellowlegs can be found here or along the pond edges as well. Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers are more likely to be seen foraging along the edges of the two creeks. Other shorebird species that are usually seen every year include Black-bellied Plover, American Golden-Plover, Baird’s Sandpiper and Pectoral Sandpiper.
It’s the chance of finding something unusual or seeing a rarity, however, that makes frequent visits to Andrew Haydon Park in the fall a must. Red Knots pass through the Ottawa River Valley in small numbers during migration, but rarely touch down here. I’ve only seen two, when individuals stopped over at Ottawa Beach on September 1, 2007 and September 7, 2008. Last fall, 17 Hudsonian Godwits – another species which rarely stops over in Ottawa – spent the first week of October along the Ottawa River, dividing their time between Shirley’s Bay and Ottawa Beach.
A Ruddy Turnstone showed up here on September 1, 2007 – a life bird for me. A Wilson’s Snipe in the marsh at the west end of Andrew Haydon Park on October 15, 2006 was another life bird for me; I think I’ve gotten more life birds at Ottawa Beach than anywhere else in Ottawa, with the possible exception of Mud Lake. Other shorebirds I have seen here include seven Sanderlings on September 11, 2010, a single Dunlin in the western pond in November 2008, a Purple Sandpiper along the rocky shoreline of the river in November 2011, and a Red-necked Phalarope in September 2011.
Gulls and Other Water Birds
The large expanse of lawns at Andrew Haydon Park attracts gulls as well as geese. Ring-billed Gulls are found in large numbers in the summer and fall, but later in the autumn the occasional Herring Gull sometimes joins them. An adult Bonaparte’s Gull was a surprise find in July 2008. Juveniles and adults in non-breeding plumage usually pass through in the fall, but this was the first time I’d seen an adult in breeding plumage up close.
Great Black-backed Gulls show up in large numbers on the river in late summer and fall. Less common, though usually present in very small numbers every year, are Iceland Gull, Glaucous Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull. In September 2011, a rare juvenile Sabine’s Gull spent at least a week on the mudflats east of Ottawa Beach.
Andrew Haydon Park is a repeat site for Common Terns late in the summer; they are often seen hunting over the river or the western pond. In 2010 a pair of adults spent some time teaching a juvenile to hunt for fish in the river.
This section of the river is one of the best spots to look for jaegers. These hawk-like seabirds are closely related to terns and gulls, but have a much different method of finding food. Instead of catching their own food, jaegers steal food from gulls, terns and other seabirds by pursuing them on the wing and forcing them to release the small fish or other food they are carrying. Attacks are fierce and often involve pursuit from behind, swoops from below, or steep dives from above. This method of obtaining food is known as kleptoparasitism, and I have witnessed it only once, at Ottawa Beach in September 2011 when a Parasitic Jaeger chased a gull right above my head. A Long-tailed Jaeger spent two days here as well in August 2007.
Other fish-eating birds that hunt the waters of Andrew Haydon Park include herons and Belted Kingfishers. Great Blue Herons are a common fixture along the creek beds, at the pond edges, or in the marsh from any time after the breeding season to freeze-up. Many juveniles come here to feed, and sometimes as many as half a dozen birds can be found throughout the park. Green Herons and Black-crowned Night-Herons are also regular visitors, although they are more likely to be found along Graham Creek. Great Egrets have also become more common in Ottawa in recent years; the marsh at the west end of Andrew Haydon Park is a prime spot to look for them in late summer.
Although the marsh is not large enough to provide a home for any breeding rails, in the fall of 2010 three American Coots (two adults and a juvenile) spent a couple of weeks here. It was fun to watch them dive to the bottom of the marsh and then bob back up to the surface with vegetation clamped in their bills. Although I hoped they would stay until the December freeze-up, they disappeared sometime in mid-November.
With so many ducks, shorebirds, gulls, and other birds making Andrew Haydon Park home from spring through the winter freeze-up, it is no wonder that this section of the Ottawa River is prime hunting ground for many different birds of prey. Although all three falcon species have been recorded winging their way along the river in search of easy prey, I have yet to record any at Andrew Haydon Park. However, last fall I found a Cooper’s Hawk being harassed by a crow, and the year before I witnessed an adult Bald Eagle harassing the ducks and herons in the marsh at the western end of the park. The eagle already had something in its bill when it caused the Blue- and Green-Winged Teals to scatter by flying low over the water toward them; it then turned and headed north toward Gatineau.
Turkey Vultures are frequently seen in the late summer and fall, either soaring in the skies above the river or feeding on gull or duck carcasses on the mud flats. On one memorable occasion a pair of vultures were found on a raccoon carcass on the mudflats. The first vulture flew off when I and a few birders approached them, but the second one stayed, resulting in my best shots of this species to date.
Not surprisingly, few birders visit Andrew Haydon Park in the summer to seek out breeding songbirds. While common birds such as Red-winged Blackbirds and Song Sparrows nest in the park, the one notable species I’ve seen there is the Rough-winged Swallow. In 2007 a group of these swallows nested along Stillwarter Creek in the walls of the tunnel that runs beneath Carling Avenue. This was a life bird for me, and I happily watched them flying in and out of the holes that line the walls of the tunnel. However, that was the only year I saw them there, as the next couple of years the water levels were too high for them to access those holes.
Late summer and fall is a better time to see different passerine species as birds are either dispersing from their breeding grounds or beginning to migrate south. In the late summer several different swallow species can be seen hawking for insects over the water, including Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows, and the Purple Martins which nest at Dick Bell Park close by. The post-breeding dispersal phenomenon would also explain the Eastern Meadowlark I found on the lawn near Graham Creek in July 2010.
The shrubs along Graham Creek and the large trees between the creek and Ottawa Beach attract their fair share of migrants, and while checking the park for water birds in the fall I’ve encountered Black-and-white Warblers, Nashville Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, American Redstarts, Northern Parulas, Palm Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Black-throated Green Warblers, Golden- and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, White-throated Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Eastern Phoebes, and Cedar Waxwings.
All of these birds are readily found at Mud Lake, Hurdman Park, Shirley’s Bay, and other green spaces in the city; it is usually not worth visiting Andrew Haydon Park just to find warblers, thrushes, flycatchers and other passerines in migration. However, the sandy shoreline attracts some of the harder to find songbirds in the fall, such as Rusty Blackbirds, American Pipits and Horned Larks. My best photo of a Horned Lark to date was taken at Ottawa Beach.
Mammals and Other Wildlife
Andrew Haydon Park is not a prime spot for observing butterflies or dragonflies, although interesting species sometimes show up on occasion – such as the Prince Baskettails foraging over the eastern pond late last summer or Monarch butterflies flying over the shoreline. Painted Turtles sometimes bask on the large rocks at the edge of the western pond, and I’ve seen a large Snapping Turtle lurking beneath the water’s surface on more than one occasion.
It is a rare occasion, on the other hand, when I don’t see two or three different mammal species during a visit in the summer. Chipmunks, both Red and Eastern Grey Squirrels, and even the groundhogs are almost tame. Eastern Cottontails forage on the lawns and muskrats can be found in the ponds and in the marsh. At least one Short-tailed Weasel makes its home along the rocky shore of Andrew Haydon Park; I’ve seen one threading its way through the rocks on three different occasions, although not recently.
Other mammals are more difficult to see but make themselves known by the tracks they leave in the mud. Raccoons stop by the water’s edge quite frequently, for although I’ve never seen one, I’ve found their tracks in the mud. On one memorable day I found a pair of mink tracks following the edge of the water marching in the opposite direction of the raccoon.
Now that spring is here and the river is ice-free I plan on returning to Andrew Haydon Park again soon. Unfortunately, I recently learned that the city had to cut down somewhere between 500 and 1,000 ash trees infested with emerald ash borer beetles around the park this month; while the city plans to inject a few of the ash trees with TreeAzin, the one chemical known to kill ash borers, trees will be saved in only in a few spots such as the children’s play areas. I haven’t visited the park yet, and dread seeing the results of this purge. However, waterfowl migration is already underway, songbirds are returning, the groundhogs are emerging from their burrows, and it will be good to spend some time by the river again.