The Loss of an Ottawa Birding Spot?

Woolly Bear Caterpillar

On Sunday Deb and I spent the morning in the west end looking for migrants. Sarsaparilla Trail has hosted a number of excellent birds this fall, so we stopped there first. On Saturday I had seen six Great Egrets, a Merlin, a single Blue-winged Teal, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a Belted Kingfisher, and a single Dark-eyed Junco, and heard a Gray Catbird mewing and a Swamp Sparrow singing, so I was hoping we might have some luck there.

When we arrived, however, the sun was still only a few degrees above the horizon, making the woods seem dark. The temperature was only 9°C, and a cold wind was blowing. I was beginning to wish I’d brought my gloves.

In the open area beyond the parking lot we saw a Northern Flicker, a couple of chickadees and a Red-breasted Nuthatch. The woods were dark and quiet; we didn’t see any birds until a large brown hawk spread its wings and flew off into the trees right in front of us! It must have been sitting on a branch right next to the trail until it heard us coming. I’m guessing it was either one of the Cooper’s Hawks reported here a few weeks ago, or a Sharp-shinned Hawk, as both accipiters are excellent woodland hunters. We didn’t see where it landed.

At the boardwalk we saw an Eastern Phoebe flycatching from a stump at the back of the pond, a Great Blue Heron hunkered down low in the vegetation at the water’s edge, about 30 mallards, and a Northern Harrier. The harrier was flying above the cattails at the southern end of the pond, its white rump clearly visible. This was the first time I’d seen a Northern Harrier here, bringing my list up to 89 species.

From there we headed south to the Moodie Drive quarry pond, passing an American Kestrel on the way. The quarry pond was quiet, with lots of Canada Geese, at least one Ruddy Duck, and a few smaller ducks too far back to identify. There might have been more ducks present, but the sun was casting large silver sparkles on the water and it was difficult to see anything in the southern part of the pond. Next we drove over to the Richmond Lagoons, where we were greeted by a Monarch butterfly flying by in the parking lot. It landed in a sunny spot in the vegetation, basking in the sunshine while it waited to warm up.

Monarch Butterfly

When I’d last visited the Richmond Sewage Lagoons in August, the drought had left all three cells completely dry. Normally there is some water in the first cell, while the second cell is completely full. I was hoping to find some water there after all the rain we’ve had recently, especially since the water levels at both the Ottawa River and the pond at Sarsaparilla Trail have risen lately. The Richmond Lagoons are a great spot to find shorebirds in the early fall and waterfowl in the late fall; no water would mean no birds.

The first thing I noticed was a new observation platform in the corner of the first cell. I have always thought the Richmond Lagoons would be a great place for a tower or a boardwalk like the one at Sarsaparilla, and now a platform has magically appeared!

Observation Platform at Richmond Lagoons

The platform, as cool as it was, looked out over nothing but weeds. Both the first and second cells were completely overgrown with vegetation.

Richmond Lagoons – first cell

This would mean no shorebirds this fall. These lagoons have hosted an incredible assortment of species over the years, including Semipalmated Plover, Solitary Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper and Dunlin. When I visited in July, there was still enough water to attract a large number of Spotted Sandpipers and Killdeer, both of which breed here in the Ottawa area. When the water vanished, so did the birds.

Richmond Lagoons – middle cell

These lagoons have also proven to be a magnet for waterfowl over the years. Dabbling ducks such as American Wigeon, Northern Shovelers, both Blue-winged and Green-winged Teals, Gadwall and Northern Pintails joined the numerous Mallards and Wood Ducks during migration, while diving birds such as Bufflehead, Ring-necked Ducks, Ruddy Ducks and Pied-Billed Grebes foraged for food in the deeper water of the middle cell.

Richmond Lagoons – middle cell

Thousands of Canada Geese used to descend on the ponds during the fall. Last year I spotted a Cackling Goose among them, and a rare Ross’s Goose made an appearance here a few years back. This is what the lagoons looked like last fall:

Canada Geese at the Richmond Lagoons (October 2011)

With no water, however, the lagoons were quiet. While Deb and I were there, a large flock of perhaps 50 European Starlings rose into the air from the vegetation at the southern end of the conservation area and disappeared. Ten or so Blue Jays streamed by in a southwesterly direction, while a single American Pipit flew northwest, calling all the while. With so little to see, Deb and I turned around and went back to the parking lot. Along the way, I stopped to photograph the new trail map someone had posted. I hadn’t realized the trail went all the way around the northwestern section of the conservation area, or that there was a small pond beyond the lagoons. Something to check out another time, I suppose. Still, I worry about the future of this site, particularly since the last cell dried up a few years ago and never recovered. Even if we had another winter like the one of 2007-08 with a near-record snowfall accumulation of 432 cm, would that be enough to restore the ponds to their former state? It would sadden me to lose this site, especially since these lagoons are the closest ones to where I live.

Trail map at Richmond Lagoons

Deb and I were happy to find that the ponds at Jack Pine Trail were full of water again. One of the ponds has become choked with cattails, while the other is now about half of the size it used to be due to the encroaching vegetation. A few ducks had returned, but the trail was fairly quiet overall. Whether this was because of the cool, windy conditions or whether there were just few birds around, I am not sure. Our best birds at Jack Pine Trail were a Swainson’s Thrush and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. White-throated Sparrows were foraging on the ground and we heard a few Golden-crowned Kinglets up in the trees. There is still too much foliage to see them. We also spotted a Woolly Bear caterpillar munching on a leaf right next to the trail.

Woolly Bear Caterpillar

We decided to call it a day after finishing our walk at Jack Pine. Even though it wasn’t quite lunch time, I was tired and we had both had enough of the wind. Hopefully by the time the next weekend rolls around a new wave of migrants will have arrived and there will be more to see!

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2 thoughts on “The Loss of an Ottawa Birding Spot?

  1. On the basis of your story, my wife and I went and spent Friday morning at the Richmond Lagoon, maybe not what it was, but certainly worth the visit. We even saw the wooly bear caterpillars. We have been to Sarsaparilla, but after seeing Coyotes on the other side of the pond from the observation platform, we have been avoiding it. I wanted to say that we are very much enjoying your website! Thanks!

    • Hi Victor! Thanks for visiting my blog and for commenting! Glad you enjoyed your visit to Richmond Lagoons even without the water.

      Sarsaparilla Trail is one of my favourite trails close to home, and although I visit it regularly I have never seen a coyote there. I would love to see one – though from a safe distance! The only coyote I’ve ever come face-to-face with (at Jack Pine Trail around the corner) melted into the woods when we met on the trail; I think most animals would prefer to avoid humans than confront them. But yeah, if there was a group of them, I would be concerned, too.

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