I took the day after Thanksgiving off work, and the bright sunshine and clear blue skies enticed me to go out and look for a couple of birds I hadn’t seen yet this fall. The first was the Orange-crowned Warbler, a drab species which rarely shows its orange crown and migrates later than most warblers. They are less common in the east than in the west, and I usually manage to pick up one each year in the fall – never in the spring. This year I haven’t seen any. The second was the Fox Sparrow, also a bird that is typically found in October. I normally find them in the woods of Stony Swamp, foraging on the ground with flocks of White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. It was a beautiful morning for a walk in the woods, and I headed over to Sarsaparilla Trail first.
Although I found a few White-throated Sparrows and a large flock of Dark-eyed Juncos feeding in the woods, I didn’t see any Fox Sparrows among them. A Brown Creeper singing somewhere close by was a surprise, as was the lack of diversity of waterfowl on the pond – two Hooded Mergansers were the only other ducks amongst the numerous mallards and Canada Geese.
I headed over to Jack Pine Trail next, and while I did see five species of sparrow, the Fox Sparrow wasn’t among them. I found a couple of groups of White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos in the woods, and one Swamp and one Song Sparrow along the boardwalks. There were probably more, but I wasn’t able to identify all of the little brown birds that flew off into the cattails upon my approach. One of them landed in a bare tree instead and I was able to identify it as a White-crowned Sparrow.
On my walk I came across at least five White-breasted Nuthatches and two Red-breasted Nuthatches, all of which came flying up to me for food. I put some seeds on top of the boardwalk railing and photographed one of the Red-breasted Nuthatches, a male as evidenced by the black cap.
In the woods I saw one Brown Creeper and heard a Blue-headed Vireo singing. I wasn’t able to locate the vireo as he was perched high up in the canopy and fell silent whenever I got too close. The autumn leaves, however, were gorgeous.
There were several ducks at the first boardwalk, including two American Black Ducks. I hate how the pond is filling in with cattails, but at least there is enough water here to attract some birds. There is barely any open water left at the middle boardwalk….I remember seeing muskrats and a Northern Water Snake in previous years, as well as shorebirds and Common Gallinules. In this photo you can see how the cattails have crowded against the small observation platform at the bend.
The day had warmed up enough for a few dragonflies to be flying. The only species I saw was the yellow-legged Autumn Meadowhawk, the last dragonfly on the wing in Ottawa with a flight season that sometimes lasts into November.
I left Jack Pine Trail without seeing any Fox Sparrows or Orange-crowned Warblers, so I drove up to the river to look for grebes and waterfowl. I found three Red-necked Grebes in the middle of the river, several Green-winged Teals close to shore, and a couple hundred Canada Geese in between. There were no egrets in the marsh, but one Great Blue Heron was standing on the island in the eastern pond, preening and watching for fish.
A trip to the boat launch at Shirley’s Bay proved even less productive, so I decided a trip to the Hilda Road feeders was in order. I haven’t been there in a while, and I was hoping it would be quiet as it was a weekday. I was also hoping to find a Fox Sparrow here as I had seen one here before a couple of years ago. When I arrived I saw a couple of Red-winged Blackbirds, a couple of chickadees, a White-breasted Nuthatch, and an American Robin in the feeder tree. I also saw several sparrows – and all of them were White-crowned or White-throated Sparrows!
I wasn’t surprised that there were no Fox Sparrows here, but I was a bit surprised to see no Song Sparrows or Dark-eyed Juncos. The White-crowned Sparrows were a treat, and both juveniles and adults were present. Adults have crisp black and white stripes on their head, while juveniles have gray and rusty-brown stripes. They have a gentle look about them which is evident in both plumages.
The warm weather (it had reached 15°C) had encouraged the sparrows to sing; I heard a couple of White-crowned Sparrows and one White-throated Sparrow singing somewhere near the feeders. Hearing the song of the White-crowned Sparrow thrilled me as I only hear it occasionally during spring migration. This species breeds up in the Arctic tundra and along the treeline adjacent to Hudson’s Bay, where it sings persistently throughout the day and intermittently during the night, so the only time I see this sparrow is on its journey between its breeding ground in the north and wintering grounds in the southern U.S. Interestingly, White-crowned Sparrows will share their territories with Fox Sparrows, but not with Chipping Sparrows or Dark-eyed Juncos; it will chase both of these species away until they leave.
The song of the White-throated Sparrow was much more familiar, as this species breeds throughout the Canadian shield in Ontario. Both males and females sing, especially those with a white-striped head (shown above); males and females with a tan-striped head sing less than their counterparts, with the tan-striped females singing only rarely. Mated pairs typically consist of one bird of each colour morph.
I enjoyed watching the sparrows feeding and chasing each other away; perhaps one or two will even attempt to overwinter here as they have in the past!