The best place in Ottawa to see the greatest variety is the stretch of the Ottawa River known as Lac Deschênes. Located between Deschênes Rapids to the east and Innis Point (Ontario) and Baie Alexandria (Québec) to the west, Lac Deschênes is located wholly within the Ottawa River and reaches about three kilometres at its widest point. Because it is one of the larger bodies of water in the region, and because significant numbers of water birds stop here to rest and refuel during spring and fall migration, Lac Deschênes is recognized as a globally significant Important Bird Area (IBA). It isn’t surprising that the two life birds I got this month are both water birds, and that the most unexpected of the two was found on Lac Deschênes.
Author’s Note – Because waterfowl (especially the diving ducks) spend so much time out in the middle of the rivers and ponds, I find them a particularly tough group to photograph. As such, all photos in this post are old photos from occasions when I was lucky enough to find them on smaller bodies of water or close to shore.
Andrew Haydon Park is one of the easiest places to access Lac Deschênes and one of the best spots for waterfowl viewing, but each time I’ve visited it this fall I’ve been disappointed. Canada Geese usually congregate here in the thousands, and a few Brant, Cackling Geese or Snow Geese may sometimes be found with them. Each time I’ve stopped by, however, the geese had already left the park, probably to feed in the fields to the south. The marsh at the western end of Andrew Haydon Park is a reliable spot for Green-winged and Blue-winged Teals during the fall, however, each time I’ve visited the marsh this month I’ve only found a handful of Green-winged Teals. Blue-winged Teals are the first waterfowl to depart, and aren’t usually seen after mid-October.
The fountain in one of the man-made ponds was still running and people were sailing remote-controlled boats on one of the days that I visited, so I didn’t see anything except for a few Canada Geese and mallards on the water. Water levels were high, too, which meant there were no muddy edges to provide shorebirds and dabbling ducks a place to feed.
The waterfowl viewing at Shirley’s Bay, on the other hand, has been stellar. I counted 20 species there during the second weekend of October, and had two “hat-tricks”: all three scoters and all three (common) grebes. If I’d have found a Common Merganser there, I would have had a hat-trick of mergansers, too. (My companion that day, David Britton, did see a Common Merganser earlier that day at Britannia and managed to get three hat-tricks!) Even so, it was great to see the male Hooded Mergansers back in their crisp breeding plumage and four female Red-breasted Mergansers on the river. Other notable species included at least one Common Goldeneye, a diving duck that spends the winter in Ottawa on the Rideau and Ottawa Rivers; my first Northern Pintails of the fall; two Gadwall; four Northern Shovelers; one Pied-billed Grebe; and about 20 Wood Ducks.
On the dyke, a Field Sparrow was a nice surprise, and in the woods David and I heard a Fox Sparrow singing (October is the best time to see migrating sparrows as well). We saw a Fox Sparrow, a few White-throated Sparrows, two dozen robins and one Hermit Thrush foraging on the leaf-covered trail. Both kinglets and a Garter Snake were present as well.
On October 16th a Western Grebe was discovered on Lac Deschênes, and it stayed long enough for me to see him from the Quebec side during the third weekend of October. Western Grebes aren’t rare in their range, but they breed no further east than Manitoba and spend the winter on the Pacific coast. Its large size, bright white throat, and long yellow bill were distinctive compared to a nearby Red-necked Grebe; this may be the same individual that spent a few days on Lac Deschênes last fall. This life bird was thrilling since I wasn’t able to find one in Alberta last July. A Bald Eagle perching on a rock in the middle of the river was also a great find.
My second lifer was much more satisfying, as it was a nemesis bird I’ve been trying to find for a few years now. The Moodie Drive quarry pond is probably the second best spot to find waterfowl in the west end, particularly the Ruddy Ducks which remain as long as the water is open. I was watching a group of shorebirds (3 Greater and 1 Lesser Yellowlegs) on the spit through my scope when a line of Canada Geese swam out from behind the reeds in front of them. I was still watching through the scope when a Greater White-Fronted Goose swam out at the end of the line! I knew what it was instantly, with its distinctive orange bill, gray-brown body and white patch at the base of its bill, and I continued watching it through the scope until the whole group took to the air and flew west. These geese are reported every year in Ottawa, but they show up sporadically, and never more than a handful each time (seven birds is the highest number seen in a single flock). I’d heard one had been seen at the quarry pond each evening but didn’t think it would swim out in front of me. Now all I need to do is find one to photograph!
During the third weekend of October, a female Tufted Duck showed up at Shirley’s Bay with a large group of scaup; I tried twice to see this rarity but had no luck either time due to the distance of the flock and difficult viewing conditions. Deb and I found some White-winged Scoters inside the bay, about a dozen Gadwall, several American Wigeon, and our first American Tree Sparrows of the season instead. We had better luck at the Moodie Drive quarry pond instead where we tallied three goose species: Canada, Snow and Ross’s. The Snow Geese were resting along the edge of the spit close to a group of four or five Greater Yellowlegs, while the Ross’s Goose was swimming much further out with the Canada Geese. A few Ruddy Ducks, Great Black-backed Gulls, Hooded Mergansers and Common Mergansers were present as well.
So far I’ve seen 27 waterfowl species this month. I’m still missing a few common species such as Brant, Cackling Goose, Common Loon, Long-tailed Duck and Redhead, which can all be seen at Lac Deschênes; hopefully the weekend won’t be as wet as the forecast says and I will be able to get out and spend some time on the river.