Now that 2012 has ended, it’s time to look back and remember my favourite moments and most memorable wildlife encounters from the past 12 months. Some of the most notable events of 2012 were the summer-like weather in March, the mid-summer drought, my trip to Alberta, and the winter finch irruption in the fall. I ended up with only four life birds in the Ottawa study area (including one on the Quebec side) and nine life birds from Nova Scotia and Alberta. Of course, I missed a lot, too – the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in Carp, the Tufted Duck at Shirley’s Bay, Ottawa’s first Cave Swallow, the Northern Hawk-Owl at the airport, and the Ivory Gull a few weeks ago. The Ivory Gull was particularly painful as it was discovered near Arnprior on a Saturday afternoon and I didn’t find out about it until 4:00 p.m. when I checked my email and it was already starting to get dark. Like the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, it stayed only one day and subsequent efforts to relocate it proved fruitless. Many birders saw it, so it would have been an easy lifer had I found out about it sooner!
Despite these misses, I saw a number of good birds and other wildlife in my travels. Here are some of my favourite encounters.
In late January Deb and I went birding in the east end and had a near-perfect day, despite almost unbearably cold temperatures. In Limoges we found the overwintering Varied Thrush (my first lifer of 2012), some Evening Grosbeaks, five Ruffed Grouse sitting in a tree, a Bald Eagle, two Snowy Owls, several Gray Partridges, and a few Horned Larks. A Barrow’s Goldeneye on the Rideau River and a cooperative Cooper’s Hawk at Billings Bridge capped off the morning. It was the kind of day when everything seemed to go our way; this more than made up for a couple of frustrating, unsuccessful outings earlier in the month.
A week later, a trip to Mud Lake proved that it is a great place for finding wildlife even in the dead of winter. I was thrilled to find both a beaver and a fox, while a Winter Wren and a kingfisher behind the ridge were completely unexpected. After seeing the tiny Winter Wren, I went searching for the Carolina Wren in the woods and met with success, making it a two-wren day in the middle of winter!
February was a quiet month, but a mockingbird along Grandview Road and nine Gray Partridges at the Kanata Centrum were both thrilling to see and cooperative for photographs. A trip to Gatineau Park with Deb resulted in my second lifer of the year, the Red Crossbill. I ended my winter list with a record-high 70 species after adding Northern Pintail, White-throated Sparrow, and four winter finches in Gatineau Park.
A trip to Algonquin Park in the early spring provided a much-needed distraction from the late-winter blues I was experiencing in Ottawa. Deb and I were fortunate to have great weather for our trip, and even though we didn’t see any pine martens, one of our target species, we had a fantastic day and counted Black-backed Woodpecker, Gray Jay, Common Redpoll, Ruffed Grouse, Evening Grosbeak and a single fox among the treasures of the park. A warm spell later in the month had temperatures soaring to 20°C, ushering in migrants from the south and causing the first butterflies to emerge.
April Fool’s Day brought a mix of rain and snow, a Snow Goose on Eagleson (the closest one I’ve been to yet!) and a Winter Wren at Jack Pine Trail. Most migrating birds arrived on time, though no rarities showed up to spice things up. The Bill Mason Center proved to be a good place to find wetland birds, while Marlborough Forest was a terrific spot to find salamanders – I found three different species in one outing! Later that month the mass migration of Red Admirals was so spectacular that even the mainstream media took notice, while a close encounter with a porcupine on the Bill Mason boardwalk proved to be the most memorable mammal encounter of the month!
A brief trip to Nova Scotia in early May netted two lifers: a Ring-necked Pheasant and a couple of Willets! Although I didn’t get as much birding in on this trip as I had on previous trips, I discovered a few new places and enjoyed seeing spring migration out east – Pine Siskins, yellow Palm Warblers, Evening Grosbeaks, an American Woodcock and a couple of seals at Port George made for a memorable visit. At home, I added a singing Black-throated Blue Warbler and a non-singing Swainson’s Thrush to my Sarsaparilla list, while a late afternoon visit to the Beaver Trail produced a Broad-winged Hawk, Bald Eagle, Turkey Vulture, Winter Wren, raccoon, and several butterflies, including two different elfin species.
My mom and step-dad spent the Victoria Day long weekend with us, and we were able to add several lifers to my mom’s life list including White-winged Scoters at Petrie Island, Grasshopper and Clay-coloured Sparrows at the airport, an American Bittern in a grassy field near the Bill Mason Center, and Tennessee Warblers at Mud Lake. I added a Blackpoll Warbler singing in my neighbour’s tree to my yard list and a Harlequin Darner at the Mer Bleue Bog to my life list after it actually landed on me!
On one rainy day in early June I was treated to a Least Bittern calling in the marsh at Sarsaparilla Trail. These birds are notoriously difficult to observe in Ottawa, and this was only my second one. I wasn’t able to see it, but I recognized the call from my trip to MacGregor Point Provincial Park. That same day I heard a Wood Thrush singing near the picnic shelter. Later in the month, a new Peregrine Falcon nest with two nestlings was discovered in the Billings Bridge area and the OFNC Falcon Watch resumed.
I came across some memorable insects as well, such as the Halloween Pennants at Shirley’s Bay and the Edwards’ Hairstreaks at Luskville Falls in Gatineau. I was happily surprised by the number of warblers we encountered at Luskville, including Black-throated Blue Warblers, Canada Warblers, a Blackburnian Warbler, Ovenbirds and Black-throated Green Warblers.
The hot temperatures from June carried into July, with no rain to bring relief. As the drought settled in much of the vegetation wilted and withered under the hot summer sun, affecting crops and wildflowers alike. As the month progressed I found it more and more difficult to find good butterfly habitat. Instead I spent the early part of the month searching for dragonflies, visiting places like Pakenham and Petrie Island, where Bob Bracken and I encountered Ottawa’s second Unicorn Clubtail.
The highlight of the month, of course, was our trip to Alberta. I added seven birds, seven dragonflies, eight butterflies, and nine mammal species to my various life lists. It’s hard to pick out one highlight from the trip, but our visit to Mount Edith Cavell, my visit to the Beaver Boardwalk in Hinton, and the various species seen right outside our cabin (including elk, Mountain Chickadees, a Great Horned Owl, and the Columbian Ground Squirrel) would rank among my favourite moments from the trip.
In August I attempted to co-lead a dragonfly outing at Mud Lake despite a bad head cold and chancy weather; highlights included a Spot-winged Glider and a Swift River Cruiser, both of which our group managed to catch in our nets. Although August remained hot right through to the end of the month, migration began right on time, with satisfying numbers of warblers, vireos, and assorted other songbirds seen at Mud Lake and along the Ottawa River. Late in the month I finally took my best photo ever of a Red-tailed Hawk.
I didn’t do a lot of birding in September after suffering from a severe allergic reaction right after the Labour Day long weekend; however, I did manage to see the Buff-breasted Sandpiper that spent several days at Ottawa Beach and a Red-shouldered Hawk at Sarsaparilla Trail.
Migration continued throughout October, with many different species of sparrows and waterfowl seen in my favourite conservation areas. I found our resident Carolina Wren singing away in the rain at Mud Lake on one of my outings, which was thrilling as I had never heard it singing before. While driving back to Ottawa from Cambridge during Thanksgiving weekend, the Turkey Vulture migration along Highway 401 was impressive. A pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers were discovered in the burned area of the Lime Kiln Trail, and after a couple of tries I managed to find them both. My last two life birds of 2012, a Greater White-fronted Goose and a rare Western Grebe, and the latest addition to my yard list – Golden-crowned Kinglet – all occurred during October.
In November the winter finch irruption predicted by Ron Pittaway became evident here in Ottawa with White-winged Crossbills, Evening Grosbeak, Common Redpolls, and Pine Grosbeaks being seen or heard on my most of my walks. A three-goose day at Andrew Haydon Park was another highlight, with a Brant and two Cackling Geese keeping company with the hundreds of Canada Geese that stop by each fall.
With migration winding down, I spent the early part of the month searching for the last lingering migrants and the latter half of the month looking for our temporary winter residents. I was able to get some better pictures and some video of both the female Black-backed Woodpecker at the Lime Kiln Trail and a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk at Billings Bridge. A Snowshoe Hare at the Hilda Road feeders was the best mammal sighting of the month.
Altogether I saw a total of 197 birds in the Ottawa-Gatineau area last year, and a total of 216 in four provinces. Easy misses included Black-bellied Plover, Stilt Sandpiper, Common Gallinule, Willow Flycatcher and Cliff Swallow.
My life list now stands at 290 species; with a trip to Point Pelee planned for May 2013, perhaps some southern species and southern rarities will help me reach 300!