The Onset of Migration

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

I was off work during the second-last week of August, and on the first day of my vacation I went up to Ottawa Beach to look for Bonaparte’s Gulls and shorebirds. I arrived early, as I wanted to get there before any dog-walkers or joggers or windsurfers scared any birds away; it wasn’t even 7:00 a.m by the time I arrived, and the sun was just beginning to rise above the trees. I didn’t see another soul as I walked out to the spit, where I found a few birds including three juvenile Bonaparte’s Gulls and three Lesser Yellowlegs. The wet puddle in front of the sand spit was much larger and deeper than it had been the week before, and this time I got my feet wet as I walked through it. I wasn’t pleased to see that the Ottawa River had gotten higher, as this means less habitat for any shorebirds passing through.

I also saw eight Great Egrets and a Great Blue Heron in the large bay to the right of the mudflats, near the end of Scrivens Street. Although I usually see herons and egrets in the marshy bay at the western end of Andrew Haydon Park, this was the first time I’d seen them here.

Two Bonaparte’s Gulls were walking along the edge of the mudflats, while the third was swimming in the water. Although this species is quite common along the Ottawa River this time of year, these were the first ones I’d seen this fall.

Bonaparte's Gull

Bonaparte’s Gull

Three Lesser Yellowlegs were also foraging at the water’s edge with several peeps. This one stopped to preen while the other two walked further out and eventually flew east to the mudflats near Scrivens Street.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

There were about five peeps at the edge of the water, all Least Sandpipers except for one. The other was slightly larger, with a dark bib and a chunky shape. I was stumped at first in trying to identify it, for the shape and the colours didn’t match any of the peeps I am familiar with. The bib wasn’t extensive enough for a Pectoral Sandpiper, and it seemed too plump and lacked the faintly bluish-edged feathers of a Baird’s Sandpiper.

Baird's Sandpiper

Baird’s Sandpiper

However, when I got home and checked my photos I could see the long wingtips projecting beyond the tip of the tail and the dark lores (the area of the face between the eye and the bill) interrupted by a pale spot above. This last field mark was a new one for me, and is described in The Shorebird Guide by O’Brien, Crossley and Karlson. It was definitely a Baird’s Sandpiper, though all the ones I had seen before were slimmer, and didn’t have the swallowed-a-basketball appearance as this one did.

Baird's Sandpiper

Baird’s Sandpiper

I decided to check the creek again and found even more Least Sandpipers; altogether I counted about 15. One of them climbed up onto this tree trunk and began to examine it for food.

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper

I didn’t find any birds of interest along the creek bed, so I drove over to Mud Lake next to look for songbirds. I only spent about an hour and a half on the ridge and along Cassels Street, and found 33 species including one Spotted Sandpiper, one Gray Catbird, two phoebes, a Great-crested Flycatcher, and this flycatcher which I thought might be an Eastern Wood-pewee even though it flicked its tail a couple of times like a phoebe.

Flycatcher sp.

Flycatcher sp.

Flycatchers are a tough group to identify, especially when they aren’t singing. I do most of my identification by voice alone, unless it’s an easy one such as Eastern Kingbird, Great-crested Flycatcher, or an Eastern Phoebe bobbing its tail. This is another photo of the same individual, showing him at a different angle.

Flycatcher sp.

Flycatcher sp.

Here is a Great-crested Flycatcher I found hunting in the same area:

Great-crested Flycatcher

Great-crested Flycatcher

I ran into Paul Matthews, and when he pointed out an Empidonax Flycatcher I didn’t pay too much attention as these birds are notoriously difficult to identify unless they are singing. However, when he said “Yellow-bellied Flycatcher”, that got my attention! I have only ever seen one of these birds before, at Shirley’s Bay in September 2010, and that one was identified for me by Chris Lewis and Paul Mirsky as it didn’t offer a very good view.

According to Cornell, the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher is the easiest eastern Empid to identify, as its yellow underparts distinguish it from the other eastern Empids. Sibley points out the low contrast between the olive malar and yellow-olive throat and notes that this distinguishes even worn Yellow-bellied Flycatchers with little yellow colouration from other species. In other words, the other Empids all have white throats that contrast sharply with the darker cheeks, while the colours of the cheeks and the throat blend together in the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. Fortunately this individual gave us plenty of time to study him as he perched out in the open for a couple of minutes.

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

I also saw a pair of Baltimore Orioles, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and several warblers including Chestnut-sided, Black-and-White, Magnolia, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, and Cape May. There were quite a few Yellow-rumped and Cape May Warblers on the ridge. Most of the Cape May Warblers were bright yellow with streaked breasts and yellow throats, indicating adult birds. First fall Cape May Warblers are grayer and drabber and resemble first fall Yellow-rumped Warblers, especially since both species have yellowish-coloured rumps. One field mark I’ve learned to check for in first-year birds is the presence of a yellow or a pale supercilium.

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

This is a different individual; note the more heavily streaked breast. Note the slight, downward-curved bill, which can be useful for identification.

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warblers also have a dark cap, a semicircular cheek patch which is rust-coloured in breeding males and gray in all other plumages, and a yellow patch behind the cheek patch that curves upward toward the supercilium. These marks are useful in identifying drab first-year birds which are not bright yellow like the adults.

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

A female Red-winged Blackbird perching quietly in a shrub also caught my attention; I didn’t notice until after I got home and looked at my photos that she appeared to be injured. It looks like some of her feathers are missing above the rump.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

With so many different shorebirds and warblers around, there is no question that fall migration has begun. With luck it will be a good one!

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4 thoughts on “The Onset of Migration

    • Well, not all of them, or I’d have no problem with those silent flycatchers! I’m still learning; it really helps me to remember field marks by blogging about them whenever I learn something new (like the Baird’s Sandpiper). I’m glad you find it helpful, too!

  1. Great catch with the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher! I too have only seen one of these, at Fletcher back in late August 2009. I kept meaning to go to Algonquin during the breeding season to find them at Mizzy Lake Trail, but I never got around to it.

    • Thanks Pat, but it wasn’t my catch. If Paul hadn’t have been there I would have totally missed out!

      I’ve never been to Algonquin during breeding season. When you get back to Canada and want to go sometime, let me know! I’d love to go and look for breeding birds and odes in late spring/early summer.

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