200 Year Birds

Red-necked Grebe

Red-necked Grebe

On Saturday I drove to Dow’s Lake at first light to look for the Surf Scoter that has been hanging out there since Thursday. It was supposed to rain later that afternoon, and indeed the sky was dark and ominous when I left. It was rather cold and damp, too, so I wore my winter coat for the first time this fall, even though the temperature was supposed to rise to 14°C.

When I arrived I heard a couple of Golden-crowned Kinglets in the trees near the parking area. I didn’t see much at the Arboretum, but in the marshy area at the edge of Dow’s Lake I saw six Red-winged Blackbirds perched in a large tree and heard a Song Sparrow singing. Another group of about 20 Red-winged Blackbirds flew by a little later but didn’t land. On the water, there were at least 1000 Canada Geese and perhaps half as many mallards swimming in the bay. A large number of American Black Ducks looked completely black in the poor light.

I started my walk near the northern end of Dow’s Lake and worked my way south. A female Common Merganser swam by with half a dozen Hooded Mergansers, while a Double-crested Cormorant stood on a rock or a log near the shore. I also noticed a female scaup swimming by herself. However, the poor light and a large expanse of mud prevented me from getting close enough to the water’s edge to determine which scaup species it was. Lesser Scaup would be most likely. One Great Black-backed Gull flew down the canal while two more sat on the far shore with several Ring-billed Gulls.

I didn’t see the scoter so I walked south along the gravel path until I reached the tip of the peninsula. As I was scanning the birds on the water, I saw a small goose swimming alone and was immediately struck by the small head and tiny bill. After scanning hundreds of flocks of geese over the past few weeks and joining in Richard Waters’ Wild Goose Chase last weekend, I had finally found my first Cackling Goose of the fall!

Cackling Goose

Cackling Goose

It swam away and became enveloped by a group of much larger Canada Geese, giving me a great opportunity to observe the size difference between the two species. After losing it among the numerous waterfowl on the water I scanned the rest of the birds swimming out in the canal. It didn’t take long to spot the Surf Scoter sleeping by itself, the two white patches on its face distinctive even while its head was tucked against its back. I walked to the edge of the water for a closer look, and then she woke up and started swimming and diving for food among the flock the geese. The light was terrible, so I wasn’t able to get any decent photos; however, since it’s a bird I usually need a scope to see way out in the middle of Lac Deschenes I thought I’d post one of the photos I did get.

Surf Scoter

Surf Scoter

The Cackling Goose and Surf Scoter brought my Ottawa year list up to 198 birds and my Canada year list up to 225. I only needed two more birds to reach my goal of 200 for Ottawa, and I was still missing some easy ones such as Red-breasted Merganser and Sandhill Crane. Black Scoter, Red-throated Loon, Greater Scaup and Long-tailed Duck were also possibilities, but would take some scanning of the deeper waters of Lac Deschenes; Ross’s Goose, Northern Goshawk, Purple Sandpiper and Lapland Longspur were also possible, but much less likely.

Hoping to find a Red-breasted Merganser I decided to head over to Dick Bell Park, where this species and all three scoters had been seen earlier in the week. I got out of the car and stopped to scan half a dozen birds swimming in the bay off of Carling Avenue. To my astonishment they were mergansers…Red-breasted Mergansers!

2013-10-19 001 046 (525x393)

Red-breasted Merganser

The sun had finally come out, resulting in some good lighting. Because they were so close to shore I stopped to take some photos before heading out toward the lighthouse. The Red-breasted Merganser can be identified by the lack of a white chin patch, the sparse crest, and the reddish throat that gradually blends in with the grayish-brown neck. Female Common Mergansers have a bright white chin and a reddish throat that stops abruptly at the gray neck, as if someone had drawn a line between the two colours.

Red-breasted Merganser

Red-breasted Merganser

While I was watching the mergansers Bruce Di Labio joined me on the path. We spotted a pair of Red-necked Grebes way out towards Shirleys Bay. Then, as we walked up the path and rounded a corner we spotted another one swimming close to the shore!

Red-necked Grebe

Red-necked Grebe

Red-necked Grebes are much larger than Horned Grebes, which also show up on the river this time of year. They also have longer, sharper bills. This one is an adult that has not yet fully transitioned into non-breeding plumage…note the remnants of the dark cap, white cheek and reddish neck. Non-breeding adults have a drab, brownish face and neck and a dark cap, though it is barely discernible from the dark face.

Red-necked Grebe

Red-necked Grebe

As we walked out to the lighthouse Bruce heard a Merlin calling and then pointed it out in a tree near the sailing club. We heard a Belted Kingfisher and a yellowlegs but weren’t able to spot either bird. He spotted two dark birds flying down-river and said they were young Northern Harriers. Though they briefly held their wings in a dihedral, like a Turkey Vulture, they spent more time flapping than a vulture and had a longer tail. Because of the distance I wasn’t able to make out the white rump; and because of the light they looked like big, dark birds with few distinguishable features. I doubted I could identify them on my own, especially given that they weren’t in a habitat I normally associate with harriers, and didn’t count them for my day’s list. Even Bruce said he was surprised to see them there.

After they had flown out of sight Bruce resumed scanning the river with the scope while I checked the bay at the west end of Andrew Haydon Park. I spotted another Red-necked Grebe, while Bruce said he had found a Black Scoter! It was way out toward Britannia Pier, but I was able to make out the thick bill, the dark cap and pale cheek. Just like that Bruce had found my 200th year bird for Ottawa!

Although I call it my “Ottawa” list, this list is not just restricted to Ottawa but encompasses the entire OFNC study area, a 50-km radius centered on the Peace Tower of Parliament Hill; half of the study area lies within Quebec. Only one species was found on the Quebec side, a Mourning Warbler heard on Justin Peter’s OFNC outing to Gatineau Park back in June.

The lake was pretty empty, so Bruce and I didn’t linger at the lighthouse. We parted ways after that, and I decided to stop in at Sarsaparilla Trail on my way home. There were lots of Golden-crowned Kinglets in the woods and a couple of robins in the trees near the picnic shelter. The pond was quiet, too; at first all I saw were about nine or ten Hooded Mergansers swimming in the middle of the pond. On closer inspection I saw a Pied-billed Grebe in the back corner, and then a male Ruddy Duck swimming by itself. This was a new bird for my Sarsaparilla list.

I heard a couple of sparrows in the brush near the beginning of the boardwalk, but wasn’t able to get a good look at them. A couple of juncos were interested in the seeds I put out for the chickadees; one even landed on the boardwalk railing and sat there for a while.

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

Although there wasn’t much at Sarsaparilla, it is always nice to add a new bird to my list (which now stands at 101 species!) and to watch it change through the seasons.

And it’s a great feeling to reach 200 species in Ottawa again, despite working a full time job. I checked my notes for 2011 and noted a couple of things: my 200th species that year was a Brant seen at Andrew Haydon Park on October 23, 2011; this was a full four days later than I achieved 200 species this year. Also, in 2011 I went on to add 9 more species to my Ottawa year list, including Sandhill Crane, Long-tailed Duck, Black Scoter, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Purple Sandpiper, Canvasback and American Coot. Who knows what the next two months will bring!

3 thoughts on “200 Year Birds

  1. Congratulations on reaching 200 Ottawa birds! It’s quite the accomplishment. By the way, I think the shot of the surf scoter is great, considering they usually are half a kilometer our on Lac Deschenes, as you said. I don’t have photos of any of the scoter species, for just that reason.

    P.S. If no purple sandpipers show up in Ottawa this fall, it would be worth the trip to go to Gull Island at Presqu’ile. They’re pretty reliable there in late November and December. I always get my yearly purple sandpiper there, since I usually miss the Ottawa ones. Just be sure to bring high rubber boots or a change of warm socks and shoes!

    • Hi Pat,

      Thanks very much for your comment! The only other time I’ve seen a Surf Scoter this close was on the Rideau River at Strathcona Park. It was also a very gray day, so my photos were no better than this one – especially since I had only half the zoom on the Cybershot I was using back then! There was also a Black Scoter on the Rideau last fall across from the Riverside Hospital, but I couldn’t get close to it.

      Yeah, I hear Presqu’ile is good for Purple Sandpipers. I’m not sure about making the three-hour trip just for that, however. Maybe if a cooperative Gyrfalcon shows up at the same time….!

      Hope things are well with you!

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