Archive | November 2013

Chasing a Rarity

I rarely chase birds that are more than a 30-minute drive from my home. I don’t like driving on the highway or in traffic, and I always worry that bird will have left by the time I get to the spot or that no one else will be there to point the way if the bird is in a place I am not familiar with (the main reason I never did see a Boreal Owl last winter). It would have to be a really good bird for me to make the effort, such as the Whimbrel Deb and I went to see at Presqu’ile Provincial Park three years ago….but then, Presqu’ile is renowned birding location in its own right, and we were planning to go there anyway.

The Ross’s Gull is another such bird. A species of the remote Arctic wilderness, it inhabits the pack ice and tundra of Greenland, Siberia, and the North American High Arctic. In Canada, only a handful of breeding locations are known from Churchill, Manitoba and Queen’s Channel in Nunavut, and only a few birds nest at each site. To add to its mystique, this species migrates north in the fall, spending its winters on the Arctic pack ice where it feeds on fish and crustaceans found in the open water of the Arctic Ocean. It was unknown in the continental United States until 1975 when a single bird was discovered in Newburyport, Massachusetts, but sightings now occur almost every year, each vagrant individual drawing birders from hundreds of kilometers away. The Ross’s Gull isn’t just a rarity; it’s a MEGA-rarity.

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Rare Bird Alert: King Eider in Ottawa

King Eider

King Eider

On the morning of Wednesday, November 14th, three female King Eiders were discovered at Andrew Haydon Park. This is a rare bird in Ottawa; the last one seen here was in 1993! My email inbox and Facebook feed were full of reports of the three eiders all morning long, until they flew south and a fourth one was discovered at the end of Scrivens Street later that morning. The last I heard of the eider, she was sleeping on the water at the east end of Andrew Haydon Park at dusk. Chances were good that she would still be there in the morning.

That night I dreamed of going to the river to look for her. And when I woke up earlier than usual, I decided I would take a quick look before I had to go to work. It was just getting light when I left at 6:40 am, and as soon as I arrived I started scanning the flocks of geese at the east end of the park. There were lots of other birds on the river, including some Common Goldeneye, scaup and a Surf Scoter, but I saw nothing that looked like the bird I’d seen in the photographs. Then I spotted another birder, Aaron, scanning the water from the middle of the shoreline. We met up to compare notes. Like me, he only had limited time to look for the bird before work and hadn’t found her. Just as I was about to tell him I had to leave, I spotted a lone duck with a distinctly sloping profile swimming away from the shore. I took a quick look through my scope and confirmed that it was the female King Eider – a lifer for me!

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A Rainy Day during Migration

Dunlin

Dunlin

Because it was so cold last Saturday, I didn’t stay out too long; so when it warmed up on Sunday, I decided to go out even though it was drizzling a bit when I left. I hadn’t been up to the river yet this month, so I drove over to Andrew Haydon Park to look for some water birds.

There were eight Hooded Mergansers swimming in the eastern pond, together with about 20 Lesser Scaup. On the river I spotted one female Bufflehead, eight Red-breasted Mergansers, about 40 Common Goldeneye and seven more Hoodies. I could also see two Herring Gulls and one Great Black-backed Gull on the dock at the marina.

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Changing Seasons

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

The last few weeks have brought yet another change in migration. The only fall migrants that seem to be around these days are water birds; the late-season land birds, such as Ruby-crowned Kinglets, White-throated Sparrows and White-crowned Sparrows have all gone, while winter birds such as American Tree Sparrows and Snow Buntings have arrived. There are still many robins, juncos, and Golden-crowned Kinglets around, though these may stay the winter if they can find enough food.

I spend a lot of time birding along the Ottawa River in late October and November. A good variety of water birds can be found on Lac Deschenes this time of year, and birding anywhere between Bate Island and Shirley’s Bay can produce good numbers of loons, grebes, geese, scoters, and diving ducks. Many dabbling ducks can still be found in the smaller ponds, and it is worth stopping in at Sarsaparilla Trail, the ponds at Andrew Haydon Park, or the Richmond Lagoons to see what’s around.

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The Last Insect

I was surprised when I got home from birding on Saturday and found this small beetle clinging to the front of my house. It was tiny, about the size and shape of a ladybug, and I’m fairly sure that it’s a Common Willow Calligrapha (Calligrapher multipunctata) based on Christine Hanrahan’s lovely photos on Pbase. The nights have been frosty lately, dipping down to about or just below 0°C, and I haven’t seen many insects about so I assumed they had all died off or were preparing to hibernate in some nook or cranny.

Common Willow Calligrapha

Common Willow Calligrapha

As its name implies, the Common Willow Calligrapha feeds almost exclusively on willow leaves. It is considered a pest, as the larvae skeletonize the willow leaves, while the adults chew small holes in the leaves. While the damage usually isn’t severe enough to kill the plant, it can weaken it and make it susceptible to other pests and diseases.

The tiny gold beetle was still there yesterday morning when I got up, and I was surprised it was still alive. I gently removed him from the wall and put him on a leaf in my garden in a warm beam of sunlight. When I checked a couple of hours later, he was gone.

Common Willow Calligrapha

Common Willow Calligrapha

The Common Willow Calligrapha overwinters as an adult in the leaf litter on the ground or beneath the bark of willow stems, emerging again the following April or May. Females lay eggs shortly after emergence, and, in the northeast, two or three generations may occur each season before the shorter days and colder nights force them to hibernate in the fall.

This was the first time I had ever seen this species, and I was amazed to find this willow-specialist on my house of all places! This isn’t the first interesting bug I’ve found on my house; others include the fishfly and the Blinded Sphinx Moth in June 2009, and the Ebony Boghaunter in 2012. Given the lateness of the season, I probably won’t find any more; I’m guessing this will be the last insect I photograph in 2013. If so, it’s a beautiful one to end the year with!