Easter Rarities

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Yellow-headed Blackbird

The Easter long weekend is a great time for birding, particularly when it falls toward the end of April. The weather is nicer, migration is well under way, and there is a greater variety of wildlife to be found. I spent Good Friday visiting the various trails of Stony Swamp: first an early start at the Beaver Trail, followed by a lengthy walk at Jack Pine Trail, and finishing up with a quick scan of the pond at Sarsaparilla Trail.

When I arrived at the Beaver Trail, I spent a good ten minutes just watching a flock of sparrows feeding on the ground just beyond the parking lot. Most of them were American Tree Sparrows heading back north to their breeding grounds at the edge of the Canadian Tundra; however, a couple of juncos and Song Sparrows were feeding with them, and I thought I might see my first Fox Sparrow. I didn’t have any luck with the Fox Sparrow, either there or with the large flock of juncos near the Wild Bird Care Centre.

The resident Eastern Phoebe was back, calling from somewhere near the Wild Bird Care Centre, while deeper in the woods I heard my first Winter Wren of the year. The Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were quite lively, as at one point I saw three squabbling and chasing each other amongst the trees. A little later I found another sapsucker quietly at work:

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Swamp Sparrows and Wilson’s Snipe were both back, calling from the wetlands. I heard a second snipe winnowing overhead. I didn’t see much at the first boardwalk, but at the second boardwalk I found a Belted Kingfisher sitting on a snag, several Red-winged Blackbirds calling from the marsh, a couple of Brown-headed Cowbirds and grackles in the trees, and the usual chickadees looking for handouts. I also noticed that the beaver lodge looked much larger than I remembered, with new branches on top. I wasn’t sure whether the beaver lodge had been occupied over the winter, but now I had proof.

Beaver Lodge

Beaver Lodge (with Canada Goose)

Even better, I even saw two beavers returning to the pond! One swam right up to the dam beneath the observation deck, and I thought he might spend some time there working on it. Instead he and his mate swam back toward the lodge, slipped under the water and disappeared.



When I turned around to leave I discovered that the chickadees weren’t the only ones interested in the seed I had put out for them. One of the grackles had flown down and taken over one of the feeding posts!

Common Grackle

Common Grackle

Common Grackle

Common Grackle

At Jack Pine Trail I heard another phoebe calling from the large swampy pond by the parking lot and another Winter Wren singing loudly from the wet area behind the feeder. It was a good spot for sparrows: I saw my first Fox Sparrows of the year in the woods and found another mixed flock of sparrows near the feeder, including Song Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, and Dark-eyed Junco. Both Field and White-throated Sparrows had returned to the alvar, and Swamp Sparrows had returned to the wetlands.

In the woods I heard a strange sound issuing from a thicket, and wasn’t whether it was a bird or a frog making the noise. Then I caught a glimpse of a rust-coloured bird flying off; suspecting it might be a Hermit Thrush, I was able to confirm its identity by checking Hermit Thrush calls on my iPhone. I enjoy learning new bird sounds, and wish I was able to get more practice in the field with a lot of these migrants! The best bird of Jack Pine Trail, however, was an American Kestrel sitting in a tree overlooking the marsh. Not only was it a year bird for me, it was the first time I’d seen a kestrel at Jack Pine Trail.

From there I drove over to Sarsaparilla Trail where I heard both a Fox Sparrow and a Hermit Thrush in the woods, and saw my first Pied-billed Grebe of the year on the pond. The water was completely ice-free; five Bufflehead and three Ring-necked Ducks were the only migrant waterfowl I saw on the water.

I thought my birding day was done, but late in the afternoon I received word that a rare Yellow-headed Blackbird was present near the golf course in Kanata Lakes. I headed out around dinner time and wandered around the street, listening for any odd blackbird calls. I didn’t hear anything except grackles, robins, House Finches and Mourning Doves, and would never have found it if Giovanni Pari hadn’t come along and told me the bird was behind the houses on the golf course. He led me to the wet marshy area where it had last been seen, and sure enough we found it! When we first saw the bird, it was walking along the ground. Then it flew up into a small tree and started singing, if “singing” is the right word for the wonderful assortment of almost-musical squawks and gurgles that it made.

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Yellow-headed Blackbird

These birds have a range that extends across the western half of the continent, with a small population in northwestern Ontario near Lake-of-the-Woods. However, vagrant Yellow-headed Blackbirds are frequently seen elsewhere in the province, particularly at migrant traps along Lakes Erie and Ontario in the south. According to OFNC records, this is the only the 20th record from the Ottawa area since 1972.

The next day Chris Lewis and I went out birding together. She hadn’t seen the Yellow-headed Blackbird, and also mentioned that a Eurasian Wigeon had been found along Lockhead Road in North Gower near where the Lapland Longspur had spent the winter. We went to Kanata Lakes first, where it took us almost two hours before the bird was spotted hunkered low in the vegetation in the same marshy area where I had last seen it. While we waited for a better view we saw a Belted Kingfisher, a Merlin and two Double-crested Cormorants fly over. I also saw my first warbler of the year, a Yellow-rump, flitting about the same area as the Yellow-headed Blackbird. Eventually two squabbling blackbirds (I can’t remember if they were grackles or Red-wings) caused the Yellow-headed Blackbird to fly out of the vegetation and perch in full view for a minute or two. Then it flew back down onto the ground, walking around as it had done the first time I saw it, before flying back up into a tree to give another singing performance.

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Yellow-headed Blackbird

We were equally successful with the Eurasian Wigeon in North Gower. A flooded field backing onto a flooded creek had attracted all sorts of waterfowl, including geese, Wood Ducks, my first American Wigeons of the year, Green-winged Teals, Mallards, Ring-necked Ducks and Bufflehead. It took almost half an hour before the Eurasian Wigeon swam out of the wooded area at the back of the field into view, and even then it didn’t stay out in the open for very long.

It’s not often that I see two rare birds in one day; it’s certainly not often that I find all of the birds I go looking for. However, patience certainly paid off for both of these birds, making it a great start to the Easter long weekend!

8 thoughts on “Easter Rarities

  1. The migrants are moving north quickly now. I saw my first warblers this week and white throated sparrows yesterday. I haven’t seen any yellow headed blackbirds yet though.

    • Hi Sue,

      I’ve seen one warbler species so far this spring and heard a second; I can’t wait till the rest of them get here!

      Whereabouts are you located? I just realized that I never knew that, figuring you were somewhere in the East, but if you get Yellow-headed Blackbirds, probably not!


  2. Congrats, Gillian! Both of those are great Ontario records. I’d love to have either on my ON list. No YHBL here, but the Eurasian wigeons moved through in large numbers last month. It was quite unusual spending time scanning large flocks of Eurasians hoping to spot a single American wigeon! Great photos of the YHBL, too.

    • Thanks Pat. This is the first YHBL I’ve seen in Ontario and the fourth Eurasian Wigeon I’ve seen (three in Ottawa, one in Kingston). I actually got better photos of the blackbird here in Ottawa than I did in Calgary two years ago when it was my lifer!

      I can’t imagine picking through Eurasian Wigeons trying to find an America; sounds a bit like picking through Greater White-fronted Geese for a Canada Goose! (BTW, that continues to be a nemesis bird; missed one in Carp last weekend. I would really love to go someplace where they are common!)

    • Thanks Paul! I was about to give up on the blackbird the second day when fortunately someone saw it moving on the ground. It’s a really gorgeous bird.

      By the way, I’ve been meaning to comment on your blog – I get your notifications in the morning when I’m on the bus, read your blog on my phone, then forget to check back later on my computer so I can leave a comment. It must have been awesome to see the towhee in your backyard – what a cool yard bird!

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