The Warbler Long Weekend: Edge Habitats

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Black-throated Blue Warbler

The September long weekend is my favourite birding weekend. Large numbers of songbirds suddenly pour into Ottawa, including hummingbirds, flycatchers, tanagers, grosbeaks and, of course, those perennial favourites, the warblers. This early in the season, only a small percentage are likely to be Yellow-rumps, meaning that a good variety of species can be found with some persistence. Migrant traps like Mud Lake can be fabulous, but any place with a good edge habitat can be productive. Edge habitat typically means the boundary between two different ecosystems such as forest and field, lake and land, or any combination of these. The best edge habitats have a good diversity of plants of varying height and structure in the transition zone between the two habitats. These provide cover and food sources for not just the birds of the two dominant habitats, but also migrants and other creatures including butterflies, odonates, and mammals.

I started the long weekend with a visit to the Richmond Lagoons. With the Ottawa River so high right now I was in need of a shorebird fix, and the lagoons have been a good place to find them in the past. However, the first cell is now almost completely overgrown with cattails and thin, sedgy, marsh plants, and the low, standing water makes it unattractive to birds dependent on mudflats. I did, however, spot an adult Black-crowned Night Heron perching in a tree in the first cell.

The edges along the parking lot and surrounding each lagoon are great places to find songbirds, and I spotted a Magnolia Warbler and some Cedar Waxwings in a shrub near the first lagoon. The water is much higher in the middle lagoon, and here I found two Green-winged Teals and several Wood Ducks swimming with the mallards. I proceeded down the path between the first and second cell and saw a couple of young Common Yellowthroats and two unidentified Empids that popped out of the shrubs when I started pishing. I also heard a Swamp Sparrow singing and a Gray Catbird calling.

The field at the back of the trail – a nice transition zone between the lagoons and the forest behind – proved to be a remarkable spot for migrants. There were birds flying about almost everywhere I looked, and while most of them appeared to be Cedar Waxwings, there were plenty of other species around. I saw my first Blackburnian and Wilson’s Warblers of the fall, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, two Red-breasted Nuthatches (all of which were firsts for me at this location), a couple more unidentified flycatchers, a couple of Red-eyed Vireos, a bird that might have been a Philadelphia Vireo or a Tennessee Warbler, a Black-and-white Warbler, and a couple of American Redstarts. I heard a Great Crested Flycatcher singing somewhere close by and saw a White-throated Sparrow pop up out of the vegetation while I was pishing. This young male Common Yellowthroat also flew in.

Common Yellowthroat (Young Male)

Common Yellowthroat (Young Male)

Altogether I counted 33 species while at the lagoons, and I didn’t even check the woods or the furthest lagoon (the mosquitoes were still too bad to consider going any further). This is the highest total I’ve had here so far this year!

From there I went to the Beaver Trail. I’ve had luck finding migrants along both boardwalks in the past, as the open areas by the water provide some good edge habitat. Two Eastern Wood-pewees were still singing in the woods and I saw a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in the tall tree in the meadow. Movement in the woods caught my attention, and I saw a pair of Wild Turkeys scurrying off. I didn’t find anything of note at the V-shaped boardwalk, but at the back of the trail I found a large flock of songbirds including a Black-and-white Warbler, a Nashville Warbler, a Cape May Warbler, a Northern Parula, two Black-throated Green Warblers, three Common Yellowthroats, two Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and most interesting of all, two Ruby-throated Hummingbirds! They were feeding on the jewelweed but didn’t pose long enough to get a photo.

While walking along the boardwalk I paused to investigate a red-faced meadowhawk that had landed in front of me. It had black legs and black triangles along the abdomen, ruling out Autumn Meadowhawk; I didn’t have my net and couldn’t catch it, so I am not sure whether this was a Cherry-faced Meadowhawk or something else. This isn’t the first red-faced meadowhawk I’ve seen here; the photo at the top of the right-hand side bar of this blog was taken here several years ago.

Meadowhawk sp.

Meadowhawk sp.

I was also happy to see a pair of Phantom Crane Flies floating among the vegetation as well. I hadn’t realized they had such a long flight season, but according to Bugguide.net these crane flies have been recorded in Ontario from May until August.

Phantom Crane Flies

Phantom Crane Flies

From there I drove over to Andrew Haydon Park to look for some water birds and check the shrubs along the eastern creek. Although I didn’t see any Blue-winged Teals or Caspian Terns, two of my target species, I was pleased to see one of the Great Egrets hunting in the western bay remarkably close to shore.

Great Egret

Great Egret

Someone told me that there was a Bonaparte’s Gull hunting over the eastern pond, so I hurried over to take a look. I found not one but two young birds in the area, alternatively flapping over the pond, plucking food items off its surface, then resting on the water. From time to time one would leave the pond and go fly over the western pond for a few minutes while the other remained on the eastern pond. When they landed they kept to the middle of the pond, which is a fair distance for my lens.

Bonaparte's Gull

Bonaparte’s Gull

I checked the eastern creek but didn’t see any shorebirds, herons or even any songbirds in the thick shrubbery that grows along the side. These shrubs are full of berries and there are usually robins and waxwings around, but not that day.

The next morning dawned warm and overcast, and I decided to stop in at the Rideau Trail and Sarsaparilla Trail on Old Richmond Road before heading over to Mud Lake. I started off with a walk along the hydro cut first – an open, shrubby zone bordered by woods on both sides – and found a small flock of warblers including Black-and-white Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, and a couple of Bay-breasted Warblers.

Bay-breasted Warbler

This flycatcher also came out into open in response to my pishing. Based on the thick eye-ring and lack of yellow on the breast I am guessing it is a Least Flycatcher.

Least Flycatcher

Least Flycatcher

From there I followed the boardwalk that forms the main trail but found only a Rose-breasted Grosbeak and a Cape May Warbler until I reached the alvar. A few birds were fluttering about the shrubs near the forest edge; pishing brought out an American Redstart, another Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a Black-throated Green Warbler and this Black-throated Blue Warbler, either a female or a juvenile.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Black-throated Blue Warbler

She seemed very curious about me; most times when a bird hears me pishing, it pops out and then disappears when it realizes its only me making the funny noises. This Black-throated Blue watched me for about a minute before disappearing with the rest of the birds.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

My next stop, Sarsaparilla Trail, was not as productive for songbirds, though I did see a Canada Warbler, American Redstart, and a Magnolia Warbler near the picnic shelter. As most of the trail cuts through mixed deciduous and coniferous woods, the best places to see migrating birds are the edges by the parking lot, the edges around the open area between the parking lot and picnic shelter, and along the boardwalk. The area by the picnic shelter usually harbours a good variety of species, and this is where I found the three warblers. Another Magnolia was seen in the shrubs near the boardwalk.

In the woods, I discovered a large flock of about three dozen robins near the boardwalk. There weren’t many birds on the pond, but two Great Egrets sitting in the dead trees in the swamp and a Pied-billed Grebe swimming in the water made the stop worthwhile. Because it was so overcast, there weren’t many dragonflies on the wing; I was happy to find this lovely darner in the long grass by the outhouse.

Common Green Darner

Common Green Darner

Although migrant traps such as Mud Lake and Shirley’s Bay attract all the attention during migration, I find places such as Stony Swamp and the Richmond Lagoons to be just as productive, if not in the number of species, then certainly in the variety. There also tend to be less people here than at the conservation areas along the river. I tallied 14 species of warbler from my stops at the Richmond Lagoons, Sarsaparilla Trail, Beaver Trail and Rideau Trail, plus a good number of other flycatchers, woodpeckers, waxwings, finches, grosbeaks, sparrows and water birds. Early September is a great time to visit these trails, and I truly enjoyed my time there.

2 thoughts on “The Warbler Long Weekend: Edge Habitats

  1. Pingback: Late October Birding | The Pathless Wood

  2. Pingback: Looking for Wood-Warblers | The Pathless Wood

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s