The Warbler Long Weekend: Ottawa’s Best-Known Migrant Trap

Black-throated Green Warbler

Black-throated Green Warbler

On August 31st I left Sarsaparilla Trail at about 9:30 am and drove over to Mud Lake, perhaps Ottawa’s best-known migrant trap. Situated on a constriction of the Ottawa River, it is bounded by the river to the north and east and by houses and shopping plazas to the west and south. Birds flying south from Gatineau Park likely end up at Mud Lake, which has hosted about 250 bird species, or approximately 75% of all species recorded in the OFNC study area (a 50-kilometer radius centered on the Peace Tower). It has had more than its fair share of rarities over the years, including Razorbill, Eurasian Wigeon, Harlequin Duck, Little Blue Heron, Forster’s Tern, Little Gull, Gray Kingbird, Connecticut Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, and Yellow-breasted Chat.

A walk around the western side of the conservation area and the ridge is never a bad idea this time of year, and this is what I did. Still hoping for Olive-sided and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, I headed to the scrubby sumac field on the west side of the conservation area. I found no flycatchers, and at first I found only two warbler species – Yellow-rumped and Yellow. There didn’t seem to be as many species here in this usually productive field, so I walked back toward Cassels Street via the wooded path along the lake. I heard the usual Gray Catbirds in the thickets and saw a Nashville Warbler and a White-throated Sparrow in the shrubs at the water’s edge. One Hooded Merganser was swimming on the lake while a Great Blue Heron fished in the small bay right next to the road. I started adding more warblers to my list: Northern Parula, Magnolia Warbler, Canada Warbler.

I didn’t turn my camera on until I found a pair of Ambush Bugs mating in the Goldenrod. In fact, once I started looking I saw quite a few of these interesting insects in the flowers. The female is so well camouflaged that she looks like one of the yellow florets.

Ambush Bugs

Ambush Bugs

I decided to check the western field again, and I finally found a large flock of warblers right at the junction of the two trails. An American Redstart caught my attention briefly before being supplanted by a Tennessee Warbler. A streaky bird turned out to be a Cape May Warbler, and the bird climbing up the tree trunk was not a nuthatch but a Black-and-white Warbler. He is the only bird I managed to photograph.

Black-and-white Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler Gleaning Insects

I saw another Nashville Warbler foraging close to the ground and a bird that might have been a Blackpoll Warbler or a Bay-breasted Warbler – it disappeared too fast to tell. I followed the trail toward the sumac field, and startled a small orange butterfly into flight. It landed briefly on me before flying off to perch on a leaf. It was a wonderfully fresh polygonia species, although I wasn’t sure which one it was at first. I waited a long time for it to open its wings to see the silver “smile” of an Eastern Comma. This individual is the pale “winter” form which is usually seen at the very beginning and very end of the season – they emerge late in the summer, hibernate in the winter as adults, and live long enough to produce the dark “summer” form seen in the middle of the butterfly season.

Eastern Comma

Eastern Comma

The ridge was relatively quiet by the time I reached it. More Yellow-rumps, a couple of phoebes, another Magnolia Warbler. I walked to the end, then walked back along Cassels Street to my car. Along the way I saw a White-faced Meadowhawk perched above a bunch of blue berries:

White-faced Meadowhawk

White-faced Meadowhawk

Then, just ahead, I saw a Northern Watersnake scuttling across the road! I began to walk toward it, and to the mallards that were hanging out in their usual spot waiting to be fed. The mallards started walking toward me, and I wasn’t sure if they were trying to get to the snake or to me! I wasn’t sure what the outcome would be if a duck tried to go after the snake, either, so I shooed the ducks off and followed the snake as it made its way down to the water.

Northern Water Snake

Northern Water Snake

I had seen a couple of birds along the shore that might have been Black-crowned Night-herons, so I went to my car to get my scope. I scanned the beaver lodge but the bird I had seen there was gone; so was the one on the log a few feet down the shore. I kept scanning, then spotted a fallen tree with not two, not three, but seven – yes SEVEN! – juvenile Black-crowned Night-herons perching on the trunk and branches! It was an amazing sight worth a photo, if my scope was any good at digiscoping (sadly, it’s not).

So with no rarities or even any flycatchers I left at lunch time with a total of 34 species on my list.

I was still thinking about this when Jon Ruddy asked if I wanted to meet at Mud Lake the following morning, so I said sure. With so many under-birded side trails and nooks and crannies – particularly in the southern and eastern part of the conservation area – I figured if anyone could turn up something awesome with a couple hours of diligent searching, Jon could! We planned to meet a little later in the morning than usual, so I stopped at the Rideau Trail first to see if anything interesting was lurking in the hydro cut.

I heard an Eastern Wood-pewee still singing when I arrived, which seemed remarkable now that it was September 1st. An Eastern Phoebe was fly-catching from a bare tree, flicking its tail, while a hummingbird zoomed past me on tiny wings. Pishing brought out a number of birds, including one Black-and-white Warbler, at least two Tennessee Warblers, at least two Nashville Warblers, a Common Yellowthroat, an American Redstart, a Magnolia Warbler, and at least three Bay-breasted Warblers. I feel there were probably more, but didn’t want to risk double-counting any. One posed nicely for my camera, and is easy to identify by the streak of “bay” running along its flank.

Bay-breasted Warbler

Bay-breasted Warbler

Most surprising was the female Purple Finch that popped up briefly!

It turned out Jon was able to meet earlier than expected, so reluctantly I left. There were lots of birds flying around both the hydro cut and the boardwalk that I didn’t want to leave! Still, Mud Lake is always a good bet this time of year, so off I went.

There seemed to be more birds around on Labour Day Monday than there had been the day before. We started out by heading into the western field; I spotted a Scarlet Tanager in a tree and he saw six of them. The field was much more productive with my first Blackpoll Warbler of the fall, a Wilson’s Warbler, many Yellow-rumps, a Bay-breasted Warbler, and more. We decided to follow the path along the western fence line into the woods where the Carolina Wren used to hang out (I haven’t seen or heard this bird in over a year). At first I thought this decision was a bad choice, but then we came upon a good flock of warblers foraging high in the trees. All but one appeared to be Tennessee Warblers; one Tennessee was a beautiful crisp adult while the rest were yellowish-green juveniles. The other warbler was a rather young-looking, ratty Nashville Warbler. We followed this flock for about ten or fifteen minutes, unable to tear ourselves away from their amazing beauty and sweet-sounding chip notes as they called to one another.

Eventually they moved on, and so did we. We heard both Red- and White-breasted Nuthatches in the woods and found a flock of chickadees. When we started pishing to entice them closer, a Black-and-white Warbler popped up too!

Jon hadn’t birded the southern part of the conservation area and was hoping to see some Empids, so I led him to the field beyond the turtle bridge. We didn’t find any flycatchers in the open field, but we did get several robins and waxwings dining on all the berries there. He spotted a Field Sparrow on a side trail, so we tried to follow it; pishing brought out a small, streaky brown bird with an eye-ring. I was puzzled by its appearance as it didn’t look like any thrush I had seen before, but when I saw the orange head stripe bordered by black I realized it was an Ovenbird! It took me a couple of moments to clue in to its identity as I was not expecting a bird of the deep forest to pop up in a scrubby field. One thing I’d forgotten about migration is that birds don’t stick to their preferred breeding habitat when finding places to rest and feed on their journey south!

While we were in the southern part of the conservation area we heard a Baltimore Oriole calling and saw a flock of House Finches. I stopped to take a picture of a Clouded Sulphur:

Clouded Sulphur

We followed the side trail but weren’t able to relocate the Ovenbird or the Field Sparrow, so we kept moving east. A pair of birds flew out over the field, flapping gracefully with long wings each decorated with an oval spot: Common Nighthawks! These were my first ones of the fall and I later thought that they, along with the Ovenbird, were some of the best birds of the day.

Jon spotted a bird perching in a distant tree but it was too far for either of us to ID. With my luck it was probably was the Olive-sided Flycatcher I’ve been searching for in vain, but that may be wishful thinking! When we reached the woods we heard an Eastern Wood-pewee singing. There wasn’t much in the back woods or along the eastern part of the trail, though Jon was fascinated by a Black-crowned Night-heron in one of the quiet bays. We later saw a couple of adults fly over the ridge.

At Britannia Point we saw many birds flying over Deschenes Rapids, including what he identified as Herring Gulls, Bonaparte’s Gulls and a Caspian Tern. I recognized the harsh call of a Caspian Tern but the birds were just too far for me to ID.

We found a good-sized flock of migrants along the shrubs between the lawn and the river. Here we saw a Blackburnian Warbler, another American Redstart, several more Yellow-rumps, a bird that was probably a Warbling Vireo, and my first Philadelphia Vireo of the year! In this photo it looks as though he’s sizing up the Japanese Beetle on the right to see if it’s worth eating.

Philadelphia Vireo

Philadelphia Vireo

We pished it out into the open, and unlike the warblers, it spent a few minutes watching us to figure out who we were and what we were doing.

Philadelphia Vireo

Philadelphia Vireo

Not all Philadelphia Vireos are this bright yellow, which makes some individuals hard to differentiate from Warbling Vireos. With a good look it can be identified by the black lores – the dark spot in between the eye and the bill, which the Warbling Vireo lacks.

Philadelphia Vireo

Philadelphia Vireo

Then Jon spotted our first Black-throated Green Warbler of the day. We tried to pish it out into the open, but it didn’t seem as interested as the Philadelphia Vireo. It hopped briefly onto this branch out in the open before disappearing into the foliage.

Black-throated Green Warbler

Black-throated Green Warbler

We found a second Black-throated Green Warbler on the ridge as well as an Eastern Phoebe which tricked Jon into thinking it was something else. By that time we were up to an incredible 60 species on our combined list, though he had a few more species than me (the gulls, the Field Sparrow, and a raven I don’t recall hearing at all). I don’t recall where we saw all of our warblers, but we ended up with 15 species! It was a fabulous end to the “warbler long weekend”, though I think I most thrilled with finally getting some decent photos of a Philadelphia Vireo. Maybe now that I’ve achieved that I will finally get a decent photo of a Canada Warbler, or finally see an Olive-sided Flycatcher for my life list!

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2 thoughts on “The Warbler Long Weekend: Ottawa’s Best-Known Migrant Trap

  1. Hey Gillian:

    What a great weekend you had! It really brought back some memories of all the hours I’ve spent at Mud Lake – it really is Ottawa’s premier spot.

    If you haven’t tried already, check out the Jack Pine Trail and focus on the two boardwalk areas. I’ve seen Olive-sided Flycatcher there in the past (my Life Bird encounter, actually). I’ve seen Yellow-bellied at the Fletcher gardens, near the Ash Woodlot, and I’ve heard of Olive-sided being seen there as well. I usually miss both of those species when they (too quickly) pass through Ottawa, and I never got the chance to track them down on their breeding grounds in Algonquin.

    Good luck!

    Pat

    • Hi Pat!

      Sorry for the delay in responding. Funny you should mention Jack Pine Trail…last year or the year before I heard the call of an Olive-sided Flycatcher near the first boardwalk around the end of August. It only called once and I couldn’t see it
      perching anywhere. I will make it a point to check there too.

      Interestingly, a week later a couple of birders had an Olive-sided on the ridge at Mud Lake. I was elsewhere, go figure!

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