The OFO Convention

Hundreds of Canada Geese stage in Ottawa during fall migration,

Hundreds of Canada Geese stage in Ottawa during fall migration, giving birders an opportunity to sort through them for different species and odd forms.

Between September 26 and 28, 2014, the Ontario Field Ornithologists hosted their annual convention in Ottawa. While the evening programs included banquets and social events such as the OFO Annual General Meeting, “Birds and Beers”, “Birding Jeopardy” with Sarah Rupert, presentations from Bruce Di Labio and keynote speaker Chris Earley (whose books I own!), and the presentation of the Distinguished Ornithologist Award, the majority of the daylight hours were spent birding Ottawa’s hot spots with leaders provided from the OFNC, the Club des ornithologues de l’Outaouais, Bird Studies Canada, the Pembroke Area Field Naturalists, the Innis Point Bird Observatory, and the Wild Bird Care Center. I was co-leader with various other OFNC members for trips on each of the three days, with full day trips to the East End on Friday and Sunday and an afternoon walk along the Ottawa River on Saturday.

The weather was fantastic all three days, and although most birders would agree that a cold north wind would have helped to bring in the migrants, I don’t think too many people complained about the hot, sunny 27°C afternoons.

Bernie Ladouceur and I started off Friday’s East End trip with a couple of stops in the Larose Forest. This isn’t a place I visit very often; the last time I was here was in January 2012 to see the Varied Thrush visiting a feeder along Calypso Street. At our first stop (shown below) we saw a couple of Pileated Woodpeckers, a Northern Flicker, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Purple Finches, and heard a Blue-headed Vireo singing. The feeders at a nearby house were attended by quite a few Blue Jays.

Larose Forest

Larose Forest

A little further along we stopped at a marsh where we saw a Common Yellowthroat flitting amongst the shrubs for food and three Rusty Blackbirds flying over. We heard the call notes of both White-throated and Swamp Sparrows in the vegetation on either side of the road.

Larose Forest

Larose Forest

Other stops produced a Sharp-shinned Hawk circling overhead, our first Pine Siskins of the fall flying over, a singing Pine Warbler, a Cape May Warbler trying to sing (though I didn’t recognize the song and wouldn’t have identified it as a Cape May if I had been alone), and a Merlin plucking food from the gravel road.

Our next stop was the Crysler/St. Albert sewage lagoons, a set of seven cells that straddle the county border so that some of the cells are in Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry while the rest lie in the county of Prescott and Russell. We entered via the Crysler lagoons, the first of which had very little water, making it perfect for shorebirds. Unfortunately, only six shorebirds seemed to find the cell to their liking: four Semipalmated Plovers and two Semipalmated Sandpipers.

The other cells were all filled with water. We saw two Pied-billed Grebes, several Common Gallinules, and both Green- and Blue-winged Teals (though I couldn’t distinguish them from the distance).

St. Albert Sewage Lagoon

St. Albert Sewage Lagoon

The furthest lagoons (the St. Albert lagoons) had more interesting birds. A Horne Grebe was a great find, and in the last pond we saw both Ruddy Ducks and Northern Pintails swimming amongst the numerous Canada Geese. The light was better for discerning Green-winged Teals among the huge flock of waterfowl, and we saw three geese that looked suspiciously like Cackling Geese. A lone Snow Goose was resting on the grassy berm with a small group of Canada Geese. On the way back to the cars we saw a Northern Harrier coursing over the lagoons, and a White-crowned Sparrow that popped up out of a bush with several Song Sparrows. Some members of the group saw an Eastern Meadowlark. We also heard our first American Pipits flying overhead.

Our last stop of the day was the Giroux Quarry Pond. The only shorebirds present were a single Greater Yellowlegs and two Killdeer along the shore by the spit, but there were a couple hundred ducks and geese – mostly geese! – to have fun sorting through. We picked out two female Common Goldeneyes, a female Hooded Merganser and a single blue-morph Snow Goose among the flock. We saw several American Pipits and Turkey Vultures fly over, although the best birds in my opinion were the adult and juvenile Bald Eagles soaring in the sky to the northeast of the northern pond.

Giroux Quarry Pond

Giroux Quarry Pond

Despite the lack of shorebirds it was an excellent outing, with several first-of-the-fall birds for me including Snow Goose, Common Goldeneye, Blue-headed Vireo, American Pipit, Rusty Blackbird and Pine Siskin.

My outing the next day was not as productive. I spent two and a half hours with Roy John and unofficial co-leader Bernie Ladouceur along the Ottawa River, which is normally fantastic this time of year, except for two things: the water was very high, leaving no shorebird habitat along the margins, and the beautiful, sunny afternoon meant that Andrew Haydon Park was full of families and picnickers. Our best bird was a group of three Horned Grebes in the bay east of Ottawa Beach. Some people saw a Nashville Warbler and an Eastern Phoebe; even the songbird migrants were conspicuously absent.

We checked Dick Bell Park briefly and found a lone Common Goldeneye swimming in the bay. This unusual-looking Canada Goose on the grass caught my attention.

Canada Geese

Canada Geese

From there we headed west to Shirley’s Bay. Although not on the agenda, the morning outing had found a nice mix of songbirds along the dyke. We didn’t have time to go all the way out to the dyke, but after patiently scanning the water Bernie found three White-winged Scoters and a Red-necked Grebe. Once again songbirds were in short supply, although we did come across a large flock of sparrows playing hide-and-seek in the scrubby area east of the picnic shelter. Although it was difficult to get a good look at every sparrow, we did see a single Field Sparrow among the usual Song Sparrows. We also heard a Ruby-crowned Kinglet chattering in the shrubbery and caught a glimpse of this tiny green dynamo as it flitted among the branches.

The next day it was back out to the east end with Mark Gawn and Remy Poulin. Because of the lack of shorebirds, and because there were no unusual waterfowl present in the lagoons that couldn’t be found in other places, Mark and Remy decided to forego the stops at the lagoons and head to Mer Bleue instead. The only wetland in Canada’s Capital Region internationally recognized under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the Mer Bleue bog provides a fascinating glimpse of a northern ecosystem more typical of the Arctic than southern Ontario. On our way there, we stopped on Ramsayville Road where a Palm Warbler foraged in a shrub close to the road and a Cooper’s Hawk provided excellent views as it flew across the sky right above us. A stop along Ridge Road was even more productive: we found 19 species in 15 minutes including two Gray Catbirds, a couple of Tennessee Warblers, several White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows, a Northern Parula, and a Pine Siskin flying over.

When we arrived at the Mer Bleue parking lot I noticed several robins flying over and one blackbird perching in a distant tree. Mark identified it as a Rusty Blackbird. A flock of 16 Pine Siskins also flew over, very close this time. The bog itself was beautiful though we didn’t see many birds on the western section. Swamp Sparrows occasionally sang in the marsh and Mark saw a Northern Flicker fly over. The fiery red colours of the vegetation made for a stunning setting.

Mer Bleue

Mer Bleue

Mer Bleue

Mer Bleue

We found more birds in the southern section. In fact there were so many that Mark was surprised. There was at least one yellow Palm Warbler, a subspecies unique to Ottawa; this bird is typically found in eastern Canada, while the Western subspecies is the one that usually migrates through Ottawa. There were also plenty of sparrows, including White-throated, White-Crowned, Song and a single Lincoln’s Sparrow, a species I had missed in the spring. Unfortunately most birds were on the south side of the boardwalk, directly in front of the low, bright autumn sun!

Mer Bleue

Mer Bleue

When we reached the small woodlot before the cattail marsh we managed to pish some Yellow-rumped Warblers and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet into view. More sparrows popped up out of the vegetation, including a Fox Sparrow – my first of the fall! We also saw two thrushes in the back but were not able to get a good enough look to identify them.

Mer Bleue

Mer Bleue

A couple of members of the group were lucky enough to see a small weasel on the boardwalk. I wasn’t one of them.

Mer Bleue

Mer Bleue

We had a nice flock of warblers in the woods on our way back to the parking lot. Two female Black-throated Blue Warblers foraging in a shrub right in front of us provided excellent views. Several others, including Black-throated Green and Bay-breasted, were trickier to spot as they were much higher up and deep in the foliage. While waiting for the warblers to come into view I photographed this Autumn Meadowhawk blending right in with the sumac leaf on which he is perching.

Autumn Meadowhawk on Sumac

Autumn Meadowhawk on Sumac

We checked Milton Road for Sandhill Cranes but didn’t see any. A small bird diving from a fencepost to the ground proved to be a European Starling and not the Northern Wheatear found the previous weekend.

Our last stop of the day was the Giroux Quarry Pond where many of the same birds seen on Friday were still present, including the Common Goldeneyes and the blue-morph Snow Goose. A couple of Cackling Geese were present, and one even walked along the spit, providing an excellent comparison with the larger Canada Geese next to it. We identified three additional species of dabbling duck not seen on Friday: three Northern Pintails, three Green-winged Teals and one Blue-winged Teal. Three shorebirds (Killdeer, Greater Yellowlegs, and Lesser Yellowlegs) were present, and two raptors flew over: a Peregrine Falcon and a Sharp-shinned Hawk. One of the most surprising birds was a distant Tree Swallow hawking for insects high above the water.

Although not a bird, a Praying Mantis in the weeds next to the road caught my attention. This is the first one I’ve managed to photograph this year:

Praying Mantis

Praying Mantis

That was the end of the convention, which was hailed as an unqualified success. The birding trip are considered to be the highlight of each annual OFO convention, and 38 leaders involved in 29 trips found approximately 149 species (note – this number has not been finalized yet, to my knowledge, and includes two species in Kingston which were not found in Ottawa – Caspian Tern and House Wren). In comparison, the OFO Convention held in Ottawa in 2006 recorded a total of 138 species, though there were only two days of field trips back then. Nevertheless, 147 species in the Ottawa region (plus two more in Kingston) is an impressive tally given that the summer-like weather was not great for bringing down migrants and high water levels on the Ottawa River and elsewhere meant there were few shorebird species present.

I was happy to be a part of the convention, even though I didn’t attend any of the evening activities, and may consider attending the OFO convention in the future!

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