The open river at the Queensway has been my favourite weekday birding spot during the latter half of March. I saw my first Ring-billed Gulls of the year there on March 11th, along with a male and female Common Goldeneye and a female Common Merganser. When I first saw the merganser I caught her resting on the ice and took this photo of her in mid-yawn:
When she noticed me she immediately jumped into the water and started swimming away, foraging in typical merganser fashion with her face submerged in the water.
The Ring-billed Gull was much more cooperative:
I figured that since the Ring-billed Gulls were arriving, the Red-winged Blackbirds couldn’t be far behind. Despite checking several areas over the next week, I couldn’t come up with a single blackbird, and wasn’t even seeing any reports on eBird. On March 20th I returned to Hurdman and saw more gulls, the pair of Common Goldeneyes, and two Common Mergansers – a male and the overwintering female – but still no Red-wings.
On March 21st I was surprised to look out into my backyard and see my first chipmunk of the year foraging beneath the feeder. This one is quite wary of me and doesn’t come up to the back door like other chipmunks have in the past.
Later that day I spotted my first migrant Canada Goose on the storm water ponds by my house. One of the smaller ponds was half-open, and the goose was standing on the ice with several mallards and American Black Ducks. Over the next few days I saw more and more geese in the area and flying overhead, but no Red-winged Blackbirds.
On March 26th I returned to Hurdman and finally saw some new birds. The Wild Turkeys were still lurking about the woods near the bird feeders, but up by the river things had changed. I spotted a male and female Wood Duck swimming together near the shore of the river by the footbridge. I had found a female along the Rideau River back on March 10th, in the same area north of the Queensway where the mallards are used to being fed – the male, at least, was new.
Then, when I followed the bike path beneath the 417 bridge I found ten Canada Geese feeding on the grass.
On the water, I saw a male Hooded Merganser swimming in the middle of the river with a bunch of Common Goldeneyes, and two more Hoodies – a male and female – were swimming along the far shore. Although a large amount of water was now open, I noticed the Barrow’s Goldeneye did not return with the Common Goldeneyes – it made me wonder what had happened to him, as I haven’t seen this species at all since December.
When I reached the spot where all the mallards and American Black Ducks had hung out all winter I found two more Wood Ducks among them. These are probably local birds returning to the area to breed, given how comfortable they were with my proximity when I threw some bird seed on the ground.
The male Wood Duck is much more colourful than the female, and here you see how much smaller it is than the female mallard behind it.
When I returned to the bus station after my outing I heard a Dark-eyed Junco call briefly in the woods (another species that was new to the area; none had overwintered here this year) and then the chip note of a Song Sparrow near the O-Train construction site. I checked a small brush pile and found the Song Sparrow sitting on top of it – my second new year bird of the day. It was a bit surprising to see a Song Sparrow before my first Red-winged Blackbird!
When I got home later that evening I spotted two Great Blue Herons flying over my subdivision as I walked home from the bus stop – another new year bird. I decided to walk around the ponds after dinner to see if anything else had shown up. There were no new waterfowl species – about 15 Canada Geese, 5 black ducks and about 60 mallards were resting on the water – but I did hear a couple of juncos singing, see five robins and observe about 6 blackbirds sitting in a tree! At least two were Red-winged Blackbirds and two were Common Grackles. I wasn’t able to get close enough to make an accurate identification of the other two before the flock flew away, but it was lovely to hear both songs again after the long winter!
An even bigger surprise was the beaver feeding on its food raft in the middle of the frozen pond. I had never seen the beaver here before, although I have run into people who have. Beavers are most active around dawn and dusk, and I am not usually here early enough or late enough to see them. This time, however, I was.
On Saturday March 28th I went to the Beaver Trail to look for early migrants. I found a single male Red-winged Blackbird singing at the marsh at the back and over 100 Bohemian Waxwings but no Song Sparrows, Purple Finches or Great Blue Herons.
The next day Deb and I went to Mud Lake. As soon as we got out of the car we were delighted to hear the song of a Song Sparrow in the cedar hedge next to the parking area. We tracked it down in a cedar tree and took a few pictures.
We also found a single American Robin and three Red-winged Blackbirds on the ridge, none of which were interested in having their pictures taken.
Several Ring-billed Gulls were flying back and forth over the ridge, and in the channel we found a couple of Canada Geese along with the usual Common Goldeneyes, American Black Ducks and mallards. Is it me or does this one look relieved to be back?
I usually don’t get very many good photos of the goldeneyes because of their preference for hanging out in the middle of the river, away from the shore. This male came swimming down the channel almost right in front of us, and I couldn’t resist taking a picture. If he were directly in the sunshine his head would appear green rather than black. (Now if only the Barrow’s Goldeneye would come as close!)
There were a large number of birds in the vegetation east of the ridge. Several juncos were flitting in the shrubs, some of which were giving their distinctive musical trill. A few goldfinches were foraging for food, while a beautiful male Purple Finch singing at the top of a tree was a pleasant surprise – it was a year bird for me. We also found three White-throated Sparrows in the cedar shrub next to the parking lot, most likely the overwintering trio as I have not heard or seen any other White-throats yet. It was great to see they had survived the miserable winter.
Mud Lake itself was still frozen so we didn’t see any herons or Wood Ducks. This didn’t prevent a few Canada Geese from staking out their territories on the ice! Other birds of note included a Pileated Woodpecker by the river, a single Bohemian Waxwing sitting at the top of a shrub in the sumac field west of the lake, a Common Grackle flying over, and several singing Northern Cardinals.
From there we went to the Old Quarry Trail hoping to see some more Red-winged Blackbirds and Song Sparrows. It was much quieter, with only 10 species noted (including a couple of Common Redpolls flying over) compared to 22 species at Mud Lake. The only migrant I noticed was a single Canada Goose flying over.
I returned to Hurdman on the last day of March. The woods were quiet, and although I did hear a couple of Bohemian Waxwings calling from deep within the thickets, I have no idea how many were actually present. On the far side of the Queensway bridge I saw a robin as well as a few Canada Geese feeding on the lawn near the mallards. There were five Wood Ducks present that day, two males and three females.
Though we are now almost two weeks past the equinox and the first day of Spring, the weather has yet to catch up. The 14-day forecast looks as though we still have a few more days of cold weather to endure before we start climbing back to seasonal temperatures (about 7°C right now).
Unfortunately, this has been the trend for the past few months and that “warm spell” that is supposed to arrive eventually either never does, or lasts only a day before the temperature plunges back down. The Easter weekend isn’t looking too warm right now (except for Good Friday). I am hoping that by the following weekend the weather will warm up, it will finally feel like spring – and migration will be well under way!
So how does blasting work? It’s to break up the ice and then they haul it away? It’s been warmer than usual down here. We’re averaging 28C here nowadays. Love the wood ducks. I’ve not see a female before.
They first cut up the ice, then blast it so it runs over the falls to the Ottawa River (also frozen). This Ottawa Citizen article talks about it and has video showing the workers doing the blasting. Once the blasting is done they use a a crab-like boat-tractor called an Amphibex to break up the ice further upriver. I’ve seen them breaking up the ice much further upriver with the Amphibex but haven’t this year, perhaps because we didn’t get as much snow this winter and don’t need to worry about flooding.