Willow Flycatchers

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

On Sunday, May 24th I headed out to the Moodie Drive marsh between Corkstown Road and the former Nortel property to listen (and look) for one of my favourite flycatchers, the Willow Flycatcher. I am not sure what makes it my favourite – perhaps it is because it was the last of Ottawa’s breeding flycatchers that I added to my life list, or perhaps it is because they are harder to find than the others and I need to make a special trip to see them each spring. Whatever the reason, I enjoy visiting the marsh on Moodie Drive in late May to listen for their distinct, sneezy “Fitz-bew!” song.

I decided to take the bike path to get to the back of the marsh, and was surprised to see that the grassy field on the south side had been all dug up; this used to be a great spot to listen for Bobolinks and Eastern Meadowlarks. Well, not this year, though I was happy to hear a Savannah Sparrow singing from one of the remaining grassy clumps not too far beyond the fence. Another one was in a shrub right next to the fence as well.

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

I also heard what I thought was a Vesper Sparrow singing much further away, though it was difficult to hear and it only sang a few times before I continued on my way. I didn’t observe any other migrants or unusual birds along the bike path. The usual members of the blackbird family were present (Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, Brown-headed Cowbird and Baltimore Oriole), as were Warbling Vireos, Yellow Warblers, American Redstarts, a Gray Catbird and a Purple Finch. In the marsh itself a few Tree Swallows were hunting for insects while both Swamp Sparrows and Common Yellowthroats sang from the cattails.

It didn’t take me long to find the Willow Flycatchers. One was singing in a shrub right near the gravel footpath, and as I walked around the back of the marsh I heard two others singing further away. I listened but didn’t hear either the Virginia Rails or Sora that have been found here in the past. After thoroughly surveying the area, I only managed to add Blue Jay, Eastern Kingbird, Northern Flicker, Great Blue Heron, and Killdeer to my list – I didn’t find any House Wrens, Great Crested Flycatchers, Alder Flycatcher, or Green Herons, all of which I’d found here in years past. It wasn’t very warm out, and no interesting bugs were flying yet either, so I turned around to head back. The first Willow Flycatcher was still singing in the same shrub, and I managed to screen myself behind the foliage to get some photos without disturbing him.

Willow Flycatcher

Willow Flycatcher

The Willow Flycatcher belongs to the Empidonax genus of tyrant flycatchers, one of the most difficult groups of birds to distinguish. These birds are all quite small, with whitish wing-bars and eye-rings. Even among these look-alikes, the Willow Flycatcher is almost indistinguishable from the Alder Flycatcher in appearance, although the faint or missing eye-ring helps to identify it. These two species have very different songs, and used to be considered a single species (Traill’s Flycatcher) until 1973.

Willow Flycatcher

Willow Flycatcher

Eventually the Willow Flycatcher realized he had an audience, and flew off deeper into the marsh. I continued walking east on the path at the edge of the marsh, stopping when I heard a single Marsh Wren calling from the dense field of cattails. I tried to locate it and failed; however, while I was listening I heard the low, muffled “coo-coo-coo” call of a Least Bittern somewhat closer. I waited several minutes, hoping it would appear briefly above the cattails, but it was content where it was. I heard it call several times before leaving.

The strangest sight in the marsh was that of a Canada Goose standing on a broken-off tree trunk about 20 feet in the air. I am much more used to seeing these large waterbirds feeding on manicured lawns or swimming on the water!

Canada Goose

Canada Goose

When I was almost back to my car, I stopped at the fence separating the fields of the equestrian park from the bike path to listen for the Vesper Sparrow again. It wasn’t calling; however, a Savannah Sparrow was singing from on top of the fence. These birds have much finer, cleaner streaking than that of the Song Sparrow, giving them a neater appearance.

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

My trip to the Moodie Drive marsh was a success: not only did I add two new birds to my year list (the Willow Flycatcher and the Least Bittern), I got some great pictures of the flycatcher as well!

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