On Sunday August 9th I made plans to go birding and dragon-hunting with Chris Lewis. Our plan was to meet at Shirley’s Bay at 8:30, but I was up early enough that I had time for a quick check at Mud Lake before our meet time. A few early migrant warblers had been found along the river, and I was hoping to spot a few. My goal was to check the scrubby field west of the lake and the ridge quickly before driving over to Shirley’s Bay.
I parked on Cassels Streret and found a small Green Heron hunting patiently in the small bay beside the road. It caught a small fish before slowly walking onto another log.
I headed into the scrubby field next, hearing an American Redstart and seeing an Eastern Phoebe. Numerous Yellow Warblers were still present.
I saw lots of Cedar Waxwings, a White-breasted Nuthatch, a couple of Gray Catbirds, and a few Song Sparrows. Then a slightly larger bird flew up onto a branch at the top of a dead tree and paused. I took a look and immediately knew it was something different. It was a flycatcher, but what struck me was the white belly contrasting sharply with the dark “vest”. I was pretty confident that I was looking at my first-ever Olive-sided Flycatcher. Fortunately it stayed there long enough to snap three pictures before it flew off.
The Olive-sided Flycatcher is an uncommon bird in Ottawa and has long been a nemesis bird of mine. Although they breed not too far north of us in Quebec, they pass through in small numbers in mid- to late-August when single birds typically appear briefly before moving on. Repeat sites for this species include Mud Lake and the FWG, though these birds usually do not linger long enough to be re-located. Although I’ve spent plenty of time at Mud Lake looking for them, I’ve never been in the right place at the right time. A few years ago I heard its call – “Quick three beers!” – at Jack Pine Trail in the late summer, but as the call was only given once and as I didn’t see the bird, I never counted it. It was really thrilling to finally see one, and to have it pop up right in front of me instead of chasing someone else’e report. True to form, the bird stayed in sight for only about 30 seconds before flying down into the shrubbery where it disappeared.
I tried to relocate it but the dense shrubbery in the northwestern corner of the conservation area was too overgrown and all the trails petered out after going only a short distance. I sent an email to Chris about my find, and she said she would meet me there in 15 minutes. Then I went up to the ridge to see if I could find someone to look at my photos to confirm my ID. I ran into Greg Zbitnew, who now looks after the Ottawa weekly bird report, and he confirmed it. At that point Chris joined us and the three of us headed back to the western field and searched as much of the area as we could. Because the vegetation where the bird had flown was impenetrable we were not able to cover that area. We did not relocate the bird, but we did see a Northern Parula, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak and a Cedar Waxwing sitting on a nest. Chris remarked that she was really pushing her luck nesting so late in the season; songbird migration will begin in earnest in only a few weeks.
From there Chris and I continued on to Shirley’s Bay. As we were walking along Shirley Blvd. toward the dyke we spotted an Osprey on the nest inside the DND gate and a Great-spangled Fritillary nectaring on some thistles. This butterfly flies later in the season in our area, and is more commonly seen during the latter half of the summer. It appeared to be in good condition.
In the woods, we saw a doe with her fawn as well as a group of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks feeding on some buckthorn berries and bathing in the puddle in the middle of the trail. A couple of Eastern Wood-pewees were still singing; these small woodland flycatchers tend to arrive late on their breeding grounds and sing later into the fall than many songbirds.
The water level in the bay west of the dyke has continued to drop, creating a large expanse of muck and pools of shallow water. This was the best shorebird habitat that I have seen here in the past few years, and many birds were taking advantage of the banquet provided by the receding waters. When we first arrived an adult Bald Eagle was sitting in a tree on the grassy spit and a large number of “peeps” were foraging in the bay close to the dyke. While the majority were Least Sandpipers, at least five slightly larger and grayer Semipalmated Sandpipers stood out among them. Further out, close to the grassy spit were about a dozen yellowlegs. At first I thought they were all Lesser Yellowlegs until I spotted a Greater Yellowlegs standing partially behind a rock. Eventually a Merlin came along and scared the entire flock into flight. It scattered all of the shorebirds until it reached the deeper waters further out in the bay when it began to chase a single bird over the water. We weren’t sure what the outcome was going to be until the shorebird – a Least Sandpiper, as confirmed by Chris – dove into the water and disappeared entirely from view beneath the surface. Chris and I had never seen anything like it; the Merlin kept flying, frustrated in its attempt to catch a meal.
After that the shorebirds remained unsettled, frequently picking up and flying in flocks over the water before dropping onto the mudflats again in a new location. At one point I picked up a Solitary Sandpiper flying high in the air, looking very much like a snipe until it suddenly plummeted and I lost it from view. When I lowered my binoculars it was practically right in front of me.
A couple of Belted Kingfishers were also present, perching in a tree close to the Bald Eagle before flying off, and we counted 10 Great Egrets and two Great Blue Herons altogether. Several Killdeer, at least one Spotted Sandpiper, and seven Semipalmated Plovers were also foraging on the mudflats, although they kept moving around, too. In the slightly deeper water we saw a number of Canada Gees with a few mallards, Wood Ducks, and two male Redheads. In the vegetation near the base of the dyke, we saw a juvenile Sora walking around out in the open for at least 10 minutes while a couple of juvenile Virginia Rails squeaked in the reeds in front of us, occasionally bursting into view when they flew from one clump to another.
When we had seen enough Chris and I left. The puddle in the woods continued to be productive – we saw the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, an American Goldfinch, a Black-and-white Warbler, and a fall-plumage Chestnut-sided Warbler taking turns at the puddle. A much more disturbing sight was a smallish Garter Snake attempting to swallow a Leopard Frog. I heard something rustling behind me and turned to see the snake zigzag quickly across the trail right behind me into the vegetation; a few moments later Chris and I heard the distressed cry of the frog and saw the back end of the frog being swallowed whole. Although the cries of the frog were heart-rending, we left the pair alone as we knew the snake needed to eat, too – we just preferred not to see or hear the prey being swallowed alive.
At the fence line we spotted the doe and her fawn again as well as two Meadow Fritillaries in the grass. I looked for large darners flying in the area but didn’t see any.
As it was getting late in the morning and the temperature had risen a shade beyond comfortable we decided not to go dragon-hunting. Still it was an excellent morning of birdwatching with 35 species at Shirley’s Bay and 28 species during my “quick stop” at Mud Lake. The star of the day was certainly the Olive-sided Flycatcher appearing suddenly in front of me at Mud Lake; the unexpected life birds are always the best!