The end of August is the beginning of one of my favourite birding seasons: fall migration. Even though identification is more difficult in the fall than in the spring – birds in winter or non-breeding plumage can be very drab and often resemble other species – the volume of birds seems to be greater and the migration process takes longer, commencing in August and ending in December. This means that every outing has the potential to turn up something interesting, whether a year bird, a life bird or a real rarity. I’m not particularly adept at finding rarities, but I do enjoy seeing species that I haven’t seen since the spring, and watching them feed and interact with other birds. Here are some highlights from the beginning of migration.
On Sunday August 23rd I met up with Chris Lewis to do some birding at Mud Lake and Shirley’s Bay. The weather was fantastic, and the birds were cooperative. We saw and heard 37 species. Although warbler migration hadn’t really started (we only saw three species: five American Redstarts, five Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a single Cape May Warbler) the Great Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls had returned to the rapids and we saw a Ruby-throated Hummingbird in the open area where I had seen the Olive-sided Flycatcher two weeks earlier. A Scarlet Tanager and two Baltimore Orioles were nice to see, and there seemed to be several small empidonax flycatchers in the sumac field. We kept our eyes open for Yellow-bellied Flycatchers and Olive-sided Flycatchers, and ended up counting three Least Flycatchers and several phoebes. I saw one flycatcher that might have been a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, but it was chased away by the Least Flycatcher before I got a good look at it. At least the Least Flycatcher posed nicely for some photos.
Shirley’s Bay was much more interesting with a Broad-winged Hawk flying over the dyke, ten Black Terns patrolling the far bay, and several shorebirds on the mudflat including two Pectoral Sandpipers. Both Virginia Rails and Sora were still present, peeking out of the reeds from time to time. Several species of dabbling duck were also present, including two Northern Shovelers, and both Blue- and Green-winged Teal. The woods were quiet, though – only the usual woodland residents were present.
A return trip two days later was much more productive with several warbler species in the woods and along the trail east of the parking area: one Black-and-white Warbler, two Nashville Warblers, four Common Yellowthroats, two American Redstarts, a Magnolia Warbler, a Bay-breasted Warbler and a single Yellow Warbler marked the true start of warbler migration for me. No new ducks or shorebirds had arrived, but two Northern Harriers gliding above the grassy spit were fun to watch, and I enjoyed seeing the Cooper’s Hawk land in a tree close to where I was standing before noticing me and flying off. Three Osprey (including a pair hanging around the nest on Shirley Blvd.), three Tree Swallows, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a Marsh Wren and a Sora also made the outing fun.
I was off work the following day, and returned to Mud Lake for a couple of hours. I saw four species of flycatcher – Eastern Wood-Pewee, Least Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe and Great Crested Flycatcher, but still no Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. I enjoyed watching a tiny Ruby-throated Hummingbird harassing one of the Least Flycatchers by continually buzzing it in a U-shaped pattern – I’m not sure what the flycatcher did to offend the hummingbird, but it was amazing to see the feisty little hummer going after it!
Along the river I saw a couple of Spotted Sandpipers and three Common Mergansers, likely a family group, preening on the shore.
It was a great day for warblers with 12 species around the conservation area, including a Canada Warbler near the Howe Street entrance, three Black-and-White Warblers in the woods, a Pine Warbler still singing in the pine trees, several American Redstarts and Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Black-throated Green Warbler, two Yellow Warblers, two Magnolia Warblers, a Cape May Warbler, a Nashville Warbler, an Ovenbird that popped out when I started pishing, and two Common Yellowthroats. At least three White-throated Sparrows in the sumac field seemed early (migrating sparrows already?), but a Baltimore Oriole and a pair of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks made it feel more like the end of summer than the beginning of fall.
The following morning was a work day, but I got up early and spent an hour at Hurdman Park before going to the office. It took a while, but I finally found a pocket of migrants on the south side of the transitway bridge on the main trail that leads to the large hill. There I found two Wilson’s Warblers, two Nashville Warblers, a few Common Yellowthroats, a White-throated Sparrow, a Least Flycatcher, and two Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. I didn’t see any Yellow Warblers (they are usually the first of the resident warblers to head south) but there were still plenty of American Redstarts around.
When I returned to Hurdman the following morning the Wilson’s Warblers were gone, but I did see a Yellow Warbler, a Bay-breasted Warbler, and a Magnolia Warbler. I started pishing when I found a flock of birds and had an inquisitive Philadelphia Vireo fly into a shrub right beside me and give me a curious stare.
The Philadelphia Vireo is one of those birds that causes identification problems for me the first time I see one in the fall; distant or fleeting birds are often confused with Warbling Vireos and Tennessee Warblers, depending how yellow they are. I was glad that my first Philly of the season was so obliging, not only allowing me great looks, but also some decent photos. Here you can see the yellow is brightest on the throat; in comparison, Warbling Vireos have white or pale yellow throats, and the yellow is brightest on the flanks and undertail coverts. Also note the dark line between the eye and the bill (the lores) on this bird. The lores on the Philadelphia Vireo are wedge-shaped, thickest in front of the eye, and narrowing toward the bill. In comparison, the lores of a Warbling Vireo are evenly thick and don’t really contrast with the rest of the face, giving the face a ‘blank’ look. The Philadelphia Vireo has a crisper, more strongly patterned face created by the narrow but prominent whitish eyeline, lores that appear darker than the face, and a darker cap that appears more distinct from the face.
There were also a few Red-eyed Vireos in the flock; if there were any Warbling Vireos, I didn’t see them, though I heard five still singing in various parts of the park. By that time even the Red-eyed Vireos were confusing me, and though I tried to pish them into the open so I could photograph them, none cooperated.
That changed yesterday when I went to Andrew Haydon Park. I started off my visit with a walk toward the mouth of the eastern creek, as I had dreams of finding a Ruddy Turnstone or Red Knot along the shore. There were quite a few migrant songbirds in the thick vegetation next to the creek, including at least one Ruby-throated Hummingbird, a Northern Parula, and a couple of Tennessee Warblers. To my disappointment I didn’t see any shorebirds, though I did find Richard Waters looking for his own rarity in the area – he had turned up a Connecticut Warbler skulking in the shrubbery here last year and was hoping to do so again. We joined up and worked the area toward the bridge, then crossed it to check the other side. Richard spotted a Northern Waterthrush prowling the branches of a large tree right beside the water; then, in the wooded area between the Ottawa Beach parking lot and the bridge we found a large flock of songbirds. Pishing brought out several Chestnut-sided Warblers, a Scarlet Tanager, a couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a few Red-eyed Vireos, one of which stayed out in the open long enough to photograph. I was really happy to have gotten this photo showing it in almost the same pose as the Philadelphia Vireo, giving a great comparison of the two. I never realized that Red-eyed Vireos have longer tails than the Philadelphia Vireos!
I missed the Philadelphia Vireo that Richard spotted, and after spending about 10 minutes in the area he had to leave. I continued on my way to the mudflats at Ottawa Beach, intending to check the mouth of the creek for any birds (and dragonflies) of interest. I found the usual Song Sparrows and Common Yellowthroats lurking in the vegetation as well as an Eastern Phoebe perching on a metal barricade – this is just one of four phoebes I saw at Andrew Haydon Park that day.
When I reached the creek mouth I realized there were three shorebirds foraging in the shallow water. Two of them were Spotted Sandpipers, a bird which is common at Andrew Haydon Park, but the third was much paler, and I was stunned when I realized it was a Sanderling! This is only the third time I’ve seen a Sanderling in Ottawa, and the last time was in 2011 when I saw a single bird at Shirley’s Bay exactly four years ago on August 29, 2011. Although they were once quite common, they have become scarce in recent years. It is hard to know whether this is due to high water levels along the river during migration providing no habitat (as has been the case for the past two years), whether they are bypassing Ottawa on their journey south altogether, or whether their population is declining in number.
This was a really good find, so I messaged a few friends then called Richard to let him know about the Sanderling. After that I spent some time watching it and the Spotted Sandpipers, kneeling down in the sand and hoping it would come closer. Shorebirds are one of my favourite groups of birds as they appear so serene while they probe the muck for tasty invertebrates and insects. They are easy to watch, unlike small songbirds darting among the leaves of full-grown trees, and seem full of personality as they chase each other along the water’s edge and dart back and forth across the mudflats. Although they usually aren’t approachable, they will often come quite close to you if you sit still in one spot and wait for them to follow the shoreline in front of you.
On my way home I stopped in at Sarsaparilla Trail to see if anything interesting was around. I spotted a Broad-winged Hawk and a Turkey Vulture soaring high up, and large group of robins (probably between 15-20) in the woods. A smaller thrush was with them, and the uniform cinnamon colour of its back and tail confirmed it as a Veery, a species I had never seen here before.
Birds are definitely on the move, and so far the start of fall migration has brought in an excellent variety of species. I am especially happy about the extensive mudflats along the Ottawa River; it’s been a few years since we’ve had any decent shorebird migration in the west end, so I’m hoping that the river will continue to be productive as the season progresses.