Highlights of Migration

Nashville Warbler

Nashville Warbler

I was too busy enjoying warbler migration this past month to take many photos. Most of my birding outings involved craning my neck while searching for tiny, flitting birds high up in the green back-lit canopy, desperately trying to focus on a single distinguishing field mark before the bird disappeared into the foliage. These kinds of outings are not conducive for photography. Still, I managed to get a few birds in focus this past month – both in the binoculars and the camera’s viewfinder – and a few of them were even warblers.

As usual, Hurdman was a great place to spend my lunch hours, looking for migrants in the woods along the Rideau River. At the beginning of September, I knew migration had begun when I found a few Black-and-white Warblers with the resident American Redstarts and Common Yellowthroats. Two days later I discovered a Northern Parula, two Black-throated Green Warblers, and a Wilson’s Warbler as well.

When I first saw the Wilson’s Warbler I wasn’t sure what it was, as it was not a mature male with a nice bold black cap. All I saw at the time was a very yellow bird with a slightly darker face, a bold yellow supercilium (eyebrow) and a yellow eye-ring. I pished it out into the open, and took a couple of photos so I could try to identify it on the bus ride back to work. There aren’t too many yellow warblers that pass through Ottawa, and when I checked my Sibley’s app, I became certain that I had seen a first-year female Wilson’s Warbler – this was the first time I had seen a Wilson’s Warbler that wasn’t a male in breeding plumage, and I was pretty excited.

Wilson's Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler

I also saw a Herring Gull there on September 1st, a couple of White-throated Sparrows on September 2nd, my last Eastern Kingbirds of the year (a family of four) on September 3rd, and a high-flying Broad-winged Hawk on September 10th. Non-avian observations from that day included a Monarch Butterfly, a swarm of Common Green Darners, and a glider species that refused to land or let me get close enough to confirm it as a Wandering Glider.

On Saturday, September 5th I found warblers galore with 16 species at two locations. My first stop was the Rideau Trail on Old Richmond Road, where the edge habitat beneath the hydro towers and along the boardwalk can provide some pretty good birding in the fall. The boardwalk area was busier than the hydro cut, and I found a number of excellent birds including Tennessee Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Magnolia Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler (female), Yellow-rumped Warbler and Black-throated Green Warbler. There were multiple individuals present for most species; I counted at least five Yellow-rumps, four Magnolia Warblers and four Bay-breasted Warblers. There were likely more, but it was hard to keep track of so many birds moving through the area. One Blackpoll Warbler posed long enough for me to snap its photo – ever notice how they only do this in the fall, when they are in their drab non-breeding plumage? I never see spring adults out in the open like this!

Blackpoll Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

There were so many birds flying around me at one point that I couldn’t choose which one to focus on. I heard a couple of interesting birds, including one that sounded like a Canada Warbler but did not look like a Canada Warbler when viewed from below. I also heard an interesting vireo…its song was quite slow, more like a Yellow-throated Vireo than a Blue-headed Vireo, but I couldn’t find him up in the trees. I would have loved to seen that one, as I’ve never seen Yellow-throated Vireo in Ottawa before and would have liked to confirm it.

Among all the photos I took that day were these two Tennessee Warblers, showing them just how I usually see them – that is, in any position where its face is showing, or giving a classic side profile! I had to ask my birding pal, Jon Ruddy, for his opinion on these birds; he confirmed that the fine bill, the long wings, the extremely short tail, the drab, unmarked underparts, and the white undertail coverts helped identify it as a Tennessee Warbler. Perhaps it is because of the short tail that this species is (in his words) quite portly-looking.

Tennessee Warbler

Tennessee Warbler

The fine, sharp bill is visible in this photo, as is the prominent yellow supercilium and faint wingbar. The undertail coverts here are much whiter than the belly, a feature mentioned in Sibley.

Tennessee Warbler

Tennessee Warbler

After an enjoyable hour at the Rideau Trail, I headed over to Mud Lake first, entering from the southern entrance along Howe Street. Warblers that I saw (or heard) there that I didn’t see at the Rideau Trail include Pine Warbler (two heard singing in the tall pines), Black-and-white Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Northern Parula, Canada Warbler and Wilson’s Warbler. Two warblers were flitting about in the Arrowhead plants near the boardwalk; it seemed an odd place to see a woodland bird. One of the birds was a Nashville Warbler, which tends to forage fairly close to the ground, however, so it didn’t surprise me to find this species as one the birds foraging just above the water.

Nashville Warbler

Nashville Warbler

I never did get a good look at the second bird, as it disappeared into the Arrowhead leaves before I could identify it. The Nashville Warbler posed nicely a couple of times, showing off its gray head, white eye-ring, and yellow underparts interrupted by a band of white feathers at the top of its legs.

Nashville Warbler

Nashville Warbler

I also saw a new species of turtle at Mud Lake – the Red-eared Slider. This is not a native species, and likely ended up here when someone decided to release their pet into the wild.

Painted Turtles with Red-eared Slider

Painted Turtles with Red-eared Slider

Labour Day – September 7th this year – dawned gray and overcast. A quick stop at Sarsaparilla Trail produced five White-throated Sparrows, as well as a Magnolia Warbler hanging around the entrance to the woodland trail for the third day in a row. What makes this sighting interesting is that it wasn’t traveling with a flock of warblers; it was by itself all three days. From there I headed over to Shirley’s Bay to do some shorebirding. A pair of Long-billed Dowitchers had been feeding on the mudflats, and I was hoping to see them. I found them easily, along with 9 other species: Semipalmated Plover, Killdeer, both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, a Stilt Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and a Wilson’s Snipe lurking in the reeds along the spit. A couple of Tree Swallows and Barn Swallows flew over, two Northern Shovelers foraged in the shallow water with both Blue- and Green-winged Teals, a Scarlet Tanager was seen along the fence that marked the DND boundary, and a single Field Sparrow was among the flock of sparrows east of the boat launch. I tallied 44 species while there, which is a rather remarkable number for me; but best of all were the three Northern River Otters frolicking at the end of the spit. I was watching a Sora working its way along the reeds when something dark moving in the water caught my attention – the otter popped its head out of the water like a prairie dog emerging from its burrow, and two others did the same! They swam around for a bit, poking their heads up from time to time, before hauling themselves out of the water and running into the reeds where they disappeared. It was an awesome sight!

While I was at Shirley’s Bay I heard from someone that an American Golden-Plover was being seen at the mudflats at the west end of Andrew Haydon Park, so I drove over there next to go see it. With the water levels so low this year traditional places like Andrew Haydon Park and Shirley’s Bay are attracting their fair share of shorebirds, which is really helping my year list. Last year there were no extensive mudflats along the river, and my year list really suffered for this with only 9 shorebird species recorded. This year I’m already up to 17, with a few late species (Dunlin, Purple Sandpiper) still to come! Other birds of interest at Andrew Haydon Park included Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler and Blue-winged Teal.

On Saturday, September 12th I stopped in at Sarsaparilla Trail where I had my first suspected Swainson’s Thrush of the season – it was high up in the tree, and as the day was gray and slightly rainy, I was unable to see the buffy facial markings characteristic of this species. From there I drove up Moodie Drive to Mud Lake, but when I saw a flock of gulls in the soccer field at the corner of Corkstown and Moodie I pulled over to take a look. There were 13 Great Black-backed Gulls, four Herring Gulls, and four Ring-billed Gulls in the flock. This was a surprise as I rarely see Great Black-backed Gulls away from the river or the Trail Road Dump.

Great Black-backed Gulls

Great Black-backed Gulls

Mud Lake brought no real surprises, though I did add two birds for my year list – Palm Warbler and Blackburnian Warbler. I don’t know how I missed these birds in the spring. There were still several Song Sparrows still around, especially in the weedy mounds fenced off by the construction zone; when this one popped out into the open I took a photo, as these fellows aren’t going to be around for much longer.

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

The following weekend I had three confirmed Swainson’s Thrushes at Sarsaparilla Trail (my first of the fall) as well as several Golden-crowned Kinglets. That day I added Parasitic Jaeger to my year list after one was discovered at Ottawa Beach. It was resting on the water quite far out when I went to go see it, and I was hoping it would fly by close enough for a decent look. It seemed happy to stay where it was, so I returned the following day to see if I could get a better look. Not only was the jaeger sitting on the water even further out, when it flew off it flew way off toward Dick Bell Park.

I had a great moment on September 25th (yesterday) at Hurdman Park when I found two Catharus thrushes foraging close to the ground in a dense wooded area. I immediately recognized the buffy face of a Swainson’s Thrush, but when I checked the other I saw a plain brown face with a whitish eye-ring. Just as I was wondering if it were a Hermit Thrush it moved, exposing its distinctive reddish tail. For a moment I had both thrush species in the same field of view in my binoculars and was able to compare the two; this was the first time I’d ever seen both at once, and I believe it was this experience that led to my long-awaited lifer today.

Swainson's Thrush

Swainson’s Thrush (2013) – note the buffy area between the bill and the eye

I started the morning with a visit to the Richmond Lagoons where I saw a Green Heron standing on a post in the first cell immediately upon my arrival. Of course it flushed when I walked further into the conservation area; I had to pass the bird to get to the dyke between the first two cells. In the middle cell I saw plenty of ducks, including Gadwall, a Northern Shoveler and several Green-winged Teals. I also saw a pair of Solitary Sandpipers and a Lesser Yellowlegs close to the edge of the cell. A few more shorebirds flew over and disappeared into the middle of the first cell; I walked further along the dyke until I was able to get an unobstructed view of the water in the middle of the cattails. There I found more shorebirds, including a pair of dowitchers which were later identified as Long-billed. I couldn’t tell from my views of them, as they were quite far away and the sun was behind them. However, our eBird reviewer, Mark Gawn, advised that a pair of Long-billed Dowitchers had been present for a few days, which I didn’t know at the time.

Green Heron

Green Heron

From there I went to Jack Pine Trail where I got a few surprises. The first was a Ruffed Grouse just beyond the creek where the Arrowhead Spiketails breed. It was hidden among some low-growing shrubs when it saw (or heard) me coming and flew up off the ground; fortunately, it didn’t go too far and landed in a shrub close by where I was able to see it through a dense layer of branches. This is the first grouse I’ve seen all year; they seem to have declined lately, and I hope that seeing one here at Jack Pine Trail (where I haven’t seen one in several years) is a sign that their population is rebounding.

The second surprise was a Snow Goose, a new addition to my Jack Pine Trail list. I kept hearing flocks of Canada Geese flying overhead, and stopped to check them out in case there was something else flying with them. I was in an open area when I heard a huge flock of geese and looked up to see about 80 of them flying in an enormous V. Then I noticed one bird at the end of the chain was bright white! It didn’t look much smaller than a Canada Goose, which ruled out Ross’s Goose, a small white goose that also passes through our region on occasion. This is the first time in a long time that I have seen a Snow Goose flying with a flock of Canada Geese, and it put a smile on my face when I saw it.

The third surprise was my long awaited lifer, the Gray-cheeked Thrush. This species really likes to skulk in the thickets, and is virtually silent. I had just left the area where I saw the Ruffed Grouse when I saw movement in the dense, shrubby understory of a dark wooded area next to the trail. I got my binoculars on the bird and realized it was a thrush. It paused long enough for me to get a good look at its face. I noticed that it didn’t have any buffy tones, which ruled out Swainson’s Thrush. It had the merest hint of an eye-ring around the back of the eye. The face was brownish, but in the shadows of the trees I couldn’t tell whether it was the “cold” brown hue of a Gray-cheeked Thrush. I was starting to feel excited, as the lack of a distinct eye-ring made me start to think Gray-cheeked Thrush. Then it turned around, and I noticed the tail. The tail was the exact same shade of brown as its back; it had no reddish hue whatsoever. This confirmed my identification; the Gray-cheeked Thrush was bird no. 325 on my life list, and bird no. 186 on my Ottawa year list. It is September 26th and already my list is at the same number of species I saw in Ottawa in all of 2014!

I added four more species to my year list later in the day – a Trumpeter Swan had been discovered on an agricultural property on Franktown Road, not far from Richmond. I drove out to take a look and found Richard Waters already checking it out. It was a large white bird sleeping among a huge flock of Canada Geese and a single Northern Pintail; too far to get any photos worth posting. We decided to check out the Moodie Drive Quarry next, as there was an American Coot there that I needed for my year list, and he had been told about some shorebirds in one of the small ponds further north. Not only was the American Coot there, but so were two Lesser Black-backed Gulls (a year bird), several Ruddy Ducks (yet another year bird; how did I miss this one?), a single Redhead, a Pied-billed Grebe, and 30 Snow Geese.

This month’s birding brought my Ottawa year list up to 190 species, only ten shy of my yearly goal of 200. There are three months left to go, and with several common fall birds (American Pipit, Winter Wren, Rough-legged Hawk, Dunlin) still possible, plus many different waterfowl species still yet to arrive, I think I definitely have a chance of reaching that goal.

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2 thoughts on “Highlights of Migration

  1. Late May, when the Blackpolls come in, on the right day they can be easily seen in the spruce trees near the gates to the Filtration plant at Britannia. It would be a good spot to capture a nice male with that 60x zoom.

    • Would that I could take about a month off in late May/early June to find that right day! I heard a lot of males singing last spring, but the only one I actually saw was in Cambridge in a shrub right above the trail, but the shadows and angle weren’t great for photography. You can see my best picture in this blog post.

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