The Weather Turns

Rusty Blackbird

Rusty Blackbird

Thanksgiving weekend in Ottawa is usually nice – sunny and warm, with the temperature in the high teens or low twenties. The fall colours are bright, and the trails are packed with people enjoying the last of the nice weather. Early October is my favourite time of the fall because the trees are at their peak colour and you can still go outside without needing a hat, gloves, or heavy jacket to enjoy the gorgeous fall colours and the migrating birds.

And then it happens – the weather changes. Yesterday was a nice, seasonable 10°C; this morning was a cold, gray, drizzly 3°C with a wind blowing straight from the north pole. I was determined to go out – not only did I want to find a few year birds to add to my list, I also anticipated tripping over fewer people on the trails.

I started my morning off at Andrew Haydon Park hoping to see some Cackling Geese, Red-breasted Merganser, scoters, and perhaps some Dunlin on the mudflats. The wind was gusty, which was probably why I saw only a few hardy dog-walkers and one photographer in the 40 minutes I was there. I thought I would be comfortable in my heavy fall jacket but after five minutes of scanning the eastern pond for Cackling Geese I wished for my winter coat. I heard a single Golden-crowned Kinglet calling in the pines and saw several Canada Geese and mallards on the pond, but no other waterfowl. A couple of crows were calling constantly in the background, and I decided to check them out before heading over to the western end of the park. I was glad I did, for I got the shock of my life when I realized the crows were vocalizing at an adult Bald Eagle perching in the same tree; it was easily twice the size of the crows!

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

This was the first time I had seen an eagle sitting in a tree at Andrew Haydon Park. When I do see them here (which is fairly infrequently) they are usually flying over the river. The tree wasn’t even near the water – it was between the parking lot and Carling Avenue. I realized the eagle was eating something and moved to get a better view. Because of the dark, overcast sky, I walked around the tree until I was able to photograph the eagle with some autumn leaves behind it for colour.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle (click to enlarge)

I wasn’t able to get a good look at what it was eating, though the single bright orange leg sticking up made me suspect it was dining on a mallard. Bald Eagles are opportunists when it comes to finding food, sometimes taking an easy meal by scavenging carrion or garbage, or harassing other birds (such as Osprey) for their food, and sometimes hunting their own fish, small mammals, gulls, or waterfowl.

The eagle seemed impervious to the antics of the crows, but when it saw me watching it, it flew off toward the river with its meal clutched in its talons. It wasn’t even 8:00 am and already I was having a fantastic day!

Bald Eagle xxx

Bald Eagle

From there I went to check out the western pond and the bay for shorebirds and waterfowl. At first all I saw were mallards and Canada Geese in the pond. Then as I walked toward the bridge I spotted a Great Blue Heron standing in the small stream that empties into the pond. I took a few photos since I wasn’t sure when I’d have another opportunity to get so close to one – it won’t be long before they head south for the winter.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

While I was photographing the heron my attention was captured by a small goose flying over the pond. I wasn’t sure what made me think it was a Brant, but when I got my binoculars on it I realized that was exactly what it was. It flew around for a good two minutes before landing on the lawn. I started heading toward it to take some pictures, and it immediately stepped into the water and started swimming away.

I turned back to the bridge across the stream and realized the Great Blue Heron was now crouched under it like an over-sized troll. It made me chuckle until I realized I would likely cause it to flush when I crossed the bridge to get to the river. Although I tried to tread lightly, I did end up scaring it out. I should have gotten a photo while it was still beneath the bridge!

I was hoping to see all kinds of ducks and waterfowl on the river but to my surprise all I saw were mallards, Canada Geese and a single female scaup. There were no mergansers, no grebes or scoters or shorebirds of any kind. The wind was too cold to want to study the river for very long, and the way it was blowing made me think I should be looking for Purple Sandpipers (typically a November bird) rather than yellowlegs or Dunlin.

When I turned to leave I noticed that the Brant was up on the lawn and walked over toward it. This time it allowed me to take a few photos. It was an adult as evidenced by the white “necklace” and lack of white scaling on its back.


Brant (click to enlarge)



I was in the mood to find some waterfowl, so I decided to head over to Shirley’s Bay to take a quick look from the boat launch. As I pulled in to park my car, a few small birds flew up off the ground. Most were Dark-eyed Juncos but I was surprised when I identified one as a Hermit Thrush. It landed on the rail of the wooden fence before flying back down the gravel parking lot.

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

I also found a couple of birders in the parking lot, and joined up with Chris Lewis and a few others as they scanned the river. We found four Horned Grebes and a Red-necked Grebe on the water, but not much else. When they advised they were going out to the dyke, I decided to join them. The walk through the woods wasn’t bad, as we were sheltered from the wind. We found both Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets and several robins. I kept watching for Winter Wrens and Orange-crowned Warblers, but the only warbler we saw was a single Yellow-rumped Warbler.

The wind out on the dyke was quite unpleasant, although the sun was beginning to peek through the clouds and a rainbow was visible in the west. The birds in the water of the foreground are all gulls; all were Ring-billed Gulls except for one juvenile Great Black-backed Gull.

Rainbow over Shirley's Bay

Rainbow over Shirley’s Bay (click to enlarge)

There were a few ducks further out in the bay – most were Green-winged Teals, but there were a few mallards and American Wigeon in with them. Seven Great Egrets were still present, as was a Bald Eagle sitting in a tree on the far shore. Shorebirds were well-represented, with two very late Spotted Sandpipers flying along the edge of the dyke just above the water, and a large group out near the spit comprised of two Black-bellied Plovers, about 20 White-rumped Sandpipers, one Pectoral Sandpiper, and my first Dunlin of the year.

Chris pointed out a Rusty Blackbird foraging along the dyke right near the water’s edge, and on closer inspection we found three of them altogether. This blackbird has suffered a terrible decline in numbers over the last four decades, and while they are a regularly occurring migrant in Ottawa, they can be difficult to find each spring and fall migration. Indeed, it is one species I don’t count on finding each year for my year list, and I count any sighting as a bonus. Although I’ve already seen them twice this year – once in the spring at Hurdman Park, and last weekend at Shirley’s Bay – this was the first time I’ve been able to watch them for a prolonged period of time as they moved along the shoreline in search of food. It is also the first time in a long time that I’ve been able to photograph them.

Rusty Blackbird

Rusty Blackbird

Males in breeding plumage are a glossy black, while both males and females in non-breeding plumage are brownish with rusty edges on their wing feathers. Males in non-breeding plumage can be distinguished from females by their darker colouring; they also have a less obvious supercilium. There was at least one male and one female in the flock, and I managed to get photos of them both for comparison purposes.

Rusty Blackbird

Rusty Blackbird (female)

Because of its long-term population decline, the Rusty Blackbird is listed as a species of special concern by COSEWIC. Although more than 70% of the Rusty Blackbird’s breeding range occurs in Canada’s Boreal forest, it is thought that the most likely factor in its decline is the conversion of its main wintering grounds, the forests in the Mississippi Valley flood plains, for agricultural or human habitation purposes. Over 80% of the wooded wetlands where they used to spend the winter has been lost. Other probable factors in its decline include programs in the southeastern United States to reduce crop-ravaging populations of blackbirds such as Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, European Starlings, and Brown-headed Cowbirds, with which the Rusty Blackbirds associate; the degradation of wetlands on their breeding grounds; and the invasion of dominant species, such as the Red-winged Blackbird, in these wetlands. Climate change is being blamed for two other factors: the drying out of the swampy wetlands where they breed, and the change in hydrological cycles and weather patterns which affect their habitat and the associated food resources. Finally, tests on Rusty Blackbirds on their breeding grounds have revealed high levels of mercury, which likely affects their immune system and their general health. Because there is no one clear factor responsible for the demise of 85% to 95% of the population, it is difficult for conservationists and scientists to come up with a plan to that will succeed in reversing the population decline.

Rusty Blackbird (male)xxx

Rusty Blackbird (male)

For the past two years, eBird has integrated a Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz protocol into its list of observation types; the goal of the data entered through this protocol is to identify Rusty Blackbird hotspots across the landscape, and assess whether critical stopover areas are adequately protected. As this is a three-year program, it will likely run again next spring; birders who use eBird are urged to look for and report this species in support of an international initiative to conserve this enigmatic and threatened blackbird. In the meantime, I enjoyed watching these uncommon blackbirds – at least until the wind became too unbearable and we all decided to leave.

We walked around the shoreline trail and back roads after that, hoping to find the Field Sparrows I had seen last week. We didn’t find any Field Sparrows, but we did find a flock of White-throated Sparrows and a single Swamp Sparrow in a wooded area in between the road and the river. From there we returned to the boat launch, where I spent a few minutes scanning the river before heading home. The grebes were still present, and an unidentified scoter was swimming far out in the bay. The two white spots on its face marked it as either a White-winged Scoter or a Surf Scoter, but it was very far out and the wind made it impossible to obtain a steady view.

While it was fantastic to see so many late birds (the Great Egrets, the Spotted Sandpipers, the Swamp Sparrow, and the Yellow-rumped Warbler – all of which would be my last sighting of the year for these species), the weather has definitely turned and the later migrants are moving in: the Rusty Blackbirds, the Horned and Red-necked Grebes, the Dunlin and Golden-crowned Kinglets. Most of our summer residents are long gone, but the winter birds haven’t arrived just yet. It won’t be long, though – and in the meantime, there’s plenty of time to enjoy the remainder of fall migration while it lasts.


2 thoughts on “The Weather Turns

  1. While I’m well caught up on my reading, my commenting is way behind. At 8am on a day like that, I would have taken the excellent eagle photo and called it a day! That’s really neat about the eBird tracking. I didn’t know it was used for something more than just personal checklists.

    • Hi Jason! Thanks for all the comments – I was on vacation last week and am just catching up on my blog now.

      I was equally happy with the Rusty Blackbirds as I was with the eagle, so I’m glad I stayed out that day. And yes, eBird is an excellent resource for tracking all sorts of things. Hopefully by documenting the Rusty Blackbirds during migration, scientists will be able to stop further declines in population.

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