In the west end, the best place for waterfowl viewing continues to be Shirley’s Bay, though anywhere between Shirley’s Bay and the Champlain Bridge can be good. I still needed White-winged Scoter and Long-tailed Duck for my year list, so I decided to spend the morning along the river. I checked Andrew Haydon Park first, where I found two Lesser Scaup and a male Common Goldeneye in the western pond with a few mallards and several geese. Common Goldeneyes are winter residents in Ottawa, arriving in late October and departing in early April. They can be seen anywhere along the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers where there is open water. Strathcona Park, Hurdman Bridge, and Billings Bridge are the best spots along the Rideau River to see these diving ducks, and Deschenes Rapids and Bate Island are the best places along the Ottawa River as they remain open all year round. It is not common to see them in ponds or small lakes, so finding one in the western pond of Andrew Haydon Park was a treat. Unfortunately he stayed out in the middle of the water, well out of range of my camera.
The two scaup were less wary of the photographers and dog-walkers near the water’s edge, and came in close enough for a few photos. Scaup are diving ducks, like Common Goldeneyes, and are often seen in the middle of the river where they feed on clams, snails, crustaceans, aquatic insects, and aquatic plants. They are more likely to visit ponds than other diving ducks, and some show up in the ponds at Andrew Haydon Park almost every fall.
There weren’t many ducks on the river, and at first it was hard to see through all the geese (I estimated 2,000 individuals). There were, however, seven Green-winged Teals feeding close to the shore. These small dabbling ducks prefer shallow ponds with lots of emergent vegetation where they feed by filtering mud with their bill (as these ones were doing), up-ending, or picking items from water’s surface. Their diet consists of mostly plant material, including the seeds of grasses, sedges, pondweeds, and many others. They may also eat aquatic insects, crustaceans, mollusks, and tadpoles. It was nice to see the males moulting back into their breeding plumage; this one is only just beginning to attain the crisp gray and white herringbone pattern on its sides (click to enlarge).
Further out on the water I spotted a flock of 12 Common Goldeneyes and a Greater Yellowlegs (perhaps the same one from the previous weekend) in the western bay. I walked along the length of the shore, checking the rocks for Purple Sandpipers or other shorebirds, and finding none. As the geese began to leave I noticed eight Bufflehead ducks and two Red-breasted Mergansers fairly close to the shore. Two more Red-breasted Mergansers were in the eastern pond. I did not see any scoters, loons, grebes, or diving ducks further out in the river.
From there I drove over to Shirley’s Bay. As soon as I began scanning the water from the boat launch I spotted a Horned Grebe swimming east near the shore and a Red-necked Grebe further out. A flock of Common Goldeneye was diving out near the first island, and I wouldn’t have spent much time looking at them if another birder hadn’t told me there was a male White-winged Scoter among them. I scanned the flock carefully, and spotted the male scoter near the end of the flock. He was a dark duck, almost black, with a heavy orange bill, a white semi-circle beneath the eye, and a white wing patch (diagnostic among the scoters). Although scoters are considered sea ducks, the White-winged Scoter breeds farther inland than the other two species and is the one most likely to appear inland on lakes and rivers during migration. It is more common than the other two scoter species in Ottawa, and is the last one I needed for my year list. I was especially thrilled to see this one because I don’t see males in breeding plumage very often.
After scanning the river from the boat launch I got permission from Range Control to go out onto the dyke. The water was much higher than it had been on my previous visit, though there were still some mudflats near the base of the dyke. I didn’t see any shorebirds. In the middle of the bay I counted about 40 Green-winged Teal feeding by tipping up. Beyond the teal, in the open water, was a large raft of ducks, mostly mallards and Lesser Scaup. I decided to walk out to the first island to get a better look, despite the strong western wind blowing in off the water. This was a great decision as there was a fantastic variety of ducks much further out. I spotted two Black Scoters in with the Lesser Scaup, as well as a female Bufflehead and a couple of male Common Goldeneyes. A large flock of dabbling ducks had gathered close to the shore of the first island. There were tons of mallards, American Black Ducks and Green-winged Teals, plus about 30 American Wigeon, three Gadwall (two males and a female), two female Northern Shovelers, and a male Northern Pintail fairly close to the dyke. A large bird coasting above the vegetation at the edge of the water caught my attention; when it landed on a downed tree I was happy to identify it as a juvenile Northern Harrier. Although a pair of crows were squawking at the harrier in agitation, none of the ducks appeared to be disturbed. You can see the harrier sitting on the tree in the center of the photo below (click to enlarge):
I paused from time to time to check out the open river to the east. I spotted a Red-breasted Merganser as well as two large ducks right next to the dyke paddling toward the shore. Expecting to find a pair of mallards, I glanced casually through my binoculars – and was surprised when I realized they were White-winged Scoters! I frantically removed my camera from my bag and managed to take a few photos just as they saw me and started swimming away. It is rare to see any scoter close to the shore; this is the first photo that I’ve taken of this species that is worth posting!
I continued past the first island and met a pair of birders there scoping the ducks beyond the second bay. There were a lot of Lesser Scaup and Common Goldeneyes, but none were close; I spent quite a bit of time trying to pick out the species they said were present. I couldn’t find the Redheads they mentioned, although I did see several American Coots against the far shore. They also told me that a Long-tailed Duck was swimming far out on the river side. I found it, and thanked them; this was another new year bird for me. My third year bird was a trio of American Pipits flying over the bay; they give a musical “pipit” call as they fly, similar to a goldfinch in tone, but sweeter and without the nasal quality.
Happy with my three year birds, I left the dyke to check out the scrubby trails east of the boat launch for sparrows and passerines. I didn’t find any sparrows or migrants, although I did run into fellow OFNC members Bev and Dave on a side trail, which is a habitat I’ve never seen them in before. They told me there was lots of activity at the feeders, with a good number of species visiting including Dark-eyed Junco, American Tree Sparrow, and Purple Finch. I was hoping to see the Purple Finch and drove over there, but found only the usual species: Blue Jays, chickadees, a Downy Woodpecker, a White-breasted Nuthatch, and a couple of chipmunks and red squirrels. There hasn’t been an organized effort to maintain the feeders the way they were maintained when I first started birding; while the wooden tables were still there and full of vegetables for the deer, there were only two feeders hanging in the trees – and one of them was home-made from a plastic bottle. The juncos and tree sparrows were foraging for food on the ground, which wasn’t much, so I put what seed I had onto the rocks and in the feeder. It didn’t take long for the squirrels, chickadees and Blue Jays to see the food.
The juncos were a little a shyer, and the tree sparrows didn’t venture out onto the rocks at all. Eventually I photographed a junco in a bunch of branches just outside my car window.
A Mourning Dove flew in, the whir of its wings announcing its arrival. Then another songbird flew in and landed in the shrub above the feeder. It was about the same size as the jays or the Mourning Dove, and as it was in shadow with the sun behind it, all I could tell was that it didn’t have a crest. I checked it quickly through the binoculars, and was completely floored when I realized it was a young Northern Shrike! Not only was this the first time I’d seen one right at the feeders, it was another new bird for my year list! The smaller songbirds quickly disappeared, but the jays and the Mourning Dove seemed not to notice the predator perched close by – until the shrike went after the Mourning Dove. I heard the frantic fluttering of the Mourning Dove’s wings as it took off, and saw the shrike fly after it. The Mourning Dove must have made its escape into the nearby thickets, for the shrike returned a few moments later, talons empty. Despite the harsh shadows and bright back-light, it was an amazing experience to be so close to the shrike and watch it try to catch a meal. I normally see Northern Shrikes perched at the top of bare trees in winter, and even then they are normally wary of people and tend to fly off as soon as they catch you looking at them. Thankfully this one didn’t realize I was sitting in the car watching it. It flew off a moment later, and although I looked for it on my way out I wasn’t able to relocate it. Still, seeing the shrike was a perfect way to end the day!