Then, on December 11th, Peter Blancher – the same person who discovered the Mountain Bluebird on Cambrian Road east of Richmond – reported a female Mountain Bluebird on Century Road south of Richmond! It was too great a coincidence, and many people were happy to hear that the bluebird did not, in fact, become lunch for the hawk. As Century Road isn’t too far from me, I headed there first thing on Saturday morning just after the sun had risen. It was still hiding behind a thick bank of clouds lying on the eastern horizon when I arrived; the light was poor, but I had no problems finding the Mountain Bluebird perching on the fence right next to the road.
The bluebird was not a lifer for me, as I had seen it on November 29th and only managed one terrible photo before it flew off to the distant trees. Still, I was hoping for some better views and better pictures of this exciting rarity, and I was relieved to see that no one else had arrived yet. I drove past the bluebird, did a U-turn, and parked on the shoulder of the road on the opposite side several metres away from where the bird was hunting. As it did not seem aware of me, I slowly crept up to it until I was almost directly across from it. There I sat for a good 20 minutes, watching as it went about its business. It appeared to be actively hunting, for it flew down into the ditch numerous times, picking at items in the grass before flying back up to the fence. At one point it caught a large, juicy grub or caterpillar and gulped it down.
Although the sky-blue male Mountain Bluebird is one of the most gorgeous birds in Canada, the duller female is also quite striking. From the front she appears a drab grayish-brown, lacking the cheerful orange throat and breast of the female Eastern Bluebird, which is the expected bluebird in our region. However, her tail and wing feathers are bright blue, making her look like a vibrant piece of sky fallen to earth.
She even did a wing stretch for me, showing off her brilliant blue colours:
The Mountain Bluebird is a western species, found in the sparsely treed open fields and grasslands of BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan. They are often seen perching on fences where they scan the ground for weed seeds and insects. While they usually hunt by pouncing on insects from an elevated perch, they may hover above the ground like a hawk if no perches are available.
Although migratory, Mountain Bluebirds are hardy birds, arriving on their breeding grounds in early spring while there is still snow on the ground and night-time temperatures may fall below -20°C. They can survive short spells of cold and stormy weather, but may perish from the cold or starvation if severe conditions persist. They have a tendency to wander during the winter, with strays often ending up as far north as Alaska and as far east as Atlantic Canada. This species has been previously recorded in eastern Ontario, but never in Ottawa; individuals have been found in Algonquin Park, Prince Edward County and the Brighton area. Experienced birders believed that it was only a matter of time before one showed up in the Ottawa area, and in fact Bruce Di Labio mentioned in his blog that this species was on his top 10 list for the next new species for Ottawa.
When I had gotten my fill of the bluebird I drove up to the river. At first I didn’t think there was much to see at Andrew Haydon Park; besides the usual mallards and geese on the ponds, I only tallied 12 Common Goldeneye, one Ring-billed Gull, one Herring Gull and a few crows. The juvenile Herring Gull was very cooperative, swimming on the western pond before eventually climbing out onto the grass.
While scanning the river I was taken aback when I saw a group of crows suddenly fly out over the river. I usually don’t see them flying across large bodies of open water, so I was surprised until they reached the lighthouse jetty at Dick Bell Park and then began dive-bombing a Snowy Owl resting on the rocks below it! Two crows landed on the rocks near the Snowy Owl and began hurling insults at it while the others continued their aerial assault.
The owl kept a close eye on the crows, but they were unsuccessful at driving it off and eventually flew back to Andrew Haydon Park. In the end someone carrying a tripod on the path toward the lighthouse noticed the owl, got a little too close, and caused it to flee. It flew over to one of the docks at the marina where it remained unbothered by crows and humans alike.
My last stop of the morning was Mud Lake, but my visit there seemed anticlimactic after seeing the Mountain Bluebird and Snowy Owl. Four American Wigeon and five Hooded Mergansers still remained on the pond, but other than that there were no other unexpected birds for this time of year.
Still, it was quite a treat seeing a Mountain Bluebird and a Snowy Owl in the same day, and I was really happy to get much better view and better photos of the newest bird to be added to the Ottawa list.