A Golden Life Bird

When I woke up on Saturday, March 19th, there were only two regularly-occurring birds in the Ottawa area I had not yet added to my life list: Golden Eagle and Arctic Tern. Of these two birds, I expected the Arctic Tern to be the easier to see – they migrate along the Ottawa River during the last week of May and the first two weeks of June, and there are only a few spots along the river where they are easily seen during this narrow window of time. I haven’t yet made any serious attempts to find an Arctic Tern for my life list, as (a) you have to either be there at the right time if they are flying through rather than feeding or resting in the rapids, or else put in a lot of time scanning the river; and (b) views from the Britannia Pier and Britannia Point are usually distant, and I’ve always had doubts about being able to separate this species from the similar-looking Common Tern in those circumstances.

As the Golden Eagle doesn’t have such a restricted habitat, I figured it would be the tougher bird to get – unless I wanted to spend a few hours at the Greenbank Hawkwatch during the spring or fall migration. While hawk-watching sounds interesting, it mostly entails standing around in one spot for as long you can stand it, waiting until something flies within view. And unless you catch a day with the right weather conditions, there could be quite a few long, uneventful periods where nothing is flying within view. Since standing still for a couple of hours doesn’t much appeal to me, I figured I would have to get lucky on my own. While Golden Eagle numbers have been good so far this spring (one was seen flying low over Bell’s Corners recently!) I didn’t expect to find myself in just the right place at exactly the right time anytime soon. However, when I went to Sarsaparilla Trail yesterday morning, that’s exactly what happened.

My goal was to check the pond for waterfowl and herons. However, the pond was still frozen, and except for a few geese flying over, I didn’t see any waterfowl. Actually, there wasn’t much of anything around, although I couldn’t help but notice the huge dark bird soaring high over the pond as I was walking down the boardwalk. Because it was so dark, I figured it was a Turkey Vulture at first. When I got my binoculars on it, however, I noticed that the bird was holding its wings straight out – they were not angled in a dihedral like a Turkey Vulture. It was not rocking either, so next I considered Bald Eagle. While the head was pale, the tail wasn’t, eliminating an adult Bald Eagle. Juveniles are sort of mottled with diagonal bars on the underside of the wings, but the underside of this bird didn’t fit juvenile Bald Eagle either. The leading edge of the wings appeared dark, and the trailing edge appeared a lighter golden brown-colour reminiscent of the two-toned pattern of a Turkey Vulture. When the bird banked, I could see a golden brown area across the top of its body and wings as well. That was when I began to suspect I had my lifer Golden Eagle, and when I sent the details of my sighting to Jon Ruddy, he confirmed it! I only got two photos of the bird as it was soaring away from me; however you can see the pale golden head and otherwise dark body.

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle (documentation shot)

I was really thrilled with this sighting, especially since it counts for both my life and Stony Swamp “patch” list – I never guessed I would get my lifer Golden Eagle at Sarsparilla Trail of all places! According to eBird, a patch is “a fairly small area that you cover regularly or where you really care about tracking your bird lists. A patch can be your local park, neighborhood walk, favorite lake or sewage plant, or refuge wildlife drive. It can consist of a single eBird location or a group of locations; since we always appreciate fine-scale submissions, we encourage patches that consist of multiple small locations.”

When determining what constitutes a patch, eBird believes the size of the patch must be both meaningful and reasonable in size; it wants to discourage people from creating patches consisting of entire counties, multiple widely-separated hotspots, or exceptionally large areas (i.e. an ‘Arizona-California’ patch). Ideally, a patch is a natural area with well-defined boundaries or habitat breaks, and can be covered fairly thoroughly in a few hours of birding. While some people use the patch lists on eBird to record birds from their local study areas (i.e. the OFNC 50-km circle centered on the Peace Tower, or the Hamilton Study Area, or the Calgary 80-km Circle), I prefer to keep track of two particular areas in Ottawa that are meaningful to me: my neighborhood (Emerald Meadows) and Stony Swamp, which contains multiple trails only a ten minute drive from my house.

My Stony Swamp patch consists of all of the trails I’ve visited which have been made into hotspots (i.e. Jack Pine Trail, Old Quarry Trail, Sarsaparilla Trail etc.) and a couple of personal locations along Old Richmond Road where I’ve seen interesting birds I wanted to record. The Golden Eagle is my 154th bird for this area. Here are my species totals for the trails I visit most frequently:

  • Sarsaparilla Trail (the smallest trail in the system): 124 species
  • Jack Pine Trail: 108 species
  • Beaver Trail list: 95 species
  • Rideau Trail: 71 species
  • Old Quarry Trail: 60 species.

What is remarkable about these numbers is that Stony Swamp isn’t particularly known as a migrant trap – not like Mud Lake, where my list stands at 150 species, or Shirley’s Bay, which stands at 162 species. As I usually visit Stony Swamp at least every other weekend throughout the year, there is a good chance I’ll see something new and interesting – such as the Golden-winged Warbler at Sarsaparilla Trail in September 2014 or the Black-billed Cuckoo at the West Hunt Club Trail in July 2015. And as you might guess from these numbers, I visit Sarsaparilla Trail far more frequently than I do the other trails. This is because it is short, which makes it a good place to start the day before heading elsewhere, and has a couple of different habitats contained within it, which is the key to the high diversity of birds here. While I’ve turned up some great birds at this trail over the years, I never thought I would get my latest life bird here!


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