Spring Migrants at Stony Swamp

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Stony Swamp is one of my favourite spots to go birding – not only is it close to home, but there are multiple trails to choose from, with plenty of interesting habitats. While Stony Swamp is dominated by mixed deciduous/coniferous forest, there are a few streams, beaver ponds, alvars and marshes which provide habitat for a good mix of birds. As it was supposed to start raining around 9:00 this morning, I wasn’t sure how long I’d be able to stay out birding today. However, the bright sun and reasonable temperature (only -2°C when I left at 7:30) made me long for a walk in the woods. I decided to go to Sarsaparilla Trail first to check on the pond, and then to the Beaver Trail to look for additional woodland birds. I figured that would keep me occupied until the rain began.

When I got to Sarsaparilla Trail I was immediately surrounded by song – at least a dozen Dark-eyed Juncos were giving their metallic trills in the woods, and I could also hear an American Tree Sparrow, Song Sparrow, American Robin, Purple Finch, and Pine Siskins singing as well. I found a good-sized flock of juncos in the brushy area near the picnic shelter, while several finches were sitting in one of the trees overlooking the tiny clearing. I could identify a few of them as siskins by voice, but when I scanned the tree with my binoculars I found two Common Redpolls as well.

Common Redpoll

Common Redpoll

In the woods, I found more juncos, a pair of Brown Creepers – including one which landed on a tree right next to me; a second was singing deeper in the woods – and several Golden-crowned Kinglets! They were foraging in the bare deciduous shrubs quite close to the ground, especially the branches hanging over the deep swampy puddles formed by the snow-melt. There was only one bad spot on the trail that was nearly impassable due to a large, deep puddle, but I had worn my boots in anticipation of this and was able to walk through it.

I was happy to find that the ice on the pond had finally started to melt – there was a large section of open water at the north end. Five Hooded Mergansers and a few mallards were swimming in the pond, while several Canada Geese were resting on the ice near the back. Red-winged Blackbirds were singing from the cattails, and four Common Grackles flew over. Several American Tree Sparrows were interested in the food on the ground near the boardwalk, and to my surprise two Common Redpolls flew in as well. It was great seeing so much life in the woods again and to hear the songs of so many species.

The clouds had rolled in not long after I arrived at Sarsparilla, but as the rain didn’t appear imminent I decided to head over to the Beaver Trail. At the entrance I found a few Song Sparrows and over a dozen American Tree Sparrows feeding on the seeds on the ground – the most tree sparrows I can recall seeing in one spot. I found more juncos and Golden-crowned Kinglets in the woods, and heard two Common Redpolls and one Pine Siskin fly over. The usual Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles were hanging around the marsh at the back, but the best bird was a Belted Kingfisher perching in a snag – my first year bird of the day!

A few chipmunks were scampering about in the woods, but most were too timid to come get the food I was offering.

Eastern Chipmunk

Eastern Chipmunk

Here is another chipmunk I found clinging to a tree branch a few feet above the ground:

Eastern Chipmunk

Eastern Chipmunk

I found more American Tree Sparrows near the Wild Bird Care Center and stopped to watch them and the juncos for a while in case there were any Fox Sparrows mixed in with them. There weren’t, but the chickadees found me so I started feeding them. To my surprise a Downy Woodpecker also flew in and landed on the tree right beside me; when I put my hand close to the trunk, it flew down and grabbed a peanut! This is the first time I’ve had a tame Downy Woodpecker land on my hand on this trail.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

I looked and listened for the Eastern Phoebe that nests near the Wild Bird Care Center but it hadn’t returned yet; maybe next week. On my way out I noticed that the large flock of tree sparrows at the entrance had dispersed, so I don’t know if any near the Wild Bird Care Center were part of the same flock. I estimated at least 20 tree sparrows on the trail, but there may have been double that!

Just as I was leaving an accipiter flew in and landed on a tree in the middle of the open area next to the trail entrance. I moved to get an unobstructed view, but it saw me and flew off before I could raise my binoculars. Even though I wasn’t able to identify it, the hawk was a great way to end my walk.

The clouds still hadn’t thickened up enough yet to herald the onset of the forecasted rain, so I decided to check out Jack Pine Trail. I thought I might get an Eastern Phoebe there or perhaps a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker; I started my walk with a visit to the feeder, where I found a Red-breasted Nuthatch, two Blue Jays, and a male Red-winged Blackbird feeding.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

I heard a Pileated Woodpecker calling in the woods, which I later saw at the boardwalk. At least four different Purple Finches were singing at various spots in the woods, and again I heard both Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins flying over. I only intended to follow the northern-most trail to the back, but I’m glad I did the full outer loop as I started finding some really interesting birds. The first was a Winter Wren near the stream at the back – I heard it calling and then saw it in the vegetation next to the trail before it flew deeper into the thickets. It later began to sing, so I attempted to take some video of its wonderful, rolling song:

This isn’t the earliest date I’ve ever had one; in 2014 I found one at Jack Pine on April 1st. This was a great bird for me as last year I didn’t observe a single one.

I headed from there to the marsh at the back, and noticed something large sitting on the ground beside the trail. I was surprised when I got a little closer and realized it was a Ruffed Grouse!

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse

I’ve been seeing more grouse at Jack Pine lately; this is my second one this year, and my third since the fall after a drought of many years. Hopefully in a few weeks the males will begin displaying and the sounds of their drumming will become common in the woods again.

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse

A Turkey Vulture flew over as well (not a year bird, but still great to see) and as I made my way down the path through the marsh I heard a few raspy notes issuing from the cattails. Just as I was wondering whether the Swamp Sparrows were back, two of them burst into song! I caught a glimpse of one in the reeds, but as it was perched low in the vegetation I wasn’t able to get a clear photo. This is a bit earlier than any of my previous Swamp Sparrow sightings; I usually get them toward the middle of April. What was amazing to me is that I just added Winter Wren and Swamp Sparrow to my year list, and I still haven’t even seen a Great Blue Heron or Brown-headed Cowbird!

I found two flocks of Golden-crowned Kinglets on my walk, each with about 5 or 6 birds. There wasn’t anything of interest in the alvar, but in the woods near one of the boardwalks I found a large flock of Pine Siskins chattering away. Again I tried to shoot some video. Can you identify the Pine Siskins in this video? What other birds do you hear calling or singing?

There weren’t many mammals around other the usual chipmunks and squirrels, and it was too cold and overcast (at 7°C) for any butterflies or snakes to be out yet.

Eastern Chipmunk

Eastern Chipmunk

I was just finishing up my walk when the rain finally started, coming down just hard enough for me to put my camera away and start hurrying back to my car. I was happy that I was able to get out for so long, and that there were so many great birds around. I really enjoyed seeing the Ruffed Grouse as more than just a blurry shape flying into the depths of the woods, as well as the Turkey Vulture, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Swamp Sparrows, and Winter Wren.

I ended up with a fourth year bird a little later, not in Stony Swamp but in one of the ponds at Emerald Meadows; when I stopped there on my way to the grocery store I noticed a Pied-billed Grebe close to the bank with a Canada Goose! This was a new bird for that pond, which has undergone much construction in the last year. Instead of a narrow channel leading from Emerald Meadows Drive to the large pond just south of it, the channel has been enlarged and completely floods in heavy rain or during the spring thaw. As a result, the small “channel” has become an enormous open pond, and I’m a little curious to see how it will affect the wildlife there this year. They removed most of the cattails on both sides of Emerald Meadows, so that there is no habitat for the Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Yellowthroats or Swamp Sparrows. It will be interesting to see if the vegetation returns, and whether the birds return with it. Since they completely dredged the ponds last year to enlarge the current ponds I suspect there will be few dragonflies this year, but hopefully they will return too – especially those Rainbow Bluets I’m so fond of.

All in all it was a fantastic early spring day with a great many birds seen and heard during my time outdoors. It’s great to see the birds all coming back!

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2 thoughts on “Spring Migrants at Stony Swamp

  1. Sounds like a lovely morning Gillian. Your siskin video is a fair representation of life here at the moment. I had my first siskin in the garden in early January, and a maximum of two until March, usually associated with a large flock of goldfinch. Since early March we’ve had 30+ daily, with matching numbers of common redpoll, and up to three goldfinch. This is our third winter at this location (Val-des-monts, about 30 minutes from Ottawa), and our first winter with any siskins. I’m not sure where they roost, but at 6-6:30pm, they all leave for the night and the chickadees and nuthatches seem to relish in the quiet!
    First butterfly of the year today, almost certain it was a Compton Tortoiseshell, going to have a closer look at the photos later. Spring has arrived!

    • Wow, that’s great that you’ve had siskins practically all winter. I’m still seeing them around as of today; a few visit my feeder every morning. The Purple Finches were back as well, but I haven’t seen any Common Redpolls in a few days.

      That’s great that you’ve seen your first butterfly of the year! I’ve been hoping that the weekends would be warm enough to go look for some, but it hasn’t happened yet. I am away next week, so butterflies will have to wait until I get back!

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