Snowshoe Hare Bonanza

Swamp Sparrow

Swamp Sparrow

Yesterday was eBird’s Global Big Day 2016, a Cornell Lab project which tries to find out just how many birds can be recorded across the globe in a single day. During this project, eBird asks people to submit all their bird observations on May 14th into eBird, a global database used by scientists to study the distribution of birds all over the world. eBird is one of the largest biodiversity databases in the world, with more than 300 million records, and last year’s Global Big Day tallied a total of 6,158 species. As I already use eBird to track my bird sightings, I was eager to participate. However, I didn’t have the car, and had to make do with going somewhere reachable by bus. Unfortunately, OC Transpo’s weekend bus routes in Kanata South are not designed to get you any place efficiently except Hazeldean Mall, which severely limited my options – even places like Mud Lake and Andrew Haydon Park take two or three different buses to get there, and places like Shirley’s Bay and Jack Pine Trail are out of the question. Worse, the forecast called for rain later in the morning, so I wasn’t sure how long I would be able to stay out in the event I wanted to go to two or more areas. Because of these limitations, I decided to go to Old Quarry Trail right across from Hazeldean Mall, which is only about a 15-20 minute bus ride from my house and has enough trails in its extensive system to keep me occupied for a couple of hours.

A May visit would also give me the chance to add to the list of birds on the Old Quarry Trail eBird’s hotspot – only 85 species have been recorded here to date, which seems quite low given that much of the habitat is the same as at Jack Pine Trail – which has 164 species! This is likely because few birders who use eBird actually go there, as it’s not a typical migrant trap like Mud Lake or Shirley’s Bay.

As soon as I arrived I heard the Chipping Sparrows singing in the trees surrounding the parking lot, and saw this Snowshoe Hare near the entrance to the woods. This is the first one I can recall seeing at this trail (despite seeing many tracks in the snow in winter), and is only my second sighting this year. It looks as though it has a feather on top of its head, although a close-up examination of my photos reveals a patch of white fur still left of its winter pelage, with a white stick on the ground in the background completing the illusion.

Snowshoe Hare

Snowshoe Hare

When I heard a Field Sparrow singing in the open field south of the main trails I decided to check there first. I don’t often visit that part of the trail, but figured that the open, shrubby area would be worth checking for migrants. I was not disappointed. In addition three different Field Sparrows heard singing, I heard an Eastern Kingbird and a Least Flycatcher, and spotted a Great Crested Flycatcher, Baltimore Oriole, Nashville Warbler and Warbling Vireo all within about ten minutes. A little further along I spotted a White-crowned Sparrow and a Chestnut-sided Warbler in a shrub, heard a House Wren singing, and startled a Northern Flicker foraging on a grassy side trail. It was a great place to start my walk, for I added six new species (out of a total of seven) to the Old Quarry Trail eBird list in this area alone!

I also found this fellow dozing in a tree about five feet off the ground while trying to track down a few more warblers:

Porcupine

Porcupine

I entered the woods right near the southern-most boardwalk, where I added Red-winged Blackbird and Swamp Sparrow to my list. A Swamp Sparrow was singing quite close to the boardwalk, so I stopped to take its picture. They are less obliging than the more ubiquitous Song Sparrow, often diving into the reeds as soon as they realize they’ve been spotted. Although this fellow knew I was there, it didn’t fly off until I resumed my walk down the boardwalk.

Swamp Sparrow

Swamp Sparrow

Birds were harder to come by in the woods. I heard a Black-throated Green Warbler singing but couldn’t spot it; a few minutes later I heard a Blue-headed Vireo singing which I coaxed into view by pishing. This vireo was the last of the seven new species added to the Old Quarry Trail hotspot list, and it made me realize that I hadn’t heard any Red-eyed Vireos or Ovenbirds yet. Both species are very common in the interior forests of Stony Swamp, though they are heard far more often than they are seen. When I took a side trail a little later I heard an Ovenbird, and it took about two hours into my walk to hear my first Red-eyed Vireo.

I did find another Snowshoe Hare just after I stopped to look at the Blue-headed Vireo; it is still quite white below.

Snowshoe Hare #2

Snowshoe Hare #2

I spent some time at the boardwalk and was surprised to hear a Virginia Rail grunting. I played its call and heard a second one respond from the other side of the boardwalk. One of the rails darted briefly into view, though I wasn’t quick enough with the camera to photograph it. I also tried playing the calls of the Sora and American Bittern but heard neither species.

Pine Siskins were still present, as I heard several flying over; most were in ones and twos, but a large flock of eight heading north was a surprise. These were the last ones I would observe this season. A few White-throated Sparrows were still around, and on a small side trail deep in the woods I heard both Winter Wren and Northern Waterthrush singing near a large swampy spot. I was even deeper in the woods when I heard a familiar call coming from overhead; I couldn’t place it until I saw a Green Heron fly by, a second one calling somewhere behind it. These were my first Green Herons of the year, though it seemed odd hearing them in the woods!

I found a couple more Ovenbirds and Great Crested Flycatchers, but as the woods were proving unproductive for warblers I decided to look for some open edge habitat. I headed up to the “Deer John” feeders (which appeared dismantled) and the trails leading to the open area at the northern end of the conservation area. There I found a couple of American Redstarts and another Chestnut-sided Warbler singing.

I also started this Snowshoe Hare as I walked by – it darted behind a shrub right next to the trail, but didn’t move when I stopped to photograph it. It even stopped to scratch its face!

Snowshoe Hare #3

Snowshoe Hare #3

Snowshoe Hare #3

Snowshoe Hare #3

I had never followed the trail to the east before, and found myself in a large, open grassy area. I heard a few more Chipping Sparrows, a Northern Cardinal, and a Killdeer flying around somewhere out of view; a Gray Catbird was singing in a large shrub right in front of me though I couldn’t spot it for the life of me. As I proceeded through the long grass I startled another “bunny”, this one an Eastern Cottontail as identified by its smaller ears and feet, fluffy tail, and pale ring around the eye.

Eastern Cottontail

Eastern Cottontail

A little further along I came to a wet depression close to Robertson Road, and although it looked like a great spot for birds, I only found a male Red-winged Blackbird and a Downy Woodpecker hitching up a cattail reed. Another American Redstart was singing in the tree line behind the small patch of water, and when I circled around to look for it, I found yet another Snowshoe Hare at the edge of the hedgerow. It hopped a few steps into the shrubs, then lay down as though to take a nap. It seemed crazy to find so many Snowshoe Hares within the space of a couple hours; their population is cyclical, and must be nearing the peak of their 10-year cycle given that so many were around. The milder weather this past winter may have helped, too. I have never seen four Snowshoe Hares in one day before; it was a real bonanza for this species, making me wonder how many were around that I didn’t see!

Snowshoe Hare #4

Snowshoe Hare #4

I left the grassy clearing and headed back to the main trail through the woods, and along the way I found my third porcupine of the day looking rather comfortable sprawled out in a tree:

Porcupine #3

Porcupine #3

I also found a few Trilliums growing in the woods:

Trillium

Trillium

Deep in the woods, in an area filled with pines I managed to find a Brown Creeper and two Pine Warblers. I also heard the two Green Herons flying over again, calling as they flew. I returned to the boardwalk about half an hour later to see if they had found a spot to perch by the water, but came up empty. About another hour later I saw – and heard – them flying over a third time when I returned to the open area where I’d found the Field Sparrows and flycatchers at the beginning of my walk. It was a bizarre experience, and it made me wonder why they were so reluctant to land near the marshes and swamps in the area.

I was fortunate that the rain had held off, for it gave me a full five hours to conduct a fairly thorough exploration of the main trail and check of a couple of intriguing side trails. I ended up with 48 species for eBird’s Global Big Day (where were you, Common Raven and Pileated Woodpecker?), and although I didn’t find anything rare, I was glad to contribute to the knowledge of the birds found at this particular trail.

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