Day of the Pipit

American Pipit

American Pipit

My goal on Sunday was to visit the Eagleson Ponds briefly before heading out to the woods, but once again I had such a fantastic time there that I couldn’t bring myself to leave. I spent almost 3.5 hours there, completely circled the ponds on the south side of Emerald Meadows Drive only once (but backtracked multiple times), and found 32 bird species together. I also saw two odes – a Common Green Darner and a couple of bluets – and four or five butterfly species. It still amazes me how terrific these little man-made ponds have been these past two and a half months; and I don’t even need to drive there!

Once again a cool north wind was blowing; the bright autumn sun tried to compete with the Arctic air funneling down, but wasn’t able to contribute any real warmth until about an hour after I arrived. I wished I had brought gloves with me, and was glad I had brought something to cover my ears. I looked for warblers and sparrows in the trees near the backyards of the houses backing onto the area and was happy to find a single Yellow-rumped Warbler foraging in a dead ash tree. I thought I might see some Ruby-crowned Kinglets or even a Blue-headed Vireo after Saturday’s visit to Jack Pine Trail, but found only American Goldfinches (including an adult feeding its newly-fledged young), White-throated Sparrows, an adult White-crowned Sparrow, a couple of Chipping Sparrows, and several Song Sparrows. A few Song Sparrows were singing, which made it feel more like an early day in April than a day in late September.

As it was still so cold, I was surprised to startle a butterfly into flight as I brushed past the vegetation, even more so when I realized it was an American Lady! This is the first American Lady butterfly I can recall seeing this year, and it was beautifully fresh. It was not a butterfly I expected to see here, and I wondered where it had come from. It landed on the blossom of a Rudbeckia flower (a Black-eyed Susan or Brown-eyed Susan, I assume) and began to nectar.

American Lady

American Lady on Rudbeckia

The first birds I saw on the mudflats were about 30 Ring-billed Gulls, a Greater Yellowlegs, and a Northern Flicker having a bath in a puddle. I’ve seen this flicker (or members of its family; there are at least two around) every time I visit the ponds, and I was glad to see that it was still present – this was the only time I saw it the whole time I was there. Indeed, this turned out to be my last Northern Flicker sighting of the year.

I stopped to check out the vantage point from the small peninsula covered in Common Milkweed and Purple Crown Vetch; a Great Blue Heron and a Great Egret were the only birds of note in the pond, and I heard an American Pipit fly over. I noticed that the patch of Purple Crown Vetch was much more extensive than I had originally thought, which explains the presence of the Wild Indigo Duskywings I’ve seen these past few weeks. In our region, the larvae of this species feed on Crown Vetch, and large colonies of these brown butterflies have been found where Purple Crown Vetch is quite extensive so I’ll be checking out these areas in the spring/early summer to see if they managed to successfully breed here.

Purple Crown Vetch

Purple Crown Vetch

I realized that I could hear a number of American Pipits calling, and when I looked up I saw a small flock of between 10 and 20 birds flying overhead. They landed on the western side of the ponds, mostly in the piles of dirt near the new houses being built. A few landed in the vegetation above the floodplain as well. I decided to walk around the ponds to see if I could get closer, and as I was making my way around, a cyclist rode by and startled them into flight once again. They all flew up into the air together, many of them calling their sweet finch-like “pipit!” as they wheeled overhead, and I realized that there were at least 25-30 birds in the flock. Some of them landed along the shore near one of the large outflow drains, so I crossed the bridge and headed toward the drain to see if I could get close enough to photograph them.

Barn Swallow Bridge

Barn Swallow Bridge

When I reached the shore I immediately saw four or five birds scuttling along the rocks. They were heading toward me, so I stood still and waited for them to come within range. After a minute or two, a couple of the birds had come close enough to photograph. They took no notice of me, so I was able to get several photos of these small, sparrow-like birds as they pecked and probed the ground for food.

American Pipit

American Pipit

American Pipit

American Pipit

Up until this outing I didn’t have any decent photos of this species. They breed in the tundra in the far north, and only pass through Ottawa during migration where they are found in plowed fields, mudflats, shorelines, and river sandbars. This makes them difficult to get close to, and many of my observations to date are of American Pipits calling as they fly over. To stand among a small group of them was a new experience for me, and a particularly thrilling one.

American Pipit

American Pipit

Pipits are small, brownish songbirds that look like a cross between a warbler and a sparrow, particularly drabber warblers such as fall-plumaged Yellow-rumped Warblers, waterthrushes, or Palm Warblers. However, unlike most warblers, pipits feed chiefly on the ground where they glean insects and seeds. The American Pipit, the species most likely to be found in eastern Ontario, has a slender build, a thin bill, and a long tail which it frequently bobs. The white outer tail feathers are a useful field mark for distinguishing the American Pipit from all local warbler and sparrows, except for the the similar-looking Vesper Sparrow. However, its thinner bill, its habit of bobbing its tail, and its gait (American Pipits walk while Vesper Sparrows hop) should readily distinguish the American Pipit from the Vesper Sparrow.

American Pipit

American Pipit

Because they were close and unconcerned with my presence I decided to shoot some video. Unfortunately I still had an issue with the camera’s focus wandering off the birds, though this may be a result of my difficulty in following their quick movements. I had to stop shooting at the end when one pipit started walking right up to me!

After spending more than 15 minutes with these birds I continued my walk around the ponds, encountering two Belted Kingfishers, a pair of Common Ravens flying over, about 20 Killdeer, and the usual Canada Geese and mallards. There were about 200-300 geese on the ponds, but more kept flying in and out so it was difficult to keep an accurate count. Then I spotted a smaller duck swimming by itself at the eastern edge of the central pond. I followed the path until I was close enough to identify it as a female Green-winged Teal. This isn’t the first time I’d seen this species here; I found one at the ponds in July 2014, and five in November of that year. I also found three on two successive days in September 2015. Most of these were seen when the water levels in the ponds were very low, as I found the birds foraging in the watery muck at the edge of the ponds. This one was swimming quietly by herself, and then climbed out of the water onto a rock to have a snooze.

Green-winged Teal

I saw a couple of pipits land on the rocks at the end of the milkweed peninsula, and headed over to see if I could get some more images. I was surprised to find an Eastern Phoebe in the sumac there, especially when it landed on the rocks like an oversized pipit. This is not a bird I see often here.

Eastern Phoebe pretending to be a Pipit

Eastern Phoebe pretending to be a Pipit

When it realized I was watching it, the phoebe remembered it was a flycatcher and flew up onto the stem of a small shrub.

Eastern Phoebe going back to being a flycatcher

Eastern Phoebe going back to being a flycatcher

One of the pipits wandered within range of my camera but didn’t stay long.

American Pipit

American Pipit

Maybe it’s because of all the milkweed and crown vetch on the peninsula, but I find this little area is a good one to find insects. I found a pair of Eastern Tailed blues mating as well as a Common Green Darner perching close to the ground.

Common Green Darner

Common Green Darner

There is a large planting of Rudbeckia/Brown-eyed Susans, asters, and other flowers on the opposite shore of the large central pond, and after a while I headed there to see what insects I might find on the flowers. That’s where I found another Eastern Tailed Blue and a sulphur butterfly.

Eastern Tailed Blue

Eastern Tailed Blue

I thought the sulphur was just another Clouded Sulphur, but when I uploaded my sighting to iNaturalist Ross Layberry mentioned that this was actually an Orange Sulphur; the bright yellow patch in the middle of the forewing is indicative of this species (Clouded Sulphurs are a uniform yellow). This is a species I had never seen in Ottawa before, so I was thrilled to find one close to home! The only other ones I’ve seen were at Presqu’ile Provincial Park several years ago, and I was able to identify them on the wing by their orange appearance. Not all Orange Sulphurs are a deep orange colour, and these butterflies perch with their wings closed, hiding the orange colour inside.

Orange Sulphur

Orange Sulphur

I also found a pair of Palm Warblers gleaning insects from a weedy patch close to the construction site. The plants were at most five feet tall, so the warblers were nice and low. Palm Warblers are one of the later warblers to migrate in the fall, along with Yellow-rumped Warblers, Orange-crowned Warblers, and Common Yellowthroats – many are still moving through during the third week of October.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

I found another Wild Indigo Duskywing on my walk – this one was nice and fresh. Given the thriving population at this site, I expect to see a lot of these butterflies here next spring and summer!

Wild Indigo Duskywing

Wild Indigo Duskywing

The usual herons were present, including one Great Blue Heron, two Great Egrets, and one Green Heron. There were no Black-crowned Night Herons present, and indeed, September 18th was the last date that I saw any at the ponds.

Green Heron

Green Heron

While watching the Green Heron I noticed a single duck flying in from the north. I watched as it landed in the large central pond, and was surprised to identify it as a male Wood Duck! This is only the second Wood Duck that I’ve seen here; the first was a female seen one year ago on September 26, 2015.

I was ready to go home by then, as it was close to lunch time and I was famished. The pipits were still around when I left, flying off with their distinctive calls whenever a cyclist or dog-walker got too close, and landing further along the shore. It was such a fantastic experience to watch them so closely and to take some fabulous photos and videos of these birds – they might not be the most colourful or the most beautiful songbird, but they are one of the lesser known birds to me. I was very grateful to have this opportunity to get to know them a little better, and hope they continue to find the ponds a good place to stop and refuel on their journey south.

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