Summer in November

Summer Tanager

On Monday, November 14th, a female Summer Tanager was discovered in a small field east of the large pond at Bruce Pit. This was the same field where I’d seen an American Copper butterfly several years ago and had so much fun photographing bees and beetles last August. When I woke up on Saturday I really wasn’t planning on chasing this rarity; I wanted to get to the river early and scan for loons, scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, Dunlin and Purple Sandpipers. However, a dense ice-fog put an end to any hopes of birding that morning, and I had to content myself with a single juvenile Herring Gull among the Ring-billed Gulls in the Walmart parking lot after doing some shopping.

The sky remained gray all morning, and at lunch time I checked my email and learned that the Summer Tanager had been seen in the same group of birches in the same location earlier that morning. After I ate I headed out and was happy to see that the clouds were starting to break up. The temperature was 8°C, relatively balmy after a couple of cold mornings last week, and I even saw a few flies buzzing around. I was hoping to see one last Autumn Meadowhawk for the year, but I struck out in that regard.

There were a good number of Canada Geese on the pond, as well as a single Common Merganser and several Hooded Mergansers. I ran into Mike Tate who told me that he had just seen the tanager, and headed off to find her. A Pileated Woodpecker flew by, but other than that all I heard were a few chickadees.

As soon as I arrived at the field I started scanning the tree tops for movement. I saw a group of birches and headed in that direction. Sure enough, a yellowish songbird was flitting among the branches, actively searching for food. I spent some time studying her, noting the yellow breast, yellowish-gray upper parts, the slightly raised crest, and large, thick bill. While the female Summer Tanager may superficially resemble a female Scarlet Tanager in colouring, the structure was quite different. This was only the second Summer Tanager I had ever seen, and the first female. It was also the first one I’d seen in Ottawa.

Summer Tanager

I took a few photos, though she spent all her time up at the top of the trees, refusing to come down to eye level. I’m not sure what she was finding to eat there, but she seemed fairly attached to that stand of trees. She knew I was there, and kept her distance. Then, without warning, she flew off to the north as though she was being pursued by a predator. I thought she was flying off to the next group of trees, but instead she kept going, and I lost her.

I decided to follow the trail there into the woods to see if I could relocate her. I came across a Downy Woodpecker, a Hairy Woodpecker and a flock of robins, but no tanager. I followed the trail to the end to see where it went; eventually I came out into another small, open field with some crabapple trees (lots of food for the robins, and hopefully for Bohemian waxwings and Pine Grosbeaks later this winter!), and some houses beyond the field. I decided to check the birch trees one more time on my way out and was surprised to see the Summer Tanager back in the same group of trees where I had found her.

Summer Tanager

Summer Tanagers are vagrants to Ontario, with many sightings coming in the spring when they overshoot their breeding grounds during migration. Records of Summer Tanagers in Ottawa are few and far between, according to eBird. One was seen on May 8, 1996 in Vincent Massey Park; another was found at Mud Lake on August 16, 2016. Interestingly, there is one other sighting from November, when one was found in the Baseline and Merivale area between November 10-13, 2004; and of course the one in New Edinburg near Rideau Hall last winter became something of a celebrity, surviving the winter from December 30, 2015 to at least January 23, 2016. I went twice to look for it, and failed both times; it was surviving on a diet of dried fruit, black oil sunflower seeds and other offerings at the feeders in that area. These birds overwinter in Central America, Colombia and Ecuador, so clearly the individual at Bruce Pit got lost somewhere along the way. With the first winter snowstorm in the forecast for tomorrow, hopefully this wandering bird will either head south or find a feeder at a nearby house that will sustain her until she can fly south.

I left the area at that point, opting to continue my walk all the way around the pit. I found a couple of American Tree Sparrows in the vegetation between the path and the pit, and saw one sparrow in the reeds that looked like a Song Sparrow. I only caught a quick glimpse of it before it disappeared.

After that I decided to check out the Eagleson storm water ponds for waterfowl. I stopped by the sparrow field first and managed to pish a Song Sparrow into view; it was nice to see one at this late date. A few Dark-eyed Juncos were foraging in the rocks nearby. The only other birds of interest I saw on the ponds were a male Common Merganser and a female Hooded Merganser. I had hoped for something new for my list, but that was not to be the case. The geese (an estimtated 3,000-4,000 with large groups flying in for the evening) were thickest in the southern pond, so I headed there next. I spotted two smaller geese that might have been Cackling Geese; they were standing next to a rock, and the grayish tones of their body were quite a contrast to the brownish tones of the geese nearby. I moved around the pond to get a better look, but by the time I reached the next opening they had disappeared from view. The geese were all moving, most swimming away from me, and I could not pick out two smaller bodies among the rest of the flock.

Then I heard a higher-pitched honk from my right and snapped my attention in that direction. I recalled Jon Ruddy mentioning that Cackling Geese have higher-pitched calls than the Canada Geese, and sure enough, two Cackling Geese were swimming toward me. The small size, small bill, blocky forehead, and grayish tones of their bodies left no doubt in my mind as to their identification, but seeing one give that distinctive “yelp” made me appreciate how voice can aid in the identification of waterfowl and other non-passerines.

The Cackling Goose was a year bird for me, and one that I’ve been looking for for a while now; it struck me on my way home that it is extremely unlikely I’ll ever get a Summer Tanager and a Cackling Goose as year birds again on the same day. As fall migration is slowly starting to wind down, the unusual warmth and the two strikingly different year birds made it a great day to enjoy the last of the fall weather.

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