Spring Comes to Ottawa

Cedar Waxwing

April has arrived, and I think spring has finally arrived with it. We’ve finally had some nice, sunny days and the weather has warmed up, so Deb and I finally got together to do some birding on the second day of April. We headed over to Mud Lake, where we only managed to tally 20 species; this is usually a great place to take in spring migration, but there was surprisingly little difference in the species seen since my previous visit on March 18th. The best birds there were an American Tree Sparrow, three Wood Ducks flying along the river, and an adult Cooper’s Hawk in the woods. Once again a male and female Downy Woodpecker pair came readily to my hand to take some food. I am now noting these birds in eBird, as I’ve been hand-feeding them for a couple of years now. The starlings singing near the filtration plant were of special interest, as we heard them imitating the calls of a Killdeer, an Eastern Wood-pewee, and even a Tree Frog!

From there we headed out to Shirley’s Bay to check out the Bald Eagle nest. Although we didn’t walk out onto the dike, an adult sitting on the nest was just visible from the parking area. Two Killdeer flew over, my first confirmed birds of the year, and we heard a Red-winged Blackbird calling from somewhere.

It hadn’t warmed up as much as we would have liked, so we went our separate ways. I decided to head over the Trail Road landfill to add some more birds to my April list. I didn’t see any Red-tailed Hawks, but I found a large flock of blackbirds bathing in a puddle next to the road. Most of them were starlings, but I noticed a few red-wings and grackles among them. Then I saw the brown head and blue-black sheen of a cowbird, and spotted two male Brown-headed Cowbirds feeding in the weeds among the rest of the blackbirds! Although they weren’t the first I’d seen this year (I’d seen one at the storm water ponds the day before), these were the first I’d been able to photograph in a while.

Brown-headed Cowbirds

Brown-headed Cowbird

I finally found some Red-tailed Hawks at the Moodie Drive quarry where I observed three of them soaring together over the ridge across from the gate. The pond was still frozen, but two Snow Goose among the large flock of Canada Geese standing on the ice were a new addition to my year list. A single Horned Lark on Rushmore Road will likely be my last of the year until they return in the winter.

Later that afternoon I headed over to the storm water ponds, but didn’t see anything new other than a single Killdeer flying over. It was great to see and hear the Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles and Song Sparrows all back. An Eastern Cottontail was feeding on the grass near some of the houses:

Eastern Cottontail

I’ve started bringing my camera to work with me in case I see anything worth photographing in my subdivision on my way to the bus. The resident Purple Finch finally arrived on April 12th; I heard it singing in the park but wasn’t able to spot it. Both males and females sing, so although I suspect it was a male back on territory, without visual confirmation I couldn’t be sure. That same day I saw an American Crow carrying nesting material in the park; when it landed in the crab apple tree I tried to get a photo of it, but it flew off before I could focus my camera. A second bird stayed put, and I think the resulting photo is my best image of a crow to date.

American Crow

House Finches are also singing up a storm in the subdivision; I caught this bright male singing in a spruce tree near the park.

House Finch

My best bird of the month turned out to be a complete surprise. April 3rd turned out to be a beautiful day, sunny with warm south winds, so after work I cut through Confederation Park downtown to catch my bus at the Rideau Center. It was a perfect day for migrating raptors, so I kept one eye on the sky for soaring Turkey Vultures. I stopped when I saw a large, dark raptor heading straight toward me, and although I didn’t have my binoculars, it was low enough for me to see that it was completely dark, except for the head and leading edge of its wings which were pale brown. The wings were too broad for a Turkey Vulture and there was no white on its head, tail or wings to indicate either a juvenile or adult Bald Eagle. The wings were held straight out rather than in a dihedral. It was BIG – when I got to Mackenzie King bridge, I could still see it soaring around Parliament without any binoculars. It was a Golden Eagle, and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time to see it. I never expected to see one downtown, but there was no doubt in my mind as to what it was. It really pays to look up from time to time when the weather is right, even when in the most unlikely of places!

On April 8th I headed out to Sarsparilla Trail. The pond was still mostly frozen and there was a lot of snow in the woods. I heard a Pine Siskin and a Purple Finch, and saw four Hooded Mergansers swimming in a channel at the back of the pond. Large numbers of juncos were present, along with a couple of American Tree Sparrows and Song Sparrows. Later that day I took a walk over to the storm water ponds, passing a crabapple tree along the way – I stopped when I heard the waxwings, and found half a dozen altogether; although I was hoping for Bohemians, they turned out to be Cedars. Still, their bright yellow colours were nice to see on such a gloomy day!

Cedar Waxwing

I met a new friend, Sophie, at the ponds and we took a walk together. She is a relatively new birder who also lives in the subdivision. We found a high count of 22 Hooded Mergansers, a kingfisher, and the usual finches, sparrows and blackbirds. I was really hoping to see some new ducks at the pond – although Ring-necked Ducks usually show up on the ponds in the spring, I haven’t seen any yet. The temperature was still relatively cold, so we didn’t stay too long.

On April 9th Deb and went birding in the west end. We picked up several year birds at Jack Pine Trail including Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Eastern Phoebe, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Fox Sparrow and Swamp Sparrow. From there we headed out past Dunrobin to look for some Tundra Swans that had been reported, picking up Tree Swallow and Eastern Meadowlark along the way; unfortunately we were a day late to see the swans, which I still need for my Ottawa list. A stop at Constance Creek was productive; we found two Buffleheads on the water and an Osprey busy bringing sticks to the nesting platform at the north end of the bridge. I am not sure what happened to the old nest; the platform looked completely barren, and the Osprey as busily fetching sticks to rebuild it. It was fascinating to watch him fly out over the trees at the edge of the marsh, snatch a branch in flight, and loop back to the nest. At first we weren’t sure what he was doing as we didn’t see him land in the trees or work to break the branches off, yet after each foray he returned with a good-sized branch.

Osprey

On Sunday, April 9th I joined Jon Ruddy’s “Peent and Hoot” outing to listen for nocturnal birds. Although we struck out on owls, we heard the winnowing of several Wilson’s Snipe and saw a couple of American Woodcocks doing their courtship displays. We also saw (before it got dark) a Ruffed Grouse in the same tree as a raccoon, feeding on the berries.

Chipping Sparrows returned to the neighbourhood on April 10th – it’s always a delight to see these diminutive sparrows at the feeder. Later that day I went out to Hurdman at lunch, and added another sparrows to my year list – a surprise Field Sparrow in the thickets lining river pathway! The only other species of note was a pair of White-throated Sparrows, though I don’t know if they were migrants or part of the flock that over-wintered there. Song Sparrows were everywhere.

Song Sparrow

The river was too high to cross beneath the bridge to get to the eastern side, so I spent my lunch hour on the western side. I have never seen the Rideau River this high before:

Flooding beneath transitway bridge

Today I went out to check out some trails in Stony Swamp. I first tried Trail 26 on West Hunt Club to see if the Great Blue Herons were back at the pond. There I found 24 species, with Dark-eyed Junco being the most abundant. A few Golden-crowned Kinglets were calling, and I heard a Brown Creeper singing. I also heard a couple of Pine Siskins chattering in the pines, though I couldn’t see them. The best birds there were two male Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, two Fox Sparrows – one of which I saw, the other of which was singing loudly near a large wet patch – and three Northern Shovelers on the pond. Two Great Blue Herons were on a nest, and Swamp Sparrows were singing around the edges.

From there I headed over to Sarsaparilla Trail to see what kinds of birds were present on the pond there. This time the pond was completely open, and I found a male and female Bufflehead, at least seven Hooded Mergansers, and a few geese. At least three Tree Swallows were swooping over the water, and ten grackles were hanging out on the boardwalk railing and in the marsh below. They flew off when I approached the end.

Common Grackle

A single Great Blue Heron flew over as well. In the woods I heard a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker drumming and saw one near the parking lot. I also saw two Fox Sparrows. I tried to pish them in, and while they stayed put in the trees above me, one kept repeating its sharp “chink” note as though aggravated by my presence. It sounded more like an agitated chipmunk than a bird, and I wondered if I had ever mistaken a Fox Sparrow for a chipmunk before.

There were quite a few sparrow species at Sarsaparilla Trail; in addition to the Fox Sparrows and ever-present juncos, I saw two American Tree Sparrows in the parking lot, heard both Swamp and Song Sparrows around the pond, and heard a White-throated Sparrow singing beyond the parking lot.

Spring has finally arrived, and migration is now in full swing. I am thrilled to finally see all the different species returning, and can’t wait for all the rest of the summer residents to return.

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