Birding in late April means…

Ring-necked Duck

Usually the first two weeks of April are a slog to get through – it still looks and feels like March, cold north winds and long spells of rain manage to out-compete the longed-for southerly winds and warm, sunny days, and although migration should be well under way, it takes forever for the next spate of migrants to arrive. Then one day it happens: you realize the snow is finally all gone, the ponds are ice-free, the buds on the trees look ready to burst open, and your neighbourhood Chipping Sparrows are back and singing right outside your window. The temperatures are finally reaching double-digits on a daily basis, and there are new birds moving in! The second half (well, the last third, really) of April is when the birding really picks up and it really begins to feel like spring. This truly is the beginning of my favourite time of year; here are a few of the things that make birding in late April so wonderful.

1. The arrival of the waterfowl

The opening up of the Ottawa River and large ponds and lakes means the return of the ducks. Yesterday I headed out to the Moodie Drive quarry to see if any diving ducks were present there; about 20 Common Mergansers were swimming on the pond, while two Green-winged Teal were grooming themselves in the shallow water to the far left. At Sarsaparilla Trail this morning I found one Common Merganser, two Ring-necked Ducks, two Wood Ducks, and six Hooded Mergansers. Although a nice change from my previous visit, I was hoping for a few more species and headed to Andrew Haydon Park to check out the ponds there. I was not disappointed: four Bufflehead (a male/female pair on each pond), about a dozen Lesser Scaup, and four Ring-necked Ducks were present on the ponds. Most of the ducks were sleeping, but a few were active and I was able to get some nice shots.

Ring-necked Duck

Ring-necked Ducks tend to be wary of people, and these ones stayed as far away from me and another photographer on the shore as possible. Still, the zoom on my camera was able to get some nice photos despite the distance. I particularly like this one of a male and female Ring-necked Duck:

Ring-necked Ducks

I’ve always had a difficult time photographing male Bufflehead ducks….usually they are too far away or the day is too dark to see the iridescent purplish-green colours of their heads. I was close enough to capture a hint of the colours on this male today:

Bufflehead

2. Sparrows coming and sparrows going

American Tree Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos are slowly being replaced by Chipping Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows and others. I came across two Fox Sparrows on their journey north this morning at Sarsaparilla; they were foraging in the leaf litter next to the trail before joining several juncos and White-throated Sparrows foraging on the gravel for food.

Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrow

The large number of juncos have been replaced by large numbers of White-throated Sparrows, at least at Sarsaparilla Trail where the White-throated Sparrow songs outnumbered the simple trills of the juncos. However, at Mud Lake I heard only two White-throated Sparrows singing while a number of juncos were seen and heard throughout the trail.

Dark-eyed Junco

3. New yard birds

Migration is about the only time I am able to add new birds to my yard list. The last one to be added, a Herring Gull on October 15, 2016, was #62. In the past week I have added two more, both of them surprises. The first was a Field Sparrow out in the back. I first saw the rusty-capped sparrow fly up into a neighbour’s tree and, expecting a Chipping Sparrow, I was surprised to see the pink bill. I immediately knew what it was, but when it landed on the feeder in my own yard I kept checking the field marks to make sure it wasn’t a Chipping Sparrow or an American Tree Sparrow, both of which are more likely to be seen at feeders (though there haven’t been any American Tree Sparrows this past winter or spring). If I had seen it in a scrubby field I would not have doubted my ID, but because this was in a suburban backyard, far from its normal habitat, I was unsure. Fortunately I got a few photos to confirm the ID.

Field Sparrow (#63 on my yard list)

Ruby-crowned Kinglets are becoming more and more common in my neighbourhood during migration; I had already seen one a couple of times in my front tree this week. One appeared in my front tree yesterday afternoon, bouncing around the bare branches looking for insects. A little bit later I saw it again, but this time it appeared a deeper yellow colour, and it wasn’t moving around as frantically as most kinglets. I checked it through the binoculars, and was surprised to see a Pine Warbler! Even better, it and the Ruby-crowned Kinglet were both still around this morning, singing away. It was great to compare the musical trill of the Pine Warbler to the dry, machine-like trill of a nearby Chipping Sparrow.

Pine Warbler

Pine Warblers love pines, and there are a few on my street that it might have spent the night in. I rushed out this morning to try and grab a few photos, but it wasn’t responsive to my pishing and stayed up in the shadows.

Pine Warbler (#64 on my yard list)

4. Rusty Blackbirds

Rusty Blackbirds migrate through Ottawa in April, and I was fortunate to see a good number of them on Saturday morning. This is a not a species I see very often, particularly since its numbers have declined by an estimated 85-99% over the past 40-50 years. Although they were once abundant breeders in the wetlands of the boreal forest, their perilous decline makes them difficult to find these days. They prefer swampy wooded areas with standing water, and Stony Swamp is the perfect habitat for them in spring, with many vernal pools and flooded swamps after the snow melts. I headed over to the Rideau Trail first thing Saturday morning (taking an umbrella due to the rain) in the hope of finding my first Red-shouldered Hawk of the year. Instead I was greeted by the distinctive songs of about a dozen Rusty Blackbirds perching in a couple of trees close to the hydro cut. Later I heard two more flying over the Beaver Trail.

Finally, I stopped by a farm field at the corner of Eagleson and Rushmore to check out a male Northern Harrier coursing over the fields. As I was watching the harrier, a flock of blackbirds emerged from the cornfield and landed in the trees surrounding a farmhouse across the road on Eagleson. The Rusty Blackbird songs caught my attention, so I pulled my car forward to have a look (the harrier was heading south from me anyway). There were probably about 40-50 birds in the flock, and about a third of them flew down and landed in the corner of the cornfield. I picked out one Brown-headed Cowbird, and a few grackles and red-wings, but the majority appeared to be Rusty Blackbirds. This was one of the most exciting encounters I’ve had with this species, as I’m used to seeing them along the river or in wet areas rather than open farmland. Although I only entered 20 into eBird, I suspect there was probably twice that number, but wasn’t able to get a good enough look at the whole flock.

5. Ruby-crowned Kinglets

Ruby-crowned Kinglets, on the other hand, are not as particular as to where they migrate – as long as there are lots of nice, big trees around to forage in they are satisfied. They move through in big numbers in April, along with their hardier, conifer-loving Golden-crowned relatives, and can be found just about anywhere. Seeing these tiny green balls of energy can be difficult due to their small size, but finding them is relatively easy – they have a loud song, and seem to be unable to stop themselves from singing even when frantically flitting through the trees. Their constant movement and small size makes them difficult to photograph, and I am lucky if I manage to get any photos that are in focus and show the bird in a nice pose (I usually end up with a lot of pictures of their back end).

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

This weekend I heard them at the Rideau Trail, Beaver Trail and Mud Lake, and have been seeing them in my own yard since I returned from southern Ontario. They particularly like the tree in our front yard, and I’ve now seen them around five days out of the last six!

6. Warblers!

No birds are more eagerly anticipated in the north each spring than warblers, and three species are known to arrive in early to mid-April, long before the warbler bonanza of May: Pine Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Palm Warbler. The Yellow-rumped Warbler is usually the first warbler I see every year, although I’ve heard that Pine Warblers are usually the first ones to arrive. This is because Yellow-rumps, like Ruby-crowned Kinglets, aren’t too picky when it comes to trees they visit during migration….almost any old tree will do, though they do prefer denser habitats than the kinglets which is why I find fewer Yellow-rumped Warblers in my subdivision than I do kinglets. Pine Warblers, on the other hand, prefer pines and other conifers, and the bigger, the better. I usually have to specifically visit areas with lots of pines in order to get my first Pine Warbler each year.

I saw my first Yellow-rump on April 20th at the Eagleson Ponds. The Pine Warbler wasn’t too far behind, with the bird in my front yard on April 22nd. Both were present at Mud Lake in good numbers on Sunday, and this Pine Warbler spent some time preening in between bursts of song in a large pine tree at the edge of the sumac field before flying into a bare deciduous tree. It’s not often I get such fabulous looks at these birds, as they prefer to spend their time high in the tree-tops, and it was great to see a bird that didn’t mind an audience. Although I heard many Pine Warblers singing away in the southeastern section of the conservation area, this was the only one I actually saw.

Pine Warbler

I haven’t seen any Palm Warblers yet, but look forward to seeing them, as well as the next batch of warbler species to arrive!

7. Butterflies

April is usually when I start looking for butterflies, and Sunday was the first real nice day I could do so. I didn’t expect to see many at Mud Lake, but I ended up with two different species: two Mourning Cloaks which zipped away before I could photograph them, and a Compton Tortoiseshell. The tortoiseshell was a surprise as I had never seen one at Mud Lake before. They aren’t particularly abundant in Ottawa, and as it’s been a few years since I’ve last seen one, I was thrilled. It flew by me while I was tracking down a phoebe near the Rowatt Street entrance, continuing over a fence and landing in someone’s backyard. Although it was quite far away, I took a few photos of it over the fence. Hopefully I’ll get a better a chance to photograph one this spring.

Compton Tortoiseshell

8. Rarities

Spring is a good time to look for southern rarities when birds, usually inexperienced second-year birds, fly too far north en route to their breeding grounds. However, the well-known “spring overshoot” phenomenon does not explain the presence of a Laughing Falcon near Twin Elm south of Kanata on Sunday; this species is found along the east coast, spending the winter as far north as North Carolina and the summer between Maine and Maryland. It rarely appears inland, with only perhaps a dozen sightings in Ottawa. I was able to see it in a puddle-riddled field near the Jock River, where it bathed in one of the puddles before having a nice preening session on the grass. Unfortunately it was too far away to get some photos as nice as the ones I got in Mexico.

Laughing Gull

9. Visiting Mud Lake

Finally, migration in April means increased visits to Mud Lake, the birding mecca of Ottawa. Mud Lake is a migrant trap, which means many birds stop over here on their way to and from their breeding grounds, including many rarities over the years. Unfortunately, the nice spring days also mean the trails here will also be busy with people – not only birders, photographers, and other naturalists, but also families with young children, walkers, joggers, and the odd cyclists and off-leash dog-walkers (even though neither bicycles nor dogs are allowed on the NCC property south of Cassels Street). For those seeking a quiet and peaceful birding experience, your best bet would be to visit early in the morning, during the week, or in bad weather given the increased popularity of Mud Lake in recent years.

White-breasted Nuthatch

I didn’t see as many migrants this morning as I had hoped – there no Blue-headed Vireos, Winter Wrens, Hermit Thrushes or Fox Sparrows lurking in the quiet sections of the woods, and no unseasonably early warblers other than the ones to be expected – but a pair of Eastern Phoebes near Rowatt Street, a pair of Common Ravens feeding their young in a nest near the observation dock, two White-throated Sparrows, and plenty of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Pine Warblers, and Yellow-rumped Warblers made it an enjoyable stop. I ended up with a total of 24 species, which isn’t great (only four more than my previous trip on April 2nd when I was complaining that the species were the same as the ones I had in March!), but the numbers will only increase from now until the end of May.

Finally, birding in late April means that winter is finally over, the birds that are on their way, and every day will bring in something new and different!

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