April Sun, April Showers

Winter Wren

Weather in April can be described in only one way: changeable. It can turn from spring to summer to winter in the matter of hours, making it difficult to know how to dress any given day – you may need a hat and gloves in the morning, then be wearing shorts in the afternoon. Even the weather toward the end of the month can be variable. Last Thursday (April 27th) Ottawa’s temperature reached a sunny, humid high of 26°C; yesterday (April 30th) the rain clouds moved in and temperatures barely reached 5°C.

Migrants have been returning in large numbers despite the inconstant weather. On Friday I woke up to see two White-crowned Sparrows on my backyard, and they were there again Sunday morning. This was a year bird for me, and the earliest date I’ve recorded them in my yard; normally they arrive during the first week of May, with my previous early date being May 4th.

Saturday was supposed to be warm and sunny, so I decided to do some birdwatching at the Eagleson storm water ponds and Richmond lagoons before searching for butterflies in Marlborough Forest. The storm water ponds were highly productive with 32 species; highlights included a male Wood Duck, a Hooded Merganser, a Double-crested Cormorant, several White-throated Sparrows, two White-crowned Sparrows, a Dark-eyed Junco, two Ruby-crowned Kinglets, an Eastern Phoebe calling in the woodlot, two Killdeer and a Greater Yellowlegs. A Spotted Sandpiper flying across the water was my first of the year in Ottawa, and I was delighted to hear the bubbly song of a House Wren issuing from the cedar hedges that separate the backyards from the park. I managed to get a brief glimpse of his head sticking up out of the hedge when I started pishing. This was a new bird for me at this location.

There were a few warblers around, too. In the grove of trees at the south end I found a pair of Yellow-rumps singing out in the open and saw a pair of Palm Warblers chasing each other. A small yellowish bird bouncing around the shadows turned out to be a Nashville Warbler. I also heard a Yellow Warbler singing across the pond; this is another species that seems early to me, and I wished I’d gotten a look at it.

A few swallows were swooping over the water but all of them appeared to be Tree Swallows. I thought it was odd that there were no Barn Swallows, so I decided to check the nesting area under the bridge. I was dismayed to see that some sort of chicken wire had been placed across the entire underside of the bridge, preventing the Barn Swallows from nesting there. I couldn’t think of what purpose it could serve now that the construction was finished. Barn Swallows are considered threatened, and it seems wrong that they wouldn’t allow the Barn Swallows to return to their old nesting area. They’ve been there for years, and it was upsetting to think that they might not be back.

The sun showed no signs of emerging from behind the large bank of clouds by the time I left, so I continued on my way to the Richmond Lagoons. That, too, is under construction, as the city of Richmond is repairing and replacing sewer forcemains in the northeast part of the conservation area, and there is a concrete barrier blocking access from Eagleson Road. However, entry is still possible from a park in the subdivision behind the conservation area so I headed in that way. It was great to finally see some water in the cells, and I saw four Northern Shovelers in the middle cell and two Gadwall in the first cell. I heard (then saw) my first Warbling Vireo of the year, and heard another Yellow Warbler singing. A Palm Warbler and two Yellow-rumped Warblers were singing near the parking lot, and several Tree Swallows were swooping over the water and perching on the barbed wire fence next to the nest boxes. I managed to get a picture of one.

Tree Swallow

Although I spent an hour there, it still didn’t look as though the sun were going to come out, so after visiting Ritchie’s Feed and Seed next door I decided to head to Roger’s Pond anyway. An Eastern Phoebe was singing in the parking lot, and I heard a couple of Yellow-rumps and White-throated Sparrows singing on my way to the pond. When I got to the pond, at first all I saw were two Canada Geese; then when I checked the middle of the pond, I noticed quite a few ducks. It wasn’t until I had gotten around to the other side of the lake with the sun behind me that I was able to identify them as Ring-necked Ducks. Also much later I heard a Pied-billed Grebe, but wasn’t able to see it.

Once I got into the woods on the other side of the bridge I began seeing and hearing more. A Black-and-white Warbler was singing in the same area where I’d observed one in previous summers; as it was the only one that I heard, I wondered if it were coincidence, or if it was the resident bird returning. I also heard a Blue-headed Vireo singing and managed to coax it out into the open by pishing. This was one of three that I heard, and the only one that I saw. I heard a couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a few more Yellow-rumped Warblers, and at least five Purple Finches singing. At one point I passed by a few brush piles close together and then heard the melodious song of a Winter Wren issuing from behind me a few seconds later. I turned around and scanned the branches but was unable to find the singer anywhere, and of course it didn’t bother to sing while I was looking.

At last the sun came out and I started seeing a few butterflies. There were quite a few Northern Spring Azures in one sunny spot, and I was happy to finally have some butterflies to photograph.

Northern Spring Azure

Northern Spring Azure

I didn’t see any others until I left the pond behind and entered the deciduous area at the northern end of the loop around the lake. I startled a few Mourning Cloaks into flight, as well as one or two Henry’s Elfins and an unknown comma. The elfins danced around me, alighting on various twigs and leaves, but never long enough for me to focus my camera on them. The Mourning Cloaks were easier to track, being much larger, and I finally managed to get a couple of pictures of one.

Mourning Cloak

I spent about 15 minutes in the area trying to scare up another comma or Henry’s Elfin, but when it became apparent that they weren’t cooperating, I headed back out into the open, sunny gravel trail. I saw what looked like a large stick lying across the path, and just as I was about to step over it I realized it wasn’t a stick but a Northern Water Snake! It hadn’t moved when I walked right up to it, so I was worried that someone else might step on it or worse, bike over it.

Northern Water Snake

I reached out to touch it, figuring that would send it scurrying off of the trail, but it just sat there the first time, acting sluggish, as though it had just fed. The second time I reached out to touch it, the snake lunged at me, then curled up and remained in the same place in the middle of the path. I then got a stick and tried lifting it. Still no response, and the stick wasn’t big enough to completely lift it. Finally I grabbed a second, larger stick and when I tried lifting it again with the two sticks, it hissed at me and shot off into the vegetation at the side of the trail.

Northern Water Snake (click to enlarge)

I was happy that it finally moved, but realized a few steps later that it would probably return as soon as I was gone to enjoy the warmth of the sun-baked rocks. Fortunately I didn’t see anyone coming into the trail when I left, so perhaps it was able to doze in peace.

The next day called for rain, but even so I decided to slip over to Jack Pine Trail for a walk first thing in the morning. Despite the gray day and light, misty rain that fell later I had a great walk. It began with a pair of Wild Turkeys in the woods, the first time I’d ever seen them here despite seeing their tracks in the snow last winter. A little later I heard a Hermit Thrush singing and saw a Blue-headed Vireo and a Pine Warbler foraging high up in the trees. A couple of squirrels were scampering around the makeshift feeders and my heart melted when I realized that two of them were babies.

American Red Squirrel

An adult was also feeding nearby. It wasn’t as cute as the baby, but still pretty adorable for a rodent!

American Red Squirrel

From there I headed to the scrubby alvar, curious to see whether the Eastern Towhees had returned. I heard one Field Sparrow and a couple of White-throated Sparrows singing; White-throated Sparrows were scattered throughout the trail in good numbers, particularly in the woods and around the feeder. I also heard a Nashville Warbler singing and managed to track it down; a little later I found two more at the edge of the woods.

Not long after I arrived I heard the familiar vocalizations of a towhee. It wasn’t in the same place where I’d seen them last year, and I followed the sound to a tree where a beautiful male was perching a few feet above the ground. It flew down the ground and disappeared beneath a juniper bush. I waited for a bit, and although I could hear him calling, he remained hidden in the vegetation.

Then I heard another one respond a short distance away. I decided to track that one down, and found it in a clump of trees, weaving in and out of the low shrubs. Dry leaves rustled as it tossed the leaf litter aside in its search for insects; then I realized there was more than one bird foraging in the tiny stand of trees. One of the birds turned out to be a White-throated Sparrow, but the other was another towhee! Neither towhee remained in view for very long, and when I heard the first bird begin to sing again I retraced my steps and found him right out in the open.

Eastern Towhee

This was the definite highlight of my walk, and if hadn’t begun to rain then I might have stayed longer. I hurried back the way I came instead of continuing through the marsh at the back, and after a few minutes I realized that I wasn’t getting wet; instead of rain, tiny pellets of sleet were falling. Instead of heading to the parking lot I decided to continue onto the feeders, passing this chipmunk sitting in a tree cavity along the way.

Eastern Chipmunk

There was plenty of activity around the feeders, though few birds were actually visiting them. White-throated Sparrows were hopping on the ground just about everywhere I looked.

White-throated Sparrow

I also saw a single Dark-eyed Junco and a single Chipping Sparrow. It was strange to see the Chipping Sparrow so deep in the woods, as they prefer open areas with scattered trees, but clearly it recognized a good food source when it saw one!

Chipping Sparrow

I could also hear a Winter Wren singing in the small marsh just behind the feeder and tried to track it down, encountering a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches at the edge of the swamp. The nuthatches both flew up to me looking for food, and I was happy to oblige as the Winter Wren wasn’t cooperating. A few minutes later I heard it sing again from a different part of the clearing. Wrens can be pretty stealthy, and their plain brown colouration doesn’t make it easy to spot them when singing from somewhere in a wood pile. Eventually I saw it perching and singing at the end of the large downed pine tree, and fly from there to the makeshift shelter someone had tried to build a couple of years ago. When it sang again I was ready with the camera, resulting in my best images of this species yet (though my fiance, Doran, wanted to know where the rest of the bird was)!

Winter Wren

It sang a couple of times from that spot before it flew off again, disappearing into the gloomy clearing once more.

Winter Wren

I continued my walk through the woods until the sleet changed to rain, at which point I decided to turn around and go home. However, a familiar sound caught my attention, and I looked up to see a flock of about 15 Rusty Blackbirds perching in the tops of a few trees! I watched them singing their hearts out in the rain, hoping to get a photo of them as a couple of them flew down to the ground and began walking around the large puddles and fallen tree branches. Unfortunately I couldn’t get close enough to them for a decent photo and watched until the flock eventually flew away.

I had a great weekend birding despite the weather, and was glad we finally got a nice day to do some butterfly watching. I enjoyed seeing the Eastern Towhees, the Winter Wren, the Rusty Blackbirds, the Blue-headed Vireo, the Northern Water Snake, and the butterflies at Marlborough Forest. Hopefully it will continue to warm up and stay dry, and I’ll be able to get some photos of those elusive Henry’s Elfins!

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