Rain and Flooding in Ottawa

Palm Warbler

After one of the wettest Aprils on record, both the Ottawa and Gatineau Rivers have burst their banks, causing extensive flooding that has affected hundreds of homes on both sides of the provincial border. A combination of snow melt flowing into the Ottawa River through its various tributaries and the high volume of rainfall this spring caused the water to rise faster than could be controlled by engineers at the various dams along the river. The Ottawa River is the highest it has been in decades, and neither I nor the long-time birders here have seen anything like it.

This month alone (now only seven days old) has seen over 100 mm of rain, with 45mm rain on May 1st, 40mm on Friday, and 20 mm yesterday. In the 24-hour period between Saturday afternoon and Sunday afternoon, the Ottawa River rose 17cm, and, according to the Ottawa River Regulation Planning Board, is expected to rise a further 5cm before its peak on Monday. A state of emergency has been declared in Gatineau, where the Canadian Forces was on hand to help police reach difficult to access areas. On the Ontario side, Cumberland and Constance Bay were the two areas affected most, followed by Britannia, Dunrobin, Fitzroy Harbour and MacLarens Landing.

On Saturday I decided to take my umbrella with me and go birding in the rain. I stopped in at the storm water ponds first, where lots of Tree and Barn Swallows were hunting for insects over the water. A single Black-crowned Night Heron was great to see, and I heard the House Wren singing in the same hedge where I’d heard it a week ago. The Eastern Phoebe was still around, as was one Dark-eyed Junco, one White-crowned Sparrow and a couple of White-throated Sparrows. I was thrilled to see an Eastern Kingbird perching on the fence surrounding the pond just north of Emerald Meadows, and even more thrilled to find some warblers in a group of evergreens just south of the “sparrow field”. I saw a Palm Warbler lurking in the branches close to the ground, and even watched as it landed in the wet grass and began foraging. Two Yellow-rumps were flitting through the bare trees higher up, while a second Palm Warbler was singing in another tree about three feet off the ground.

Palm Warbler

This was perhaps the yellowest Palm Warbler I’ve ever seen. There are two subspecies of Palm Warbler in North America, which not only look different, but occupy different territories. The eastern subspecies, known as the Yellow Palm Warbler, breeds in bogs from the Atlantic to about Ottawa, while the western subspecies, known as the Western Palm Warbler, nests from Ottawa west across the continent. Most of the Palm Warblers I see in migration are Western Palm Warblers travelling between the southeastern U.S.A. and their northwestern breeding grounds. However, the Palm Warblers that breed in Mer Bleue are the eastern “yellow” subspecies. The two migration paths of these distinct populations can be seen in this animation based upon records entered into eBird.

Palm Warbler

The first bird I had seen, the one foraging in the grass, had been a typical Western Palm Warbler with a bright yellow chin and undertail coverts, and a brownish breast and belly. It was fantastic to see these two different-looking subspecies foraging only a few metres apart, and I wondered if they were travelling together.

From there I drove over to Shirley’s Bay hoping to find more warblers and migrants. I was not prepared to see how high the water had risen near the parking area:

Shirley’s Bay Underwater

Even the actual boat launch was under water:

Boat Launch at Shirley’s Bay

I wasn’t able to walk the gravel path between the road and the shoreline as it was completely flooded, so I walked along the road instead. I heard the usual birds such as Field Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Brown Thrasher, Black-and-white Warbler, and Yellow Warbler, and I saw a Spotted Sandpiper and a couple of Rusty Blackbirds along the flooded trail. I had only gotten up to Hilda Road before the rain started pouring down, so I quickly finished my walk and returned to the parking lot. I had just reached my car when I became aware of the calls of a great number of Rusty Blackbirds, and found a flock of them in the grassy area east of the picnic shelter. I ran to the shelter and tried to get a few photos.

Rusty Blackbird

They kept flying around, and more flew in from the woods to the west, so I estimate between 20-30 were present. I found it amazing that all these Rusties were still present, especially as they appear to be very widespread throughout the region. Were they here because the flooding has provided the perfect habitat, or would they have come here even if water levels were normal? I think I’ve seen more Rusty Blackbirds this spring than I have during my entire 11-year birding career, so I’m hopeful that this means their numbers are actually increasing!

Rusty Blackbird

I didn’t feel like going out on Sunday as it was another overcast day threatening rain, and I didn’t want to contend with the wet, flooded trails at Mud Lake or Shirley’s Bay. Instead I stayed home and kept an eye on the backyard, and I was amazed by all the birds that visited the feeder. Among the species that showed up are:

– An American Goldfinch, a common bird in the neighbourhood that only comes to the feeders once in a while:

American Goldfinch

– House Sparrows, which live in the cedar tree two doors around and are always present:

House Sparrows

– A Mourning Dove, this one all by itself (usually a pair come together):

Mourning Dove

– Chipping Sparrows, which come and go throughout the day; the most I’ve seen together in my yard so far is three:

Chipping Sparrow

– A Blue Jay, which doesn’t visit my feeders very often, and just happened to drop by as I was shooting:

Blue Jay

– A White-crowned Sparrow, one of two in my yard today – notice how much plumper this species is compared to the other sparrows:

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

– A single Dark-eyed Junco, likely the last of the group that overwintered here. This female has been around by herself since May 1st (and would stay until May 10th, the last day I saw her):

Dark-eyed Junco

– A White-throated Sparrow:

White-throated Sparrow

– And my friend, the peanut-loving crow who now regularly lands on my fence or the roof behind us and watches for me to throw out some food. I was surprised to see it land on my deck where it was showing interest in the peanuts I had put out for the chipmunk.

American Crow

Here it is with its prize. I haven’t tried throwing some peanuts from outside on the deck yet; it may take some time for it to trust me.

American Crow

Other birds seen that day include a Turkey Vulture soaring in the neighbourhood, a Northern Cardinal, the usual starlings, a chickadee, and a robin. Despite the awful weather, there is always plenty of activity in my yard now to keep me entertained; the birds really do brighten up a gray, rainy day and keep me from becoming bored.

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