Entering the Peak!

Spotted Sandpiper

The middle of May is the best time to see various migrating birds in Ottawa. However, once again the forecast for the weekend called for rain on both days (May 13th and 14th), and I wasn’t sure how long I’d be able to go out birding – or whether or not I’d be able to get out at all. Since my fiancé needed the car for pretty much the full weekend, I was extremely limited in the places I could go. There are only a few places I can get to by bus (not that getting anywhere by bus on the weekend is easy), and I didn’t want to get caught in a downpour someplace where I might need to walk 20-30 minutes to get to the bus stop, then wait another 20-30 minutes for a bus to arrive.

Fortunately, the storm water ponds are only a 15 minute walk from home. Intermittent showers on Saturday made for a not unpleasant experience birding there; I was thrilled to tally 37 species altogether.

About 20 swallows were flying over the ponds; there appeared to be equal numbers of Tree and Barn Swallows, and I was happy to see a small brown swallow with a neat brown breast band flying with them. The Bank Swallow flew right over my head, enabling identification – it was a year bird for me, and one I was happy to see as it meant I wouldn’t have to try to track it down elsewhere. Last year I started seeing them around the ponds in July; I am not sure if they had bred here, or were undergoing post-breeding dispersal and found the ponds to their liking.

Three Ruby-crowned Kinglets were still present in various spots, and I counted only three warbler species – seven Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Yellow Warbler, and a Magnolia Warbler were all singing in trees throughout the area. The Magnolia Warbler was a year bird for me, and I managed to track it down in the conifers near the channel.

Two Eastern Kingbirds and two Eastern Phoebes were the only representatives of the flycatcher family. The robins were the only representative of the thrush family, and the only thrush species I’ve seen to date here…although I keep hoping to find a Swainson’s Thrush or a Hermit Thrush in the more densely treed areas, I haven’t had any luck to date. One of the robins was having a bath in the shallow water at the edge of the pond.

American Robin bathing

After it finished bathing it flew up into a tree and preened its feathers, looking thoroughly soaked and bedraggled.

American Robin after the bath

American Robin after the bath

A few birds that I heard but did not see included White-crowned Sparrow, Brown-headed Cowbird, and Purple Finch. Grackles were abundant, and kept a sharp watch on the area. Every time a crow flew over the ponds, it was loudly and hastily escorted from the area by one or more of these aggressive blackbirds.

Water birds were abundant, too. Five Common Mergansers were still present, and a female Mallard was taking a swim with the first baby ducklings of the season. I counted 11 ducklings in all, each a tiny ball of fluffy yellow feathers. One Double-crested Cormorant, about 60 Canada Geese, and a fly-over Black-crowned Night Heron were also present.

Four shorebird species were working their way around the mucky edges, including two Killdeer and three Spotted Sandpipers. I was able to get some photos of the Spotties this time.

Spotted Sandpiper

The Spotted Sandpiper is one of only a handful of shorebird species that breed in Ottawa. However, because other species prefer old fields, forest edges, and marshes, it is the one most likely to be encountered around pond and river edges. The Killdeer is other shorebird most likely to be encountered near water, and two were present as well. I am not sure if either species breeds at the storm water ponds, though numbers of both species tend to increase later in the fall when flocks gather together before migrating south – last September I saw a total of 40 Killdeer fly in together!

Spotted Sandpiper

The other two shorebird species were both new for my year list. One was a Solitary Sandpiper in the southern-most pond. The other was a group of Least Sandpipers scattered around the puddles of the floodplain and along the edges of the middle pond. Every year I see them for the first time I am startled by how small they are.

Least Sandpiper

It was a productive walk despite getting caught in a few showers, and I was happy to see so many migrants in the area!

On Sunday I had the car until 8:30 and as it wasn’t raining yet, I left just before 6:00 am and managed to stop in at Sarsaparilla Trail, Mud Lake, and Andrew Haydon Park before I had to get the car back.

There were some good birds at Sarsaparilla Trail; almost as soon as I arrived I heard a Wood Thrush singing in the woods near the entrance, and a Black-throated Blue Warbler singing in the woods about halfway to the observation dock. I wasn’t able to see either bird. I also heard the distinct gobbling of a Wild Turkey some distance away, and added it to my eBird checklist. A singing Ovenbird was new since my last visit at the end of April, and the only other warblers I noticed there were a Yellow Warbler and two Common Yellowthroats. No flycatchers were out singing while I was there.

The best birds there were the American Bitterns. I heard one calling in the marsh to the north of the boardwalk, and it sounded so close that I thought I might be able to see it. I wandered off trail along the edge of the marsh, and when I found an opening I spent some time trying to track it down. I actually managed to see it walking stealthily among the reeds before it flew up and landed a short distance away where it began calling again – it’s not often that these birds reveal themselves to me so readily! I thought it might be within view of the observation platform, but when I returned there it was not. However, I still heard it calling, as well as a second bittern to the south of the boardwalk! It was a fantastic experience, and one that makes it worth getting up so early in the morning!

From there I headed over to Mud Lake to see if I could find some more warblers – the male Black-throated Blue Warbler is a spectacular bird, and one that I really wanted to see. Because I only had about an hour and a half, I parked at Rowatt Street and only checked the northern and western sides of the conservation area. In the scrubby field I heard a Great Crested Flycatcher, a Least Flycatcher, and a Common Yellowthroat, and saw the usual number of Yellow Warblers on their breeding territory. I heard a Northern Parula singing down a side trail that led to the west side of the lake, and when I reached a small open area I found a great many migrants moving through the trees – not only the parula, but also a Blue-headed Vireo, a Black-throated Green Warbler, a Nashville Warbler, a Black-and-white Warbler, and a couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers. There appeared to be equal numbers of migrating Yellow-rumps and Yellow Warblers back on territory.

When I followed the trail back to the field, I ran into Aaron Hywarren who told me that the Northern Mockingbird was still around. It’s been present since at least the 11th, and I’d forgotten about it when I made my decision to visit Mud Lake. I headed over to the area, passing a couple of Wood Ducks on the path leading down behind the ridge along the way – there is no access to the area behind the ridge anymore, as the area is still completely flooded.

Wood Duck

A large number of swallows were foraging in the air, but due to the distance and the overcast conditions I was only able to identify a single Tree Swallow that flew low over the lake. I also found a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a couple of Warbling Vireos, and another Palm Warbler.

Fortunately the mockingbird was still around when I checked the area south of the filtration plant, and I got a couple of photos of it as it fluttered from branch to branch. These were much better photos than the one I took of the mockingbird a year ago in January, and I wondered if it were the same individual. Mockingbirds are at their northern limit here in Ottawa, and are tough birds to find. However, Mud Lake is a repeat site for this species, especially in the spring.

Northern Mockingbird

Due to the high water, the eastern path around the lake was impassable. I turned around and headed back along Cassels Street, finding a Blackburnian Warbler and a Baltimore Oriole along the way. I re-entered the woods along the western trail, grateful I had worn my boots as the lake water had flooded the path in a few places. I rounded a corner and suddenly two birds flew up off the ground. The first, a Rusty Blackbird, landed in a tangle of branches near the water’s edge, while the second, a Swainson’s Thrush, landed on the path again. I hadn’t realized that any Rusty Blackbirds were still around, and it was good to see the Swainson’s Thrush, yet another year bird.

Swainson’s Thrush

I finally managed to set eyes on the famous Wild Turkey of Britannia in the woods when I saw it fly up into a tree. Although it’s been there for several months, I hadn’t been able to track it down until today. An Osprey perching in a tree across the lake and an Ovenbird singing in the woods helped bring my list up to 49 species – not bad for a quick 80-minute visit!

Aaron had mentioned that a few Red-throated Loons had been seen along the river, so I decided I had enough time to check Andrew Haydon Park on my way home. I didn’t see loons on the water (or any other diving birds except for a few distant scaup) but a lone Brant on the lawn more than made up for it. This was a good find, as I usually don’t see Brant in the spring; while it’s been there for a few days according to eBird, I hadn’t known it was there. Single Brant, usually juveniles, are common at Andrew Haydon Park in the fall; there has been speculation this bird was one of those juveniles returning as an adult.

Brant

The Brant was a perfect bird to end a fantastic morning. In about 2.5 hours I managed to see or hear 55 species, a good number for the peak of migration. It was great to hear their songs and see their brilliant colours, and made the early start entirely worth it!

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