Why I still love the Beaver Trail after all these years

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

The Beaver Trail (now an ebird hotspot) is rarely mentioned in Ottawa’s birding circles or its birding literature, and never in the OFNC rare bird alerts. I started visiting it in June 2006 because I was tired of going to Sarsaparilla Trail and found it loaded with life birds – though to be fair, my life list was only at 37 species when I started visiting it! It was here that I got my lifer Common Yellowthroat, Eastern Kingbird, Swamp Sparrow, Wood Thrush, Scarlet Tanager and Northern Flicker. I wrote a post about it in March 2011 (“My Favourite Places: The Beaver Trail”), and now, eleven years after I first visited it and six years after writing that post it is still one of my favourite trails in the area. It is still home to a good number of woodland, marsh, and open-edge species during the warmer months, and can be fantastic during migration. According to eBird, I have observed a total of 103 species there in the past 11 years out of a total of 125 recorded. Yesterday morning’s outing was a perfect example of the diversity of breeding and migrating birds, with a total of 39 species observed in about 80 minutes, including three new species for the hotspot and my own personal total!

When I arrived I checked the field north of the parking area for birds making use of the edge habitat at the back. I heard a robin and saw five Wild Turkeys in the grass! They were in the same spot where I saw them last weekend, and started walking right toward me! Eventually they crossed the parking lot and started feeding on the small patch of grass in the center of the lot.

Wild Turkeys

I was surprised to hear an Eastern Wood-pewee still singing, though the Red-eyed Vireos have stopped. The woods and the meadow were fairly quiet, so I headed straight back to the observation platform overlooking the beaver lodge, usually the best spot in the whole trail to see birds. Any place where two habitats meet can be interesting for birds, but I seldom see much in either the parking lot or the meadow in the middle of the woods. However, the spot at the back where the marsh meets the woods can be dynamite. Yesterday was no exception.

Three people were already on the platform, so I continued on my way over the bridge. There are lots of shrubs with berries in this area, and lots of flowering plants for hummingbirds, though the Spotted Jewelweed is now done and I didn’t see any hummingbirds. Instead I saw sparrows – lots and lots of sparrows, most of them White-throated Sparrows! They were chirping and squawking in the vegetation close to the ground, though every now and then they would fly up and land on a branch out in the open. I estimate about 20-30 of these birds, although I saw a few Swamp Sparrows and a juvenile White-crowned Sparrow among them. A few were even attempting to sing quite weakly! They don’t breed at the Beaver Trail, though they do in other trails nearby (Jack Pine Trail, for instance, and probably Lime Kiln).

After studying all the sparrows fluttering about close to the ground I started paying attention to the birds moving about in the canopy instead, hoping to see some warblers. A Magnolia Warbler popped into view, and a Blue-headed Vireo was singing away in the bare branches of a nearby tree. I saw it a couple of times as I patrolled the area over the next 20 minutes or so. a Blue Jay flew in and started looking at me expectantly, so I put some peanuts on the boardwalk railing. It was soon joined by a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches and chickadees, so I put some on a couple of different posts.

I heard a few high-pitched call notes and found a pair of Brown Creepers hitching their way up two nearby trees as well as a group of kinglets. Golden-crowned Kinglets are not usually as responsive to pishing as Ruby-crowned Kinglets, but I saw one down low enough to photograph.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

A couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets were in the same area, and flew out into the open when I started pishing. Unfortunately none stayed in view long enough to get a photo! I also saw a Black-throated Green Warbler and a Swainson’s Thrush (one of the three new birds for this trail) and heard a couple of notes from a Winter Wren. I managed to pish it out into the open; it crossed the boardwalk and flew into the vegetation on the other side. The Winter Wren is a probable breeder in Stony Swamp, as I have heard them sing into late May and June in various trails.

A commotion made me look up and watch a pair of crows, which were cawing excitedly. I spotted an accipiter flying around, and watched as it landed in a distant tree. I thought I might be able to move into a better position and identify it, but the crows flew after it again and it took off. Based on size I’m guessing it was a Cooper’s Hawk, but I didn’t get a good enough look to be sure. This is the second weekend in a row that I’ve seen an accipiter in the area; the last one was flying by overhead.

I headed up to the observation platform and was happy to see some ducks on the pond behind the beaver lodge. It’s too bad that the NCC didn’t extend the platform out over the water, as the large pine tree to the right makes it difficult to see the full pond. Still, I managed to see a juvenile Wood Duck, several mallards, and three Green-winged Teals in the water – the teals are another new species for the trail! While I was watching the ducks a familiar sound made me look up – a Yellow-rumped Warbler was perching in a bare tree above me. A little later some blackbirds flew in, and the gurgling calls made me realize they were not grackles or Red-winged Blackbirds, species which I had already added to the day’s list – they were Rusty Blackbirds! i managed to get one photo of one high up in a tree. I’d heard that some had already been reported this fall, but hadn’t come across any yet. Huge numbers had passed through in the spring, so hopefully this declining species had a good breeding season up north.

Rusty Blackbird

Three Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers chasing each other around were fun to watch – based on the vocalizations of the one doing the chasing and its brownish plumage I suspected it was a juvenile. I had thought this species had already left for the year, and was happy to watch them flitting from tree to tree. A Hairy Woodpecker was also in the same area, but kept to itself.

I noticed by that time that the sparrow activity had quieted down, so I left. I found another area of bird activity at the V-shaped boardwalk, where I was first alerted by the squeaky call of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. It sounded as though it were in the dense shrubs at the start of the boardwalk, as I could hear it singing softly, but I wasn’t able to see it. A few goldfinches flew by, and in the shrubs in the marsh I found both Swamp and Song Sparrows moving about. I heard the chip note of a Purple Finch and saw a female-type land in one of the dead trees. Two Northern Flickers were also flitting among the trees, while a smaller bird perching by itself caught my attention. I raised my binoculars and was thrilled to see a yellowish bird with a red rump – a molting male Scarlet Tanager! I took a few pictures to confirm its identity, and they didn’t turn out too badly despite the distance.

Scarlet Tanager

I heard a raven’s hoarse cries in the distance and a Swamp Sparrow singing much closer. I was just thinking it was perfect catbird territory when suddenly I heard one calling in front of me! I responded with an imitation of its call, and it popped out of a shrub in front of me and nimbly danced out to the end of a branch to feed on the berries there.

Gray Catbird

While I was watching it feed I heard a second catbird calling much further away – it’s not often I see these dapper gray birds in this area, let alone two.

A large Darner zoomed by just above the water’s surface. I didn’t see any skimmers or damselflies, nor any snakes or turtles. The pond at the boardwalk has become really overgrown in recent years; it is no longer possible to see the old beaver lodge in the distance, and I suspect neither the Beavers nor the turtles make much use of the pond any more. It’s awful how all the ponds in Stony Swamp are filling up with cattails – the shorebird and heron habitat at Jack Pine Trail has all but vanished, and soon the boardwalks here and at Sarsaparilla Trail will look out onto nothing but cattails.

The Boardwalk Today

The last new bird I added to the Beaver Trail list was Double-crested Cormorant when I saw three of them fly over the parking lot. I could hear more robins calling from the trees at the back of the old field, and a moment later about 30 of them started flying out and disappeared in the same direction as the cormorants. Three Rusty Blackbirds were also perching in those trees, and they soon flew off, too.

It was an amazing visit, and I truly enjoyed all the activity at the back of the trail. Even though the vast majority of the birds were sparrows, it was great to see so many birds in the same area. I wasn’t ready to go home yet, even though it was getting hot, and headed over to the Bruce Pit next. I was curious to see if any shorebird habitat had developed along the edges of the pond, as the past two weeks have been so hot and dry. Unfortunately the water was still very high, though I was happy to see a female Ring-necked Duck sitting on a log in the northwestern corner.

There were a few cormorants and a couple hundred Canada Geese swimming in the water, but the walk around the pond was quiet in terms of songbirds. They were probably lying low in the heat, but I did manage to pick up a pair of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Yellow-rumped Warbler, and a couple of White-throated Sparrows. It wasn’t until I crossed the bridge that I found a small flock of birds, including a Chipping Sparrow, a Northern Flicker, a couple of robins, and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. I started pishing to get the kinglet to come out into the open, and was surprised when another small bird flew straight toward me from a different direction altogether and landed on a tree branch about four feet away. Even though it’s been four years since I last one, I had no difficulty identifying it as an Orange-crowned Warbler. The grayish head, faintly streaked yellow underparts, thin bill, and dark line through the eye were instantly recognizable.

Orange-crowned Warbler

More abundant in the west than the east, Orange-crowned Warblers are hardy birds – they arrive earlier in the spring, leave later in the fall, and winter farther north than most other warblers. Unlike many other birds that rely on the shortening daylight hours to tell them when to head south, food seems to be the driving force behind their decision to migrate, as they start leaving their breeding grounds when insects become scarce due to cold or drought.

Orange-crowned Warbler

This was probably the best bird of the day, though I added two more species to my year list later that night when I stopped by the Moodie Drive Quarry: a flock of two dozen American Pipits flying over toward the farm fields, and an American Coot on the water directly opposite the gate. The five birds added to my Ottawa year list this weekend are the first I’ve added since August 20th, and bring my year list up to 180 species. My world year list is up to 366 species, with one more trip planned for later this year. It’s been a great weekend for both birds and butterflies, and once again the Beaver Trail proved to be an excellent spot to see some great species!

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