Hello, birds of winter!

American Tree Sparrow

Our warm fall weather continued this weekend, with sunny blue skies and temperatures reaching above 20°C both days – it was 11°C higher than it should be this time of year. With the return of our rather late summer, it was a bit of a shock on Saturday to see that two of our common winter residents had arrived in the region: the Common Goldeneye, a diving duck that inhabits the ice-free portions of the Rideau and Ottawa Rivers all winter long, and the American Tree Sparrow, a small brown sparrow with a red cap that likes shrubby habitats and sometimes visits bird feeders in more rural areas.

I was still trying to bring my year list up to 200, and started the weekend off with a walk around the Eagleson storm water ponds. I was hoping for Cackling Goose, though a Greater White-fronted Goose would also have been nice – although much more rare than the diminutive Cackling Goose, it’s one I keep looking for every time large numbers of geese start gathering here before finally moving on. To my disappointment I found only three waterfowl species: Canada Goose, Mallard, and a few lingering Double-crested Cormorants. I was happy to see that the cormorants were still around, as every sighting could be the last of the year.

I was also happy to find three heron species – a juvenile Black-crowned Night-heron, a Great Blue Heron, and five Great Egrets all together in the southern pond. When I entered them into eBird the egrets came up as rare; I expect they will be here until the weather changes in a couple more weeks.

A few songbirds were still around; a large flock of robins and a larger flock of Red-winged Blackbirds flew over, and I heard a few singing male Red-wings in various spots around the marsh. I love hearing their songs and calls in October, because it will be a long time until they become common again in March. Pishing elicited a few responses from Dark-eyed Juncos and Song Sparrows, but all the warblers were gone. One Ruby-crowned Kinglet was still present, working its way along the cedar hedges.

I heard, then saw, at least one Brown Creeper near the mature woodlot. This was a new bird to be added to the eBird checklist for this hotspot, and I was thrilled to get a nice picture of it hitching its way up the tree.

Brown Creeper

I hear Blue Jays in the area from time to time, though I don’t always see them, and was happy to see one landing at the top of a small pine. It had a peanut in its bill – surely it hadn’t come from my yard, as I would have expected all of the peanuts I’d tossed out before leaving to be gone, but it certainly could have been one of the three jays that visits me almost every day!

Blue Jay

The only other bird of note was a Greater Yellowlegs working its way around the pond edge. The pond hasn’t been as good for shorebirds this season as it was last fall due to higher water levels, but at least both species of yellowlegs have continued to drop in throughout the fall.

Greater Yellowlegs

I drove over to Mud Lake next but the barricades were still up blocking access to the ridge and the woods – this isn’t surprising as we had another windstorm last Sunday evening that knocked out the power in Kanata and took down a large limb on the big tree on our front lawn – I had gone to the store just before it hit, and came back to find that about a third of the tree was blocking access to our street. When I came home from work the whole tree was gone, leaving a gap on our street. I liked that tree, too – I had photographed the Pine Warbler flitting around in it last spring.

As options at Mud Lake were limited I headed east to the point, around the filtration plant, and walked back along the edge of the lake. I recorded 29 birds on my ramble, including a Hermit Thrush, an Eastern Phoebe, and a group of sparrows feeding on the filtration plant ground including Dark-eyed Junco, Chipping Sparrow, and Song Sparrow. A couple of White-throated Sparrows were flitting about the shrubs close to the pond, and on the water I saw a female Ring-necked Duck, about eight American Wigeon, three Hooded Mergansers, and a single Pied-billed Grebe. I managed this photo of the grebe when I entered the small point near the fence opposite the parking lot and saw it surface almost in front of me. Pied-billed Grebes are difficult to photograph as they don’t like getting too close to people, but I got really lucky!

Pied-billed Grebe

There were still quite a few Wood Ducks around, and I was happy to see this male dozing in the small pond at the base of the ridge. The sunlight really brought out all the iridescent blues and purples of its feathers.

Wood Duck

A friend told me that a few Pine Siskins were around, and it wasn’t long before I heard at least two along Cassels Street. A group of finches, including at least two goldfinches, was foraging in the trees right next to the road. It was great to hear and see these streaky finches again, and I hope a few will stick around for the winter.

Andrew Haydon Park was my next stop – here I was hoping for Long-tailed Duck, Cackling Goose, Black Scoter or Surf Scoter. Instead I found a Red-necked Grebe and a pair of Common Goldeneyes out in the river, and 6 Green-winged Teal and a Pied-billed Grebe in the western bay. There is a little bit of shorebird habitat present in the bay now, though it developed too much late to be of much use to the bulk of the shorebirds passing through earlier this season. Perhaps some Dunlin or White-rumped Sandpipers will find it to their liking in the next few weeks.

I heard a few Golden-crowned Kinglets but didn’t see them – they sounded as though they were in the shrubs right next to the western bridge. A Great Egret was in the water by the bridge, seemingly oblivious to all of the photographers taking its picture. I found this Ring-billed Gull much more to my liking, standing on a bridge at the eastern end of the park with the nice fall colours in the background.

Ring-billed Gull

My last stop of the morning was Shirley’s Bay. Again I didn’t see much of interest on the river, but in the shrubs near the shoreline trail I saw some Dark-eyed Juncos and my first American Tree Sparrows of the fall. I still have a fondness for tree sparrows, as this was species #100 on my life list! They have such pretty, sweet-sounding call notes compared to other sparrows; I enjoy listening to them when they are present. That’s something I usually forget over the summer until I hear my first flock in the fall. These birds called only a few times before they saw me and fled to the undergrowth with the juncos.

American Tree Sparrow

I saw one more American Tree Sparrow that afternoon when I went to the Bruce Pit for a walk before dinner. This is a place I’ve been spending more time at, hoping to see some different waterfowl on the pond. Five Hooded Mergansers were swimming on the pond, and a couple hundred Red-winged Blackbirds were flying into the marsh to roost. I also saw a flock of Common Grackles fly by and land briefly in a tree before continuing on their way to their destination. A few robins and Golden-crowned Kinglets were around as well, and I was happy to see this American Tree Sparrow perching out in the open.

American Tree Sparrow

Today’s travels took me to the woods, this time to Old Quarry Trail to look for Black-backed Woodpeckers. I got lucky with one last October and haven’t seen one since. Both Black-backed and American Three-toed Woodpeckers are moving through in good numbers, and if there’s anywhere in Ottawa where they are likely to turn up, it’s Stony Swamp. In the marsh I added a new bird to my Old Quarry Trail eBird list when I caused a male Wood Duck to flush along with a mallard from the water next to one of the boardwalks. Red-winged Blackbirds were singing and calling away, likely having spent the night there. My best bird was a Sharp-shinned Hawk in the marsh being harassed by a pair of crows – whenever it landed on a tree branch, one of the crows would chase it away. I could see how small the bird was compared to the crows, as well as the small head and square tail. This was a year bird for me.

A Purple Finch was singing in the trees surrounding the marsh, and I later heard the whiny “whee” alarm all of a Hermit Thrush. It was a great walk, and although I didn’t find any woodpeckers whatsoever, I’m already looking forward to my next visit!

I returned to the river with ducks still on my mind. A walk around the ponds produced a Canada Goose standing in the water next to the bandshell right in the same area where Great Blue Herons, Green Herons, and even Black-crowned Night-herons like to perch. As it’s so unusual to see a Canada Goose standing in such a picturesque location I couldn’t resist taking its picture – most geese are seen either swimming on water or feeding on lawns or cornfields.

Canada Goose

I found another picturesque goose standing among the rocks at the river’s edge, so I snapped a picture of that one too!

Canada Goose

I didn’t see anything of interest on the river at first – just a flock of Lesser Scaup and a few Red-necked Grebes – so I scanned the ducks in the western bay. The usual Wood Ducks, Green-winged Teals and a single American Wigeon had been joined by a Red-breasted Merganser. A Great Blue Heron and a Great Egret were fishing close together as well, with a second Great Egret in the pond again by the western bridge. It was catching lots of fish, which is probably why it’s been seen in that same spot for a few weeks now. As a result, it’s probably the most photographed egret in Ottawa this year.

Great Egret

I re-examined the scaup and did a double take when I realized two scoters had joined them – large dark sea ducks with two pale gray patches on each side of the head. I ran to the car to get my scope, then spent some time observing them. I knew they were either Surf or White-winged Scoters, and was hoping for Surf Scoter as I had already seen the White-winged variety in the spring. Then they both flapped their wings, revealing the white secondary feathers of the White-winged Scoter. There were more scoters toward Britannia Pier, and after watching them flap their wings I realized that both Surf and White-winged Scoters were present. They were too far out to photograph, but a single duck diving fairly close to shore presented a much better opportunity. It was a Long-tailed Duck, another year bird, and it was heading west in between dives. Since it was much closer to shore than any of the other diving birds, I started following it, taking pictures each time it resurfaced.

Long-tailed Ducks are annual migrants in Ottawa, though only a handful are seen each year. They are also more common in the fall than in the spring when males are in their beautiful breeding plumage. This one is a female in non-breeding plumage.

Long-tailed Duck

I decided to head over to Shirley’s Bay after that, and noticed this strange sight in the parking lot on my way out: a Ring-billed Gull sitting on top of vehicle! It was so funny that I had to take a few pictures.

Ring-billed Gull

I love how nonchalant the gull appears, as though it does this every day. Perhaps it does. Perhaps I should check the roof of my own car for gull footprints!

Ring-billed Gull

Shirley’s Bay was marvelous. I hadn’t been there since the new rules were implemented, but when I called for permission to go out on the dyke I identified myself as an OFNC member and gave them my name. They found it on the list, and gave me permission to bird the DND property. There were few birds in the woods – mostly robins and a couple of smaller birds that disappeared too fast to identify. It was another story out on the dyke. The water in the bay had dropped drastically, and there were about 100 Green-winged Teals foraging in the shallow water. I also saw six Pectoral Sandpipers, four Dunlin, and a female Northern Pintail. Then Jon Ruddy came up behind me and asked if I had seen the Canvasback…apparently a Rare Bird Alert had just gone out saying there was one at the dyke! I headed out further and stopped when I saw a few other birders with their scopes set up. I saw a beautiful male Northern Pintail, a beautiful male Redhead, and finally a Canvasback! It was great to see these two similar-looking ducks so close together.

Other ducks included numerous American Wigeon and black ducks, a few hundred Lesser Scaup, more White-winged Scoters, more Red-breasted Mergansers, a couple of Double-crested Cormorants, a Red-necked Grebe on the river side, and some Common Goldeneyes on the river side. Others saw Red-throated Loons further out on the river and a Ruddy Duck on the bay side, but I wasn’t able to put my scope on either of these species. I was just so pleased with the huge number of birds and the spectacular variety…it made carrying the scope all that way entirely worthwhile!

Although the unseasonably warm weather isn’t supposed to last much longer, I greatly appreciated having such a nice weekend for birding. With the arrival of the American Tree Sparrows and Common Goldeneyes, other winter residents such as Snow Buntings and Northern Shrike are sure to follow soon. Hopefully there will be a few more surprises before winter actually arrives!

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