November Rarities

Black-throated Gray Warbler

November is a great month for finding rare birds in Ottawa. The shortening days, dropping temperatures, and unexpected weather systems can all result in birds moving around, and this time of year it’s not uncommon for younger birds to wander or be blown off course. The past few weeks have been exciting, with a Razorbill on the Ottawa River from October 30-31st, a flyby Northern Gannet going up the river on November 12th, and an Anna’s Hummingbird in Carleton Place all being reported. On November 2nd – the day that the temperature jumped from 6°C to 13°C as just such a weather system dropped almost 30mm of rain on the city – an unlikely songbird found itself in Ottawa. A young Black-throated Gray Warbler was discovered at the Britannia Conservation Area, aka Mud Lake, Ottawa’s mega hotspot for rarities, by Bruce Di Labio. This tiny warbler normally lives west of the Rocky Mountains and spends the winters in central Mexico and is not supposed to be anywhere near Ottawa.

After two rainy days of unseasonable temperatures of 13°C, it got cold and sunny again on November 4th. Changes in weather, such as a cold front moving through, often bring in new birds so I started off the morning with a walk around the Eagleson storm water ponds. I ended up with 20 species, which is pretty good for November, including two Hooded Mergansers, a robin, a Song Sparrow, a singing Red-winged Blackbird, two American Tree Sparrows, and two Dark-eyed Juncos. The best bird was a Northern Harrier which I saw fly over as I was heading south toward Hope Side Road – it flew over me, and when I saw the long, flappy wings I wasn’t sure what it was at first until I saw the characteristic white rump. This was the first time I’d this bird at the park, and I ran after it hoping it would land. It didn’t.

There were also about 2,000 Canada Geese on the ponds, with two Cackling Geese among them. This was the second-best bird as it’s been one I’ve been looking for for a while now – these were my first Cackling Goose of 2017. I first noticed them when I saw their paler, grayer bodies among the large brown Canada Geese. Then I noticed the small neck, small bill and the small, blocky head.

Cackling Goose

It was turning about to be a good day so far, so I headed over to the Beaver Trail. I found three Brown Creepers, which must have been a record high for me, seven American Tree Sparrows, and two Purple Finches, one of which was singing a song similar in tone to a Blue-headed Vireo – I had to find it to be sure it actually wasn’t a Blue-headed Vireo. The oddest sight, however, was that of about 10 Wild Turkeys feeding on the seeds put out by the folks at the Wild Bird Care Centre.

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkeys

While I was at the Beaver Trail I received a report that the Black-throated Gray Warbler found at Mud Lake on November 2nd was still there. This is the second one ever to be found in the Ottawa-Gatineau Region; the first was found just across the river at the end of Vanier Street on December 3, 2013 and stayed only a day. I didn’t chase that bird, as it’s a long drive from Kanata to get to the bridge across the river, then back west to the area where it was seen, and songbirds are notorious for being difficult to relocate (I’m looking at you, Connecticut Warbler). This time, however, I decided to finish the trail quickly and head on over.

At Mud Lake all I had to do was look for the mob of people gathered on the lawn just west of the filtration plant. Normally this is my least favourite method of birding: waiting for something great to be discovered then go chase it, hoping it’s still there, and joining the mob if it is. There’s no feeling of having “earned” or achieved anything, except perhaps another tick on the life list; and there’s no sense of intimacy while the bird goes about its business with ten or twenty camera shutters clicking away. It’s a little tough sometimes not to feel envious of those who discover a rare bird and are able to enjoy it by themselves for those first few minutes without worrying about whether the crowd will affect it. I’ve been birding seriously now for about 11 years, but as I work a full-time job during the week, I had yet to discover a real rarity. Fortunately I don’t define myself as a birder by the number of self-found rarities, or by how my lists compare to other people’s. I go out birding first to enjoy myself, to observe what’s present, and sharpen my identification and observation skills. Second, I try to add to the local hotspot lists by finding different birds not already reported there. Generally I prefer to do this alone, as I find there’s something slightly distasteful about being part of a crowd of spectators following the bird’s every movement.

I joined the crowd, got my binoculars on the bird, watched it for a few minutes, turned on my camera, took a few shots, then left when the bird moved away. This was life bird number 481 and yet the experience left me feeling slightly deflated. And while quite a beautiful little bird, it didn’t feel good to see it and know it was thousands of kilometres away from where it needed to be, spending its days in a place that would soon become frigidly cold and inhospitable to a species dependent on warm temperatures and insects for food.

Black-throated Gray Warbler

It was likely a first year bird, given that the head and eye stripe were gray instead of black, and given the lack of any black on the throat. The Black-throated Gray Warbler’s summer range only extends north into southwestern B.C. and south to the U.S.-Mexican border at Arizona and New Mexico. In the winter, it travels to Central Mexico. Somehow this bird ended up travelling east instead of south, which is something many birds end up doing according to Nova Scotia birders who witness this phenomenon every winter. Black-throated Gray Warblers primarily feed on insects that they glean from the foliage of trees and shrubs. Apparently it has been finding enough to eat in the pines east of the ridge and the line of buckthorn shrubs separating the lawn from the river. It has been easy to find, as this is a species that tends to move slowly and deliberately in the lower to middle levels of the forest, searching for bugs. Still, even Cornell notes that every year individuals get lost and show up in the east.

Black-throated Gray Warbler

After adding the Black-throated Gray Warbler to my life list I spent another 80 minutes at Mud Lake, assuring myself it was still worth the effort to come and see it. I ended up with 22 species there as well, including a pair of Wood Ducks, a Golden-crowned Kinglet, and another singing Purple Finch.

The next day I did some birding at Old Quarry Trail, where the only species of note was a Pine Siskin flying over, and Andrew Haydon Park, where I counted 21 Black Scoters, two White-winged Scoters, 15 Bufflehead, two Long-tailed Ducks, and two Common Loons. I also had a surprise visitor at the feeder when a late Chipping Sparrow showed up that afternoon – usually these birds disappear from the neighbourhood before the end of October.

Chipping Sparrow

When I went to Andrew Haydon Park a week later I found a male Northern Pintail just molting into breeding plumage. Unlike Blue-winged Teals, which depart early in September, Northern Pintails are often found in Ottawa late into the fall and even into the winter.

Northern Pintail

The following day I headed over to the Old Quarry Trail and came across two Fox Sparrows, a couple of juncos, and a surprise Winter Wren near the boardwalk. I heard the distinctive “dit-dit” call first, then saw it emerge from the dense wood when I started pishing. It hopped along a log then flew into a shrub on the other side of the path. It came up as “rare” on my eBird checklist, which surprised me a bit; Winter Wrens move through in large numbers in late September and October, and are sometimes found here in the winter, such as the one I saw at Mud Lake on January 28, 2012. I have two other “late” records for this species: one observed at Sarsaparilla Trail on November 2, 2013; and one observed at the Rideau Trail on October 30, 2016. Given their preference for dense, wooded areas with downed trees, like the one shown in the photo below, it is possible that there are more of these reclusive birds are around than we realize, hiding in the depths of Stony Swamp, Marlborough Forest, the South March Highlands, and other remote areas.

Winter Wren

From there I headed over to Mud Lake. Eight days had gone by since I had seen the Black-throated Gray Warbler, and it was still there. Amazingly, it had been joined by another exceptionally late warbler – a Nashville Warbler. However, this species does in fact breed in our region, and was not lost – just tardy. In fact, it is usually one of the last warblers to leave in the fall. When I arrived the Nashville Warbler was foraging in the pines adjacent to the ridge, and when I stopped for a look I heard it sing twice. The Black-throated Gray Warbler, however, was nowhere to be seen. I asked a group of people further along and was told that it had been actively foraging in the shrubs lining the trail from the ridge to the filtration plant, then disappeared about ten minutes earlier. I left the crowd of birders and continued my way to Britannia Point. I really wasn’t expecting to find it, but when I heard the sharp chip note reminiscent of a Black-throated Green Warbler (to which it is closely related) I stopped and looked until I found it near the clump of cedars at the point. It was flitting about at eye level, and I realized there was no one else within sight – I could actually spend time with this bird by myself! I enjoyed watching it for all of about 60 seconds, until it vanished within the interior of the shrubs and refused to emerge.

Black-throated Gray Warbler

I made my way back to the ridge, encountering a Song Sparrow, a pair of Brown Creepers and a Pileated Woodpecker along the way. There were about half a dozen Common Goldeneye ducks in the channel, but no Wood Ducks. As I was ascending the steep path to the top of the ridge I heard a familiar chip note – the Black-throated Gray Warbler! It had followed me or I had followed it, but I wasn’t able to get any further photos as it flew down to the mucky area behind the east end of the ridge. However, at the top of the ridge I had a good look of the Nashville Warbler on a sumac branch.

It was a great day for rare birds, and I didn’t think it could get any better as I decided to quickly check the Trail Road dump for a Rough-legged Hawk that had been found there. I was wrong.

I got the Rough-legged Hawk fairly quickly as I drove through the ungated fence – it was hovering above the dump. I pulled over to the side of the road just beyond the fence and waited to see if it would come my way, but it didn’t. However, the large number of European Starlings in the trees right beside the road caught my attention, and, recalling winters when Brown-headed Cowbirds had joined them, I decided to take a moment to scan the flock. There were at least 200 starlings present, all vocalizing as they perched on branches, foraged on the berries, and picked through the sparse grass and dirt at the edge of the road. Then I saw a male Brown-headed Cowbird on the ground, and was quite happy that my hunch paid off. Then I saw a female cowbird, no two females, and another male, and –

– and a brownish bird with yellow splashed on the the face and throat. My mind shut down for a moment, and I drew a complete blank. The bird was on the ground with the other blackbirds, and was shaped like a blackbird, but the colours were all wrong. My first thought was Eastern Meadowlark. But no, the yellow was in the wrong spot. Further, the bird had brownish streaks down the sides. What about Rusty Blackbird? No, there is no yellow on those even though the rest of the colours looked close. I slowly got out of the car and pointed my camera out to get one quick shot. I took two small steps toward the flock and then, with impeccable timing, the Rough-legged Hawk flew over the road and caused all the birds to scatter, flying back into the dump area.

Yellow-headed Blackbird

So left with only this photo I headed home, tingling with the certainty that I had found a rare bird, my very first rare bird, but uncertain as to just what it was. I poured over my field guide, and decided it must be a Yellow-headed Blackbird, either a female or immature male, though it didn’t look quite right to me. This species breeds mainly in western Canada, with a small population in southern Ontario near Lake St. Clair, and I have only seen it twice: a male in Ottawa in 2014 and two males in Calgary in 2012. I had no experience with females or immatures, so I emailed the photo to my friend and local eBird reviewer, Marc Gawn. He has much more travel experience than I do, and presumably more experience with this species, and I was thrilled when he confirmed it: my bird was a Yellow-headed Blackbird!

The Yellow-headed Blackbird is not as rare in our area as the Black-throated Warbler; there are many previous records in the region, including the male I saw in Kanata north in 2014. Presumably this bird came from the small Ontario population or the near mid-west rather than Alberta or BC, but anything is possible in the bird world! I sent out a rare bird alert, feeling more excitement and enthusiasm for the discovery of this bird than I did when I saw the Black-throated Gray Warbler for the first time.

In one day I saw two western birds, far from home, even farther from where they should be this time of year. Fortunately for both birds, the unseasonably warm weather lasted right through to the end of November. Although it dropped to below -10°C a couple of nights, the days were quite warm, reaching as high as 11°C. The Yellow-headed Blackbird was last seen on December 2, 2017. I saw it a second time, on November 26th, but when I returned later in December neither it nor the Brown-headed Cowbirds were anywhere to be seen. Presumably the flock moved on, hopefully south to warmer climes.

Unlike most vagrants that appear suddenly and disappear equally as suddenly, the fate of the Black-throated Gray Warbler is known. The first eight days of December were warm, above 0°C, and the Black-throated Gray Warbler continued to forage actively in its preferred spot near the pines west of the filtration plant. Temperatures dropped, and we got 3 cm of snow on December 9th, then 17 cm of snow on December 12th. The temperature dropped below -20°C on the night of December 13th. The following morning Bruce Di Labio, the original finder of the Black-throated Gray Warbler, found the bird laying motionless at the base of a tree. He picked it up and held it in his hands, hoping to warm it up and revive it. Instead, this little gray and white bird died, and its carcass was donated to the Royal Ontario Museum.

It’s a sad ending for a bird that delighted so many; I’m glad I got to see it, though more and more I’m finding I prefer seeing birds in their native ecosystems, coming across them naturally and unexpectedly on a hike in a new place. Travelling is a much nicer way to see new birds, rather than wondering will happen to the vagrants that end up here – or finding out that one didn’t survive. I’m not saying that I’m never going to chase a rare bird again, just that I don’t enjoy it as much as I used to when I was a novice birder looking to add new birds to my life list. And with a trip to Las Vegas planned in a few weeks (the summer home of both the Yellow-headed Blackbird and Black-throated Gray Warbler), I’m planning on seeing quite a few new birds on their home territories!

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