A Slow Start to Spring

Common Grackle

By the end of March temperatures were back to seasonal again, with daily highs between 6 and 8°C. Then it got cold again in early April, with snow in the first week. The birds were coming back, though, and with a long Easter weekend right at the beginning of the month, I was able to get out and spend some time looking for migrants.

On Good Friday (March 30th) I counted 20 species at the Eagleson ponds, including at least five Song Sparrows, two American Tree Sparrows, one Dark-eyed Junco, and eight robins. Blackbirds were back in good numbers; I observed at least five male Red-winged Blackbirds and 15 Common Grackles! In the water, a male Common Merganser had joined the five Hooded Mergansers – two males and a female were swimming in the northern pond while a male and female were swimming together in the southern pond.

I also saw a Turkey Vulture that day while shopping in Bell’s Corners.

The next day I went to Sarsaparilla Trail, but the pond was still frozen solid. A few Canada Geese were either flying over or standing on the ice. The best bird there was a Great Blue Heron I witnessed flying over the pond before attempting to land on the tops of two conifers. It gave up after two attempts and flew off. From there I drove to Mud Lake and counted 21 species. A male and female Wood Duck were swimming in the channel behind the ridge while Red-winged Blackbirds were singing from atop the ridge. One Common Grackle flew over, and I heard only two Song Sparrows singing compared to the nearly 30 Dark-eyed Juncos I saw. The best bird there was an adult Cooper’s Hawk I saw in the woods – it flew over the clearing where all the pine trees had been knocked down in the storm last year and landed in a tree right in front of me!

Cooper’s Hawk

On Easter Monday I decided to try birding a different park in my neighbourhood – Bluegrass Park off of Bridgestone. It’s not much of a park for recreation, although it does have a small playground; the attraction for me was the trail running beneath the giant hydro towers that march through the subdivision. It was in some crab-apple trees here that I’d seen my first Pine Grosbeaks in 2007, and I’d always wondered what I might find here in the warmer months. This proved to be a good decision, for a few minutes after I started walking the trail an American Kestrel flew over! This a bird of open country, and I was disappointed that the “open country” beneath the hydro towers didn’t extend very far. There were plenty of small shrubs along the trail, so a visit in the summer still seems promising! Other birds found here were a Downy Woodpecker, a couple of robins, three Dark-eyed Juncos, a Song Sparrow and two Northern Cardinals.

After my stop at Bluegrass Park I headed over to the Stony Swamp Trail that starts at West Hunt Club. There wasn’t much to see here, although a Turkey Vulture soaring overhead and two ravens flying in tandem together were noteworthy, as was a Pine Siskin calling as it flew. Unfortunately the trail turned into a large swamp about 15 minutes in and I had to turn around as I wasn’t wearing rubber boots.

From there I headed over to Old Quarry Trail hoping for better conditions, and the best find of that visit wasn’t a bird but a molting Snowshoe Hare! I’ve never seen one with such a mix of white and brown fur – it was perfect for the Easter long weekend!

Snowshoe Hare

Temperatures warmed gradually over the next few weeks, and then hit a cold spell right in the middle of the month, even dipping below zero during the day. It wasn’t until Saturday, April 21st that it started to feel like spring when the temperature jumped up to a warm 12°C. By then I had picked up a few more migrants for my 2018 year list, including Brown-headed Cowbird, Double-crested Cormorant, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and a surprise Northern Harrier right off Eagleson Road! Heading into the weekend my list sat at 51 species for the year, but I was hoping to find a lot more that weekend!

I started my weekend with a quick check of Kristina Kiss Park, a new park in my subdivision on the other side of Eagleson Road behind the Superstore. The park consists of a soccer field at the north end and a playground/splash pad at the south end with a bike path running between the two. A channel of water runs next to the bike path, with a large open area next to the soccer field that looks like another storm water pond. It’s been covered in snow all winter so I wasn’t sure how deep the pond was, but when I checked it was fairly shallow, and a Killdeer was standing at the edge of the icy water! I also noticed a Tree Swallow flying around, apparently nesting in a nest box attached to one of the houses whose backyard faces the little park. Both of these were year birds for me.

From there I stopped in at the ponds on my side of Eagleson Road, where I found an Osprey flying over the water – my third new year bird of the day. A Great Blue Heron, a Double-crested Cormorant, and two Hooded Mergansers were also present.

Double-crested Cormorant

Hooded Mergansers

Common Grackles were still around in good numbers (around 15) though I only noticed four male Red-winged Blackbirds singing from exposed perches.

Red-winged Blackbird

One grackle was walking along the rocky shore of the central pond and I got a great photo showing its iridescent feathers!

Common Grackle

I also noticed four Brown-headed Cowbirds eager to start their breeding season! Three males repeatedly chased a female back and forth along the bike path, flying over me about six times! I’ve never seen any young cowbirds being fed by substitute parents here before, but I do often hear the males singing in the spring.

It was still early by the time I left the trails, but the day was warming up nicely under the bright spring sun so I headed over to Stony Swamp to look for butterflies. Butterflies can emerge from hibernation as early as mid-March if the days warm up above 10°C. This was the first real nice day we’d had, and I had been looking forward to the good weather all week, hoping to see my first butterflies of the year.

At Jack Pine Trail I didn’t see any new bird or wildlife species, but I did find a pair of Wood Ducks in the large swamp behind the parking lot. This vernal pool forms there every year from the snow melt, and I usually see ducks (mostly mallards) here in the spring until it dries up. Song Sparrows and Red-winged Blackbirds were back, as was a beautiful Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, but there was nothing else of interest so I drove over to the Beaver Trail across the road. Most of the same species were present here, including a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker tapping distinctively in the distance, but I wasn’t able to track it down. I also heard my first Eastern Phoebe calling from somewhere in the woods but couldn’t locate it – this was my only year bird in Stony Swamp.

I was still hoping to see a butterfly, so I drove over to the Rideau Trail on Old Richmond Road. This has been a reliable spot for me the last few years for seeing my first Eastern Commas and Mourning Cloaks, particularly the left-hand trail once it opens up into the deciduous forest bordering the hydro cut. There are usually vernal pools adjacent to the hydro cut where I’ve heard Western Chorus Frogs calling in early April, and I wasn’t disappointed to hear a few frogs calling that morning. However, I heard a mixture of both Western Chorus Frogs and Wood Frogs, and when I checked the ponds I was able to see a couple of Wood Frogs floating in the pond!

Wood Frog

As usual, I tried to find a Chorus Frog, but wasn’t able to spot any – these tiny frogs are adept at remaining hidden from view even when it sounds as though they are calling from right in front of me. Still, I was happy to see the Wood Frog and hear them calling in the marsh!

The birding was lackluster, with only eight species, and by lunchtime I was tired and hungry enough to call it day despite finding no butterflies. Still, it was great to get out and enjoy the beautiful weather, and I was thrilled with the frogs and all the new birds returning to their summer homes!

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