Turtles and Warblers at Mud Lake

Snapping Turtle

Mid-May is the most exciting time to go birding in northeastern North America. The peak of migration has arrived, bringing the bulk of the warblers, flycatchers, cuckoos, vireos, a few shorebirds, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Indigo Buntings, Scarlet Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. On good days with fallout conditions, birds can be everywhere in migrant traps like Point Pelee, Rondeau Park, or Mud Lake here in Ottawa. Sometimes vagrants can occur with these expected species, particularly southern species that overshoot their breeding grounds and end up further north than their breeding range. The chance of seeing just such a rarity adds to the excitement and joy of seeing all our familiar summer residents again.

The Eagleson ponds have been a great place to find unusual birds, so I headed there first on Saturday, May 12th. The best bird there was a silent Empidonax flycatcher in the deciduous grove of trees near the south pond. I had stumbled upon a pocket of migrants there and made my way through the brush to the water where I found it flycatching from the trees at the water’s edge. These birds are ridiculously difficult to identify when they aren’t calling and aren’t staying still long enough to get a good at the eye-ring and chest; this bird kept moving away from me until I lost it along the shoreline.

However, there were plenty of warblers in the grove as well, including a few Yellow-rumped Warblers, two Palm Warblers, a Cape May Warbler, two Chestnut-sided Warblers, a Yellow Warbler and a male American Redstart. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen a redstart here, though it is the first time I’ve photographed one!

American Redstart

A few more Yellow-rumped Warblers and another Chestnut-sided Warbler were seen further along the trail, making for a very productive walk! The only other migrant birds I saw were a trio of Common Mergansers on the water, and a White-crowned Sparrow I heard singing in the cedar hedges behind the houses. Resident birds which either breed or feed here in the summer included both Killdeer and Spotted Sandpipers, an Osprey, and a Great Egret. I also heard a Purple Finch singing which could either be a resident or a migrant – I’ve never had them in the summer here, although they do breed in the subdivision and in Stony Swamp nearby.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

The blackbirds were ubiquitous, as usual; I only counted eight Red-winged Blackbirds, but the 30-odd grackles were still present and flying around noisily. On the lawn I noticed four Brown-headed Cowbirds engaged in courtship displays; a female was searching the grass for food, while three males kept following her, bowing then pointing their beaks into the air.

Brown-headed Cowbird

Brown-headed Cowbird

After about an hour and a half and 35 species at the ponds I headed over to Mud Lake. I ended up with 49 species there after four hours of relaxed birding; try as I might, I could not get that 50th species!

Gray Catbirds, Warbling Vireos, Great Crested Flycatchers, Eastern Kingbirds and Chipping Sparrows were all back on territory or passing through. I heard a Purple Finch singing in the western part of the conservation area, and found a Veery along the western fence line. Best of all I had my best warbler day at Mud Lake with fifteen species seen or heard! The local breeders, American Redstart and Yellow Warbler, were everywhere, as were the transient Yellow-rumped Warblers. Other species were well-represented, such as Blackburnian Warbler (7 – including three all in the same tree!), Chestnut-sided Warbler (6), Northern Parula (5), Palm Warbler (4), Nashville Warbler (4), and Black-and-white Warbler (3). Singles of Magnolia Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler and Black-throated Blue Warbler were heard or seen. Only two Pine Warblers were heard singing in the decimated pine forest in the southwestern corner.

This Cape May Warbler was gleaning insects right above the water’s surface:

Cape May Warbler

My second Chestnut-sided Warbler photographed today:

Chestnut-sided Warbler

It was a warm, sunny day so of course the turtles were basking on logs and rocks and whatever flat surface was available. Painted Turtles, of course, were abundant.

Painted Turtle

Astonishingly, there were three huge Snapping Turtles all enjoying the warmth of the sun. I photographed them all, though only two are worth sharing. It was wonderful to see so many; Snapping Turtles are most visible in the late spring when they like to bask out in the open.

Snapping Turtle

Compared to the Painted Turtles, Snapping Turtles are huge.

Snapping Turtle

I had such a great time at Mud Lake that I returned the next day, hoping to break the 50-species mark. I only tallied 48, but the Common Merganser, Hooded Mergansers, Spotted Sandpiper, Great Blue Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak I saw were new for the day – where were they all the day before?

The song of a Baltimore Oriole along the western edge of the lake caught my attention, and I was happy to see a bright orange male in the tree overhead. These are one of my favourite returning migrants, though it seems they are only common during the spring and fall migration.

Baltimore Oriole

A few Snapping Turtles were visible along the southern shore, including this one swimming in the bay near the bridge.

Snapping Turtle

A familiar dome-shaped turtle on the southern side of the bridge caught my attention – only the Blandings Turtle in our area has a helmet-shaped shell, and the bright yellow throat confirmed its identity. It’s been a a while since I’ve seen one of these turtles, and I was glad to see that at least one still present at Mud Lake.

Blandings Turtle

While watching the Blandings Turtle a huge raven flew in and landed on the branch of one of the taller trees at the southern edge of the lake. It appeared to be carrying something, and upon closer inspection I realized that it was feeding on the carcass of a Red Squirrel! More carnivorous than crows, the diet of the Common Raven consists mainly of meat, including mice and other rodents, baby tortoises, and birds as large as pigeons and nestling Great Blue Herons. They will also feed on eggs, large insects such as grasshoppers, fish, grains, berries, carrion and garbage. This was the first time I had seen a raven dining on an animal, and I watched until it decided to fly off with what remained of the squirrel.

Common Raven

May is my favourite month for birding, as all the birds are dressed in their breeding finery and our green spaces are alive with song. And with the emergence of frogs, turtles, spring wildflowers, butterflies and soon – hopefully! – dragonflies, the bright colours of May help wash away the bleak memories of winter.

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