Shorebirds of the Eagleson Ponds

Wilson’s Snipe

I had a few days off in the middle of September and spent them birding. The weather was fantastic from Thursday through Saturday, and I started my days at the Eagleson storm water ponds which usually has a great diversity of species during migration. The habitat has been excellent for shorebirds, as the water levels were low enough for Lesser Yellowlegs to walk around the middle of the central pond. However, I was really hoping to find some different warbler and songbird species to add to my list, and checked each grove of trees carefully. I wasn’t happy when I found only one warbler species (a Common Yellowthroat) in the 5 hours I spent there total, but the diversity of shorebirds was amazingly excellent. Several were foraging quite close to shore, too, making them easy to identify! I found nine species altogether, which is terrific for an urban pond system so close to human habitation.

Killdeer and Spotted Sandpipers are the easiest shorebirds to find at the ponds, as Spotted Sandpipers breed here and Killdeer may do so too – I finally saw my first baby Spottie here this past summer, but have never seen a baby Killdeer. Both are present the whole season, from April to late October. Killdeer sometimes remain into November. I saw a dozen Killdeer this weekend, but only one Spotted Sandpiper – however, given the length of shoreline to check, as well as the numerous protruding rocks and sandbars within the pond itself, this isn’t entirely surprising.

One of the first birds I noticed upon my arrival on Friday was a Pectoral Sandpiper wading in the water close to shore. There were actually two of them, larger than a Least or Semipalmated Sandpiper, with yellow legs and a thick, medium-length bill that shades from orange at the base to black at the tip. Both birds sported the dense brown streaking on the upper chest that gives this species its name.

Pectoral Sandpiper

Pectoral Sandpipers are not birds I see often, and don’t often stop in at the Eagleson storm water ponds. I was lucky to find two there, and edged as close as I could without disturbing them.

Pectoral Sandpiper

The sharp border between the white belly and the densely streaked breast is a clue to this species’ identity. The rufous edging on the feathers of the back and the orange at the base of the bill indicate that these birds are juveniles. They were only there the one day, so I’m glad I got the photos I did!

Pectoral Sandpiper

Both yellowlegs species were present, though it was difficult to get an accurate count as they kept moving around. The most I ever saw at one time was 4 Greater Yellowlegs and 3 Lesser Yellowlegs. These birds aren’t shy, and paid no notice to me as they walked along the water’s edge. Both species are very common at the ponds in the fall, and the Greater Yellowlegs can often be found right up until the water freezes.

Lesser Yellowlegs

The surprise shorebird of the weekend was a pair of Wilson’s Snipe feeding in the middle pond. I’ve only seen this species here once before, in August 2014 when the ponds were being drained and I noticed one in the vegetation surrounding the northern-most pond. Most times when I see snipe (such as at Shirley’s Bay) they are difficult to spot as they are usually tucked in against the thick reeds. These two were different. They were foraging right out in the open near the rocky shore. They were moving away from me, so I wasn’t able to get close to them.

Wilson’s Snipe

A quick check of the other ponds produced the usual assortment of herons, as well as several Herring Gulls, a White-breasted Nuthatch (uncommon at the ponds) and the “tink” of a Purple Finch flying over. Song Sparrows were also singing again, and I heard a Common Yellowthroat in the thick vegetation near the water.

Song Sparrow

The next day when I returned, I found the usual Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and a dozen Killdeer. The Wilson’s Snipe were still present, but they were in an open spot at the water’s edge with the sun directly behind them, resulting in some awful back-lit photos. This Lesser Yellowlegs was much more accommodating.

Lesser Yellowlegs

I didn’t see the Pectoral Sandpipers, but in the southern-most pond I found a whole bunch of shorebirds scuttling around on the mudflats. A single Semipalmated Sandpiper was mixed in with half a dozen Least Sandpipers, and two larger sandpipers were wading in the water at the back of the group. The first was a Solitary Sandpiper, easily recognized by its white eye-ring, the small white spots on its back, and its greenish-yellow legs. They are fairly common in Ottawa in migration, though they seem to prefer quieter waters with lots of trees around the edges.

Solitary Sandpiper

The other sandpiper was mostly buffy in colour but otherwise fairly nondescript, so when it turned and presented a nice profile view, I checked the length of its wing feathers in relation to its tail. Sure enough, the wingtips extended well past the tip of the tail, a great distinguishing feature for Baird’s Sandpiper. I haven’t seen this species here since 2016, so I was thrilled to see it.

There were some other great birds around, too. Still no warblers, but the Osprey put on a show hunting over the water for a while, two Belted Kingfishers were flying around, all four heron species were scattered around the ponds, and three Turkey Vultures were present. I first noticed the vultures soaring overhead, a common enough sight in the late summer, but when one landed on the far shore I ran over to take some pictures. Two others landed on a long rocky island in the middle of the central pond, which was close enough to see the main attraction – some large, dead, dried-up looking fish. I had seen several of these carcasses on my walk and wasn’t sure why there were so many – was the water level too low for them to survive? However, vultures are considered nature’s clean-up crew, and their keen sense of smell had led them to where they were needed.

Turkey Vulture

The Great Black-backed Gull that I’d originally observed on September 1st was still present, along with close to a dozen Herring Gulls. It was great hearing the sounds of the Herring Gulls as their calls reminded me of the Nova Scotia seaside. The Great Black-backed Gull was finally in a great position to get some good photos – this is a species I have a hard time getting close to.

Great Black-backed Gull

I returned to the ponds on Saturday, and was happy to see the Wilson’s Snipe still at the ponds, still at the same spot. The two snipe were a good distance away, but a Least Sandpiper was foraging nice and close. The small size, yellowish legs, droopy bill, and reddish feathers on the back help distinguish this from the similar-looking Semipalmated Sandpiper.

Least Sandpiper

I grabbed a quick picture of the two snipe and decided to walk around the pond before returning to see if they’d come any closer.

Wilson’s Snipe

The most amazing creature I found was not a bird, but a beaver. It was swimming in the channel south of Emerald Meadows Drive then crawled up on the bank. This is the second time I’ve seen a beaver here this year – it hasn’t built a lodge anywhere, so I’m guessing it’s just passing through.

Beaver

By the time I circled the pond I found three people sitting on a tiny point of land with their large cameras (and one tiny cell phone camera) clicking away. The two Wilson’s Snipe had wandered closer, and were feeding only a few feet away!

Wilson’s Snipe

The only time I’ve been this close to a Wilson’s Snipe was in Alberta back in 2012. They normally like well-vegetated ponds with lots of tall plants for cover. I guess beggars can’t be choosers during migration, and they land wherever they think they might find food even if the habitat is not ideal. The fact that they have been here for three days now must mean that food is indeed plentiful.

Wilson’s Snipe

Although it is more secretive than the very vocal Killdeer and less observed than the very common Spotted Sandpiper, the Wilson’s Snipe is one of the most widespread shorebirds in North America. Its range extends from Newfoundland to Alaska in the summer and in the southern half of the continental United States to the northern tip of South America in the winter. For some reason they don’t think much of South Dakota or Massachusetts, preferring to bypass these states instead of summering or wintering there. While this bird is not protected from hunting, populations are stable and an estimated 2 million individuals breed in the U.S. and Canada.

Wilson’s Snipe

The Wilson’s Snipe eats snails, insect larvae, worms, and other invertebrates that live in muddy substrate of ponds and other wetlands. It use its long, flexible bill to probe for prey in the mud, and can open or use the tip to grasp food items without needing to open its bill entirely. It may occasionally eat larger items such as frogs, lizards, fish, butterflies, dragonflies, horse flies, and nestling birds.

Wilson’s Snipe

The size and shape of the Wilson’s Snipe is similar to the size and shape of the American Woodcock, two species often confused by beginning birders. If seen in good light, the snipe’s head stripes run lengthwise to the back of its neck, whereas the stripes of the woodcock’s head run crosswise across the top of the skull. I rarely seen Woodcock in good light, however, as they are most active after dark.

Wilson’s Snipe

The Wilson’s Snipe feeds most often around dusk and dawn, preferring to sleep during the day. They are famous for their “winnowing” courtship displays during the spring, when males (and sometime females) circle and dive over their preferred breeding territory, the tail feathers creating an almost spooky sound high above the ground. Winnowing is done to attract a mate, defend territory, or deter potential predators. If a predator is threatening a nest or a bird with chicks, the Snipe will attempt to lure the predator away by distracting it with a feigned injury, such as a broken wing.

Wilson’s Snipe

I love taking pictures which show more than one species, and in this image you can see the tiny Least Sandpiper in front of the snipe.

Wilson’s Snipe and Least Sandpiper

Shorebirds are one of my favourite groups of birds, so it’s always a thrill to see these birds up close instead of distantly through a scope at Shirley’s Bay or the eastern sewage lagoons. The Eagleson storm water ponds were a great place to see these birds when they were undergoing reconstruction a few years ago; I didn’t think I would ever see such a variety again. However the lack of significant rainfall in the past month has left water levels remarkably low, attracting a great variety of species, including a few I haven’t seen up close in a long time!

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