The Right Place at the Right Time

Long-tailed Duck

The toughest thing about birding – and the thing that makes it so addictive – is that most really good bird sightings or good birding days are a matter of luck: being in the right place at the right time. It’s one thing to know that Mud Lake is usually the best place to find Carolina Wrens here in Ottawa, that Northern Goshawks and Least Bitterns breed in Stony Swamp, or that Spruce Grouse are regularly seen at the Spruce Bog Trail in Algonquin Park, but it’s another thing altogether to actually find or observe these species when they are there. Birding, too, is much tougher these days than it was in the 1960s when most bird species were much more abundant than they are today – most new birders have heard stories about huge flocks of Evening Grosbeaks descending on the city in the winter 40 or 50 years ago and cleaning out the bird feeders in a matter of hours. Sadly, their numbers have declined sharply since those days; as of today I have observed about six Evening Grosbeaks total in the city of Ottawa since I started birding in 2006 – and those six birds were found only on three different occasions. It’s much harder to find birds when their numbers aren’t high to begin with, which makes luck so much more important if you are looking for a particular species or just looking to add something new to your year/life/county list. Sometimes you get lucky and find what you are looking for; sometimes you get lucky by finding something you totally did not expect to see that day or in that location. It’s these occasions that are so rewarding, especially after many a fruitless and frustrating outing where the bird didn’t show, or all you could find were starlings and maybe a crow.

Luck was with me today when I drove up to the river to look for waterfowl. I don’t consider myself a particularly lucky birder; I have more fruitless and frustrating outings than I do rewarding ones. Still, when I saw a flock of birds flying into some crabapple trees along Moodie Drive near the former Nortel (DND) complex, I decided to pull over and have a look. Most of the birds appeared to be robins and Cedar Waxwings, but then I spotted a Pine Grosbeak in the flock! I started scanning the trees for other grosbeaks, and then suddenly they all flew off or darted into the trees for cover. I looked up in time to see a hawk fly over really low close to where I was standing. It disappeared into the trees, and when I followed it I spotted it standing on a tree branch with a dead bird clutched in its talons!

Sharp-shinned Hawk

I couldn’t tell what kind of bird it had caught, but fortunately the hawk stayed long enough for me to see that it was an adult, and that the dark feathers on top of its head extended all the day down the back of the neck. This hooded appearance confirmed it was a Sharp-shinned Hawk; the feathers on the back of the neck of a Cooper’s Hawks are much paler than those on the top of the head, giving it a capped appearance. I see Cooper’s Hawks much more often than I see Sharp-shinned Hawks; or at least, I am able to identify Cooper’s Hawks much better than I am Sharp-shinned Hawks! I was happy that it stayed put for so long, as I was able to get a fantastic photo of a species I was missing from my galleries!

Sharp-shinned Hawks have a dark “hood” extending down the back of the neck

I was really thrilled with this encounter and didn’t think anything at Andrew Haydon Park could top it, but I was wrong. Because the parking lot was now closed for the winter I parked at Dick Bell Park and walked over. After I crossed the bridge and passed the marsh I could hear something rustling in the cattails. I stopped to see if I could observe the animal or bird making the noise; to my surprise a fox exploded out of the reeds and ran across the ice to the bank below the yacht club! It stopped, sat down, and looked around before finally laying down on the ground in the sun. I don’t see very foxes very often in Ottawa, so this was a great treat!

Red Fox

Although the bay was frozen, there was a large patch of open water running along the shoreline. I saw a few Canada Geese and Common Goldeneyes, about ten mallards, and this Red-breasted Merganser swimming close to shore. I am thinking that this is a male based on the dark feathering starting to come in on the forehead and the top of the head.

Red-breasted Merganser

Red-breasted Mergansers usually don’t come in this close to the shore, so I was happy with the opportunity to finally get some great close-ups of this diving duck!

Red-breasted Merganser

I walked further along the shore toward the east end of the park, noticing another, smaller diving duck near the windmill. I thought it would be another Common Goldeneye, a type of diving duck that spends the winters here in large numbers wherever there is open water, but a brief glimpse through the binoculars told me it was something quite different – a Long-Tailed Duck! When it disappeared below the water’s surface I hurried in closer, ducked down beside a rock, and waited for it to resurface. When it did, it was right in front of me!

Long-tailed Duck

This is a female Long-tailed Duck – the bill is entirely dark, and her body is brown instead of white. She also lacks the long tail feathers of the males. Long-tailed Ducks breed in ponds, streams, and other wetlands in the Arctic and spend the winter on the ocean or on large freshwater lakes – good numbers are often found on the Great Lakes in the winter. They aren’t very common migrants here in Ottawa, and when they stop over here they are mostly seen at Shirley’s Bay or off of Andrew Haydon Park or Dick Bell Park. Once I found a pair on the eastern pond of Andrew Haydon Park which was a great surprise to me; I’ve never seen them that close again!

Long-tailed Duck

After diving a few times, the Long-tailed Duck started preening. It was neat to see her do this, as I have so little experience with these arctic ducks – I’ve only seen about 20 here in Ottawa, where they are usually closer to shore than when I see them on the ferry to Amherst Island.

Long-tailed Duck

Seeing the Long-tailed Duck and being able to watch her for so long was a perfect ending to the day. It was a fantastic outing, and one of the few times where I managed to be in the right place at the right time at both of the places where I stopped to watch the birds!


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