The Hawks of Stony Swamp

Northern Goshawk

Stony Swamp in Ottawa’s west end is home to a variety of different flora and fauna. The trails are popular among families for hand-feeding the chickadees and among birders for finding Black-backed Woodpeckers and finches such as Pine Siskins in the winter. There are many different ecosystems within the conservation area – such as rocky alvars, ponds, marshes, streams, deciduous and coniferous forests – which makes this one of the most biodiverse conservation areas within the city.

Despite the large number of birds that breed, overwinter, or migrate through Stony Swamp each year, it is relatively under-birded. The closest trail is only five minutes from my home in Kanata South, so I spend a lot of time within the conservation area – particularly in the warmer months. However, I very rarely come across other birders or photographers on the weekends, probably because it’s not a migrant trap like Mud Lake – the birds are spread out more, making them more difficult to find. Still, the trails are worth checking for pockets of warblers in the spring or flocks of finches in the winter, in addition to all the birds that breed here in the summer: Virginia Rails, Pied-Billed Grebes, Eastern Towhees, Field Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows, Black-throated Green Warblers, Black-and-white Warblers, Eastern Phoebes, and so much more.

There are hawks here, too, though they are much more difficult to find. Some do not breed here (as far as I know) but only pass through during migration; these include Osprey and Northern Harrier, an American Kestrel once, and, possibly, Red-tailed Hawk, which I mainly see flying over.

Then there are the forest hawks – ones that do in fact live and breed in the woods. I suspect Broad-winged Hawks breed here, as I hear or see them frequently in the warmer months. Normally they keep to the woods, though I have seen them perching on the cables running along both West Hunt Club and Old Richmond Road in the past. This adult was seen on Old Richmond Road in May 2018:

Broad-winged Hawk

I am certain the Red-shouldered Hawks breed here as well, or used to; one spring I even found a nest! I was hiking along the trail in April 2016, looking for my first butterflies of the year when movement in the woods caught my attention. I saw an adult Red-shouldered Hawk fly down, grab some nesting material, and carry it back up to the nest! I walked off-trail to get a closer look at the nest where I found a second bird occupying the structure! I only went back twice during the nesting season, and didn’t see any activity at the nest either time, so I don’t know if they had any young or if the young successfully fledged.

Red-shouldered Hawks at nest site

That same day I came across a Red-shouldered Hawk chasing a Red-tailed Hawk over the alvar at the Rideau Trail.

Red-shouldered Hawk

What’s interesting to me is that the Broad-winged Hawks and Red-shouldered Hawks occupy different areas of Stony Swamp – I see and hear the Broad-winged Hawks mostly east of Old Richmond Road, particularly along the trailhead that starts at P11 on West Hunt Club and at the Beaver Trail, while I mainly see and hear the Red-shouldered Hawks west of Old Richmond Road, particularly at the Rideau and Sarsaparilla Trails.

I am fairly certain that all three accipiters (the short-winged, long-tailed family of hawks which are specifically adapted to pursuing birds through dense woodlands) breed here, as I see Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks on occasion, and Northern Goshawk are found often enough to assume that they are breeding here. I got my lifer Northern Goshawk at Jack Pine Trail on January 1, 2011, an adult feeding on a bird in the middle of a trail; then in January 2014, a juvenile was observed hanging around a deer carcass along the same part of the trail. I managed to get some great photos of it in the middle of a snowstorm on January 19, 2014:

Northern Goshawk (juvenile)

My next experience with this species was in late November 2014 when I briefly saw a juvenile at Sarsaparilla Trail. It’s been over four years since I last saw this species, and although I assumed they were still around, I expected they were keeping to the quiet parts of the forest well away from human traffic. I wasn’t expecting to see a Northern Goshawk at the Beaver Trail of all places, but on April 7, 2019 when I emerged from the woods onto the boardwalk at the back almost the first bird I noticed (not counting a squabbling of a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers and blackbirds singing in the marsh) was a huge juvenile hawk perching in a tree overlooking the marsh.

Northern Goshawk

I was surprised it didn’t fly off immediately upon seeing it, so I stealthily took my camera out of my bag and walked across the boardwalk to try to get photos from a few different angles. It was a brute of a bird, not just big, but bulky – it was easily the size of three of the blackbirds in the adjacent tree. I was considering goshawk based on the size alone, but as some female Cooper’s Hawks are quite large, too, I couldn’t immediately rule it out. The tail bands were uneven, but I couldn’t see the upper side from my spot on the boardwalk, and the ends were very frayed. While it had a white supercilium that widens toward the back, some Cooper’s Hawks can show this too. I thought that the streaking on the front looked better for Cooper’s Hawk than goshawk, as it is fine – not messy – and peters out at the belly.

However, it had a noticeable brown patch on the auriculars, and what I could see of the wing feathers showed a strong and neat checkerboard pattern of white on brown – both traits of a goshawk. I emailed my friend Jon Ruddy for confirmation, and he confirmed it – this was a lightly-marked first spring Northern Goshawk! What was amazing about this whole encounter was that it knew I was there, and didn’t move – it just kept sitting there as though waiting for something. Even when the crows found it and began circling overhead it seemed unconcerned. The crows, however, kept their distance and didn’t dive-bomb or take any swipes at it like they normally do upon encountering other birds of prey.

Northern Goshawk

It was a thrilling moment to encounter this king of the forest hawks, even if I wasn’t quite certain what it was. It’s great to know that they are still around, as it’s my hope to encounter another adult and finally get some photos of one. Even if it takes me another four and a half years to see one, at least my chances of running across other hawk species are pretty good – you just never know what you’ll find in Stony Swamp!

3 thoughts on “The Hawks of Stony Swamp

  1. You’ve had some good hawk encounters. I admit that I didn’t go here too often in the summer in the past. Some specialty odes changed that a bit but it would be nice to see a nice fat Goshawk too.

    • Thanks Chris! The Broad-winged Hawks are back now and on territory – I saw one from the “spiketail creek” area circling and calling, flying low; then this morning while taking West Hunt Club to an appointment I am pretty sure I saw another perching on the telephone wires near Lone Star Ranch. Speaking of odes, my next post (from last May) will focus on some odes and butterflies I saw in that section of Stony Swamp last year. 🙂

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