A Storm of Warblers

Palm Warbler

I usually take the second week of May off every year, and head south to spend time birding Point Pelee National Park with my mother. I was unable to make the trip this year, but as I needed a break from work and a change of scenery I spent three nights in Westport instead (more to follow in a separate post). Spending time at Murphy’s Point Provincial Park, Frontenac Provincial Park, and Foley Mountain Conservation Area was fantastic, but unlike Point Pelee, these areas are not migration hotspots or migrant traps, and I had to work hard to get as many species as I did. As a result, I wasn’t expecting much when I returned to Ottawa on Thursday, but it seemed the floodgates had finally opened and the birds were moving north in large numbers. I went out Friday morning, and although the temperature hadn’t improved – the day was overcast and the temperature was still below normal for this time of year – the birds must have been getting anxious to get back to their breeding grounds, for the variety of birds at the Eagleson ponds was amazing.

I arrived at 9:30 and followed the line of houses toward the water listening for migrants in the trees; the hedges and trees along the backyards can be good for migrants. I heard a Yellow-rumped Warbler and a Black-throated Blue Warbler and tracked them down to the same tree in someone’s yard. Fortunately the leaves are late to emerge this year, so I was able to get great looks at the male Black-throated Blue Warbler. It’s been a good year for them; I’ve seen more this year than I see most years.

As I approached the water I heard the familiar call of a Common Tern and eagerly proceeded to the water’s edge where I found two of them flying around and a third one perching on a rock. The Eagleson ponds are a reliable place to see them in mid-May each spring; I’ve had at least two here in 2014, 2017 and 2018. They weren’t present in 2015 and 2016 when the ponds had been drained for reconstruction.

Common Tern

The usual cormorants and Canada Geese were present, and I saw a family with eight fluffy goslings. Across the channel I saw a pair of Least Sandpipers making their way up the shoreline of the channel, and saw two Spotted Sandpipers as well.

I headed south, and found five more Least Sandpipers in the southern-most pond, along with a Semipalmated Plover. The plover – looking like a smaller version of a Killdeer – kept vibrating one of its feet against the sand very fast. The grove of trees was very active, with an Eastern Phoebe singing near the water’s edge, both a Red-eyed Vireo and a Warbling foraging in the same flock, a few Yellow Warblers (both males with their bright red chest streaks and drabber females), at least five or six Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a Chestnut-sided Warbler. I also heard a Gray Catbird singing, an uncommon visitor at the ponds.

I continued north to check out the grove of trees where I had seen the Olive-sided Flycatcher just about a year ago. I heard a Red-eyed Vireo, two more Yellow Warblers, a Common Yellowthroat near the water, and a Black-and-White Warbler. Further along, near Emerald Meadows Drive, I saw two more Yellow-rumped Warblers and a Northern Parula! The parula was foraging at about shoulder height, so I tried to get some photos of this colourful, active bird.

Northern Parula

This one shows the distinctive greenish patch on top of its back – it is one of the most reliable field marks in identifying this species.

Northern Parula

I heard a second vireo that sounded something like a Red-eyed Vireo, singing “Here I am” quickly over and over. When I tracked it down I was surprised not to see the clean white underparts of a Red-eyed Vireo, but rather the yellow throat and breast of a Philadelphia Vireo! This is the least common of the four vireos that can be found here during migration, and I usually see them more often fall than in the spring when they are harder to differentiate from the similar-looking Warbling Vireo. However, the Philadelphia Vireo has a dark eye-line that extends all the way to the base of the bill, and the yellow feathering extends all the way from its throat to its belly. In contrast, the brightest plumage on Warbling Vireos is on the sides.

Philadelphia Vireo

The Philadelphia Vireo stayed out in the open long enough to take a few photos, though the dark sky meant that only one was worth posting. I continued on my way to check the channel where it passed beneath Emerald Meadows Drive and found two Gray Catbirds foraging on the ground beneath the pines.

Gray Catbird

On my way back to the car, I found a Cape May Warbler foraging in the trees next to the path as well. When I started birding, I hardly used to see these birds in migration; they seem to have become a bit more common in recent years.

Cape May Warbler

Despite the cool, overcast morning I had a fabulous time birding and ended up with 39 species – a great tally for mid-May in a place that doesn’t attract the same numbers as Mud Lake or Shirley’s Bay (both of which have been affected by the flooding; Mud Lake is still closed to the public). It was so spectacular that I returned the following day. The sun was out, finally, but a cool wind was blowing from the north requiring a heavier coat and protection for my ears.

Even though migration is still well under way, breeding season is now in full swing for many summer and year-round residents. The day before I’d seen both a robin and a Mourning Dove carrying nesting material into different trees; the multiple trips made by each seems to confirm they were building nests. On my visit today I saw my first fledgling robin of the year on the ground, looking vulnerable while its parents foraged nearby. The Canada Goose babies had increased from 8 to 11 fluffy yellow goslings, and while standing on the Hopeside Bridge I saw a grackle fly from the trees and drop something small and white into the water three times – I can only assume it was a fecal sac, another sign of nesting. Baby songbirds produce feces encapsulated in a sac of mucous, which helps the adults easily dispose of it. This not only helps keep the nest clean and free of bacteria and other microorganisms, but also prevents leaving easily seen (or smelled) evidence for predators to find.

Canada Geese

However, it was the migrants I was most interested in, and I was thrilled to see some new shorebird species making their way along the muddy banks of the channel: a pair of Dunlin in breeding plumage.

Dunlin

I also saw a Semipalmated Plover, at least five Spotted Sandpipers, a Killdeer, and five Least Sandpipers.

Least Sandpiper

One Common Tern was still present, and two Common Mergansers were new arrivals. I heard a White-crowned Sparrow and a Warbling Vireo, and counted six warbler species: one Nashville Warbler, seven Yellow-rumped Warblers, a pair of Palm Warblers, a Black-throated Blue Warbler, a Chestnut-sided Warbler, and five Yellow Warblers. I suspect that a family of Yellow Warblers bred at the ponds last year and will be keeping an eye out over the summer to see if I can confirm it. Chipping Sparrows were also conspicuous, particularly near the park on Meadowbreeze Drive.

Chipping Sparrow

I ran into Colin and Martha, a pair of local birders, and spent some time talking with them at the bridge – they had been hoping to see the shorebirds I had reported yesterday, and managed to see the Dunlin as well as the Semipalmated Plover and Least Sandpipers. They were planning on going to the Richmond Sewage Lagoons next, and as it’s been a real hotspot lately for rails, ducks, and migrants I, too, drove over to see if I could add some rails and gallinules to my year list. My visit there was amazing – I spent three hours there and tallied 57 species, which is probably one of my highest totals for a single location in the Ottawa area. A Northern Parula was foraging in the trees next to the parking lot, and the usual Warbling Vireos, Yellow Warblers, and Common Yellowthroats were heard as I made my way along the berm between the first and second cells to the trail leading to the woods. I startled a Baltimore Oriole on the ground; it flew up into the tree where I was able to snap this photo. It looks like a female with a brownish head and back; they are quite variable, as some have orange heads and some have brown heads. Young females are yellowish instead of orange.

Baltimore Oriole

At the edge of the woods I heard the calls and songs of a few warblers in the trees and stopped in order to spot them. A Palm Warbler was the first bird I saw, wagging its tail as it foraged in a spruce. I got one photo before it disappeared (see top photo) then continued making my way into the woods. The activity increased just inside the woods; I saw and heard Yellow-rumped Warblers, Black-throated Green Warblers, Cape May Warblers, and a beautiful adult male Bay-breasted Warbler. This is a plumage I rarely see and I was thrilled to get a photo.

Bay-breasted Warbler

The longer I stood there, the more warblers I saw. I couldn’t tell if they were moving through or just moving around – the activity never stopped! Everywhere I looked I saw tiny birds flitting through the trees and foliage. A large percentage seemed to be Cape May Warblers, a species that seems to be increasing in numbers. Many were spectacular adult males with dark caps, chestnut cheek patches, and a bright yellow throat and collar.

Cape May Warbler

Others were drabber with grayish caps and cheeks, faint distinct streaking on the chest, and pale yellow throats and collars. These are likely adult females, although they are almost identical to immature males. Immature females are even drabber, mostly gray and white with only a hint of yellow on the face, thin white wing-bars and indistinct streaking on the sides.

Cape May Warbler

I heard (and saw) a male Black-throated Blue Warbler, a Blackburnian Warbler, a Blue-headed Vireo, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and a Least Flycatcher. Altogether I must have spent 20 minutes in that one spot inside the woods and the activity never abated – I have never managed to see so many in warblers in one spot, even at Point Pelee! A Magnolia Warbler popped briefly into view, then darted away.

Magnolia Warbler

By that time I was joined by a few other birders, including Colin and Martha who told me that they had seen and heard a good number of marsh birds in the last cell of the lagoons. Eventually I decided to tear myself away from the songbird bonanza to go look for the ducks and rails instead. I made my way through the woods to the last cell, then slowly walked around it and onto the berm between it and the middle cell. I heard the call of a Common Gallinule but wasn’t able to spot it. About halfway down the berm I noticed a large open area of water in the cell and stopped to watch as a duck slowly swam across it. It was the male Blue-winged Teal Martha and Colin had told me about.

Blue-winged Teal

Another birder came up to me while I was there, and we spent some time listening and watching for the marsh rails. He told me he had seen a pair of Virginia Rails come out onto the berm and mate right in front of him! We heard a Marsh Wren singing but wasn’t able to spot it, and the Blue-winged Teal did not reappear. However we were both thrilled to hear a Virginia Rail calling nearby and then see a Sora walk right out into the open! It stopped and preened for a bit before walking over the dead cattails and disappear back into the reeds.

Sora

We also saw a pair of Common Gallinules swimming across the same open area where I had seen the teal, and then a Virginia Rail cut across the marsh right in front of us! It was a great way to end the day as I had never seen all three local rail species in one day before, let alone at the same location! As I haven’t been to the Richmond lagoons in a long time, I’d forgotten what a great place it was for marsh birds as well as migrating songbirds. While the warbler-watching had been fantastic, I think that once migration has ended I will return to catch up with our local breeding birds and see what odonates are flying!

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2 thoughts on “A Storm of Warblers

  1. Dear Pathless Woods,
    Your great Dragonfly is back right on schedule @ the culvert at Jack Pine. Thanks for your previous Blogs. Great images available.
    bob.orpana@ rogers.com

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