From Migration to Breeding Season

Baltimore Oriole

By late May/early June most birds are exactly where they want to be, having claimed a territory and found a mate with which they will raise their offspring over the next few months. Even so, by Victoria Day several migrants are often still passing through the region; it’s still worth looking for late migrants even into the beginning of June, as migrating birds may stray off-course or get caught up in a bad weather system which may temporarily halt or divert their journey. With the lingering cold north winds and temperatures reluctant to hit the 20°C mark, it’s no wonder that there are plenty of songbirds which haven’t yet settled on a territory of their own.

I spent the Sunday of the Victoria Day long weekend in Stony Swamp before venturing over to the river. The Beaver Trail was most productive with 37 species including my first-of-year Swainson’s Thrush and a Sora heard in the marsh. Nine warbler species, a Scarlet Tanager, and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak also made the stop worthwhile.

At Dick Bell Park one Common Goldeneye still lingered on the water while a pair of Chimney Swifts flew by overhead. I saw an Eastern Kingbird hawking for insects in a spruce tree and several Purple Martins sweeping over the water, while a Baltimore Oriole sang from the willows. Then I spotted this sparrow-sized bird fly low onto the trunk of a tree and was surprised to identify it as a flycatcher.

Least Flycatcher

The tiny size, lack of yellow on the breast, and distinct eye-ring all pointed to Least Flycatcher. It immediately flew into the shrubs next to another tree where I found a Palm Warbler as well.

Least Flycatcher

My stop at Andrew Haydon Park proved equally productive – I had five warbler species including Yellow-rumped, Pine, Yellow, Cape May and American Redstart – as well as a flock of ten Blue Jays flying silently through the park. I’m not sure if they were migrating or not, but their behaviour reminded me of the stream of about 200 jays my parents and I had seen flying silently along the shore around Lake St. Clair on May 3, 2009. Ten Lesser Scaup, a Black-crowned Night-Heron, and three different Canada Goose families with goslings were also observed.

The following weekend saw a good number of species at the Eagleson ponds. On May 25th I observed three Killdeer (including a pair on a rocky island together), three Least Sandpipers, and eight Spotted Sandpipers. Three pairs of Spotties were seen together; there was lots of posturing and chasing going on, so I wasn’t sure if they were mates or rivals. Two Common Terns were hanging out on the rocks, a Philadelphia Warbler was heard and seen, three Warbling Vireos were chasing each other and calling, a Magnolia Warbler was singing, and I counted seven Yellow Warblers! Best of all were a male and female Baltimore Oriole hanging out together – perhaps they will stay and nest here!

Baltimore Oriole

Two pairs of Canada Geese are raising families at the ponds – there were about 20 goslings between the two families. It’s difficult to count them when they are all snuggled together like this!

Canada Geese

Later that day I had a couple of good yard birds when I heard the neighbourhood Purple Finch singing in the tree across the street, then heard a Black-throated Blue Warbler singing out the back! I eventually spotted the black and blue male in a neighbor’s tree; this is a new species for my yard list. The following day I added Tennessee Warbler when I heard it singing somewhere out back as well! My yard list is up to 69 species, although it’s getting harder to add new ones in the relatively open subdivision we live in.

The following day I headed out to Stony Swamp again. Nine warbler species were observed at the Beaver Trail, along with two Scarlet Tanagers, a Winter Wren, a Veery, and a Least Flycatcher (which I have never found here in the breeding season; in fact, this was a new species for me at this hotspot). The best birds were a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk being chased by a crow and a male Indigo Bunting singing along the Lime Kiln extension! This is a species I’ve only seen here once before, back in 2015 when I saw one in the vegetation in the parking lot. I later found a second one, a female, foraging on the gravel trail where it cuts through the meadow.

Indigo Bunting

On June 1st I started the day off with a walk around the Eagleson ponds and counted 37 species. New for the hotspot were a Swainson’s Thrush lurking in the vegetation of the southern grove and a Willow Flycatcher giving its sneezy “Fitz-bew!” song from the grove of trees north of Emerald Meadows Drive – nos. 133 and 134 for my hotspot list. Other notable birds included Blackpoll Warbler (typically the latest songbird migrant to pass through our area), three different Wilson’s Warblers, four Yellow Warblers (including one singing a song similar to that of a Chestnut-sided Warbler), and a Baltimore Oriole singing in the northern grove (perhaps the same one I photographed on May 25th?). Waterbirds included a high count of 11 Great Egrets (six in the central pond, five in the southern pond), a female Hooded Merganser, and several shorebirds: one Semipalmated Plover, two Killdeer, five Least Sandpipers, eight Semipalmated Sandpipers, and three Spotted Sandpipers. The two Canada Goose families were also present, and were walking along the lawn this time, so this time I was able to count a total of 22 fluffy goslings.

The following morning started out cool and damp with a thick overcast that threatened rain. Morning temperatures have been in the low single digits recently, with afternoon highs of about 20°C; I’ve been eagerly awaiting the start of dragonfly season since Victoria Day but so far the weather (and the odes) have not been cooperating. I started out at Jack Pine Trail where I immediately heard two Broad-winged Hawks calling as soon as I got out of the car. I also found a Winter Wren, Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Towhee, and six warbler species: the Ovenbird, Black-and-white Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Pine Warbler and Black-throated Green Warbler are all known to breed at Jack Pine Trail, although the Chestnut-sided Warbler was singing out in the open as if on territory.

A quick stop at Sarsaparilla Trail produced a Red-shouldered Hawk calling in the woods north of the parking lot, two Great Egrets in the pond, another Chestnut-sided Warbler, and an American Redstart singing in the woods behind the outhouse. It was starting to drizzle by then, so I quickly headed over to the Eagleson Ponds for a quick look before the rain set in for the day. I wasn’t expecting anything magnificent to show up, but to my surprise a Ruddy Turnstone in full breeding plumage was foraging along the edge of the channel!

Ruddy Turnstone

This was another new species for the Eagleson ponds, and one that I wasn’t expecting given their preference for more rocky habitats….the name “turnstone” refers to their habit of flipping stones with their bills to look for flies and midges hiding beneath. It seems turnstones are just as at home on sandy shores, too, as the genus of their scientific name – Arenaria interpres – comes from arenarius, which is Latin for “inhabiting sand”.

Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstones breed on the islands and shorelines of the Arctic and migrate along freshwater shorelines to the Caribbean and South America. They spend the winter along coastal areas with mudflats, sandy beaches, or rocky shores, though they may also be found at busy ferry docks looking for food items dropped by humans – the first time I saw a flock of turnstones scrambling along the docks of Cozumel like reddish, orange-legged pigeons I was shocked.

Ruddy Turnstone

I returned to the ponds later in the afternoon when the sun came out, hoping to get better pictures of the turnstone, but it was gone. A Semipalmated Plover, a Semipalmated Sandpiper, and four Least Sandpipers still remained. This one walked along the shore right in front of me; its forehead appears to be enlarged or misshapen.

Least Sandpiper

I also heard a Common Yellowthroat and saw a pair of Blackpoll Warblers – male and female – foraging in the spruce trees. I was glad to see the 22 young Canada Goose goslings all present and accounted for; other youngsters included a gang of recently-fledged starlings with their hideous calls, American Robins feeding their young, and recently fledged Common Grackles. The ponds are still a regular breeding factory for grackles even after the small spruce plantation on the west side of the channel was destroyed a few years ago during the reconstruction – several newly fledged grackles were following their parents, waiting for them to stuff food in their mouths.

Common Grackle (fledgling)

The following weekend I revisited Stony Swamp. Old Quarry Trail was particularly productive, with 31 species found – highlights included three Virginia Rails, both House and Winter Wrens, and a female American Redstart gathering nesting material right next to the trail. Eastern Wood-pewees were back on territory, singing away, and I found one on a branch right above the trail.

Eastern Wood-pewee

Although Old Quarry Trail is a great spot for mammals, I didn’t see much that day. However, this groundhog at the Beaver Trail looked so cute eating windblown bits of American Elm twigs with the seeds still attached. I mostly see them on lawns or in the grass, munching away, so it was a bit surprising to see one in the woods right next to the Wild Bird Care Center.

Groundhog

Groundhog

Jack Pine Trail had a Yellow Warbler singing, a species I’ve never seen breeding there before, as well as two Pine Warblers singing in the woods – these warblers are often hit-or-miss at this trail, despite the large number of pines providing suitable habitat.

The next morning I paid a visit to Sarsaparilla Trail and had a fantastic time at the boardwalk. There weren’t any ducks present, but a single Great Egret was feeding across the pond and I heard an American Bittern calling from the southwest corner. A commotion caught my attention; I was delighted when I saw a Red-shouldered Hawk flying across the pond being escorted by a group of scolding blackbirds! I had heard a Red-shouldered Hawk calling from the same area a week ago, now I was pleased to actually see the bird. Best of all, I saw what looked like a duck flying from a group of cattails on the far shore toward me – it was small, but as it got closer I saw the warm golden tones of a Least Bittern! It landed in a group of cattails halfway between the observation platform and the southern shore, then started calling, confirming my ID!

A Marsh Wren and five warbler species made the stop worthwhile as well – the usual Common Yellowthroats were calling from the marsh, while the American Redstart was in the woods beyond the outhouse. A Chestnut-sided Warbler near the picnic shelter was probably on territory, as was a Black-throated Green Warbler singing in the canopy. His song was a quick, cheerful “Zee zee zee zoo zee” which, according to Cornell’s All About Birds, is the song they sing to attract females. (The slower, lower “Zee zee zoo zoo zee” is territorial and directed at competing males).

By the end of the first week of June breeding season is well underway, and while there are still a few lingering migrants – such as the two Semipalmated Sandpipers I saw on June 9th at the Eagleson ponds – most birds are busy seeking mates, defending their territories, or are well on their way to raising the next generation. Some birders refer to the breeding months as the “summer doldrums” because the bird life is so static and there is much less of a chance of finding an exciting rarity or vagrant. However, I enjoy summer birding just as much as I enjoy birding in the spring and fall – there are more species around in the summer than in the dark days of January, and it’s always a thrill to chance upon an occupied nest, see the newly fledged juveniles begging for food, watch a heron hunting for fish or flycatcher hunting bugs, and just generally watching familiar birds interacting with each other and their environment. I feel lucky to live in Eastern Ontario where we have so many breeding sparrows, warblers, vireos and flycatchers; it was a shock to me to visit Florida in May 2014 and not hear a single Song Sparrow singing, which is the default sparrow in almost every habitat here in Ottawa. We take the common birds for granted where we live, but common doesn’t equate to boring. I enjoy getting to know the local residents by visiting favourite trails over and over again; it will be fun to see if the Willow Flycatcher (still there on June 9th) and Baltimore Orioles stay to breed at the ponds, or if the Yellow Warbler continues to sing at Jack Pine Trail, and to count the young Canada Geese at the Eagleson ponds to see how many make it to adulthood (still 22 goslings as of June 9th)! Migration may be just about over, but nature can still provide plenty of surprises!

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