Although the months of June and July are traditionally considered the breeding season in the Northern Hemisphere, it often lasts well into August in our region. Some species, such as the American Goldfinch and Cedar Waxwing, are late nesters, and time their breeding season with the abundance of seeds and fruit later in the summer. Other species have multiple broods during the course of the season, such as American Robins, Eastern Phoebes, Song Sparrows, and Mourning Doves. August, however, is typically a slow month in the birding world, and while some people characterize the early weeks of the month as the “doldrums”, relieved only by the arrival of the first migrants toward the end of the month, I still enjoy getting out and seeing the young birds following their parents around and listening to those species that are still singing this time of year.
On August 4th I saw two Killdeer chicks at the Eagleson storm water ponds – only the second time I have seen a baby shorebird here. Unlike songbirds, shorebirds are precocial at hatching; covered in down, they are able to leave the nest soon after hatching when they follow their parents to a prime feeding area. Although the parents do not feed their young, the chicks stay with the adults until they are able to fly – usually for at least three weeks to a month. That same day I saw seven Spotted Sandpipers, the only other shorebird species that breeds at our pond. Though I often see full-grown juveniles later in the summer, I’ve only seen a newly-hatched chick once.
This Spotted Sandpiper is a juvenile that has reached its full size and is completely independent. Not only does it lack any spots, it has the characteristic brown scallops along the wings of individuals only a few months old.
Belted Kingfishers are a common sight around the ponds in the warmer months. While I have seen as many as three over the summer, I have not seen any evidence of breeding here. This is not necessarily because there is an actual absence of breeding evidence, but rather because these birds are difficult to find each visit. It’s easy to find them when they are perching out in the open on the telephone wires or on the ropes above the water, but they also perch in trees and on the rocks where they are more difficult to spot. Most of the time I hear them before I see them, giving a rattle-like call as they fly off to another spot. They are really difficult to photograph, too, as they fly off as soon as they realize they are being watched. I think this is the closest I’ve ever been able to get to one – this lovely female was seen on August 5th.
Baby songbirds require more parental care than shorebirds. They spend about two weeks in the nest before they have grown big enough to leave, and even after they leave the young fledglings are fed by their parents as they cannot fly or obtain food on their own. It takes about two more weeks after leaving the nest for the young songbirds to develop all their flight and tail feathers, and learn to feed themselves.
On August 10th I saw this young Red-winged Blackbird land on the bridge while more than 30 adults filled the vegetation along the shore. It does not appear to have been out of the nest for very long – note the short tail, the white down still covering its forehead, the flesh-coloured gape at the corner of its mouth, and the bare skin on its face. While the ponds are now filled with enough marsh vegetation to support several Red-winged Blackbird families, I rarely see more than a handful of males in peak breeding season. They are far out-numbered by the grackles which nest in the nearby cedars and pine trees. However, by late August most of the grackles have left and the Red-winged Blackbird numbers start building up as they roost here in huge night-time flocks prior to migration.
There are plenty of breeding robins at the ponds, too. Once the juveniles start fledging, they seem to be almost everywhere, following their parents through the grass and calling continuously from sheltered groves. Very young fledglings which cannot fly retreat into the shadows beneath a tree or become entirely motionless if they realize I am watching them. Their instinct upon being confronted with danger is to freeze – as they cannot fly, remaining unseen or camouflaged within the shadows of their environment is their only method of survival while they are still helpless. This is an older fledgling, as evidenced by the fully grown tail and wing feathers; it was also behaving like a typical independent adult, hopping through the grass looking for tasty insects to eat.
Young Brown-headed Cowbirds are not often seen at the ponds. While I sometimes see two or three pairs of adults conducting courtship displays early in the spring, this species tends to disappear from the ponds over the summer. My best guess is that the adults move on after attempting to breed here – probably unsuccessfully. Cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of other species and rely on them to raise their young, which means that finding a newly fledged cowbird is the best way of determining successful breeding here. On August 25th I was surprised to come across a young Brown-headed Cowbird right next to the bridge. It did had only the barest hint of a pink gape left, so it had left the nest some time ago. Still, it did not seem fully independent as it appeared to be waiting for its substitute parent to come and feed it. It did act curious, investigating the seeds on the vegetation growing nearby.
It called a few times, and I waited to see to which species would respond to feed it, but none did in the time I was there. Over 140 birds species are known to have hosted Brown-headed Cowbird eggs, the most common of which include the Yellow Warbler, Song and Chipping sparrows, Red-eyed Vireo, and Red-winged Blackbird.
Another surprise was this young Swamp Sparrow in the vegetation surrounding the southern-most pond. As its name suggests, the Swamp Sparrow breeds in wetlands, building their nests in the reeds and grasses next to the water. Although I’ve heard Swamp Sparrows infrequently at the ponds (both before and after the reconstruction), I thought they were only passing through, as most were heard during migration. A couple of years ago the city started planting cattails around the edges of the southern pond, and more aquatic vegetation is still being planted today in the central pond. I had hoped that the habitat might become suitable for breeding Swamp Sparrows in time, and never imagined it was already happening – until I heard the calls and saw this one pop out of the cattails when I responded. Young sparrows can be difficult to identify, but based on its calls, the white throat, dark eyeline, and long legs (which these sparrows need for wading in shallow water while they forage) this looks good for a juvenile Swamp Sparrow.
While there are many Song Sparrows at the ponds, finding evidence of breeding is difficult. Sparrows are natural skulkers, preferring to hide within the dense vegetation where they often run or walk on the ground, and their young rarely follow them out into the open the way young robins do. The best way to confirm breeding is looking for indirect evidence: if no young and no occupied nests are observed, such indirect evidence may include observing adults carrying nesting material or food, or becoming agitated if a person gets too close to the nest.
As late as August 25th Song Sparrows were still acting agitated if I accidentally approached their nest or young offspring. Of course, I had no idea where their nest and/or young actually were, but when I stopped along the shore of the central pond to scan the water one very distressed Song Sparrow flew into the tree beside me and kept giving alarm calls. It fluttered from perch to perch, giving thin, high-pitched distress notes rather than the harsher, rougher calls it uses to indicate mere annoyance. I quickly backed off and left the bird alone.
Carrying food is another obvious indication that there is a nest nearby. If you are lucky and the bird isn’t aware it is being watched, you may see may the bird fly off with the food still in its beak and deliver it to its young. However, if the bird is onto you, it will likely perch out in the open and give its harsh calls of annoyance with the food still in its mouth.
I was surprised when I saw a Song Sparrow with a dragonfly, as I had never seen it take an insect that big. Close examination of my photos indicates it is a White-faced Meadowhawk, relatively common and widespread in Ottawa but not very common at the ponds.
One thing that I learned this year is that not all birds feeding their young at the ponds actually nest there. On the afternoon of August 16th I took a walk around the ponds and was surprised when I saw two young Common Terns sitting on a rock while an adult flew over the water, hunting for fish. I watched as it caught several and returned to the rocks to feed the babies. They were fairly close to the eastern shore, but the light was terrible for photos as I was looking directly into the sun. I returned the next morning, and after an hour there I saw four terns flying in high from the north at 9:45 am. Once again the two young birds stayed on a rock together while the adults hunted and brought them food.
Common Terns do not nest at the pond. I usually only see them a few days each spring, usually mid- to late May, where they feed on the abundant fish before continuing on to their breeding grounds. Common Terns nest throughout Ontario along lakes and large rivers where they build their nest (usually just a small scrape with dead vegetation, shells, stones and occasionally plastic added to it) on small sand or gravel islands or peninsulas. Terns lay two to four eggs which normally hatch 22-27 days after laying. It takes another 22-29 days for the young to fledge. This year the adults must have left their nesting spot after the two young birds fledged, and brought them to the food-rich ponds to feed during the day before returning to the safety of the Ottawa River at night. It made me wonder if these were the same birds returning each spring, well familiar with the bounty of minnows and other small fish that attract birds such as kingfishers, herons, and mergansers as long as the water is open.
I found a great place to watch as the adults hunted and brought them food. The young were noisy, calling immediately after the adult left, even though they had just been fed. Eventually the adult figured it had brought enough food, and settled on a different rock in front of me. The other adult disappeared; I am not sure if it found a rock of its own elsewhere. The adult was closer to me than the babies, and when it spent some time preening I was amazed to see it had a single silver band on one of its legs.
Banding is carried out by researchers hoping to track the movements of individual birds. Some birds, such as songbirds, are usually caught in well-placed mist nests in migrant traps; other birds, such as seabirds and Peregrine Falcons, are banded as nestlings while still at the nest site. Ship Island in Maine is one such place that bands nestling Common Terns during the breeding season; each band has a unique 9 digit number used to identify an individual, and these band numbers are then entered in an online database through the United States Geological Survey. Should the bird be seen again and the band number identified, the location of the individual can be recorded. By reporting band numbers, the database can update where the individual was seen, where it nested, migrated, or wintered, and even if the bird is alive. For example, one tern banded on Petit Manan in 2019 was seen and recorded later that year by another researcher in Venezuela!
The problem with banding birds, however, is that the bands must necessarily be small so as not to interfere with the bird’s everyday activities, yet contain all the information needed to identify it. I zoomed in on all my photos and was unable to decipher any sort of band number. Photography is the only non-invasive way of capturing a bird’s band number. The sad truth is many bands are only recovered upon a bird’s death, and a large number of banded birds are never heard from again. It is always a thrilling experience to be able to capture a band number, and learn where the bird had come from.
Even if the band could not be read, it was still an amazing sight to watch the terns fly in and feed. This was the first time I had witnessed this behaviour, and I wondered if they would return again the following day. While I never saw them, eBird reports indicate that three or four terns were present most days between August 10 and August 23rd.
Because the area at the ponds is relatively small and open, without much dense forest, it is relatively easy to see breeding behaviour throughout the spring and summer. I always enjoy hearing and seeing the signs of another successful breeding season, and remain fascinated by how such tiny creatures are able to survive and reproduce in such a large, tough world. However, not all birds need to deal with the same level of difficulties of surviving in the wild; this year the Blue Jays brought their young to my yard for the first time! I only saw the juvenile on August 11th as it sat outside on a flower pot, but the adults have been coming all month after being absent in July. It froze when I stuck the camera out the sliding glass door, like a typical fledgling, and still has a fleshy pink gape visible at the corner of its mouth. It’s not often that I see babies in my own yard, but being able to spend time in a protected yard with an easy source of food (my feeder) gives young birds an advantage most wild birds do not receive.