October Summary

Wood Duck

October is a month of transition – we leave the hot days of summer behind (although September didn’t feel like summer this year, as the sultry 25-plus-degree temperatures of years past never materialized) and enter true fall, enjoying those crisp sunny days where the north wind carries a hint of winter and the brilliant orange and red foliage slowly starts to carpet the ground. The sun casts longer shadows as its zenith drops lower and lower in the sky each day, and the shorter days become evident when I have to leave for work in the dark in the morning. The birds, too, are transitioning, as most of the insect-eaters are now gone and the bulk of the seed-eaters – mainly sparrows – start moving through. It’s not going to be a good year for seeing finches in the south, as Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast indicates bumper crops up north will keep the crossbills, redpolls and Pine Grosbeaks on their summer territory. Waterfowl and shorebirds are still moving through, although heavy rain toward the end of the month obliterated the remaining shorebird habitat along the Ottawa River – so much for the flocks of Dunlin and White-rumped Sandpipers I was hoping to find at Andrew Haydon Park again.

Two Black-crowned Night Herons, a Belted Kingfisher, and a Swamp Sparrow were still present at the Eagleson ponds on October 5th. A walk at the Beaver Trail the same day produced an Eastern Phoebe, a Blue-headed Vireo, and three Purple Finches near the boardwalk. I had a great outing at Mud Lake the following weekend with 31 species – I found two Hermit Thrushes in the woods at the back, along with a Golden-crowned Kinglet and a couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets and this rabbit hanging out on the trail.

Eastern Cottontail

Another Hermit Thrush was in the woods near the turn-off to the observation platform, as was a Winter Wren. Several Brown Creepers were calling as they hitched up the trees, and four Eastern Phoebes were flycatching at the edge of the water. I saw three Northern Flickers and three Pileated Woodpeckers as well, and a lone Dark-eyed Junco in the woods. Someone told me that the screech owl was present in its usual tree, so I made my way over and saw it gazing around sleepily with a single eye open.

Eastern Screech-owl

I made my way around the south side of the lake, and stopped when I saw a few American Wigeon swimming in the bay. Both males and females were present; males have a green stripe through the eye with a white crown, while females have a plain brown head.

American Wigeon

A couple of Wood Ducks were present as well, and the light shining on one of the males was so gorgeous I couldn’t resist taking a few photos.

Wood Duck

It was then that I heard the sound of a Screech Owl calling over and over from across the water, as well as the call of a Sandhill Crane – it sounded as though someone was using playback to get the owl to open its eyes or “do something”. Eastern Screech Owls are mainly nocturnal and sleep during the day, but some photographers aren’t content with photographing an owl with its eyes closed and need “action shots” to impress their followers and gain likes and/or upvotes on social media. I’ve heard of photographers using playback and knocking on trees to get them to wake up, which is just as disruptive to the owl as those 3:00 am Amber Alerts are to us. All animals, including birds and humans, need their sleep to hunt (or work) effectively the next day, so if you see a sleeping bird or mammal, take a few photos but don’t disturb it!

I returned to the Eagleson storm water ponds the following day but only managed 12 species. Two Greater Yellowlegs and a Double-crested Cormorant were still there, and I saw about 300 Common Grackles circling over the pond before landing briefly in the trees south of the bridge. I had a five-sparrow day at Jack Pine Trail with my first Fox Sparrow of the season, a couple of White-throated Sparrows, and a single Swamp Sparrow, Song Sparrow, and Dark-eyed Junco.

There were more species at the storm water ponds the following weekend – 26 in total with a hybrid as well! Two Common Grackles, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a single Yellow-rumped Warbler were present, and I heard a Red-winged Blackbird as well. A juvenile White-crowned Sparrow was foraging next to the path.

White-crowned Sparrow

A juvenile Great Blue Heron was fishing in one of the small channels right beside a juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron. The Great Blue Heron was standing motionlessly on the shore, while the smaller heron was more active, stalking the fish as it walked through the water.

Black-crowned Night Heron

Two Great Egrets were standing on rocks in the central pond, and a single Hooded Merganser – the first of the season at this location – was diving for fish nearby. Two cormorants and four Greater Yellowlegs were still present. Hundreds of Canada Geese were present as well, and in the southern pond I saw a goose with a white head. Hoping it was a blue morph Snow Goose, I tried to get close enough for some photos.

Goose sp.

My photos showed that while the goose had the large, dark “grin patch” of a Snow Goose, the white extended too far down the neck to be pure blue morph Snow Goose – these birds only have white limited to the head. The black speckles on the back of the neck support my theory that it is a Snow Goose hybrid, though I’m not sure what other species it shares its genes with.

Goose sp.

From there I headed up to the river, hoping for some waterfowl. I added Brant and White-winged Scoter to my year list at Dick Bell Park, and saw a couple of American Wigeon, Wood Ducks, and Green-winged Teal at Andrew Haydon Park. My best bird the following day was a pair of Northern Harriers seen flying over the torn-up field behind Walmart….it looks like they will building yet another subdivision along Terry Fox between Walmart and the new Blackstone subdivision, and there were mounds of dirt and construction vehicles visible right behind the road. A gray male Northern Harrier was flapping effortlessly above the field, but a browner bird (either a female or juvenile) was being chased by about four crows. Eventually the crows chased the harriers away.

I got out birding one last time at the Eagleson storm water ponds before the end of the month on October 26th, still hoping for something different or unusual – perhaps some White-rumped Sandpipers or Dunlin, perhaps some Cackling or Greater White-fronted Geese. I found one Red-winged Blackbird, one Common Grackle, two cormorants, two Song Sparrows, and four Greater Yellowlegs still lingering, though they had been joined by several Hooded and Common Mergansers – these diving ducks tend to stay until freeze-up. A Dark-eyed Junco was a sign of the pending winter season.

INSECTS

I might have found some more insects at the beginning of the month if the weather had been warmer; overnight lows dropped to single digits and only one daytime high broke the 20°C. I saw only four butterfly species this month; this Monarch seen at the Eagleson ponds on October 12th was not unexpected given how many have been migrating through our area during the previous couple of weeks.

Monarch

On October 19th I found three additional species at the Eagleson ponds – a Cabbage White, a Clouded Sulphur and a Painted Lady. The first two butterflies are members of Family Pieridae, commonly known as the whites and sulphurs. These species are not migratory in our area, and will live out their final days here until they are taken by a predator or succumb to the increasingly cold nights.

Clouded Sulphur

Painted Ladies, however, are migratory, and this one may eventually head south. It’s been a really good year for this species, with millions migrating north in the western part of the continent after early spring rains in California and Arizona led to a “super bloom” of wildflowers, which in turn led to an explosion of butterflies. They also appear to be having a good year in the UK.

Painted Lady

The following day, October 20th, I noticed a large number of Woolly Bear caterpillars – the larval form of the Isabella Tiger Moth – crossing the concrete paths at Kristina Kiss park. I’ve always wondered about this behaviour, as I rarely see any other moth or butterfly caterpillars doing this – do the caterpillars need to move because the adult Isabella Tiger Moth chose to lay her eggs in a poor spot where her offspring cannot feed, overwinter and/or pupate? It turns out that these moths spend the winter in their larval stage, and are looking for a good spot to hibernate, such as under rocks, rotting logs and beneath the leaf litter. When the temperature falls below freezing, the caterpillar produces a cryoprotectant in its tissues that enables it to survive being frozen for the duration of the winter. In the spring, the caterpillars emerge and spend some time basking in the sun on roads or rocks before spinning the cocoon in which it will pupate and transform into an adult.

Woolly Bear caterpillar

I was surprised to see a second caterpillar species crossing the path toward the marsh. This appears to be another tiger moth caterpillar, though I am not sure which one and iNaturalist has not yet provided an identification.

Caterpillar sp.

I saw another Monarch, which turned out to be my last of the season, the following day at the Eagleson ponds. There weren’t many flowers left, and it kept landing in the grass – perhaps to feed on the few dandelions still blooming.

Monarch

As usual, the Autumn Meadowhawk was the last dragonfly of the season for me. Because I was spending more time birding than dragon-hunting last month, I was out the door early in the morning before it warmed up enough for many odes to be flying. When I went to Mud Lake in the middle of the month, I left around lunch time; it was warm enough by then to see a Common Green Darner and a couple of Autumn Meadowhawks active in the sumac field west of the lake.

Autumn Meadowhawk

I saw my last dragonfly on October 29th when I visited Hurdman Park for the first time in about a year and a half. (It was under construction due to the building of the LRT; the LRT finally opened to the public in mid-September). There were very few birds present, but I did see an old female Autumn Meadowhawk still flying. This was my last dragonfly of the year – it will be a long seven months until they emerge again in the late spring.

Autumn Meadowhawk

To me, October is the last of the good months of birding and wildlife-watching. By November there will be few, if any, reptiles, amphibians, chipmunks or groundhogs still active, and if the weather cooperates we may see a few Autumn Meadowhawks still flying. Bird migration will still continue, however, as the waterfowl continue to pass and more northern residents invade our region for the winter, giving birders and nature lovers an excuse to go outside even as the days get colder.

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