Birding in the Time of the Coronavirus

Blue-winged Teal (male)

The COVID-19 pandemic caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is going to be the largest global crisis in modern times. The outbreak started in Wuhan, Hubei, China, in December 2019, and was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020. Coincidentally, Ottawa’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 was identified on March 11, 2020 when a Ciena employee returning from a trip overseas fell ill immediately after returning home. A second case also related to travel was made public on March 12, 2020, and our Prime Minister’s wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau was confirmed to have a mild case the same day. As a precaution Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also went into a 14-day isolation at home, and as he never developed any symptoms, that isolation ended today. By March 13, 2020, the Canadian Tire Center had cancelled all events, the City of Ottawa had closed all of its facilities, a new screening center had been set up at Brewer Arena, and post-secondary schools had moved to online classes. March Break was just beginning for elementary and secondary schools, though they’d been advised that they, too, would be shutting down for a few weeks afterward.

By March 15, 2020 Ottawa had 10 confirmed cases, although testing has only been limited to people with severe symptoms who have traveled or come into contact with a person known to have the disease. Despite the low number of confirmed cases (which has been compounded by the delay in receiving test results – what started out as a 4-5 day delay has now doubled), Ottawa’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Vera Etches, stated publicly that given that people who traveled as far back as two weeks ago were bringing the virus back to Canada, community transmission is now occurring and there could be as many as 1,000 cases in the region. The public was urged to strengthen social distancing measures and to not go out for non-essential reasons.

Song Sparrow at the Eagleson Ponds

I got an email from work late on Sunday, March 15th advising us that the office would be closed while management determined our response. I work as a legal assistant at a law firm downtown, and while our professionals and law clerks are set up for remote access, staff like me never had been. Unfortunately I didn’t see the email until I was already en route to work on Monday morning – as I was on the LRT by the time I read it, I got off at Pimisi, and dashed across the platform to catch the train back to Tunney’s Pasture. From there it was two buses home, including a 20-minute wait for each as (a) I only have the option of one bus to Eagleson, then one bus to my subdivision, and (b) the buses were operating on 20 and 30-minute intervals respectively, which is why I usually Uber home from work if I have to go home in non-peak hours. All of my buses and the LRT were unusually quiet for a Monday morning – there were less than 10 people on my double-decker, and no one was standing on the train. Clearly the message had been received and people were staying home.

That night I received instructions on how to access my work computer remotely, and the next day I began working from home. Since then, states of emergency have been declared in Ontario (March 17, 2020) and Ottawa (March 25, 2020), and the Government of Ontario declared on March 23, 2020 that all non-essential businesses were to close by 11:59 on March 24, 2020. Fortunately law firms are considered essential so I’m still working and receiving a pay cheque, though many others aren’t as lucky. I quickly discovered one benefit to this situation: there are way more birds around my house than there are downtown, and as spring migration has already begun, the number of species around will only increase! This also means I can take my lunch-time walks in far birdier places than the downtown core, and there’s a great spot right in my neighbourhood: the Eagleson storm water ponds in Kanata south.

The ponds started opening up the week ending on March 14, 2020, and the water birds started flooding in. When I visited that Saturday, about 60% of the surface was still covered in ice, but a good number of geese and ducks had moved in, including a male Mallard x Northern Pintail hybrid. I am usually hesitant to label duck hybrids, as there are so many genetic possibilities, including domestic farmyard ducks, to truly know an individual’s true parentage. However, this one looked pretty clear to me. When I first saw it swimming I immediately noticed it had more white on the vent area (i.e. the back end) than a mallard.

Mallard x Northern Pintail hybrid

When it swam to the ice and stood out in the open, I got a great view and was able to appreciate the characteristics of both parents: it had the dark green head of a mallard, but only a small pale orange-brown bib instead of a complete chestnut-coloured chest. The gray body with a slightly darker back and dark gray bill came from its Northern Pintail genes. The white neck ring curled up on its neck more than on a mallard but less than on a pintail, but its tail was more like a pintail’s – it had a single tail feather curving outward rather than the small curly feathers of a mallard.

Mallard x Northern Pintail hybrid

I hoped to see the unique hybrid again the following day, but it was gone. When I returned on St. Patrick’s Day, I parked on a side street instead of the parking lot, as the path there is not cleared in the winter and it was still very icy from the melting and freezing snowpack. While I was parking near the street entrance I saw something intriguing – a Mourning Dove checking out a nest on a porch! They’ve only begun to sing sporadically in the neighbourhood, or maybe I haven’t noticed since I am no longer walking to my bus stop in the morning.

Mourning Dove

Another place I enjoy birding this time of year is Stony Swamp. I’ve noticed the NCC trails were busier on the weekend due to the shutdown combined with March Break, so my plan has been to get there as early as possible to avoid the crowds. Because it is getting lighter in the morning, I was able to do a quick hike around Sarsaparilla Trail on Wednesday before work. It was great to hear a Brown Creeper singing, as this species is not typically found at the Eagleson ponds – I’ve only seen a Brown Creeper there once, during migration. I was also happy to see a Northern Shrike perching on top of a dead tree overlooking the pond at Sarsaparilla Trail; it won’t be long before these birds of prey head back north.

Later that day I went back to the storm water ponds for my lunch-time walk. I was only able to do a quick walk around the southern-most pond, but in the eastern corner I found a few sparrows including two American Tree Sparrows, a junco, and two Song Sparrows singing. There were at least 2,000 Canada Geese visible in the central and southern ponds, with more flying in. I heard some distinctively higher-pitched calls among the honking of the geese, and looked up to see what looked like several small Cackling Geese right above me. They headed toward the central pond, so I quickly made my way over.

Cackling Geese

I was lucky and found them almost immediately – five individuals in a row right in front of the rest of the geese at the edge of the ice. Their small heads, small bills, and paler colour make them stand out even when hunkered down in a sitting position. Three were resting on the ice, while two were standing each with only one leg visible.

Cackling Geese

Cackling Geese are a cuter version of the almost universally reviled Canada Goose, and used to be considered the smallest subspecies of the Canada Goose. While they often travel with their larger relatives, they usually keep to themselves a slight distance away.

Cackling Goose

Size isn’t the only factor that led the four smallest subspecies to being split from the larger subspecies. There are distinct genetic differences in their mitochondrial DNA as well differences in voice, nesting habits, habitat, and timing of migration. In general, North American Cackling Geese breed further north and west than Canada Geese, which is why seeing them here in Ottawa is cause for excitement. They are never as numerous as the Canada Geese with which they travel; most flocks consist of less than ten individuals, and flocks of more than ten are the exception. Flocks of more than twenty birds are unheard of here. I was thrilled to get them for my year list early in the year, rather than missing them and having to wait until fall.

Cackling Goose

By the weekend I was eager to bird somewhere different. A trip to Lime Kiln Trail first thing Saturday morning proved unproductive…several warm days and receding snow had given way to sub-zero temperatures, a cold north wind and ice-covered trails. The birds were hunkered down, and with only seven species recorded I returned home. A Snowy Owl along the way was a thrilling sight, although the large flock of Snow Buntings I’d seen in the same area several weeks ago had disappeared.

I thought things might improve on Sunday but it was another cold morning. Still, Mud Lake never fails to produce, and I knew I could count on find something different there. Unfortunately the trail through the woods was a solid sheet of ice so I decided to take a quick look for the screech owl and Carolina Wren before returning to my car on Rowatt Street and driving up to Cassels Street from there. The wren was absent, or maybe just silently hiding from view, but four photographers near the screech owl tree gave me hope. I pointed up to the top where it usually sleeps out in the open, and one person nodded, so I cut through the woods and joined them – being sure to maintain my distance. The owl was sitting out in the sunshine; another new species for my year list!

Eastern Screech Owl

Cassels Street was quiet for birds (unless you count the flock of about 200 Ring-billed Gulls swarming the air above the filtration plant) though I did run into a few friends also keeping the required distance between them. They had nothing interesting to report and the trails were so icy that I gave up and went home.

On Tuesday, March 24 I went for my usual walk around the Eagleson ponds at lunch and got a surprise: the Snow Goose x Canada Goose hybrid Sophie and I call “Mr. Chocolate” was there! This was the hybrid we first saw here in the fall, and he was back in his usual spot in the southern-most pond close to Hope Side Road (note: it could very well be “Mrs. Chocolate” instead; I have no evidence of its gender one way or the other). The dark brown body, pink bill with a small grin patch, black streak running up the back of the head, and speckled vent give this hybrid a unique appearance that makes him easily recognizable.

Snow x Canada Goose Hybrid

My next surprise was something even better – a pair of Blue-winged Teals foraging in the shallow water near the shore in the same pond! Not only was this a new species for me at the ponds (no. 141 on my hotspot list), it was also very early – Bruce DiLabio says the average arrival date is around April 10! It’s strange to me to see these ducks when I haven’t even seen a Wood Duck yet, usually my first migrant duck species of the year! In fact, the Blue-winged Teal is usually one of the last ducks to migrate northward in spring, and the first to head south in fall.

Blue-winged Teal (male)

I have never been able to get close to them, as they are usually too far out in the mudflats west the Shirley’s Bay Dyke or in the mucky western bay at Andrew Haydon Park in the fall to photograph. I also don’t see males in breeding plumage all that close either; I only see them in the spring, as they usually haven’t molted back into breeding plumage when they are migrating south in late August and early September. Males in eclipse plumage look similar to females, which resemble female mallards except for the dark bill and powder-blue wing patch. Unlike most duck species which molt out of eclipse plumage before beginning their migration south, the Blue-winged Teal (along with its western counterpart and close cousin, the Cinnamon Teal) often begins migrating in early fall while the males are still wearing their drab female-like plumage.

Blue-winged Teal (female)

The light was poor, but the sun came out later in the afternoon so I returned to the pond to capture these images of the ducks in the sunlight. They were still in the same corner of the southern pond, resting on the flattened reeds at the water’s edge.

Blue-winged Teal (male)

Although they aren’t seen in particularly large numbers here in Ottawa, the Blue-winged Teal is second only to the mallard in terms of abundance in North America. The North American Breeding Bird Survey indicates that its population has remained stable between 1966 and 2014, which is a victory in these times of ever-declining bird populations. I was thrilled to see these two birds here, as it wasn’t a species I particularly expected to encounter at this location; however when I returned again the following day I could not relocate them.

Blue-winged Teal (male)

These are certainly interesting and turbulent times to be living in, and there is no doubt in my mind that the social or physical distancing that was urged upon us just over 10 days ago is only the start of a much longer period of isolation necessary to contain the spread of this virulent disease….I’m thinking it will be months, not weeks, before such distancing will no longer be necessary. As a birdwatcher and nature-lover who is normally happiest alone in the middle of the woods with no one around, I haven’t been particularly perturbed by the thought of limiting social contact with other people.

However, I worry that stronger measures will be required to keep the spread of the coronavirus in check, and legal obligations with real consequences may become forced upon the public due to the inability of people to follow what have only been recommendations been up until now. We are seeing it already, with mandatory quarantines for all travelers returning to Canada effective as of 11:59 pm on March 25, 2020. Consequences for breaking quarantine include fines and imprisonment. In addition, people can now report non-essential businesses that still remain open and neighbours having parties to authorities. As a birder, what worries me is that the local conservation areas and hiking trails will close, as Gatineau Park and Algonquin Provincial Park already have. This morning on the radio I heard that city parks were open, but that playground equipment was off-limits and by-law officers would be checking to make sure people weren’t gathering together there; later in the day, I saw on the City of Ottawa’s website parks are now closed except for people walking through them. And with the number of cars in the parking lots at places like Jack Pine Trail by mid-morning on the weekend now, I fear that it is only a matter of time before the NCC closes the Ottawa greenbelt trails, too. Until that happens I’ll be out there birding as often as I can, avoiding the peak hours on the weekends as best I can.

2 thoughts on “Birding in the Time of the Coronavirus

  1. Hey, not sure but I think my wife and I met you at Strathcona park once looking for the Harlequin duck. You told us about the screech owl you have a picture of. We found it today!

    • Hi Jason,

      Yes I remember you! I was pretty bummed when I learned that the last time the Harlequin Duck was seen was two days before we were all there! Glad you found the screech owl!

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