Spring Arrives in midst of the Pandemic

Mourning Cloak

It’s been another slow spring; although the snow was quick to melt this year without any flooding, it took until the last week of April before temperatures reached a daily high of more than 10°C, and not once did Ottawa reach 20°C – in fact our highest temperature last month was 16.8°C (normally the highest temperature falls in between 20.7°C and 28.5°C). This is only the eighth time since records began in 1870 that April temperatures stayed below 17°C. Migrants have been slow to trickle in, however, this may be a reflection of the greatly reduced number of trails and habitats I visit rather than the actual number of birds passing through, as eBird sightings have been steady despite the cooler temperatures and persistent north winds. Despite the weather and the smaller area in which I’ve been birding, I’ve had some good mammal sightings in the past few weeks, and have seen my first butterflies of the season.

Although I planned to not bird anywhere I couldn’t get to by foot or by bike in response to the restrictions implemented as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, trying to cope with a world that has drastically shrunken to an area the size of a few city blocks has taken its toll. In addition to the local areas I can get to by foot and bike, I’ve created an additional birding patch that extends to the Richmond Sewage Lagoons (still open), the Moodie Drive Quarry Ponds, and the farm roads between them and Kanata south. I don’t like crowded birding trails in the best of times, so my strategy has been to get out early to the Eagleson ponds and Richmond Lagoons – before 7:00 am if possible, as it is now light around 6:00 am.

On the morning of April 18th I arrived at the Richmond Lagoons just before 7:00. As I was cresting the hill between the parking lot and the first pond I heard the usual honks of the Canada Geese plus a deeper honk of something else – something close. My pulse began to race – was it a Snow Goose? A Greater White-fronted Goose? I needed both of these for my year list, and they have a deeper call than a Canada Goose. However when I reached the water I found something much more unexpected – a bright white swan!

Trumpeter Swan

I don’t see the black-billed swans often enough to be able to tell the Trumpeter and Tundra Swans apart easily. However, Trumpeter Swans are much more likely to appear in ponds and flooded fields in Ottawa, while Tundra Swans, when they do show up, tend to stop in on the Ottawa River. Fortunately this one was close enough that I could see the field marks that identified it as a Trumpeter Swan: the eye appears contained entirely within the black area formed by the base of the bill, rather than seeming slightly separate. It had no yellow lores, and the bill showed a V-shaped indentation at the top, rather than a rounded U-shape.

Trumpeter Swan

This was the closest view I’ve had of a Trumpeter Swan here in Ottawa, and I was thrilled to get some photos. It slowly swam away from me, calling as it swam.

Trumpeter Swan

Because it was vocalizing, I shot some video (please note there is no image stabilization option on YouTube anymore, so this video is a bit shakier than I would prefer). Voice is another field mark that can be used in identification – this swan had the classic deep honks of a Trumpeter Swan rather than the higher-pitched calls of a Tundra Swan.

I walked around the first cell, and by the time I had circled three sides it decided to fly off. It was there for only about 20 minutes after I arrived – proving just how fortuitous birding can be. If I had arrived later, I would have missed it entirely. Other birds observed there include Golden-crowned Kinglets, a drumming Ruffed Grouse (heard only), a Pied-billed Grebe, two Bufflehead ducks, three Tree Swallows, and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. A stop at the Eagleson ponds after produced two more year birds, an Osprey flying up the channel and a single Barn Swallow flying over the southern pond. I also saw the groundhog in its usual spot along Emerald Meadows Drive:


The following day I drove to the Moodie Drive Quarry, cutting across Rushmore Road along the way. I rolled the windows down in the hope of hearing some Savannah Sparrows and perhaps some Vesper Sparrows, as they have been reported in the area; to my surprise the first bird I heard was the tinkling song of a Horned Lark! I had thought that these birds would all be gone by now, but I managed to spot at least two in the fields. I also heard two Vesper Sparrows and a Savannah Sparrow singing, and at one point a Vesper Sparrow and a Savannah Sparrow started chasing each other. I got one photo of the Vesper Sparrow – note the red shoulder patch, the eye-ring, and the white outer tail feathers.

Vesper Sparrow

I also saw an American Kestrel on Cambrian Road, and saw some Gadwalls, Buffleheads, Ring-necked Ducks and American Wigeon at the quarry pond.

On April 25th we finally got some warm weather so I biked over to Deevy Pines Park and then to Stony Swamp via the hydro cut. My friend Sophie started a project on iNaturalist to see how many species could be found within Deevy Pines Park, so I hoped to find a few things to add to that project. Altogether I added three new species – Spring Beauty, an Eastern Chipmunk, and a pair of Mourning Cloak butterflies. I was thrilled to photograph my first butterfly of 2020 – now it feels like spring!

Mourning Cloak

I found a few more Mourning Cloaks in the Rideau Trail system as well as my first Compton Tortoiseshell of the year. I heard Wood Frogs calling from a few swampy ponds along my trek – which took me halfway to Bell’s Corners! – and was able to spot several in one of them. Most were too far away for photos. There were few birds of note along my route, although I was happy to hear two different Winter Wrens singing, always a favourite of mine.

Wood Frog

On April 28th I visited the Eagleson ponds and found my first Spotted Sandpiper of the year. Other migrants have been slow to trickle in – where are the warblers? – but I did hear a Savannah Sparrow singing in a tree on the floodplain, and saw a couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Purple Finch, a couple of White-throated Sparrows, and one of the yellowlegs flying along the far shore. This Black-crowned Night Heron perching in a tree was a nice find.

Black-crowned Night Heron

On April 29th I went out to fill my feeder before heading out birdwatching, and noticed this fellow next door gnawing on some leftover bread thrown out by my neighbours. This was the second day in a row I’d seen a raccoon out back – I had watched one the previous morning as it walked along the back fence, turned the corner, and continued along until it found a space between the fence a shed, making me wonder if it was sleeping beneath the shed.


I went the Richmond Conservation Area after, where my only year bird was a Rusty Blackbird, though a good one as the number of places where they turn up is quite limited – usually I see them along rivers or in swampy woodland, and the Jock River behind the sewage lagoons is a repeat spot. There were no warblers there, nor were there any at the Eagleson ponds the following day – it was April 30th by then, and the only warbler I’d observed to date was the Pine Warbler heard at Deevy Pines Park and in Stony Swamp. My luck changed the following day when I finally saw a couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers at the Eagleson Ponds – my only other year bird was a Brown Thrasher which I heard singing at the top of a tall tree, but flew off when I tried to get visual confirmation. The Savannah Sparrow was singing in a shrub on the floodplain again, and I saw the Merlin perching in the birch tree favoured by the Olive-sided Flycatcher on its stopover two years ago. Later that day I counted five Common Mergansers in the ponds – four males and one female – a number I usually don’t see until the fall.

May 2nd turned out to be the first nice day of the spring. I started the morning off with a walk at the Eagleson ponds, but just as I was leaving the house an unusual, brief trill coming from a tree across the street caught my attention. I glanced up, and added a new bird to my yard list – a Brown Creeper! As mentioned before, there are not a lot of large trees in my neighbourhood, and those that are present are planted sparsely so there is no real canopy to attract very many woodland birds.

At the ponds I heard the Savannah Sparrow singing on the floodplain again, and saw one new warbler species – a Palm Warbler foraging in the same tree as a Yellow-rumped Warbler. A couple of White-throated Sparrows and two Greater Yellowlegs were the only other migrants of note, and there were still hundreds of Canada Geese on the ponds (including the Snow Goose hybrid) – I’m not sure why they haven’t left yet for their breeding grounds up north.

Snow x Canada Goose Hybrid

I also finally caught sight of the fabled mink that has been hanging around. I saw it running along the rocks on the opposite side of the channel near the footbridge, and managed to get one shot for my records.

American Mink

It disappeared beneath the bridge, and I was surprised when it emerged on my side of the channel. Mink are strongly aquatic, and usually live near water where they feed on fish and other water animal species. It was weaving its way through the rocks so I got ahead and waited for it. Sure enough, it popped up and froze long enough for me to get a picture before disappearing among the rocks again.

American Mink

Later that day Doran and I went for a bike ride. I had told him of my plans to try to bike to the Beaver Trail from our subdivision; we were successful and completed the 5-kilometer trek by taking the Lime Kiln Trail entrance on Old Richmond Road to Moodie, then up Moodie to the Beaver Trail parking lot. Although the lot was barricaded and the trail was supposed to be accessible by foot or bike only, there were still about 20 cars parked along the side of the road to gain entrance to the Jack Pine and Beaver Trails. Although I was aware of people doing this, I was afraid to do it myself and receive an $880 ticket for breaking the physical distancing rules.

We dismounted our bikes in the parking lot and locked them up. The trail was full of people enjoying themselves, and I saw one person photographing the owls – we saw two adult Barred Owls but no babies – and a pair of naturalists looking for wildflowers. In addition to the owls, we had two Eastern Phoebes at their usual nesting spot by the Wild Bird Care Center, both Ruby- and Golden-crowned Kinglets, two Winter Wrens, two Pine Warblers, and my first Black-and-White Warbler of the year. I also heard a Rusty Blackbird when we were leaving. As it was getting close to lunch time I wasn’t expecting much, but I was happy with birds we did see.

There were other signs of spring, too! We saw a few Mourning Cloaks, and I photographed my first Compton Tortoiseshell of the year.

Compton Tortoiseshell

I was thinking it would be too early for the gossamer-winged butterflies to have emerged, but we saw two different species – a Henry’s Elfin and a couple of Northern Spring Azures. Eastern Pine Elfin is common along the Lime Kiln extension, but I didn’t see any there. We did, however, hear something rustling in the brush and found a porcupine ambling along the ground.


Spring ephemerals were in bloom – these are the earliest woodland flowers that blossom while the tree leaves are still bare to take advantage of the sun. The Trout Lilies were gorgeous, as usual. Every spring they send up hundreds of single leaves, but only the plants bearing two leaves will develop flowers. As one of the earliest flowers to bloom, they are a source of food to many insects, such as the tiny beetles in the photo below.

Trout Lily

Trout Lily

Spring Beauties were also bountiful in their usual spot along the trail that runs between the small meadow and the Wild Bird Care Center.

Spring Beauty

It was a fabulous day, but unfortunately the cold weather returned again two days later. On May 5th I saw my first goslings at the Eagleson ponds, and the following day I saw the hybrid Canada x Snow Goose there for the last time – it had spent six weeks with us at the ponds. Hopefully it will return again in the fall, perhaps with some offspring of its own! I also saw a Wild Turkey at the ponds that week – while they are sometimes present in the cornfield on the other side of Hope Side Road, this one flew in from the field, across Hope Side road, and over the water where it landed on the small expanse of grass next to the path. I thought great, I could finally get a photo of a turkey at the ponds, and was about to walk closer when it started running along the hedge until it rounded a corner and disappeared. I never saw it after that and presume it is now wandering in our subdivision.

On May 6th I had another Hermit Thrush at the ponds but no warblers. I also realized that there were no White-crowned Sparrows – they usually arrive in my yard between May 3rd and 5th every year, stay a few days, then move on, but I’d had none so far. Birds were being delayed due to a stagnant “polar vortex” weather system sitting over western Quebec, funneling the cold north wind through eastern Ontario.

On May 8th I went to the Moodie Drive Quarry after finishing work and managed to add several new birds to my year list – a lingering male and female Northern Pintail were still present, along with almost a dozen Gadwall and four Common Mergansers. I heard a Spotted Sandpiper calling from the bank below the fence and saw a flock of Lesser Yellowlegs on the far shore – only when they flew off was I able to count them, eleven altogether. A single Bonaparte’s Gull and two Common Terns were new, as were Bank and Cliff Swallow. There were a large number of swallows flitting through the air, mostly Tree and Barn from what I could see. It was a great stop, and the best – and most frustrating – bird was a small goose on the spit with dozens of Canada Geese. When I saw the pale head and dark body I wondered if the hybrid Snow Goose had wandered over, but then I realized that the head was dingy-gray instead of bright white. Its body was darker than the head with even darker bands extending onto the belly like a Greater White-fronted Goose or Brant. It was not a typical adult of any of the goose species that normally stop over in Ottawa, and the light was so low my photos were not able to capture it in detail.

The cold weather continued into the weekend. On Saturday May 9th I went to the Eagleson ponds, and in between blustery snow squalls I found a few Tree and Barn Swallows, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, one White-crowned and two White-throated Sparrows, two Great Egrets, and a Greater Yellowlegs in addition to the usual Killdeer and Spotted Sandpipers. Two male Common Mergansers continued at the ponds, and I finally got a decent picture of a Belted Kingfisher:

Belted Kingfisher

After that visit I went to Deevy Pines park in the hope of finding some migrants in the large, suburban-locked woodlot there and found four species before the flurries descended once again. I gave up – on birding in the snow, on spring itself – and went home.

May is my favourite month of the year, and the combination of the pandemic, the NCC parking lot closures, the cold weather, and lack of migrants so far this year have made this one of the toughest times for birding instead of the best. Normally the extended time for birding due to being at home all the time and my travel plans would be enough to keep me going – I was supposed to go to Point Pelee next week – but with no change of scenery in sight, either in terms of travelling or in local species, I’ve been starting to feel discouraged. Hopefully the nice weather will arrive soon, and bring the warblers with it!

3 thoughts on “Spring Arrives in midst of the Pandemic

    • Hi Arlene,

      While Snowy Egret is extremely unlikely, it isn’t impossible. That said, there are a number of Great Egrets around and I saw five of them at Bruce Pit on Thursday. Did your husband definitively see the yellow feet? It is a distinguishing feature that helps to separate it from the Great Egret, along with its smaller size and black bill.

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