Snippets from Migration

Common Yellowthroat

Migration has been strange this year. Because of the lengthy cold spell at the beginning of May it seemed as if migration had stalled; for so long I felt as though I were waiting for it to begin, then things happened so quickly that now I wonder whether it has passed me by. The White-crowned Sparrows that usually show up in my backyard every year between May 3rd and 5th didn’t arrive until the 14th; the Common Terns that arrive at the Eagleson Ponds between May 10th and May 14th didn’t arrive until May 19th. Neither species stayed long, either. The terns were only there for one day before moving on, instead of spending two or three days. It is harder to know if the White-crowned Sparrow I saw over the course of a few days was the same one or a different one, as many have been singing in our area in the middle of the month.

The warblers came, and the warblers went. I’ve had several Black-throated Blue Warblers this year, and many repeat sightings of local breeding species – but of the ones that only pass through, I’ve sometimes only been lucky to get one: one Cape May Warbler, one Blackburnian Warbler, one Tennessee Warbler, one Bay-breasted Warbler. Again, is this a reflection of my spending time mainly in Kanata south, rather than heading for the migrant traps along the river? There have been excellent reports from the usual spots (Mud Lake, Andrew Haydon Park), but even as the city parks reopened on May 6th and the NCC parking lots reopened on May 22nd as a result of declining Covid-19 cases in the city, I’ve been reluctant to go to the normal spring hotspots to avoid the crowds that tend to gather there, both birding and non-birding alike. This has less to do with any fear of the coronavirus than my preference for quiet birding experiences, away from the loud chatter and narrow, crowded trails that both increase exponentially as the spring wears on and weather warms up.

Mourning Dove at the Eagleson Ponds

The Eagleson ponds remain my favourite place to take in migration, even though it did not get the large number of migrants I expected this month. The pine and deciduous groves attract migrating songbirds, while the ponds attract various waterfowl. When the water levels drop many species of shorebirds can be found along the rocky or muddy edges, even in spring, which makes it a superior spot to most other places nearby.

I added a new bird to the Eagleson ponds hotspot list when I found a Carolina Wren singing near the playground on May 3rd. I was checking the shoreline and groves for migrants, but changed direction when I heard it and began walking closer. By the time I arrived, however, it had fallen silent, but its boisterous song resumed somewhere across the street and I found it singing in a spruce tree in one of the yards. My camera battery had died, so I decided to shoot some video with my iPhone in the hope of uploading the audio to my eBird list – I had never done this before, but it turned out easier than I had hoped.

One Blue-headed Vireo showed up on May 11th, and I saw this species there on four different dates up until May 17th. I’m not sure if these were the same or different individuals, as they were all found in the same area, in grove of trees just south of Emerald Meadows Drive. I was thrilled when I managed to photograph one, as this is one of my favourite birds.

Blue-headed Vireo

I haven’t seen very many Barn Swallows around, but a pair of Tree Swallows caught my attention when I found them perching on the hook holding a suet feeder in one of the backyards. I did a double take when I saw them there, as swallows are insect eaters and do not visit feeders. It wasn’t until a subsequent visit that I noticed the nest box attached to the deck of the house behind it. This was good to see, as a couple of boxes had been removed around the time the ponds were undergoing extensive reconstruction in 2014.

Tree Swallows

The most reliable warblers at the ponds this year have been Yellow and American Redstart. While Yellow Warblers have only been regular summer residents since 2017, American Redstarts are only migrants so far – they are most often seen or heard in the spring, with only one record from the fall according to eBird. The latest it’s been reported is May 26th, back in 2018, but one – either a female or first-year male – was still present this year on May 30th. As this local breeding species likes habitats with a mixture of dense trees and open scrub, it’s possible one may choose to attempt to breed here this year.

A male Black-throated Blue Warbler was present on May 17th and May 19th (photo shown below), and Common Yellowthroats arrived in the last week of May. I’ve been hearing one singing somewhere south of Hope Side road near the creek, and on May 28th I heard a second one from the vegetation on the west side of the central pond. The only other warblers I’ve seen there this spring since the initial wave of Yellow-rumped Warblers have been singles: a Palm Warbler (May 2nd), Magnolia Warbler (May 22nd), Cape May Warbler (May 23rd), and Blackpoll Warbler (May 28th).

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Shorebirds haven’t arrived in numbers, possibly because water levels rose toward the end of the month after a couple of heavy rain storms. I saw a few Least Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers, and Semipalmated Sandpipers, but there was no repeat of the Ruddy Turnstones from last year or Black-bellied Plover flock from 2018. Fortunately, there is still time yet for shorebirds.

A Savannah Sparrow has been heard fairly reliably singing from a line of trees in what I call the floodplain – this section of the channel where it opens up into the main pond has found itself underwater in the past. I heard it singing on three different days in the last week of April; then, after an absence of three weeks it resumed its song in the last week of May. It will be interesting to see if the bird breeds or spends the summer here, as I’ve never observed one here in the summer – only in the undeveloped land across the road before construction on yet another new subdivision began this year.

Another species I’m curious about is the Least Flycatcher. At least one, and up to three, have been present since May 16th; two in the grove near the Olive-sided Flycatcher’s birch tree, and one in the grove next to the Hope Side pond. I last heard two on May 25th, and only one – the one in the grove by the Hope Side pond – was singing on May 28th and 30th.

Ruby-crowned Kinglets persisted in the park in good numbers until May 17th; the highest number I had there was 9 on May 2nd. Gray Catbirds arrived just as the kinglets were departing, and one was last seen on May 30th. Like the redstart, it is found in areas where thick groves of trees meet scrubby open areas, particularly ones that contain plenty of dense thickets; it will be interesting to see if any remain here over the summer.

Gray Catbird

Another spot I’ve been spending time at is Monahan Forest located along Fallowfield Road at Moodie. Unlike Stony Swamp, Monahan is controlled by the City rather than the NCC, and the parking lots remained open while the NCC lots were closed. This small gem is mostly mixed forest with some wet, swampy areas, closely resembling the habitat of Stony Swamp, although its proximity to Highway 416, several active quarries, and Fallowfield Road mean that loud traffic noise, particularly from all the trucks working in the area, is an issue on weekday mornings. As a birder who depends a lot on hearing birds before seeing them – especially now that the canopy has fully leafed out – this is major drawback. Still, there are some neat birds in Monahan Forest, particularly in the openings along the hydro corridor and where the forest meets the quarry property.

A Rusty Blackbird on May 14th in the woods was a neat find, as was a Hermit Thrush, a Winter Wren, and three Purple Finches. Warblers included Ovenbird, Black-throated Green, Nashville, and Black-and-white. I heard a Field Sparrow singing in one of the open areas near the quarry; that was the only time I’d had one there. A Pileated Woodpecker was foraging low to the ground, and I managed to catch her calling in one of my photos. She later flew up to the trunk of a tree a little further along. It’s been a while since I’ve gotten so close to one of these birds, so prehistoric in sound and appearance that it’s quite easy to believe that its evolutionary ancestors were in fact dinosaurs.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

A return trip a few days later increased my list of birds seen there – Warbling Vireos were back, and a Blue-headed Vireo was probably just migrating through. I heard it singing from the hydro corridor, along with a Wood Thrush. Two Northern Waterthrushes were seen in a large swampy area reminiscent of Point Pelee, including a singing bird that was probably intent on settling there. A Chestnut-sided Warbler, a couple of American Redstarts, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a Baltimore Oriole and a Northern Rough-winged Swallow were all seen or heard in the quarry opening.

My best visit occurred on May 24th, a quiet Sunday morning. I totaled 45 species there, a number that rivals some of my best days at Stony Swamp. I heard a Ruffed Grouse drumming, a bird I haven’t heard at all in Stony Swamp this spring; saw or heard four flycatcher species (Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Wood-pewee, Great-crested Flycatcher and Least Flycatcher); and heard a Northern Waterthrush singing in the same swampy area. I also observed a Swainson’s Thrush, a Wood Thrush singing in the same part of the hydro corridor, a Winter Wren, a Scarlet Tanager, a Yellow Warbler, and a couple of Common Yellowthroats. In the open area by the quarry I saw a Northern Rough-winged Swallow, a pair of Baltimore Orioles, and a Gray Catbird. This was also where I had my most exciting observation – a Northern Harrier flew up from out of the quarry right in front of me and soared off on its way! It was being chased by a couple of Red-winged Blackbirds who were doubtless protective of their nearby nests.

Eastern Phoebe

Close to Monaghan Forest, and backing onto it from Old Richmond Road, is Steeplehill Park in the village of Fallowfield. I initially started going here when looking for a new spot to access Monaghan, and the open areas as viewed on Google Maps seemed promising for open field and grassland birds – I was hoping for Field and Savannah Sparrows, and perhaps Brown Thrashers and House Wrens as well. Depending on the habitat, I thought if I was truly lucky I might find a good spot for Eastern Towhee, Golden-winged Warbler, or Clay-coloured Sparrow.

On my first visit, I heard a Brown Thrasher and Chipping Sparrow singing as soon as I got out of the car. I followed the trail behind Rooney Park and entered a relatively open area. It reminded me more of the shrubby habitat around the Hilda Road feeders at Shirley’s Bay than the open scrub of the airport, and the birds were similar. Breeding warblers included American Redstart, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler and Chestnut-sided Warbler; I also found four Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, a Field Sparrow, a Baltimore Oriole, and a couple of Gray Catbirds. I also got two year birds – an Eastern Wood-peewee singing from the forest that borders the park and a pair of Eastern Kingbirds chasing a Blue Jay.

On my second visit the following morning I saw a pair of coyotes in the park; one was too busy chasing the other across the path to notice me. I heard a Nashville Warbler, though whether it was migrating or breeding here I couldn’t tell, and got another new year bird: a Swainson’s Thrush. I tried looking for a way into the Monaghan Forest and eventually found a path that was little more than a deer trail. I scared up a Ruffed Grouse at the boundary of the park and the forest, and made my way into the woods where the trail appeared to be nothing more than the footprints of several people in a channel of thick, damp mud that twisted between tree roots. I did get my only Blackburnian Warbler of the spring just inside the woods, but turned back when I had had enough of slogging through the muck.

Swainson’s Thrush

Once the NCC parking lots opened on May 22nd I started going further afield. The following day I returned to Jack Pine Trail and was surprised to hear a Yellow-throated Vireo singing just beyond the first boardwalk. It was singing at the top of a conifer, a slow buzzy “three-a, three-a” song more similar in tone to a Scarlet Tanager than a Red-eyed Vireo, both of which I could hear singing nearby. Although I circled the tree and tried to get closer I could not set eyes on it. My main goal for visiting Jack Pine Trail was to see if the Eastern Towhees had returned. I heard a House Wren and a Brown Thrasher in the alvar, but no Eastern Towhees. Warblers were good – I heard a couple of Ovenbirds, a couple of Yellow Warblers, at least three Chestnut-sided Warblers, one American Redstart, one Magnolia Warbler, and eight Common Yellowthroats. A male singing from the top of a dead tree at the back of the third loop posed nicely for me.

Common Yellowthroat

I returned to other places I hadn’t visited since March (or earlier): Sarsaparilla Trail, Shirley’s Bay, South March Highlands, and Bruce Pit. The South March Highlands on May 24th were good, as I got my only Tennessee Warbler of the spring there, as well as two other year birds: Marsh Wren and Wilson’s Snipe. At Sarsaparilla Trail I added Brant (an unusual bird for this pond; it was resting on the beaver lodge when I saw it) and Alder Flycatcher to my year list. The following day I returned to Jack Pine Trail and heard the Eastern Towhee. Still, it seemed as though most of the birds were summer residents singing on territory. I found no flocks of warblers or mixed songbirds, no Philadelphia Vireos or Wilson’s Warblers or Ruby-throated Hummingbirds moving through the area, very few shorebirds at the ponds, and no migrating waterfowl on the river when I did venture up there once or twice.

Partially Leucistic American Robin at Deevy Pines Park

While I’ve enjoyed working from home during the pandemic, as it gives me more time to go out birding without two hours of commuting taking up a large chunk of my workday, I really expected to see more – more on the local trails when I’ve gone out in the morning, more in my yard while working from home. The only notable migrants I’ve heard at home have been a White-breasted Nuthatch singing in a tree down the street on March 27th, a Downy Woodpecker across the street on April 7th, a Golden-crowned Kinglet next door on April 9th, an Eastern Phoebe singing out back somewhere on April 14th, and the Brown Creeper across the street on May 2nd. There were no warblers this year at all. However, there is a new resident of note – a pair of nesting Merlins. I’m not sure where the nest is, but I’ve been hearing at least one frequently out front throughout the month of April as it soared over the neighbourhood. They’ve gotten a lot quieter lately so I presume they are busy feeding and raising their young. It’s another sign that migration is just about over, and the fascinating breeding season has begun.


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