Counting Birds

Upland Sandpiper

Sometime in early 2020 I decided to put in the effort this year to see or hear 200 bird species in Ottawa this year, something I’ve failed to do since 2015 when I observed 210 species while working full-time. I also managed to observe 202 species in 2013 and 205 species in 2011. After 2015 my annual totals dropped to 182, 196, 166 and 177. This was probably about the time that I decided not to chase birds as much as I used to, as it’s not the most enjoyable aspect of birding for me. I prefer exploring new areas or old favourites, just to see what species breed or spend the summer there, or migrate through in the spring and fall. This meant I haven’t gone to see the Sandhill Cranes at Milton Road in the fall since 2015, the Snow Geese in the east end since 2015, or the grassland sparrow species (Vesper, Clay-colored and Grasshopper) at the airport since 2017. Sometimes I get lucky and find those species closer to home; individual Snow Geese are usually seen annually in the west end during spring and fall migration, while Clay-colored Sparrows were found at the Goulbourn sparrow field in 2017 before development ruined that area as a birding spot.

I am not sure where the impetus to reach 200 again came from; perhaps seeing those dismal numbers appearing on the “My eBird” screen of my eBird app every time I checked my current year’s totals had something to do with it. It also helped that I found two good birds at Mud Lake on January 1st – Winter Wren and Carolina Wren, the latter of which is difficult to find in Ottawa. The Gray Partridges on Hazeldean Road, Barrow’s Goldeneye at Hurdman (another bird I failed to chase in the last few years, primarily due to the difficulty of getting to Hurdman while the LRT construction was going on), and Northern Hawk Owl west of the city in January also contributed to the good start I had, and held my interest long enough to last me through the winter doldrums.

Burnt Lands Provincial Park

By the end of May I had reached 157 species for Ottawa. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I missed a lot of migrating waterfowl on the Ottawa River in late March/early April as a result of the Ottawa Public Health directive to stay home as much as possible. I also missed my chance at American Woodcock at Shirley’s Bay, a species I was planning on trying for this year despite my aversion to night driving. Then on June 5th, just a few days before COVID-19 restrictions were loosened as Ottawa entered Stage 2 of the reopening of the economy, I heard about a Grasshopper Sparrow being heard and/or seen in the large field just south of Rifle Road near Shirley’s Bay. This the closest Grasshopper Sparrow I’ve ever heard about, so I went and managed to find it singing on a snag at the back of the field. A couple of Bobolinks singing and performing flight displays in the same field were an added bonus. This left only the Clay-colored Sparrow for grassland sparrows, and I had two options for finding one: the airport, or Burnt Lands Provincial Park. It’s been a long time since I’ve ventured out the Burnt Lands area, and as there are some good butterflies in that area (it’s part of the circle where the annual butterfly count takes place) I decided to make the trip on the morning of June 7th. I’ve never been to the eBird hotspot near the intersection of March Road and Burnt Lands Road, either; I was looking forward to see how this compared to my usual point of access from Ramsay Concession 12 off of Panmure Road.

Burnt Lands Provincial Park

Unfortunately the morning of June 7th was quite cold, barely reaching 10°C and making me wish I’d worn a jacket instead of my hoodie. When I arrived I parked at the end of Golden Line Road in a tiny parking area that might hold one or two cars. I descended the small hill into the park, although as a non-operating park there were no gates, no fee station, no visitor’s center, no formal trails, and no facilities. There was just a wide open field ahead of me, with a lumpy dirt road running through it toward a wire fence at the end. The fence contained “NO ENTRY” signs posted regularly along its length, while a dirt track ran around the outside of it. However, there were large breaks in the fence, allowing access, and at one point I saw a person inside throwing a ball for his dog. I learned that this area once contained a military radio receiver, which has since been decommissioned.

Hermit Thrush foraging along the fenceline

The chief attraction of the park is the alvar, a provincially significant Area of Natural and Scientific Interest. Alvars are made up chiefly of flat, open limestone bedrock with a shallow soil covering its surface. The thin layer of soil may support herbaceous vegetation as well as mixed and coniferous forest. The grasslands here contain numerous prairie species, although this is not considered a prairie in the strict sense of the word. Alvars generally contain very few permanent wetlands, and those that are found within the Burnt Lands are usually ephemeral and irregular in occurrence. As a result, numerous open-field or grassland bird species are present within the park.

When I arrived I heard the usual Song Sparrows, Field Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows and Common Yellowthroats. I turned left at the fenceline and followed the road the ran alongside the fence, avoiding the puddles the filled the tracks of whatever large vehicle that had turned the road into deep ruts, walking in the thin grass itself. I heard two Grasshopper Sparrows, and even startled one from the ground. It wasn’t until I reached the corner of the fence and turned right again that I heard my first Clay-coloured Sparrow. The song was coming from deep inside the fence, and as I wasn’t sure I could go in, I didn’t try to track it down.

Eastern Kingbird

I heard more birds the deeper I progressed inside the park: House Wrens, Cedar Waxwings, Eastern Kingbirds, a Yellow Warbler, a family of Northern Flickers, a pair of Nashville Warblers, a couple of curious chickadees. I reached the end of the fence-line and turned right again, and this time the road led straight to a mixed woodlot. A bird flew down from the fence onto the ground; when it returned to the fence I was surprised to see a Hermit Thrush carrying food. I also heard a Red-eyed Vireo, a Black-and-white Warbler, a Black-throated Green Warbler, a Pine Warbler, and a couple of Chestnut-sided Warblers in this corner. The forest became too thick to continue, so rather than cutting inside the fenced area I turned around and headed back.

On my way out I found a Eastern Meadowlark, an Eastern Phoebe, and best of all, another Clay-colored Sparrow just inside the fence! I got great views of it singing on top of a shrub but didn’t get my camera up in time to photograph it. I did, however, get a chance to photograph one of the Grasshopper Sparrows on my way out. I heard two individuals singing close together, and heard another one a little further along, bringing my count up to three distinct individuals. Best of all, by scanning the low shrubby vegetation I was able to spot all three! This is one of them.

Grasshopper Sparrow

I ended up with a total of 36 species in just over two hours, not including a hawk that flew over that I picked up too late to identify. It did warm up eventually, and I found three different butterfly species, none of which were particularly unusual. The first was a Silvery Blue, a species I’ve seen in several places now this spring.

Silvery Blue

This is one of two species that often perches with its wings partially open; Eastern Tailed Blues also do this, while Northern Spring Azures do not.

Silvery Blue

This Viceroy perched in the sun for a little while, perhaps waiting for it to get a little bit warmer.

Viceroy

Finally, a Dreamy Duskywing fluttering near the ground caught my attention. This is the fourth place I’ve seen this species now; I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many in one season.

Dreamy Duskywing

I’ve been keeping tabs on the birds at the Eagleson ponds as well. Now that migration is over, working from home gives me the chance to go there often to look for potential new summer residents and confirmation of breeding. I’ve never found evidence that the Yellow Warblers and Common Yellowthroats I often hear there are actually breeding, and am hoping to confirm that this summer. The Purple Finch I heard there on and off last summer has been present again so far this spring, and a Red-eyed Vireo last heard on June 7th could be an exciting new summer resident. Also new this summer is a Least Flycatcher heard singing in the southern grove near Hope Side Road as well as two Gray Catbirds – today I saw one foraging out in the open near the central pond while another was heard calling in the pine grove near Emerald Meadows Drive. A Great Crested Flycatcher heard calling near the central pond was an entirely new species for me at the ponds – I’ve never seen one here even in migration.

Gray Catbird

Earlier this week, some exciting birds were seen near Munster, on Franktown, Kettles, and Munster Roads: a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, an Olive-sided Flycatcher, and a Northern Mockingbird! It was shaping up to be a good season for Black-billed Cuckoos as well, and on Saturday, June 13th I headed southwest of the city to see if I could find these four species as well as two others reported in the area: Eastern Bluebird and Upland Sandpiper. I needed all six for my year list, and figured if I could find half of these I’d be doing well.

At 6:30 a.m. I stopped at the field along Franktown Road where the mockingbird had been reported and got out of my car to listen. I heard a Savannah Sparrow and an Eastern Meadowlark, but other than that, it was quiet. Fortunately I had better luck with the Olive-sided Flycatcher on Munster Road, and heard it singing while I slowly drove the road with the windows down. I pulled over and spotted the bird in a tree a few layers back from the road, and as it was a still morning with no traffic – Munster ends at the dead-end Kettles Road – I decided to shoot some video with the intention of uploading the audio to eBird as proof of this sighting. The wind started picking up about halfway through my recording, but I did manage to upload it to my eBird checklist. I also heard a Veery, a Nashville Warbler, a Yellow Warbler and an Alder Flycatcher in the same area.

When I arrived at Kettles Road no one else was around. I spent some time just east of the railroad tracks but only caught sight of one cuckoo flying into the wet meadow on the other side of the road, noticing it too late to get my binoculars on it. Others have said a Black-billed Cuckoo had been flying back and forth, carrying food, but this was the only glimpse I caught, and I didn’t hear any cuckoo calls at all.

From there I returned to Franktown Road and listened for the mockingbird once again. This time I heard a Brown Thrasher and a House Wren in the field where it was said to hang out, and then when I scanned the field on the other side of the road I managed to spot an Upland Sandpiper fly into the branches of some deadfall!

Upland Sandpiper

A second one was also present; it flew up onto a tree branch of an old snag, and sang once before descending flying onto a dead tree fairly close to where I was standing! This is the best view I’ve ever had of one of these enigmatic birds; unlike other sandpipers in our region, they shun wetlands and instead breed in grasslands, prairies and pastures. The two best spots for seeing them in Ottawa are Franktown Road and Constance Bay, and while I’ve seen them at Constance Bay before I’ve never had any luck with the Franktown birds – until now.

Upland Sandpiper

My last stop was a spot along Century Road where some Eastern Bluebirds had been reported. I had looked for them out near Dunrobin multiple times in the late winter with no success, and was hoping there might be some bluebird houses here where they were breeding. I got lucky with these as well, spotting a male flying around and bringing food to a bluebird house almost right next to the road. The bluebird house was right next to the property owner’s house so I didn’t want to spend too much time sitting outside and photographing them; after spotting the female and taking a few pictures I left.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

As I was hoping for only three of the six species I had targeted, I wasn’t too disappointed with the three new species I’d seen; however, they were likely the easiest three of the six to find, which means a return trip in the near future. The Eastern Bluebird brought my year list to 165 species – pretty good for the beginning of breeding season, and bringing my goal of 200 species by the end of the year well within reach!

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