Late Summer in Stony Swamp

Snowshoe Hare (juvenile)

A few years ago I wrote a post about the winter wildlife of Stony Swamp. However, it’s a great place to see wildlife in late summer as well. Many birds are done raising their young and are leaving their nesting areas in a phenomenon known as post-breeding dispersal. By late August, the first songbirds have started migrating through our area as well. Many mammals, too, are moving around, fattening up for the winter ahead and looking for safe places to spend the winter. While there are fewer insect species around, many late-season insects are still breeding and laying eggs to ensure their species’ survival for another generation. Stony Swamp is a great place to see all of these, as the variety of habitats within its boundaries provide food and shelter for a variety of different creatures. And the one thing I like about the trails here is that I never know what’s going to turn up on an early morning or late afternoon walk!

I started the morning of Sunday, August 16th with a walk at the Rideau Trail on Old Richmond Road (starting from the P6 parking lot). The edge habitat along the hydro cut, the open area near the end of the first boardwalk, and the edges of the alvar on the right-hand trail are often full of migrating birds, and I usually start checking these areas in mid- to late August to see what’s moving through. Most of the birds I found were likely residents, but a Great Egret flying over and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak were nice to see.

At Sarsaparilla Trail just down the road I found the usual breeding birds, as well as three heron species on the pond: Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, and Black-crowned Night-heron. A beaver was swimming across the pond, and at one point it turned and swam straight toward the observation platform where I was standing. Although there is a huge beaver lodge at the northern end of the pond, I rarely see these mammals out and about even on my early morning visits.

Beaver in the morning light

An American Black Duck was standing on a log in the water next to the dock; when I took a closer look, I saw that it was wearing a silver band on its left leg. I enlarged the photos at home to see if the band number could be read, but I was only able to read part of it.

American Black Duck

My visit to Sarsaparilla Trail two days later was more productive. I saw one Brown Creeper in the woods and heard a second one singing nearby; then, close to the boardwalk, I heard the rapid chip notes of a young bird begging for food high in the pines. I couldn’t get a good look at it due to the overcast sky, and wasn’t sure what it was until I saw a Pine Warbler come in to feed it! This was one of the highlights of my visit as I had been hearing one around on and off since May; it was nice to see that they had successfully bred in the area.

I also found my first Philadelphia Vireo of the year near the beginning of the boardwalk, and saw three Blue-winged Teal on the pond. Two of them flew right by where I was standing on the platform. I found a couple of White-throated Sparrows as well, and presume they were residents from nearby, as I often hear them singing in the open spaces of Stony Swamp during breeding season.

When I returned to my car at the end of my visit, I was surprised to find a baby Snowshoe Hare munching on the weeds at the edge of the parking lot!

Snowshoe Hare (juvenile)

It was small and uniformly brown, lacking the clean white facial markings and fuzzy white tail of an Eastern Cottontail. I’d been seeing a pair of Snowshoe Hares hanging around the parking lot and the lawn here since early June, and it was nice to see a baby now as well! This is the first time I’ve ever seen a Snowshoe Hare this young. It was cute, and I couldn’t stop taking pictures. An older one had been on the lawn earlier, but hopped into the woods when I walked by.

Snowshoe Hare (juvenile)

One more photo since this guy is so unbelievably cute!

Snowshoe Hare (juvenile)

I headed over to the Rideau Trail after. My best sighting there was a Red-shouldered Hawk, one of our less common birds of prey. I heard one calling as I walked down the boardwalk, but shortly after I started hearing it, it flew out of the woods towards me, still calling as it was pursued by a smaller bird! I am always hesitant to list Red-shouldered Hawks on eBird when I don’t see them, as the Blue Jays in Stony Swamp are excellent imitators – once I even heard one mimic a Broad-winged Hawk in the dead of winter! It was great to see this one as well as hear it, as it is proof that they are still in this area.

My next visit to the Rideau Trail on August 19th was more active, with an accipiter flying right over my head into the woods – based on size it was either male Cooper’s Hawk or female Sharp-shinned Hawk. A House Wren was chattering away right next to parking lot, a female-type Purple Finch was feeding on buckthorn berries, and I saw a Black-throated Green Warbler flitting among the trees. This was my only warbler species in two visits.

A return visit on August 21st was even birdier, reminding me why I like visiting this trail so much in the late summer – 31 species observed in about 100 minutes. I saw a Ruby-throated Hummingbird chase a chickadee from its perch, a Hairy Woodpecker and a Northern Flicker on opposite sides of the same tree trunk, at least six Purple Finches, a Baltimore Oriole, a Scarlet Tanager (all yellow), four Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and a single White-throated Sparrow.

White-throated Sparrow

Six warbler species were also present. The Common Yellowthroat may have been a resident bird (they are common along the hydro cut and the boardwalk in the breeding season) but the Cape May Warbler and Magnolia Warbler were likely migrants. I saw one American Redstart, though whether it was a female or immature male I couldn’t say; both sport gray and orange instead of black and orange colours. A Bay-breasted Warbler was distinguished from the similar-looking Blackpoll Warbler by its gray legs and feet and lack of any streaking on the breast. The funniest warbler, however, was the feisty little Northern Waterthrush chasing and harassing other birds. While I was tracking it through the open trees in the hydro cut I saw it go after a young robin, a Red-eyed Vireo and a Purple Finch.

Bay-breasted Warbler

At one point I turned and saw a bird land on top of a distant spruce tree. I couldn’t believe it when I checked it through my binoculars and identified it as an Olive-sided Flycatcher – this was the first one I’ve seen in Stony Swamp. I took a few distant photos to confirm its identity, then headed back toward the parking lot. The buckthorn berries along the boardwalk had attracted a fair number of frugivores since I’d first arrived; there were several Cedar Waxwings and robins feeding, along with a couple of Purple Finches and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. The grosbeaks didn’t seem particularly skittish, so I took a couple of photos. I like this image because you can see an immature male in the background.

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks

Songbird migration was in full swing, and I decided to spend some time at Lime Kiln Trail the following day hoping it would be just as good as the Rideau Trail. This isn’t a trail I visit often compared to the others; the lack of open water and boardwalk access into the marshes make it a less desirable destination when looking for waterfowl or dragonflies. However, there is a nice mix of habitats here, too, as well as plenty of edge habitat that could make it interesting in migration. Interestingly, I saw the same number of species here (31) that I saw in the same amount of time (110 minutes) but covered 150% more distance (2.5 km compared to 1 km). This highlights the fact that visiting large tracts of woods and open green spaces is usually less productive than visiting a small, contained migrant trap. Still, it was a change of scenery for me and I had a good walk.

I found one area with several migrants – they were all in the tall trees right next to the smaller of the two boardwalks. A family group of Northern Flickers was moving noisily in the bare branches, and at one point I counted six of them. Several robins, a couple of Blue Jays, a singing Eastern Wood-pewee and two Cape May Warblers were also in the same area. The Cape May Warblers were foraging much lower down than the other birds, but not close enough to get any photos.

I found other birds deeper in the trail system, though fewer than I expected in the open area at the back. My best sighting here was a family of House Wrens (three) preening themselves in the sunshine.

House Wren

There were more insects at the back of the trail, as well. In the open grassy area I saw several Wandering Gliders flying around. I only managed to see one land, and got a photo for iNaturalist – back in January I created a couple of iNaturalist projects to track the number of odonates in Stony Swamp, expecting to spend more time here over the summer looking to add to them. However, with the pandemic and increased traffic on the trails I found myself looking for new places to visit, and put this project on hold as most of my morning visits were too cool for many species to be flying. Still, I was glad to see the Wandering Gliders; it’s been a good year for this migratory species in Ottawa.

I was also happy to find and photograph a Great-spangled Fritillary basking in the sun. I used to see these butterflies fairly often in Stony Swamp, usually in places where there are plenty of wildflowers. It seems like I’ve seen fewer around in recent years.

Great-spangled Fritillary

Great-spangled Fritillary

From there I drove over to the Rideau Trail. Although it wasn’t as birdy as my previous visit the day before, a number of new species had moved in, including a couple of juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, both Winter and House Wrens (the former identified solely by its scolding call issuing from the tangled branches of a downed tree), a singing Pine Warbler, and a lovely Scarlet Tanager dressed in yellow and black. A large flock of Cedar Waxwings was still present, and this time I saw them feeding berries to their young.

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

After a couple of uneventful visits to the Beaver and Sarsaparilla Trails that week, I got lucky on August 25th and found my first Yellow-bellied Flycatcher of the year at the Rideau Trail. On Friday, August 28th I saw a pair (male and female) of Black-throated Blue Warblers travelling together, along with a couple of Cape May Warblers and more Purple Finches.

The following morning was heavily overcast with a light drizzle starting halfway through my walk, but it was worth another visit to the Rideau Trail. I saw another Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, and watched as it plucked a fuzzy white caterpillar from the foliage and eat it. There were at least six Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and 15 robins feeding on the buckthorn berries, and when I saw a brown thrush among them I thought it had to be a Swainson’s Thrush. Instead my photos showed it to be a Veery. Four Purple Finches were feeding on the berries as well – these finches seem to be everywhere right now.

Purple Finch

Purple Finch

A Gray Catbird and a House Wren were still calling, and in the woods I saw a male Pileated Woodpecker taking off whole chunks of bark off a snag and lapping up the larvae inside. I also saw a large flock of grackles moving low through the woods, foraging on the ground. Only two warblers were present, a Tennessee Warbler and a Common Yellowthroat, but a Ruby-throated Hummingbird perching out the open helped to make up for their absence.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

The 30th of August was sunny and bright, but there were fewer birds around on that visit than there had the day before. The hummingbird was still there, but most of the other migrants had moved on. I made my way to the alvar, hoping to find a flock of warblers moving through the trees. When I saw a single bird perched on top of a leafless tree I did a double take – it was another Olive-sided Flycatcher!

Olive-sided Flycatcher

I watched as it sallied out several times, catching whatever there was to catch. A couple of times it landed at the top of a conifer further back instead, but then returned to the same leafless tree after its next foray. This species seems to be having a good year, as evidenced by the number of reports this fall as well as the long-staying spring bird on Munster Road.

Olive-sided Flycatcher

Olive-sided Flycatcher

Stony Swamp has been a good place to view a variety of migrants these past two weeks, with some adorable mammals and interesting insects found as well. I am fortunate to live close enough to visit these trails before work each morning, giving me more opportunities to find some of the more uncommon species than if I only had the weekends to go birding. As the trails in Stony Swamp aren’t migrant traps and lack diversity in water species (particularly shorebirds and gulls or terns), it is usually best just to drop in on some of the smaller trails and certain portions of the Rideau Trail if time is short or if you are on your way someplace with more diversity (i.e. most places along the river). However, if you love walking through the woods regardless of what you might see, it is worth visiting two or more trails in a single outing. I couldn’t imagine not visiting these trails each week, particularly in the warmer months when there is so much to see!

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