Migration Highlights from September

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

I have truly enjoyed these past few months working from home. Without the daily two-hour commute, I have been getting out as often as I can before work and at lunch to take advantage of the quiet weekday trails close to my house. With the arrival of September, however, I’ve been less focused on insects and more interested in birds. Migration has started, though so quietly it is hard to tell when post-breeding dispersal ended and true southward movement of the birds began. I’d already seen some good birds in the last few days of August, such as a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk at Sarsaparilla Trail, a Red-necked Phalarope at the Moodie Drive quarry, and a Cape May Warbler in my own backyard, but I was eager to get out and see large numbers of songbirds flitting through the trees in various migrant traps, and start creating eBird lists with 40 or 50 different species.

On September 2nd I went to the Eagleson storm water ponds after dinner on a whim, and found my first (and only) Common Nighthawks of the year there. I’d been looking for them for at least a week after seeing reports that they were moving through the area, and was thrilled to see them hunting low over the water before eventually disappearing to the north. On Saturday, September 5th I spent some time at one of my favourite fall destinations for warblers, the hydro cut on Old Richmond Road at the P6 parking lot. This area can either be really birdy or really quiet. Although not as birdy as it has been in the past, I still saw some interesting migrants, including four Purple Finches, a Black-and-white Warbler, an American Redstart, two Magnolia Warblers, two Black-throated Green Warblers, a Bay-breasted Warbler, and my first Orange-crowned Warbler of the fall. The Orange-crowned Warbler popped out of a shrub right in front of me and I couldn’t get my camera ready before it vanished. From there I headed over to Sarsaparilla Trail where four Spotted Sandpipers (not common in that location) were flying around the pond, landing on downed trees. I found a Winter Wren walking along a fallen branch in the woods, while a Cape May Warbler, the only warbler that I saw there, was foraging in a spruce at the parking lot entrance.

From there I drove to the Richmond Lagoons. With limited mudflats along the Ottawa River this month, this has been one of the best places in the west end to see shorebirds, and in the first cell I saw some Killdeer and about 15 yellowlegs which included both species. I was looking for a Stilt Sandpiper that had been reported previously but did not see it in the group. There were also a fair number of ducks – at least 20 Mallards, 20 Green-winged Teal, five Blue-winged Teal and four Wood Ducks were present. I was also thrilled to see a pair of Gadwall walking on a grassy area fairly close to the bank. These ducks are more common at the Moodie Drive quarry where, except for the white wing patch, they might be mistaken for a female Mallard from a distance. It’s not often I see them close enough to get any photos.



I hadn’t yet checked the two remaining cells or the Jock River when I got a Rare Bird Alert: a male Canvasback was being seen at Andrew Haydon Park! These large diving ducks are uncommon in Ottawa, so I abandoned my plan to walk around the rest of the conservation area and left in order to snag this bird for my year list. This is only the fourth one I’ve seen, and except for the one at Petrie Island in 2011, I mainly see them off the dyke at Shirley’s Bay at an incredible distance. This one was nice and close, and ended up as no. 188 on my year list. It is amazing how large this species is compared to the smaller Blue-winged Teal right next to it.


Canvasback with Blue-winged Teal

A juvenile Caspian Tern also made the visit worthwhile. Although I’d already added this species to my year list last month, the tern was standing in the shallow bay where it allowed some great views. The gray and black cap as well as the black chevrons on its gray body indicate that this is a first year bird that has not yet molted into its adult plumage.

Caspian Tern

Caspian Tern (juvenile)

Several other birders had stopped by Andrew Haydon Park to see the Canvasback, and while talking to them I learned that a Stilt Sandpiper was still present at Shirley’s Bay. I drove over the next morning and headed out to the dyke. The walk out was quieter than I expected, although I did see a male Purple Finch sitting out in the open, and found an Eastern Wood-pewee, Magnolia Warbler, and American Redstart in the woods. Two Yellow-rumped Warblers and a Gray Catbird were present as well – to me the sound of Shirley’s Bay in the late summer is the mewing call of an irate catbird!

Purple Finch (male)

Purple Finch (male)

I found the Stilt Sandpiper fairly easily, foraging among several Killdeer and Lesser Yellowlegs. I counted ten Great Egrets and four Great Blue Herons around the bay, as well as two Caspian Terns and a Belted Kingfisher. Waterfowl species were more varied, with Canada Geese, Wood Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, American Wigeon, Mallard and American Black Duck all present. My favourite sighting, however, was of the Common Gallinule family near the mouth of the creek….I counted one black adult and five gray juveniles all foraging along the shore.

My final destination that day was at the Eagleson storm water ponds. The only evidence of migration were a Green-winged Teal and a Greater Yellowlegs in the south pond, a pair of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in a tree near the central pond, and a single American Black Duck among all the mallards. Black ducks are only common here in the fall, when large numbers begin to build up with an even larger number of mallards. A Great Egret in a tree was particularly photogenic.

Great Egret

Great Egret

I returned to the ponds early the next morning for a quick walk and found a Wilson’s Warbler and a Green Heron in addition to the American Black Duck; the grosbeaks and Green-winged Teal were gone. I found only 21 species there and only five at the Rideau Trail, which is probably my lousiest Labour Day tally ever. With rain in the forecast I didn’t feel much like staying out and trying to find more birds so I called it a day.

Later that week I had another new warbler species for my yard list when I saw an Orange-crowned Warbler in my front tree. A pair of chickadees calling caught my attention, but the third bird was something else entirely. This is one of the more difficult warblers for me to find each year; I usually only see one, if that, so seeing two this year was amazing!

After a relatively lackluster week and two relatively birdless stops at the P6 Rideau Trail and Sarsaparilla Trail on Saturday morning I was ready to try someplace birdy. Mud Lake is renowned for the number of migrants stopping over each fall, however, I have been reluctant to venture there due to the sheer number of people visiting during the pandemic. The NCC trails have been crazy busy all summer and I doubted things would change just because school had started. It was indeed busy, but I found a number of great birds including Philadelphia Vireo, a pair of Peregrine Falcons soaring high over Britannia Point, three Scarlet Tanagers, one Canada Warbler, a pair of Nashville Warblers, a single American Redstart, a single Cape May Warbler, a single Magnolia Warbler, three Black-throated Green Warblers, and several Yellow-rumped Warblers. A cursory check of the regular Eastern Screech-owl roost did, in fact, turn up the screech owl.

Eastern Screech Owl

Eastern Screech Owl

The Beaver Trail the following day was pretty birdy as well. This is another spot in Stony Swamp that can either be really good or really quiet. This is because Stony Swamp is very large, and there are no geographic features to funnel the birds into one spot and form a “migrant trap” on a par with Mud Lake (bounded by the river on one side and city streets and buildings on the other) or Point Pelee (a peninsula jutting into Lake Erie). The main reason why Stony Swamp still attracts a high number of birds is that it contains a number of different habitats (marsh, alvar, meadow, coniferous forest, deciduous forest) and the edges between these habitats are excellent places to find the birds. The boardwalk at the back of the Beaver Trail is particularly excellent, as there is a small open shrubby area between the marsh and the forest that often hosts flycatchers, warblers, sparrows, hummingbirds, raptors, blackbirds, finches, and more. On September 13th I found a pair of Canada Warblers, a Chestnut-sided Warbler, at least seven Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, ten White-throated Sparrows, a Swainson’s Thrush, a Brown Thrasher, and a single Ruby-throated Hummingbird. I also had the pleasure of a male Downy Woodpecker taking a peanut from my hand.

Just as I was starting to head back to my car a Rare Bird Alert popped up on my phone: a Parasitic Jaeger was being seen at Dick Bell! That was quite close, so I quickly finished the rest of my walk and drove over. It was just starting to drizzle when I arrived, but I was able to see the jaeger floating on the water in the distance. I was hoping it would stick around for better views, but it wasn’t seen again that week. Fortunately a Pomarine Jaeger that showed up on September 23rd stuck around for over a week, and I not only saw it three different times, I also managed to see it fairly close on the water and in flight. This is the first time I’ve seen two jaeger species in one year – they are not very common in Ottawa as we never get more than one individual at a time, and most are one-day wonders, so I usually miss them when they are found during the work week. I was thrilled to add both to my year list.

The following weekend I returned to Stony Swamp, looking to fill in gaps in my year list with birds such as Lincoln’s Sparrow, Gray-cheeked Thrush, and Pine Siskin which were being reported in Ottawa. I also needed American Pipit, but did not expect to get one at Sarsaparilla Trail of all places on September 19th. These birds like rocky shorelines and open fields, so I was expecting them at Andrew Haydon Park, the Eagleson Ponds, or Richmond Lagoons. It was a pleasant surprise to hear one flying over the pond at Sarsaparilla. I didn’t get any of my target birds, but a pair of Rusty Blackbirds were delightful to see.

I did not fare as well at the Lime Kiln Trail afterward. This trail has plenty of good edge habitat, but migrants were sadly lacking. A Merlin in the old burn site was my best species – it was being harassed by two Blue Jays which eventually gave up and flew off.


The Merlin, on the other hand, stuck around and gave me enough time to get close enough for some photos.


I saw another Merlin the following day at the Richmond lagoons but did not get any photos. This was another birdy outing, and I spent half an hour there walking all the way around the three cells and along the river in the woods. I enjoyed watching a Solitary Sandpiper close to the edge of the first cell along with a couple of Wilson’s Snipe. A Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a Nashville Warbler, a Black-throated Green Warbler and a Swainson’s Thrush were the highlights of the visit.

Swainson’s Thrush

A return visit to the Beaver Trail on September 21st netted me my long-awaited Lincoln’s Sparrow. Interestingly I had had one at the boardwalk here the year before, however, this one was in the low shrubs growing in the decimated corridor of the hydro cut. All the vegetation between the two tree-lines had been mown down earlier in the year by Hydro Ottawa to allow better access to its towers, but it was growing back nicely and some of the shrubs were now at knee-height. I saw some sparrows moving through the field and when I started pishing a Lincoln’s Sparrow popped up. Unlike last year I did not get any photos – they do not stay out in the open for very long.

Although I looked for warblers, the only one I found was a Common Yellowthroat, which breeds here. In fact, the number of warbler species diminished considerably – Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers were the only other species I found other than a Nashville Warbler in the vegetation just beyond the gate at the Moodie Drive quarry. (Also of note was an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull standing on the large mound of sand just downslope of an adult Great Black-backed Gull affording a nice comparison). Sparrows, too, began moving through, with a Lincoln’s Sparrow, four juncos, and a juvenile White-crowned Sparrow at the Eagleson Ponds on September 25th.

When I returned to the ponds the following day I counted 10 White-throated Sparrows and at least 50 Song Sparrows walking all the way around both sides – most were singing (some badly, some well) while others were chasing each other and other sparrows. The Lincoln’s Sparrow was still there, lurking in the vegetation on the west side of the channel, as were three Swamp Sparrows. The warblers had finally arrived too: I saw one Nashville Warbler, one Common Yellowthroat, a Northern Parula, two Blackpoll Warblers, three Palm Warblers, and eight Yellow-rumped Warblers. Best of all were the three heron species standing on or close to the rock bridge. The Great Egret was standing right next to the Green Heron, while a Black-crowned Night Heron was on a rock close to the shore:

Big Heron, small heron

On Sunday, September 27th I found a female Black-throated Blue Warbler at Sarsaparilla Trail along with a Hermit Thrush, both Golden- and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Blue-headed Vireo, and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Andrew Haydon Park was quiet in comparison, but a Savannah Sparrow popped up on the rocks while I was scanning the river. This is the first time I’ve seen one here. This isn’t a bird I normally see in migration, and when I do, I see them in odd places – the last one I saw in fall migration was on top of a pine tree at the edge of the marsh at Old Quarry Trail!

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

From there I headed over to Shirley’s Bay where I found very little. Several White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows were feeding on weed seeds in the regeneration area, while a pair of Ruby-crowned Kinglets flitted through the taller shrubs along the road. The only warblers I found there were a single Yellow-rumped Warbler and two Blackpoll Warblers in the vegetation along the shoreline.

The Blackpoll Warbler is one of the “confusing fall warblers” and might be mistaken for a Bay-breasted Warbler. Both look significantly different from the breeding spring plumage birds seen in May; gone are the dapper black and white of breeding Blackpolls, and gone are the rusty-chestnut, black and white of breeding Bay-breasted Warblers. Both species appear yellow in the fall, with dark wings and white wing-bars. A fleeting glimpse of one of these species disappearing into the foliage likely won’t be enough to identify it, but a long enough look and a decent photo should help!

Blackpoll Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

Many Bay-breasted Warblers often retain a pinkish streak along the flanks; this alone is enough to rule out Blackpoll Warbler. If, instead, you see dark, blurry streaking on the upper breast and flanks, it can be safely identified as a Blackpoll Warbler. The feet are also diagnostic: a Blackpoll Warbler will show yellow or orange feet, while a Bay-breasted Warbler will have gray or black feet. If you are staring at a bird directly overhead, note the colour of the undertail coverts – these feathers are white in Blackpoll Warblers, and buff-coloured in Bay-breasted Warblers.

The time of year also can be helpful. Bay-breasted Warblers tend to migrate earlier than Blackpoll Warblers both on their way to and from their breeding grounds. Therefore any “Baypoll Warbler” seen late in September is more likely to be a Blackpoll Warbler than a Bay-breasted Warbler.

Blackpoll Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

The last few days of the month did not bring as many year birds as I had hoped. I did see the aforementioned Pomarine Jaeger at Andrew Haydon Park a couple of times, and added Snow Goose to my list when I found a few in a couple of different agricultural fields along Eagleson Road on September 27th. The last day of the month brought an American Coot to Andrew Haydon Park; a rare bird alert went out, and I was able to drive over at lunch to see it. As it was a Wednesday, I would have missed this species altogether if I had been working downtown…it was the only one I saw all year.

September is usually one of my favourite months for birding, and while most species showed up as expected (along with a few that were not), numbers overall seemed low, particularly away from the migrant traps along the river. By the end of the month my Ottawa year list had reached 196 species, and with large gaps in my list of waterfowl due to the lockdown in the spring, as well as several winter finches on their way, it seems that my goal of 200 species is well within reach!

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