It’s been a while since we’ve had an early spring in Ottawa. In recent years it seems that the snow hasn’t melted until late April, it hasn’t really warmed up until May, and while the first couple of waves of migrants arrived on time, migration slowed down for a few weeks sometime in April when the north wind started blowing out of the Arctic again. Insect-eating birds were delayed, the butterflies and dragonflies emerged late, and then the Victoria Day long weekend hit and suddenly summer has arrived with temperatures in the mid to high twenties.
This year, however, it warmed up early and stayed warm. Our last subzero day was March 16th, and we regularly started reaching double-digit temperatures on the first day of spring, with nine days at 10°C or higher during the rest of the month. Our total snowfall in March was only 6.8 cm, below the normal range of 11 to 84 cm, and it was the windiest March since 1974. It was the 10th warmest March on record; our highest temperature reached 19.8°C, above the normal range of 8.3 to 19.2°C. I kept waiting with dread for one last cold spell or dump of snow, but so far April has been even nicer, with the first two days reaching only 3°C and the rest (to date) ranging from 10 to 24°C. As the snow disappeared quite quickly last month, plants are emerging from the ground early, buds on trees are starting to leaf out early, and butterflies are emerging early. It’s been great for my mental health to see so many signs of new life and renewal.
The warm weather brought a surge of new migrants into the region. I heard my first Pine Siskin of the year at Sarsaparilla Trail on March 5th (unlike the redpolls, grosbeaks, and crossbills, this winter finch did not spend the winter in our region, but went much further south) and my first Horned Lark on March 8th. On March 11th I saw my first Red-winged Blackbirds and grackles of the year at the Eagleson ponds, and on March 12th I got a new yard bird when I saw a Golden Eagle soaring north outside my window. I saw a large dark bird flapping frequently as it drifted north, and thought it was my first Turkey Vulture of the year. When I got my binoculars, however, the golden head and gold bars on top of the wings were visible. I don’t even have Bald Eagle on my list, so this was quite exciting!
In mid-March the Eagleson ponds started opening up and the waterfowl began returning. On March 17th when I scanned the flock of Canada Geese I noticed two bright white heads of blue morph Snow Geese. A third Snow Goose – a juvenile – was with them.
I missed a Greater White-fronted Goose that was there earlier in the day; I still need this species for this location, and consider it a nemesis as I tend to miss it most years. However, two days later I found a pair of Cackling Geese standing on the ice, and two days after that I found four Cackling Geese at the ponds – two swimming in the northern-most pond and two in the central pond.
On March 20th I found my first-of-year Hooded Merganser (a male) and Northern Pintails (a male and female) at the ponds. While the abundance of fish in the ponds makes it a great spot for diving ducks, cormorants, herons and Osprey, it is not as good for dabbling ducks, and we don’t get the same variety as the western bay of Andrew Haydon Park or the Richmond lagoons. However, sometimes species other than mallards and American Black Ducks stop by. This was only the second time I’d seen a pintail at the ponds. Initially the bright white of the male’s neck and breast caught my attention as it foraged in the muddy puddles on the western side of the channel. I thought it was some sort of garbage until I realized it was one of my favourite dabbling ducks!
By March 22nd we’d had two days of warm, sunny weather in a row; March 21st reached a high of 15°C while March 22nd reached 18°C. I went out for a walk in Stony Swamp to look for my first butterflies of the season, and sure enough, as soon as I parked in the P6 parking lot on Old Richmond Road I saw one land on the fence at the trail entrance. It turned out to be a Compton Tortoiseshell, my first butterfly of the year! In the woods I saw and heard my first Red-shouldered Hawk of the year circling overhead and saw another butterfly, this one a Mourning Cloak.
A couple of trips to the Richmond Sewage lagoons a few days later produced my first American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked Ducks, and Rusty Blackbirds of the year. On March 27th I met some friends in Marlborough Forest before dawn to look for owls and got my first Northern Saw-whet Owls for Ottawa – although they have been quite common this winter, I never did manage to find one on my own, as I usually don’t go out birding at night. We heard four of them on our walk, as well as a Great Horned Owl, some American Woodcocks and Wilson’s Snipe just before dawn. Later, we heard some Sandhill Cranes calling in the distance on a different trail. After it grew light enough to see we noticed a pair of Northern Shovelers on the pond, along with some Ring-necked Ducks, Hooded Mergansers and Wood Ducks. A couple of Evening Grosbeaks landed on the conifers high above us in the woods, and I had a conversation with one of them, imitating its call while it answered back. Before the end of the month I saw a Pied-billed Grebe at the Eagleson ponds, an American Kestrel at the Moodie Drive quarry, as well as my first Fox Sparrows, Eastern Phoebes, and Great Blue Herons of the year. Common Redpolls continued to be widespread throughout the month, and on March 30th I even had a pair at my backyard feeder!
What was great about the continued warmth was that there was no “lull” in migration this spring, and almost every day has brought new birds into the region. In past years we’d get hit with a snowstorm or strong north winds that would bring migration to a halt for a week or more. Not this year! As we entered April I began to think that the warm spring-like weather might continue.
The beginning of April brought Northern Flickers, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and Swamp Sparrows. On April 2nd a Ross’s Goose was found at Andrew Haydon Park; I didn’t go see it, as it flew west to parts unknown not long after it was reported, but the following morning when I went to Sarsaparilla Trail I was surprised to see it swimming in the large pond with several Canada Geese! I would have assumed it was a Snow Goose if I hadn’t seen the Ross’s Goose report, so I ran back to my car to get my scope. The bird was still there when I returned, and I was able to see the small, rounded headed, the steep forehead, and the stubby bill lacking a grin patch that help distinguish the Ross’s Goose from the Snow Goose. Just as I was sending out an RBA it flew to the southwest with several other geese, never to be seen again. I also heard a Ruffed Grouse drumming, a Red-shouldered Hawk calling, and saw a Fox Sparrow in the woods and three Green-winged Teal tucked up against the far shore.
After my visit to Sarsaparilla I drove out to Dunrobin to look for open field species. I got lucky and found four American Kestrels, including two sitting on separate telephone wires in a field where I had seen them visiting a nest box several years ago. Another was chasing a Red-tailed Hawk out of its territory, the first time I had seen these two raptors interacting. I also found two pairs of Eastern Bluebirds visiting nest boxes, including one bringing nesting materials into it. I did not hear any Eastern Meadowlarks, which was one of the birds I was hoping for.
The continued warmth started bringing many critters out of hibernation. I heard my first Spring Peepers and Western Chorus Frogs on March 25th, and saw my first Garter Snake that day as well. On April 7th I spent my lunch hour exploring a new section of Stony Swamp behind Bridlewood and found a few more ponds where I heard Spring Peepers, Chorus Frogs, Wood Frogs, and my first Leopard Frog. Mourning Cloaks and Compton Tortoiseshells continued to be common in Stony Swamp, although I also saw a Compton Tortoiseshell in Marlborough Forest as well on April 4th.
I was surprised to see my first Henry’s Elfin of the year on April 9th in Stony Swamp; unlike the anglewings, the elfins spend the winter in the chrysalis stage, and emerge as adults once the weather warms up in the spring. In most years I don’t see them until May, however, that may be because of the prolonged cold spells in April in recent years, as well as the fact that most years I’m not working from home and have to wait until a nice weekend to go out looking for butterflies. I also saw a couple of Mourning Cloaks and two Compton Tortoiseshells that same outing, and one of the tortoiseshells even landed briefly on my arm. I still had yet to see an Eastern Comma, another early-flying anglewing, and finally found one on April 10th when I visited the Stony Swamp trail system west of Bells Corners.
My main goal for visiting that part of Stony Swamp was to check out the two large ponds north of the Sarsaparilla Trail pond. I thought I might see some interesting diving ducks or water birds on the ponds, but because of the encroaching cattails there was less open water than I expected, and the only waterfowl present were mallards and Canada Geese. The ponds should be worth checking again in the summer to see what odes might be flying and birds might be breeding here.
Many of the usual Stony Swamp birds were present in this part of the trail system, too: a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was tapping on a tree near the exit, a Ruffed Grouse was drumming in the dense understory, a Purple Finch was singing high overhead, several Red-breasted Nuthatches and Brown Creepers were calling, and a Winter Wren was singing in the dense tangles close to the ground. The most unexpected species of that visit was the pair of Pine Siskins I saw feeding at a random set of feeders in a relatively open area! These birds have been returning in small numbers over the past month; after hearing my first flying over at Sarsaparilla Trail on March 5th, I later heard at least two at the same trail on March 18th and 28th. Since I very rarely come across perching siskins, seeing a pair at a feeder was quite a surprise!
I heard my first Ruby-crowned Kinglet of the year singing in the dense cedars close to where I heard both Brown Creeper and Winter Wren; this was the third of the four birds I reported on eBird that triggered the early date rarity filter in the same week. Not only do birds that appear far from their normal geographical range trigger the rarity filter on eBird (such as the Lark Sparrow appearing west of Ottawa this past winter), but birds appearing outside of their normal date range trigger it as well.
For example, a group of Chipping Sparrows visiting a feeder in Ottawa in June is quite normal, but a group of Chipping Sparrows visiting a feeder in January is completely unexpected and would trigger the filter, causing the bird to show up as “rare” on the checklist. (Chipping Sparrows spend the winter in the southern US and Mexico and are not as likely to attempt to overwinter in Ottawa as Song and White-throated Sparrows). Usually this means someone misidentified the birds, but in the event it is not a misidentification, eBird requires documentation or a description of the bird that was seen. I provided an audio recording of the Field Sparrow I heard singing on April 5th, a description of the Great Egret I saw on April 8th, a description of the song of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet I heard on April 10th (I didn’t see it and it was too far to record), and a description of the Brown Thrasher I heard and saw on April 11th. This means that all of these birds were showing up earlier than normal, which is valuable data to have when considering the effects of climate change on various species. If birds start arriving earlier and earlier over time, the date filters can be changed to the new normal so that they aren’t considered rare any more on a particular date.
Mammals, too, are more conspicuous. On March 22nd I saw a Short-tailed Weasel still in its white winter coat at the Beaver Trail, and on March 28 I saw a mostly-white Snowshoe Hare at Sarsaparilla Trail. A fox ran across Moodie Drive while I was driving south toward Fallowfield on April 4th. On April 7th this beaver was busy feeding on the wetland vegetation next to the boardwalk at Old Quarry Trail; it initially swam off when a dogwalker walked by, but circled around and came back to the same spot once the dog and its owner were gone. This is the first time I’ve seen one there.
I also saw the Beaver Trail beaver twice in the past week, and one at the Eagleson ponds on April 10th. When I first saw the latter, it was resting on the far bank of the second pond right below the road, and it wasn’t moving much. I began to wonder if it was hurt, but it appeared to just be sunning itself as a few minutes later it ambled down the bank and went for a swim in the water. I started heading back toward my car, but when I next looked at the beaver, it appeared to swimming with a pair of mallards! The three of them started swimming toward the opposite bank, then – with the beaver in the lead – they all turned around and started swimming back the way they came. I thought it was just a coincidence, but then they all turned around again and started swimming in their original direction! Eventually they started veering off on their separate ways, but it made me wonder just what was going through their minds as the ducks followed the beaver. One thing I particularly love about nature is the way different species interact with each other in their own territories, without any intervention from us humans.
It’s been an amazing spring so far, and I’m thankful I am still working from home and can get out and enjoy it on my daily walks in Ottawa’s green space. Hopefully this season’s warm weather will continue, and we will have a normal migration period and a normal season for the butterflies and dragonflies that will be emerging in only a few weeks’ time!
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