After participating in eBird’s October Global Big Day on October 17, 2020, I was looking forward to participating in the May edition on May 8, 2021. Spring warblers and songbirds would be the focus, with many birds sporting their gorgeous breeding finery. Another key difference from October is that many birds would be singing, drumming, or otherwise vocalizing to attract a mate, making it easier to locate them by sound – especially with the tree canopy filling in so quickly this year. Last November I set up my 5-mile (8-kilometre) radius patch centered on my house, and with the Ontario lockdown still in effect I planned to bird within this area only. It includes the Eagleson storm water ponds and Stony Swamp, the agricultural fields along Rushmore Road, Bruce Pit, the Nortel marsh, and the Greenbelt trails south of Rifle Road, but excludes the Ottawa River, Richmond Sewage Lagoons, and choice sections of the large Moodie Drive Quarry and Trail Road Landfill. After scouting several of these areas this past week, I made a list of places I hoped would provide the most species and felt optimistic about tallying a large number of species.
My goal was to beat my May 2019 Global Big Day tally of 61 species. Although I didn’t make a full day of it that year, I came up with a pretty good list before 11:00 by birding three of the local Stony Swamp trails (Sarsaparilla Trail, the trail on West Hunt Club, and he Beaver Trail), as well as Bruce Pit and the Eagleson ponds. I didn’t do a full blog post dedicated to that big day, but my Facebook post complained about a lack of migrants. My 2020 effort was even worse, as the province was in its first lockdown and the NCC parking lots were still closed – I counted 33 species by visiting only Eagleson Ponds and Deevy Pines Park, both of which were within walking or biking distance as we were only allowed to visit places we could get to by foot. My hopes were high for 2021….until the forecast changed to rain all day. My optimism flagged a bit, but I’d some good days birding in the rain in the past, and if the showers were light I could probably still make a day of it. Unfortunately by the time I left the rain was coming down medium-hard; not heavy enough to stay home, but heavy enough to require an umbrella. I knew I wouldn’t hear as much using the umbrella, but if I got soaked early and got chilled (the temperature was only about 6°C when I left and didn’t even get to 10°C) I knew I wouldn’t be able to stay out for very long.
At Sarsaparilla Trail I was not able to hear much and ended up with 14 species (down from 21 species on May 4th and 17 species on May 6th). The Winter Wren that was singing just off the parking lot two days ago was hunkered down in silence somewhere, a miss that haunted me as I could not find one anywhere else. There were plenty of White-throated Sparrows, but very few of anything else. My best birds were a Pied-billed Grebe (no other diving birds were present) and a White-breasted Nuthatch as it was the only one of the day. The best part of that visit was watching a pair of Northern River Otters swimming in the pond, something I’ve only seen once before.
(Note: all photos appearing in this post are old ones, as I left my camera in the car most of the day due to the heavy rain. Only the last was taken during my Big Day.)
I had better luck at the Beaver Trail with 22 species, a significantly lower number than the 33 species I’d had on May 4th. Birds had to be loud for me to hear them over the rain, which meant I had no chance at hearing any distant rails or bitterns. For such small birds Ruby-crowned Kinglets can be very loud, and I was able to hear their songs at most trails as they are passing through in good numbers right now. My best birds there were a Black-and-white Warbler travelling with a Blue-headed Vireo, and a singing Common Yellowthroat – my first of the year. It was my only Common Yellowthroat of the day.
I was thinking about going to Old Quarry Trail for more marsh birds but decided to go to Jack Pine Trail instead, since it was just down the road. This was a three-warbler trail, with my first Pine Warbler of the day, my only Ovenbird of the day (another first of the year for me), and my only Field Sparrow and House Wren. I had two more Black-and-white Warblers travelling with another Blue-headed Vireo and two Purple Finches. I ended up with 23 species there, one short of the 24 I’d had on my last visit at the end of April. Noticeably missing from my day so far were Downy, Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers; it was impossible to hear their soft tapping and none were within calling distance where I might hear them. Eastern Phoebe was also missing, though I’d checked their usual nesting places at all three trails. I’d heard no rails or bitterns, and had seen no birds of prey. Thankfully both Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Northern Flicker were vocalizing loud enough to be heard, but by the time I left Stony Swamp at 8:40 I was only up to 32 species.
After leaving the mixed forest and marsh of Stony Swamp I headed over to the riparian habitat of Terry Carisse Park on the Jock River. This little park is great for songbirds stopping over in migration, as the trees are thick along the river – especially at the northern part where a small tributary of the Jock River runs west. It is also a reliable place for Rusty Blackbirds, though I didn’t find any the day before when I went to scope it out. On May 7th I found 28 species, including Yellow, Palm and Nashville Warblers, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Kingbird and Least Flycatcher, White-crowned Sparrow, Warbling Vireo, Barn Swallow, Killdeer, and Wood Duck. I was hoping these would all be here again.
On my Big Day I tallied only 22 species at Terry Carisse Park. As soon as I stepped out of the car I heard the White-crowned Sparrow singing near the parking lot entrance, as well as at least a dozen Rusty Blackbirds. I was confused at first, for I couldn’t see any. Then I started walking toward the sound and realized they were all feeding on the lawn – and that the flock was huge! Rusty Blackbirds have declined terribly in the last 50 or 60 years, and seeing large numbers in the spring always gives me hope that they are rebounding. I started counting and only got to 30 (with only a single Red-winged Blackbird and a few starlings in the mix) with about 20 more to go when they all started flying into the trees. Birds not only flew off the lawn but out of the trees along the road as well, so I estimated at least 50 individuals were present.
While this was an amazing addition to the day’s list, it didn’t quite make up for the lack of all the flycatchers, the Wood Duck, or the Barn Swallow. The Osprey aren’t using the nesting platform there either, so that was another miss. Fortunately the Yellow Warbler (heard only) and Palm Warbler (seen) helped make up for it, as did the Brown Thrasher heard singing across the road, the Spotted Sandpiper walking in the mucky area near the tributary, and the small flock of Pine Siskins vocalizing as they flew north.
Although the large quarry pond on Moodie Drive is just outside of my circle, two smaller ones just north of it aren’t, and there had been a nice selection of ducks here on my previous visit. Fortunately most were still present, and I picked up Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Killdeer, Tree Swallow and Barn Swallow. I was still missing the three common woodpeckers, however, and I hadn’t heard either a House Finch or a Common Raven all day, despite the latter two often being heard outside my own window at home.
By 10:00 I was driving down Rushmore Road, listening for field birds with the windows down. I’d heard several Horned Larks and Savannah Sparrows a few days earlier, as well as a surprise Upland Sandpiper, and hoped to find a Vesper Sparrow as well. I stopped several times, getting out of my car to listen for singing birds when I wanted to listen for distant birds. I was able to hear one Horned Lark, two Vesper Sparrows, and several Savannah Sparrows, but by the time I was done the inside of my car was wet, my binoculars were wet, I was soaked through, and my fingertips were numb from the cold. By that time I needed a long break with some food, warm tea and a hot shower, so I headed home for a lengthy rest. My list was sitting at a dismal 53 species, but I still planned to get out later in the afternoon and check a few other spots – the Eagleson ponds were on my list, as were Monaghan Forest, the Greenbelt Pathway West, Bruce Pit, and Old Quarry Trail, any of which could easily bring me 30-40 species on a good day. I was not so sure any of of them would be particularly good in the rain, though at least I was finding migrants – unlike my Big Day in 2019.
My mid-morning break lasted longer than I expected, as I realized I was quite tired and dreaded going back out into the cold spring rain. Still, it brought me two yard species for my Big Day: the House Sparrow was not unexpected, as a flock had been present since the winter ended; however, a Northern Waterthrush on my patio was a complete surprise! I had just watched a male House Sparrow land on my lawn below the feeder when I saw the warbler fly into the lilac shrub in the yard behind mine. I saw it bobbing its tail and thought it was a Palm Warbler at first – as this would be a new yard bird for me, I ran to get my binoculars. It took me a moment to relocate the bird, but when I did and identified it as a Northern Waterthrush I just about fell out of my chair! It flew down onto my fence and then onto my patio, giving me great views. I tried to take some pictures of it through the window, but had difficulty focusing on the bird due to the raindrops. Then it flew into my neighbour’s yard, never to be seen again. This is species no. 76 on my yard list, and comes one day after species 75 – a Least Flycatcher – flew into the tree outside my front window.
After lunch I headed over to the Eagleson ponds, hoping to pick up a few common species that were still missing from my list: Ring-billed Gull, Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, Downy Woodpecker, and Common Merganser, and perhaps the Black-crowned Night Heron and Gray Catbird I had seen three days earlier. The rain had lessened, so most times I didn’t need the umbrella – this helped me to hear a distant Yellow Warbler, the only warbler of my walk. Even though I found more species on this walk than I did on my walk a few days ago, I added only four species to the day’s list: Common Merganser, Great Egret, Ring-billed Gull, and three Greater Yellowlegs. I went home feeling tired and depressed that my Big Day total consisted of only 59 species, falling just short of my total of 61 in 2019.
I didn’t think I had any energy left to go somewhere else, but when Sophie sent me a message about the birds they had seen at Bruce Pit I found my motivation to go out one more time. Sophie had seen 35 species there, including a multi-species flock of swallows, two different flycatcher species (I had seen none), two heron species I still needed (I had only Great Egret), Red-shouldered Hawk, and more. Before I even arrived at Bruce Pit at 4:00 I was able to add another species to my list, a Turkey Vulture flying over.
When I arrived I immediately scanned the pond and saw the large flock of Bufflehead swimming in the water and the large flock of swallows flying through the air. The swallows were flying quite low, so I made my way down to the water to see how many species I could identify. While I was halfway down the hill I noticed an Eastern Kingbird perching in the reeds.
The flock of swallows appeared to consist mainly of Barn Swallows, though I did see a Northern Rough-winged Swallow and a Cliff Swallow flying with them. As I made my way around the pond, however, I started noticing more Tree Swallows and even a single Purple Martin toward the far end. The Purple Martin was much larger, showing a deep metallic blue colour both above and below – all the other swallows in our area are either white or orange on the underside. It was easy to pick him out among the flock.
In the woods I added Golden-crowned Kinglet and Red-breasted Nuthatch, two species I might have heard earlier that morning if the rain hadn’t been so heavy, blocking out their soft calls. A little further along I started seeing Yellow-rumped Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and when I started pishing at least 10 kinglets and four warblers popped into view, along with a Palm Warbler! I might have heard the “chup” of a Yellow-rumped Warbler at Terry Carisse Park earlier, but as a car was passing by right at the same time I didn’t count it on my list. These were the first Yellow-rumps I’d seen all day.
I followed a few trails to the edge of the water at the back of the pond, finding a Green Heron perched in a tree and a Great Blue Heron fishing in the water. A Pied-billed Grebe was also swimming close to the shore, while a Virginia Rail called from somewhere in the reeds. An Osprey flew over, my first (and only) bird-of-prey. This was the bounty I’d been hoping for all day! I found a Hairy Woodpecker in the field where I’d seen Eastern Towhees in the past (none were present that day), heard a catbird singing on the northern side of the pond, and when I pished in another flock of kinglets, the Yellow-rumped Warblers and a female Pine Warbler joined them. This was my only decent photo of the day.
Altogether I ended up with 40 species at Bruce Pit, a number I’d been hoping for at any of the previous trails I’d visited that morning – and 14 of those species were new for my Big Day. I silently blessed Sophie all the way home.
When I got home I was hoping that the long-absent House Finch or Common Raven might be around, but found a Downy Woodpecker in the tree across the street instead. Woodpeckers are not common in my neighbourhood, but I was glad to see this one as it was my final species of the day, bringing me to a total of 74. I kept my window open until dark, listening for the Merlin calling at dusk, but even that too, failed to put in an appearance. Still, I was happy with my 74 species, beating my previous May Big Day total by 13 after almost a full day of birding. The rain definitely made me work hard for every species I did get, as I wasn’t able to rely on hearing birds calling or tapping on trees as much as I normally do. Looking back on the two previous May Big Days, there is only one species I saw in 2020 that I didn’t see in 2019 or 2021 – Belted Kingfisher. Otherwise, below are some misses from 2019 compared to 2021:
Birds Found in 2019 (but not 2021)
- Wood Duck
- Hooded Merganser
- American Bittern
- Black-crowned Night Heron
- Cooper’s Hawk
- Pileated Woodpecker
- Eastern Phoebe
- Common Raven
- Winter Wren
- Hermit Thrush
- House Finch
- American Tree Sparrow
Birds Found in 2021 (but not 2019)
- Lesser Scaup
- Wild Turkey
- Virginia Rail
- Great Egret
- Green Heron
- Hairy Woodpecker
- Eastern Kingbirds
- Blue-headed Vireo
- Horned Lark
- N. Rough-winged Swallow
- Purple Martin
- Cliff Swallow
- Red-breasted Nuthatch
- House Wren
- Gray Catbird
- White-crowned Sparrow
- Vesper Sparrow
- Savannah Sparrow
- Northern Waterthrush
- Common Yellowthroat
- Yellow Warbler
- Palm Warbler
These are some pretty terrific birds located within 5 miles (8 kilometers) of my house. Now that Rushmore Road and the northern Moodie Drive quarry have been added to my 5MR circle, with better weather I think I could reach 80 species next year – although 90 is definitely possible if the weather cooperates. It’s certainly a fun and interesting challenge, especially during the current pandemic lockdown. While next May is definitely a long time to wait for the next Global Big Day, there is always the one in October to look forward to!