Fall Migrants

Black-bellied Plover

Black-bellied Plover

Although birders tend to refer to “spring” and “fall” migration, many birds begin heading south in mid- to late August, and a few (such as shorebirds which are unsuccessful in finding a mate) even begin migrating in July. In Ottawa, this southbound migration often overlaps with post-breeding dispersal, which means that even in July and August it is worth checking familiar places for birds that may be moving through. This year, southbound migration began for me on August 19th with a trip to the Rideau Trail off of Old Richmond Road. I usually start checking the boardwalk and hydro cut for migrants this time of year as the edge habitat and buckthorn bushes loaded with berries can be fantastic for warblers, flycatchers, thrushes and other migrants. Most of the birds I saw or heard were likely local residents, although the Black-and-white Warbler I heard singing here may have come from deep within the woods or elsewhere, and it was pretty neat to see an Ovenbird strolling along the boardwalk. A squeaky Rose-breasted Grosbeak and two Least Flycatchers calling made me think these birds were moving through, as this section of the trail is normally pretty quiet in the summer.

After I left the Rideau Trail I had some time before work so I headed over for a quick check of the Eagleson ponds. Another Least Flycatcher was calling there; unlike last year, I never did hear any singing here in the middle of breeding season, which makes me think these birds were definitely on the move. A juvenile Wood Duck resting on a rock was also a great find, as these ducks only show up at the ponds sporadically. I was hoping to find some migrant shorebirds, but almost all the muddy edge habitat has been swallowed up by cattails, so I only noticed two species – Killdeer and Lesser Yellowlegs. Just as I was lamenting how all the cattails and vegetation planted by the city have ruined this spot for shorebirds, I noticed movement in the reeds beside me – and was startled when a Sora walked out into view! Maybe this will become a better spot for marsh birds over time – though I still prefer shorebirds as there are already a number of overgrown cattail marshes close to me, and the ponds have had good species such as Ruddy Turnstone, Black-bellied Plover, Baird’s Sandpiper, and Stilt Sandpiper before the vegetation was planted.

Soras don’t breed at the Eagleson ponds, although they breed in Stony Swamp, so this could either be a migrant on its way south or a post-breeding wanderer looking for a new spot to find food with less competition.

Sora

Sora

On August 21st I visited the Beaver Trail and found five Solitary Sandpipers at the marsh in the back – this was the first time I’d seen so many in one place! I don’t think they appreciated each other’s company as they kept chasing each other and the few robins foraging on the mucky ground. I also found a Magnolia Warbler and an American Redstart there, two species that aren’t normally found at that trail in breeding season.

On August 30th I returned to the Rideau Trail P6 trailhead and struck gold – I identified 30 species, including 8 warbler species. First, three Great Egrets flew by overhead. Then I found a small flock of birds at the boardwalk, including a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a pair of White-throated Sparrows, a Least Flycatcher, a Swainson’s Thrush and a Brown Thrasher. A few warblers were foraging in the trees at the far end, including a couple of Bay-breasted Warblers, a Tennessee Warbler, a Magnolia Warbler, an Ovenbird, a Common Yellowthroat, a Black-and-white Warbler, and two American Redstarts. I found more warblers flitting through the small buckthorn shrubs in the alvar. Another Bay-breasted Warbler and a pair of Nashville Warblers were eating the berries at chest-level.

Nashville Warbler

Nashville Warbler

I like this shot because it shows the reddish crown feathers which usually remain hidden. This species was named by Alexander Wilson who first saw this species in Nashville in 1811.

Nashville Warbler

Nashville Warbler

Foraging in the same shrub was a Tennessee Warbler. In the fall these short-tailed warblers are yellowish with bright white undertail coverts. They lack any wing bars and have a plain face with a dark eye-line and yellow supercilium.

Tennessee Warbler

Tennessee Warbler

The Tennessee Warbler was also named by Alexander Wilson in 1811 when he saw a migrating bird on the banks of the Cumberland River in the state of Tennessee. Neither of these two warblers actually breed in the state of Tennessee, so their names are a bit of a misnomer.

Tennessee Warbler

Tennessee Warbler

The following morning I returned to the Eagleson Ponds and was surprised to find not one, but two Merlins present. I saw this one at the top of a pine tree and photographed it until it spotted a Cedar Waxwing and zoomed after it toward Meadowbreeze Drive. When I turned to leave, a second one took off after them. These birds breed in our subdivision and are frequent visitors at the ponds.

Merlin

Merlin

There weren’t many migrants around, but I did manage to find a couple. I heard the “waaaaaah!” cry of a vireo but couldn’t locate it and saw a Magnolia Warbler – the only warbler of my visit. This Rose-breasted Grosbeak was my best find as they don’t turn up at the ponds that often:

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

I still needed some water birds for my year list and headed up to Andrew Haydon Park the morning of September 2nd. The early morning temperature fell below 10°C for the first time, and with a cold wind blowing out of the north it felt more like late autumn than late summer so I didn’t stay long. The five Blue-winged Teal and five Wood Ducks were nice to see, though they didn’t quite make the trip worthwhile. I stopped in at Sarsaparilla Trail on my way home and saw a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, a Winter Wren near the boardwalk, and a Dark-eyed Junco on the gravel path with a Song Sparrow – this was my first junco of the fall, and it seemed early for these winter residents to be arriving. A singing Brown Creeper, a couple of Gray Catbirds, a Black-and-white Warbler, a Chestnut-sided Warbler and a Black-throated Green Warbler were also present.

Both September 3rd and 4th were good for migrants at the Rideau Trail. House Wrens and Gray Catbirds were present both days, a Red-eyed Vireo was present on the 3rd while a Blue-headed Vireo was present on the 4th, and there were more warblers on the 3rd.

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

An Ovenbird, American Redstart, Bay-breasted Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler and a couple of Common Yellowthroats, Black-throated Green Warblers, and Wilson’s Warblers were present on the 3rd and no new species were present on the fourth – I saw only three species in total. One species I was hoping to see here was the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, and was thrilled when I found one on the 4th! This is the second year in a row I’ve had Yellow-bellied Flycatcher at the boardwalk, and I was thrilled – it’s not very common in our area, and was thus a year bird for me. I had time to take two slightly blurry photos:

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

On September 5th I headed back up to the river just west of Britannia Pier to look for the Baird’s Sandpiper seen there. By the time I found the flock of sandpipers on the mudflats a Merlin came along and chased them off; I had time to identify a pair of Semipalmated Plovers on the shore before the Merlin attacked and they all scattered. There were plenty of other birds in the area, including two Caspian Terns, 19 Great Egrets, a stunning Pileated Woodpecker about 12 feet up in a tree, and a Black-and-white Warbler crawling over a tree trunk like a nuthatch. As I was leaving I turned around to check the river again just in time to see an entirely dark gull-like bird pursuing a gull. It was quite far off, but the flashes of white beneath the outer wings were distinctive enough to rule out any gull species and identify it as a jaeger! Slightly smaller than the gull it was chasing, the jaeger flew out into the middle of the river where it floated well beyond the range of my binoculars. I put out a Rare Bird Alert and then headed over to Britannia Pier in time to watch it fly around the river before it eventually headed south. A number of other birders were at the pier by the time I arrived, and while a few identified it as a Parasitic Jaeger, I never did get a good enough look at it or any photos to confirm it.

On Labour Day Monday I went for a full walk around Mud Lake in the hopes of finding some warblers I was missing for my year list. In two and a half hours I found 45 bird species, but only eight species of warbler – none of which were new. The conservation area was overrun by Yellow-rumped Warblers, but I was happy to see a Blackpoll Warbler as well as several Northern Parulas and Magnolia Warblers. I heard the calls of about four Swainson’s Thrushes and saw a Veery on the ground along the western fence line. Three Pied-billed Grebes were swimming in Mud Lake, a Merlin was in the sumac field, and I observed three vireo species. I saw one Blue-headed Vireo, heard five Warbling Vireos in full song, and photographed this Philadelphia Vireo with a leaf in its bill.

Philadelphia Vireo

Philadelphia Vireo with leaf

I spent a few mornings at Stony Swamp the rest of the week, including a stop at the Beaver Trail on Friday morning. There wasn’t much there, but I was happy to get a Lincoln’s Sparrow in the field next to the hydro towers on my way in – this was the same spot where I’d had one a year ago. One Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and one Gray Catbird were still around, and at the back boardwalk I found a few White-throated Sparrows, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a Nashville Warbler, a Common Yellowthroat, and at least three Ruby-throated Hummingbirds! This is one of my favourite places to photograph them, and I was disappointed that only one posed long enough for a photo.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

On Sunday, September 12, I returned to Mud Lake and saw a couple of Blackburnian Warblers and Northern Parulas on the ridge. I didn’t get too far as a Rare Bird Alert came in that a Pectoral Sandpiper and Black-bellied Plover were on the mudflats off of Scrivens Street and a Red-necked Phalarope was on the mudflats at Andrew Haydon Park west. This was a great chance to pick up three year birds so I left Mud Lake and drove over to Scrivens Street first. When I got to the beach the Pectoral Sandpiper was absent, but the Black-bellied Plover was foraging at the edge of the water with a few patient photographers close by.

Black-bellied Plover

Black-bellied Plover

It was a juvenile, which makes it difficult to separate from the similar-looking American Golden Plover; however, the lack of any golden tones in its plumage and the thick bill indicated this was a Black-bellied Plover, the more common of the two species in our region. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen one of these birds at Ottawa Beach, and its approachability made it an especially memorable fall sighting.

Black-bellied Plover

Black-bellied Plover

From there I drove over to the western parking lot of Andrew Haydon Park and saw the Red-necked Phalarope in the mudflats…it wasn’t close enough to photograph, unfortunately. A few other shorebirds were also present including Semipalmated Plover, Killdeer, a Least Sandpiper and a Semipalmated Sandpiper. Two Northern Pintails and three American Wigeon were among the dabbling ducks in the bay. I didn’t stay long enough to check the trees for warblers or songbirds, but I did have an unexpected visitor the next morning when I saw a Yellow-rumped Warbler foraging for food in the tree outside my office window.

Whether you call it fall migration or southbound migration, the months of August and September are spectacular for birding as almost anything can turn up anywhere in our region. From hummingbirds to herons, from rails to raptors and everything in between, almost any natural area or green space with water, trees, and a decent amount of cover can be a great spot for birds stopping over on their journey south. Ottawa is blessed with an abundance of green space, making it a fantastic spot to see a wide variety of birds as they migrate to and from their breeding grounds each year.

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