Surprises at Shirley’s Bay

Juvenile Bonaparte's Gull

Juvenile Bonaparte’s Gull

The second day of September was supposed to be a nice day so a friend and I made plans to go to Shirley’s Bay for a walk together. She had never been there before, and even for non-birders it’s a great place to view the Ottawa River and walk along the shore. I arrived before she did and started checking out the vegetation around the parking lot; sometimes some interesting birds can turn up in the edge habitat adjacent to the greenbelt trails, and I was not disappointed to see a pair of Indigo Buntings high up in a bare tree. I heard them before I saw them, and if it weren’t for those distinct chip notes sounding like a sharper, thinner version of the call of a Common Yellowthroat, I might not have recognized the pair of brown songbirds in the tree. I only managed to get two quick photos of their backs before they flew off, but those pictures further confirmed my identification, as one of the birds showed blue feathers in the rump area. Only the breeding male is entirely blue; females and immatures are brown, though the young males may sometimes show some blue feathers coming in among the brown.

When my friend arrived we headed to the shore together, and there my attention was immediately snared by two gulls swimming in the water near the boat launch. They were small with mottled gray backs, black bills, and white heads with a dark spot behind the eye. There had already been a few reports of Bonaparte’s Gulls along the river this season, but I was surprised to see a pair at Shirley’s Bay so close to the shore.

Juvenile Bonaparte's Gull

Juvenile Bonaparte's Gull

Juvenile Bonaparte’s Gull

The Bonaparte’s Gull is the smallest regularly occurring gull in the Ottawa region, where it is found chiefly during migration. Breeding adults have black heads, which also makes it the only regularly occurring black-headed gull in the region. In the spring, large numbers are often seen skimming over the Ottawa River far from shore with other gull species, feeding on emerging mayflies. They are more likely to come onto the shore in the fall, and most of my sightings have been of juveniles on the mudflats at Andrew Haydon Park. The pair at Shirley’s Bay were headed toward the shore, occasionally pecking at the water’s surface as they fed on tiny insects on the water.


Eventually they were close enough to the shore to start wading through the shallow water, showing their pink legs. They were both juveniles, as evidenced by the mottled brown feathers on the back. Non-breeding adults have a white head, black spot behind the eye, and gray back. Juveniles also develop a black bar across the wings which is noticeable when the wings are both opened and closed. You can see the dark feathers coming in below the shoulder forming a border between the brown feathers above and gray feathers below.


The Bonaparte’s Gull breeds in wetlands throughout the boreal, subarctic and alpine zones across North America. It is the only gull that nests solely in trees, usually in spruce, Tamarack or White Cedars along the edges of boggy ponds or small lakes, on the islands of larger lakes, or along slow-moving rivers. While they may occasionally nest in colonies of up to 10 pairs, the Bonaparte’s Gull is usually a solitary nester that doesn’t like to share its pond with others.


In July southern birders may encounter adults finely attired with their black hoods along rivers, lakes and sewage lagoons in the populated areas of the province. Most adults leave their breeding grounds as soon as the young have fledged, with the juveniles leaving soon after. By August both adults transitioning to their non-breeding plumage and juveniles are common in southern Ontario.


Bonaparte’s Gulls overwinter along both coasts of North America, along water bodies of the southeastern states, and along the coasts of the northern Caribbean islands. It is always a treat to see them, and I had a hard time pulling myself away from the pair when they walked up the shore and settled down to rest among the rocks.


I didn’t see as many migrants as I expected when we left the gulls and followed the shoreline trail. Two Field Sparrows were present in the thickets, and we only encountered four species of warbler: Black-and-White, Bay-breasted, Tennessee and Northern Parula. It was a fairly uneventful walk until we rounded a corner near the Hilda Road feeders and startled a fox at the edge of the road. It saw us, but we immediately stopped and slowly walked backward to show we weren’t a threat. To my amazement, the fox didn’t immediately run off, but instead showed interest in some discarded litter on the ground.

Red Fox

Red Fox

Red Fox

As a member of the canine family, foxes hunt by smell, sight, and sound. It had a good sniff around before it found the half-eaten apple and decided to take a bite. Although they are known primarily as carnivores, foxes supplement their diet with insects, fruits and berries in the summer. When these food sources run out during the fall and autumn they feed mainly on voles, mice, lemmings, squirrels, rabbits and hares. This is not good news for the Snowshoe Hares that live in the area.



After gnawing on the apple for a bit, the fox started moving out of the shadows into the sunshine. I’ve never seen a fox that didn’t immediately run away from me, and I thought I finally might get a great shot of one out in the open with its bright golden-red fur shining in the sunlight…but then it squatted and did what all animals must do after they’ve eaten. So much for my fantastic shot.

Red Fox

Red Fox doing exactly what you are thinking its doing

Of course, the fox finally turned and headed back into the bush after that! Still, these are the first photos of a fox that I’ve taken that aren’t of its rump as it runs away from me, so I’m pretty happy about that.

My friend was just as amazed as I was to see this beautiful creature; and even though she isn’t a big fan of gulls, she could tell that the Bonaparte’s Gulls weren’t the typical “parking lot gulls”. I was happy to show her a couple of different species that she’d never seen up close before, so for both of us the outing was a success!


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