By the beginning of fall (September 22, 2022) I was feeling enough like myself to get out regularly and chase birds close to home. I was up to 158 species for my Ottawa year list, which wasn’t too shabby considering I’d spent most of the first four months at home recuperating from surgery and finishing my active cancer treatment, but I still needed a lot of species to reach my goal of about 200. I’d added Great Black-backed Gull and Redhead with a visit to the Moodie Drive quarry pond on September 20th, and two days later I saw the American Coot and Snow Goose that had been reported there. The day after that I visited the park off of Steeple Hill Park in Fallowfield and added two much-needed songbirds: Blue-headed Vireo and Orange-crowned Warbler. Highlights from that day included a Ruffed Grouse drumming in the woods somewhere and a Merlin flying over – briefly dashing after a goldfinch before flying on. Other warblers included Nashville, Magnolia, and Palm Warblers.
On September 30th I visited Mud Lake but didn’t see anything new for my year list. However, a trip there is always worthwhile no matter what the season, and I saw some great birds such as Ring-necked Duck, Rusty Blackbird, Swainson’s Thrush, both Ruby- and Golden-crowned Kinglets, and three heron species (Great Blue, Green, and Black-crowned Night Herons). Best of all, there was a female-plumaged Blue-winged Teal in the bay close to the entrance to the woods – this is the first time I’ve seen this species mixing with the local ducks. Green-winged Teals show up here more often, but the powder blue wing patch clearly rules out that species.
Blue-winged Teals are one of the first ducks to migrate south in the fall, usually between late August and early October, so seeing one on September 24th wasn’t unusual. I later saw at least five at Andrew Haydon Park on the last day of September; then a lone teal was spotted in the pond there in late October, showing up as “rare” on eBird due to the late date. I first saw it on October 18th and then again on October 24th.
Mid-fall is when the sparrows start to show up, though I wasn’t prepared to see my first Dark-eyed Juncos at Sarsaparilla Trail on September 20 – which was still considered summer! I was much happier to see a few Fox Sparrows there on October 3rd, my first of the season. Later that month I got some decent photos of both species.
On October 8th I heard the unmistakable call of an Evening Grosbeak flying over at Bruce Pit. This was the beginning of a flood of grosbeaks flying through over the next month – I only saw one perching, also at Bruce Pit, but had flocks of at least 10 and 14 flying over on different dates in Stony Swamp, giving their bright, metallic call notes. The only other winter finch I added to my year list this fall was the Red Crossbill at Old Quarry Trail when at least three landed in a pine tree above my head and started chattering for a few moments. Pine Grosbeaks also started to arrive a little bit later, with several flyovers in Stony Swamp, though I had already seen this species in March.
Late-season birds continued to be a theme this past fall. On October 21st I headed to Andrew Haydon Park to look for scoters and other waterfowl and found a young Green Heron perching in a tree above one of the streams that empty into the pond. Like the Blue-winged Teals, it is among the earliest of its relatives to migrate. I also managed to add Common Loon and both White-winged and Surf Scoters to my year list that day, making it a worthwhile visit.
Black-crowned Night Herons and Great Blue Herons tend to stick around later; Black-crowned Night Herons leave by late November, while some Great Blue Herons have held out in Ottawa until late December in places where small creeks and waterways with fish remain open. However, one adult night heron hanging around at the Eagleson Ponds on November 11 and December 3 was considered late according to eBird.
The fall had its share of rarities, too. On October 21st a birder friend discovered a rare Dickcissel in his urban west-end backyard visiting the feeder with a flock of House Sparrows. He told me he had been waiting for one to show up ever since an experienced birder told him to check the sparrows – there just might be a Dickcissel among them! – and he had finally been rewarded. (As an aside, I religiously check the House Sparrows that visit my yard and the only other species I found hanging out with them was an out-of-season female Brown-headed Cowbird in December 2016). As his house isn’t too far away and the Dickcissel would be a lifer, I visited his backyard the next day as soon as someone reported its appearance.
This bird’s breeding range barely extends into southern Ontario and only very rarely shows up in Ottawa, so it hasn’t really been on my radar as a potential life bird. It was thrilling to see it come and go from the feeders, competing with House Sparrows and other garden birds.
The Dickcissel is a member of the sparrow family and looks like a cross between an Eastern Meadowlark and a House Sparrow. Males have a bright yellow chest with a black triangular mark on the throat; the female has a paler chest and no black throat, and both sexes have a reddish shoulder patch as well as two yellow stripes on the face – one above the eye and the other extending down from the bill. Their preferred breeding habitat consists of tall grasslands, prairies, hayfields, pastures, fencerows and roadsides. In the winter they gather in large flocks, using natural grasslands or crop fields for foraging, brushy vegetation for cover, and vegetated marshes or tall grasslands for overnight roosting. As a grassland species, numbers have declined by 14% since 1970. Their preference for native grasslands leaves them vulnerable to development, and their preference for hayfields leaves their nests vulnerable to destruction during the mowing season. They fare no better on their wintering grounds in Venezuela due to their preferred crops being replaced by rice and sorghum, as well as illegal hunting due to their being perceived as crop pests.
Still, seeing one in Ottawa – out of its normal range – was fantastic, even if standing at a feeder waiting for it to appear isn’t my preferred way of seeing a rare bird, especially a lifer (no. 545). However, I did find my own rarity the following day while out looking for birds at one of my favourite spots: the Eagleson ponds. The geese have arrived in good numbers, and I walked along a short path to the water’s edge to scan the flock for something interesting. Almost immediately my binoculars landed on this bird:
The Greater White-fronted Goose was literally the second species I saw when I arrived. It was initially sleeping right in front of the small hut where I was standing, but the light was directly behind it so I walked to the far side of the pond for better photos. Although a few show up in the region every migration, they can be difficult to spot among the thousands of Canada Geese that accompany them, especially in large fields or ponds. I was lucky this one was in the open by itself, instead of completely surrounded by its noisier white-cheeked relatives. Eventually it woke and swam to the middle of the pond, where it perched on a rock and began preening.
This is a bird I’ve missed a few times at the Eagleson ponds, so I was thrilled to be the one to discover it – it is the 156th species I have seen there. There were also some other good birds still around, including a male Hooded Merganser, a Greater Yellowlegs, an Eastern Phoebe, seven Great Egrets, several Golden-crowned Kinglets, and both White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows. The thick shrubbery on the west side of the central pond has been a great place to find sparrows over the past few years.
A few days later, on October 30th I managed to get some great views of a Cackling Goose swimming at the south end of the main pond. It wasn’t a year bird for me (I saw my first Cacklers of the year at the ponds back in March) but this was the best view of one I’d had all year. I always enjoy seeing these diminutive geese, and finding one or two among the flocks of Canada Geese is exhilarating. It’s like trying to find Waldo when everyone else in the picture is dressed just like Waldo, except they are all bulkier and have longer noses!
More rarities followed the Dickcissel and Greater White-fronted Goose with a Razorbill on the Ottawa River on October 24th, a Red-bellied Woodpecker at Stony Swamp on October 28th (though these are becoming more common than they were when I first started birding over 15 years ago), and a self-found Black-backed Woodpecker at Old Quarry Trail on November 3rd! This looks to be another irruption year for northern woodpeckers, with at least two American Three-toed Woodpeckers and one Black-backed Woodpecker in the Pine Grove area in the east end. They are irruptive and only show up here during the winter, when they come south looking for food in the form of beetle larvae living inside damaged trees.
Typically, the damage is a result of fire. When a forest fire breaks out, distressed conifers emit terpineol vapors into the air. Terpineol is a naturally-occurring alcohol that is found in pine oil and attracts White-spotted Sawyer beetles that use distressed and dying trees for laying their eggs. The eggs are laid beneath the bark and, after hatching, the grub-like larvae spend two years feeding on the wood inside the dead tree. The Black-backed Woodpeckers are able to detect recently burned areas from great distances, though it is not yet understood how. They feed on the larvae inside the trunks of dead trees, on larger tree limbs and on fallen timber. Given the amount of tree damage resulting from the derecho that hit Ottawa on May 21, 2022, I suspect something similar has happened in this case – the damaged trees attracted wood-boring beetles which in turn have attracted not just Black-backed Woodpeckers, but American Three-toed Woodpeckers as well.
As Old Quarry Trail has hosted Black-backed Woodpeckers in the past, and had also been heavily hit by the derecho, I decided to see if I could find some northern woodpeckers closer to home. I got lucky and heard this female tapping just off-trail and managed to look up in time to see her fly off. Fortunately, she landed on a tree close to another section of trail, and I refound her moments later before she flew off again. She moved from tree to tree, rarely staying in one spot for very long, and I only managed to get two photos of her before she continued her way east toward Bell’s Corners.
Although I kept looking, I never saw her again there, nor did I find any American Three-toed Woodpeckers in Stony Swamp. While looking for woodpeckers at Jack Pine Trail on November 16th, however, I heard a quiet tapping issue from a pine tree in what used to be the clearing where the OFNC feeder hung – several pine trees had fallen across the clearing, making it impassable. The OFNC feeder now resides in a wooded area next to the former Wild Bird Care Center building, where hopefully it will attract grosbeaks and other winter finches as well as the usual winter residents. The bird was either a different female Black-Backed Woodpecker, or the same one from Old Quarry Trail!
Although she disappeared for a while, she was seen again at Jack Pine Trail on November 26 and 27. This species was also seen in Stony Swamp west of Old Richmond Road and south of Bells Corners on December 26 – there are actually two different eBird reports that day from two different hotspots, though both covered enough distance that they could have seen the same individual somewhere in the middle. It is likely this is the same individual I saw at Old Quarry Trail, but whether or not it’s the same individual from Jack Pine Trail is unknown.
Then an American Three-toed Woodpecker was found at Jack Pine Trail on December 18th! I tried a few times to see this bird in 2022 but had no luck. Still, it seems that the northern woodpecker irruption continues. There could be more than a dozen different individuals in the region, but given how dense some of the forests are and how few trails give access into the woods we will never know for sure. Keep checking areas with large pines and heavy storm damage and listen for quiet persistent tapping; you never know what species you will see!
I spent the rest of the fall either looking for woodpeckers in Stony Swamp or chasing birds I needed for my year list. I added Red Crossbill (Old Quarry Trail) on November 10th, Bohemian Waxwing (again Old Quarry Trail) on November 26th, and a very obliging female Long-Tailed Duck in the creek at Andrew Haydon Park on December 4th. Normally these birds are way out in the middle of the river, though I did see a pair in the eastern pond one year. She was diving in the creek right next to the footbridge, closer than I had ever seen one before.
I closed out the fall (and the year) with three new year birds at the Moodie Drive quarry pond. There were maybe 200 Herring Gulls roosting on the ice to the right of the gate, none of which stood out. Then I scanned the ice to the left of the gate and saw about ten gulls roosting on the ice there – including two white-winged gulls sitting side-by-side, facing me! The bright white of the immature Glaucous Gull was what caught my attention; then the dirtier white of the immature Iceland Gull caused me to do a double-take! It was smaller and daintier than the Glaucous Gull and Herring Gulls surrounding it, making identification easy from that distance! Normally I check the bill colour to identify single birds – Glaucous Gull has a black-tipped pale pink bill, while the Iceland Gull’s bill is completely black. I was glad I saw them when I did, for a large flock of gulls began streaming in from the landfill – the number of gulls standing on the ice to the right of the gate immediately doubled. When I scoped the area to the north I saw a Peregrine Falcon land on a telephone pole! That was the last new bird of the day, and for my year list, and what a grand finale it provided.
Altogether I saw 185 species in Ottawa this year – pretty decent considering I was not able to get out regularly until well after my medical treatment finished in April, and was still dealing with pain and fatigue throughout the summer. It wasn’t until the fall that I was able to go out for longer outings or make trips to multiple trails, which meant I had to pick and choose where to go during the summer….and to be honest, often the dragonflies called to me more than the birds did! Thankfully the fall birds helped make up for missing out on most of the first four months of the year, with some spectacular rarities and a new life bird in the Dickcissel. 2022 definitely ended much better than how it started!
“and to be honest, often the dragonflies called to me more than the birds did”…love this!
I thought you’d like that part! 🙂