When I woke up on Saturday, March 19th, there were only two regularly-occurring birds in the Ottawa area I had not yet added to my life list: Golden Eagle and Arctic Tern. Of these two birds, I expected the Arctic Tern to be the easier to see – they migrate along the Ottawa River during the last week of May and the first two weeks of June, and there are only a few spots along the river where they are easily seen during this narrow window of time. I haven’t yet made any serious attempts to find an Arctic Tern for my life list, as (a) you have to either be there at the right time if they are flying through rather than feeding or resting in the rapids, or else put in a lot of time scanning the river; and (b) views from the Britannia Pier and Britannia Point are usually distant, and I’ve always had doubts about being able to separate this species from the similar-looking Common Tern in those circumstances.
On Sunday I didn’t go out birding as the weather was awful – first we got about six inches of snow, then freezing rain for most of the afternoon, and then back to snow. The rest of the week was cold, hovering below -20°C during the day, so I didn’t get out until it “warmed up” on Friday to the point where the air no longer felt like a mask of ice against my face. Even better, the sun was shining! I’d been itching to get out to the Rideau River where late-lingering waterfowl such as Northern Pintail, Wood Duck and Pied-billed Grebe were all being seen between Strathcona Park and the Hurdman Bridge. I chose to spend my lunch hour at Hurdman Park, as I was also hoping also to see some robins or waxwings feeding on the berries there in addition to the ducks in the river.
Tomorrow is January 1st, which means it’s almost time to reset the current year list to 0 and start all over again. This is one of the highlights of winter for me, because on January 1st every bird is new again…even the pigeons and starlings, even the crows. Without a brand new year list to work on, I lose the motivation to get outside and see what’s around, particularly since there are fewer and fewer birds to see as the winter wears on.
Saturday was the much better day for birding, though I didn’t stay out too long as it was cold but sunny. I started off with a walk around the ponds by my place, but the sub-zero overnight temperature had resulted in ice forming on about half of the ponds. As a result, there were few birds of interest around – a single Dark-eyed Junco, a small flock of goldfinches, and a Northern Cardinal were feeding in the weedy field, while three Common Mergansers were the only interesting waterfowl on the water. Four Snow Buntings flying over were also great to see – this was the first time I’d seen them over the ponds, bringing my list up to 61 species.
If you haven’t checked out eBird lately, you are missing out on a valuable birding tool. More than just a real-time, online checklist program, eBird documents the presence or absence of species, as well as bird abundance, through checklist data. Where does this checklist data come from? It comes from the observations of thousands of birders, professionals and amateurs alike, who upload their species lists to eBird after each outing.
Most birders keep lists – life lists, trip lists, year lists, provincial, state and county lists, and even patch lists for those special places we return to time and time again throughout the course of the year. At its most basic level, eBird offers even the most devout listers a place to keep track of all of their sightings. Do you want to know how many and which species you saw in 2010? There’s a list for that. Or perhaps you want to know the total number of species you’ve seen in Ontario since you started birding. There’s a list for that, too. Or maybe you’re just interested in keeping track of the species you see in your own yard each year. You got it – there’s a list for that as well.
I have blogged before about the nest cams hosted by the BioDiversity Research Institute in Maine, USA. The BRI’s mission is to assess emerging threats to wildlife and ecosystems through collaborative research, and to use scientific findings to advance environmental awareness and inform decision makers. Its website is one of the most reliable for wildlife webcams, and it is well-known for its eagle and loon cams which have been in operation for a few years now.
This year, it has four web cams in operation (the loon cam is currently off-line as the loons nest later in the season):
This year the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is hosting two webcams for the first time from its location in Ithaca, New York.
The Great Blue Heron nest is in a large, dead white oak in the middle of Sapsucker Woods pond, right outside the Cornell Lab’s Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity. Herons have nested here since summer 2009, hatching and fledging four young each year and raising them on a steady diet of fish and frogs. The nest itself is nearly four feet across and a foot deep, and wraps almost entirely around the trunk of the tree. The birds have slowly built up the nest over the last three years. Neither of the birds is banded, so we don’t know how old they are.
On April 6th the female laid the fifth and final egg. Both parents share incubation duties for 25-30 days. Hatch should occur sometime during the last week of April when the young hatch asynchronously over 2-5 days. After hatching, it’ll take 7-8 weeks before they fly from the nest for the first time. You can see the heron nest cam here:
The Red-tailed Hawk nest is located on a light pole 80 feet above Cornell University’s athletic fields on Tower Road. These hawks have nested here for at least the past four years; in 2012 the lab installed a camera to get a better look at these majestic birds as they raise their young amid the bustle of a busy campus. So far, they have recorded the birds bringing prey such as voles, squirrels, and pigeons to the nest. The female, nicknamed “Big Red” in honor of her alma mater, was banded in nearby Brooktondale, New York, during her first autumn in 2003, making her nearly nine years old. The male, nicknamed “Ezra” after the co-founder of Cornell University, was first banded in 2006 as an adult bird, making him is at least seven years old. Big Red laid her third and final egg on March 22. Incubation lasts 28-35 days, so hatch should be around the week of April 13. You can see the Red-tailed Hawk nest cam here:
Many of those who make birding a hobby eventually stumble upon an active nest during the breeding season. I have been lucky enough to come across Canada Geese, robins, an Eastern Wood-pewee and a Mourning Dove sitting on their nests over the past couple of years. I have also seen Yellow-bellied Sapsucker nestlings poking their heads outside of the tree cavity in which they were born and a male Baltimore Oriole bringing insects to his young in the nest (the nest was too high in the tree to actually see the baby orioles). Then, of course, there are the man-made nest boxes and platforms where Eastern Bluebirds, Purple Martins, Tree Swallows and Ospreys nest which anyone can view, if they know where to look. While observing these birds raise their young is fascinating, I think that coming across a bird nesting in the “wild” is much more rewarding.