By the end of September there is a change in the air. There are fewer warbler species and more sparrows and thrushes and kinglets as the temperature starts to fall and the nights grow longer than the days. On the last Saturday in September I started my day with a walk at the Eagleson ponds, where only a few Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs remained after the recent rains caused the water levels to rise. The Great Black-backed Gull, three heron species, and a single kingfisher were still present as well. About 150 Canada Geese were swimming throughout the ponds; these were new, as only one or two families had stayed the summer. The only Red-winged Blackbirds I saw were all in a single flock of about two dozen birds flying over, and while Song Sparrows were still numerous, the first Dark-eyed Junco had arrived. A single Ruby-crowned Kinglet, two Yellow-rumped Warblers, and two Blackpoll Warblers were signs that the season was changing.
The winter doldrums hit early, and hit hard. After a late start to winter, there were two feet of snow on the ground by Christmas, and by New Year’s Day we were in the grip of a week-long deep freeze with temperatures rising only as high as -17°C during the day – most of the time we were right around -20°C. From then on we suffered the usual bitter cold/messy thaw/winter storm cycle that characterizes our Ottawa winter throughout January and February. While a good number of Snowy Owls were present in the region, there were no winter finches, no Bohemian Waxwings, no northern woodpeckers, and no unusual owls or raptors (i.e. Boreal Owl, Gyrfalcon) to add excitement to the birding scene. Less and less I found a reason to go out, even on those weekends when it wasn’t snowing/raining or bitterly cold, and I lost the motivation to keep a winter list or work on my year list – anything that’s in the first two months of 2018 will still be around when the weather warms up in April.
Mother Nature has been toying with us. After some great spring-like weather at the end of February, temperatures plummeted to well below seasonal. By March 12th the daily high is supposed to be 0°C; for the last two weeks it’s been much lower, with last weekend’s temperatures below -10°C. I was tired of being cooped up due to the cold weather, so last Sunday I went out to look for Gray Partridges, gulls and hawks south of Kanata despite the frigid temperatures. I struck out completely – it was too cold even for the birds.
On January 1st I woke up early to go birding. The morning was cold, but I was eager to start my new year list. I decided to head to Shirley’s Bay first as I was hoping to see the Bald Eagles around the nest; although I didn’t get the eagles, I found about 30 Snow Buntings foraging along the shore. The only other birds I noted there were American Crow, Common Raven, American Robin, and a goldfinch. I didn’t get photos of any them, either; one thing I hope to do this year is to take a good enough photo of each species I see and add them to my eBird checklists. The new eBird profiles allow you to see how many species you have photographed and uploaded to the eBird library. I have been adding photos to my checklists since this feature first became available last year, but am missing quite a few species on my life list; I figure this is a fun way to try to get good photos of even the common species.
On the first day of August I headed over to Jack Pine Trail. It’s been almost a month since I last visited this trail, and while I didn’t expect to see many dragonflies, I hoped the birding at least would be good. Fortunately, it was excellent – even in the middle of breeding season I tallied 24 species in about three hours. As soon as I got out of the car I heard a pair of Broad-winged Hawks calling from the woods across Moodie Drive. I wasn’t able to see them, but I recognized their clear, distinct two-note whistle. After seeing a pair at Trail 26 only two days ago, it made me wonder how many pairs were breeding in Stony Swamp. Could these be the same birds, or at least part of the same family? Or was there more than one breeding pair in this area?
I usually never believe the groundhogs when they predict an early spring. Regardless of whether they see their shadow, spring usually arrives right when it’s supposed to – between the second and third weeks of March. An “early” spring might arrive on St. Patrick’s Day rather than the solstice a couple of days later; however, the weather usually remains unsettled, with some snow and sub-zero temperatures still occurring at least a week or two later. The last two years were the exceptions, when spring didn’t arrive until the temperatures rose to above 0°C around April! In fact, the new trend seems to be one of seasons arriving later than usual – just look at how long it took winter to get here this year!
When the weather forecast predicted above-zero temperatures every day starting on Sunday, March 6th I was skeptical. We usually get one or two snowstorms in the first half of March, a last act of defiance on the part of Old Man Winter. We got our snow on March 1st, and then by Sunday the temperature rose to +3°C.
We are now nearly three weeks into the new year and already I’m detecting a rather concerning weather trend: the sun comes out during the week, when I’m working, and then when the weekend arrives the clouds and the precipitation (both rain and snow so far this month) arrive with it. I prefer to do my birdwatching and photography on days with some sun, as the sunlight brightens up the dreary gray-and-white landscape and makes the colours on the birds pop. It’s often difficult to see the field marks on a dark bird silhouetted against a white sky, especially from a distance; and in the woods, it’s often too dark beneath the trees to get any decent photographs. Still, I hate being cooped up indoors for any length of time, so even when it’s been rainy or snowy I’ve been trying to get out to find some birds to add to my year list. The list has been growing slowly but steadily, with 12 new birds added since I went back to work on January 4th.
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.
I’ve been spending a lot of time in Stony Swamp over the holidays. It is a huge conservation area in western Ottawa, with several trails only a short drive from my house. Its location is the chief reason why I spend so much time there, but another reason is the abundance of wildlife. Some places I’ve visited in wintertime are absolutely desolate – for example, on a visit to the Cedar Grove Nature Trail in February 2013 I recorded only two bird species (Black-capped Chickadee and Pileated Woodpecker) and zero mammals, despite a variety of tracks visible in the snow. At Stony Swamp, the wildlife is used to being fed right along the trails and, accordingly, this is where many species gather, rather than dispersing deeper into the woods.
Although I haven’t been spending much time in my backyard this summer, I have spotted some interesting wildlife around. My flower garden this year seems to be a dismal failure at attracting butterflies or hummingbirds; most of the Cabbage Whites I observe keep flying over the yard rather than nectaring on any flowers, and the only other species I’ve seen lately were a Clouded Sulphur and a dark butterfly that might have been a White Admiral (I was looking out into the bright sunshine and couldn’t see it very well). Both of these were fly-overs, and spent no time investigating any of the flowers. I haven’t seen any odonates around since I noticed a female Common Whitetail in my neighbour’s front yard one day about a month ago while we were chatting.