By the second half of March our region has seen enough warm days for the local ponds to start opening up again, especially those with water running through them. The Eagleson storm water ponds are the first ponds to show open water in the spring, usually in the middle of March after a few days of temperatures above zero. Other local ponds, such as Bruce Pit, the Moodie Drive quarry, Sarsaparilla Trail, and the Richmond Conservation Area, tend to take longer to open up, likely because they do not have a stream of water flowing through them. I usually can tell when the water of the Eagleson ponds open up by the sudden appearance of chains of Canada Geese flying over my house, but this year I saw my first geese of the year while driving by the ponds on March 14th and saw seven of them flying around, looking for a place to land. When I visited the ponds two days later, there was a bit of open water in the central pond and about 100 Canada Geese and 150 mallards were present.
I have truly enjoyed these past few months working from home. Without the daily two-hour commute, I have been getting out as often as I can before work and at lunch to take advantage of the quiet weekday trails close to my house. With the arrival of September, however, I’ve been less focused on insects and more interested in birds. Migration has started, though so quietly it is hard to tell when post-breeding dispersal ended and true southward movement of the birds began. I’d already seen some good birds in the last few days of August, such as a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk at Sarsaparilla Trail, a Red-necked Phalarope at the Moodie Drive quarry, and a Cape May Warbler in my own backyard, but I was eager to get out and see large numbers of songbirds flitting through the trees in various migrant traps, and start creating eBird lists with 40 or 50 different species.
The cold front that arrived late on Sunday brought high winds as well as cold temperatures. Monday morning was so chilly and so gusty that we didn’t do any birding, and when we went to our first show that night (La Reve by Cirque du Soleil) the nighttime temperature had fallen to 0°C. I had hoped that the wind would abate on Tuesday, but it was still blowing strong and not much warmer. That was the only free day of our trip, so I was hoping to do some serious birding, but we stayed inside instead – wind is my least favourite condition for birding, as it makes it hard to hear any calls or chip notes, and most birds are hunkered down themselves.
The weather improved on Wednesday, so Doran and I made plans to go to Sunset Park to look for a Varied Thrush that has been hanging around. This is a rare bird in Las Vegas in the winter, and I had heard about it from Justin Streit, who was also kind enough to send me a map showing its exact location in the park. It was most often seen foraging on the ground near a line of dense shrubs east of the pond, often feeding with doves and blackbirds.
The year 2020 has arrived, and it’s a new decade as well as a new year. Usually it’s only the excitement of starting a brand new list from scratch that gets me going out in January, so on the first day of 2020 I got out early to see how many bird species I could find. As usual, I planned to check a couple of different habitats to maximize the number of potential species; my strategy consists of birding in open farmland, forests, along open water, with a stop at the local landfill. In the past couple of years I’ve only averaged about 17 or 18 species, which is not a particularly high number. My best New Year’s Day was back in 2017 where I counted 26 species – that year I visited Shirley’s Bay, Mud Lake, Jack Pine Trail, the Trail Road landfill, and the Eagleson ponds. The best birds of that day included Bald Eagle and White-throated Sparrow at Mud Lake, Horned Lark on Rushmore, and Gray Partridge on Eagleson. I also tallied 26 species back in 2012, where an unexpected Northern Flicker at Mud Lake, a Red-winged Blackbird at the Hilda Road feeders, and Glaucous and Great Black-backed Gulls at the landfill were the best birds of the day.
On September 18th I flew to Edmonton to visit my sister for a few days. Alberta is not a new province for me; my family had lived on an acreage outside of Ardrossan, which is east of Edmonton and Sherwood Park, for seven years from 1989 to 1996. As I was just teenager at the time, enduring all the drama and angst of high school, I had had no interest in nature back then – which is really too bad, as we’d lived on a small lot with a forest behind our house and a slough (a vegetated pond) across the road. When my parents and I moved back in 1996 – they to southern Ontario, via Tweed, and me and my fiancé to Ottawa – my sister remained behind, although it wasn’t until 2012 when I returned to attend her wedding.
It was only two years that the Ottawa-Gatineau region suffered its worst flood in decades. Extraordinary amounts of rain fell in April and May (including 159 millimetres in April alone), causing the Ottawa and Gatineau Rivers to burst their banks and bring devastation to houses and infrastructure situated in the flood zone. We coped with it, we learned from it, we moved on. Or so we thought. This spring local rivers crept higher and higher, until April 28 when this year’s flooding was declared Ottawa-Gatineau’s worst on record with the water still rising. On that date the water level in Arnprior was 14 centimetres above the record set in 2017 and the water level in Britannia was 2 centimetres above the record set in 2017.
The toughest thing about birding – and the thing that makes it so addictive – is that most really good bird sightings or good birding days are a matter of luck: being in the right place at the right time. It’s one thing to know that Mud Lake is usually the best place to find Carolina Wrens here in Ottawa, that Northern Goshawks and Least Bitterns breed in Stony Swamp, or that Spruce Grouse are regularly seen at the Spruce Bog Trail in Algonquin Park, but it’s another thing altogether to actually find or observe these species when they are there. Birding, too, is much tougher these days than it was in the 1960s when most bird species were much more abundant than they are today – most new birders have heard stories about huge flocks of Evening Grosbeaks descending on the city in the winter 40 or 50 years ago and cleaning out the bird feeders in a matter of hours. Sadly, their numbers have declined sharply since those days; as of today I have observed about six Evening Grosbeaks total in the city of Ottawa since I started birding in 2006 – and those six birds were found only on three different occasions. It’s much harder to find birds when their numbers aren’t high to begin with, which makes luck so much more important if you are looking for a particular species or just looking to add something new to your year/life/county list. Sometimes you get lucky and find what you are looking for; sometimes you get lucky by finding something you totally did not expect to see that day or in that location. It’s these occasions that are so rewarding, especially after many a fruitless and frustrating outing where the bird didn’t show, or all you could find were starlings and maybe a crow.
The Ottawa River is the best spot for finding migrating waterfowl in the fall. Dabbling ducks can be found in the quiet bays of Shirley’s Bay and Andrew Haydon Park while diving ducks, loons, grebes, and some sea ducks can be found further out anywhere along the river from Shirley’s Bay to Bate Island. There is no doubt that best viewing spots are Shirley’s Bay, Dick Bell Park, and Andrew Haydon Park – however, because it is such a long walk out to the dyke at Shirley’s Bay (which can only be accessed if you are a member of the OFNC and on the list provided to the DND Range Control), I tend to do most of my river-watching at Dick Bell and AHP. November is usually the best month for waterfowl watching, although late October can be productive as well, right up until the water freezes over sometime in December.
On Wednesday we returned to Sunset Park, as it was only a 15-minute drive from our hotel. I wanted to check the undeveloped desert dune system for more desert birds, and wasn’t disappointed. Although I didn’t get any new life birds, I did get a nice photo of a Greater Roadrunner, perhaps the bird I most wanted to see on the trip. A male Phainopepla and a male Anna’s Hummingbird were also great finds, though both were too far for decent photos.
Doran and I spent a week in Las Vegas from December 9-15, 2017 to see some shows and do some birding. We’d been planning this trip for a while, and I was excited because (a) I’ve never been to the American southwest before; and (b) I was only 19 species away from hitting 500 species on my life list. I felt I had a reasonably good chance; the target list I generated from eBird for Clark County during the month of December showed that there were 15 species with a frequency of more than 10%, and 37 species with a frequency greater than 1%. The top 15 included three birds on my “most wanted” list, namely, Cinnamon Teal, the only new duck species I could expect; Phainopepla, a desert bird I’d never heard of until one showed up in Brampton, ON in the winter of 2009; and Great Roadrunner, because I grew up watching the Bugs Bunny show and really wanted to see what one looked like in real life. Continue reading →