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Chasing the Varied Thrush

Phainopepla

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.

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New Year’s Hawks

Cooper’s Hawk

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.

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The Birds of Edmonton

Boreal Chickadee

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.

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The Second Great Ottawa Flood

Muskrat

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.

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The Right Place at the Right Time

Long-tailed Duck

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.

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Along the River

Northern Pintail

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.

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Return to Sunset Park

Ross’s Goose

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.

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Las Vegas in December: Sunset Park

American Coot

American Coot

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.
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Hello, birds of winter!

American Tree Sparrow

Our warm fall weather continued this weekend, with sunny blue skies and temperatures reaching above 20°C both days – it was 11°C higher than it should be this time of year. With the return of our rather late summer, it was a bit of a shock on Saturday to see that two of our common winter residents had arrived in the region: the Common Goldeneye, a diving duck that inhabits the ice-free portions of the Rideau and Ottawa Rivers all winter long, and the American Tree Sparrow, a small brown sparrow with a red cap that likes shrubby habitats and sometimes visits bird feeders in more rural areas.

I was still trying to bring my year list up to 200, and started the weekend off with a walk around the Eagleson storm water ponds. I was hoping for Cackling Goose, though a Greater White-fronted Goose would also have been nice – although much more rare than the diminutive Cackling Goose, it’s one I keep looking for every time large numbers of geese start gathering here before finally moving on. To my disappointment I found only three waterfowl species: Canada Goose, Mallard, and a few lingering Double-crested Cormorants. I was happy to see that the cormorants were still around, as every sighting could be the last of the year.

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Birding in late April means…

Ring-necked Duck

Usually the first two weeks of April are a slog to get through – it still looks and feels like March, cold north winds and long spells of rain manage to out-compete the longed-for southerly winds and warm, sunny days, and although migration should be well under way, it takes forever for the next spate of migrants to arrive. Then one day it happens: you realize the snow is finally all gone, the ponds are ice-free, the buds on the trees look ready to burst open, and your neighbourhood Chipping Sparrows are back and singing right outside your window. The temperatures are finally reaching double-digits on a daily basis, and there are new birds moving in! The second half (well, the last third, really) of April is when the birding really picks up and it really begins to feel like spring. This truly is the beginning of my favourite time of year; here are a few of the things that make birding in late April so wonderful.

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